Following Crash Team Racing, Crash Bandicoot faced an uncertain future. Naughty Dog, the original developers of the series, had only signed on to make four games, and were now moving onto other projects. Universal Interactive Studios, the series’ publisher, needed another developer to take the reins and steer the franchise as it moved into the new millennium.
Traveller’s Tales would eventually be the studio tasked with the job. Not only would they be developing the next main entry in the series, they would be bringing Crash Bandicoot to the next generation of console too. The result was Crash Bandicoot: The Wrath of Cortex, which turns twenty years old today.
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In this installment, Cortex and his cronies decide to awaken a group of ancient masks called the Elementals. He reckons their combined power will allow him to use his new superweapon – Crunch Bandicoot – to stop Crash once and for all. Naturally, it’s up to Crash (and Coco) to stop him. You’ll need to collect crystals and gems across twenty-five standalone levels (sound familiar?) on your way to the final showdown with Cortex.
Upon launch, The Wrath of Cortex sold extremely well, making the best-seller list for each of the three consoles it launched on – originally PS2, then OG Xbox and GameCube. It’s not hard to see why. This was the first major entry in a much-loved franchise in three years, and the first on a new generation of console. Hype was understandably high.
Critical reception wasn’t nearly as strong however. Reviewers at the time criticised the game for its lack of innovation and for playing it too safe by trying to emulate the tried and tested formula of the previous games. Complaints about long load times, floaty controls and the ‘sterile’ presentation were also raised.
In the twenty years since, The Wrath of Cortex’s reputation hasn’t gotten much better. Looking through Reddit threads, the prevailing opinion seems to be somewhere between ‘average at best’ and ‘this is the worst game I’ve ever played’.
Playing through it again, I think that’s a fair assessment. The Wrath of Cortex is not a good game. It sticks closely to the Warped formula, but lacks any of the charisma or charm that made that game so good. There’s no innovation, except for a few new crate types and a power-up you’ll use once or twice. Nothing to exactly write home about . . .
There are also wild fluctuations in quality. You’ll have levels that are well-designed, with amazing environments and solid platforming, that are actually fun to play. But they’ll be followed by messes that shouldn’t have made it past quality assurance.
The biggest mark against it though, is that it’s completely unfocused. The Wrath of Cortex tries to cram too many concepts into a relatively short run-time, and most end up coming out half-baked as a result. Look at the vehicles – there are way too many of them, which means most appear only a handful of times. Even worse, The Wrath of Cortex has a horrible tendency to shoehorn a vehicle section mid-way through a level, which completely disrupts the flow of the game.
Saying that, The Wrath of Cortex isn’t a completely irredeemable game either. For all its flaws, it manages to get a few things right. The actual platforming sections are consistently solid, even if they often seem few and far between. Similarly, the Atlasphere levels are some of the most fun I’ve had in a Crash game to date. And the soundtrack is one of the best in the entire series. Not only does each level have its own theme, the songs are catchy and upbeat too. Even before my recent runthrough, the theme to Wizards and Lizards was one I could still remember from my first playthrough of this game about fifteen years ago.
Perhaps most importantly, I can’t say I didn’t have fun with it. The Wrath of Cortex is a game that I played the entire way through and probably would do again.
I get the sense that this is a game that is overly hated. It’s rightfully criticised for its shortcomings, but people are often too quick to dismiss the entire game outright. Why? Because of the comparisons with the original trilogy. It’s only natural that The Wrath of Cortex would be compared to it, being the first main Crash game post-Naughty Dog. And against those remarkably high standards, the game falls completely flat.
Any fair assessment also needs to take the troubled development cycle into account when judging this game. Original plans for The Wrath of Cortex were radically different, with the game intended to be an open-world platformer. However, due to disagreements, those plans had to be scrapped and Traveller’s Tales were given only twelve months to make a new game from scratch. It’s perhaps no wonder then, that the course of action chosen was to produce a game similar to Warped, considering that formula had been well-received in the past.
Looking back, I think Crash Bandicoot: The Wrath of Cortex deserves a re-appraisal. It’s a game that seems to be only viewed in comparison to the original trilogy. If you were to judge it on its individual merits, you’d find a game that whilst not great, is not completely irredeemable like some seem to imply. In fact, you’d find a game that actually really excels in some areas.
Despite what some say, The Wrath of Cortex is a solid entry in a much-loved franchise, and I’d encourage anyone to give it another look, even twenty years later.
If you want to play the game, the Xbox Store is holding a digital download of it via the Xbox 360 Classics tag. It’s super cheap too – only £6.75.
As always though, let us know your Wrath of Cortex memories. The comments are below.