Before kicking things off, I want to pay respects to the late Mel Winkler. For those who don’t know, he was the original voice actor of Aku Aku. He passed just four months ago on June 11, 2020, at age 78. That “boogedy-bah” is as dear to me as the sound of Sonic collecting rings and Mario’s dozens of “yahoo!” variations. Gone, but never forgotten- the world of Crash won’t be the same without his talent.
If there’s anyone more synonymous with my childhood than Sonic the Hedgehog, it would have to be Crash Bandicoot. The box-busting marsupial was just as much a part of my Saturday morning lineup as Sonic, Spyro, and Cartoon Network. I’ve stuck around through all the growing pains the series went through after Naughty Dog dropped the IP to work on Jak & Daxter, among other projects. Crash has changed hands numerous times throughout the past twenty or so years. Starting with Traveler’s Tales and finally smashing his way into the cubicles of Skylanders developer Toys For Bob with this latest installment. They did a phenomenal job of bringing Spyro to modern consoles a couple of years ago. I felt the project was in good hands and was thoroughly impressed with the demo. Now that it’s finally here, it’s about time to see if the final product delivers. (No more puns, I promise)
Crash 4- It’s About Time disregards that aforementioned “growing pain” era entirely. The game takes place right after the events of the last Naughty Dog developed game, Crash Bandicoot- Warped. The intro sees the antagonists trapped in an alternate dimension, and we’re introduced to a far more sinister incarnation of N.Tropy while Dr. Neo Cortex and co take a back seat. After draining Uka Uka’s powers, the gang can create a rift in time and resume their regular mad science-y havoc. Cue Crash and Coco is heading out on another adventure through time to save the day.
It’s easy to tell that the folks behind Crash 4 have fond memories of the series from the very beginning. The very first thing I wound up doing was smacking around a television set in Crash’s updated digs, which cycled through all the title screens of the classic trilogy (and, of course, there’s a trophy for it). That same inner-thought permeated throughout my romp across N Sanity Beach, where I encountered classic enemies and set pieces such as crabs, warthogs, and rolling stones.
It wasn’t long before the game decided to let me know that this is far more than a simple nostalgia trip. That’s what Crash Bandicoot N Sane Trilogy was for, after all. Soon, I was swinging across vines, contending with platforms that flickered off and on and wound up meeting the first of the game’s new masks. It granted me the ability to shift transparent objects in and out of existence, making for some clever platforming.
New masks aren’t the only wrinkle added to the traditional Crash formula, however. Toys for Bob pushed for replayability with this installment, and it shines through once you invest a couple of hours. Simultaneously, there are the age-old criteria for breaking all the boxes to get gems and taking on time trials to obtain relics. You’re able to rack up more gems (and ultimately cosmetic packs for both Crash and Coco) by meeting other goals at each level and finishing a level with a death count of fewer than three nets you a gem alongside getting a ton of wumpa fruit. And you can even go for the fiendishly tricky perfect clears (which demand you break all the boxes without dying at all).
Furthermore, you can collect “Flashback Tapes” by hitting a certain point in most stages without dying, which unlock over twenty additional challenge stages should you opt to get them all. Finally, there are “Inverted” versions of each level to tackle that apply all kinds of wild filters to its “normal” counterpart. They also provide opportunities to rack up gems.
And, surprisingly, we’re not done with new mechanics just yet. Perhaps the biggest change-up to the gameplay loop is the introduction of alternate timelines. Essentially, these allow you to play as other characters from the Crash universe in revised versions of each stage to see how they crossed paths with our beloved bandicoot.
They all have their unique moveset and often serve as a slow-paced breather to complement the main story’s fast-paced platforming. Tawna, Crash’s old squeeze from the first game, now possesses a hook shot and can also wall jump around like a certain Hayabusa. Dr. Neo Cortex’s raygun allows him to solidify enemies as well as morph them into bouncing platforms. Dingodile has exchanged his trademark flamethrower for a clone of Luigi’s Poltergust, allowing him to suck up crates and hurl them back at enemies and obstacles in addition to hovering. New play styles are always a divisive thing (ask the Sonic fanbase), and I was initially afraid that they would have come off as half baked. Fortunately, I can say that all of them, even the much slower paced Dingo, is a ton of fun to play as and serve their purpose.
