The untold truth of Crash Bandicoot

The original PlayStation debuted in the mid-'90s, and one of the console's first mascot-type characters, Crash Bandicoot, followed shortly after. Crash's unique combination of "adorably fuzzy critter" and "crazy-eyed loon" immediately endeared him to players, and his games' unique behind-the-character approach to 3D platforming made them stand out even more. But after just a few games, Crash faded into obscurity, leaving many of his fans wondering why. There's a wild story behind that, just as there's a wild one behind Crash himself.

Naughty Dog, naughty words

As you might expect from a company called Naughty Dog, Crash Bandicoot's creators weren't above a bit of cheeky humor. In this case, it was literally cheeky.

According to Naughty Dog co-founder Andy Gavin, when designing the original Crash, they weren't sure what to call the game, or even what to call the character. All they knew is that their "inverted platformer" style, where the camera followed your character from behind, rather than to the side, meant you'd be looking at a whole lot of butt. So that's why they codenamed their game Sonic's Ass

As Gavin so eloquently explained, "it was born from the question: what would a 3D [character platform action game] be like? Well, we thought, you'd spend a lot of time looking at Sonic's ass." 

It's probably a good thing they changed the name–while it certainly would've attracted some attention, it would probably have been the wrong kind.

He was almost named "Willy the Wombat"

The Crash character didn't come out of a crate fully formed: Naughty Dog had to figure out who he was, right down to what animal he was supposed to be.

During a series of interviews with Polygon, Naughty Dog co-founders Jason Rubin and Andy Gavin explained they were looking through a book of Tasmanian animals, trying to find one that hadn't starred in a game yet. They found critters like hedgehogs and echidnas (which Sega already claimed with Sonic and Knuckles) and Tasmanian devils (total Looney Tunes territory). Finally they came across bandicoots and wombats, with the latter being their wacky animal of choice. They named their character "Willy the Wombat," which is pretty silly, but no weirder than a hyperspeed hedgehog or a superpowered plumber.

But Willy wasn't Willy for very long. As Gavin explained in his blog, Naughty Dog always saw the name as "too dorky," and it only existed because he and Rubin were alliteration aficionados. Besides, Willie Wombat already existed, as a character on the cartoon Taz-Mania. (Looney Tunes thought of everything.) 

For a real name, they turned their character into a bandicoot, calling him Crash because he crashed through crates with reckless abandon. It honestly hardly mattered which animal he was, because even they admit Crash looks like neither one. As Rubin explained on Gavin's blog, there didn't need to be a "connection between the real animal and the final design." That explains why, in the original Project Wombat design book, Willie looks exactly like Crash, despite allegedly being a completely different species.

Crash's girlfriend disappeared because she was too sexy

Longtime Crash fans might remember Tawna, Crash's girlfriend. By Crash 2, she was gone, with no explanation. As it turns out, Tawna didn't fall victim to Dr. Cortex's mad experiments, but rather real-world corporate meddling.

In an interview with Crash Mania, Jason Rubin explains that Naughty Dog's original intent was to make Tawna cartoonishly sexy: ludicrously high heels, ridiculously long legs, and a figure and outfit that would make Jessica Rabbit blush. Unfortunately, the director of Universal Interactive (the company that published Crash) saw Tawna and reportedly flipped her lid. She refused to allow a character dressed like that into the game, and was sick of women being objectified in media, including video games.

Her outrage reached the president of Universal Interactive, who forced Naughty Dog to tone Tawna down significantly. Her final look was significantly less bombshell: shorter legs, sneakers, a less buxom figure, and a T-shirt that kept her modesty intact. This wasn't at all what Naughty Dog had intended, so they ditched her for subsequent games. As an aside, Universal's marketing director had, according to Rubin, proclaimed "no video game would ever be successful because of a sexy woman ever again." 

Then came Tomb Raider, which we're guessing is not her favorite game.

The crates only exist because of technical limitations

As you know by now, Crash is named Crash because he crashes into crates. But those famous crates weren't there at the beginning. They only became part of the Crash mythos after beta testing revealed that, without them, the game sucked.

