Original Crash Bandicoot developer Naughty Dog has moved from the world of anthropomorphic marsupials to globe-trotting treasure hunts and post-apocalyptic tales of revenge, but the platforming mascot has nonetheless remained beloved by fans almost 25 years after his debut in 1996. And even with a number of less-than-stellar releases since, his original trilogy remains a benchmark for 3D platforming. So much so that a proper, numbered sequel is set to be released this year with Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time.
With the Bandicoot’s recent resurgence thanks to 2017’s Crash Bandicoot: N. Sane Trilogy, last year’s Crash Team Racing: Nitro-Fueled, and this year’s sequel, IGN spoke with Crash co-creator Jason Rubin about the character’s earliest days, as well as Crash Bandicoot 4 Art Director Josh Nadelberg to discuss honoring the past and forging a new path for the character.
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The Third Dimension
While Crash’s debut wouldn’t mark the first major platformer mascot to enter 3D space — Super Mario 64 had of course wowed the world earlier in 1996 — but Rubin explained how, in designing the character, giving his personality a third-dimension was key to the team’s philosophy, something that was lacking from mascots in the past.
“We talked about ‘Three-Dimensional Characters,’ the fact that Mario was one dimensional… You really didn’t know how he would act if you met him in person, any more than Pac-Man or the other earlier characters,” Rubin explained. “Sonic was two-dimensional. He was Sonic, which is to say he was blue and had spikes, but he was also fast. Fast was his second dimension. You could picture meeting Sonic as meeting a blue character with spikes and he would be fast. You certainly didn’t think he would talk slow, or eat slow, but there the second dimension ended. How would Sonic act if it rained, or if you told him he couldn’t have ice cream? Who knows.
“Crash had emotions. The game started with him making various faces and acting out his thoughts.”
And as noted by Rubin’s example of Crash’s expressiveness, getting the character’s face right was a big component of actually designing his iconic look — and part of that look was born from design limitations back in the days of the PS One.
“…He had to have a really big face,” Rubin continued. “The screen was so low resolution, that a pupil had to be big. If it was small it might or might not draw. There was no anti-aliasing [the process of smoothing jagged textures] so that meant it popped in and out. So a pupil had to be 2 or so pixels tall so it always drew. And that meant a big eye. Which meant a big head. And he had to emote, which meant an expressive face and mouth. By the time you add all the pixels up the character is too tall. So we solved that by shoving his head into his body Tasmanian Devil style. We didn’t set out to do that, but it resulted. We wanted to reduce textures, because textures drew slowly, so he had to be blocks of color. But you always looked at his back so we blew some textures on spots. And shoelaces. No polygon budget for shoelaces.
“All of this data was fed to [Crash Bandicoot artists] Joe Pearson and Charles Zembillas, who have incredible style and talent. They solved it.
Intriguingly, all these years later, Nadelberg described how one of the most difficult aspects of re-designing Crash in 2020 into something fresh yet familiar, was the character’s neck, or lack thereof.
“Obviously, the triangular shape of Crash is so iconic. Looking at him, you see these big ears, you see the slim, slender waist,” he said. “One of the defining characteristics of Crash is that he doesn’t really have a neck. His mouth is like… we called it his mouth, neck, chin because it’s all connected. And getting that right and finding out a way for us to build that so that it could be flexible, animated well, have him be able to twist his body and still keep his mouth open, even though it’s stretching down into his chest, is really challenging.”
The World According to Crash
While Crash’s initial adventure was bright and fun, it was largely devoid of story depth and character. However, Rubin explained that the team had planned plenty more that never made the cut.
“We had planned on shipping a mix of story and game that might be best described as a Crash Bandicoot meets Uncharted,” Rubin said. “Every character had a backstory, there was morality to the game, there was an environmental lesson in the story, and we were going to add commentary on current events. We failed to deliver any of it, but bits and pieces became the characters that we shipped.”
One of those characters was Neo Cortex, one of the most fully realized in the original Crash, who returns as a villain in It’s About Time.
“Cortex just happened. In his case I think we had a name first — villains are easier to name. He was born a genius into a family of clowns,” Rubin said of Cortex’s backstory. “His parents wanted him to be a clown, he wanted to do bigger things. They forced him to perform. He sucked. The audience laughed. He decided to get revenge on the world.”
