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A Retrospective Look at ‘Crash Bandicoot’ and Its Significance to the PlayStation Brand

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At last year’s E3, Sony announced that their beloved character Crash Bandicoot was returning to PlayStation in the form of a remaster of the first three games that were originally developed by Naughty Dog. This was exciting to many people because Crash is a beloved icon of the original PlayStation era. It also could be argued that Crash was the flagship character of the Sony brand similar to how Mario is for Nintendo and Sonic the Hedgehog is for Sega. Unfortunately, Crash started to fade as Sony’s icon in the 21st century as they lost the rights to the character in 2001. But since appearing in the Skylanders game, along with the remaster and a potential sequel in development (not to mention the Crash Bandicoot easter egg in Uncharted 4), Crash Bandicoot is making a comeback. Let’s take a look back at this iconic character and his significance to the PlayStation brand in the 1990s.

Naughty Dog was founded by Andy Gavin and Jason Rubin in 1984 as an independent developer.  Ten years later, Naughty Dog signed on to work with Mark Cerny of Universal Interactive Studios after presenting their new game Way of the Warrior. This opportunity lead Andy Gavin and Jason Rubin to move from Boston to Los Angeles, which actually forced Gavin to bail on his M.I.T. Ph.D. midway. Their three-day drive from Boston to LA is actually where the idea of Crash Bandicoot began. Before leaving for LA, Naughty Dog hired their first employee named Dave Baggett who was a M.I.T. friend of Gavin and a fellow programmer. Gavin and Baggett created the development tool “Game Oriented Object LISP” (GOOL), which would be used to create the characters and gameplay of the game.

Jason Rubin and Andy Gavin. The creators of Naughty Dog.

Jason Rubin and Andy Gavin. The creators of Naughty Dog.

During their trip to LA, Gavin and Rubin noticed that several genres of arcade games such as racing games, fighting games, and shooting games were making successful transitions into 3D. This inspired the duo to create a 3D version of their favorite genre, character-based action-platform games. The game was jokingly called “Sonic’s Ass Game” because players would be forced to constantly look at the character’s rear. Mark Cerny liked the idea of “Sonic’s Ass Game,” and the development for Crash Bandicoot began. With the idea in place, the duo had to decide on what console they wanted to develop for. They chose Sony’s new PlayStation because it was the first time Sony was venturing into the game market and it had promising specs. Plus, Naughty Dog had a chance to potentially create the flagship character for this new brand. They signed a developer agreement with Sony that was pretty harsh and expensive, but it was a cost that would lead to bigger and better things.

In 1994, the two biggest rivals in the game market were Nintendo and Sega. While competing with each other, they both shared one major thing in common: they both had a flagship character that represented their brand. Nintendo had Mario and Sega had Sonic the Hedgehog. But Sony’s new console didn’t have one. This was a golden opportunity for Naughty Dog. Inspired by Sonic and the Tasmanian Devil of Warner Bros., Naughty Dog wanted an appealing animal that people really didn’t know about. They bought an animal book to find a potential mascot. Out of all the mammals to choose from, they chose the wombat, the potoroo, and the bandicoot. At first, they chose the wombat and named their new character “Willie the Wombat.” The name of the character wouldn’t change until two years later. Although they did always want Crash to be a goofy and fun loving character who would never speak.

Sketches of Willie the Wombat

The concept of their villain was actually created before Crash’s final design was completed. The concept of Crash’s arch-nemesis Doctor Neo-Cortex actually started in a restaurant. The idea the villain should be an evil genius with a big head just miraculously popped up in his head. The concept of the doctor was inspired by Brain in Pinky and the Brain and the weasel minions of Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Naughty Dog wanted to combine the platforming of Mario or Donkey Kong Country with the animation of cartoons, such as the Looney Tunes. In order to do so, they hired real Hollywood cartoonists to help design the game. Cartoonists Charles Zembillas and Joe Pearson were hired for the project. Zembillas designed the characters and Pearson designed the backgrounds. Together, they were instrumental in the creation of the look of Crash Bandicoot. Since their title character was an animal who faces an evil genius with a secret layer, they decided that a mysterious island with several different environments would be the ideal setting of the game. With an island concept in mind, the idea of having tikis in the game emerged. In early 1995, several additional artists were hired, including Bob Rafei, Taylor Kurosaki, Charlotte Francis, and Justin Monast. All who would be key contributors in developing the game.

