Who Deserves Credit for Crash? – Crash Bandicoot Dissection | Beyond Pictures
Whatever happened to Crash Bandicoot? It was Naughty Dog who created him, right? In this video, we look at the truth behind the creation of one of video games’ most popular icons, and why Crash Bandicoot not only faded into obscurity, but also found himself handled poorly by his managerial staff — from Universal to Activision, and from Naughty Dog to Radical entertainment.
Naughty Dog’s been on a roll- they’ve not only helped shift Sony’s consoles with their exclusives, they’ve also scored highly with both the commercial and critical sectors. However, when it comes to artistic integrity, I find them rather…what’s the polite word…dubious. Now I could talk about the totally coincidentally timed DLC that not only apes the success of a game that wasn’t very good to begin with, but also seems to utilize knowledge of an actress who had already sued them for potentially using her likeness without her consent (heck, miss Page hasn’t had much luck with games as it is- even the ones she’s consented to appear in) but that’s all very recent. No, no, my concerns with Naughty Dog stem from a little franchise they continue to cast unnecessary sympathy votes with. And that game is…Crash Bandicoot. The game that not only became prominently synonymous with Video game iconography back in the later nineties, but also had the distinct pleasure of being a straight up rival to Nintendo’s efforts. Crash is still hugely popular having given us games that sell to this day and a horrible string of loyal fanboys. One of which used to be me, I guess. C’mon, what did you think the B really stood for?So perhaps it’s surprising that such a franchise went off the official brand awareness radar a few years ago. What happened? The popular legend is that Naughty Dog lost the ability to make more games and that all the games that came afterwards were so terrible that it dried up due to a lack of interest. I have a real issue with that. Why? Because that’s not the full story. If you were ever of the belief that ND was the sole creator and owner of Crash Bandicoot as a franchise, then buckle up, you’re in for a heck of a history lesson.Naughty Dog was a developer founded by Jason Rubin and Andy Gavin. They’d already had a strong track record making games at a young age and had shown their work to Universal interactive. Mark Cerny, the creative director at the time, was so impressed with their game Rings of Power that he convinced Universal to sign up ND on a three game deal. The publisher provided them with two in house artists, Charles Zembillas and Joe Pearson, to create the series bible and characters. Sony was presented with the product in its early stages and liked what they saw- they wanted the playstation to appeal to children in order to expand its portfolio and compete with the likes of Sega and Nintendo’s mascots. However, the advantage of the more mischievous Crash, based off of the Tasmanian Devil character, was that he was a lot more mischievous than his Sega and Nintendo counterparts, allowing Sony to market him in a way unique to that tone. You can already see how Crash Bandicoot’s appeal was born from an amalgamation of ideas from various different sources.
And of course, these all culminated in a game that ended up with a lot of favourable attention. Crash as it turned out ended up going head to head with Mario 64 in the same year, having similar goals in exploring three dimensional gaming. However, while Mario 64 had more technically advanced gameplay, it was Crash Bandicoot’s visuals that managed to keep it in high regard, the highly expressive characters and strong graphical capabilities holding their own against Mario. The game not only sold in droves, Crash also effectively became known as Sony’s unofficial mascot.
You would think that with all this success these guys would be planning bigger projects together for the future, but apparently there was a lot of friction behind the scenes. Naughty Dog members have been very vocal about their clashes with members of Universal, in particular the director of marketing who believed that the character should be called willy the wombat and their, umm, shapely design of Tawna was something that should never sell video games again (fun little anecdote- the next year Lara Croft took the world by storm and the marketing director apparently left the business forever.)
However, Universal have been equally critical of Naughty Dog. Zembillas claims that a lot of the stories ND told in interviews after the fact were spin to make themselves look better, and more damningly, that he and Joe Pearson were not properly credited for their involvement in the creation of the characters, a massive point of contention depending on what you believe Crash Bandicoot’s selling point really was. Joe left the project in frustration after the first game, despite an apology offered by Rubin. Regardless of these setbacks, Charles stayed with the developer and helped design characters for the next two games. By that point nobody seemed concerned with who had actually created the character- the marketing and hype was so prominent that ND and Sony were always coming out on top. Crash 2 and 3 both bettered the success of Crash one, and even more impressively, the three games were all developed in three consecutive years. If you consider the way ND pushed the sequels capabilities such as experimenting with less linear exploration methods, that becomes even more admirable.
By year 3 of the contract, ND had a choice to either stay or go. Naughty Dog willingly chose to move on and let Universal handle the franchise- agreeing to make one more game as a send off. The reasons for leaving appear to be twofold. It appears that ND still had some resentment about working with Universal, one of their stipulations being that they wanted the publisher to take a cut in it’s payment during CTR. The second reason appears to be their desire to create a new IP- a game where you could seamlessly travel from the start of the game to the final boss without any loading times. This game became Jak and Daxter. Sadly, the fallout did not end here. For conceptual work, they called upon Zembillas again, who provided over 100 or so character designs. Significantly, Charles effectively created Daxter, a character who not only won an award for its creation but also became the mascot of the franchise. Charles apparently saw none of this success, as he was only credited as an additional character artist. Infuriated by the violation of his contract, Charles also turned his back on ND.
You can see that something clearly isn’t right about all this. Rubin and Gavin, who left Naughty Dog after Jak 2, still complain about the state of the franchise and it’s a real shame that they never did any of their successors any favours with their dismissive attitudes. Rubin said it was like watching his daughter do porn, and Andy said it was like the hot high school sweetheart gone bad. Very mature. Seeing how things have gone for Jason Rubin, it’s difficult not to see this as a case of sour grapes, and I can’t help but wonder if the people they clearly alienated have a point. However, it’s definitely worth considering their claims that Universal equally caused some damage with their interference- as evidenced in the games that followed.
