For better or worse, 2020 has been the most eventful year of my life, and the last thing that I expected was to get a new Crash Bandicoot game -- and a good one at that. After 22 years, we finally got a sequel to Naughty Dog’s beloved original trilogy and it comes from none other than Spyro Reignited Trilogy developer Toys for Bob. This is Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time, and it is arguably the best Crash Bandicoot game out there.
From creative new mechanics and playable characters to much-needed gameplay improvements and astounding world design, Crash 4 revitalizes the series by modernizing the formula for a new and old audience. However, Toys for Bob didn’t quite nail the collectables aspect, and the boxes in this game pissed me off to no end.
But make no mistake, if you’re a Crash fan, don’t expect the same classic platforming shenanigans. Toys for Bob will Uka Uka your butt back to Aku Aku more times than you can count, and it'll do it with a smile. Prepare for pain.
Time to kick some Crash
The Crash Bandicoot games aren’t known for their riveting story-telling, but if you must know, Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time is a direct sequel to the third game, Crash Bandicoot: Warped. After Uka Uka and Doctors Neo Cortex and Nefarious Tropy were defeated, they became trapped in the past. The game opens with Uka Uka expending the last of his energy to tear a hole through the fabric of time and space. Neo Cortex and N. Tropy use this opportunity to promptly escape and begin wreaking havoc throughout time once again.
You’ll see classic villains like Doctors N. Gin and Nitrus Brio, but overall, N. Tropy appears to be the main antagonist. Instead of running around and collecting gems or crystals, this arms race is all about Quantum Masks. There are four masks in total and each does something unique that affects how the game is played. There are still gems, relics and more to collect, but unlike the other games, the masks aren’t a real collectible in the levels -- you just obtain them in cutscenes.
Yes, there are actual cutscenes, and even a coherent story, which is pretty cool. The previous games had a few scenes here and there, but It's About Time features a healthy number of cinematics spread throughout the game. Crash is still as goofy as ever, but it’s also hella charming.
Modernizing the Crash formula
When it was announced that Toys for Bob was making a true sequel to the original Crash trilogy, I had my doubts about how different the gameplay could be. It’s difficult to stick to the same formula and somehow create a modern version of it.
The original Crash games were also criticized for being difficult because it was always challenging to tell where you were going to land. Fortunately, the developers addressed that issue. Thanks to some tweaking behind the scenes, the jumping feels smoother and more precise. The one obvious feature I love is the bold yellow circle that clearly indicates where you’re going to land as opposed to a rough shadow.
Some other minor but well-needed improvements over the previous games are: you can finally restart a level and move the camera around with the right thumbstick. As an ode to the original Crash Bandicoot, Toys for Bob also brought back the overworld map, so you can zip from level to level more easily. Additionally, colored gem platforms drop you off exactly where you left instead of placing you ahead of that point and forcing you to double back. And now if you score a platinum relic, you’ll also get the lesser relics added to your collection.
I recently played the entirety of Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy and the one aspect I hate about those games is farming for lives in order to play levels without having to worry about starting over from the beginning. However, in order to get extra lives, you’d need to collect 100 Wumpa fruit, so if you get rid of the life system, the fruit becomes pointless. Toys for Bob fixed both problems.
Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time offers two kinds of gameplay modes: Retro and Modern. The former works exactly like the aforementioned life system, but the Modern mode removes lives completely. Toys for Bob did this effectively by increasing the number of gems you can earn in a level.
Instead of one, there are now a total of six gems that you can earn per level. You get one for collecting 40% of the Wumpa fruit and two others for collecting 60% and 80% in a level. The other three gems are obtained by collecting all of the boxes, finding the hidden gem within the level, and completing the level within 3 lives.
By adding gems for Wumpa fruit as well as one gem for completing the level within a certain number of lives, Toys for Bob have effectively solved the life dilemma in Crash. However, this does pose another issue: the game now feels a bit bloated.
