So I just got done replaying though Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back for the first time since I was a kid and originally played it on an actual PS1. I bought a digital copy for a friend of mine so he could see what old school Crash was like. He of course knows Naughty Dog for their more contemporary games such as Uncharted and The Last of Us. I on the other hand have been playing Naughty Dog games since Crash Bandicoot 1. I might have started playing games when I was 4 with a Sega Genesis and an NES, but once Playstation came along, I was (and still am) a Playstation guy.
What I was interested in seeing, in addition to just revisiting one of my favorite games from the past, was how the game holds up all these years later. And I can say with certainty that that game definitely holds up.
When I was buying the game, I had trouble deciding between Crash 2 and Crash 3, because both are just such incredible games, and each had it’s strengths and weaknesses, but there was something about Crash 2’s aesthetic and atmosphere that made me decide to go with Crash 2. Particularly the early levels like the surfboard and sewer format levels just had such a cool feel to me. Between the music and the colors and just the flow of the gameplay, I just really enjoyed the feel of Crash 2.
And thats something that really stood out to me during this playthrough. I was probably in elementary school last time I played Crash Bandicoot, so I really didn’t have any of the knowledge about game design then that I have now. As I went back through the game, all of these elements that appeal to me as a game designer really stood out, and I even began to notice things that hadn’t changed much even in today’s Naughty Dog games. Chief among them being their killer pacing.
A common thread between all of Naughty Dog’s games is a sense of rhythm and pacing. The game play flows with a sort of rhythm and timing. Nothing changes too abruptly, but nothing gets the chance to become boring. Any good game has this quality, but Naughty Dog in my opinion have mastered this trait in their games. You are never doing a certain type of gameplay for too long, things are always changing. And yet, theres never a feeling of any segment feeling too short, but they still always leave you wanting more.
In essence, they are masters at mixing things up at regular intervals, and with perfect timing. Whether it be something as subtle as changing the direction you are moving relative to the camera, or a totally different style of gameplay altogether, things are always staying fresh. And it’s all done in a rhythm that just flows perfectly.
And they use these tricks in clever ways that also help keep things running smoothly from a technical perspective. I suspect that the reason the path weaves so often in Crash (besides the fact that it looks great) is because they are hiding the fact that parts of the level are popping in just out of view so that the game runs at a consistent frame rate while still looking really good. They are still doing something akin to this trick to this day.
In The Last of Us, you may notice that other than the loading screen when you initially start the game, there are no loading screens. You may also notice that from time to time, a character will close a door, or you will drop down into an area you can’t climb back out of, or something along those lines. I suspect that this is being done to cover the fact that the game is doing what is called additive scene loading. This is a process where a game loads a new scene into memory while the current one is still loaded. It effectively blends two scenes together without the player being able to notice. But with the way the game is paced, it doesn’t even really register with the player, because they are too immersed in the story and gameplay to even really give it a thought.
Another thing I noticed about Crash is that even gameplay wise it held up. Even though I was able to beat this game when I was about 9 years old or so, it was still challenging to me 17 years later. This is truly a testament to the quality of the design of this game. It means the design was good enough that a child could learn the game and master it, and yet still be challenged by it as an adult. Granted, I 100% beat the game in about 9 days as compared to a few weeks when I was a kid, but part of this is due to the fact that I remembered a few of the old tricks and secrets from my first playthrough. But the fact that I was able to pick up the game like muscle memory all these years later is just a statement about how much I loved this game as a kid, and the quality of the game itself.
This is in part due to the fact that this game is so amazing at teaching it’s player how to play it with subtlety. They always introduce new mechanics and challenges to the player in a way that allows them to experiment with it safely, like the boost pads and electric fences in the chase format levels, or when a new enemy would come along, it would usually be near a checkpoint, and they would be alone, so you could experiment safely with the strategy for engaging it, then the game would throw you right into gameplay that required you to deal with this new element. I like to think about it like a spelling bee. They say the word, then use it in a sentence before asking you to spell it.
It gives you time to gradually adjust to this style of gameplay, so the player never feel too overwhelmed by a challenge. And due to the quick turn around when losing a life (ie no long splash screens, restarting the level or anything excessive like that), trial and error isn’t long and painful. The game even has mechanics in place to help players that are struggling, such as giving the player extra hit points after a certain amount of tries, or spawning more frequent checkpoints throughout the level to help the player progress without holding their hand.
Combine that with the fact that the game’s challenges never feel cheap, and always feel fair, and this keeps the game playable to someone of any age. You never feel like the game is cheating, and at the same time you don’t feel like you are cheating when the game gives you a hand. Everything just feels fair.
On the other hand with The Last of Us, while the game does get a little hand hold-ie from time to time with it’s tutorials in the beginning, the same pattern of teaching can be seen through the layout of some of the challenges. While they aren’t obviously laid out as separate “levels” the same way as they are in Crash, each challenge you face is separate and discreet from the previous and the next. So you’ll never really have to bust out your gun and start shooting while you are handing a puzzle like one of the swimming challenges to get Ellie somewhere. Each challenge is separated from the next into a nice, evenly paced flow, just like Crash.
The fact that the principals that made their old games great are still being carried on in their new games is impressive to me. Not many companies can say they have kept such a level of consistency for so many years. I’ve really enjoyed going back and playing this game, and I’m very happy to see that this game still holds up rock solid all these years later. If you ever need an advanced course on the concepts of discreet challenges and pacing, just pick up a Naughty Dog game. When I have the money, I might go pick up Crash 3 as well.