Editor’s Note: The Backlog is a recurring feature I started last July in an effort to: a.) write more for this blog, and b.) shorten the embarrassingly long list of video games I’ve purchased but never completed. As you can tell from the fact that there were only five entries in the series’ first year, it hasn’t exactly been a rousing success. But I’m bringing it back now, because this September marks the 20th anniversary of the original Sony PlayStation: one of my favorite video game consoles, and one for which there are still plenty of games I haven’t played (and plenty more that I have played, but have been meaning to revisit). While I’ll be the first to admit that this blog is never relevant, I can’t pass up an opportunity to at least pretend that it’s timely; so, for the rest of 2015, I’ll be playing through PS1 games in my backlog and writing about my memories of the system. It’s a tedious, self-indulgent exercise, but hey, so’s everything else I do! – Z.H.
The Spyro the Dragon series of 3D platformers, developed by Insomniac Games and released for the original PlayStation between 1998 and 2000, has always held a special place in my heart. For one thing, they probably helped save my relationship with my sister. See, back when we were both kids, I had a bad habit of trading in “old” video games to fund the purchase of new ones–even in cases when I wasn’t, strictly speaking, the sole owner of the game in question (just ask my mom and sister about the notorious Donkey Kong Country incident). This habit reached its peak in the summer of 1999, when I took my Nintendo 64 and all my games to FuncoLand so I could buy a PlayStation in time for the release of Final Fantasy VIII. Callie, seven years old at the time and a fan of Yoshi’s Story, was devastated…until one weekend when we rented the original Spyro the Dragon, and she finally found a game on the PlayStation to replace her beloved anthropomorphic dinosaur. As for me, I was a lifelong Nintendo fan–at least before I finally jumped ship to Sony for the promise of Japanese role-playing games–and a platformer that wasn’t developed by the company that gave me Super Mario Bros. was necessarily a hard sell. But Spyro didn’t just win my little sister over; it won me over as well–me, a jaded 14-year-old who considered even Sonic the Hedgehog to be beneath him.
Frankly, at first glance, it’s not easy to see why. Spyro, the purple dragon protagonist himself, cuts a gaudy, smirking character, straight out of the same mid-’90s “Mascots with Attitude” central casting as the aforementioned Sonic (and Bonk, and Sparkster, and Aero, and Crash, and Bubsy, and…). There are frequent cutscenes throughout the game where our mealy-mouthed hero (played by veteran voice actor Carlos Alazraqui, best known at the time for his roles as Rocko of Rocko’s Modern Life and the Taco Bell chihuahua) has to sit through a long-winded speech by an older authority figure, and quickly says “gotta go” because he’s, like, so over it. He is, to say the least, Totally Radical. But the era’s endemic obnoxiousness aside, the game has charm to spare. Its premise is amusing, even looking back at it now as a 30-year-old: when a pair of dragons brag on the local news about the amount of treasure their community has hoarded and mock the villainous Gnasty Gnorc, Gnorc decides to invade the Dragon Kingdom out of pure spite, imprisoning the dragons in crystal and taking their treasure for himself. Spyro, the youngest of the dragons, survives Gnorc’s attack and sets out to rescue his elders.
This bare-bones setup allows Spyro to adopt a familiar template for post-Super Mario 64 3D platforming, with the player traveling through magical portals (think Mario 64‘s paintings) to rescue the captured dragons (stars) and retrieve their precious gems (coins). Where the game differentiates itself is in its cartoonish fantasy aesthetic. Spyro isn’t as polished as Mario, either visually or mechanically (very few games are), but the five realms of the Dragon Kingdom each have their own look and feel, and the dragons and rascally “gnorcs” alike are rendered with delightful wit and attention to detail. My personal favorites are the soldier gnorcs in the “Peace Keepers” world, who hide in tents and then “moon” Spyro when he burns their tents down–bare gnorc asses having apparently not been enough to ruffle the ESRB‘s feathers in 1998. This is nerdy as hell, but I also love how the game’s portrayal of Spyro stays true to conventional dragon lore: not only does he hoard gems like a tiny, wisecracking Smaug, but he also regenerates health by incinerating (and, presumably, devouring) lesser creatures like sheep. Finally, the game’s soundtrack, a new age/jazz fusion affair by former Police drummer Stewart Copeland, deserves special mention for lending a fun, quirky feel to the game: the lengthy compositions take advantage of the PlayStation’s disc-based hardware, and they don’t sound quite like any other video game music before or since.
