Facedown in the sand, a figure wakes up on a desert island.
The tide has been dragging him up the shore.
He looks over his shoulder, before disappearing into the jungle.
Three years ago, Sony ended its E3 press conference with a surprise teaser for Naughty Dog's Uncharted 4: A Thief's End. Observant fans, however, saw it as an homage to one of the studio's most iconic introductions: the opening level of Crash Bandicoot.
It was there, on "N. Sanity Beach," that the world met Crash some 20 years ago. It was there that we were treated to Crash's sense of humor, and introduced to lush environments that had previously been unseen on a console. Palm trees leaned into a canopy, beckoning Crash forward; waves slowly pulsed from the bottom of the screen, washing over golden sand where an ancient vessel stood half-buried.
The attention to detail evident in the intro is now synonymous with a Naughty Dog production. In a single composition, Crash Bandicoot built a relationship with its players while communicating its fundamental gameplay hook: perspective.
For the past two years, Vicarious Visions has been learning to hold itself to the same standard. The studio has just completed Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy, a full remaster of the original three games. Throughout development, the team oscillated between waves of inspiration and the ghosts of platformer past. It quickly became apparent that, along with the remaster contract, it had inherited a legacy -- and a passionate fanbase.
In trying to understand what Naughty Dog was going for, and how it achieved so much with so little back in 1996, the team found itself constantly referencing a wealth of original concept art, audio files, level geometry and the legacy games themselves.
With two decades' worth of advancements at its disposal, a simple touch-up didn't excite the team. "We felt the standard remaster approach, of moving geometry over and raising the resolution of textures, would not be the right course for such an iconic character," said Dustin King, the game's lead artist.
"We're fans. We've spent a significant amount of time -- the previous six months before joining the Crash project -- working on the franchise, working on what makes Crash Crash," said lead level designer Leo Zuniga. "When we joined [this] team, we had plenty of lessons learned but were still thinking, 'How are we going to emulate [the originals] and do Naughty Dog justice?'"
"That's huge pressure."
When remastering three games simultaneously, choosing where to start is a tough decision. Crafting any single element of Crash Bandicoot would be a challenge, whether translating Crash's design, fine-tuning the weight in his jump or nailing his crate-destroying spin. So which did they choose? In a way, it was all of the above. It was "N. Sanity Beach."
"N. Sanity Beach was the benchmark of just ... everything," said Zuniga.
The reconstruction of N. Sanity Beach became an obsession. It's the "World 1-1," the "Green Hill Zone," of Crash Bandicoot. To stick that landing, and thus receive Sony's blessing in return, was an essential milestone. "At some point, we had to do a vertical slice of N. Sanity Beach: audio tracks, sound effects, animation, lighting, the art in our levels. It allowed us to test out the workflow, test out the systems and schedule out the project."
A few boxes; a red crab; a pit; another crab; another pit; more boxes; and then, suddenly, vertical movement.
Rhythm is established early in Crash Bandicoot, and it's easy to take each basic element for granted until you have to re-create them all. Early on in the project, the team had many prototypes but were conscious of the careful balancing act when dealing with such a nostalgia-driven project.
It's said that memory relies on recognizable shapes. Video games, which require players to interpret a lot of information quickly, have their own tricks to take advantage of that. Valve, for instance, is well known among designers for how it used color, silhouettes and lighting to its advantage when building Team Fortress 2. King recognizes this as well. "We didn't want to lose important silhouettes in the trilogy that had been established by the original games," said King. "We know that many people will consciously or subconsciously remember things of this nature."
"Embellishment." Nearly everyone on the team used this word as it became key to their vision, especially when addressing the idiosyncrasies of the trilogy. The conclusion of "N. Sanity Beach" is one that every level in the original Crash Bandicoot shares: If you hit every box, a gleeful Crash is awarded a gem. Miss any, however, and they barrel down on him between levels.
"We played around with how Crash reacts to [the boxes], gradually getting more and more knocked out. Sony loved it."
"I've run N. Sanity Beach I don't know how many times -- just in testing the game -- so [I kept getting] to the end of the level," said animation and gameplay lead Curtis Orr. "One of the things that we first tried to add was the boxes hitting his head. At some point, there's so many boxes. It just took forever!"
