The Evolution of Naughty Dog, Part 1: Crash Bandicoot

If there’s one developer that consistently offers up amazing games on a regular basis, it would have to be Naughty Dog; a studio that has created, arguably, some of the greatest games of all time. As the iconic Sony subsidiary celebrates its 30th birthday, we take a look back on its history; through its humble beginnings all the way to being granted its status as a gaming giant.

As many already know by now, the company started out in 1984, under the name of Jam Software. Founded by high school friends Jason Rubin and Andy Gavin, the duo’s early foray into gaming development was anything but smooth sailing. During the production of a skiing title for the Apple II – only their second ever game after Math Jam – Gavin mistakenly copied pirated software over the pair’s only copy of the project. Whilst no doubt a rookie error, this mistake may actually have been the watershed moment for the fledgling studio.

The friends were forced to start the game again from scratch, and the finished product, Ski Crazed – much improved over the original version – was picked up by publishers Baudville for $250. Gavin and Rubin soon looked to make a fresh start away from the constraints of Baudville, and subsequently renamed Jam Software to Naughty Dog.

Despite having two moderately successful titles, Keef the Thief and Rings of Power, published by Electronic Arts in the following years, the studio was practically penniless when Gavin and Rubin set out to create Way of the Warrior, a quirky fighting title for the 3DO; they had to scrimp wherever they could on its production, with one infamous example being a yellow sheet glued to the wall of the developers’ apartment in lieu of a blue screen. Thankfully, Mark Cerny of Universal Interactive Studios (now better known as the lead architect of the PS4), saw the potential of the duo when they pitched the finished game to him, and agreed to publish the title as well as offering to bankroll a further three games.

Rubin and Gavin, on the verge of bankruptcy, were quick to take Universal up on their offer, and soon came together to plan out a three-dimensional action-platforming game for Sony’s Playstation console. Jokingly codenamed “Sonic’s Ass Game”, due to the camera being constantly fixed behind the protagonist’s behind, it was with this project that the company truly made their mark on the gaming landscape. Crash Bandicoot, as it became known, was an ambitious departure from the 2D structure that made up the developers’ previous efforts, and pushed the PS1 to its technical limits.

With Crash, Gavin and Rubin strived to create a successful mascot for Sony’s first gaming platform, in order to compete with Sega’s Sonic and Nintendo’s Mario (many had tried, but no games up until that point had succeeded). In doing so, they turned to Australia’s furry offerings for support. A bandicoot was, of course, their final choice, but a prototype named “Willie the Wombat” was thrown around while the game was in production. Mercifully, it was eventually thrown out with the trash. The studio’s arduous months of production finally paid off when Sony agreed to publish the game after a year of development.

Crash was a strange, orange and slightly chaotic character. He was the result of an experiment between Doctors Neo Cortex and Nitrus Brio, who then escaped from their fortress by jumping out of a window and into the ocean. Even from the loading screen, which led to his washing up on N. Sanity beach, it was clear that Naughty Dog was firmly going to embrace the bandicoot’s zany personality. His nervous twitching, exclamations upon injury or death, and even his main ability (spinning like a blurry, orange tornado, ala the Tazmanian Devil) show the creation of a slightly unhinged character, because of the experimentation put upon him by the two evil scientists. But while he may have been a bit crazy, he remained loveable throughout, and was ultimately characterised as the troubled hero of the story.

While he may have been venturing across an archipelago to defeat Cortex and put a stop his nefarious deeds, the stakes were higher than that for Crash. His girlfriend, Tawna, was being held for experimentation, and while this may seem like a direct rip-off of Mario’s rescue of Princess Peach, it was still a source of motivation for our hero, without which he would have had very little reason for going back to a place filled with horror and despair. He would have most likely remained on the beach, eating Wumpa Fruit and nattering away to himself. Of course, that wouldn’t have made for a great heroic journey; a journey that would become absolutely crucial to all of Naughty Dog’s future efforts.

And what is a heroic journey without a bunch of enemies and obstacles? Crash had to fight his way through three islands, full of an assortment of enemies, ranging from regular animals to manufactured creations. The creatures were well tailored to their environments: rats scurried around tunnels, tribesmen gandered about in wooden villages and tortoises rambled through jungle pathways. This connection between levels and their inhabitants grounded Crash Bandicoot in a realistic world, but one that was also filled with the uncanny; the normal and regular was hidden below a layer of the strange and wonderful.

This also carried over to the boss battles, as other Australasian animals were subverted against their normal behaviours, once again by Cortex’s evil misdoings. All of the bosses had their own distinct personalities; Ripper Roo was an insane, hopping kangaroo, Koala Kong was a boulder tossing, ahem, koala, and Pinstripe Potoroo was a potoroo with a fascination for all things ‘bada-bing’. Each fight made good use of Crash’s battling finesse, as he had to bounce on top of TNT crates, and clumsily dodge machine gun fire.

The regular levels remained varied throughout and the progression from beach to temple to castle highlighted the journey that Crash had been making. The design of each level went from the 3D, forward moving environments of Jungle Rollers, to the 2.5D side-scrolling platforming of The Lost City. There was also a nice mix of variety within these different types. This could be seen in Hog Wild, where Crash piloted an unwary pig as he raced through a native village, or where he sprinted towards the camera in an attempt to outrun a large, ominous boulder. While 3D levels were not necessarily new to gaming at the time, they were new to Naughty Dog, and delving into a different dimension allowed them to make things seem all the more real, and pleasing to the eye.

Everything in Crash Bandicoot seemed physically there; footsteps felt heavier on stone than sand; crates looked like actual cubes; when you bounced on an upside-down tortoise, it felt like you were bouncing on an upside-down tortoise. This physicality added to the realism that Naughty Dog have constantly strived to create, showing that a desire for the realistic did not only spring up in their later years, but actually has roots in the mid-nineties. While Crash and others did not look like photographic images, and indeed, may have seemed horribly polygonal, the visuals undoubtedly held a certain charm in them that they still hold to this day. Everything was full of colour, and personalities were created through aesthetics; Koala Kong’s tank top indicated his muscle-bound buffoonery, Cortex’s giant noggin was telling of his intellect, and of course, what would Crash be without his signature jorts?

Crash’s look didn’t change much from his first adventure to the third, but Naughty Dog continued to innovate throughout the series. Level locations became even more varied, as jungles and temples were replaced by futuristic cities, medieval castles and oceanic diving. Crash was also given a family, as Coco Bandicoot was introduced in Cortex Strikes Back as his more competent, and sensible, sister. This relationship gave the protagonist a more fully-fledged connection towards another character, building on something that was introduced with the inclusion of Tawna. The cast of antagonists was also bolstered with future entries, with Tiny Tiger and Dingodile being personal favourites.

Newness and innovation are clearly concepts that Naughty Dog cherish dearly. Through Crash Bandicoot they were able to shoot straight ahead into a 3D landscape that provided an excellent platforming experience, and at the same time it created a memorable mascot, who is both equally loveable as he is bonkers. Progression within a series may be one thing, but the company has certainly shown that they can also evolve across generations. This evolution would lead Naughty Dog to ending their relationship with Universal, and into their acquisition by Sony Computer Entertainment. This evolution would also lead them to a brand new planet, and to the fantastical world of Jak and Daxter.

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