Retrospective: ‘Spyro the Dragon’, Part 1

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Released in the autumn of 1998 for the PlayStation, Insomniac Games’ Spyro the Dragon was one of many games that was a staple of my young’un years. Like any good game from any era, it is one that has held up over the years, and one that I continue to enjoy to this very day. Spyro the Dragon, as a premier platforming adventure for a high-caliber console, became a big success. The idea was super-simple: A dragon embarks on a quest to save his brethren, go through various worlds, and take on baddies along the way. It was not dissimilar to another family-friendly platformer that was ruling the console: Naughty Dog’s Crash Bandicoot, which had reached its third (and arguably best) installment by the time this game had come out. Naughty Dog and Insomniac, from there on out, were like best friend studios.

Spyro the Dragon set out to take advantage of what the PlayStation was capable of, and it did. Spyro dropped us into big, sandbox-like worlds, all fully realized and full of little compelling details. How did it stack up as a game, though?

My exposure to the little purple dragon was via a demo disc that had come with my PlayStation, which my sister and I had gotten for Christmas in 1998, right in time for the release of this game. However, I never owned the original Spyro when I was a kid, I’d frequently borrow it from neighbors. Whether it was the demo or the full game, I fell in love with the world it created. I loved the design, the music, the gameplay, the more humorous bits… So what’s it about?

SpyroArtisan

We begin in an unnamed “world of dragons”. Apparently only one young dragon exists, while the rest are all adult males. The young dragon, Spyro, watches his species get crystallized by the evil Gnasty Gnorc after one of the dragons makes a crack about him when being interviewed. In fact, the opening cut-scene is very weird. Here we have a mythical, almost medieval fantasy-like world of dragons… But we have dragons being interviewed by the news, microphones and all! It’s almost irreverent in a way.

Spyro the Dragon‘s story is mainly non-existent, it’s just there to set up your objective. There are no cutscenes throughout the game, only at the beginning, and at the end… Well, there are two endings. We’ll get there. To add all of that, Gnasty has also turned the dragon’s treasure (assorted, colored gems) into henchmen: Gnorcs. In the game, defeating them gets you the treasure. Freeing dragons is simple as well, all you do is walk up to the solid dragons and you set them free. Now apparently Gnasty can’t see Spyro, yet can see the adult dragons from his far away island, so after you free a dragon, they give some advice or say something… And then disappear.

Most of the dragons simply remind you of what to do or how to play the game, some just simply say a boring “Thank you for releasing me!”, and some get a few funny lines. Those are few and far between, though. Other than that and the various enemies, the Dragon World feels rather lonely and without much going on. There are several buildings, ones that the big dragons seemingly can’t fit into, and it always made me wonder… What’s going on in those buildings? There are fairies here and there, but anything else? Any other fantastical creatures besides the various critters that give you health? (On a side note, you are protected by your dragonfly Sparx. When you get hit, his color changes and indicates your health. You feed him the butterflies you get out of the critters. The weaker Sparx gets, the less able he is to get you gems from a distance. On your last bar, you don’t have him.)

Dark_Hollow_2

This kind of atmosphere makes Spyro the Dragon feel a bit desolate, yet tranquil and almost mystical. There’s a sort of loneliness to the Dragon World that makes for a unique gaming experience. For many years, I always thought that the general mood of Spyro the Dragon made it the best game in the trilogy, while I somewhat scoffed at the more dialogue-driven, cartoonier elements of the second and third games. Spyro the Dragon felt like a full-blown epic fantasy tale, but in later years I’d come to fully appreciate the worldbuilding and sense of community that made the sequels stand out, and also made them improvements over this debut.

The Dragon World is divided into five different realms, and each has their own theme. Each stays the course for the most part, not deviating from the aesthetic they go for. The first of which is the grassy, friendly Artisan world. Each world is basically a classic hub world with all the levels at your disposal, you don’t have to go in any specific order, though you do have to unlock some levels by using your head. For example, in the Artisan home world, there’s a level hidden at the waterfalls that you can unlock by hopping on the stone platforms on the surrounding pond.

Like the other hub worlds, all of the levels in the Artisan world share a similar aesthetic. They’re mostly basic, uncomplicated, and mostly bright and colorful. Many of these levels are like tutorials, preparing you for the little challenges that await you later on. The Peace Keeper’s world is more barren, as it is a rocky desert filled with militaristic bad guys.

Cliff_Town

Here, we see some Western influences peak through (notably in the ‘Cliff Town’ level, pictured above), alongside some army themes, but for some reason there’s an ice level present. Here, things start to get a little more challenging, there’s higher platforms to seek out, and so on…

Magic_crafters

The mountainous Magic Crafters world takes things into a more surreal direction, as that world differs heavily from the first two. The shapes, the design, the color scheme, like I said… Each world feels so unique, and immersive. The Magic Crafter’s home has this sort of “turning point” mood to it, like you’re at the halfway point and you know that things are going to ramp up. You deal with wizards, druids, and mad magicians of all shapes and sizes, and you tackle lots of little platforming challenges. Enemies make platforms disappear, or block you with them, and it’s up to you to crack the little clues and find alternate routes.

