Crash Bandicoot N.Sane Trilogy appears to be selling much more briskly than the cynical among us expected, and it was the thing to talk about in social gaming circles this weekend.
Nostalgia is a powerful force, and it works heavily in Crash Bandicoot’s favour. Crash was one of the recognisable faces of Sony’s amazing 1990’s marketing push (which built on excellent bases established by Nintendo and Sega over two generations). It’s hard to remember sometimes that video games were not anywhere near as powerful a mainstream force before Sony helped put Lara Croft on magazine covers and in U2 videos, Wip3out in the movie Hackers, and “cool” ads on tellies (do you remember the one where the snowboarder got a fork stuck in his head).
That sort of cultural shift arriving during a formative stage of your life, combined with the games industry’s cynical exploitation of brand loyalty, virtually guarantees misty-eyes two decades later; Xbox’s dorm room revolution and whatever the hell happened with the N64 have had the same effect on different demographics. It’s no wonder Crash Bandicoot’s return has struck a chord; Crash Bandicoot is long summer afternoons under the air conditioner with your best mate and an endless supply of popsicles – or whatever fond memory applies to you personally.
"You are less good at games than you were as a young 'un: as the rapid turnover in professional esports aptly demonstrated, twitch reflex skills do not last."
Actually revisiting those old 90’s PlayStation games, though – woof. It can be rough. What’s really remarkable about Activision’s revival of Crash Bandicoot is that it makes almost no concessions to modern sensibilities: these are the original Crash Bandicoot games, lovingly recreated as they were with shiny graphics, just the way someone in the comments always stridently demands. The original gameplay is intact – and here’s where things get interesting. Or rather, they get difficult: for all its family-friendly looks, Crash Bandicoot is bloody hard.
Returning to Crash Bandicoot with the Crash Bandicoot N.Sane Trilogy after 20 years means suffering a rude shock. One, these games are harder than the ones you play now: old platform games were mostly pure physical challenges with a difficulty level hugely informed by the legacy of money-grubbing coin-op era. Two, you are less good at games than you were as a young 'un: as the rapid turnover in professional esports aptly demonstrated, twitch reflex skills do not last.
It’s been amusing to watch these revelations play out over and over again on Twitter this weekend, as those who haven’t played a 90’s character platformer in two decades suddenly remember how frustrating and fiddly they can be if you’re out of practice or just not physically gifted. Keep at it, cats; your skills may come back to you. Alternately, they may not, in which case you’ll have to rope someone younger in to play for you – assuming you can get them to care about this ancient relic of the past.
What has not been amusing to me, a person who clearly takes video games far too seriously, are the comparisons to Dark Souls. I’ve seen a number of joke tweets referring to “From Software’s Crash Bandicoot”, and a couple of different cover mockups. Very funny, right? Because both of these series are really hard!
Like, no. No. This gets right up my nostrils because it betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of what factors make games challenging, and devalues Dark Souls, a series so shrouded in mystique, misunderstanding and its own bloody marketing that its wonders are widely unappreciated even by some of its most fervent fans.
Here’s the thing: although it has simple controls and systems, Crash Bandicoot is a very hard game, but its challenge is entirely grounded in a small set of skills – physical and mental – related to spatial awareness and timing. These are skills that some people have naturally, some people can learn, and huge numbers of people will never be able to acquire. Anybody who tells you it is not hard is underestimating their own skill level or trying to police who can and can’t enjoy games.
Games like Crash Bandicoot should definitely exist. It’s hugely satisfying to acquire and implement platforming abilities. Those who have the skills or the time or both should go for their life and have a great time – but also be aware that these games are not for everyone. There is a barrier to entry. They are inaccessible.
The Dark Souls family, on the other hand, is accessible. It’s certainly complex and deliberately obtuse, but there’s not a single moment in any of From Software’s hardcore action RPGs that can’t be overcome by someone with basic control pad competencies and the willingness to work out how the game functions. Remember, Dark Souls and the like are all about how Japanese gamers felt dumped into untranslated western RPGs for the first time. Were these necessarily hard games just because they spoke another language?
Dark Souls has an undeserved reputation for difficulty, which developed as a result of gamer culture (such as it is). For starters, there’s the “git gud” crowd: the absolute easiest way to play Dark Souls is as a straight action game, as evidenced by the ease with which highly skilled players dispatch bosses in zero level runs or with guitar controllers, and the people who are gifted with these abilities can only tell you to “git gud” in order to play as they do, because that’s all they know. Many of these people have encouraged the idea that Dark Souls is terribly hard, because it adds to their glory.
"Dark Souls games are more like the old coin-ops and character platformers, in that you can only take two or perhaps three hits before you lose a life, and you just have to not take those hits."
Next up is player expectation. The vast majority of big budget action video games can be completed by randomly mashing buttons, even though they may offer depth and difficulty well beyond that for those who care to seek it. Regenerating health, shields, large health pools, increasingly powerful attacks – all of these design conventions have become the accepted standard because they mean a very large pool of people can play at least the first few hours of a game and feel vaguely competent. (Telemetry has demonstrated that the vast majority of players quit playing video games after a startlingly short period of time, so it’s safe to ramp things up a few hours in when only the committed will keep going anyway.)
The Dark Souls games aren’t like that – they’re more like the old coin-ops and character platformers, in that you can only take two or perhaps three hits before you lose a life, and you just have to not take those hits. But these days we do not expect an enemy to one-hit kill us in a modern action game, and so when it happens, many of us switch the game off in disgust and call it inaccessible and bad design.
These two factors, combined with marketing focused on the difficulty aspect, have us convinced that Dark Souls is hard. But Dark Souls is not hard, and I will tell you why: if it were hard, I could not do it – and I manifestly did.
You don’t need amazing twitch reflex skills to play Dark Souls. If you have them, you’re playing in easy mode. What you do need to play Dark Souls is a willingness to explore, to go slow, to play around with builds and different playstyles, to observe and plot, to piece together fragments of information, to read the environment, to die, and to die again, and again and again and again, and learn something every single time, until you grow into your unstoppable glory.
What you do need is time, and that’s where the inaccessibility actually does come in, because not everybody does. Just as you might need time to acquire platforming skills – except that unlike platforming skills, anybody can learn to equip such-and-such a combination of gear, to peek around corners before stepping out, and to run like hell.
Last week I saw yet another tweet about how Actually, Dark Souls is a product of the worst and most unwelcome aspects of masochistic, exclusive and inaccessible gamer culture and its reputation as a Good Game has been blown all out of proportion to its qualities.
I gotta say, I feel you could CTRL+F and replace “Dark Souls” with “Crash Bandicoot” and have a much stronger argument.