Monday, 14 October 2013

The Past and Times of Yore: Spyro the Dragon and the illustrious series of Spyro, platforming excellence

Just a note, I’m going to start leaving scores on these reviews similar to the Gamefaqs style of a score for each section then an overall score (story, gameplay etc) but I’m not going to break it up into sections or advertise it in my facebook posts etc, it’s just go give an idea of what I think (or thought) anyway I’ll see how it goes.

 Release Date: 15/11/1998
Genre: Platformer

Sony Computer Entertainment
Developer: Insomniac Games
Platform: Playstation
Players: 1

Classification: E (Everyone)
If there ever was a defining era for modern platformers In my view it would have to be in the era of the 4th generation consoles where the Nintendo 64 battled for dominance against the first Sony Playstation console, though the Playstation did sell more units during that period (125 million to 33 million) it’s arguable which machine was more popular. It was during the mid 90’s that pioneered the era of 3D gaming and specifically the 3D platformer. It was always going to be a major move for Nintendo, how to do Mario in 3D? But they pulled it off, and pulled it off well a 3D platformer may have been difficult and somewhat cumbersome judging the gaps and dealing with the “floating camera” style view but Mario 64 as well as Rare’s Banjo-Kazooie and Conker series were a rousing success. For me though it was a different path as I don’t know how or why my brother and I decided to get a Playstation but fortunately for us the Playstation was rich in 3D platforming goodness with the likes of  Ape Escape, Rayman 2,  Gex: Enter the Gecko, the infallible Crash Bandicoot series and the lesser known Croc: Legend of the Gobbos though with all these great games I didn’t end up owning any of them, I had the arguable Crash Bandicoot series ripoffs of Mario Kart  64 and Mario Party.

Crash Bandicoot: A classic PlayStation series
What I did have though was the Spyro series and what a great series it was in the aptly named “Golden Years” of Spyro on the Playstation consisting of the first three Spyro games developed by Insomniac Games who went on to create the Ratchet and Clank series which is also very good I hear, I must have played them through more than three times each as they were the best 3D platformers that I have ever played. The three games put together gradually got better, the first Spyro the Dragon was set wholly in the Dragon Worlds while the Spyro 2: Gateway to Glimmer was set in a whole other world of Avalar and the third Spyro: Year of the Dragon gave some new insight to the Dragon origins. All three were very similar in gameplay, graphics and sound, with the gameplay and features only changing slightly each game which made them all so great.

I'll mention here that these screenshots were taken with ePSXe which is a Playstation Emulation software so they may not look correct, they may even look a bit more high resolution, also I apologise for the black bars.

Insomniac games, creators of Spyro's golden age of the first 3 games
After Insomniac left the Spyro mantle was handed down to various developers, the first iteration on the PS2: Spyro: Enter the Dragonfly made by Check Six although was a great looking game and didn’t differ from the Spyro formula much all, it had a multitude of gameplay and graphical issues inc invisible walls, incorrect hitboxes, frame rate jumping and irregularity and very slow loading times. The second PS2 Spyro title was Spyro: A Hero's Tail which I believe was the best one for the PS2 and last real Spyro game to date, this game changed quite a few things in the Spyro gameplay and universe but was by far the best since Insomniac so hats off to Eurocom for that one before everything went bad, so very bad.

Some footage of A Hero's Tail (because I couldn't get a screenshot)

The Legend of Spyro series which originated on the Playstation 2 was an entirely new trilogy-to-be with an almost completely new storyline with Spyro actually being brough up by Sparx (his dragonfly companion’s) family (which I found kind of ridiculous) though Sierra Entertainment seemed to pull out all the stops and managed to get Elijah Wood and David Spade to voice Spyro and the Sparx respectively with Gary Oldman as one of the four Dragon Guardians. After borrowing the first of the series The Legend of Spyro: A New Beginning (yes borrowing from the video store I still did that back then) I watched the intro and found the animation and voice acting to be awesome, then when I actually started playing the game I found that Krome studios had done something terrible. The gameplay was much more action based with Spyro pulling off punches, kicks and headbutt combos to defeat enemies who now had health bars and could no longer be killed in a single hit, they had effectively turned Spyro into a  linear beat-em-up. Rather than focusing on platforming i.e. exploring an area, defeating enemies and looking for treasure you now went on a liner path from room to room and had to defeat all enemies in that area before moving on to the next.