Now would be a good time to explain the overall level design. The levels do have a start and end point, but they’re less linear, as each of them have points where they branch off. The ultimate end-goal depends on what hub world you’re in. You can’t go to the next hub until the hot air balloonist’s desires are fulfilled. In one world you’ll have to free a certain amount of dragons before he can let you hop aboard (Spyro can’t fly, only glide), in another you have to get more treasure, and in some you have to stop the thieves that have stolen dragon eggs.

PeaceKeeperThief

Sometimes treasure is hidden in chests, or crates. Some of them you can flame, others you need to charge. The game plays with these two attacks, some enemies wear metal armor and you can’t flame them at all. Others can’t be charged, and need a good scalding! Then you’ll come across odd crates, one of which being a crate with a gemstone on top of it. Hit it for the gem to come out and then go back in, you of course have to snatch before it goes back. Other chests need keys to unlock, while others… Are fans that you have to blow on until they spin into an explosion! Lives are hidden inside chests that have little eyes peaking out of them.

By the time you get to the Magic Crafters world, you are introduced to supercharge and superflame. One is obtained by running down a designated path, turning Spyro into a revving, racing machine. The other you mostly get from a fairy’s kiss, which turns you red and makes your flames so powerful that they can stop armored baddies… And you’ll need it for some levels! High Caves, anyone?

Each world also has a boss. The boss battles in this game are mostly uneventful, their own levels being more challenging then they are. The earliest bosses are very simple, Toasty is a wily sheep in disguise that has to be torched a few times (though you have avoid that level’s hellish dog guards), and Doctor Shemp is big idiot that tries to whack you with a stick whilst making himself an easy target. (He’s a lot like Crash Bandicoot‘s first boss, Papu Papu.) Magic Crafters’ boss is a weird, lightning-shooting tornado creature named Blowhard. Again, just flame him a few times and follow him to the end, nothing special. In addition to the boss rounds are flight levels, which allow Spyro to fly. In these often tedious levels, you have to fly through various areas and destroy all the objects (there are 8 of each, 4 categories per level) before the timer runs out. I always found these levels to be something of a chore, ‘Wild Flight’ in the fourth hub world being the *worst* offender.

BeastMakers

After the Magic Crafters world, you end up in the murky and mysterious swamps of the Beast Makers world. Here, you’ll meet a plethora of enemies that are far more difficult than the previous ones. Slappy-tongue toads pollute some of the levels, and can be a pain to fight. In one level, ‘Misty Bog’, ferns shake in the ground and then all of a sudden reveal they are bloodthirsty monsters, coming right after you! I can imagine this game freaked out a good many kids back in the day. I got to this level when I was roughly 9, and it gave me a bit of a jolt too!

I mean, just look at these things!

spyroscary

The Beast Makers world is home to enemies that have discovered electricity, suggesting that the Dragon World is indeed a little more primitive, and that modern technology could come into it. It makes you want to know more about this world. The hub is also home to the challenging, puzzling Tree Tops level, which pushes you to master the supercharge powerup, and reach many inaccesible areas and heights!

Once you finish up with the swamps, you’ll end up in the topsy-turvy, unpredictable world of the Dream Weavers. This hub world is basically the Magic Crafters world amped up, with several ins and outs. In one level, ‘Dark Passage’, you come across fools that use magic to turn little vicious puppies and turtles into… These abominations!

SpyroDemon

‘Lofty Castle’ requires you to free fairies, who make transporting whirlwinds for you, the closest thing to a within-a-level minigame that you’ll get in this game. ‘Haunted Tower’ puts your supercharge skills to the test… Let me tell you, young me had no idea whatsoever where that last dragon and last room were. It took me *years* to figure that one out! This was made worse by the fact that there’s a hole that indicates there’s another room, and in another area of the castle, you can hear the hidden dragon wobbling in the crystal. It drove me bonkers!

