Crash Bandicoot is 3D gaming's underrated pioneer


Crash Bandicoot is 3D gaming's underrated pioneer

Uplifting as it is to lose yourself within them, video game worlds are often most enthralling when you’re aware of the tricks and contrivances that knit them together. Doom’s scrap-metal labyrinth is all the eerier when you know that it’s a Pac-Man level masquerading as “true” polygonal 3D, its columns and bulkheads projecting upward from sets of horizontal coordinates, like volcanic gas from a vent. And how about the Mode 7 landscapes of SNES role-playing games, glowing carpets spun and panned across to convey the impression of distant 3D geometry, or the bejewelled pop-up backdrops of the Sonic games? These realms would be nothing without their obvious, delightful artificiality – to wander through them is to revel both in the illusion itself and how it has been crafted.

The same, I think, is true of Naughty Dog’s reputation-making PS1 debut Crash Bandicoot, which amongst other things might be the least suspected nod to the work of cinematic pioneers Auguste and Louis Lumière in history. If you’ve seen anything filmed by the latter, it’s probably the famous “L’Arrivée d’un Train en Gare de la Ciotat” from 1895 – a continuous shot of an approaching locomotive, taken from the front and slightly to one side in order to emphasise the sense of depth. According to urban legend, audiences at the time were so convinced by the illusion that they fled, shrieking, to the back of the theatre. Crash Bandicoot’s intro sequence appears to riff on this, but whimsically transfers the shock and fear to Crash himself – it shows the character hurrying towards the screen only to skid to a halt, scream and duck as the title hurtles into view from “behind” the player. Whether intended or no, it’s a fitting parallel for a game that – Bongo-bongo stereotypes and Jessica Rabbit clones notwithstanding – ranks among the first platformers to seriously grapple with the possibilities of 3D space.

When I first played Crash Bandicoot in 1996 its cartoon tropical island seemed a sprawling yet oddly inaccessible paradise, with acres of sun-blushed land stretching just out of reach. The rigidly on-rails camera felt like a cruel imposition, cheating me of the terrain I’d glimpse through the foliage. In fact, the island’s bounty exists care of the camera’s selective vision. The game’s corridor environments were absolute behemoths by the standards of the age, encompassing millions of polygons – running them through the PlayStation 1’s puny two megabytes of RAM was akin to persuading a gerbil to swallow the Empire State Building.

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