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.'"