Some footage from The Legend of Spyro a New beginning, you can see the way Spyro now fights through different areas and how the game had partially evolved into a beat-em-up

Needless to say I found this absolutely unacceptable, and threw the disc out the window, well actually I didn’t do that but I did stop playing, there were two more games of that same tripe and don’t even ask me about that over-simplified toy advertisement Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure in which it seems Spyro is now shoved into the series in a cameo role like an old past-their-prime actor who everyone used to respect but is now just getting tired of them. I’ve never bought another Spyro game since A Hero’s Tail and by the way things are going I probably never will.

So that in a longwinded way of saying things is what brought me back to the original Spyro the Dragon, many times actually. I still carry the opinion that the original Spyro was the best as there’s wasn’t really anything added to the game since then that stood out in a big way with the possible exception of the areas where you played as Hunter in A Hero’s Tail, that guy deserved his own game.

Spyro the Dragon title screen,  as you can see the emulator does a pretty good job of smoothing out the models but not the 2D graphics.
I first found out about Spyro through one of those many demo discs we used to get in Playstation magazines/showbags etc and immediately found it quite enthralling, the environment, graphics, the music it was nothing like I’d ever seen before, I’d only previously played 2D platformers on the SNES and when I experienced running and gliding around a fun new majestical world, well it was intense, I remember just running around the beautiful Artisian Homeworld going “wheeeeee!” I then knew that I had to buy the game, it was too good not to.

My favorite homeworld: The Artisan
The story of the game is quite simple, Spyro is a young Dragon living in the Dragon Worlds he also seems to be the only young Dragon at this point. The start of the game shows two of the Elder dragons being interviewed by what appears to be a TV crew about the Dragon Treasure and the threat of Gnasty Gnorc who is obviously the main protagonist and has apparently found the ability to turn the Dragon treasure into minions. The scene cuts to Gnasty  apparently watching this on TV in the Dragon junkyard where he was banished and he gets enraged when the Dragons mention he is ugly and no threat and uses his magic mace to turn all of the Dragons into crystal except for Spyro who is too small for the blasts to reach, Spyro then takes it upon himself to free all of the dragons, defeat the gnorcs collect the treasure and eventually defeat Gnasty himself.
The big guy himself: Gnasty Gnorc, here in all his blockyness.
I could ask a few questions about that into like how do the Dragons and Gnasty have cameras, microphones and televisions? Eh magic I guess. 
"I'd like to thank everyone for their support: my fellow Dragons and the Fairies who helped me alomg the way and I'd also like to thank Stewart Copeland for an excellent soundtrack, really kept me going."
Anyway so after that you start in the Artisan homeworld right in front one of the dragons trapped in crystal and after breaking him out he tells you what you need to do, find the dragons, collect the treasure etc and that’s pretty much it then you went off into the Artisan world. That was the beauty of that game, unlike some of the other titles which had cutscene after cutscene (especially at the start) this just goes straight into it. The game is split into six different homeworlds of the Dragon Realms which in turn have portal around the area that lead to levels within the world. Each world had a sort of theme to it, the Artisan world is peaceful and tranquil and has ornate gardens, architecture and castles, whereas another world I am fond of is the Magic Crafters which is set up on a fantastic looking snowy mountain with enemies that can levitate and move around walls, objects and the ground itself and other which shoot ice and lightning at you.
The Beast Makers world with it's swamps, temples coupled with Gnorcs with electrical weapons make for very unique area much unlike the usual flow that these kind of platformers tend to take, lava world, jungle world, ice world etc
I love the way the game starts off as a very low difficulty level, in the Artisian homeworld there are no enemies that can hurt you you just need to run around defeat the enemies and collect the treasure, I also love the way some of the gates are located in an area that suits their environment for example the portal to Dark Hollow is through a small hedge maze and the portal to Ice Cavern is in a tunnel to the underground. Your goal in each world/level is to free the dragons, collect all the treasure and as a side quest, collect all of the dragon eggs that have been stolen by thieves in the first three worlds, ahh it’s so simple isn’t it?. The last level of each world is usally the most challenging and ends with you needing to defeat a boss character, after that you would have either saved enough dragons, collected enough treasure or dragon eggs to satisfy the worlds Balloonist to take you to a different world.

