Levels seamlessly blend Crash’s traditional movement — away from or towards the camera — with side-scrolling sections and more open 3D areas. As ever, the hilariously goofy enemies operate in wrote cycles or animations, requiring timing and a bit of memorisation to get past using your jumps and spins. It’s an unapologetically retro approach, but modernised in subtle ways.
For example a new double-jump and yellow landing indicator make it much easier to avoid falls to your doom, in a way that still feels like old-school Crash. That said, imprecise platforming remains the biggest bandicoot-killer in the game.
Crash was always hard to control and, in an effort to keep much of the original games’ locomotion here, he still has a tendency to become unwieldy under pressure leading to many frustrating deaths. You don’t have to worry about running out of lives in the standard game mode, which helps, though purists can turn on “retro mode” to reinstate the old-school tension of limited tries.
A key change in Crash 4 is the Quantum Masks, which appear as powerup suits in set areas and let you invert gravity, spin endlessly like a top and more. Each one expands the bandicoots’ capabilities and makes for some really fun segments, but the added complexity also has a tendency to increase the frustration factor. If you thought Crash was loose before, just wait until he’s constantly spinning and literally unable to stop.
Thankfully the game takes a page from Nintendo’s playbook by making the most difficult and frustrating tasks purely optional. Running through each level is generally a breeze, with a few challenges that might require repeat attempts. But collecting all the gems (by getting all the wumpa fruit, breaking all the crates, not dying, etc) can be a maddening slog, just like in the older games. Collecting all the gems in each level unlocks a cool outfit for Crash or Coco, which may help you decide which levels you really want to finish completely.
Crash 4 is filled with a huge amount of content, with the main levels supplemented by alternate versions that mix things up and radically change the art style, plus challenge rooms you find on hidden VHS tapes. Then there are multiplayer modes, including a traditional pass-the-controller option and competitive play.
But my favourite diversions see you take control of other characters, who play quite differently to Crash, in optional parallel side stories. This includes the bizarre vacuum-toting Dingodile, Neo Cortex with a gun that turns enemies into platforms, and the spin-kicking grapple-hooking Tawna; revamped from a sexualised trophy in the original game to a gritty time-travelling action hero here.
Overall this is classic Crash, warts and all, updated for 2020. It looks and sounds phenomenal, is a touch more lenient, injects some new mechanics and takes much more care with the delivery of its story and characters. Given how poorly previous attempts to update Crash have turned out, this is a marvellous effort that should please old fans, their kids, and those just looking for a brilliant if potentially gruelling retro platforming adventure.
Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time is out now for Xbox One (reviewed) and PlayStation 4.
Tim is the editor of The Age and Sydney Morning Herald technology sections.