A Crashing amount of collectables
At most, in just one level, you can earn six gems, one of the Flashback Tapes, a time trial relic, a perfect relic (collect all 6 gems in one run without dying) and possibly even a colored gem. Even if you’re a pixel-perfect player, this will require you to complete a level at least twice, since you don’t unlock the time trial until after you beat a level once. Trust me you won’t be pixel-perfect, and if you want all of the collectables, you’re probably going to have to retry the level three or more times. If you want those platinum time trial relics, then your retries will likely be in the double digits. And that’s not even counting N. Verted Mode levels, which are mirrored levels that have the same 6 available gems to collect. There are 228 regular gems and 228 N. Verted gems, adding up to a total of 456 available gems. Who has the time to collect all of those?
Toys for Bob does give you an incentive to collect all six gems in a level: skins. There are 27 unique skins for both Crash and Coco (including the default skin). Some developers might have made the skins purchasable via microtransactions, but Toys for Bob actually utilized them for a game mechanic, which I don’t see very often nowadays. N. Verted gems count toward the unlock, but the requirements jump from six to seven and so on at some point.
My issue with the collectibles isn’t just the amount, but also that collecting boxes is straight-up bull in this game. In just one level, there were 502 boxes to break; why? In previous Crash games, the only thing that stopped me from collecting all of the boxes in a level on the first try were unaccessible paths. I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve missed one or two boxes at the end of a level in this game.
Apart from the ridiculously high number, there are two other reasons why you’ll end up playing a level multiple times just to get these boxes. The first is that the boxes look dull and blend in with the environment (they don’t even sound as good when you break them). In the previous games, the boxes were bolder and stuck out like a sore thumb. The second issue is that the developers carefully hide the boxes, and because Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time has a more versatile level design, they’re easy to miss.
Crash 4 already has hidden gems in every level, why make me suffer? (Ironically, hidden gems have been easier to obtain than all of the boxes in a level.)
Crash & Coco: ReCrashed
Toys for Bob didn’t just revamp the same classic gameplay mechanics, it added so many cool sections and even paid homage to familiar levels in the previous games.
The abilities that you start with are slide, double-jump and infinite spin, some of which you earn in the third Crash game. The slide remains relatively unchanged, but now double-jump can be activated at any point in your jump instead of only at the top. The infinite spin no longer lets you glide and it’s not really a continuous spin, per se. The frames in between spins are just ridiculously short so it may seem that you can spin indefinitely.
One of the newest platforming sections that the developers added to levels is rail grinding. They work similarly to Sonic games where you have to bounce from rail to rail in order to not get crushed while simultaneously trying to keep track of where the boxes are. You also have to bounce above and under the rail. There are also wall-running sections as well as exclamation boxes that cause even more boxes to appear for a limited time.
With the addition of the Quantum Masks, there are four new gameplay mechanics. With Lani-Loli, you can phase platforms and boxes in and out of existence, which forces you to react quickly and work around unique situations to ensure you round up all of those boxes. Then there’s Akano, which turns your spin into dark matter. You can use this to jump and glide higher than before and even break locked boxes. The skill is also used to deflect green magic, which, of course, leads to new enemies that shoot wild magic at you.
The other two masks are Kupuna-Wa and Ika-Ika. The former can slow down time and make it easier to jump between fast-moving platforms and avoid quick enemies. The latter can flip the direction of gravity, which leads to fun yet challenging platforming sections.
The developers also brought back sections like jet-skiing and even crash-cam, parts where you have to run toward the camera while avoiding obstacles.
Toys for Bob didn’t stop with Crash and Coco, either. While the improvements and new gameplay mechanics are fun, what makes Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time so special is the addition of new playable characters.
New characters breathe life into Crash
Crash & Coco are fun to play, but by far my favorite part about this game is getting to finally play as some of the classic heroes and villains: Tawna, Dingodile and Neo Cortex.
While Crash & Coco received tweaks to their original gameplay formula, Tawna gets an entirely different playstyle. Tawna is an all-time badass that can jump kick, wall jump and hook shot her way across the map. Playing as Tawna also brings a new perspective -- it’s the first time I've ever been tall in a Crash game.
Dingodile joins in the fray as his restaurant gets blown to smithereens. He basically has a supercharged vacuum cleaner attached to his back that he uses to suck up boxes, hover in the air, and even collect TNT to toss at enemies and obstacles. Our part dingo, part crocodile, part Australian frenemy can also spin-to-win like Crash & Coco.
