Like many, I’d heard about the Crash Bandicoot’s cameo in Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End before I witnessed it myself. I knew the basic premise: Nathan Drake plays the PS1 classic. And I’ll be honest: I thought this seemed like a terrible idea.
On paper, it sounded like overly cutesy fourth wall-breaking fan-service. A clever, subtle homage can reignite a spark of warm, fuzzy nostalgia, but an overt in-your-face one is an immersion-breaking humblebrag. Yes, Naughty Dog, your studio has been around for over two decades. Yes, you made a game a lot of people enjoyed in their youth. Yes, the original PlayStation had a comically colourful logo. We get it!
And yet, this scene miraculously works. More impressively, it works for me, a person who has never played a Crash Bandicoot game in their life.
The key to this is the context. The idea that a married couple in 2016 would be playing a 20-year-old game, on a PlayStation One, that’s inconspicuously hooked up to their bigscreen TV, was always going to be a tough sell. Yet the writers, actors, directors, designers, and all the technical staff brought their A game and cleverly crafted a scenario that feels entirely believable.
One reason it works so well is because it’s very much in keeping with our two leads. Nathan Drake isn’t simply playing Naughty Dog’s retro platformer on his own time – that would be completely out of character for our intrepid explorer. Instead, Nathan doesn’t play video games at all. He doesn’t even know what they’re called (“little TV game thing” is how he adorably refers to them). Instead, we get our hero playing this classic platformer based on a whimsical bet he makes with his spouse, Elena, regarding who should clean the dishes. Now that’s the Drake we know!
It’s also the Elena we know! A photojournalist in her mid 30s very likely would have had a PlayStation in her uni years before the pull of career, travelling, and adventure veered her away from this domestic pastime, but she’d still keep her PlayStation around as an occasionally time-killing hobby. Chances are you know quite a few people in their 30s who haven’t followed video games for the past two decades but will still boot up GoldenEye 007 on their N64 and party like it’s 1999.
That grounds the setup, but it’s the execution that really seals the deal. The banter between them – that I can only imagine had to have been at least partially ad-libbed by actors Nolan North and Emily Rose – sounds extraordinarily authentic. Nathan is terrible at the game while Elena mocks his endearingly naive confidence. Even as we’re playing this fairly rote snippet of Crash we’re treated to our charismatic leads’ commentary as Nathan frequently pokes fun at the game for its crude art style, ludicrous premise, and brazen disregard for reality. He even reacts to player input, like falling down a pit. It’s cute. It’s funny. It’s genuinely heartwarming.
It also works because Crash Bandicoot, by his very nature, is funny. He’s stupid-looking. He collects fruit to gain lives. He’s randomly chased by boulders. He’s a type of mammal no one outside of Australia has heard of and he’s wearing silly pants. He’s every laughable convention we took for granted in the late 90s now being subjected to a wisecracking video game neophyte in 2016. In a weird way, being out of place is exactly where Crash belongs. They should put him in the Louvre.
The fact that Nathan’s not familiar with Crash is vital. If both characters were already into it, the nostalgia trip would only be effective for audience members in the same camp. That he’s discovering it for the first time makes him operate as an entry point for folks like me who missed the Crash train during its heyday. It’s never clear how much he likes the game itself – though he does seem to enjoy it – but he definitely has a blast bonding with his lover over this archaic 20th century relic.
Up until this week’s surprisingly strong sales of Crash Bandicoot N.Sane Trilogy, Crash hadn’t been relevant in ages. After fading into obscurity for several years, the populace either forgot about him or never made his acquaintance in the first place. Yet Uncharted 4’s crossover cameo transforms this goofy mascot of untamed 90s youth into an instigator of loving domestic bliss. With this scene Naughty Dog makes a convincing case that there’s still a place for Crash in this crazy world, whether you’re familiar with him already or not. Drake’s fortune indeed.