After months of development, the game became functional in April 1995 and was playable a few months later. The first three levels of the game were completed by August, but they were deemed too difficult for the game’s early levels by the developers so these levels were moved to the game’s power plant area. A month later, Naughty Dog revealed Crash Bandicoot to Sony Computer Entertainment behind closed doors. While playing game, Rubin realized that the game was full of empty areas since the PlayStation couldn’t handle multiple enemies on screen at a time. Plus, it appeared players were solving the games’ puzzles too fast. As a result, Rubin came up with the idea to add a variety of crates in the game to make it more interesting in boring parts of the level and make the game’s puzzles more challenging. This would become one of the franchise’s hallmark characteristics.

The idea of using crates also lead Naughty Dog to change Willie’s name into Crash Bandicoot since he breaks a lot of crates in the game. However, this name change was disliked by Universal marketing director Kelly Flaherty. She wanted the character to be named “Wuzzle the Wombat” or “Ozzie the Oztel.” She also opposed the character of Crash’s girlfriend, Tawna, who Crash has to save in the game. She believed Tawna’s character was sexist. Eventually, Naughty Dog prevailed and Crash Bandicoot became the iconic character people know today. Although Tawna would eventually be removed as a character in the game’s sequel.

Crash Bandicoot's final design

Crash Bandicoot’s final design.

In late 1995, Gavin and Kurosaki spent two days editing a two minute clip that was deliberately leaked to a friend at Sony Computer Entertainment. There were management issues with Sony in early 1996, so it took until March of that year for Sony to agree to publish the game. Before it was shown at that year’s E3, the music for the game was decided at the last minute. The producer at Universal proposed that they use ““the urban chaotic symphony,” which meant they use random sound effects like birds chirping, grunts, and fart noises. Naughty Dog rejected this, so they met with a music production company called Mutato Muzika and its founder Mark Mothersbaugh. He assigned Josh Mancell to work on the game’s music and sounds, and together they composed the soundtrack for the game.

Nintendo's Shigeru Miyamoto playing Crash Bandicoot.

Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto playing Crash Bandicoot.

At that year’s E3, Crash Bandicoot actually had to go up against Nintendo’s new console, the Nintendo 64, and its new game, Super Mario 64. Since both games were 3D platformers, people couldn’t help but to compare the two games. Plus Sega was in a decline, so this left Sony and Nintendo head to head in the console race. These two companies were actually partners in developing a console together before they became bitter rivals. This contributed to Crash Bandicoot becoming the de facto flagship character of Sony even more. Super Mario 64 was critically acclaimed and a huge financial success for Nintendo. Its gameplay was extremely influential on the transition of video games into 3D. Crash Bandicoot isn’t considered a masterpiece like Super Mario 64, but it did receive good reviews and became one of the best-selling games on the original PlayStation. Its success marked the beginning of Naughty Dog’s rise as a major developer in the game market.

While Crash Bandicoot may not be as influential as Super Mario 64, its art style and gameplay make it stand out compared to other games. As mentioned, Crash Bandicoot is a 3D platformer where players control Crash, who is a mutated bandicoot that traverses through several unique levels to rescue his kidnapped girlfriend from the sinister Dr. Neo Cortex. In every level, there are dangerous enemies and obstacles that players must overcome to progress to the next level. If Crash is hit even once or falls into a pit, he dies and the player loses a life. Crash can be protected by Aku Aku masks who shield him from enemy hits. Crash can hold onto two masks at a time and if he gets a third mask, he gains temporary invincibility (except for fall deaths). Players can gain more lives by finding them throughout the level and/or collecting 100 Wumpa fruits. Crash can defend himself against enemies by jumping on them and using his spin attack that will launch them away. Every level is full of crates for Crash to break and jump on. These crates contain Wumpa fruit and Aku Aku masks for Crash to collect. However, these crates are also surrounded by TNT that will instantly kill Crash if he spins into them. If Crash jumps on them, they countdown and will explode. There are also steel crates that are activated by finding crates with exclamation marks. If players complete a level without dying, they earn a gem. These provide access to new areas and collecting them all leads to the true ending of the game.

