This article was originally published October 2, 2020.
Let’s say something obvious: there are a lot of video game characters out there. Characters of all kinds–grizzled war heroes, boomerang-slinging elves, whatever the Fall Guys are supposed to be, and more. However, there are few characters that can also be considered mascots, representative of both their own games and the platform they live on.
Nintendo has Mario. Sega has Sonic. And Sony? Sony’s got a weird orange triangle in jean shorts, aka Crash Bandicoot.
Crash spun his way onto PlayStation in 1996–since then, his debut game, Crash Bandicoot, has become the eighth best-selling PlayStation game of all time, with over 6 million units sold. With a new entry in the Crash Bandicoot series just debuting, you might want to brush up on the weird, wonderful backstory of Sony’s marsupial mascot. Let’s take an informative trip together to the Wumpa Islands–but first, we need to make a stop in Los Angeles.
CHASING SONIC’S ASS
It all started with two 24-year-old dudes and a dream. Andy Gavin and Jason Rubin had met as children and bonded over their love of video games and later turned their shared passion into a real-life business: JAM Software. Rubin was the artist, Gavin was the programmer, and together they created a classic: Math Jam, an educational game that they published in 1985. Later, they changed the business’s name to something a little more catchy: Naughty Dog.
Naughty Dog published several more titles before ultimately linking up with the new video game division at Universal Studios, Universal Interactive, in 1994. This was a pretty big transition for the duo in more ways than one: for starters, they needed to move from Boston to Los Angeles (which, if you’re not familiar, are pretty far apart from each other). It was time for a road trip.
So Gavin and Rubin packed everything they owned into a Honda Accord (and also a truck following the Honda Accord, because Honda Accords are not very big) and headed west, brainstorming new game ideas along the way. And, unlike California’s settlers of yore, the two struck gold before they even arrived.
It was midway through the trip that inspiration took the proverbial wheel: the world needed a 3D platformer. Nothing like it existed yet–even the biggest properties at the time (Mario, Sonic, Donkey Kong, etc.) were still operating in 2D. They jokingly called the idea “Sonic’s Ass Game,” since players would be looking at the character’s backside the whole time. With the perfect name already decided, Gavin and Rubin were ready to hit the ground running. They were heading into uncharted territory, and there wasn’t a checkpoint crate to be found.
CRASH’S BIG BANG
As soon as the Naughty Dog duo arrived at Universal, they got right to work developing the Sonic’s Ass Game and hiring a team to help them develop the Sonic’s Ass Game. They were aiming for a “Saturday morning cartoon” vibe, and enlisted the help of two old-school animators — Charles Zembillas and Joe Pearson — to create the overall look and feel of the game, as well as several other industry professionals, including texture artist Charlotte Francis and sound engineer Dan Kollmorgen.
Crash took a few drafts before the team got him exactly right. The team pored through a book of Tasmanian marsupials and ultimately arrived at a character they called “Willy the Wombat.” In a sense, Willy the Wombat walked so Crash Bandicoot could spin really, really fast. Willy the Wombat was squat and weasley, with a large nose, a dumb grin, and a Zorro mask (for some reason). Through the editing process, Willy was stretched, made leaner and more manic, ultimately arriving at the triangle-shaped, jorts-clad Crash we know and love today.
Of course, it’s a pretty hefty challenge to translate 2D concept sketches into ‘90s 3D game design. The artists were instructed to keep Crash under just 600 polygons. (They managed 532.) Because of the team’s technological limitations, many levels had to be thrown out for being too large. To solve this problem, programmer Dave Baggett developed “Dave’s Level Editor,” a Photoshop-based level editing tool that streamlined the design process and allowed for more complex graphics. The team also included scenery like rocks, statues, and trees, which reduced the overall polygons for the level while simultaneously creating a richer and more visually interesting environment. The artists worked on the visuals for eight months before any code was written. The resulting effect? A game with uniquely stunning graphics, the likes of which hadn’t been seen before.
SPEAKING OF CRATES…
It was also really, really boring.
“There’s a moment where you have what’s called ‘first alpha,’ then you have ‘first playable,’ and nobody talks about ‘first fun,’” Baggett told Polygon. “If you never hit that moment, you’re sort of screwed. The game’s just not going to be good.”
Unfortunately, Crash hadn’t quite reached its “first fun” yet. The levels were sparse and uninteresting to play through, no matter how visually pleasing they might have been. Naughty Dog needed a simple solution, one that wouldn’t use too many polygons but would provide a dynamic element for players to interact with throughout each level.
This is where the crates came into play. The crates wound up being the perfect solution, thanks to their box-shaped low-polygon design and undemanding code. The team devised a slew of different crate varieties — exploding TNT crates, question mark crates, bouncing crates — and within two days had programmed them throughout the game. According to Baggett, “From Friday to Monday, the game became fun.”
It was finally time for alpha.
CRASHING ONTO THE SCENE
Though the team initially wanted Crash Bandicoot to be a multiplatform game, they came to the conclusion that many of the other systems they were considering — including the Sega Saturn, 3DO Interactive Multiplayer, and Atari Jaguar — were too clunky for their beloved, free-wheeling bandicoot. To them, Crash would feel at home on only one system: the Sony PlayStation, which Gavin felt was the one system “sexy” enough for the game. Naughty Dog was determined to make their triangle-torsoed hero Sony’s new (unofficial) mascot.
