After completing a level in Crash Bandicoot 4: It's About Time, our anthropomorphic marsupial will take a selfie with his swanky new smartphone; two things that hadn't even been invented at the time of the character's debut in 1996. Yet, despite his newfound fondness for modern technology, this Bandicoot is still wearing jorts (that's "jean shorts") like they never went out of fashion.
It's an apt image for developer Toys for Bob's official sequel to the original Crash trilogy; a game that's got one foot stretched out ambitiously forward, bringing Crash kicking and screaming into the dawn of a new decade, but the other planted proudly in the past, refusing to give up the traditions that first put the gaming icon on the map almost 25 years ago.
21st century bandicoot
My time playing through three different sections of Crash Bandicoot 4 could best be described as ticking off an index of the series' trademark design pillars. Deceptively difficult platforming that regularly shifts perspective? Check. Bonus levels promising high risk for untold riches of Wumpa Fruit? Check. Outlandish chase sequences full of precariously placed Nitro Crates? It's all here, including the infamous sense of challenge that permeates the original Crash trilogy, and left everyone reeling after Vicarious Visions' 2017 remaster painfully revealed that these PS1 platformers were a lot harder than we remember them to be.
Thankfully, Toys for Bob is aware of the complaints leveraged against the Crash Bandicoot N.Sane Trilogy, and its solution in Crash 4 is Modern Mode; an alternative difficulty setting which removes the series' traditional Game Over states and finite life system, and simply places players back at the start of the last checkpoint whenever they die. The classic system is still there in the form of Retro Mode, of course, but it didn't take long for me to permanently switch back to Modern after one too many deaths at the hands of a particularly tricky jump.
Speaking of new ideas, you can switch between playing as Crash or his sister Coco seamlessly at any point in It's About Time, and both exhibit the exact same move set, all of which remains relatively unchanged from 1990's titles. What has changed are the tools that the Bandicoots have to work with on their journey to stop Neo Cortex from taking over the multiverse, specifically when it comes to the series' pantheon of ability-granting masks.
In addition to the returning Aku Aku, who once again provides his trademark life-saving invincibility shield, It's About Time introduces a number of new masks, all inspired by the time-twisting conceit of Crash 4's story, which directly follows on from the ending of 1998's Crash Bandicoot: Warped.
Kupuna-Wa, for example, allows its wearer to slow down time, perfect for avoiding fast and aggressive enemies, or it can be used as a way to cross, say, collapsing ice shelves without plummeting to your death. Lani-Loli, on the other hand, offers the ability to phase objects in and out of existence, including crates.
These new gameplay twists have allowed Toys for Bob to build more elaborate levels that build on the classic lane design of the original Crash trilogy, but every novel idea feels like an organic addition that fits seamlessly into Naughty Dog's playful universe.
A whole Neo world
It's not just the Bandicoot twins who get to enjoy the spotlight in Crash 4, either. For the first time in a mainline Crash game, Neo Cortex will receive his own playable sections, showing us the villain's side of the story via smaller, unique stages set in different sections of the game's expansive collection of worlds.
Cortex's missions are integrated with what Toys for Bob is calling Timeline Events, where players will uncover how Crash's arch-nemesis may have caused a certain event that took place while playing as one of the Bandicoots.
In the ice-themed level Snow Way Out, for example, Crash will be about to board a boat encased against a frozen glacier, but the entire thing will come collapsing down just before he takes his first step. It turns out that Cortex is the one responsible for this explosion, as his playable section in the moments leading up to it reveals why the detonation perhaps went off a little earlier than planned...
Playing as Cortex offers a radically different experience to Crash or Coco. The megalomaniacal genius can't double jump or spin his way out of a tricky situation, but instead relies on a gap-hopping dash ability and his faithful ray gun to advance through each area.
That gun can turn enemies into solidified blocks for platforming onto, or even trampoline-like gelatinous blobs which, when paired with Cortex's dash, make for a gravity-defying combo used to ascend otherwise insurmountable obstacles. Even the small section I enjoyed as Cortex offered a distinct, yet equally challenging experience to Crash's core missions, with the focus primarily on laser precise platforming that will likely be the bane of those looking to achieve 100% runs.
Regardless of who you're playing as, however, Crash Bandicoot 4 is a genuine beauty. Toys for Bob may have stuck to the tight, lane-based levels of its forebears, but opened up and coloured in the sights around them. Gorgeous vistas and skyboxes are a common backdrop in It's About Time, and the creativity of Toys for Bob's dimension-hopping locations, brought to life via the game's expressionistic animation style, is a joy to the senses.
It's About Time is a sequel over two decades in the making, ignoring the countless spin-offs and reboots that have released since Crash Bandicoot: Warped to instead return to the roots of the character's origins, empowered by the mandate of the N.Sane Trilogy's record-breaking popularity.
What I've played so far presents more than enough compelling evidence to suggest that Toys for Bob, who so wonderfully captured the spirit of another 90's icon with the Spyro Reignited Trilogy in 2018, has what it takes to bring Crash back into our lives with a bang. This Bandicoot may still be a little old fashioned, but his return to video games can't come soon enough.
For more, check out the biggest new games of 2020 on the way, or watch our 60 second preview of Crash Bandicoot 4 below.