As I write this, I just finished up the Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy for the Switch, and I'm really enjoying it. As a bit of history, I never got to play the originals on the Playstation, so this whole experience was new to me. I did some reading on the originals, so I am aware of some of the changes in N. Sane Trilogy, but I'm sure I missed some of them. Because of this, here I'll be taking a look at the games as they stand today, with respect to the fact that the original trilogy was developed in the mid-to-late 90s. I'm primarily saying this so you can rest assured that there are no nostalgia goggles here; just a truthful review.
The original Crash Bandicoot is simple and straightforward, but solid. It's a traditional old-school platformer: you can run, you can jump, and you can attack (by spinning), which breaks boxes and defeats enemies. Some enemies can only be jumped on; some enemies can only be spun into. The levels are simple in design, but tight, controlled, and very linear—which in this case, is not a bad thing. Numerous bonus stages are available, which usually involve breaking certain combinations of boxes in more creative (and/or dangerous) ways. Each level contains one crystal, awarded for completing the level; and one relic, which is awarded in a Time Trial version of the level where special boxes can be broken to stop the timer momentarily. Relics are awarded in three tiers: Sapphire, Gold and Platinum. For the newbie gamer, even Sapphire Relics can be challenging to earn. Obtaining Gold Relics can become a serious test of skill even for more skilled players, and, depending on the level, the coveted Platinum relics lie within the realm of perfection. This pattern continues throughout all three of the games in this collection.
Most stages also contain one clear gem, which is rewarded for completing the level and breaking every single crate. This is sometimes not possible on your first run through the level, and when you fail, you are treated to a slightly humiliating animation of Crash getting smacked in the head with every single box you failed to destroy. Instead of a clear gem, a select few levels contain a special colored one. Colored gems not only require you to complete their respective level while breaking every single crate, but also require doing it without dying. Luckily, the levels they are rewarded from are not skull-crushingly difficult for the most part. The system is also forgiving enough: If you die before reaching a checkpoint, it doesn't count against you (since you are playing the whole level over from the beginning anyway), and likewise, dying during a bonus stage does not disqualify you. There is no "retry" button unless you are on a time trial, so this is a welcome addition. Once you obtain a colored gem, special routes open up in earlier levels which allow you to round out your clear gems there as well. Some hidden routes also contain other bonuses, like extra lives. For this reason, it's wise to simply play through the game without worrying about perfecting everything until you at least earn all of the colored gems. For the perfectionist, it's worth noting that you must obtain at least gold relics on all of the stages as well to reach the game's "perfect" total, which is 105%.
Each level involves either 2D platforming, 3D platforming, or a mix of both. The 2D platforming is absolutely fantastic; while it is simple, it's fluid and controls wonderfully. Levels are designed cleverly and range in difficulty from "simple" to "clever" to "downright frustrating". There are a handful of boss stages to break up the action which are generally pretty straightforward, which is the case for all three of the games. Nothing really fantastic going on there.
My only real gripe comes with the 3D levels. I use the term "3D" somewhat lightly, as typically they involve guiding Crash primarily forward and backward with some side to side action. However, this is not always as simple as heading forward into the distance, away from the camera; some levels have you heading towards the camera, which can sometimes be a little frustrating in the first installment when you have to backtrack in order to fully complete a level. By the second and third games, however, this style of level becomes downright obnoxious, as the levels have a very small field of view in the direction you're heading, require much quicker reaction time and ultimately boil down to memorizing the level layouts well enough to make it to the end.
This is the Goldilocks game of the trilogy: by far the most solid. The mechanics from the original game return, but with just a tiny bit more plot (not that it's critical in such a game) and improved level design.
You are also given a new move to work with: a crouch/slide. This seems relatively unimportant at the beginning of the game until you learn just what it's capable of (which, admittedly, may not be until you start to tackle the later levels and especially the time trials). The fastest way of getting around often becomes to slide, then jump towards the end of the slide; you can break crates and defeat enemies more quickly by sliding and spinning right as you approach them; and you can extend the length and height of your jumps significantly by sliding before executing your jump. With a bit of tact, you can even slide, then spin and jump immediately at the same time to jump even farther than a normal slide jump: far enough to clear gaps that would otherwise be impossible to clear. In addition, you can "body slam" (or "belly flop") while you are in midair, which allows you to break many crates at once as well as a new type of reinforced box.
In addition to reinforced boxes, there are also Nitro crates, which damage you on contact. These are used cleverly as obstacles; often there will be Nitro crates creating a tricky path to a useful power-up, which generates some nice risk-vs-reward scenarios. Typically, at or near the end of each level there is a switch that detonates all remaining Nitro crates, which do count towards your crate total.
In addition, you are given running shoes for completing the game, which allow you to run by holding down ZR. This makes the journey of going back and obtaining 100% much more enjoyable, which is how it should be. It's not that replaying old levels was horrible in the first game; it's just that now you can rush through many of the little frustrating bits is a nice blessing.
There are some small modifications to the collectibles in this game, but the formula is mostly the same: there's a crystal somewhere inside every level which is required to progress; a clear gem for breaking all the boxes; and relics in three tiers for completing the level in time trial mode. Colored gems still exist, but are now obtained by finding secrets and exploring alternate routes, which becomes more "challenging" than "frustrating". In the place of "completing a level without dying", there are "death routes", which require you to complete only up to a certain point in a level without dying. Then, they work mostly like bonus stage platforms, except instead of taking you to a fun world of boxes and extra lives, they take you to a freakishly difficult hellhole. In a particular snowy level, you have to make it through what may be the toughest death route segment in the game, then go all the way back through that segment again, exit it, and then complete the entire level as normal. This one had me ready to smash my head against something, but finally completing it was incredibly satisfying. Nowadays, there are few games that emulate this exact flavor of challenge correctly; nothing feels better than finally mastering one of the more difficult segments. Unfortunately, the "moving back towards the camera" segments are still present, and when you have to complete part of a level, then backtrack to complete an alternate route, you can encounter some very, very frustrating deaths that feel cheap rather than deserved.
