Longtime readers of Pungry, as in, me, will remember me as someone who is a big fan of the Spyro the Dragon franchise. With Crash Bandicoot making its grand revival with Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time last year, the first new mainline game in the series since 1998 if you believe Toys For Bob or the first new game since 2008 if you believe Mind Over Mutant counts, fans of Crash’s PS1 stepbrother have been wondering when the purple dragon will get his next true game. I say “when” and not “if” because the Spyro: Reignited Trilogy was made by the makers of Crash 4, Toys For Bob, and Crash 4 had at least two Spyro references I can think of off the top of my head. That said, Toys For Bob is under the Activision-Blizzard banner which, if you’ve been following their scandals and lawsuits, makes it a lot harder to see a Spyro 4 coming out anytime soon.
But I’m not here to talk about the very serious problems of sexual assault and overwork that video game studios seem to have prevalent troubles with, I’m here to talk about video games as if acknowledging the very real problems with the artists behind this art will let you forget the artists are handsy. Just like how people can still read good ol’ HP Lovecraft despite his cat’s name belying everything that underpins his horror.
Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time can teach the makers of Spyro 4, who are probably Toys For Bob or some other development studio in that circle like Beenox Entertainment or Vicarious Visions (the teams responsible for the Crash Team Racing remake and Crash N. Sane Trilogy remakes), some pretty important lessons about game design, and I’d like to be the one to point out those lessons. Nearly a year after Crash 4 came out. And well after Spyro 4 had presumably started development. So, you’re welcome, game developers that read this ten years after Spyro 7: Shiela Kicks Sgt. Byrd comes out.
#1: It Can Be Done
I wanted to start this off with a positive since a lot of lessons slant towards the negative. Especially if they’re algebra lessons. Crash 4 is at its core a Crash Bandicoot game like Crash 1-3, and it’s a very good version of them. The controls are more precise than ever. There’s a slight modern update to the core moveset with the double jump being in from the start, but–very smartly–the game is built around the single jump. The level designs are really imaginative and call back old ideas and bring forth new concepts, proving that not every idea was explored in the original Crashes. And the presentation is all-around gorgeous. I played this thing on the Nintendo Switch which is known for terrible performance and worse graphics, but the game looked beautiful, ran at a consistent framerate no matter what, and the loadtimes were bearable. This game has a great visual design that looks like old Crash but prettier, the soundtrack is adequate, and the sound effects are great. I cannot stress this enough: the game is really good. Spyro 4 developers can rest easy knowing that it is possible to revive old video game franchises better than Bomberman: Act Zero.
#2 Know When To Stop
Crash 4’s level design is a great modern update to the original Crash formula… for the most part. See, the thing about the original Crash games was that, in order to fit the 30 levels that Crash 2 and 3 have on the tiny PS1 discs, the levels had to be relatively short. Crash 4 has far too much spare memory per level to allow it to do whatever it wants for however long it wants. And the lack of limits is a big problem with Crash 4 and a very big potential problem for Spyro 4. Crash 4’s levels last forever. Rush Hour is the worst offender, being a ten-minute, super hard marathon where you play as two people that aren’t Crash Bandicoot so you’re not used to their controls, and it just. Doesn’t. End.
But even from the first world, the levels in Crash 4 are already longer than any level in the original Crash trilogy, and that’s a bad thing. The original Crash levels had a smart rhythm to them. They were short enough that any gimmick a level might have would only be there for a couple of minutes or so, and then you moved on once you got used to it. Crash 4’s levels could’ve been split up into multiple smaller levels, and have been far more palatable. The game already kind of does that. See the aforementioned Rush Hour, which could’ve easily been two separate stages that each character does their half of. This might not sound like a bad thing since Crash 4 includes a mode that gives you infinite lives, and all that matters is getting to the end of the stage as far as beating the game goes, but hoo boy, 100%ing Crash 4’s levels is an absolute nightmare. More on that later.