Of course, Spyro the Dragon isn’t a perfect game. The aforementioned aesthetic is much more interesting than the mechanical design of the levels, which are large and offer plenty of three-dimensional exploration, but aren’t terribly memorable for gameplay purposes. The game also suffers from the usual early 3D platformer problem of the player’s worst enemy being the in-game camera– though fortunately it gives plenty of control over Spyro’s viewpoint, with both the shoulder buttons and a first-person view allowing the player to see their surroundings. More annoyingly, the final sequence commits the cardinal sin of making a previously-tangential aspect of the game design (chasing the snickering “egg thief” characters through winding passageways and along treacherous cliffs) into a skill that is necessary to defeat Gnasty Gnorc. In general, though, the game was a great early effort by the Insomniac team–who had, after all, developed only one other game before Spyro, the largely forgotten PS1 first-person shooter Disruptor. On a personal level, I can’t think of a better introduction for myself to platform games on a non-Nintendo system.
I must not have been the only person to think so, either; because a sequel, Spyro 2: Ripto’s Rage!, appeared just over a year later. Spyro 2 is, for me, the obvious peak of the series: everything is bigger, in the best possible way. Spyro himself has acquired more moves, including the abilities to swim and climb ladders (both obviously necessary skills for dragons). More importantly, the world of the game has expanded exponentially: having left the relatively provincial Dragon Kingdom behind for the more nebulous storybook world of Avalar, the designers at Insomniac were now free to throw all kinds of bizarre characters and situations at Spyro, from a community of cavemen being tormented by attacking dinosaurs, to a pair of child secret agents (named “Handel” and “Gretel”) infiltrating an Arabian Nights-style castle, to a commune of robot farmers fighting off an infestation of giant insects. It’s nuts, obviously, and like in the best platform games, there’s never a dull moment.
Even as it improves on its predecessor, however, Spyro 2 does make a few missteps. For every instance of streamlining–like the elimination of those useless dragon eggs–the game adds another unnecessary layer of complexity: Spyro, for example, now not only feasts on the flesh of innocent beasts to regenerate health, but he also apparently siphons his vanquished enemies’ spiritual energy to unlock powerups, like some kind of adorable Soul Reaver. Finally, the expanded universe brings with it an expanded narrative, which is a bit of a mixed bag: on the one hand, the game’s voice talent is better than the average PS1-era video game, with Spyro and a few other characters now voiced by Tom Kenny of Rocko and SpongeBob Squarepants fame; on the other hand, though, we’re still watching crudely-animated in-engine graphics for the original PlayStation, and approximately no one is playing Spyro the Fucking Dragon for its gripping storyline. Still, the story scenes are inoffensive enough, and the paper-thin conflict between Spyro and the diminuitive new villain Ripto has an amusing Saturday-morning cartoon feel.
At last, we come to the final installment of the original Spyro trilogy, which I never actually played until this year: 2000’s Spyro: Year of the Dragon. And it’s…definitely a third Spyro game. Now, to be fair, I powered through all three games in the space of about a month, and was feeling some distinct franchise fatigue by the time I got to the last one, but that alone can’t explain why Year of the Dragon left me cold. The problem is that, while Spyro 2 was bigger and better than the original, Spyro 3 took its maximalism a bridge too far. There’s just too much of everything: too many things to collect (149 eggs and 15,000 gems versus Spyro 2‘s 64 orbs and 10,000 gems), too many secondary characters, too many half-assed minigames. Insomniac, obviously feeling the limits of the platformer formula they developed in the first game and built upon in the sequel, was now throwing all kinds of gameplay styles into the mix: tank battles, forced-movement dodging sequences, and even (because, 2000) Tony Hawk-style skate parks. The one uniting factor is that none of these are much fun. Even the more conventional stages lack the inspiration of the previous games: where Spyro 2‘s Avalar in particular was filled to bursting with inventive environments and characters, its successor’s “Forgotten Realms” often just feel tired. This being the “Year of the Dragon,” there are plenty of Asian-influenced stages–which are, as you might imagine, a little questionable. Just in general, though, the game leans noticeably toward historically-influenced environments–a Roman villa, a pirate ship--that feel drab and prosaic compared to the other games’ fairy-tale realms.
