Long before Skylanders came along and made parents spend tons of money on both video games AND action figures, there was a little bity dragon that started it all. Spyro the Dragon, and his self-titled first game, was one of the few family-friendly titles in the Playstation One’s early lineup. At the time, the PlayStation’s biggest sellers were all Mature-rated titled, like Metal Gear Solid, Final Fantasy VII, and Resident Evil. Sony decided they needed some more kid-friendly titles on the market in order to compete with Nintendo and Sega, and challenged the team over at Insomniac Games to create a 3D platformer with a cute, yet mischievous protagonist that focused on enemy interactions. The end result was Spyro, a purple dragon with a big attitude.
The story is pretty basic, as you might expect from platformers of this era. The story starts off with a news crew interviewing a few dragons in the Artisan world. When asked about a ogre guy named Gnasty Gnorc, the dragons tell the news crew that Gnasty is an “ugly and simple-minded” creature that poses no threat to the Dragon Kingdom. Unfortunately, Gnasty hears the dragons smack talk and decides to teach them a lesson. So, he casts a magic spell that turns all the dragons into crystal statues. It is now up to Spyro, the only dragon small enough to avoid getting hit by the spell, and his dragonfly companion Sparx, to rescue all the dragons and stop Gnasty’s minions from wrecking havoc on the Dragon Kingdom.
As mentioned before, your primary objective is to free all the dragons in each realm of the Dragon Kingdom. But in addition to that, there are also hundreds of gems to collect in each level, as well as dragon eggs and other treasures. There are 6 different realms, or hub worlds, to explore, each representing a different tribe of dragons. You start out in the land of the Artisans, then make your way to the Peace Keepers, the Magic Crafters, the Beast Makers, the Dream Weavers, and finally to Gnasty’s domain. Within each hub world, you’ll find portals all to the different levels. What’s neat about Spyro is that the hub world itself also counts as a level, with its own set of dragons to free, enemies to battle and gems to collect. And if you ever want to take a break from all the platforming and gem hunting, you can always try the flying challenges, in which you must glide through series of checkpoints in the fastest time possible. These levels are a bit few and far between, but they do serve as a nice distraction.
Spyro has two main attacks: fire breath and a charging attack, plus the ability to glide around. But you can’t just rely on one single attack to get you through the game. The enemies in Spyro are a major focus in the game, both in their interactions with you and how you go about defeating them. Some enemies, usually the ones clad in metal armor, will be resistant to your fire breath, while others will be too quick or too bulky for your charge attack to work. It’s up to you to figure out which attack works best on which enemy. And when you get hit, instead of a traditional life bar, your dragonfly buddy Sparx will change color with the damage you take. If you take 3 hits, Sparx will disappear, and if you take one more hit, you’ll lose a life. You can restore your life by torching small animals, which then turn into butterflies, which then get eaten by Sparx. (…you just gotta love video game logic, you know?) But if you do lose a life, don’t worry. Each dragon you rescue also acts as a save point, and you’ll just restart from the last dragon you saved.
Much like the gameplay, the style of Spyro is pretty straightforward and simple. It has all of the bright and colorful environments you would expect to find in a PS1-era platformer, and I like how each area really felt like a different world entirely, and not just a recolor of a previous level I’ve already been to. The level design itself is pretty standard as well without a lot of frills or tricks. But the game still manages to be a little challenging, especially when you get to some of the later levels and learn some new tricks like super-charge ramps and super glides. One gripe I did have with the game was that it was sometimes difficult to accurately judge Spyro’s jumps. Because of the graphical limitations of the game, there were many times where it looked like I cleared the gap, only to realize I didn’t have enough height to reach the other side. It was a bit frustrating, but was fixed in the later games by giving Spyro a bit of a “flutter” and the end of his glide.
The soundtrack is pretty catchy, but nothing too memorable. However, one interesting thing to note about the soundtrack is that it was created by Stuart Copeland, the former drummer of the rock band The Police. What's even weirder is that some of the music used in Spyro was also used in the Nickelodeon show “The Amanda Show,” which Copeland also worked on.
While freeing all 80 dragons is the main goal of the game, collecting gems actually turned out to be a very fun side mission. It is possible to complete the game and defeat Gnasty Gnorc without collecting all the gems and treasures, but if you go back after the credits roll and collect all of the gems and dragon eggs in each level, you will be rewarded with one final level: Gnasty’s Loot. In this “bonus” level, you are tasked with collecting all 2,000 gems from Gnasty’s treasure hoard, and successfully doing so will grant you a bonus ending video. But after that, once you’ve collected everything, there’s really no reason to go back and play it again, which is a bit of a shame. Luckily, Spyro also has some solid sequels that are just as fun to paly as its predecessor, and just may pop up here in a later edition of Retro Reviews…
The Test of Time
Though the Skylanders franchise eventually stole Spyro’s thunder, or fire in this case, and ended up phasing the little purple dragon out altogether, these Spyro games are still solid 64-bit era platformers, standing right alongside games like Crash Bandicoot and Banjo Kazooie. It’s still clear that this was a game designed for the kiddos, but there’s enough of a challenge and difficultly curve to keep the older fans entertained as well.
Spyro the Dragon is available to purchase exclusively on the PlayStation Network.