During interviews with Polygon, multiple members of the Naughty Dog team explained how the crates were born out of necessity. As Andy Gavin recalled, he and Jason Rubin were discussing the in-progress game and how it just wasn't fun. At the time, there wasn't much for Crash to do in each level, and their limited polygon count (they could only afford 3,000 for the entire game) meant they couldn't have too many enemies or crazy obstacles. But without those additions, the game was just plain boring.

Eventually, Gavin got the idea to make the simplest, most minimally polygonic object imaginable–a box–and litter Crash's adventure with them.

As Rubin put it, they were quickly inspired to make more than just boxes filled with fruit. They created dangerous boxes, filled with TNT and nitro, that hurt Crash if he broke or even touched them. Other boxes made him jump higher. Still others were mystery boxes, offering up unknown prizes for the lucky bandicoot who happened upon them. The boxes had an immediate effect; as programmer Dave Baggett put it, "From Friday to Monday, the game became fun." It appears cats were right all along: boxes do make everything better.

Naughty Dog hasn't made a Crash game since 1999

Naughty Dog and Crash Bandicoot are still synonymous in many gamers' eyes, but the two actually haven't been an item since the last millennium.

As Polygon explains, Naughty Dog only had a hand in the first four Crash games; their final, Crash Team Racing, debuted in 1999. After that, they chose not to renew their licensing deal, giving Sony and Universal free rein over the character. That lasted one game, called Crash Bash, before Universal gained sole possession of the bandicoot. Since then, the poor guy's been all over the place — and unfortunately, so have his games.

Over the next decade, the rights to Crash changed hands multiple times. In 2008, Activision bought the rights and have held them ever since. It's easy to not notice, since they've done virtually squat with him. After 2010's Nitro Cart 2 — a mobile racing game — Activision didn't make a single Crash game until 2017's N. Sane Trilogy, which are remakes of the Naughty Dog games. N. Sane's success apparently shocked even Activision; as CEO Eric Hirshberg put it, "We knew that there was a passionate audience out there for Crash … but we had no idea — it's hard to tell whether that's a vocal minority or whether that's a real mass audience until you put something out there." 

Basically, they sat on Crash because they thought nobody cared about him. That's what happens when you go a decade without a decent game. Speaking of those games, what does Crash's creator think of them? Well …

The founder of Naughty Dog hates what Crash has become

Andy Gavin hasn't worked with Naughty Dog since the early 2000s, and hasn't had a hand in anything Crash since 1999. But he's still taken notice of what's happened to his beloved creation and, to say the least, he isn't happy.

Crash games in the post-Naughty Dog era haven't fared well in sales or reviews, and Gavin can see why. In a 2013 interview with Official Playstation Magazine, Gavin laid out his problems with post-1999 Crash games, and there are many. He feels the gameplay is incredibly unbalanced, and that other developers have made the character so goofy and silly, he's become more obnoxious than anything else. 

As he put it, "[Crash is] like the hot high school girlfriend who put on 50 pounds. I just can't look … People forget that he was once cool. Our Crash had a certain whimsical edge to him. Sure, it was goofy — but it wasn't dumb." So basically, he hated Crash of the Titans making Crash a babbling idiot in actual love with fruit almost as much as gamers did.

But don't think Gavin's without hope. He feels the right people could revive Crash, but it would need to be "a total reboot," perhaps with "a more modern, free-roaming style." With that, plus a renewed focus on balanced, addictive gameplay, Gavin's convinced Crash could become more than the forgettable relic he's been since the end of the Clinton Administration.

The first game almost had a wacky cartoon intro and ending

The original Crash Bandicoot had an intro and outro that looked like the game: 3D, polygonic, and silly, but not over-the-top. But very early in development, the game's beginning and end were completely different, more suited for a wacky Saturday morning cartoon than anything else.