The point is that Spyro 4 needs to make sure it understands what it wants to do with its level design, and to know when to stop with a level’s size. I talked about this a lot in my analysis of A Hero’s Tail. That game had fewer but much larger levels, like an extended cut of Avicii’s single rather than the radio edit played thrice in a row. And that worked as a detriment to the level design. It is far too easy to get lost in A Hero’s Tail’s levels due to their size. I think of the level in the skies and, as much as I love it, the Ice Citadel level as being the worst offenders. Crash 4’s levels are nowhere near as open as Spyro’s levels, but Crash 4 instead demands your concentration to actually execute what the game is asking of you. And keeping up that concentration for those 10+ minutes of a stage (which is only 10 minutes if you don’t die) is extremely demanding. In my opinion, Spyro 4 needs to make a decision right away if it wants large, sprawling levels like A Hero’s Tail, or if it wants a bunch of smaller levels like the old Spyros. But it can’t pick the medium that Crash 4 picked and have too many levels that it thinks are small that are actually way too freaking large.
#3 Don’t Pad The Game
This is very much linked to #2 since larger levels with less in them is a sure sign of padding. But it’s more about Crash 4’s… self-embarrassment at the fact that it’s a $60 game that it tries to do everything it can to give you $60 worth of time spent playing the game. To do this, there’s a lot of unnecessary padding to the game. One of the big draws of the original Crash games was that 100%ing them required a huge amount of skill and replaying the level to find every hidden box, giving the game some nice replayability. Crash 4 already has insanely large levels, so asking the player to find all 440 boxes in Rush Hour is an extremely mean thing to do when the most boxes in the original trilogy you have to break in one level is less than 200. Adding to this, to see the secret ending of Crash 4, you have to break every box and make it to the end of the level without dying. Which is just absolutely terrible because the game is ludicrously hard to get through without dying, and just as hard to find every box (especially the hidden ones), so combining the two as a mandatory thing is a godawful thing.
Another terrible type of padding the game has is NVerted mode, where every level has a mirror mode version of it with some headache-inducing visual filter placed on top as well. It’s really bad, and simply should’ve been cut. No one would’ve missed it. But, again, the game felt like it had to justify being $60, so it decided to add pads as large as the shoulder pads people wore in the 80s. It’s not fun, it’s just tedious. Some people would also argue that the Relic time trials where you go through the stages as fast as possible while breaking boxes that stop the timer is another form of padding, but those were in Crash 3 and make you play the stages in a new way compared to how you methodically and meticulously have to go through them to find every box, so I think they’re fine. I don’t like them, though, and refused to do them.
A disappointing bit of padding comes in the form of the levels with the new characters. Not the new characters themselves, they’re alright (except for Cortex whose moveset I hate). But the fact that they only have half a stage to themselves before you switch to Crash for the second half of the stage which is the second half of a stage you already played before. That’s stupid. Just end the level after the other character is done. Really simple solution. As it stands, the decision just makes you replay segments of the same level over again, and makes you appreciate them less. Like when you replay a chase sequence in the third world where you are in a hamster ball being chased by a terrifying robot car out of Mad Max which is extremely cool the first time, way less impressive the second time.
The actual last piece of replaying padding are Flashback Tapes. In order to collect a tape that unlocks a really cool and difficult 2D platforming level, you have to get through the entire level to the tape without dying. Which is so ridiculously hard to do, especially the last levels where the tape is literally at the end of the level. I spent a good hour+ on each individual level of the final world getting those tapes, and it was not fun. I decided early on that I would only unlock every costume and not go for 100% otherwise. It was mostly the smart move, except for the last few costumes where you had to get all 12 gems (6 from the normal stage, 6 from the NVerted version) on the very hardest levels of the game… I do not ever want to play Toxic Tunnels or the level just before it ever again.
Spyro 4 can really easily avoid making these errors by knowing to rein itself in. If the game is extremely polished and fun for 10 hours and stops there instead of being extremely polished and fun for 10 hours before making you redo those 10 hours again and again until all the fun is sucked away after 80 hours… that’s totally fine! It will have been worth $60 for those 10 fun hours! Not every game needs to be a 100 hour JRPG in length. Just accept that a few people might not buy your game if you market it at $60 and move on. Or market it at $40 like the Spyro Trilogy and move on. It’s totally fine! There’s nothing to be ashamed of!
