One hundred sixty-three. That's how many attempts it took me to complete all three levels in the Crash Bandicoot 4 demo, now available to anyone who digitally pre-ordered the game on Playstation 4 or Xbox One. I know this, because the game has a counter in its upper-right hand corner to remind you of your failures. It becomes a dark-humored joke as Crash dies repeatedly, accompanied by a Looney Toons-esque cartoon gag.
When a massive T-Rex gobbles him up, Crash's cartoon limbs dangle limply out of the dinosaur's mouth. When you miss a precision jump and get blown up by an ill-placed dynamite keg, a glowing angel Crash rises to Heaven. When Crash falls into the ice floe river, he freezes into an ice cube. And the whole time, the counter continues to tick upward.
I attained victory through attrition; I eventually beat each level because I had exhausted every possible way to lose. And yet, I still wanted more once I was done. It's a testament to the game's design that something so hair-pulling could be so fun. I played the demo on the default "modern" difficulty setting. The retro setting, with a "lives" system and a "Game Over" screen, is also available if you want that extra, nostalgic level of frustration.
The older fanbase that remembers Crash from his late-'90s heyday, when he was pitted against Mario and Sonic for console supremacy, will be happy to learn that the game's mechanics are the same. Crash can jump and spin to take out enemies, just as he could in Crash Bandicoot (1996). He retains his additional abilities from Crash Bandicoot 2 (1997)—a baseball slide and diving body splash that can break steel-reinforced boxes—and his double jump from Crash Bandicoot Warped (1998).
It is part-and-parcel with the acclaimed Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy, the remakes that came out in 2017. In short, developer Toys for Bob has created a game that feels, at every step, like a natural progression for the franchise, even if the squishy jump mechanics, which feel vaguely imprecise until you get the hang for them, are intact.
What's changed, and what brings this franchise into the modern era, are the time-twisting mechanics. The collectible tiki masks, which once gave Crash a broad buff in the form of invincibility or an extra hit, now affect the gameplay in more specific ways. One mask slows down time, which allows you to run past an enemy that would otherwise be insurmountable Another mask grants you phasing powers, allowing you to change crates from imperceptible to solid, and back again. You can imagine the possibilities for creating some fiendish platforming where Crash must continually phase, slide, slow down time, and do Lord-knows-what-else to get to the next checkpoint.
There's peril at every turn, even in the minor details that other developers might keep simple. Take the ice river, for example. The typical platforming scenario would have two variants: a solid platform that is "safe" and a brittle platform which gives way to the character's weight. But in its ice river, Crash Bandicoot 4 has three variants: the solid platform, the brittle platform, and a blue, slippery platform that disrupts your momentum. You're either overshooting your jump or undershooting it, which leads to another death. Then, overlay additional mechanics over that—say, a ray gun that turns enemies into trampolines—and you have a recipe for addictive frustration.
The full game will be released for Playstation 4 and Xbox One on October 2. If you pre-order it digitally, you can play the demo right now, and get a peak at what you're in for. Based on what we've seen so far, it's a whole lot of fun.
There's a moment in the first demo level, where you traverse a waterfall by slowing down time and jumping onto the falling ice, that made me think, "They don't make games like this anymore." It's the sort of paradoxical feeling that comes with nostalgia, done properly.