The above video was posted by David Siller, producer and head designer of Crash. It contains the game's original intro: a hand-drawn cartoon accompanied by a hectic, crazy theme song. It's almost jarring to see that alongside the 3D game with its jungle-themed music. That crazy song, by the way, has lyrics explaining the entire plot, in case "break crates and stop the bad guy" was too confusing.

Once Sony signed on to publish the game, however, the intro's fate was sealed. Sony wanted everything 3D, and had no use for the game's bookends looking like Animaniacs outtakes. And if the intro didn't make them uncomfortable, the ending likely did. In it, Cortex falls off his blimp, and in retaliation blows it up … with Crash and Tawna still on it. We then get "The End?" even though we literally saw our heroes die one second ago. And did wacky music play as they died? Of course it did. 

You can play Crash Bandicoot while playing Uncharted 4

In what might be one of the more unexpected Easter eggs in game history, the original Crash Bandicoot appears in another Naughty Dog game: Uncharted 4, and you actually get to play it.

In Chapter 4, Nathan Drake prepares noodles for his wife, Elena. As the two eat, the conversation turns to her "little TV game thing," and how Nathan thinks he could totally beat her score. She calls his bluff, he turns the system on, and it's revealed to be an original PlayStation, loaded with none other than Crash Bandicoot. You — as Nathan — play one of the "boulder chases Crash" levels, and the goal is to score more points than Elena did. Also, don't die.

If that isn't awesome enough, we get commentary from a clearly clueless Nathan about how Crash looks like a "fox in jeans" and how he "did nothing to this boulder" and yet it's trying to kill him. He also wants to know "who's got time to pick a hundred pieces of fruit?" If you can earn more than 3500 points, you've beaten Elena. If not, she laughs at you and informs you "Easy Mode" exists, like any loving wife might.

There's a real Crash Bandicoot, and it's extinct

Before the N. Sane Trilogy, it's likely plenty of people felt Crash was extinct as a character. That would be apropos, because the scientific world has made him a real-life animal, and he's extinct here too.

In March 2014, the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology published a paper detailing a recent find in Australia. Paleontologists discovered what could be the earliest modern bandicoot, based almost entirely on one maxilla, or a piece of jaw. From this partial jaw, scientists were able to determine that this not only was a bandicoot, but a long-extinct species that might have given way for all the other bandicoots we see today. The wonderfully dorky discoverers named their find Crash bandicoot.

In fact, Crash possibly having started the whole "modern bandicoot" thing is partially why the species got its name. As the journal explains, "this was the start of a new radiation of more modern bandicoots that 'crashed' through to dominate younger, drier ecosystems of Australia." While it's not the funniest pun ever, it's proof that Crash's finders had a legitimate reason for the name. It wasn't some ode to having played way too many games in college — though it could've been that too.

The remakes were built almost completely from scratch

Activision's N. Sane Trilogy from 2017 was very well-received, selling over 2.5 million copies and proving that gamers still love Crash despite his stumbles. Impressively, this was no mere reskinning: Activision's in-house developer, Vicarious Visions, built N. Sane almost entirely from the ground up.

In an interview with Ars Technica, Visions producer Dan Tanguay admitted that, when working on N. Sane, they actually had very little from the original games to go on. There was no source code, no reference materials, and the engine Naughty Dog built wasn't usable beyond the PS1. They had some music and the games' 3D meshes (polygon shapes) but not much else. Luckily, they had lots of help along the way. 

The internet has Crash video aplenty, meaning Visions could revisit the old games and study how they operated. Plus, their team had hardcore Crash fans on board, providing expert notes after each test run. What's more, admits Kara Massie, Visions would consult online walkthroughs and gaming forums to double-check they got all the gameplay details down.

Other times, they just got lucky, like when they needed to ensure the remakes were just as difficult as the originals. Amazingly, Dan Tanguay had attended a panel years back, hosted by Crash's original developers, about how they fine-tuned Crash's difficulty. Remembering that speech, Tamguay took the wheel on making N. Sane tough enough to make you cry.

The hard work paid off, as N. Sane is pretty N. Credible. Next step: doing the same thing with a brand-new Crash game.