The music of Crash Bandicoot has an unexpected backstory that was initially met with ridicule.
“When individuals engage in playing video games, their main goal is to enjoy themselves,” explains Josh Mancell, the composer for Naughty Dog’s original Crash Bandicoot titles. This straightforward statement served as the basis for everything that the PlayStation’s beloved mascot would ultimately embody. Despite the moments of frustration when players would repeatedly encounter the unsettling music of Slippery Climb on their old CRT TVs, Crash Bandicoot remained a source of fun. And throughout the entire gaming experience, Mancell’s soundtrack served as a constant reminder of that.
The unique and unconventional high energy that drove Crash’s wild platforming escapades was not a random occurrence. According to Mancell, “As I was developing the game, I was actively experimenting with different ideas to see what would work.”
Crash was not nearly as speedy as Sonic and did not have the same friendly demeanor as Mario. He had a rougher, edgier appearance and was more of an outsider compared to his polished, mainstream counterparts. The music reflected this, with a persistent, uplifting, and quirky tone. It was a bit silly, like a Looney Tunes cartoon that stumbled into a sugary world of three dimensions. However, the upbeat, surf-rock sound had an almost completely different feel to it.
The initial versions of the soundtrack for the original Crash Bandicoot game had a strong emphasis on ambient sounds and heavy drum beats. The goal was to create a sonic environment that would transport players to the dangerous island where Crash was on his adventure, surrounded by deadly plants and animals. Interestingly, this music shared similarities with one of Mancell’s previous projects as a composer – a Kraft cheese commercial in the US. The commercial featured a young boy narrating his journey through the jungle, and the musical beat used in it was reminiscent of one that also ended up in Crash.
The previous, atmospheric elements succeed in their purpose; they transport you into the jungle and immerse you in the true essence of gaming.
However, Crash Bandicoot is not similar to Uncharted or The Last of Us. Mancell collaborated with Naughty Dog during its “punk” phase, where Crash was designed as a humorous take on Sonic the Hedgehog. The studio’s “Hollywood” phase was still a couple of generations away, so the music for Crash needed to be fun and unconventional – more like a Saturday morning cartoon than a primetime TV series.
One of Crash Bandicoot’s most well-known levels, Hog Wild, was the inspiration for Mancell to fully immerse himself in Crash’s iconic baggy shorts. Mancell shares, “Hog Wild was a pivotal moment for me, especially in terms of the feedback I received for the music. I was encouraged to take a more ‘experimental’ approach – incorporating percussion and ambient sounds, for example. The reaction was somewhat divided.”
Several producers at Universal, the publishing company, were hesitant about this unconventional method. Mancell has been mentioned before for drawing inspiration from artists such as Aphex Twin and Juan Atkins in his previous scores, but that’s not entirely accurate. Mancell explains that he admires how these musicians were able to create a unique, immersive soundscape with limited resources – and this was something he wanted to achieve with Crash, rather than simply imitate their music. Let’s be realistic, we weren’t going to hear something like “Alberto Balsalm” in Crash Bandicoot.
Mancell describes the Hog Wild music as being humorous and unique, garnering a positive response from listeners. While it did not resemble Mario’s music, it had its own animated and character-filled style.
According to Mancell, riding on a hog and jumping over obstacles should sound similar in both the music and the game. This level, Hog Wild, is where Crash Bandicoot truly stands out from other 2D platform games like Mario and Sonic. It is the eighth level in the game and captures the essence of what Crash is all about: being fun, fast, reckless, and silly. This makes Crash the perfect mascot for Sony’s new PlayStation console.
Hog Wild was a moment of realization for me, it was then that I began to understand the visual style of the game: it’s like playing a cartoon where you are a character within it. The person behind the character designs had previous experience with Looney Tunes, correct? Charles Zembillas incorporated that same sensibility into the game before I even joined the team.
Mancell’s primary role is that of a drummer, and this is evident in the rhythmic and insistent melodies present in Crash Bandicoot’s soundtrack, from the first game to Crash Team Racing. Similar to how Dave Grohl approaches writing vocal parts with a drummer’s perspective, Mancell’s rhythmic heart shines through in everything in Crash, making it feel groovy, uplifting, and unstoppable. Mancell openly acknowledges Stewart Copeland of the Police as an influence in this aspect, stating that he is one of his favorite drummers of all time. This is evident in the “ruins” level in Crash 2, which serves as a direct homage to Copeland. Interestingly, two years after Crash Bandicoot’s release, Copeland would go on to score the Spyro the Dragon series, a coincidence that Mancell is well aware of.
Crash eventually discovered his ability to move again, which was jokingly referred to as “Sonic’s ass game” during development due to your obsession with his polygonal posterior. This boosted Mancell’s confidence, leading to a more musically-influenced sound in Crash 2 (Cortex Strikes Back) and Crash 3 (Warped). He also began to incorporate more of his personal music style, allowing the franchise to soar to new heights with the unexpected success in Japan.
“I collaborated with a producer from Naughty Dog for the music in Crash 2 and 3. Together, we would review my ideas on a weekly basis and make adjustments as needed. The producer, Dave Baggett, was not only third in command at Naughty Dog, but also a passionate music enthusiast. Our friendship and mutual love for Kraftwerk strengthened our partnership.”
The music in Crash Bandicoot 2’s sewer levels and Crash Bandicoot 3’s future levels has a distinct sound that may remind you of Kraftwerk B-sides. These tracks playfully imitate and honor the pioneers of 80s electronica, making them sound like inside jokes.
The purpose of Crash Bandicoot was to provide entertainment, establish PlayStation as a popular console, and present a unique approach to the repetitive mascot platformers found on other gaming systems.
Mancell’s musical contributions were crucial to the success, lasting impact, and bold attitude of Crash Bandicoot. In my opinion, the PlayStation trilogy stands as a prime example of expertly crafted, lively music in the gaming world and set a high standard for future generations.