Developer Toys For Bob has been working on the Crash Bandicoot series since it worked on the Switch port for the remade Crash N. Sane Trilogy in 2017. What started as a chance to recapture the spirit of Naughty Dog’s original PlayStation trilogy for a modern audience has turned into a steady gig, expanding upon a franchise that jumped from developer to developer in the early 2000s. The studio released its own numbered entry, Crash 4: It’s About Time in 2020, but Toys For Bob still didn’t get to introduce new characters into the series’ storied history until now.
Crash Team Rumble, a multiplayer game set to launch on PlayStation and Xbox consoles on June 20, sees Toys For Bob put its own heroes into the mix, including Catbat, a lover of rock ‘n’ roll, an escaped prisoner of antagonist Dr. Neo Cortex, and the long-running series’ first non-binary character. Kotaku sat down with Toys For Bob Creative Director Dan Neil and Co-Studio Head Paul Yan to talk about Catbat’s conception, their place in the Crash Bandicoot world, and how they fit into the Crash Team Rumble roster.
The team describes Catbat as an amalgamation of a few ideas, but in terms of the initial design, the concept of a David Bowie-style rocker acted as a base for everything that followed, from lore to gameplay.
“On the art side, [we had] an interest in this concept, aesthetically, of a David Bowie-like character,” Yan tells Kotaku. “A rock star that breaks certain expectations and has a confidence and flair that is just magnetic.”
“I would say that character creation at Toys for Bob is a very organic process,” he says. “It isn’t a standardized thing in which it all flows through one process. Sometimes a character is born out of a piece of art that we are inspired by. And it just trickles a whole bunch of conversations with designers and modelers and animators and artists and you know, the whole, the whole gamut of game developers and those conversations lead into prototypes, and then we eventually find a character.”
Yan says Toys for Bob wanted to capture confidence and flair with Catbat, but their origin is not that glamorous. He likens Catbat’s beginnings to that of Crash himself but with an angstier twist. The original Crash Bandicoot game opens with Cortex experimenting on the jean-wearing, platform-jumping hero, and Catbat is another victim of the villain’s unethical methods.
“I think that one thing that was interesting for us to tell was how different that relationship is in terms of how Crash Bandicoot sees Neo Cortex,” Yan says. “Catbat almost has a resentment for their origin and, through this build-up of a confrontation, figures out that they are their own person and they’re born out of kindness from a stranger.”
That origin is explored in a digital comic that leads into the events of Crash Team Rumble, which you can read exclusively here on Kotaku. Catbat escapes Cortex’s lab and is saved by a kind stranger before finding community within rock music. But that doesn’t mean they’ve completely healed from what Cortex put them through, and that trauma acts as a driving force for them in the expanded Crash Bandicoot universe.
The Catbat comic is part of a larger story initiative regarding Crash Team Rumble. Unlike Crash 4, the new game isn’t a single-player title that’s story heavy and can therefore expand upon the characters and their relationships. It’s a multiplayer game, and similar to games like Overwatch, much of Crash Team Rumble’s story will come from external media. Yan says the studio plans for these characters’ stories and relationships to “unfold over time,” rather than take place within the game itself.
“I think one thing that we’re most excited about with the comic, and future comics that will come out with heroes, is that this is a space that sits outside of the game,” Yan says. “If you are the type of fan who wants to know more about a character’s lore or their relationships or their identity or their personality, this is a place for those fans to kind of dig in deeper and ask those questions, and we can have that kind of exploration. Crash Team Rumble is not an adventure, it is a multiplayer game.”
Catbat may have similar origins to Crash, but their in-game utility was designed to be much different. While Crash does a lot of running and jumping as a Scorer character, Catbat was designed for verticality through flight. This was both to differentiate them from other characters, but also to take advantage of the wider space Crash Team Rumble provides compared to the more linear levels of a typical Crash Bandicoot game.
“[After] Crash 4 we were more careful in our metrics to make sure that everything was really, really tight because it’s a very controlled experience,” Neil says. “There was a great excitement within the team moving into Crash Team Rumble with the more open arenas to allow players a sense of mobility and looseness in their capacity to get high in the air that Catbat provides.”
The core of Crash Team Rumble is made up of two teams of four that face off to gather the series’ iconic Wumpa Fruit around a map. Meanwhile, Blocker characters defend goals from the opposition and supporting Booster characters unlock power-ups. Neil says finding where a flight-based character fits into the game’s structure presented a challenge because most of the roster is locked to the ground, but adding abilities like a downward slam that increases in strength the higher up they are gives Catbat a reason to do more than just fly out of reach—though that naturally comes with a bit of risk. Coming down from a high point requires some commitment, as you need to both be sure of where you’re landing and be sure you’re not putting yourself in more danger by joining enemies on the ground.
“Initially, there was a lot of hesitancy,” Neil says. “Could we really make a character be as mobile as Catbat is? But what we found when we started developing the gameplay was that there were many reasons to return to the ground when you play as Catbat. So actually, it worked. So we were able to integrate a character into what is, on the whole, a fairly ground-based [roster] with a great deal of verticality and mobility. And that played back and forth with the art team as the look and feel of the of Catbat was developed in parallel with the gameplay in that like a jam session.”
