As a Nintendo household, and a fairly impoverished one at that, there are many series out there that people are extremely nostalgic for, which I never really got to see much of. A nephew of mine used to be a big fan of the Spyro games, had a bedroom full of plushies of the purple dragon, but my only experience with the series was playing a level of Enter The Dragonfly at his place.
When the Reignited Trilogy released I paid it little heed, until a close friend of mine started playing it and told me how it was a childhood favorite of his. Figuring this was an opportunity to discover what I’d missed out on, I picked up a copy myself.
Enter The Dragon
Spyro the Dragon released as a Sony Playstation exclusive in September of 1998 and would quickly become a 3D platformer that could stand up against the Nintendo legends. Spyro is a young dragon out on a quest to restore peace to the Dragon Kingdom, for which he”d have to travel to all the worlds, restore his petrified elders, and reclaim the piles of treasure stolen by the game’s villain.
The game is light on story, but dense in gameplay & atmosphere. It may actually be among my favorite collect-a-thon games in terms of pure catharsis. Spyro is fast, agile, and a joy to control, with level-design that makes it super satisfying to play. You can dash around, following trails of treasure, and enemies can be easily dispatched with either flames or headbutting. It’s always easy to immediately identify the weaknesses of any enemy ahead of you, so gameplay flows smoothly.
At the same time, there’s no punishment for taking it easy either. In fact, you’ll probably be left scouring around at least once or twice per level, as you attempt to track down the final treasures and secrets tucked away in obscure corners. You aren’t timed or hurried along, not even as an optional challenge. A good call, because these are levels well worth exploring. Many of the stages are beaming with ambience and visual splendor, and even at its absolute worst a stage would just be fine.
I will say that this is also the main selling point of the Reignited trilogy. Lacking a nostalgic perspective, I found my dive into the game’s original Playstation 1 version to be a lot less spectacular. While the gameplay holds up, the visuals have clearly aged and much of the atmosphere didn’t manage to grab me in the same way. The improvised voice acting and frequent rehashing of character models also did little to endear the original for me, whereas I quite enjoyed seeing all the unique dragons in the remake.
I did have some small grievances. A few levels got a little too complex for my liking to actually 100%, especially this one stage that is just back-to-back intersecting supercharge lanes; great atmosphere, but I spent 5 minutes there and honestly couldn’t muster the motivation to untangle its design. I was also not particularly fond of its flying mini-challenges and some enemies were surprisingly challenging to defeat without taking damage of your own.
Fortunately, the game is charitable when it comes to how much you have to complete in order to see the end. You can skip a hard level from time to time or get by just making a good effort to collect as much as you can without investigating every nook and cranny. It’s a game that lets you play the way you want to, and I grew to respect it a lot for that.
A trilogy for the ages
Spyro the Dragon became Insomniac’s first commercial success and was well on its way to becoming a gaming mascot. This initial success would be followed up on quickly, with Spyro 2: Ripto’s Rage releasing in 1999 and Year of the Dragon closing out the trilogy in the year 2000.
I did not get to play these games on their native system, but enjoyed both a lot in the Reignited Trilogy, albeit for different reasons than Spyro’s debut title. These games expand more on the storytelling potential of the series, as Spyro teams up with friends and levels become more like sprawling playgrounds wherein you pick up little missions to do alongside the collect-a-thon gameplay. Their format feels inspired by Rare’s Banjo-Kazooie, though without entirely sacrificing what made the first game unique.
The concepts for the worlds certainly got more elaborate, and frequently become the stage for funny stories. In two levels you end up joining opposing sides of war, helping out the combatants before betraying them in the very next stage. Or how about a level where you help break out a bunch of seals who stole a submarine from the villains and immediately crashed it at the first turn.
Story and Spyro do struggle to coexist, however. None of the characters from Ripto’s Rage I found to be particularly endearing or fun: a stuttering professor, big dumb henchmen for the villain, a discount cereal box mascot; even the titular Ripto I didn’t really feel a connection with because you never learn or see much of him. On the flipside you have a character like Moneybags, who is legitimately funny and well-written, but gets so horrendously overused across these two games that his joke wore extremely thin.
Ripto’s Rage and Year of the Dragon do form a nice contrast. Both maintain the first game’s stellar controls and Insomniac’s solid design choices, but Ripto’s Rage is more focused on side-missions and puzzles, whereas Year of the Dragon quintuples down on the mini-games. You even get a cast of animal friends in the latter that help you on your quest, which get their own (mini-)levels where you have to use their unique movesets to complete challenges. Year of the Dragon also adds skateboarding and on-rails shooter segments, of all things.
