Monday, 29 February 2016

Favourite Games/Series #4 - Spyro the Dragon (PS1 trilogy)

Some gamers are quick to group together the likes of Spyro, Crash Bandicoot, Croc and others as clones of the groundbreaking Super Mario 64 and while it's impossible to deny that Nintendo's seminal 3D platformer would have heavily inspired this wave of platformers, that assessment does a huge disservive to some genuinely fantastic games. It doesn't matter though because these games don't need to defend themselves from elitist scorn. Spyro and Crash in particular starred in a combined eight games on Sony's first home console and each sold a huge number of copies, were positively received by critics and saw 'Platinum' re-releases. Copies are in abundance today and yet the market's demand for these games (from those who played them first time around and those who want to experience them fresh) keeps prices quite high considering the more than ample supply available.

Those are the facts but this series of posts is more about my own recollections of my favourite games rather than facts so I'll yank myself firmly back on-topic. The first home system we had in our house was the original Playstation which my Dad bought in the late 90's along with a copy of (the excellent) F1 '97. It was the bundled demo disc which had my attention though and I was soon heavily hinting that Spyro the Dragon should be our next game. What followed was magical experience across three fantastic games, unfortunately book-ended by a terrible next-generation follow-up and the character's rapid decline before being absorbed into a kids toy/figurine centred franchise.

On paper, the first game did nothing new. Spyro travelled between six hub worlds and explored a number of levels in each, collecting gems and freeing a set number of trapped dragons from the crystalised prisons that villain Gnasty Gnorc had imposed on them. So far, so SM64 if you trade dragons for stars. The game had its own identity though, born from its fantastical worlds, likable enemy designs and a simply wonderful soundtrack from Stuart Copeland. Furthermore, Spyro was defined by his ability to glide, breathe fire and charge at enemies which helped him stand out as a character and interact with a 3D world in a slightly different way to other characters who simply ran and jumped. Control was loose but precise and the camera was extremely co-operative as well as easily manipulated so the technical side of things was spot-on.

Crisp visuals, entertaining enemies and expansive worlds...

Playing Spyro became an obsession of sorts and while I can complete the game 100% today in a matter of a few days (I could likely do it in one day if I fancied a marathon sesh), I wasn't skilled enough back then to find every secret or overcome the tough challenges posed by Treetops' speed ramps or the time-attack format of the 'Flight' levels. I wasn't frustrated though because I was in love with the game's visual design and music. Beginning with the former, Insomniac crafted a sort of fantasy-themed look for Spyro with extremely well defined graphics and objects. I find it difficult to explain in words but I suggest playing the game today or watching a few videos online because the one thing that immediately stands out is that the visuals - while clearly being from the 32bit era - haven't aged disgracefully unlike a vast number of Playstation titles which aimed for realism on hardware that couldn't provide it. Yes, these games looked incredible back in the 90's but today they can come off as a mess of jaggy pixels and nasty textures. Not so in the case of Spyro, a game which still manages to be appealing to the eyes of any elitist graphics whore.

I especially like the backgrounds which have a nice swirly, smudgy effect to depict blue skies or far off mountain peaks. It's simple and largely undetailed but timeless and almost soothing for it.

But it's the music that remains my favourite thing about Spyro the Dragon. The signature bells and jingles would pop up in most tracks across the trilogy but despite recurring instruments sticking out like a sore thumb, most levels managed to have their own unique sound. It's the kind of music that I can listen to outside of playing the game and it gives me a severe nostalgia rush but the soundtrack is still excellent in it's own right and immediately distinguishable from anything else. I'm a bit rubbish at describing music in words so look out for a separate feature in my 'Favourite Video Game Music' series of posts coming soon...

Spyro 2's levels were more expansive and detailed than before.

Considering how cynical and hard to impress I am today, it's sometimes difficult to recall just how mind-blown I was by Spyro 2: Gateway to Glimmer (known as Spyro 2: Ripto's Rage in North America) when the follow up to my (then) favourite game was released. The sequel retained everything that made the original a fantastic platformer then built upon it in every area aside from removing the evasive sideways roll which annoyed a fair few people. There was a greater emphasis on a story this time around, a small selection of (unintrusive) cutscenes and a cast of supporting characters for Spyro to interact with on his quest to collect orbs and remove the evil Ripto from the land of Avalar. Furthermore, each individual level had its own unique inhabitants requesting Spyro's help and offering varied challenges.

Levels themselves were more expansive this time around and far more detailed than ever before. Exploring them was a little more involving this time around too since Spyro now had the ability to swim underwater and climb ladders, allowing for some more sophisticated world design. These two abilities alone blew my younger self away, especially the swimming when I had obviously been so used to Spyro drowning in the previously lethal fluids of the original game. The purple dragon could also perform a headbash move (to break open chests or shatter certain boulders) and would frequently encounter power-up portals that bestowed time-limited special abilities such as flight, powerful fireballs and shielding against lava. Usually these power-ups were reserved for specific challenges within levels but they often allowed Spyro to reach previously inaccessible areas too once he'd defeated enough enemies to activate them.

