I don’t usually like to start articles with personal anecdotes, but the subject matter here demands an immediate clarification—or maybe it’s more of a confession. I did not own a PlayStation 1 growing up. I threw my allegiance behind the Nintendo 64 and only ever encountered Sony’s machine at friends’ houses. Although I was the perfect age to fall for its bright colors and emotive cartoon characters, Crash Bandicoot was something that completely passed me by. Before playing the N. Sane Trilogy, Activision’s new remake of the first three Crash releases, the most time I’d spent with Naughty Dog’s famous marsupial was when he showed up as a cute gag in Uncharted 4. All of which is to say, I have no investment in this series. I dove into the N. Sane Trilogy as a curious bystander hoping to get a taste of a phenomenon I missed all those years ago and a better understanding of its lasting popularity. But actually playing the games—both the originals and the remakes—doesn’t reveal much of anything.
In 2017, Crash Bandicoot’s original trilogy is a wonky relic of an important transitional period in the art form’s history. It’s caught halfway between 2-D and 3-D, and its inability to fully commit to one or the other means it inherits very few of the benefits of either. Rather than a leap forward, it’s more an experimental outgrowth of the traditional 2-D platformers that littered consoles for years, an awkward amalgam of the restrictive straight lines of old and the free 360-degree movement that would become the norm. It demands the precision and timing of 2-D games, but Crash’s sluggish speed, especially while in the air, and the added challenge of wrestling with depth perception can make even the most insignificant of obstacles come off as unnecessarily irritating and the games’ stages too reliant on trial and error. It’s a combination that just doesn’t feel as natural as its respective parts, and looking back at the platformers that came out in the following decades, it was an evolutionary dead end.
That didn’t stop the games from being hugely popular at the time, nor should it have. We so often get hung up on assigning importance to innovation and influence that we forget that cultural context is just as, if not more, relevant to a work’s legacy. From reading all the jubilant appraisals of the N. Sane Trilogy and talking to our own William Hughes, the closest thing to a Crash fan on our staff, one of the big reasons these games are so fondly remembered is that they filled a huge Mario/Sonic-shaped void in the lives of young PlayStation owners. The console’s early years were flooded with iconic games, but Crash was the first real kid-friendly mascot it ever had. His games were more goofy and vibrant than any of his polygonal contemporaries, and when you throw in the fact that they were difficult and secret-filled enough to require tons of replaying, you get a series that resonated with a lot of people at a very specific time and asked them to invest so much of themselves in it.
As a critic, my first instinct when playing these games today is to throw my hands in the air and wonder why the hell anyone would be so devoted to them. But the N. Sane Trilogy isn’t for people like me, people who grew up rummaging through Peach’s castle (a journey that has plenty issues of its own, when reassessed today) rather than traveling through space and time with this googly-eyed bandicoot. Playing these games and watching the response to this tremendously successful package unfold has been a sobering reminder that sometimes those very personal past experiences mean more than any highfalutin hot take any of us naysayers could muster. The N. Sane Trilogy is a pinpoint-accurate nostalgia assault, one of the purest and most effective this nostalgia-peddling industry has ever seen. It’s easy to sit back and cynically denounce such brazen appeals, but that discounts the actual joy this is bringing to the many people whose lives Crash did touch back in the day. I may not ever have the patience to track down all those gems and secret exits, but I’m grateful that a collection this loving exists for those who do.