And believe me, you’ll be grateful for a breather every now and then. Not only is the traditional, corridor based platforming of Crash 4 the same breed of fast and frantic that the series is known for, it can also get brutally difficult. Now, I’m not going to go off on a tangent on how Crash Bandicoot is the “Dark Souls” of platforming. Not only is that a ridiculous (and overused) statement, but there are plenty of other games that fit the bill far better than any game in the series could hope to.
If you’re just looking to make your way through the end of each stage, you’ll be fine (for the most part…more on that later). However, completionists will definitely have their hands full. Not only are there far more boxes on average than most of the levels from the classic trilogy, but some of them are deviously hidden. If there’s one thing I wish I would’ve told myself before diving in, it’s this- “don’t worry about getting everything all at once.” I strongly believe new players will get the best experience by learning the levels first, regardless of if they’re a Crash vet or not. This is especially important considering that the levels are slightly longer than what the series has thrown at us thus far, with checkpoints being just a bit more spaced out alongside Aku Aku masks.
If there is one thing that Crash 4 absolutely nails (besides most of the level design and warm fuzzies), it’s the boss fights. I did not expect anything to write home about here, but I was wrong. While it’s a shame that fan favorites like Ripper Roo and Tiny Tiger don’t make an appearance, duking it out with the franchise’s crew of mad scientists has never been better. Each one of these encounters is memorable from the first onward. N Gin’s giant stereo system blasts waves of deadly discs at you in almost DDR-like fashion, N Brio chugs a potion midway through. It turns into a monster just as he did in the very first game. Cortex uses the powers of all your newly acquired masks against you in a constantly shifting arena. I’ll daresay they are some of the best boss fights this series has had.
There are some concessions made to help modernize the experience for players who struggle. While I opted to play in “Retro” mode, “modern” mode entirely nixes the lives system. If I’m honest, this probably wasn’t as meaningful of inclusion as one might think. Also, there’s now a brightly colored circle to indicate where you’ll be landing while airborne. Initially, I also didn’t see the need for this, but I was pretty thankful for it towards the adventure’s back end. Depth perception has always been somewhat of an issue with the Crash games. The level design often mixes corridors with 2D and verticality; having something more than a drop shadow does ease some of the earlier games’ frustration. (It can be turned off in the options if you’re a purist, though!)
That said, it’s still worth talking about the last quarter of the game, as I feel there’s a bit of a difficulty landmine. Not just a spike- a landmine. While the game takes the “challenging but fair” approach for a good portion of its 6-8 hour runtime, I couldn’t help but feel Toys for Bob went overboard with the last few worlds. Not only do the levels get exceptionally longer out of nowhere, but the checkpoints are also suddenly far, and few between and Aku Aku masks are virtually nonexistent. To add insult to injury, some of these stages include autoscrolling sections on top of balls-to-the-wall platforming.
If you’ve already mastered the classic Crash trilogy, I don’t think I need to tell you why this is an issue. However, those uninitiated means that you better not miss any of the boxes on those auto scrollers or else you’re screwed. You have to either start over from scratch or chuck yourself off a pit to try them again. Trying to get all the boxes while riding warthogs and polar bears in the classics was difficult. However, at the very least, those levels were their own 3-5 minute affair and not just one part of a 10-15 minute long marathon with up to 400 boxes to find. This is the kind of thing that would get a pass back in the ’90s. However, in a day and age where memory and storage aren’t threatening constraints when trying to boost a game’s length, it’s just not something I can overlook as a player.
Even with the sour taste that the endgame left in my mouth, Crash 4 is still a worthy installment in this nearly 25-year-old franchise. So you’ve already mastered the classic trilogy. In that case, you’re going to have a good time just going through the primary campaign as well as the side levels if you can stomach that landmine. It’s not something I can recommend to beginners or those who have had their PlayStation sitting up in the closet for several years. This is on account of how dialed up the difficulty is compared to even the first Crash Bandicoot. For those who stick with it, Crash 4 has a lot to offer, and as long as you’re not prone to breaking controllers, you’ll get your $60 worth.
>Stunning presentation (the screenshots don’t do the game justice)
>Tons of fan service and cameos
>Level design that’s (mostly) stellar
>An N Sane amount of unlockables
>Some of the best boss encounters in the series
>Alternate playstyles are well implemented and don’t hamper the experience (as they’re notorious for doing in other 3D platformers)
>A beautiful tribute to Mel Winkler at the very end
>Trying to go for 100% is far more frustrating than fun- the classic trilogy was more balanced in this regard
>The last quarter of the game is rather weak in comparison to the stages leading up to it
Final Score: 7.5/10