The Crash Bandicoot series has always occupied a strange place in the pantheon of platform games. It doesn’t offer the sheer joy of movement and discovery that has propelled the Super Mario games, nor the technical spectacle that drives each new Ratchet and Clank title. Even still, there’s something distinct about Crash: the over-the-shoulder perspective, the bouncy movement, the oh-so-’90s vibe. It has smaller ambitions, but is much more focused as a result. And it turns out none of that has changed in the latest entry.
Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time is the first mainline Crash game since 1998, back when the series was a PlayStation exclusive developed by Naughty Dog, a studio now best known for Uncharted and The Last of Us.
Not much has changed in the intervening years. While contemporaries like Super Mario 64 focused on exploring large, open spaces, the original Crash trilogy was much more straightforward; players essentially ran down a hallway, jumping on bad guys and collecting items. Occasionally the perspective shifted to a side-scrolling perspective, with the odd boss battle to mix things up. It was simple, but it felt right.
This structure remains largely intact in It’s About Time. Instead of changing the formula, the developers have attempted to build on it with some new ideas. You still spend most of your time bouncing on bad guys, and smashing boxes to collect pieces of fruit. There are also some great set-pieces, including some especially tense scenes where a big bad enemy is chasing you, and one wrong move means starting over. I particularly loved some of the inventive boss battles, including one against a giant squid that you attack with a bunch of floating rats.
Most of the new features build on the core of Crash. The most notable is the inclusion of masks that grant temporary powers. One lets you “phase” objects in and out of existence, while another turns you into a powerful tornado that can jump across huge gaps. These lead to plenty of interesting platforming scenarios; the phase mask, in particular, creates moments when you have to jump across areas while also managing the existence of the platforms you’re landing on. It takes a lot of focus.
What’s great about these masks is that they add to the Crash experience without making it feel bloated; they’re new dynamics that don’t fundamentally alter the game. Not all of the additions are great — there’s a new character with a grappling hook that feels a touch out of place — but none are bad, either.
Another thing that hasn’t changed is the difficulty. It’s About Time can be a hard game, but its straightforward structure means that the pain points are particularly painful. In almost all cases there’s only one way to solve a puzzle. So if you get stuck, it’s a lot of repeating the same annoying sequence of jumps over and over until you get it right. It can really kill the game’s momentum, which is disappointing considering how fun it can be.
Similarly, despite it being the year 2020, the vibe of It’s About Time is purposely stuck in the ’90s, a time when video game mascots had to have an attitude and bad jokes were plentiful. It’s certainly an acquired taste. This doesn’t impact the game itself much, but I definitely found myself skipping cut scenes to avoid all of the terrible dialogue.
If nothing else, It’s About Time is admirable because it steadfastly holds on to what it is. At a time when Mario’s adventures are getting even wilder, and Ratchet continues to be a showcase for new technologies, the latest Crash is refreshing. It’s not a bold reinvention of a classic. It’s the game you know, with a few tweaks.