#4 Know Your Audience
Crash 4 is, obviously, the sequel to Crash Bandicoot 3: Warped. However, it is also the “first” Crash game in 20 years. As such, it has two large audiences it is trying to appeal to: the old fanbase of Crash fans who played and beat the original games a bunch of times when they were kids, and a new set of children who will fall in love with the Crash games via Crash 4 and play it to 100% over and over again. I, uh, hate to say this, but Crash 4 completely forgets that it has this younger audience to target, and instead focuses completely on the nostalgic Crash fanboys. This game’s story is filled with nods to old Crash games, which is cute, but lost completely on an old Crash fan. And when the game introduces a new villain, like female NTRopy, it feels extremely weird because the rest of the game is bringing the old back.
I know I just sounded like someone complaining about the food’s quality at a restaurant while having such small portions, but this is important to realize. Crash 4’s story feels weird and disjointed in general with how the cutscenes seem to come at random and are only viewed before and after completing a level, making them impossible to watch on their own. Also, I cannot emphasize this enough, the difficulty of the game is not for children. It’s for people with a lot of platforming experience. This should be no one’s first platformer despite the very appealing cartoony graphics that make Crash 4 seem suitable for anyone. It is difficult simply beating a level. I cannot imagine anyone that hasn’t played a platformer ever making it through Cortex Castle’s final gauntlet, or even getting there, really. Forget 100%ing the game.
Spyro 4 has it easier compared to Crash 4 in this one. The Spyro games have never been difficult to beat. Oh, sure, they have some tough challenges to get to 100%, but nothing in there is that difficult and the game’s atmosphere has been more focused on relaxation than urgency. If Spyro 4 is made with the same level of difficulty as the original trilogy, it’ll please both old and new audiences, whereas Crash 4 felt like it had to be harder than the original trilogy to please the original audiences that are too good at the games.
#5 You Can Acknowledge The Bad (And Should)
As I said earlier, Crash 4 is a bit ashamed of itself in its repetition. But from the title on, the game is ashamed of what it is tied to. It’s like a college student that doesn’t talk about its family nor want to go home for Christmas, only tolerating their grandparents (when they aren’t being racist). Crash 4 goes out of its way to both acknowledge the past and then try to bury it further. There’s minor Easter egg appearances of bosses from the GBA games on posters in the background that don’t get further acknowledgment. When a mask you rescue asks you how many times you’ve beaten Cortex, Coco is very quick to say just four, even though the mask itself knows that it’s happened more times. There’s a literal time-traveling mask, the gameplay hook is that you’re going through time and space to stop Cortex, and it ends with you going back to Cortex’s Castle in 1996 when and where the first game ended… and you never go to any times or locations from anything that isn’t the original trilogy or CTR-inspired.
Gamers are passionate, but easy to win support from. If they hate what has happened to a franchise they once loved, it’s pretty easy to get them to love it again with a game like this. Crash 4’s announcement is the equivalent of a politician saying they’ll bring the country back to its good ol’ days, and gamers eat that stuff up. But I’d be remiss if I said I wasn’t slightly disappointed that Crash Tag Team Racing got no acknowledgment in this game. Yes, yes, the CTR Remake does acknowledge it, but still.
Spyro 4 should acknowledge the absolute insanity that happened to the series after A Hero’s Tail. Give me some random shoutout to Shadow Legacy’s bizarre dungeon-crawling. Give me a cameo of Cynder or Dark Spyro from The Legend of Spyro. Give me a Skylander, whatever the heck that is. I am absolutely encouraging the gamemakers to very openly talk about these times instead of burying them further. They’re not great games, but some people liked them, and they deserve slightly better than a punchline like in Crash 4. It doesn’t have to be much–maybe just pictures of stuff from the games like in Crash 4–as long as it doesn’t come with a pithy one-liner about how much they sucked.
There’s other stuff that Crash 4 might be able to teach Spyro 4, but I can’t think of it. The main points are thus: a new game based on an old franchise that went bad can still be made good, and the resulting game should be unashamed of its past/present status and instead paint a clear future. Thanks 4 (Crash 4 joke) watching.