For secret-lovers, there are also a handful of secret levels which can be found by standing on certain platforms in certain levels throughout the normal game mode. Some of these are alternate entrances to existing levels—finally enabling you to obtain certain gems—and some are new levels altogether. Once again, you must obtain at least gold relics on all of the levels to obtain the full percentage completion for the game, which is also greater than 100%.
Some of the game is tougher than Crash 1; some of it is easier. The only letdown in terms of level design are the jetpack levels towards the end of the game; they aren't bad, but I just found myself wondering why they were there. Perhaps they were meant to break up the monotony, but I don't think there was any that needed breaking. Apparently, this was a sign of worse things to come.
The only thing warped about this one is the level design.
The core mechanics are still there, including the additions from the second game (sans running shoes, which are once again awarded after completing the game once). You are also awarded special permanent power-ups after completing each world's boss. One gives you a body slam shockwave which destroys more crates; one gives you a double jump; one allows you to extend the length of your spin, which acts both as a protective shield and as a way to slow your descent while jumping; and one gives you a fruit gun which allows you to destroy enemies and blocks from a distance and is more useful than it sounds in the core game. These additions are fantastic and really add a lot to the core Crash formula. The fruit gun is kind of "meh": I love it's uses, I just don't love its implementation as it slows down the game so much.
The level design, on the other hand, is the very definition of "mixed bag". The core platforming levels are great; possibly the best out of the trilogy! They start easier than in the last two games, which I think is a welcome change, and they continue to ramp up in difficulty and mechanics until the end. However, the game never seems to go more than one or two consecutive levels without throwing in something to "break up the monotony": Basically, this means alternate forms of gameplay, resembling the mini-games from the Spyro series very closely (and let's be real, many of those were not fun in the slightest).
There are underwater levels, which are a bit slower and more frustrating than the normal stages. It's rare that games have decent water levels, so I suppose you could give these a pass. Coco has levels in which she rides a tiger, much like the hog levels from the first game and the bear levels from the second. These are alright at normal speed and are the least offensive of the bunch, but quickly become a chore when it's time for the time trials. She also has her own jet-ski levels, which are alright once you learn to control the thing, but still ultimately end up feeling like an exercise in tedium (Why couldn't we just have more platforming)?
There are also airplane levels, which aren't really anything mechanically challenging and are frankly quite boring. There are only two in the main game (or three, depending on what you consider the main game to be). The final level, where you have to barrel roll through rings, almost feels like a carbon copy of the equally obnoxious Spyro levels. It's not particularly difficult; it's just annoying and again, it feels like we'd have been better off with more of the excellent platforming.
The absolute worst of the worst are the motorcycle levels, which are just straight-up frustrating: in order to complete the level, you must place in 1st, and if you make just a few mistakes it becomes basically impossible to win the level. This includes falling off pits, running off the course too much, missing jumps, or even hitting the AI players from behind or having them ram you from the side—which will happen despite your best efforts, because the AI is clearly designed to screw you. This would be fine if it were easy to give it another go, but you are not given a "restart" button unless you are playing the level as a Time Trial. This means that you have to either complete the entire race (even though you messed up so badly in the first 30 seconds that you cannot possibly win), or quit and re-enter the level which means sitting through two loading screens. The levels are short, but still, a restart button would have been a lot nicer. It doesn't help that in at least one of the motorcycle levels, the holes in the ground can be kind of difficult to see while focusing on everything else. Every time I saw most of these "mini-game" style levels pop up, I rolled my eyes, but seeing another motorcycle level just made me audibly groan. These levels aren't the worst things in the world, but they feel like a huge step back when we already had two games that had the formula perfect. Why the change?
There are also two secret levels which are entered by doing two incredibly obtuse things. One of the two seems understandable once you figure it out the first time, but as far as I can tell, the other has absolutely no rhyme or reason behind it whatsoever. When you find one of these secrets, you are rewarded with the hardest jet-ski level in the game. What fun.
The only things that were truly negative about N. Sane Trilogy were those awful mini-games in Warped. I can't exactly slam the first game for being "too basic" as I've seen many do, because it set out to create a new-ish formula and it did a wonderful job of it. Cortex Strikes Back built on that fantastically, and Warped almost hit the mark by adding permanent upgrades and improving the platforming levels, but then stepped all over it with those awful mini-games. Even some of the extra hub levels were mini-game levels; and if that wasn't a slap in the face, the two hidden "bonus" levels were BOTH mini-game levels. I felt like there was more mini-game than actual Crash. I understand that there was some perceived need to break up the monotony, but these levels were not the way to do it.
That being said, some annoying levels in the third game shouldn't bring the entire trilogy down so much. It was still a fantastic experience, and I would gladly replay the first and second games (but maybe not the third) in the future. Those were absolutely fantastic games. The first game feels like a 3.5/5; Cortex Strikes Back, 4/5. But Warped kind of brings the whole package down and feels like a below average title. It's not that it wasn't fun; just that it wasn't as outstanding as the other two. It's somewhere around a 2.5—just average—which, for this trilogy, is less than spectacular.