With a multi-generational gap in gaming today, it’s easy to get up in arms about a series you like or are at least nostalgic for. Today, those in college are old enough to remember 1998, a milestone year of video games that began tons of classic franchises including Unreal, Banjo-Kazooie, Half-Life, Thief, and Spyro, and revitalized many existing franchises with titles like Mario Party, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, and Sonic Adventure.
But 1998 also marked the beginning of a shift for one of that generation’s biggest legacies, Crash Bandicoot. While Crash Team Racing would follow in the next year, continuing the franchise into the new millennium, it was clear that Crash Bandicoot: Warped was a fitting climax to this oddity of a trilogy that stood tall on PlayStation for two whole years prior.
To this day, with the franchise at a standstill since 2010, this multi-generational gap has mixed feelings over the bandicoot’s place in gaming. Some say it failed as a mascot for PlayStation. Others say Activision stole it and let it rot next to what little goodwill its partner Spyro had since Skylanders. Many who grew up with other series merely dismiss it as yet another wannabe mascot character.
But the truth is a little more complex, and involved industry politics, naive practices, and tons of iterations. So today, let’s travel back to that moment in time to analyze what happened, and even go beyond to see where our dear marsupial went.
NOTE: This is going to focus more on the development of the games than the games themselves. Notes about gameplay and story are simplified to serve the points.
Crash Bandicoot was developed with the goals of 3D platforming and a mascot character in mind, but let’s focus on the people. It was primarily conceived years earlier by a trio of people fresh to the world, but experienced in the industry.
Mark Cerny, today known as the guy behind the PS4’s hardware, had a decade of experience behind him, led from the success of Marble Madness at age 18, and culminating with Sonic the Hedgehog 2. But his troubles with corporate culture clash in the latter’s development, including troubles with running the Sega Technical Institute afterwards, would all but foreshadow things to come.
The other two links in the chain were the co-founders of Naughty Dog, Andy Gavin and Jason Rubin, who partnered in 1985 at the age of 15 and made a few modestly successful games by themselves. Thanks to some assistance by EA and 3DO founder Trip Hawkins, they came out strong in the early ‘90s with Rings of Power for the Genesis and Way of the Warrior for the 3DO.
The latter, however, nearly put them into bankruptcy and came without a publisher. They had to vouch for space at 3DO’s booth at the Consumer Electronics Show that year, and the fact that they had no publisher meant that they were immediately the subject of bidding at that show.
The Backlot Tour
A year prior in 1993, Jurassic Park came out. It was a juggernaut hit, and gave Universal Studios the confidence to expand its reaches. A marketing campaign costing $65 million (irony) originally included video games developed by the licensed Sega and Ocean Software.
This was during a period of financial instability for Universal, whose parent company MCA was bought by Matsushita Electric (now Panasonic) in 1990. So to gain profits, Universal quietly founded a video game studio of its own and made Jurassic Park Interactive. It wasn’t much of a change from the mixed reviews of the other games, and it was delayed from October ‘93 to December ‘94, but it paved a new philosophy for the studio, to bring in talent to make games for them.
One such talent was Naughty Dog, who chose Universal to publish their game in return for a three-game “housekeeping” deal. This meant moving to the Universal lot in California, allegedly in the same building as Spielberg’s Amblin offices. They also shared it with the upstart Insomniac Games, who were making Disruptor at the time.
Cerny, who was appointed VP of Universal Interactive, was the lead face between the two studios, and was the most supportive executive in the company. But that would prove to be damning with faint praise for the rest of Universal, who fought for more profits late in development. MCA was sold again to Seagram in 1995, halfway through the development of Crash Bandicoot, and the unpredictability of Hollywood meant that they had to be conservative in their dealings.
This led to several clashes between Universal and Naughty Dog over different aspects of the game. Early on, this included how Crash should be named (with alliterations of Wombat and Ottsel suggested by Universal) and whether or not Naughty Dog should be even credited or included in the promotion.
It got so bad that Naughty Dog announced ahead of time that they’d be vacating the lot after the third game, Warped, was finished. Universal, in return, stripped them of whatever they could during the 10½ months they gave them to finish.
But even with all the fights that Universal put up, they had very little involvement in the actual development by the end. All the same vital talent, including concept artist Charles Zembillas, composer Josh Mancell, and the trio of sound designers at Universal Sound Studios, stuck around without needing to be sought out again. Sony handled all of the marketing and distribution, and Mark Cerny resigned his position at Universal to become an independent consultant for the same teams.
Passing the Hot Torch
So by the time Warped was released, Universal had a juggernaut of a franchise that they could ride without Naughty Dog, but Gavin and Rubin were reluctant to release Crash Team Racing as a Crash game without having Sony be the mediator in licensing.
In the meantime, Universal looked straight to the future. A new generation of consoles was just over the horizon, and they sought to get right on it. So they partnered with Konami to get Crash to multiple consoles and territories, breaking the bandicoot’s exclusivity with PlayStation.
But before the partnership was announced, they were pitched an idea by Traveller’s Tales, a British developer fresh off making licensed games with Disney/Pixar. They envisioned a free-roaming game led once again by Cerny, something that could bring life back into the franchise. But Cerny had moved on with his pet studio to Sony, and they had to rework it into what was considered a “standard Crash game”, a continuation of Warped for next-gen called The Wrath of Cortex.
In the 12 months given to Traveller’s Tales, about the only real changes made were the thrown-in idea of “elementals” to give the game a gimmick, and a Knuckles-expy named Crunch to use in future games. Reviewers could tell, and the overall response was modest at best.
As The Wrath of Cortex was released, Universal was sold to French conglomerate Vivendi, and the publisher became Vivendi Universal. The new management thought that, despite the mediocre reception, Crash could make it further.
They released a couple Game Boy Advance titles, and turned over what became Crash Nitro Kart to Vicarious Visions. The new Oxford studio of Traveller’s Tales, instead, came back to the original open-world idea. It went through a couple iterations, but the result was Crash Twinsanity, an action-adventure game that completely changed the focus of the series. Multiple characters from past games were revived, along with new characters like goth girl Nina Cortex, and the free-roaming gameplay evoked staples of the genre already tackled even by licensed games.
Twinsanity was better received, but some reviewers noted that it wouldn’t help Crash return to its heyday. What remained of Vivendi was merged with Activision in 2008, and ownership of Crash moved accordingly. Across the merge, the subsidiary Sierra Entertainment handled the proper rights until being dissolved the same year, and Activision became the owners from then on.
What followed was an even bigger change in the formula known as Crash of the Titans, developed by Radical Entertainment. It boiled down the characters into archetypes and focused the gameplay around the gimmicky mechanic of controlling Titans. It was further expanded in Mind over Mutant, which included cutscenes in different art styles, but it couldn’t escape the new downward direction, and Radical ended up laying off much of its staff soon after.
After Mind over Mutant, a few projects were attempted. High Impact Games (allegedly founded by former Naughty Dog and Insomniac employees) tried a remake of Crash Team Racing that died on the drawing board. A demo for a Crash game on Nintendo DS was made in two weeks by Renegade Kid and rejected by Activision. Radical and Vicarious Visions each pitched ideas that were shot down.
But that hasn’t stopped rumors and hopes from circulating. Gavin and Rubin themselves said they’d be hopeful to see a Crash revival of some sort. Sony and Activision have each expressed interest, but haven’t given any plans.
Thus far, the only signs of a concrete new game are from a CryEngine fan mod called Crash Bandicoot Returns, which was left to rot after 2013.
And that’s where you come in. What do you think? Should Crash come back? How would it work? Were these actions fair or not?