Today sees the 20th anniversary of Crash Bandicoot – the colourful 90s video game character who debuted on the original Sony PlayStation
The plucky orange marsupial became the centrepiece of 18 games, and shifted over 50 million copies worldwide following his debut in 1996.
Back then, Sony were keen to introduce the character as the PlayStation’s mascot, with advertising and promotional imagery adorned with his grinning face.
Crash Bandicoot was initially intended to rival the pulling power of Nintendo’s Mario and Sega’s Sonic The Hedgehog, already household names by the PlayStation’s 1995 worldwide debut.
Here, we delve into the story of the plucky ‘third man’ in the video game mascot race.
In the beginning…
Naughty Dog – now best-known for action-adventure games such as Uncharted and The Last Of Us – were the developers behind the Crash Bandicoot series.
Sony were keen to have their own platforming pin-up to go toe-to-toe with market leaders Nintendo and Sega, and Naughty Dog were only too happy to oblige.
As well as Mario and Sonic themselves, the team found inspiration in popular cartoon character Taz the Tasmanian devil, leaning towards an animal that was “cute, real, and no one really knew about” as a base idea, and the Australian influence in particular stuck.
Crash’s creators Andy Gavin and Jason Rubin settled on a wombat named Willie in the first instance, a temporary moniker put in place until something less “dorky” came along.
By October of 1994, the first game was well into development, and while Willie had by this point morphed into a bandicoot, his temporary title still stuck.
It was not until the team were preparing to showcase the game at the Electronic Entertainment Expo that the final name was settled upon.
After a brief insistence from publishers Universal Interactive Studios that the character be named “Wuzzle the Wombat” or “Ozzie the Otzel”, ‘Crash’ was ultimately chosen because of the finished game’s reliance on the destruction of boxes.
“Finally we arrive at E3, and the debut of the N64 and Mario 64. Gulp.” – Andy Gavin, Making Crash Bandicoot
Super Mario 64 and Crash Bandicoot couldn’t really have gone more head to head if they had tried. Debuting at the same E3 event, Mario garnered the most excitement – being an established name and also landing alongside Nintendo’s shiny new console, the N64.
Crash had a lot to prove.
“Sony and Nintendo found themselves head to head. This literally put Crash and Mario into the ring together. In fact, this was depicted on the cover of at least one game magazine (along with Sonic who declined to enter the ring).” – Andy Gavin, Making Crash Bandicoot
Both games were working within the then-unproven 3D platformer genre, but took slightly different paths.
Super Mario 64 opted for a more open, exploratory style of gameplay, while Crash went for the much more linear design that would become a mainstay of the series’ early instalments, revolving around traditional side-scrolling, as well as fast-paced ‘into the screen’ and ‘away from the screen’ levels.
Success – to a point
Players enjoyed guiding Crash across a range of colourful yet fiendishly challenging levels, avoiding obstacles, jumping on enemy heads, and contending with dastardly bosses – including a gangster Potoroo with a Tommy Gun.
It was the Mario formula with a wicked, sassy twist and an extra layer of difficulty.
Sounds simple enough, but it led the Crash Bandicoot games to sell around 40 million copies during their original PlayStation run between 1996 and 2000.
However, Crash could never really compete with the established name of Mario, and though he continued to sell, Sony gradually shifted their attentions to another gaming mascot.
Lara Croft, the hero of Tomb Raider, had become the face of a console looking to define and distinguish itself for more ‘mature’ gamers, as the PlayStation thrived on a booming market of older teens, students and twenty and thirty-something players.
By the time the new millennium came, Universal Interactive Studios and publisher Konami had entered an agreement that enabled the latter to publish Crash Bandicoot games, effectively breaking the franchise’s exclusivity to the PlayStation – and the decline began in earnest.
Where is Crash now?
It has been eight years since we saw a Crash Bandicoot game on consoles, and while the collectible toy title Skylanders Imaginators has resurrected the character somewhat by including him in the game, 2008’s dull Mind Over Mutant is the last proper release to star the once irrepressible upstart.
But why is this? According to Crash’s co-creator Andy Gavin, shifting trends in video gaming are to blame:
“By the era of PS2 and Xbox [the early 00s]… video game players had grown up. With this, and increased graphics horsepower that made possible more realistic games, came a shift to more mature subjects. The era of GTA, of Modern Warfare and Halo.
“A part of me misses the simple, but highly crafted comic fun Crash represented.” – Andy Gavin, Making Crash Bandicoot
Could we see him again?
It is unlikely that Crash could make a return to the sort of popularity he enjoyed in the ’90s, but a comeback of sorts is still planned.
As this year’s E3 event in June, it was announced that a remaster of the first, second, and third titles will be coming to the PlayStation 4 sometime in 2017, though original developers Naughty Dog will not be behind them.
Whether there is still enough pluck in Crash to see a brand new game remains to be seen, but for now, it’s fascinating to remember the gaming mascot who tried to take on Mario.