Between the rocker aesthetic and the verticality-based mechanics, Yan says Catbat was a prime example of different departments collaborating to marry a visual concept and a design one, a process the team has compared to “yes-anding” each other’s ideas until the concept becomes a full-fledged character.
“Sometimes characters are developed from a hero designer coming up with mechanics that we want to explore, and then they inform art, and art kind of goes back and forth,” Yan says. “So it’s really like…improv. And that back and forth between people of different disciplines and different backgrounds results in unique combinations and unique decisions that come about as characters.”
As for as how Catbat’s non-binary identity came to be, original character designer Nicholas Kole has publicly stated that he envisioned them as non-binary when he was first in the design stage. While Kole said he was unsure if the character’s queerness would stick after he left the company in 2021, Yan and Neil tell Kotaku that changing the character’s gender wasn’t on the table, and keeping Catbat as a non-binary hero felt in line with the Bowie-inspired design the team wanted.
“The concept from the art side of things was this attraction to a David Bowie-like character,” Yan says. “Aesthetically, Bowie had this kind of rock star androgynous look that we really loved. As we started to flesh out that character and its design, and we finally got to a point [where] we had a model sheet, as a team, we started referring to Catbat as ‘they’ and it was a very natural thing. It wasn’t a ‘Hey, guys, we need to get together and have a meeting about this.’ It was a very organic way of describing that character and that just sat with us throughout.”
Gender in anthropomorphic characters is a hot-button issue in character design. Characters like Angel in the Lilo & Stitch series or the majority of female characters in the Sonic the Hedgehog series stand out as examples of anthropomorphic characters who have exaggerated, feminine human traits compared to their male counterparts, whether that be makeup, pink coloring, a bow, a dress, or even breasts. The Crash Bandicoot series is no stranger to this, with characters like Crash’s sister Coco and girlfriend Tawna both falling into that camp. When it came to representing a non-binary character within the framework of a Crash Bandicoot character, Yan says the team was more focused on an archetype than a gender presentation.
“From my perspective, rock star was kind of the big star that we were aiming at with this character and that defined everything that fell out of it,” Yan says. “I don’t think that that was at the forefront of ‘How do we solve this? How do we genderize the character?’ It was more natural for us as we talked about the character to talk about their personality and their swagger more than these other [aspects].”
Catbat is voiced by Erika Ishii, a genderfluid actor who uses all pronouns, and who you might know as Valkyrie from Apex Legends. It’s significant that Toys for Bob found accurate casting for Crash Team Rumble, as queer voice actors are fighting for seats at the table as more queer characters show up in media. For example, last year, Arc System Works revealed that Bridget from Guilty Gear Strive identifies as a trans woman. And while the announcement was exciting for queer fans of the long-running fighting game series, queer actor initiatives took onus with the studio not casting a trans actor to play her. In general, video games have had an issue with accurate casting, such as casting white actors to play people of color, or casting cis people to play trans roles, so seeing Catbat played by a queer actor already feels a step above what other companies have put forth.
In the midst of a swell of queer characters appearing in more media, especially those aimed at wider “all-ages” demographics, projects that include visible queer characters are inevitably facing pushback as they attempt to normalize queer expression, often under the guise of “protecting the kids.” It’s the origin point of much of the anti-queer legislation the United States is facing, in that conservative pundits and bigots can frame their hatred as trying to keep kids from being exposed to other ways of life and thinking. It’s why Disney and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis are in the midst of a feud.
Toys for Bob doesn’t believe Crash Team Rumble is a “for kids” game and instead views it as an “edgier” take on the series more geared toward Millennial and Gen Z fans. Even so, the mascot platformer often appeals to kids by the nature of its character design. Regarding any possible pushback, Yan and Neil pointed out that much of the exploration of the characters would come from the team’s digital comics, rather than in the game itself and that anyone interested in those things could seek it out without coming across it in the game.
“The universe is rich and there’s different types of media that can express different things in different ways for different people, and comics is one thing that we’re excited to add to this mix for Crash Team Rumble,” Yan says.
As such, while Catbat will be referred to with they/them pronouns when Crash Team Rumble launches on June 20, don’t expect the game to spend much time talking about their non-binary identity. In the meantime, Yan and Neil see no reason to be cagey about who Catbat is. Comparatively, the Sonic the Hedgehog series recently introduced a character that uses they/them pronouns in The Murder of Sonic the Hedgehog, but Sega declined to comment when Kotaku asked if they were non-binary.
“We just didn’t see it as a big deal, to be honest with you,” Neil says. “It’s a super cool character. This felt like the right fit. Like Paul said, that this is backstory, the comic seems like a great fit for it. There’s no reason to not acknowledge the way we saw the character.”
Toys for Bob says time and community response will determine whether or not Catbat becomes a new mainstay in the Crash Bandicoot universe, but as the world expands, the Crash team wants its representation to expand, as well.
“I think Crash Team Rumble, at its core, is a multiplayer game focused on an expanding cast of heroes, and we wanna make sure that as that cast grows, it covers new ground,” Yan says. “Whether that’s mechanically in a design space, aesthetically, its silhouette, its color space. And I think gender representation is just another vector here that we want to explore in that cast as it grows.”