Faced with a frustratingly repetitive sequence, Orr experimented with ways to make it more interesting. "We played around with how Crash reacts to [the boxes], gradually getting more and more knocked out. Sony loved it. That allowed us to realize that we had a little bit of freedom and flexibility to improve upon the game, without it drastically not feeling like Crash."
The crate shower is an elaborate way to present progress on a collectible, yet, for all the work that went into it, it appears only after the original Crash Bandicoot levels.
"[Working on] N. Sanity Beach meant a lot to me -- Toad Village, the first levels of each game. So many memories and nostalgia," said character artist Cory Turner. "Those were what I remember so much as a kid, every time I went to Toys 'R' Us and saw the demo of the game running."
The individual and collective passion that went into these kinds of details was infectious, and excited the rest of the team for the long haul. "I actually came in later to the project. When I saw N. Sanity Beach, it was eye-opening," said Zuniga. "It was like, 'Vicarious Visions is really serious about this project. We're not going to phone it in -- this is amazing.'"
Orr recalled a question the team had asked itself a lot: "What is Crash's core expression?" Before work could begin on Crash's detailed animations, the team had to land on a character design that would better unify the trilogy visually. "Off the bat, some of our concerns were: 'Which iteration of [Crash] did we want to home in on?'" responded Turner. "He's changed in look over the years. We knew there were concerns about what Crash should look like -- there's a lot of passion around that topic."
Turner is being kind. When it comes to which iteration to build from, there's no contest. The second you complete the old Crash Bandicoot and boot up its sequel, Cortex Strikes Back, it's immediately evident how much Crash's character model was improved. He looks sharper, his gestures and freedom of movement feel snappier. Understandably, this became the "archetype" for their iteration. "From there it was an issue of building out the character," said Turner. "How angular and polygonal does he need to be? How much roundness do we bring in? Where do we want to try and match something, like, say, a feature film character?"
"There's a lot of room for interpretation in those old graphics, being that there's so few polygons."
It's this back-and-forth that became another recurring theme: What does "newer" look like? "There's a lot of room for interpretation in those old graphics, being that there's so few polygons," Turner continued. "People can take away a lot of different things from their own play experience."
Play through the original Crash and you'll notice recurring themes: death and missed boxes. To help soften the blow and play up their dark humor, the legacy games featured a plethora of ways for Crash to react to any run-ending mistakes. Inspired by the antics and body horror of Looney Tunes, Crash was originally designed to cooperate with any amount of stretching and squashing Naughty Dog could put him through.
To create such an expressive character, Naughty Dog directly manipulated the vertices (corners) of Crash's polygons. Emulating this technique with today's best practices in mind became key -- no matter how extreme each geometry-melting pose could get, Crash still needed to look good. "Building that kind of character now, with modern techniques, vs. the way [Naughty Dog animated him], is actually a very tricky proposition," said Turner.
The remaining threads to Crash's more dramatic side are in his repetition and his subtleties. "We spent a lot of time doing his basic move sets -- and his move sets are ridiculous," said Orr on animating Crash. "He's by far the most elaborate character that I've ever animated." "Crash's handling is so integral to the experience," said Nicholas Ruepp, executive producer. It's not just how jump looks, but the distance it rockets Crash in any direction, or the momentum he builds while running. "There's such a difference from the original to the new one," stylistically speaking, acknowledged Orr. "We tried our best to nail simple things, like how he looks when he's running, his basic expression or when he's standing there idle. We agonized over that kind of stuff."
Meanwhile, scanning the Crash Bandicoot subreddit became a pastime for Vicarious Visions.
There's a common saying among creatives: "You can't fool your peers." For Vicarious Visions, its peers include the fans who make split-second assessments of the studio's work. Some fans -- ranging from newcomers to hardcore -- were even invited to provide feedback on builds of the game. Meanwhile, scanning the Crash Bandicoot subreddit became a pastime for Vicarious Visions. A range of moods are exhibited from post to post, such as "This 'you're just nitpicking' shit needs to stop," "The originals will still exist, you know" and a personal favorite, "THE LIZARDS HAVE IMPROVED."
