Has anyone noticed that Insomniac has a near parallel history to Naughty Dog? Both received acclaim for a trilogy of games developed exclusively for the PS1, then went on to create an another for the PS2, with Ratchet and Clank and Jak and Daxter respectively. Then for the PS3 they created a trilogy of shooters, with Resistance and Uncharted. Crash and Spyro feel like the quint essential PS1 games, and it’s a shame that neither company held onto their licenses, but it’s awesome that they resolved to create new IPs for each generation. Sorry, this Isn’t really all that relevant, but it’s a strange co-incidence that gives me pause for thought.
Anyway, Spyro the Dragon!
Spyro was released in 1998 for the PS1 by Insomniac, and follows the formula of most 3D games at the time; collect everything! The plot is little more than a set up; the local war lord Gnasty Gnork gets angry at the dragons after they bad mouth him during a news interview (which I always found funny) and turns them into statues. All except Spyro, who is left to rescue his brethren and save the day.
The game is all about exploration; finding all the crystalized dragons to release them, as well as finding all the gems in a level. This is very similar to Mario 64 or Banjo Kazooie in it’s gameplay style, and separates it from Crash which was all about skill and straight up platforming. Gameplay itself is a little more complex than Crash, with a few more moves. You can charge, and move faster while doing so, or flame enemies. Some enemies can only be defeated with some moves however; big guys need flaming, while shielded enemies require charging. You can also glide between platforms, giving you a lot of freedom to explore this world.
The health system is the most interesting, represented by a dragonfly named Sparx. He changes colour when your hit, from gold to blue to green to gone. If you get hit without Sparx, you die. Oh wait, kids game! If you get hit without Sparx, you take a nap. He also has another function in gathering gems from a short distance. When he’s gone after you take too many hits this feature is gone, making you realize how helpful it was. Imagine if the coins moved towards Mario rather than walking into them, and you get an idea of what I mean. You recharge Sparx by hitting small animals and releasing butterflies, which Sparx eats to regain health.
So all sounds good so far, right? We have a cute and colorful game with responsive controls and a lot of imagination behind it. How can you go wrong?
Well making it boring is a good start.
My huge problem with this game is that it has a lot to explore, but little incentive to do so besides finding all the gems. Each level is themed after it’s hub world, so we have levels grassland or levels of desert etc, and they all start to run together for me. Compare this to Mario 64; each level is unique and has it’s own flavor. A level themed around the bombombs, or a level themed around an underwater pirate cave; each one is memorable in its own way. Spyro has themed enemies in it’s levels, which can be interesting, but it does little to distract from the fact that the worlds are bland and uninteresting. Eventually it felt like a chore, and that should never be the case. The enemies feel cleverly designed, unique and funny, but it’s not enough to save the experience. There are flying levels which are kind of cool and challenging, but the rest of the game feels too easy and bland.
It reminds me a lot of Mass Effect; it works as a concept rather than a game. And like Mass Effect, WHA BAM! SPYRO 2 KICKS ASS!
It’s amazing when a sequel does everything right, and fixes exactly what you have a problem with! Spyro has more of a story and characters. This time Spyro accidentally ends up in the world of Avalar, where the natives need help overthrowing the local jerk Ripto and his cronies. To do so he needs to visit each world and collect the talismans and power orbs from the local characters.
Each level is so different from each other, with it’s own characters and style which makes exploration fun. To collect all power cells you need to complete different challenges too, so again it feels different from just exploring what is for the most part a large empty space.
This is how you make a sequel; it takes the established game and simply changes the space surrounding it, completely reversing my problems with the first game.
In this way the third game can just have fun with it.
This brings us to Spyro 3.
This game is pretty much the same as Spyro 2; I mean why fix what isn’t broken, right? What makes this game awesome is all the new stuff they’ve added.
It has cool mini games like skateboarding and boxing, but the biggest change is the inclusion of new characters. Each has it’s own gameplay style and personality.
First is Sheila, an Australian kangaroo with a powerful kick and an emphasis on jumping, giving you a lot of freedom vertically, as opposed to Spyro’s horizontal gliding. Next is Bentley, a well spoken yeti with a giant club for smashing, which can be spun to deflect projectiles. And Agent 9, a hyperactive monkey with a laser gun, making his gameplay more of a shooter and making him vastly different from the close combat centric Spyro. Finally, my favorite, Sargent Byrd, a flying penguin with shoulder mounted rocket launchers and a British accent.
WHY ISN’T THIS IN ALL GAMES!?!
Of course you can’t change characters whenever you want; they are restricted to their own mini levels and occasionally allowing you to change to access some areas. This is because the levels are designed around Spyro’s gameplay style, and the new characters are so different that they would require their own level designs build around them. Sparx even gets his own missions, with top down shooter segments which shake things up a little.
And how does this game end?With a small purple dragon having a dogfight with a fat blue rhino, wearing a crown and waving a magic wand while flying a space ship……….I’ll let that sink in for the second.
This series went from lackluster to truly awesome, though the first game held the framework for what was to come. They were funny, imaginative and creative, and in the later games the challenge increased. I would only really recommend the first Spyro to kids just getting into games, or gamers who want a little nostalgia. It didn’t hold up for me, but hey that doesn’t mean that it won’t for someone else.
I can’t recommend the sequels enough however! Right now! They are both on the PSN, just play them!
Are you still reading?
Fine! Your loss!
It’s a shame that they don’t make games like this anymore; kids games that also have challenge and imagination. The only real kids games these days are the Lego games, which are fun but at the same time aren’t free to explore new universes.
Knack is a fantastic spiritual successor to this train of thinking (that game is beyond awesome, despite what Angry Joe or Zero Punctuation claim), and I hope that Naughty Dog and Insomniac revisit this territory in the future. There are games that are kid friendly on Steam and other downloadable titles, but that’s not what kids are going to see when they’re walking through a store, is it? Parents aren’t likely to find them either.
I seemed to start and end this review with a tangent……Weird……Oh well, till next time I guess.