Sometimes injecting the past into modern times is the trick that makes for a special experience, and that’s the idea coming from Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time.
The borderline dad joke in the title sets the tone right out of the gate—Crash is back to his ’90s roots, equipped with the goofy mannerisms and similar sights and sounds for what is essentially a direct sequel in the franchise for the first time since the late ’90s.
There is great risk in attempting such a thing with a beloved character no matter the highs and lows of the series over time. But like a player who has replayed a level 100 times, Crash 4 expertly navigates all obstacles in front of it and delivers something memorable to new and old players of the series alike.
Graphics and Gameplay
Crash 4 is a stunning feat in a graphical sense.
For players with experience in the older games from the PlayStation 1 era, imagine the best possible visuals for the series. That’s it—that’s what Crash 4 presents. It’s a colorful, vibrant game with what can only be described as the apex of visuals.
The presentation just oozes character. Crash and friends have their Looney Toon-styled mannerisms, whether it’s getting flattened with a tongue out or rising to the surface of water spread-eagled after a mistimed jump. They vibe when they aren’t moving, and enemies of all sorts swagger about waiting for somebody to hit.
The attention to detail and craftsmanship are pervasive in every level and character design. There are fun, unique entrances for Crash in each level, with little broad sweeping strokes of the camera or creative entrances that really show things off.
And boy are there levels to show off. There’s double-digit worlds available and each one feels distinct and unforgettable as part of the time-travel narrative. There’s a massive junkyard in the background of one level. Another has soothing ocean waves slapping on to a beachy area with crashed ships. Another boasts Crash and Spyro balloons in a party environment. Another is futuristic.
The sound design throws out that ’90s goodness, too. It’s comfy and familiar, with the expected highs and lows to match each level. Characters, and especially the baddies, are voiced as expected.
Players have the option of how they play, picking either modern vs. retro settings. The former permits unlimited lives and restarts from the latest checkpoint box reached, whereas the latter is the old-school difficulty, meaning limited lives and starting the entire level over when those expire.
For what it’s worth, it feels like the modern option was necessary given the sprawling nature of levels, and truthfully, it’s pretty funny to watch the deaths meter tick upward (triple digits is entirely possible).
No matter how players choose to experience it, Crash 4’s gameplay is a masterful treat. Button presses are as responsive as it gets for the series, enabling noteworthy precision in what a player can do as they move from level to level.
It’s enthralling to see how a level can change as Crash or Coco progress. One minute a single level is a sidescroller, the next Crash is climbing a surface vertically, then he’s overlooking a huge expanse of a level he still has to tackle that stretches off into the distance. Later, he’s in a chase sequence running at the screen and player as something monstrous pursues him.
Don’t forget on-rails sequences, where Crash can grind, hang, jump rails, spin swing and more while avoiding obstacles and earning hard-to-reach crates, and that’s just to explain it in a simple manner.
Oh, and let’s tack on wall-running, different vehicles to hop into and rope swinging, too. All that is to say Crash 4 flexes the full extent of the platforms it releases on, and it leaves no stone unturned when looking through its extensive history of challenges thrown at players in past games.
Crash 4 doesn’t let longtime veterans rest on their laurels, though. Skills gained over the years matter, but the game even takes veterans out of their comfort zones through the variety of asks a single level makes of the player.
And it never really lets up—Crash 4 is expertly paced. There isn’t downtime unless a player chooses to take it.
Also noteworthy is the inclusion of Quantum Masks, available at certain times and levels. One alters reality: Pressing a button fades certain objects in the world out of reality, while others become solid and usable. It’s a little staggering that this sort of wrinkle would usually headline a game’s entire structure, but here it is just another feature that seamlessly fits into the experience.
And as smooth as it is, it’s another factor that just lets players see how many different ways Crash can die (Crash hitting the button to make an object solid again while he’s right in the middle of it and floating off like an angel isn’t uncommon). Other masks, like one that flips gravity on its head, do much of the same.
Simply put, Crash 4 can be surprisingly…difficult.
Not that the makers of the game didn’t realize this. A new yellow circle under Crash or Coco tells players exactly where he’ll land. Whether players actually want to use that (they can turn it off) is hard to say, but it removed some of the janky guesswork that defined some of the classics from the PlayStation 1 games.
The game also, albeit quietly, works in some assists for players who struggle mightily. Crash might eventually respawn with the ability to take more than one hit before death, or some not-usually-there checkpoint boxes might appear.
Impressively, camera issues are few and far between, which will be a surprise to longtime players of the series. Every now and then a tough-to-read perspective plays a role in a botched jump or a threat comes from off-screen, but it doesn’t happen often enough to be anything other than a quick side comment.
Talking gameplay about Crash 4 is a little like the visuals: Imagine the nearly perfect offering players might have envisioned back in the PlayStation 1 days—that’s Crash 4.