Crash Bandicoot became a contractual obligation amongst Universals developers, the first going to Eurocom who created Crash Bash. The series went multi platform during the next generation of consoles – ND had been working one year a piece for each game, and that same timeframe and budget was now being applied to developers who were being thrust into a franchise they would have to now technically recreate from the ground up. Travellers Tales had many plans for Wrath of Cortex, none of which made the cut. As a result the final game was slightly buggy, and effectively acted as a pretty standard copy of the previous games with little innovation. Wrath of Cortex’s quality is debatable as a result, but it actually got off lightly in the grand scheme of things. A similar mishap was happening with the developers working on Enter the Dragonfly- the game was drastically cut from its original runtime and released in an effectively unfinished form to meet the deadline. This version involved numerous glitches, only nine levels and one boss. Comparing it to what would happen to some of the later Crash titles, you can see how this was not a one off incident nor merely the fault of the developers.
Vicarious Visions were brought in to provide Game Boy advance titles and a racing title for the consoles and they also brought very little to the table. It’s worth noting however that Charles Zembillas and Joe Pearson were re-hired to create concepts for Crash Nitro Kart, which explains some of the direct throwbacks to concepts from the first three titles. In the background plans were being made to revitalize the franchise with a whole new fledgling development team and a strong emphasis on new gameplay mechanics and advertising. That game would become cult fan-favourite Crash Twinsanity.
Crash Bandicoot Twinsanity could be considered unremarkable as a game, but those with some understanding of the franchise’s history and ambitions may find it easier to appreciate what’s happening here. Mark Cerny was interested in seeing the franchise become less linear and ND were certainly pushing for a game with more free roaming environments. Crash Bandicoot Twinsanity not only ditched the warp room scenario but allowed you to freely explore environments at your own leisure. The Island from the first game for example is painstakingly detailed, showing an intimate understanding of the design from the original title. The gameplay builds on the groundwork from the original titles while also throwing in new challenges that work on Crash and Cortex’s relationship. Add to that the numerous nods to past titles and a strong sense of humour and you have what is by and large a very entertaining love letter to the original game. You can see why some might be frustrated at the fact that none of the original creative team seems to have actually picked up on this and given it any kind of recognition.
However, the game also suffers as a result of it’s ambitions thanks to, once again, interference from the Publisher. The developer spent an extended period of time simply generating ideas as evidenced by the countless conceptual works released from the company. A lot of this, including entire levels, were cut from the game only moments before release, which says a lot about the budget and time the young developers were working under. The final game features a huge amount of glitches and can be completed in around two hours, leading many to feel that the game was rather sub par. This may or may not have been why Travellers Tales Oxford, the developer created solely to bring back Crash, were let go very soon afterwards. Still, even after their departure, the team kept up contact with many fans of the series, and to this day their rapport with gamers has been exceedingly strong, treating people to inside stories and cut content to this day.
A second attempt was made to revitalise the franchise with a more experienced developer, Radical Entertainment. Their first game was a spin off based on the concepts left behind from Travellers Tales Oxford, a racing game featuring platforming sections. Behind the scenes though, efforts were being made to try something completely different, and the infamous Crash of the titans was released soon afterwards. The game sold very well and had a positive reception, though many fans were put off by the aesthetic overhaul and gameplay. Some believe it was this hostility that lead to the franchises disappearance, but once again, this isn’t the case. The Radical team took a leaf out of TTO’s book and became friendly with many of the fans. A small committee (of which I took part in) sent them a pack of suggestions for future titles, some of which actually turned up in their second game, Mind over Mutant. The biggest thing to come out of this correspondence, however, was that they were to take two years to develop the next game as opposed to the one year imposed on them by universals replacement, Sierra. Over the next year Radical set to work on yet another revitalisation that used these suggestions, which I sadly cannot show you due to copyright issues- you’ll have to check Crash Mania to see for yourself. Sadly, the two games being developed would never be released. In 2010 Activision bought up Universal, and began axing various studios. Radical was laid off before their projects could be finished, and the team was scattered in their search for employment.
And that pretty much brings us up to speed with today. The bitter fallouts, the budget cuts, the buyouts, they all lead to this, though there is always news to be found on those who worked on the franchise. While Radical has hit the dirt, Keith Webb of Travellers tales Oxford is working his way back into the industry with a game called Go Go Kokopolo. Rumours persist that Sony has re-bought the franchise which is not matched up by Activisions official word on the matter. Recently ND announced that they were releasing a art book from their 30 years of work-clearly featuring concept art from Zembillas work on Crash Bandicoot. when Zembillas was asked if he had been contacted about the project, he said-
‘Haven’t been contacted in any way and I don’t know if they will even think of it. My guess is very probably not. I would also expect a good deal of the usual propaganda coming from them. In their 30 year history they didn’t have an art department for the first 20 outside of Joe Pearson and myself. Do you think they’ll write about their entire creative crew coming to train at my school in 1998 and in 1999? Seems to me to be a pretty important part of their 30 year art of history. Let’s see if it’s mentioned.’
It’s clear that there’s not a lot of closure for these people just yet.
I once contacted Jason Rubin asking if he was interested in getting in getting in contact with Keith Webb in an attempt to help raise some awareness, and his response was that he didn’t think Crash was that relevant anymore. Yet not only has the series been selling very well on Sony’s online store, as well as receiving a mysterious cameo in a PS4 ad campaign, I’ve recently seen Rubin use the Crash franchise as a way of gaining morale amongst his followers. It seems to me that there might be some benefit to bringing together past creators to settle their differences and really prove that they have an audience just waiting for a new and innovative platformed spurred on by a very popular mascot- but hey, maybe I’m just an idealist. With a username that everyone now knows the origin of. Hmm. Shit.