Things get particularly dire with the inclusion of new playable characters, who take over for Spyro in certain levels. You can (finally?) play as Spyro’s longtime silent sidekick/sentient health bar Sparx the dragonfly, in the world’s worst overhead shoot-’em-up. Or you can play as the psychotic lab monkey “Agent 9,” in the world’s worst third-person shooter. Starting to see a pattern? Probably lamest of all is Bentley, the “comically” erudite yeti, whose sequences aren’t a world’s-worst of any particular genre, but a joyless slog unique unto themselves: Bentley moves slowly and is incapable of jumping, so on his stages you’re forced to just lumber slowly around the screen and occasionally spin your club to deflect enemy attacks. There are, to be fair, a few moments of brilliance: I loved the unexpected meta-reference in one of Agent 9’s levels, for example, in which the game suddenly transforms into a fixed-perspective Mad Dog McCree-style light-gun shooter with gun-slinging T. Rexes as enemies. The vast majority of the time, however, I missed the good old days when Spyro wasn’t a jack of all trades, master of none.
Probably the low point of Year of the Dragon is the story, which has officially worn out its welcome for at least this grown-ass player. If Spyro 2 had a Saturday-morning cartoon vibe, then Spyro 3 is like the 1988 Felix the Cat movie: a bizarre and needless attempt to inject drama and narrative complexity into a childish premise and cast of characters that just can’t support it. See, an evil dinosaur-hippo Sorceress is commanding an army of humanoid rhinos (why?) to steal dragon eggs so that she can use the baby dragons’ wings to become immortal (how?), and has recruited a magical rabbit girl (who?) to help fend off Spyro…and oh, by the way, that rabbit girl may or may not be a love interest for Spyro’s slack-jawed bipedal cheetah companion Hunter (gross). It’s a premise that left me with a lot of questions, chiefly “Why the hell am I watching this?” and “I am 30 goddamn years old; what am I doing with my life?”
Spyro: Year of the Dragon was both a critical and commercial success (hey, there’s no accounting for taste), but it was also the last game in the series to be developed by Insomniac, and the last to be released for the original PlayStation. The post-Insomniac games, from the little I have played and seen, are best left forgotten; while the series’ recent reboot, the ubiquitous Skylanders, is its most successful yet, but at the cost of becoming virtually unrecognizable from the original trilogy. Yet Spyro left behind a long legacy for the PlayStation. Developers Insomniac, of course, went on to become one of Sony’s chief second-party studios, creating the Ratchet & Clank series for the PS2 and the Resistance trilogy for the PS3. Mark Cerny, an executive producer and designer for the first Spyro and design consultant for the other two games (and also one of the creative forces behind the Crash Bandicoot series, the PlayStation’s other chief platforming series), recently served as lead architect for the PS4 and PS Vita. Speaking for myself, I’ll always look fondly on the series (underwhelming third entry notwithstanding) for introducing me to a world of platformers beyond Mario–and for finally giving me a PlayStation game I could share with my family. And for the record, I never did trade in Spyro or Spyro 2…you’re welcome, Callie.
The Spyro series is now available as part of Sony’s PSone Classics series of digital downloads: playable on the PS3 and PSP, but not PS Vita, which I definitely didn’t download them for during a weird PlayStation Network glitch last year, and which definitely isn’t the ideal (semi-)legal way to experience the games. If you want to look at my non-progress on my video game backlog in relative real time, you can do that here.