Naughty Dog would go on to develop two more sequels, Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back (1997) and Crash Bandicoot: Warped (1998) that many claim to be superior to the original. All three games were critically successful and huge hits for the original PlayStation, especially in Japan.  Crash Bandicoot: Warped was the first non-Japanese game to sell over a million copies in Japan. Naughty Dog also released a kart racing game based on the franchise titled Crash Team Racing (1999) that was critically and financially successful. After Crash Team Racing, Naughty Dog wanted to develop other games for Sony and they didn’t want to be contained by Universal Interactive. Being a successful developer for Sony, the company bought Naughty Dog from Universal Interactive and Naughty Dog would go on to become arguably Sony’s best developer. After Crash Bandicoot, they worked on the Jak and Daxter franchise for Sony’s new PlayStation 2 console. However, this meant Naughty Dog lost the rights to their beloved character since he was owned by Universal Interactive. Crash Bandicoot was no longer the de facto mascot of Sony as it became a multi-platform franchise.

The original gameplay and gameplay from the Remastered version.

In the 21st century, the Crash Bandicoot franchise essentially faded into just the memories of people who grew up in the 1990s. The Crash franchise couldn’t live up to the games developed by Naughty Dog. After Crash of the Titans and Crash: Mind Over Mutant received mediocre to bad reviews, developers turned the franchise into successful mobile games. But after 2010, Crash would not be mentioned again until 2016. Meanwhile, Naughty Dog creators Gavin and Rubin left the company after finishing the Jak and Daxter series. Naughty Dog would go on to release the highly successful and critically acclaimed franchise Uncharted and the widely respected masterpiece, The Last of Us. And with the easter egg in Uncharted 4, Crash’s appearance in Skylanders, and the remaster titled Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy, it appears Crash has finally made his comeback to the PlayStation brand. Perhaps gamers will even see a new Crash game in development in the future.

Ken Kutaragi, the father of the PlayStation, actually didn’t like the idea of Crash being the mascot of Sony. There was a dispute between the United States and Japan in how to market the character. Kutaragi didn’t want there to be a mascot because he believed the PlayStation was not intended solely for children like Nintendo. But similar to the rest of the original PlayStation’s marketing, Crash’s advertising in the 1990s was definitely more mature compared to Nintendo. Anyone who grew up or lived in the 1990s probably remembers seeing these commercials.

Whatever happens in the future for the franchise, Crash remains in the hearts of everyone who grew up and played the original PlayStation in the 1990s. Many people would love to see the orange marsupial appear in more PlayStation games.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in 2017. 

Sebastian was born in the Sunshine State. Growing up at the dawn of 3D gaming, he has been playing video games since as long as he can remember. The first game he remembers playing was Super Mario 64 on the Nintendo 64. He has many favorite franchises and loves a wide range of genres. He has owned every console that has come out, but his favorite console of all time is still the PlayStation 2. Sebastian became a Pokemon Master in 1998 when he was 5 years old and has remained one since then. When he’s not being a gamer, he enjoys writing, especially about video games and sports. Sebastian is a huge Miami sports fan and follows his teams very passionately. Graduating from FAU with a Bachelor’s in English, he hopes to become a professional journalist. Preferably in gaming and/or sports journalism. When he’s not being a nerd, he enjoys hanging out with his friends and relaxing at the pool. Wait.. who is he kidding? He’s always a nerd.

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