While perhaps not always aspiring to the poetry of Reddit, creative direction always returned in-house and aimed high. "There might have been some initial eggshells," said Orr. "'Do they want us to just re-create it, or to be artists and make a better version?'" In the end, the team settled on what it hopes will be the best of both worlds.
The newest addition to the remaster is the inclusion of Coco, Crash's sister, as an alternate playable character throughout the entire trilogy. Previously, she was reserved for only certain levels in Warped. "Once we were like 'Hey, let's add Coco as a playable character,'" said Orr, "while still being a huge task ... it was a matter of reanimating it and keeping within her character." "There was room there to invent a little more personality, [too]" added Turner. "We still needed her to play exactly like Crash does," noted Orr. "You should be able to do a timed-run sequence [with] either character. It was still a lot of work, but that was fun. She turned out great."
"That was definitely a tricky question: 'What can we change? Where is the wiggle room?'" pondered Zuniga, returning to what still seemed to be on everyone's mind. "Every discipline had to go through this. Thankfully, we had a ramp of evolution: Crash 1 vs. Crash 2 -- there's a huge difference there. And then [with] Crash 3, again, a big leap. We always had to catch ourselves."
If the original games were changing so often anyway, the team felt it could embrace that as part of its legacy as well. Zuniga boiled the team's approach down to two sentiments: "There is no sacred cow" and "What would Naughty Dog do?"
Naughty Dog's most significant gift to the team at Vicarious Visions was the original level geometry it had on file. This answered a lot of questions, especially in terms of scale and the spacing between obstacles. But none of the source material was ultimately usable. "In the original levels, excessive geometry had been deleted on a per-object basis if it could not be seen by the camera," said King. If Vicarious Visions wanted to leverage modern graphical techniques as much as possible, it would need to re-create the environments from the ground up, referencing the old geometry as guidance -- with some exceptions.
"We've mentioned a lot about the digital archaeology of this project. But what happens if you don't find a level? That happened about five times," said Zuniga. "There were five levels that we could not find. We had to develop a whole new workflow so we could make those levels just as well as the rest. Hopefully no one will notice!"
"There were five levels that we could not find. We had to develop a whole new workflow so we could make those levels just as well as the rest."
If anything highlights the staggering evolution of video games, it's environmental art.
"The original textures ... fell in the 16 x 16– or 32 x 32–pixel range. This was about to take a massive leap to 1,024 x 1,024 or 2,048 x 2,048," said King. While it used to be common to repeat a single texture across an object or surface, the Crash team used "up to 11 textures for a single surface, depending on its complexity."
Another qualitative enhancement was the way they filled out the more theatrical scale of every frame. "Our draw distance is about ten times farther out, with ten times more elements on a single frame," added Zuniga. The original games made aesthetic decisions based on gameplay needs -- it's why Crash has gloves (to create contrast when his arms swing alongside him), or why there are no lava levels (orange on orange).
Even with the non-interactive details, embellishing them required similar justification. In order not to visually overwhelm the player, Zuniga said the team had to consider "what [are these additions] representing? We [also] have to keep it interesting -- it can't just be green leaves everywhere. You have the birds and the ambience and all that stuff now." This atmospheric diversity ranges from levels like "Orient Express," with its more sweeping mountainscapes, to the realistic rainfall of "Turtle Woods."
Perhaps the biggest visual change in the game comes in the form of dynamic lighting -- a source of early consternation among fans. "We would see some of the feedback from the early demos, and people would already ask, 'Are you going to fix the lighting? Are you going to fix the shadows?' All of that stuff was definitely in our minds," said Zuniga. Fans were nitpicking: "'This orange -- are the crates going to be this orange?' 'Are the cracks going to be the proper crack width?' And we're like 'Oh, just you wait.'"
While the original games faked lighting by essentially coloring in textures, the team's Alchemy engine allows it to set and adjust the time of day, the color of the sun and how it casts down onto a level's environment. This is common for modern games, but it's incredibly new for the legacy Crash games. Leaves, water and stone can now determine whether or not light passes through them, as cave-dwelling fungi and fireflies become their own sources of it. "The jungle feels like a jungle," said Ruepp.
If there is to be any subconscious connective tissue for returning fans, chances are they'll find it in the soundtrack. One can imagine how, in some cases, the exact same sound effects from the late-'90s versions of Crash would have a powerful effect in the remaster.