These are nice for variety, but often feel simplistic and dilute the game’s core design. Unlike the Sly trilogy, you can’t play as these alternate characters whenever you want, and many challenges, mini-games, and side-missions involve one-of mechanics, often with frustrating difficulty curves or lackluster mechanics. Meanwhile, it doesn’t feel like either of the sequels pushes the core gameplay any further than the first game did, only really adding a headbutt move and (admittedly good) swimming.
These games are worthy successors, but more clearly than their contemporaries display the struggles involved with establishing an enduring franchise in a hotly-competed genre. Spyro held on and I enjoyed his games, but I didn’t see the strong, upward trend that Sly Cooper and Rareware’s game’s displayed.
After Year of the Dragon, Insomniac parted from the series they created to focus on new projects, but people weren’t done with the purple dragon yet. The Spyro license was passed around to different studios, resulting in sequels on the Playstation 2 and a slew of handheld games.
The impact was felt immediately. Enter The Dragonfly by Equinoxe Digital was a commercial hit, but was widely criticized for anything and everything. The game ran sluggishly and was buggy to boot, a rush to get it out of the door left it light on content at only a few hours long, while still feeling like a slog to get through. I echo these complaints from critics at the time. My brief stint with the game saw me frequently falling through platforms as I made my way through boring levels devoid of any fun challenges or memorable moments. What few highlights the game can claim are owed entirely Insomniac’s lingering influence.
An attempt to expand on the game by introducing different elemental attacks to replace Spyro’s flame breath is worthy of being acknowledged, but its implementation is too lackluster to warrant any excitement. The bubble breath just exists to complicate the new collectible, dragonflies, and later additions have minimal usage as alternate attacks. Compared to power-ups from the original trilogy, these are shamefully underdeveloped.
In time, however, Enter The Dragonfly would prove itself to be one of the final high points for the series. Spyro stumbled around for years, partaking in experimental handheld games and barely-passable console outings, eventually landing himself in a new trilogy with an all-new storyline that failed to set the world on fire, though The Legend of Spyro has its fans. By happenstance I own the GBA version of The Legend of Spyro: A New Beginning, but where folks enjoyed Spyro’s RPG adventures in Season of Ice & Fire, few will deny that A New Beginning on GBA is pure trash.
The game is a bottom-feeder of 2D platforming on the system, with ugly visuals and stiff controls that frequently fail to read inputs or get you stuck on wonky hitboxes. The high-speed flow of the Spyro games of old is gone, replaced by a tedious, button-mashing beat ’em up system. The game’s uninspired 2D levels are just littered with enemies that you have to stunlock to death by endlessly repeating your one melee combo at them. Some enemies take up to 20 hits and some stages will just have corridors full of them.
Once again the main innovation is different breath attacks, but these are so hilariously cheap in design that the tutorials are literally copy-pasted. All of them do basically the same and are actually WEAKER than just button-mashing your way through. This game is flawed, to say the least.
The story is similarly contrived with ugly redesigns for the characters and an uninspired fantasy tale of bringing the elemental powers together to defeat a dark evil. I wondered if the GBA game was just horrible, but it turns out that the PS2 original is pretty much the same, but in 3D. Same button-mashing, same generic plot (now with cringeworthy voice-acting), and with everything that made Spyro unique and satisfying to play thrown out.
No wonder Spyro fell into obscurity.
Recent years have seen renewed activity and hype surrounding the series. Though oldschool fans may have been left baffled by Skylanders, the 10-year-hiatus for the main series was broken in 2018 with the Reignited trilogy. Following a similar pattern as Crash Bandicoot, this remade trilogy was received with much excitement. And Crash would go on to star in all-new games, which build on the core appeals of the original titles instead of the accrued mediocrity from the mascot’s blunderyears.
I hope that there’s a future for Spyro, perhaps one in which the original’s fantasy universe and characters are better fleshed-out, or which focus on innovating the core moveset. I’d like to see the idea of elemental breath attacks been done right, this time without gutting everything else in the process.
I am optimistic about the future, but at the same time I don’t regret only getting into the series now. I am happy I could pick up the failed experiments at bargain bin prices and have a hearty laugh at them, instead of having to experience a nostalgic childhood series falling apart over the course of 18 years. I get enough of that whenever I check back in with the Lyrical Nanoha franchise.