Based on its premise, Naughty Dog’s Crash Bandicoot trilogy should’ve been a breeze. Playing as the eponymous bandicoot, those original PlayStation 1 games pit players against platforming marathons, perplexing boss battles, and a unique art style and presentation, quite unlike anything else at the time. Each game gives Crash the chance to take down Doctor Neo Cortex and his variety of goons in increasingly brazen scenarios, from waterfalls to jungles to time-hopping futuristic cities. While the franchise’s entries post-Naughty Dog may have lost the allure of these originals—aside from last year’s well-received Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time—there’s something unerringly engaging about those early games. Immortalised in 2017’s N Sane Trilogy for PS4 and Xbox One, it introduced a new generation of fans to the character and his first adventures—but crucially, it reminded fans just how painstakingly hard those games can be.
The original Crash games were known for being hard, particularly during the Naughty Dog years. But as the franchise fell under new management, with developers like Vicarious Visions and now Toys for Bob working on the franchise, it started to skew towards younger, less engaged audiences. Later entries lost the spark of the original, sending Crash into a hiatus he only emerged from with last year’s It’s About Time. This has led to many newcomers to the franchise not realising just how strenuous those earlier games were. Particularly in the N Sane Trilogy’s remaster of the first three games, you needed to get each landing absolutely spot on to reach the next obstacle—let alone finishing the level. To bring the trilogy—comprising of Crash Bandicoot, Cortex Strikes Back, and Warped—to modern consoles, Vicarious Visions used Naughty Dog’s original level designs and blueprints to rebuild maps from the ground up. With this came the inch-perfect nuance of each level, from the break-neck speed of Hog Wild to the intricate laser-dodging needed for Crash 3’s Gone Tomorrow.
Funnily enough, the key to the N Sane Trilogy’s difficulty is actually in how Vicarious Visions diverted from the Naughty Dog formula. The original PS1 games all had different control mechanics, with the first Crash game slightly clunkier and less advanced than the double-jumping, dashing, and weapon-based traversal of later entries. To ensure continuity across the remaster, Vicarious Visions used the mechanics of the first Crash game without tailoring them to the other two entries. This caused some trouble for long-term Crash fans, as jumps they could do with ease back in the PS1 days were now considerably harder, needing a change of approach to make. Yet rather than an accidental annoyance, it gave a new veneer of difficulty to three games famed for their challenge. For those that had grown accustomed to the original Crash games, used to the rhythm and timing of jumps, this was a new type of difficulty. It swept away the rose-tinted glasses through which many fans nostalgically looked upon the Naughty Dog trilogy, reminding them that Crash is punishing, not a walk in the pixelated park.
But no tweak to jumping mechanics and no other level in Crash Bandicoot history—and quite possibly console gaming in general—is quite as challenging as Stormy Ascent. It’s one of the final levels of the game, as Crash makes his way up the wall of Cortex’s castle to confront the mad scientist, who is holding his friend Tawna hostage. Similar in design to the level Slippery Climb, development on Stormy Ascent was totally complete when, just before release, Naughty Dog decided to cut the level from the finished product. This came after pre-testing found the level was too punishingly hard to make the final cut—and even Naughty Dog’s co-founder Andy Gavin said “it was too long and too hard” to stay in. Initially, Stormy Ascent was only accessible in Crash Bandicoot by using a GameShark cheat cartridge, with the ominous pre-level tip “Good luck! (You’re gonna need it.)” Stormy Ascent finally received an official release July 2017, when it was released as DLC for the N Sane Trilogy. The hardest level in Crash history was now available to all players, and the gruelling difficulty of Stormy Ascent was more prolific than ever.
In my first playthrough of the N Sane Trilogy, Stormy Ascent was the hidden relic best left untouched, far too intimidating to even download. I only dared to go near it after completing all three games in the collection—and even then, it was with the lingering knowledge that I was about to undertake a challenge quite unlike anything I’d done before with Crash. While some YouTubers have blitzed the level in just over two minutes, it took me well over six hours to cross the final obstacle of revolving birds, and get to the portal at the end. The stress, frustration and determination of that marathon session—from around 8pm to 2am one Wednesday evening—was something quite unlike anything I’d experienced in a game before, least of all in my first Crash experience, 2001’s Wrath of Cortex, which was a breeze compared to this.
The constant retries, the frustration leading to silly mistakes, and the increasing desire to get to the finish line without giving up made the ultimate prize of completing the level even sweeter. The mixture of pure elation and sheer relief when it was finally over is something no other game has ever managed to conjure up—and for that ability to toy with your emotions so viscerally, Crash Bandicoot deserves mountains of praise.
Funnily, it proves that the nostalgic lens with which we look upon old gems can really alter how we view childhood favourites. Downloading the N Sane Trilogy, quite naively, I thought I was in for a breezy platforming ride—but it couldn’t have been further than that. Naughty Dog’s original Crash Bandicoot games use difficulty in a much more intelligent way—not only giving new players a puzzling learning curve to conquer, but by keeping seasoned veterans on their toes, taking nostalgia and transforming it into a newly-punishing experience. Every bump in the road is so precise, every obstacle so instrumental in avoiding, that the feeling of returning to the main hub after conquering a difficult level is truly unlike anything else. Very few platformers of that era were willing to challenge their players as much as Crash did, and it’s for that reason that two decades on, the original Naughty Dog trilogy is just as viscerally challenging today. Just don’t start Stormy Ascent if you have an early start the next day. You’ll hardly be getting a wink of sleep.