For me, the Dream Weavers is the most-realized realm here in terms of the game play. While each hub world’s set of levels have their levels of difficulty, the Beast Makers and Dream Weavers realms bring the most challenging aspects, all the fun that you didn’t quite get in the early levels. If you’re goal is to blow through each level to get the next hub world, you’re thrown a curveball when you get to this point in the game. Me? I make sure to collect everything in every level before setting off for the next hub world, because…

You can actually 100% this whole game – getting all the treasure, freeing all the dragons, and retrieving all the stolen eggs – without backtracking, without having to go back to certain levels and do things you couldn’t do. This is perhaps my biggest issue with Spyro the Dragon, as the sequels would undo this with flying colors. The fact that you can 99% the game before your square off with Gnasty Gnorc makes it a little too easy for me, especially in an era where family-friendly games didn’t take the little ones for granted. The first Crash Bandicoot, for instance, was very difficult at times and there was a lot you had to do to get the gems. (Yes, that game also had gems as a focus!) Its sequels were no slouches either, you couldn’t access some areas in Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back until you reached a certain level or hidden area that took you to these zones. Spyro the Dragon does not do that.

gnorcgnexus

Everything is there for you, should you choose to go after everything. My best guess is that many young gamers decided to only complete the various balloonists’ objectives, instead of fully completing each and every level. I did that on my first full playthrough of the game when I was 9, and then went back and cleared every level before getting to the true last level of the game.

About that… After you complete the Dream Weavers world, you get taken to Gnasty’s very metallic, cold, and rather industrialist island. Gnorcs are tougher here, not the little cowards you face early on in the game. They hurl explosives at you, shoot at you with machine guns (yes, in an E-rated game no less!), and go all Donkey Kong on you in other levels. The final battle with Gnasty is you chasing the coward, flame him twice, he’s done for… It’s a little anticlimactic, but not surprising after all the other bosses. Upon defeating Gnasty and getting every item you need, you’re treated to a world that’s just littered with treasure… Oh, and you get to fly around in it, too!

spyrotitle

Spyro the Dragon, after all these years, seems to be more about the adventure than the outcome. The boss battles, yes, are underwhelming. Gnasty Gnorc is not a compelling bad guy on the order of Bowser, Eggman, or Dr. Cortex. Spyro himself is not all that interesting either, he’s just young and a little spunky. At times his interactions with the various dragons are mildly amusing, but without cutscenes or any major story points, there isn’t much to the game storywise. But this does not diminish the overall experience, which allows you to breathe in all these really well thought out fantasy worlds.

This is probably why the game was well-received back in the day, it’s simply a very good game. It was sort-of like a late 1990s Super Mario Bros. We all recognize Super Mario Bros. as a video game classic and one of the all-time iconic titles, but we all know that the game is as simple as you can get: Guy journeys across various lands to rescue his love, a princess, from an evil baddie in a castle. It’s as basic and classic as you can get, but what Nintendo, Shigeru Miyamoto, and crew did with it… It was the experience that mattered, the game play, the surprises…

It’s also not dissimilar to the first Crash Bandicoot, which has an opening cutscene and little else. Crash doesn’t speak, so you get his personality through his body language, in a classic animation sense. Crash worked off of the great silent comedy of animated short cartoons of the 1940s, Spyro on the other hand has a character cut from a high fantasy cloth. Spyro’s personality isn’t quite defined, again, due to the lack of cutscenes. What we get from him is essentially ambitious, spunky, and a bit immature. Carlos Alazraqui (also the voice of the titular character from Rocko’s Modern Life, among many other things) plays the part well, and few of the dragons have personalities. Making up for all that is, again, just the experience, the fun of collecting and finding objects, solving puzzles, the like.

Nightflight

What bolsters Spyro’s wonderfully conceived world is Stewart Copeland’s indelible score. The former Police drummer paints the mood of each world beautifully, even bringing some of his band sound into a few of the tracks! Most of the tunes evoke the charming, airy aesthetics of the medieval fairy tale-like settings. The rougher worlds, like the Peace Keeper home, marry that sound to various instruments and genres. The Beast Makers home I think has one of the best tracks, at times uplifting and majestic, other times shadowy and ominous, with distant howls perfectly telling you that you’re in a completely different world now. The best game soundtracks deftly change moods like this.

A pure experience from start to finish, Spyro the Dragon has aged quite well. While feeling incomplete at times and often without much, the worlds are lovely, the music is fantastic, and second half of the game really picks up steam. In terms of the game play and the objectives, it is indeed the weakest of the trilogy, though excusable for this was the launchpad. Insomniac’s team would later take some of the barebones elements of the game and expand upon them, whilst introducing many new things in the sequels. On its own, it still works. Next to the sequels, it pales when it comes to game play.

… But the sequels, I think, didn’t quite come close to the overall aura this game went for. With new worlds and more characters of the non-dragon variety, Spyro 2: Ripto’s Rage and Spyro: Year of the Dragon aren’t quite like this. That doesn’t make them inferior, tonally, they absolutely nail the aesthetics they go for… However, something in me somewhat prefers this game’s style. I find myself gravitating towards it, as a kid I outright preferred it, but even now – in a day where I see all games’ tones as equal and get a lot of enjoyment out of all three – I still have a thing for it.

Spyro the Dragon remains a fun and visually satisfying PlayStation classic…

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