A much-improved sequel that’s well worth checking out, but still falls foul of some of the pitfalls of its predecessor.
EU (Incompatible in US)
World-building & Story
Unlike the wishy-washy figure-it-out-for-yourself storytelling found in the first game, Cortex Strikes Back at least attempts to tell a cohesive narrative this time around. Whether it succeeds is another issue, but things are much improved in the story department.
The setup is simple – Crash and his sister Coco are relaxing on a Wumpa Island beach when Crash gets whisked away by Cortex (the antagonist from the previous game) and is informed that he needs to help Cortex collect crystals in order to stop a new evil from engulfing the island. Of course, a former villain isn’t to be trusted – something Coco tries to relay to Crash, but his gleeful nativity leads him to help out in the quest to save his homeland.
That’s all there is to the plot, but it’s all there needs to be – the game focuses instead on the platforming experience, but at least it’s framed much better this time. It also provides the setting for a few returning characters (such as Ripper Roo and N-Gin) which is always a nice touch, while keeping everything faithful to the original design. There’s no major surprises in the storytelling, but again that’s no bad thing.
World-building is much as it is in the first Crash Bandicoot – a coherent set of levels set in the fictional Wumpa Islands that mixes traditional areas with more experimental zones. Thanks to the game featuring hubs through which Crash can travel to new levels (thanks to Cortex’s scientific mind) there’s more scope for the developers to come up with new ideas – you’ll run through underground sewers; ride down rapids and even hitch a lift on a cute polar bear in the snowy ice caps. Variety is much better this time around, and Crash Bandicoot 2 is all the better for it.
Presentation & Sound
With its rich, varied environments alongside amusing character animation, Cortex Strikes Back still manages to look great to this day – and certainly manages to be a visual feast compared to other PS1-era platformers.
As with the previous game, Crash himself is the star of the show. The way he bounds around each area with gleeful curiosity is great and as morbid as it is, some of his death animations are just hilarious – whether it be slowly flapping his way up to heaven playing a didgeridoo or his boxers landing on Polar’s face after he hits a nitro crate. Speaking of Polar, enemy and NPC animations are similarly spot on – whether it be the playful staring of the bear himself or the maniacal cackling and leaping of Ripper Roo.
It’s the environments that have taken the biggest step up over the original though, looking much more impressive this time around. Gone are the cloud temples with their poor draw distance, replaced by snow white polar ice caps or beautiful gushing river rapids. There’s a few duds in here – the iconic outback is still here and as brown and dull as ever, but is used much less often and mixed in with much more visually exciting areas like a space station complete with laser and mine traps.
Sound has also received more love this time around – with the biggest change being the addition of voice acting of which Neo Cortex’s actor absolutely takes the cake with (he mixes menacing and pathetic with equal measure, which is perfect for the character). Music is also much better, with catchy tunes in the majority of levels – not quite up to the heights of contemporaries like Spyro, but still decent in its own right.
Gameplay & Content
Cortex Strikes Back doesn’t take many steps forward in the gameplay department over its predecessor, instead tweaking what was an already successful formula into an even better one. The game is great – but some difficulty frustrations still exist to dampen the experience.
Rather than the world map formula of the previous game that meant you had to tackle levels in order, Crash Bandicoot 2 opts for hub worlds which is an inspired choice – you’ve always got five challenges to choose from which helps with variety. The name of the game is still collecting crystals with optional gems awarded for breaking every crate – plenty of back tracking and revisiting levels is still required to reach full completion.
More than any other series I know, Crash Bandicoot likes to mess with perspectives. Your standard view will be of Crash running up the screen towards enemies, but at various points you’ll have side scrolling; running towards the camera or even a combination of all of these. The side scrolling sections tend to be the worst as things still move from a 3D perspective, meaning it’s easy to fall off the level in ways you shouldn’t really be able to; which is an unnecessary frustration. Aside from this, as a character Crash is easy to control; being responsive to player inputs.
He’s also able to use various moves that were unlocked during his previous adventure, including the ability to belly flop or slide to get under dangerous crates. These are always experimented with in the game’s platforming challenges (particularly the bonus areas) which is always a treat, as some require you to string together fairly complicated combos in order to break every crate – or in some cases just to reach your goal at all.
With that said, the difficulty is tuned down compared to its predecessor, with platforming challenges mostly feeling more fair. Level design is better, with more intricate areas alongside some great ideas – using fireflies to light the way ahead makes for some brilliant gameplay whereas using the jetpack quickly overcomes its gimmicky roots to become a fairly interesting test of maneuverability.
Yet just when it’s showing improvement, Crash Bandicoot 2 falls back into old traps of annoying design. Two sets of levels – one where you have to dodge bees by diving underground and another where you have to avoid bomb-spitting plants – serve to show the gameplay can be as annoying as ever and also expose the title for its poor check-pointing in places. These difficulty spikes often come out of nowhere and feel poorly balanced, which is a real shame.
Still, there’s a lot to do here beyond just the original levels – you can return to collect gems from finding all the crates and there’s various exploration chains hidden within areas which lead to even more bonus gems (and for the price it’s going through on the store, you’ll get a good amount of content). And really, the majority of the game is enjoyable – it’s just a shame these odd difficulty spikes pull the whole package down.
It may not be the best way to play the game these days, but Cortex Strikes Back on Vita is still a fun way to revisit the Bandicoot’s classic adventure. It’s a big step up over its predecessor in nearly every area and provides a dose of platforming enjoyment that can’t really be matched in modern games, but some elements of its design still leave an underlying element of frustration.