‘Crash Bandicoot’ at 20: An Oral History
In 1996, when the rivalries between video game console companies were at their fiercest, Crash Bandicoot served the same role for newcomer Sony’s PlayStation as Sonic and Mario did for industry powerhouses Sega and Nintendo. It’s been 20 years since fledgling developer Naughty Dog, then helmed by Jason Rubin and and Andy Gavin, set out to make “the next Mario.”
In the summer of 1994, after finishing their latest project, the 3DO fighter Way of the Warrior, the duo sold the rights to Universal Studios and agreed to a deal that required them to move across the country from Boston to the company’s Los Angeles facility. With their newest employees in tow, Rubin and Gavin began brainstorming what kind of game they could put together that would revolve around the “Sonic’s ass” mechanic, or the idea that players would be spending a lot of time looking at a character’s backside in any character platform action game (CAG).
“We all agreed that the “Sonic’s ass” game was an awesome idea,” Gavin later wrote in a detailed postmortem on Crash’s release. “As far as we knew, no one had even begun work on bringing the best-selling-but-notoriously-difficult CAG to 3D.” Obviously they had no idea at the time that Shigeru Miyamoto and his team at Nintendo was hard at work on Super Mario 64, which would ship in Japan several months ahead of Crash.
From the very beginning, the project was risky: a cross-country move, $35,000 spent on developer hardware for a completely new and unproven console from Sony, and a character no one had ever heard of before.
But ultimately, it paid off. If you owned a PlayStation in the late Nineties, you’ve probably played either the original, or one of the numerous Crash Bandicoot sequels. To date, 50 million copies of the games have been sold worldwide across nearly every platform.
Two decades later in 2016, an auditorium erupted into cheers during E3 2016, when Sony announced the original Crash Bandicoot trilogy would be receiving an HD re-release on PlayStation 4. Not just any game could garner that kind of response years later, but Crash certainly did.
To celebrate the 20th anniversary of Crash Bandicoot, we spoke with the founding members of Naughty Dog about the tumultuous journey from selecting the perfect hardware to creating a burping, butt-scratching protagonist.
Jason Rubin (Naughty Dog co-founder): We were in the right place at the right time. We worked really, really, really, really hard, to the point where we slept in the office. We basically killed ourselves for the better part of four years making Crash games. To me, that sums up how Crash became how Crash is.
Andy and I were decent video game makers at that time. We also were in high school and college with every game we had made beforehand. It was literally the two of us, give or take some contractors here and there, up until we started Crash. For whatever reason, the two of us got it into our heads that we were going to make the next Mario. But Mario already existed, Sonic existed, and Donkey Kong Country existed. They were all 2D. They were all side-scrollers. The PlayStation brought the opportunity to use 3D, polygons instead of sprites, and to create a 3D world. Nobody had done that. It turned out that it’s hard.
The advantage was, because we created our character on the fly and because we had no history, we also had no rules.
Andy Gavin (Naughty Dog co-founder): We had discussed in the very early stages that we’d always be looking at Crash. Initially it was going to be the “Sonic’s ass” game. In that particular conversation, we didn’t solve the problem, but later we did have a couple things that worked, like when Crash dies, he always turns around to look at you. That was one of the major solutions to the problem. Another one was where the levels are reversed, such as the boulder levels when you run at the camera.
Rubin: Character action games were specifically built to take advantage of side-scrolling devices. The jump was a specific distance that you could easily judge. All of these things were built on the fact that it was a 2D side-scrolling game. We had to totally reinvent that in 3D. The advantage was, because we created our character on the fly and because we had no history, we also had no rules.
Gavin: We were trying to take this tradition of character-based games and give the character more personality and emotion, drawing from the separate tradition of American cartoons. With Mario, his personality is a bit “meh.” He’s a funny Italian plumber, but he doesn’t really emote in the way that Warner Bros. or Disney cartoon characters do. With Crash, we tried to distill his love for life and exuberance and silliness and his willingness to go for it no matter what happens.
Rubin: Unlike Mario, Crash had an edge. He was devious. Sony America really liked Crash. They liked our sensibility and our style. There was a very specific meeting we had with much of Sony Japan’s senior management group in Tokyo. We hadn’t slept in two nights. I remember we were having a meeting and showing off the gameplay. You could see this huge smile on the executives’ faces as they were playing it. And then we brought out the artwork. It was like the clouds had come in and it had started raining.
Everybody’s face was just dour. You could see the cultural way that the Japanese say no without saying no, and from the way that they were looking at the character, it was clear that we were failing. We didn’t want an American character. We wanted a worldwide character.
Everybody took a bathroom break and walked away. I grabbed the artwork we had and ran to Charlotte Francis, an artist we had and who still worked at Naughty Dog. I said “Charlotte, while I’m in there talking to him, as quickly as you can, I would like you to do the following: Get rid of Crash’s giant smile. Close his mouth, make him non-threatening and non-aggro.” Charlotte went into Photoshop and whipped out three alterations of the versions of what we had shown to Sony, brought them in, the clouds parted, the sun came out, and Crash became a worldwide sensation.
There were people at Naughty Dog who were instrumental, people at Universal like Mark Cerny, who we couldn’t have done this without, as well as the eight people who worked on Crash and so many others.
We had a dozen or more of those pivotal moments during Crash where he either was going to happen, or wasn’t going to happen. It was a tidal wave of things that went right, and a mitigation and flat-out refusal of things to go wrong.
Gavin: We wanted to use Crash graphics with an open world, and it was too big. Nothing in the system could handle it. Not the PlayStation, not my code. Even when we managed to get some of the open stuff running, there was too much space and not enough obstacle. You need constant action and constant conflict. We had to make the gameplay more exciting and keep the graphics lush. Mario 64 took a different route, where they left things wide open, but the graphics are very sparse. In those early times when we were trying to do the big world, it was just not working gameplay-wise, so that was worrisome. It took us until the summer of 1995 to narrow things down enough to make things work.
Rubin: There was another moment where Universal, our producer at the time, was going to take over the project and diminish Naughty Dog’s role. This was after Sony had already picked up the title and would act as a publisher. We were told we weren’t allowed to go to E3, the character would be renamed to Willie the Wombat, and other ridiculous things.
I remember taking the eight people who worked at Naughty Dog and walking into the vice president of Universal’s office, saying the game is unplayable right now and we’ll need to make builds, and we’re going home if you don’t do the following: This is a Naughty Dog production. Naughty Dog’s name is going to be on it and is going to be involved. The name is Crash Bandicoot. That’s the name we want. You can make your decision right now. We won.
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There were a lot of these moments. That’s IP creation, the same thing happens with blockbuster movies. Pivotal moments in a movie, they say to the director, “Take it out,” they don’t think it will work well, and the director says “this is in or I’m not.” This is Hollywood, as they say, and we were in Hollywood making this game.
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