Story and More
Crash 4 hits an expected landing in the story department, with a wide host of baddies assembling, throwing in some time travel and tasking players with assuming control of the heroes to make things right.
It’s actually a little hard to keep track of the widely assembled cast of characters, including N. Trophy and Neo Cortex, but it’s got the ’90s cheesiness that makes it easy to overlook. Most importantly, the goofiness of it all and uber-cheesy dialogue found in the cutscenes is a mere vehicle to send players to a variety of different locales containing levels.
The game goes old school with its campaign, keeping things refined to an overworld map where players send Crash to different levels via dots on it. It doesn’t even mess with smaller hub rooms later games used, which is a good thing. Simple is good, which aligns with the overall theme of the game well.
Like oftentimes in the past, levels smartly build up to boss battles that then put everything a player has learned to the test. Many of these follow the tried-and-true formula of breaking down a series of defenses before earning an actual shot at the big bad’s health bar.
Similar to actual level design, enemy variety is also a plus. They’re all splashed in fun graphical window dressing but serve certain functions. Some run right at the player. Others can’t take damage from above. Some can only take damage from above. Some are merely invincible obstacles. It goes on and on, but paired with the platforming level design, they work smartly to squeeze every bit of concentration out of a player.
And good luck thinking besting a level means one is merely done with that level. One doesn’t merely get done with levels in Crash games—and this is no exception.
Fully completing a level in Crash 4 means earning all of the gems. There are hidden ones in each level and other gems are locked behind Wumpa fruit found—or by smashing all crates, not dying as much as the allotted amount and even sometimes more.
There are also flashback tapes to uncover within levels, seemingly mostly available via not losing a life until reaching its location. They unlock classical platform challenges—via the campaign maps—featuring different presentations, which provide a welcome change of pace.
There are some brief stages with other characters. Tawna has a hookshot for transportation, Dingodile has a jetpack, and the hilarious Neo Cortex dashes all over the place. None of it is overdone, and the little side stories are merely another way to keep things fresh. While unique, none seem to present more in the way of fun than playing as Crash or Coco.
Crash 4 feels like a game that players will be discovering plenty of secrets in for a long time, too. Those side levels are dots on the map, and it looks like there are other secrets on the map capable of being unlocked.
In a somewhat-modern twist, there are also local multiplayer and co-op features to spotlight. Bandicoot Battle features checkpoint races or crate-smashing races that pit friends on a couch against one another. Pass N Play is the local co-op, where players can alter what prompts a passing of the controller (such as level competition or simply reaching a checkpoint, for example).
There’s also a superb N.Verted mode: A mirror mode that flips things horizontally and switches up not only the art style, but also what players collect as they progress through levels. It’s yet another fun little twist that offers more fun gameplay, even if the art style changes can be jarring to the eyes.
Briefly on the technical front, there are some framerate dips at times, and load waits feel like they verge on the longer end for some levels. But given just how much is going on in each level and on-screen at a time, it’s a hard thing to highlight.
Crash Bandicoot as a series has always had a ton of speedrunning appeal.
In fact, top-five times have gone live on the original game’s leaderboard as recently as two weeks ago as of writing, which just illustrates how well the games have held up with speedrunning communities over the years.
And why not? With techs like wavedashing, and timing and skill being the points of separation between the best on the leaderboard, Crash as a series will always retain this sort of appeal.
Crash 4 isn’t any different in this regard, and the game’s own developers were pretty wowed by speedrunners tackling something as simple as this game’s demo.
It turns out plenty of the old Crash speedrunning adages still apply. Simply running won’t be fast enough to post the top times, so learning the intricacies of dashing movement to get through levels will increase times.
Otherwise, it really comes down to memorization and repetition. Any-percent runs don’t require collecting everything, so bypassing any optional paths in levels and not wasting time trying to break each and every box is a must.
Shortcuts and other workarounds might eventually enter the equation, but for now, simply powering through levels and learning the ins and outs of what’s skippable and isn’t will produce the fastest times. Along the way, the mechanical skill necessary to excel will emerge, too.
It’s fitting that precision is one of the things most historically necessary to find success in a Crash game.
Crash 4, after all, is a reboot-sequel mashup that needed ultimate precision and balance to work well in 2020 as a new console generation arrives. Many have failed at such an attempt, either botching tried-and-true formulas or merely coming off as a remaster instead of putting something new into the equation.
Crash 4 has no such problems.
In fact, it’s the perfect type of game to straddle the gap of a console transition. It’s an apex for the series that takes every advantage afforded to it, combining the power of hardware available with what has historically worked best for the series. Crash is back to his roots with a love letter of a release that should serve as a blueprint for other games attempting the same thing.