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Toys For Bob just get what makes classic 3D platformers tick. The Novato-based studio showed a real knack for breathing new life into both Crash Bandicoot and Spyro The Dragon through its work the N.Sane Trilogy and the Reignited Trilogy... so much so that publisher Activision gave them the dream gig: a license to develop a completely original Crash Bandicoot game.
Crash Bandicoot 4: It's About Time launched earlier this month to widely positive reviews from fans and critics. In my own review, I praised it as an "authentic love letter to days gone by", with all the box-smashing and wumpa fruit-collecting action you'd expect from a new entry in an iconic series. What really impresses me about Crash Bandicoot 4 is that it manages to feel old and new all at once, giving players the nostalgia blast they wanted while simultaneously offering enough new ideas to make it feel fresh. That's a tricky balancing act, for sure, but one that the team at Toys For Bob managed to pull off
Of course a studio can't rest on its laurels forever, and those of you who recognise what a fantastic job Toys For Bob did on Crash Bandicoot 4 might well find themselves wondering: what next?
The obvious answer would be a brand-new Spyro game, right? Given the fact that TFB has mastered the purple dragon as well as Crash, a canonical fourth entry would almost certainly be a no-brainer. Whether or not that is what the studio is currently looking into is something we obviously can't be privy to just yet... but I can at least share with you guys the one classic franchise TFB creative producer Louis Studdert wants to bring back... although it's probably not one you were expecting.
"I was trying to figure out what other mascots are there that would be worth going back to?" Studdert told me over the phone. "It was funny, because I kept thinking, the things that I like, are not necessarily what the world likes. I kept coming back to... there's a Nintendo 64 game called Space Station Silicon Valley."
If your immediate reaction to that is "huh?", you're not alone. Immediately after our chat I had to Google the game to see exactly what he was on about, and it's definitely best described as a cult classic. Released back in 1998, it's an utterly bizarre sci-fi puzzle platformer in which players guide a robot through an alien world, fighting and taking control of animals as they go. Seriously, check out this footage to get an idea of how truly odd it is.
I think it's safe to say that the vast majority of us would rather TFB stick with Crash and Spyro at this point, but I'm not completely against the idea of Studdert getting to revive such a weird and obscure N64 title. I've got a lot of time for weird platformers. For now, however, it does sound like Crash and Spyro might just have found a permanent new home at TFB.
"That's where my brain goes, because I'm very weird," Studdert said of his... unconventional choice. "So I actually think the Crash franchise is perfect for me, because it allows us to kind of weird and zany and crazy stuff. "And I'm pretty happy with where we're at right now."
"I'd agree with that," added TFB art director Josh Nadelburg. "I think Crash and Spyro are a perfect fit for our studio in that they allow us to play in this childlike world of zany, silly, fun, creative ideas. And that's really where Toys For Bob excels. The team is just so engaged and loves these franchise so much. So it's been an awesome experience for us to be blessed with these characters in these worlds."
That genuine love for Crash Bandicoot definitely shines through - not just in Crash Bandicoot 4 itself, but in the way Studdert and Nadelburg speak to me about the character. These are two developers who fell in love with Crash back when the rest of us did, and who used their knowledge of the original trilogy - what worked and what didn't - to create something special.
"I mean, the the very first Crash Bandicoot just set the groundwork for a different type of platformer," Studdert explained. "Where it's this perspective-shifting mix of 2D and 3D going into and out of the camera. And that was kind of what we wanted to go to as the basis for this new game.
"It's something that I think sets Crash apart from any other platformer. And it's something that we wanted to make sure that we absolutely used as our foundation when building Crash Bandicoot 4. We wanted to go back to what made crash so iconic in the first place, which was this kind of unique perspective shifting kind of platforming based around tense execution."
It's safe to say they nailed that aspect of the franchise. Crash Bandicoot 4 is hard. Arguably, it's the hardest game in the series since the original in fact - but only if you want it to be. Simply getting through levels provides ample challenge, but an entirely optional and much greater difficulty level is hiding right there in plain sight for the box-smashing purists who want - or need - to get that 100% completion rate.
"That was an absolutely conscious decision," Studdert laughed. "We were planning from kind of the get-go what this game would be... There's the expression of 'widening the funnel', which is to allow more people into an experience. And we specifically said; 'Okay, what are the things that we need to do?' Or 'what are the things that we want to try to do to make this franchise accessible to franchise that we love?'
"We know Crash has this level of difficulty, and that's a barrier to some. But there are also people that have 20 plus years of experience with this type of game, and if we don't bring it, we're gonna be laughed out of this franchise."
"I'm so glad we did that, because I'm one of those players who had a really difficult time getting through the original trilogy," Nadelburg said. "Mostly because of the live system. Modern mode for me was like, true accessibility, I can play our game! And I'm not even beginning to think about collecting everything. It really makes a single playthrough for a more casual Crash player a really enjoyable experience. And I'm so glad that we found that solution."
I'm personally really glad the team found that solution, as encouraging as many players as possible to see all the brilliantly-designed levels Crash Bandicoot 4 has to offer is all part of the fun. For my money, this latest entry has some of the most eye-popping and ambitions locations the franchise has ever seen. A lot of that has to do with the fact this game was designed and built for modern consoles, obviously, but there are some levels where TFB took a brilliant concept and ran with it.
Take, for example, Off Beat - a level whose title you do not want to get the wrong way round. This area, around halfway through the game, is quite unlike anything you'll ever have seen in a Crash Bandicoot before. The whole thing essentially takes place during this bright, colourful festival, with tons of fireworks, eye-popping visuals, and plenty of references to Crash history. In other words, it's a celebration.
"I wanna give a shout-out to our level designer Mike Stout on that one," Studdert said. "He had the notion of doing a musical-style beat-synced level. He spent a lot of time trying to figure out ways to sync game elements to music. And as we were kind of talking about what this level could be Josh and his team were presenting these different ideas of this kind of festival. And it kind of grew from there!
"Mike made this crazy thing where you're doing the rail grind, and he built a ruler in the game editor that showed him based on which tempo of music it was, where things need to be placed, to make sure that the bead was preserved. And all of these things kind of layered in and then, on top of that, we realised it was the celebration, we kind of realised where where we wanted it to be in the game, it's almost smack dab in the middle of the game. I think that's part of the appeal is that it feels like this great, kind of celebratory refresher moment of this kind of peak experience."
"We kind of imagined a Mardi Gras meets Venice, kind of feel, " Nadelburg added. "We had a whole bunch of conversations with Mike as he was designing it, where he would present us with different gameplay elements that he was concocting in his head. And we would work really closely with him to propose different ideas for how we could visualise those. We would just really organically find these kooky wacky fun designs that mapped to the gameplay. The overall tone of it was really a wonderful collaborative process between a bunch of the concept artists."
Perhaps Off Beat is, in a way, a perfect summary of everything that makes Crash Bandicoot 4 the game that it is. It's a collaborative celebration - a perfect example of what fresh eyes can bring to an old franchise if they work together and use their genuine passion of the source material to create something meaningful.
Crash Bandicoot 4 could easily have been a lazy cash-grab (or Crash Grab, if you prefer), but it ended up being a vital inclusion into the canon. Just a few months ago I saw Toys For Bob as a studio that knew its way around a remake. Now? Now I see TFB as a team that has the talent and imagination to bring the classics back to life in new, unexpected, and utterly joyful ways. I have no idea what these guys will do next, but I cannot wait to see.
Featured Image Credit: Activision
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