Charles and Joe did an amazing job on his design. The impossibly large head on an impossibly small neck.”
And while Cortex came naturally from the jump, Aku Aku, Crash’s mask of protection, was created as a solution to balancing the gameplay’s difficulty.
“Aku Aku was a late addition. We needed to balance the game and Mark Cerny came up with the idea of giving you a ‘shield.’ But the game was well into production and we had no polygons to spare, let alone a translucent (expensive!) shield. We created Aku Aku as a low-poly solution and wove him into the game,” Rubin said.
Many of the elements Crash fans know and love today, both large and small, stem from the challenges thrown at Naughty Dog’s way, from game balance to animation to even naming the eponymous marsupial.
“Mark Cerny wrote a unique compression algorithm for Crash’s vertexes, which were stored instead of bones in order to lower compute,” said Rubin. “Once that optimization happened, I was animating Crash on a vertex by vertex basis, rather than through bones. And since characters back then had few bones, few joints, and few polygons to bend, this method made a world of difference in the quality of animation we could do.”
It’s well documented that the broad notion of Crash as a “Tasmanian mammal” meant the team weren’t entirely sure what to call him, which famously led to him at one point being known as Willie the Wombat. As Rubin tells it, it was also in part due to confusion about who had the right to give him his moniker.
“Part of [the troubles we faced] is the inherent difficulty in naming characters in a fitting, trademarkable, and unique way…but some of it was the relationship we had with Universal Interactive. It wasn’t clear who had the right to name the character, and the head of Marketing wanted ‘Wuzzles,’ ‘Wezzy,’ and other names that might have attracted three-year-olds. Even Willie was too ‘edgy’ for her. Ultimately, Naughty Dog plus Mark Cerny landed on Crash Bandicoot and refused to move.”
Crash For a New Era
That decision not to move is one of many that ended up creating the enduring character who, all these years later, is starring in a proper, numbered sequel to that original trilogy. Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time t may be spiritually in step with those first three games, but it’s certainly being powered by much more powerful hardware on the PS4 and Xbox One. That power is something developer Toys for Bob is aiming to take advantage of, by building out Crash’s world like never before.
“Everything in our game is intended to be wonky and playful and fun. And there’s a story in every piece of background art,” Nadelberg said. “And every character has little hidden bits and bops like patches on their knees. And there’s just so much storytelling in the art and we wanted to focus on that, stylistically, rather than trying to make the world’s best fur shader or super-realistic reflection of water materials. That was our goal, was to make a cartoon video game.”
With those modern opportunities to imbue more character into these worlds than ever before, Nadelberg mentioned that one of the challenges the team ran into was the potential to make them too extreme.
“One of the things we struggled with concerning the environment design was we felt like we were making the world too chaotic. Crash is this chaotic character and we were like, ‘We want to get that in the world. We want to build this place for him to adventure and explore that has that same energy that he has.’ And it took us a while to pair that back to the point where it wasn’t fighting with the gameplay or taking away from the focus in places. The whole world that we’ve built has this wild and playful quality that is specific very much to Crash’s character.”
Finding that balance to Crash’s design and his world ultimately mirrored Rubin and his team’s endeavors to make Crash a well-rounded character that players could find engaging in a way they may not expect.
“We honed in on a character that I think fans are going to really find more of an attachment to throughout the story and the way that he responds to the craziness that ensues,” he said. “He miraculously survives insane situations through some crazy, innate physicality and fearlessness. I guess he’s afraid a lot of the time but that’s him, Crash is thrust into situations.
“He’s miraculously the hero. And I think that’s what’s really appealing about him to me at this point. We’ve managed to make a character that, you might not want to be Crash in the way that you want to be Spyro, but you’re rooting for Crash and you love him and you want to see them make it through.”
And adding that layer of emotionality to it all is something that’s been core to Crash development teams since the start.
“The whole game had him emoting,” said Rubin. “You could see Crash acting out a Shakespeare play, albeit silently. And he would do it in a Crash way, in character. That was the Third Dimension we wanted to add.”
Jonathon Dornbush is IGN’s Senior News Editor and host of Podcast Beyond! Talk to him on Twitter @jmdornbush.