In the days of Sega vs. Nintendo, hyper aggressive ad campaigns told us that the system you played said something about who you were. Each console’s mascot was supposed to represent those qualities, giving a face to the hardware and inadvertently building the pantheon of classic gaming personalities.
That practice would come to a stop when shooting replaced jumping as the mainstream mechanic of choice, thanks in large part to the introduction of twin-stick game controllers, but not before Naughty Dog perfected the art of old school platforming. Though there would be fuzzy anthropomorphic characters in the future, Crash Bandicoot was the last true console mascot, and his legacy stands as the most distilled iteration of the formula that birthed Sonic, resurrected Donkey Kong, and sustains Mario to this day.
How To Train Your Mascot
Despite being wildly different in terms of content and tone, Sonic, Mario and DK all built and refined the console mascot trilogy. Each one went through the same developmental gauntlet exemplified by Genesis era Sonic games, the Donkey Kong Country series and Mario’s first three NES platformer adventures (the second iteration in this case is the actual sequel, known in North America as Super Mario Bros: The Lost Levels).
The first game in each trilogy introduces the mascot, a platform world, the main enemy, and the basic iconography of the franchise. Game two repeats and refines while the third uses the world building in the previous two entries to expand, polish and add flavour. Each mascot passes through the gauntlet in a unique way, but at the end of the third game the brand is fully established. To make any major deviation from those expectations spells certain failure (see: every post-trilogy Sonic game).
Crash Bandicoot represents the last time the process played out in full and was successful. Sony’s mutant marsupial hopped, belly flopped and sex-danced his way through every platform icon milestone, but when he was finished he blew them to oblivion with nitroglycerine and a bazooka.
The first Crash Bandicoot, upon revisit, barely seems like a Crash game, but the idea is there. Crash has two basic abilities, a twirling spin attack and the classic hop-on-baddies-and-boxes technique (read: jumping). He collects Wumpa Fruit to earn extra lives. He is protected by a mystical, slightly racist mask power up. Has to defeat a couple of evil scientists to save his girlfriend and the world.
In Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back all of these aspects are there, minus the damselled girlfriend. There’s a more advanced plot, additional characters, two additional useful abilities, a slightly more manageable level of difficulty and a series-defining overworld facelift. The third game in the series, Crash Bandicoot 3: Warped, throws less away and adds on goodies, offering new level types, unlockable abilities and a time trial mode, all of which greatly increase replay value and polish the series’ aesthetic to a sparkling gem of greatness.
With Crash, the three game formula worked so well that it led to a successful kart racing game (and the true measure of a mascot is how well its racing adaptation stands up to its contemporary Mario Kart iteration). But Crash’s success also came with a grave omen.
No, I haven’t forgotten about Jak and Daxter.
The Next Generation
Crash wasn’t the last attempt to brand a console with a jump-happy cartoon personality, but as mentioned earlier, he was the last success. During the PS2 era Sony developers Insomniac, Naughty Dog and Sucker Punch all had critters ready to take the mantle. The problem was that the industry had moved away from mascot-friendly platforming.
In Jak and Daxter, the first of Sony’s attempts, the issue is most blatant. An innovative true platformer for the PS2 by the same company that created Crash, Jak and Daxter serves as the usual character introduction. However, the sequel isn’t a refinement, but a reinvention. Jak 2 is a fuzzier, sci-fi version of an open world crime game like Grand Theft Auto III, a mascot applied to a new paradigm.
Sly Cooper is similarly inserted into a new genre. It’s really Metal Gear by way of Spyro the Dragon, a mascot playing super cool spy games. Rachet and Clank, the closest to a true mascot arc, is a cover-based shooter with stuffed animals. All three represent some of console gaming’s greatest hits, but none of them are system-defining idols.
Naughty Dog foreshadowed the shift in the third Crash Bandicoot game. In the same way that Sonic & Knuckles foreshadowed Sonic’s departure from speed, Crash 3: Warped contains a surprisingly prescient look through a crystal ball at the fracturing of the mascot genre.
The Weapon of Mass Destruction
The fourth set of levels in Crash 3 is themed after the boss that resides over them, one Dr. N. Gin. True to his punny name, N. Gin is all about engineering and his levels reflect as much. Crash wins a drag race against time traveling research assistants in the 1950s in one level, pilots an old timey warplane against retconned WWI aircraft in another, and then both he and his sister Coco take to outer space in starfighters to do flight-sim combat with N. Gin himself. None of it involves platforming. It’s other game genres with extra fur and pelvic thrusts.
It’s appropriate then, that as a reward for defeating N. Gin, Crash gains the ability to use a bazooka to fire fruit at his enemies and the wooden crates he’s so compulsive about destroying. By succeeding at so much non-platforming the player is rewarded with a firearm that ensures even less platforming will be required henceforth. The ability to shoot enemies with a big gun dramatically transforms the game. What once was a complex experience that required trial, error and careful nuance becomes a gunpowder-fueled point and click lesson in PWNAGE.
And there’s the problem: PWNAGE is fun. PWNAGE is so fun that you’ll go back and play through levels just to see the new death animations of the enemies you PWN with your new fruit gun.
The thing is, PWNAGE isn’t platforming. It is a testament to Naughty Dog’s level design that the five remaining levels still present a challenge once Crash is packing heat. Gunplay didn’t break Crash Bandicoot, but it represented the death of an old tradition. The mainstream tastes of the gaming public gravitated towards the high-powered descendants of fruit bazookas past. It’s combat evolved out there, and there’s only so much jumping you can do before someone gets shot.