The world officially met Crash at the 1996 E3. The booth was elaborate, eye-catching, and situated directly across from Nintendo’s display for their new 3D platformer: Super Mario 64. However, the proximity to the world’s most popular plumber wound up working in Naughty Dog’s favor. Their booth drew crowds of consumers and industry pros alike; Shigeru Miyamoto himself stopped by to give Crash a whirl.
First impressions were overwhelmingly positive. The crowds were entertained by the gameplay and awestruck by the visuals. “I think the first few times we showed it there were just these crowds of other programmers from other teams hanging around, trying to figure out how in the hell we were drawing so much,” Kollmorgen told Polygon.
Sony was a relatively new player in the games industry, and their marketing team, helmed by Ami Blaire, needed to find a way to make their scrappiness work for them. As it turned out, the solution was literally right in front of them: Nintendo.
They devised a plotline, of sorts: a crazed fan, dressed in a Crash Bandicoot mascot costume, drives to Nintendo to “challenge” Mario. “Plumber boy,” he says to himself, driving through Seattle in his full Crash suit, “your time has come.” He would park in front of houses, declaring the benefits of purchasing a PlayStation system. He would yell at the Nintendo building through a megaphone and then get escorted out of the parking lot by security guards, explaining to them that bandicoots are Australian. He was wise-cracking and zany, a perfect encapsulation of the Crash Bandicoot game.
The campaign was a hit. It was edgy and unique, perfectly encapsulating Sony’s brand image at the time, and establishing them as a cool, rebellious competitor to behemoths like Nintendo and Sega. With its marketing campaign a success, Crash was ready to be released to the world.
CRASH COMES HOME
The game followed the story of Crash, a bandicoot that had been captured and experimented on by the villainous Doctor Neo Cortex and his assistant, Doctor Nitrus Brio. Crash escapes their lab and spends the course of the game spin-attacking bad guys and smashing crates, all in the hopes of saving his girlfriend, Tawna, and defeating Cortex.
To say Crash Bandicoot’s initial release went well would be an understatement. Crash was released in September 1996 and was met with critical and commercial success, domestically selling over 1.5 million units within the first six months of release and firmly establishing PlayStation as a worthy competitor in the console wars. Though Crash received mixed reviews for its gameplay, the graphics were universally praised, and it was clear that audiences wanted more Crash.
CRASH COMES HOME… AGAIN
Development for Crash Bandicoot’s sequel, Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back, began in October 1996, just one month after the first game’s release, and was released a year later in October 1997. By all accounts, the game was superior to its predecessor in every way. Next Generation noted that “Crash 2 is a tempting gameplay treat, one that frustrates at times, but it always rewards a job well done – and that is an addictive combination for any serious platform gamer.”
The plot was fun, the gameplay was smoother, and the graphics were more advanced. The game also served to expand Crash’s world, introducing new characters like Crash’s little sister, Coco Bandicoot.
The second game even paved the way for Crash’s spin with manga–he appeared in Coro Coro Comics’ Crash Bandicoot—Dansu! de Jump! na Daibōken, which was loosely based on the events of Cortex Strikes Back (although, unfortunately, only two issues were ever published).
The Naughty Dog team gave themselves a little time to breathe before starting development for the third Crash game, Crash Bandicoot 3: Warped, in January 1998. The game followed Crash as he continued to thwart Doctor Cortex’s evil plans – this time by traveling through, well, time. The game received universal praise, with Official U.S. PlayStation Magazine even calling it “the best 2.5D platformer ever released” and GamePro declaring that it was “a very strong contender for Game of the Year.”
Naughty Dog shifted gears for their final Crash game, releasing CTR: Crash Team Racing in September 1999. Racers could zip around as beloved characters from the series, including Crash, Coco, and Cortex. The game included both single- and multiplayer modes, and was once again received well both critically and commercially.
THE END OF AN ERA
And then, Naughty Dog’s contract with Universal Interactive ended. The two companies parted ways. Naughty Dog went on to make beloved hits like Jak & Daxter, Uncharted, and The Last of Us. Universal, meanwhile, attempted to recapture the series’ previous successes with several more Crash releases.
Crash was passed from developer to developer, each taking a swing at the franchise, with none managing to recapture the glory days of Crash’s Naughty Dog era. In 2008, Activision took hold of the series, publishing Crash: Mind Over Mutant for the PlayStation 2, PlayStation Portable, Wii and Xbox 360. The game received largely mediocre reviews from critics, who disliked its shallow gameplay and unpredictable controls. Game Informer’s Andrew Reiner called it “a mess of a game, and a new low point for the once-loved marsupial.”
It seemed that the magic of the Crash Bandicoot series was over.
…OR WAS IT?
In the last four years, Crash Bandicoot has experienced a dizzying revival. At Sony’s press conference during the 2016 E3, Sony announced that they would be remastering the first three Crash games. The games were released together as the Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy, first for PlayStation 4 in June 2017, and then Microsoft Windows, Nintendo Switch, and XBox One in June 2018. Crash even renewed his driver’s license for another racing game, Crash Team Racing Nitro-Fueled. Both games received positive reviews from critics and fans alike, marking an end to Crash’s crash.
Crash also made several appearances in the television show Skylander Academy, in which he (and sometimes Coco) must team up with Spyro the Dragon to save the world. He can spin, act, and drive? Talk about a triple threat!
Last year, Sony debuted Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time, a brand-new time-traveling adventure with everyone’s favorite, triangle-shaped marsupial. The game includes new moves, old friends, and (presumably) all the crates you can smash. I don’t know about you guys, but I’m already wearing my celebratory jorts.