New additions continued with the ability to hover at the end of a glide for a small increase in height (essential for successfully making some of the game's longer, more dangerous glides) and also being able to pull back on the analogue stick to slow Spyro's descent (very rarely useful). The player could also pick up projectiles in Spyro's mouth and spit them at far-off or high-up enemies, either freely or using the game's new first-person targeting mode.

Spyro's new nemesis Ripto and his minions - far worse than Gnasty Gnorc

Essentially, it was the perfect sequel with everything turned up a notch without anything ever intruding on the core gameplay established in the original. Well...the greedy, gem-hungry Moneybags character could be described as intrusive but I always thought he was amusing! There was no knocking the original from the pedestal I'd placed it on but Spyro 2 was definitely its equal and just as enjoyable. Insomniac had added a score of new abilities, characters and even a proper plot but all of these additions integrated seamlessly and made for a much-loved PS1 classic.

Spyro: Year of the Dragon is where the series had its first wobble in my opinion however. While it was still a superb game that I hold in high regard to this day, there was the general sense that Insomniac had thrown everything including the kitchen sink at their third Spyro installment and it veered slightly towards being overblown. Once again, all of the mechanics and features from the previous game carried over but even more had been squeezed in including skateboarding and top down shooter-style levels for Sparx the dragonfly. There were also four new playable characters with their own levels as well as occasional segments within Spyro's levels. Shiela the kangaroo jumped high and broke boulders, Bentley the Yeti had a club to smash enemies with, Sgt. Bird could fly and shoot rockets/drop bombs and Agent-9 the chimp had a laser pistol to play with.

These new characters were the game's big selling point and while the attempt at variety is certainly welcome, I felt that Shiela, Bentley and co. were a bit of a nuisance and just getting in the way of me playing as Spyro. After all, they couldn't be switched out within the same level as Spyro (with the exception of a single instance) and their individual levels/bonus stages were tailor-made to their unique abilities so it's not as if the different characters could access new areas within the main levels or provide some form of puzzle-orientated tasks.

This oriental themed level is one of my favourites in YOTD.

The music and level designs also took a small hit too. The soundtrack is as enjoyable as ever (though certainly not my personal favourite from the three games) and mixes it up with some new sounds and tracks tailored to certain levels' themes but - for the first time - some pieces of music are re-used multiple times throughout the game (disappointing). As for the level designs, there are more worlds inspired by real locations than ever before (as opposed to the wholly fantasy-styled lands of the original) so there's an oriental level, an Egyptian tomb, a wild west stage and so on. Not bad at all but they don't appeal to me as much as their Spyro and Spyro 2 counterparts. I also noticed a lot of ideas repeated from the previous two games when it came to enemy concepts/behaviour and some of the challenges so while I would refrain from labelling the third Spyro as "out of ideas", it didn't feel as fresh and exciting as its predecessors.

Having said that, if I were to use a personal ratings scale, I would still award Year of the Dragon an 8/10 or 8.5/10. It's just that the first two are easy 10/10's in my mind, taking into account how much enjoyed them and how I feel about re-playing them today. What followed however proved to be much, much worse. Insomniac moved over to the Ratchet & Clank series for the PS2 and so Universal were responsible for bringing a fourth Spyro game to our screens. In the interim period, I had already enjoyed their first Gameboy Advance Spyro game (Season of Ice) which was an overhead, isometric title heavily inspired by the design cues of Year of the Dragon. It was obviously restricted due to the nature of the GBA hardware but for what it was, it was a fine effort.

I can't say the same for Universal's first PS2 effort though. Enter the Dragonfly was released in 2004 for the Playstation 2 with a mass of fans eager to continue Spyro's adventures on a new console but they would be disappointed by dull, uninspired levels that were sometimes far too open with gems scattered everywhere. Aside from the new thunder/ice/fire breath mechanic, there was nothing new or interesting about this game which seemed to simply try and emulate the PS1 games with little success. Worse still, the game was rushed so it could be on the shelves for Christmas of that year and it really showed: frequent lock-ups, stalling frame rates and shocking glitches (such as falling through solid floors) were common occurences and proved to be the rotten cherry atop a decidedly stale cake. The later Gamecube port ironed out the technical gremlins but you were still left with a poor, creatively bankrupt sequel that couldn't have been further from the high quality, magical feel of Insomniac's PS1 games.

This is where my Spyro story ends. I didn't play the fifth game (A Hero's Tail) and I skipped the subsequent Legend of Spyro trilogy which - from what I have seen - looks very little like the platformer I once knew. After these games, Spyro morphed into the Skylanders series, the first game to feature interaction with collectable figurines, a considerable success that has since been imitated by Disney Infinity and Nintendo's own Amiibo line. As far as I can see, the Skylanders series doesn't even feature Spyro anymore so has he been permanently swallowed up by this cash-cow for kids? Will Insomniac ever be persuaded to join forces once again with Stuart Copeland and return to the Dragon Worlds? Only time will tell but at least we still have a superb Playstation trilogy of timeless platformers to revisit at our leisure.

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