Finally, there’s the mopey Doctor Neo Cortex, who uses a raygun to not only attack but also turn enemies into platforms, both bouncy and solid. Cortex can also perform a forward dash, similar to Crash’s slide except that he can also do it while in the air.
My favorite parts of Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time are playing as these new characters, which is why it upsets me that they share levels with Crash & Coco. These characters typically come in to assist both main characters, and when you play the levels with the new characters, it reveals what’s happening behind the scenes of the adventure. However, once that point is reached, you switch back over to Crash or Coco and replay part of a level that you’ve already played. Between having to play levels over again in N. Verted Mode and having to replay them in general because of the gems, it becomes a frustrating gimmick that can quickly exhaust player goodwill.
Flashback Tapes: Kicking your Crash back to 1996
The Flashback Tapes are levels that challenge your will to live. Not really, but they piss me off. These levels take place in 1996 when Neo Cortex was first experimenting on Crash Bandicoot. It forces Crash through a variety of death-defying obstacles revolving around boxes.
First, the only way to obtain one of the Flashback Tapes is to reach their location in certain levels without dying. The mechanic works similarly to the death paths in previous games. The first few flashback tapes are easy to obtain, but when you get to a certain point in the game, you realize that the real challenge in Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time is just trying to get these damn tapes.
The ultimate challenge within the Flashback Tapes is to break all of the boxes without dying. You can technically make it to the end of these levels without doing that, but you only receive a sapphire relic, which is the lowest reward before gold and platinum, respectively. If you earn all platinum flashback relics, you get a Neo Cortex-themed skin for both Coco and Crash.
The levels are tough and enjoyable, as you’ll have to occasionally double back on sections to get all the boxes and, in order to do that, you have to calculate on-the-fly which ones to break now and which to break later.
I love the idea of challenging levels, but I wish it wasn’t all about the boxes. Instead, I wanted these levels to challenge my platforming abilities for survival, similar to Stormy Ascent in the first Crash game, as opposed to my affinity for breaking boxes.
A Crashful new world
We’ll never know what Crash 4 would’ve looked like if Naughty Dog had developed it, but Toys for Bob practically made Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time feel like I was diving into an Uncharted game between the colorful scenery and the bangin’ tunes.
When the new music kicked in on N. Sanity Island, it elicited a nostalgic memory of me sitting on my living floor making my way down N. Sanity Beach for the first time in the original Crash Bandicoot. The beats are rich, poppin’ and vibrant.
Previous Crash games were somewhat stale in their world design. We only really got gorgeous setpieces in Crash Bandicoot: Warped, but Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time continues that trend. Every level in this game pops with detail. They looked like, and sometimes felt like, a movie-length adventure, whereas levels from previous games felt like a bunch of platforming sections lumped together.
My favorite level has to be Off Beat, which takes place during a Día de los Muertos festival. The entire level popped with colors, from the festive red, green and purple lights dangling between buildings to the dazzling blue horn players trying to kill me. During this entire sequence, jazzy tunes were playing in the background, and the whole world reacted to each beat that sounded off. Every enemy attack, movement and light change in the level seemingly corresponded with a beat. It was the first time that I felt like I was in a living, breathing world in a Crash Bandicoot game.
Unfortunately, there’s no online-play in Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time, but there are plenty of cooperative gameplay modes.
The coolest and most useful is called Pass N. Play, which lets 2 to 4 players take turns to complete levels. You can set the pass condition to occur on checkpoints, death or both. Individual scores are tallied at the end of the level, but players can drop in and out at any time.
If you head over to the main menu, you can access the Bandicoot Battle modes, which consist of Checkpoint Races and Crate Combo. The former pits 2 to 4 players against each other in a race to the finish for the fastest time. The latter game mode requires players to earn the highest score by smashing the most boxes in quick succession to earn high combos.
Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time is by no means perfect, and it’s certainly not the best Crash game it could have been, and yet, it’s my favorite in the series. The original Crash games have dated mechanics, so it can be tough to enjoy when you have no idea where the heck you are half of the time. But Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time fixes those limiting issues and adds a bunch of new flavors to the mix.
I cannot recommend Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time enough to those who’ve been interested in Crash games and never tried because of the dated design. And if you already are an avid Crash fan, why are you reading this? You have masks to befriend, gems to collect and boxes to break. Go forth, my young bandicoots.