Spyro The Dragon: A Retrospective

Throughout my childhood, I have had the pleasure of experiencing many classic video games, albeit less obvious than one would assume without reading the title. I never owned a Nintendo 64 growing up, so I never experienced beloved titles such as Super Mario 64 and Banjo-Kazooie. Instead, I had the pleasure of owning Sony's PlayStation console.

I quickly fell in love with the genres of platforming and collect-a-thons thanks to two of the best series to reach a Sony console, Crash Bandicoot and, the subject of today's article, Spyro the Dragon. In present times, both heroes have suffered less than favourable fates, with the former seeming to have disappeared off the face of the earth and the latter being turned into a grotesque marketing tool by the company that continue to bring us the same recycled First Person Shooter every year (don't pretend you don't know which series I refer to). Which is why I wish to share my experience of the classic adventures of the loveable pint-sized dragon with you all, so you can see how he was in his prime.

I understand that there are a lot of people who enjoyed the Legend of Spyro series in the mid-2000s before the IP's bastardisation, but I won't be mentioning these since I never played them; rest assured I don't hate them, I just don't have enough knowledge to pass my personal judgement. The series was developed by Insomniac, who eventually went on to create the Ratchet and Clank series and the Resistance series, with Spyro as their first mainstream development. Another interesting fact is that the music of the original trilogy is composed by Stewart Copeland, who is best known for being the drummer of rock band The Police. 
The gameplay of these games was simple, yet so effective. Rather than being able to fly, probably due to his young age, Spyro instead has to rely on charging, gliding and flaming his way across the worlds and levels, each enemy being very cartoony and usually having a unique twist in defeating them, meaning you couldn't rely on one attack. Enemies protected by metal are immune to flame attacks, and thus had to be charged. With large enemies, the requirement is swapped, with flame being your best asset.

The original title, Spyro the Dragon, was released onto the PlayStation in 1998, to great success. While this entry is personally my least favourite, I still adore it utterly. Perhaps my main gripe with it was the inability to charge jump like you could in subsequent titles, and there weren't that many interesting characters beyond the miniature protagonist, Spyro. Also, the boss levels felt inconsequential to say it lightly. The scenario was simple enough, with an evil warlord, Gnasty Gnorc (the Gs are silent) turning the dragons of the realms into crystal and stealing their treasure to turn into his minions. Sypro, being the size he is, is the last dragon remaining and must set out to save the dragons and reclaim the stolen treasure. The game has aged surprisingly well, since the graphics used a technique that allowed background scenery to be rendered to some extent, similar to how a human eye would see in real life- with less detail until you inspect it closer. The varied and colourful levels also allowed for greater emphasis on exploration, and was encouraged in order to fully complete the game. Many of the levels are very cleverly designed and shared common themes based on the hub realm you were in, ranging from arid landscapes of the Peace Keepers' Realm, tribal villages and strange animals of the Beast Makers' Realm, or pure nightmare fuel that still haunts my dreams in the Dream Weavers' Realm (for the love of God- those dogs in Dark Passage...). The game always brought a fresh experience through each level and timed mini game, even years later. 
As I mentioned about having a problem with the bosses, they just felt like slightly stronger normal enemies, without any true feeling of atmosphere built around said characters. The boss levels begin as normal levels, usually tougher than the others of that world. The obligatory treasure collecting and dragon saving still apply here, with the boss appearing near the end of said level, with a few gems as reward. Save for one boss, the fourth, all of these bosses felt weak and pointless to fight, usually all you needed to do was just run up and flame repeatedly until they flee to the next point, and repeat. Heck, even the final encounter against Gnasty is just you chasing after his fat arse as he runs away from a small dragon. Considering he carries a giant spiked mace, I guess intelligence isn't his strongest suit. This could be considered a nitpick, and you would be right. In defence of the developers though, it feels as though they were testing the waters on how a good boss battle could be structured in future instalments, and they definitely do not disappoint.

