Spyro the Dragon was ahead of its time when it came out in 1998. For an early 3D platforming game, it courageously included spoken dialogue during animated scenes and contained ambitious graphics. These features, combined with unifying mechanics, made for a well defined fictional world that continues to hold up in quality to this day.
The game takes place in the Dragon Kingdom, where Gnasty Gnorc, the main enemy of the game, has trapped the dragons in crystal and released his minions all over the dragon world. Spyro, a spunky, pint-sized, purple dragon, managed to avoid the magic and as the sole survivor among the dragons, he must collect scattered treasure and free the other dragons from their crystal prisons.
The gameplay is most accurately described as meditative; it’s the kind of game you can play while mindlessly laying in bed for relaxation with the exception of a few difficult areas. The player controls Spyro, who prances around a majestic, open environment, while casually collecting treasure and defeating enemies along the way. Lives are earned by finding them throughout the levels or by collecting orbs from re-spawned enemies. On top of defeating enemies and collecting treasure, Spyro must also free his fellow dragons and collect stolen dragon eggs.
When Spyro approaches a dragon, the dragon then bursts out of the crystal in an explosive revelation. All of the dragons are male (not that there’s anything wrong with that). They are given a fun range of personalities and ages. Some come off as rather pathetic; desperate for attention after their period of isolation. Others have superiority complexes and feel the need to talk down to Spyro, who heartlessly cuts off conversations before they begin in order to avoid awkward interactions.
Some of the dragons give poorly timed hints upon release. Halfway through the game, there is still a dragon advising Spyro that he should press “X” and then “X” again at the top of his jump in order to glide. Not only is that nonsensical since Spyro is being addressed as the wielder of the controller, but it’s also insulting. No one would have gotten this far if they didn’t know how to glide. Not a big deal, but it would have been nice if there was more of a conscious effort put into the pacing of the hints and if less dragons got recycled. It’s always disappointing when you run into the token dragon that says, “Thank you for releasing me,” in a too matter of fact tone.
Why can’t the dragons stick around to assist Spyro after being released? They seem to spend an awful lot of time lecturing and bragging about their abilities, but they vanish instantly after talking themselves up.
Stolen dragon eggs must be retrieved from mysterious little bandits dressed in blue toilet paper capes. These are some of the most annoying enemies in the game because they glide across the ground and as soon as the player gets near them, they are programmed to instantly change direction in order to avoid Spyro. They even sing the classic playground taunt, “Na na-na, na na,” which can inspire baboon rage even in the most mature player. The designers did well to make the player emotionally invested in winning back dragon eggs based on primal defense mechanisms.
Gems are worth different amounts based on colour. Typically, levels contain between 100 and 500 gems. Gems are found within enemies, randomly scattered around levels, or inside of chests and metal crates. Keys are necessary for unlocking metal treasure chests. Spyro flames or charges treasure chests depending on the type. Although for the most part he could charge most treasure chests, giving the player the option to flame the flammable ones gives the player autonomy in how they want to interact with the environment. A neat, smokey effect is added to busting open the more fragile chests. The designers made these chests react the same way whether you flame them or charge them since their intention was that the player would flame them; it’s a little endearing that you can charge a wooden treasure chest and it will go up in smoke.
Spyro begins in a Home World and navigates to different levels by entering portals. Levels usually take place in some remote, floating land with varying terrain. Since you’re playing as a dragon, many levels are designed to have areas of high cliffs and plateaus. Spyro has to glide between platforms with nothing between them but free falling sky. Galactic-like patterns and swirling skies weave their way beneath the level. Even today, the sense of depth and the sensation of being elevated holds up, which is quite impressive.
Toward the end of each level, a portal awaits to bring Spyro back to the home world. This is a nice idea, but it would make more sense in a linear game. Players might get to the “end” before completing all that they meant to since the area is so open. Anyway, you can just press “Start” and go to “Exit Level” when you’re ready to leave. Though it seems more organic to exit the level through the portal since that is the primary travel method, most players would probably choose to exit manually as soon as they’ve finished, rather than seek out the portal if they ended up completing the level in a different location.
Each Home World contains a single level where Spyro actually flies the whole time, while flaming objects in order to collect treasure from them. These levels are timed and flaming objects or flying through obstacles adds seconds to the clock. After acquiring all of the treasure, the player can retry to beat their time. It feels more like a minigame than an actual level and is a welcome break from the typical platform levels in the rest of the game. It doesn’t really make sense that Spyro can suddenly fly in these locations but is limited to gliding everywhere else in the game, but it’s a fun addition to the game nonetheless.
A balloonist resides in each Home World, who agrees to transport Spyro to a new world containing a new set of levels as long as Spyro has met conditions that include an arbitrary number of dragons freed, some reasonable amount of treasure or dragon eggs retrieved. For the most part, the balloonist has surprisingly low standards for Spyro. Why is it up to the balloonist to call the shots anyway? You could theoretically complete less than half of the levels and still get through the game. It’s strange to think that Spyro and the balloonist are both okay with half of their dragon friends being trapped in crystal for eternity, a handful of innocent, unborn dragons missing, and just some of their treasure reclaimed, but hey, it’s an easy going game and the characters apparently follow suit.