"We had access to all of the original sound effects, and many of them were used untouched," revealed Justin Joyner, the N. Sane Trilogy's audio lead. Some, however, were unusable due to the lower quality. In these cases, the team either rebuilt them or "used the original as a base while adding other elements."
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In an interview last year, Josh Mancell, the game's original composer, discussed the memory constraints of the PlayStation and how it prohibited him from using any sustained notes or chords in the soundtrack. With that limitation removed, Joyner decided to "expand the sound of the music," describing his goal as "to be faithful to the original compositions, yet update the tracks with higher-fidelity instruments."
Certain sounds, however, proved too hard to replicate, so they were implemented as is. "If you listen closely to the music throughout the game, you will hear [them]," said Joyner. These include the vocal chants in "The Great Gate" and the sound effects in "Heavy Machinery."
High-quality sample libraries were also joined by live instruments, including keyboards and guitar, which further pushed the soundtrack toward its jungle surf-rock vibe. "Our starting point for the music was using the original MIDI files, which allowed us to remain faithful to the songs, as well as get creative with the instruments we used. We consistently compared our tracks to the originals," said Joyner.
"There are a lot of things that we just do better as an industry now, and the franchise needs to benefit from it."
Just as the audio team interpreted the original music as a framework for its embellishments, so too did the level designers. "Some of the hazards in Crash 1 are pretty brutal," said Zuniga. "Spikes are just gonna come out, no matter where you are -- and you have no idea!" This is exactly the sort of thing game design aims to avoid, so the team worked on how to present and clearly communicate the game's many challenges. Infusing the trilogy's art with this philosophy introduced it to more modern sensibilities, said Zuniga. "There are a lot of things that we just do better as an industry [now], and the franchise needs to [benefit] from it."
Every level had its own fork in the road. The third game's jet-ski sequences, for example, featured waves built from simple polygons. With the move to a modern engine, the team had the option of building physics-based waves with accurate buoyancy. Introducing realistic physics, however, would change how the levels felt to play.
"Should we try and mimic the activity of the waves from the legacy games?" asked Zuniga. Or "leverage our technology and emulate the pacing and layouts of the old levels?" While the team had its own opinions, it also reached out to "old-school fans" for feedback. Ultimately, it was decided that the latter option -- new tech, old layouts and pacing -- would give the best gameplay experience. "Think about the player" was a phrase commonly echoed among the team.
Platforming around booby traps, Crash's bread-and-butter, was eventually subjected to inspection too. "For example, when a hazard wouldn't have a 'tell' -- a little warning sign that something is about to happen," said Zuniga, "can we add one, because the testers are not getting through all of a sudden? We would go back and forth, and Curtis [Orr] would say, 'You know what, that's totally worth it. Maybe Naughty Dog couldn't afford the extra polygons or the animation data, but it's going to make the game better, right?'"
"It was [about] understanding the intention of what was there," Zuniga added. "At its core, it's a platforming game. We have to keep that true."
In one of Uncharted 4's most memorable scenes, you -- as Nathan Drake -- sit down on the couch to play the iconic "Boulders" level from the original Crash. Later, players find themselves revisiting this as a young girl, to whom the game was handed down. It's easy to imagine similar scenes out in the real world as parents who once fell in love with Crash hand the controller to their children.
Vicarious Visions' reverence and love for Crash's legacy has built an encapsulation of its roots. It's impossible to separate the N. Sane Trilogy from its history, of course, but the team has nonetheless created something that in many ways feels new.
Reviews have been largely positive, with the major sticking point being the unforgiving "retro gameplay," but to the team, perhaps the most important assessment came during the game's development. "Sony periodically gave Naughty Dog a look at it," said Ruepp. "The feedback we got was great -- 'Looking good!' 'Two thumbs up!' It was nice to get the vote of confidence from them."
Having earned the approval of reviewers, Sony, Activision and Naughty Dog, the only opinion that matters now is that of the series' rabid fanbase. It's been 21 years since Crash first captivated players with his style and energy, creating memories between brothers, mothers and daughters; siblings, lovers and friends. If Crash can reach them -- and a second generation of gamers -- maybe, under Vicarious Visions' stewardship, he can head to new islands and adventures.