Spyro 2, subtitled Gateway to Glimmer in the United Kingdom, came out the following year, and blew the first game out of the water in terms of characters. Each of the levels have silly NPCs that require your help in some way, usually relating to the enemies taking over and Spyro being the only one available to stop them. Each level also felt more self contained, all having unique stories and swiftly resolved narratives, including mutant bugs taking over a farm run by robots (give a medal to whoever thought of that one). Each level feels unique aesthetically too, far more so in comparison to those in the previous game.
While Gnasty Gnorc was a typical hulking yet stupid villain, the antagonist in this instalment, Ripto, is essentially a reversal of this. He is very small, even more so than Spyro. He was easily my favourite villain of the trilogy, having a perfect mix of being both funny and diabolical, powerful yet weak. Topped off with further comic relief from his two giant idiot henchmen, Crush and Gulp, it made for some very entertaining moments. Most of the comedy, however, comes from Spyro's new and derp-tastic friend Hunter, who acts as a tutorial teacher, and mini game helper, and the egotistical and greedy Moneybags, who allows mandatory progression through the game at the expense of your hard earned gems, treating you with condescending attitude all the while. 
The hub worlds are wonderfully serene, easily some of the most relaxing landscape and musical combinations I have ever experienced, each one being based on a different season. It allows for a much slower pace with exploration and collecting the game's gems, orbs and talismans, since the levels are calm for the majority with the occasional hectic moment, usually from an attacking enemy. Oddly enough, the outlandishly cartoony moments, like an elephant with a snail's shell on its back charging at you, suddenly up the suspenseful feeling of imminent danger, as well as comic experience just from the sheer absurdity of the situation. Overall, this instalment just felt like a smoother, more pleasant update to the original (not to say the original was bad, but it did feel cluttered in places).

The final instalment of the Insomniac trilogy is Spyro: Year of the Dragon, released in 2000, which was also the Year of the Dragon in the Chinese Zodiac; not a very subtle piece of trivia, but interesting nonetheless. The narrative focus here is Spyro and Hunter travelling down a hole to the other side of the world to rescue the stolen dragon eggs. The main new mechanic introduced here is the new playable characters, divided amongst their own separate introductory levels and several mini game segments scattered across other main levels. While this is my favourite game in the series, the villain is a bit less interesting than Ripto in 2. Granted, The Sorceress is a lot more threatening in terms of her reach of power compared to Ripto, but she isn't particularly interesting like he was. However, what she lacks in character is made up for in level design and personalities of the other playable characters: Sheila the Kangaroo, Sgt. Byrd, Bentley and Agent 9. All are unique characters that encounter Spyro along the way and join his cause. All use different styles of attack and platforming, such as Sgt. Byrd being able to fly in the air infinitely.
While Spyro 2 utilised very interesting environments, Spyro 3 uses them to full effect, by creating even more colourful worlds with cute friendly characters and comical and scary enemies. Locations range from a Chinese fireworks factory guarded by ninjas to an Egyptian tomb knock-off, hieroglyphs and all. There is a greater emphasis on side missions and mini games in each level due to the increased number of collectables, with dragon eggs replacing the orbs and talismans of the previous entry. This helps to break up gameplay, usually introducing vehicle sections or swapping to one of the other characters to find the egg and more treasure. The boss battles themselves are easily the best, with genuinely intimidating designs and clever mechanics involving the controls and the animal helper of each world. The main issue here is with the second boss, who is infamously one of the biggest difficulty spikes in any video game (hilariously, the boss' name actually is Spike), since the game was still comfortably easy until this point, and as a young child I lost too many lives to this brute. Granted, nowadays I find it much easier to beat him, but that's after knowing exactly how he attacks.

Spyro was always a favourite character of mine growing up, and very much still is. While nowadays his position is less than favourable in my eyes, he will always be the first hero that taught me the moral of "anyone can be a hero, no matter their size." Truly an inspirational trilogy for anyone looking for a good time sink or revisit.

Do you have fond memories of the Spyro The Dragon PlayStation trilogy? What was your favourite platform/action game on the PlayStation? Let us know in the comments section below, via our Twitter or via our Facebook page.

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