Sparx, Spyro’s dragonfly health counter, changes colours when Spyro takes damage and requires butterflies to replenish his health. To get butterflies, Spyro must murder an adorable animal so Sparx can feast on the resulting butterfly. Sparx is completely gone after taking 3 hits. Since the dragonfly companion also gathers any treasure in the vicinity, it becomes very noticeable when he’s missing. Spyro must collect individual gems by running into them rather than having them effortlessly float toward him. This creates a nice bond between the dragonfly and the dragon because the player will notice Sparx’s absence. His existence becomes more than just a health indicator.
Fairies are used as helpers in the game. In certain situations, a fairy kiss will grant Spyro a temporary ability, like being able to flame metal objects and destroy them. Fairies act as safety nets at difficult parts where Spyro is doomed to fall multiple times so no lives are lost. Additionally, fairies occupy the crystal platform where the dragons used to be, and allow the player to save their game.
A couple of other mechanics were created to spice up the gameplay and add depth to the Dragon Kingdom: “Whirlwind” and “Supercharges.” Whirlwind, a sparkly upward wind that whisks Spyro up to taller platforms, is prevalent among all of the Spyro worlds. These are used to get carried back to more convenient starting points if the player is at a part that involves repetitive attempts at a task, or they’re used simply for reaching high areas quickly.
Supercharges are depicted by a path of arrows lit up in the ground. If Spyro charges on these in the direction of the arrows, he will speed up and be able to jump farther for a short period of time. A couple of levels are built solely around the usage of these. Spyro can zoom between locations that he wouldn’t be able to otherwise reach. The player has the opportunity to be a little creative with these since running on one and then the other while still engaged with its effects will compound the buildup of speed. While Supercharged, Spyro can break things that normally would not be vulnerable. Supercharges can unfortunately be frustrating to work with. If there are any points in the game that are challenging or the player can get stuck for a long time, it most likely involves a Supercharge. It was a good idea but the controls are too clumsy to handle the intensity of the movements.
Like treasure chests, Spyro can flame or charge enemies; either is effective unless the enemy is too big to be charged or wearing some type of flame repellent armour. So, there is some strategy involved in handling enemies but not much skill is required to take them down.
The enemies range anywhere from humanized clumps of grass to over-sized, four-legged monsters. Anything goes in this game. There are inept frogs, bats, ominous, floating metal suits of armour, wizards, you name it.
This game has better controls than most PS1 games even though it’s not without flaws. The smoothness of the gliding stands out the most. The fabricated feeling of wind resistance is present and turning in midair feels natural. The flying levels, however, are less smooth. In order to make it challenging, the arches and the enemies/objects are placed inconveniently so that Spyro has to turn quickly but a sharp enough turn cannot be made. Spyro ends up overshooting most turns, or clumsily running into an object where the player must catch him in midair and begin the flying sequence again in order to turn quickly enough. During flying and supercharge use, analogue is a little easier to use but then intricate control over Spyro’s movements is sacrificed. The active cameras can also be problematic as they don’t follow Spyro correctly all the time and resist the player trying to control them. None of these things make the game unplayable but provide for some frustrating moments.
Sound Effects and Music
Spyro makes a little reptilian, croaking sound when he jumps, treasure rings deliciously upon collection, and whirlwinds chime invitingly for Spyro to hop inside of them. The sound effects are pretty spot on, creating an idealistic, fantastical atmosphere. Some of the enemies make disturbing sounds that resemble regurgitation, belching, maniacal laughter, or simply nonsense that if nothing else, defines a mood for the level.
Can you tell that the composer of the Spyro soundtrack is a drummer? If you’re a Police fan, you may have already known that. A lot of the music sounds the same since it all contains generous amounts of hitting, whacking, and plucking over a funky drum track, but there are a couple of standout songs. Not surprisingly it’s more on the percussive end of the spectrum. It’s definitely easy listening background music and ties into the laid back feeling of the game nicely.
The gameplay is entertaining but pretty minimal. Gathering treasure, flaming enemies, and a couple of mechanics are as interesting as it gets in Spyro. Sidequests or additional mechanics could have added some more depth and variation in this otherwise, well designed game. Overall, it’s comfortable, humourous, and stimulating; a good choice if you’re looking for something casual to pass the time with.
+Prog rock soundtrack
-Controls and cameras amount to frustrating moments
What is a hindsight review? It’s an article in which a Geekiverse writer reviews a game that they have never played before and is outside its launch window. It offers a fresh perspective and shows which games in your backlog are worth playing through.
Alicia is one of The Geekiverse’s writers and biggest Playstation fans. You can check out more of her reviews below.