Unlike the first Crash Bandicoot, let’s look at a game I actually had some level of genuine nostalgia for! I never owned Crash 2: Cortex Strikes Back but do remember it very clearly from those halcyon days of late-night playthroughs at friends’ houses. The first game doesn’t exactly occupy a beloved space in my memory thanks to its difficulty and pathetic saving system, and the N-Sane Trilogy remake didn’t fare much better. However, the sequel was generally better received, and I do have fond memories of it, so let’s see how this game’s remake goes.
Crash 2: Cortex Strikes Back (N-Sane Trilogy) (PC, PS4, Xbox One [reviewed], Switch)
Released Jun 2017 | Developed: Vicarious Visions | Published: Activision
Originally released in 1997, Naughty Dog’s sequel to their PlayStation-exclusive mascot platformer came out only a year after the first. After his defeat at the hands of the titular marsupial, series baddie Dr Neo Cortex discovers that scattered across the world are glowing purple crystals of incredible power. Always ready for an opportunity to do some villainy, Cortex devises a fiendish plan to gather the crystals – rather than do any of the dirty work himself, instead he opts to make his nemesis, Crash Bandicoot, to do it for him! He contacts Crash and claims to need his help to gather the crystals in order to stop an even bigger bad who threatens to destroy the world and Crash, not being the brightest bulb, goes along with it all. I dunno, perhaps Crash just likes being a hero, or going for adventures?
Regardless, off he trots. Our hero’s younger sister, the newly-introduced Coco, pops into the game after a few levels to tell Crash and remind the audience that yes, Cortex is still evil as if that wasn’t blindingly obvious, but this being a linear game the only option is to collect all the crystals and defeat Cortex when he thinks he’s won. Or you can shut the game off I suppose, but that’s a very specifically self-destructive kind of player agency and anyway, we want to see how this titanic struggle ends.
So it’s far more plot and dialogue heavy than the first game. Cortex rears his head to talk to Crash every few levels or so, constantly egging him on to collect all the crystals; Coco does the same with her timely reminders of Cortex’s villainy. Picking up other collectibles also triggers other characters to pop their head in and try and talk to Crash, such as Dr N. Brio, the former assistant of Cortex.
Speaking of the collectibles, these are what offer the primary challenge for completionists. Breaking every box in a level nets you a gem and collecting all of them is a real trial, particularly as some levels hide boxes away. Fully completing the game also requires you to take on the bonus levels and fiendishly difficult side paths; also included are hidden coloured gems that are collected by fulfilling odd challenges within levels or finding them squirreled away in hard-to-reach parts of a level, though how you are supposed the criteria out is beyond me. Yes, levels do signal that there is a coloured gem to find in a level, but you aren’t given hints as to how they are achieved – it’s one for the internet guides to answer, I suspect.
Thankfully all these collectible challenges are aided by the fact that the controls are far sharper than in Crash Bandicoot. Crash and Coco (who is playable in the remake after the first boss is beaten) are far less weighty and slippery; the game does still have very tricky platforming sections that require some precise work but the crisper sense of control over your characters helps to dampen the potential frustration. That’s not to say it doesn’t still have moments of difficulty; there are some hefty spikes in the last two worlds which are particularly notable but it’s a testament to the quality of Crash 2 that this did little to dampen my enthusiasm.
Crash 2 features a pleasing amount of variety in its levels. Most types and settings of stages return from the first game, including levels where you’re being chased (often by boulders and, terrifyingly, by giant rapid polar bears), while the boar-riding levels are replaced by riding a tiny polar bear (this game likes polar bears). A range of locales is on display for Crash to run, jump, and spin through; vivid jungles and crumbling temples return from the first game, but now we may also explore frigid snow stages, dank sewers (blessedly of the rare, non-awful kind), extensive darkened ruins, and like the first game as you progress through the game the levels get further from Crash’s natural environment, eventually making your way to Cortex’s space base. The bee levels can sod right off though.
A couple of gimmick levels are thrown in right at the end; it’s a nice change but they do feel underutilised, such as the jetpack levels, or stages set at night where you rapidly book it to the next limited light source, a returning level theme from the first game. Like in the first game, there are scant few examples of these stages for you to sink your teeth into.
Regrettably, the boss fights are still rubbish. Though probably a touch better than in the first game, they still mostly rely on the player waiting on a pattern to resolve and then spinning into the boss a few times, which is hardly the epitome of exciting boss design. They rarely challenge you, and they certainly don’t test your mastery of the mechanics. All of the boss encounters fall afoul of this, but the final boss is particularly disappointing; beating it with full completion nets a secret ending but it hardly seems worth it.
The soundtrack, on the other hand, is worth the price of admission. Firstly, I just need to say I’m a real sucker for clavinet lines and as such I adore the bouncy clavs of Warp Room.
Themes are grouped based on the style of levels, such as the jungle stages all sharing a song. This one especially feels like it could fit into a Spyro game, with its funky percussion and upbeat melody that blossoms into an all-too-brief gorgeous chorus-soaked guitar line. There are of course a range of styles on offer though. Snow levels opt for a more driven synth beat that underpins a hectic minor melody. Some stages feature a jaunty 50’s psychobilly/surf fusion, while the synths return along with industrial percussion for sewer levels, and obviously the space levels feature the obligatory slightly-spooky theremin line.
The general tone of the soundtrack is one of goofy fun; whenever songs threaten to feel serious something happens to drag the music back to silliness. It is nice and I don’t really mind it but sometimes I can’t help but wish for a bit of the serious mood to stick. A good example is Ripper Roo’s boss theme, which features a pleasing, chunky, minor key bass line that feels appropriate for a big fight but then gormless organ and accordion lines breaks the tension. Thankfully it swings back into an absolutely filthy synth melody that gets the blood pumping but again it gets broken; if only it could commit one way or the other! Sure, it’s still a good theme but it could’ve been a great one. Then again, you also get themes like Tiny Tiger’s, with its tasty vocoder lines and hilariously out of place sound effects and I love it. The melodies in the final boss theme are also excellent – part of me feels like the theme is pretty standard fare but it’s so well put together that I honestly don’t care, it hits all the right buttons.
Without a doubt, the N-Sane version of Crash 2: Cortex Strikes Back is a vast improvement over its predecessor. The tighter controls, the smarter level design, the generally well-constructed difficulty curve, and even the inclusion of a threadbare but cartoonishly fun plot all work to elevate it, and I definitely enjoyed my time with it. It’s short and sweet for players who want a classic platformer to skip through, perhaps as break between longer games, whereas completionists will find the gem and time-trial challenges a great time-sink. Roll on Crash 3!
4/7 – GOOD. Sure, maybe something doesn’t quite work but at least it has heart, or a spark of excitement that makes it worthwhile despite the faults. Definitely worth a go if you can at least find it on sale.