The Ice cavern portal entrance leads to an icy zone in the middle of a desert so it is fittingly located in a cavern itself.
Controlling Spyro is pretty easy especially in the first game, you can charge, breathe fire, jump, glide and dodge/roll diagonally you can also look around Spyro with the shoulder buttons or view the environment through a camera on top of Spyro’s head and that’s pretty much it, the only qualm is you have to make sure the camera is set to “active” otherwise it doesn’t quite snap into view when moving well enough. As a platforming game Spyro is pretty simple, you jump around, you may have to do some tricky glides but that’s it, the only challenges I think come with the Supercharge pads (especially on the Tree Tops level) and the flying levels that allow Spyro to fly and the objective is to flame/charge all the enemies/objects within the time limit. The worlds have many whirlwinds  which act as lifts and allow you to reach high up places to glide from, sometimes whirlwinds activate after you have climbed a hill or building. To collect treasure you just basically defeat enemies, charge or flame chests or find keys to unlock chests, you health is monitored by your dragonfly friend Sparx who changes colour (from gold) every time you get hit until after 3 hits he disappears and on the 4th Spyro is defeated, Sparx also helps you by collecting treasure in your immediate area.
Crystal Flight: One of the levels where Spyro has to fly around and flame all the targets within the time limit
The graphics and music in this game is a large part of what makes it so good, the graphics were great for their time and the visuals and sounds are so unique, especially in the first game , if I ever heard the music anywhere I was I would instantly know it was from Spyro, the mix of percussion instruments that I really wouldn’t be able to tell you what they were. Every world/level as the appropriate music for the area as well i.e. calm and happy for the Artisans world, upbeat and militaristic for the Peace Keepers and slow and quiet for the Beast Makers often the movie starts off slow or ominous (especially on the boss levels) and is quite scary then it gets into its main beat. The sounds are also great, charging enemies and breaking chests with Spyro’s charge attack is especially satisfying and also collecting the games for the sounds they make. It’s really hard to explain in words which is why I have a movie linked below.

When you first enter into worlds and the levels inside that world the environment, objects and enemies fit right in, there are various types of Gnorcs though most of the other enemies are unique to the area, I especially like the Dream Weavers world where some of the wackiest creatures and enemies are found. I find myself just wandering around looking around various levels especially at the little nooks and crannies where treasure can be hidden, as I’ve probably said before I love the Artisan world the most, it’s what probably made me enjoy the first levels of most adventure games as their so easy and peaceful. The worlds consist of a mostly fantasy settings in plains, valleys, mountains, deserts and swamps with vibrant colours, most of the enemies wield medieval weapons if any with the exception of some worlds where the Gnorcs use guns, cannons and electricity. The polygonal graphics in this game although they glitched and teared at some points they were great for the time and I just loved the simplicity, looking at every little bit of water flowing every castle, every intricately designed cave and vibrant colourful sky. If I had one word to sum up the sound and graphics it would be unique.

The Dreamweavers world, a wacky place
I think I’ve played this game at least 4 or 5 times through, that and the trilogy made by Insomniac are just that damn good. Even now I would recommend this game to anyone who wanted to see what a true 3D platformer should be and yes it does beat Mario 64 in my opinion. Spyro was just magical in almost every way, sound, visuals, environment and gameplay The Playstation had a great bunch of 3D platformers going for it and this was the best of the lot.

Story - 9
Gameplay - 10
Graphics - 9
Music - 10
Sound Effects - 10
Play Time - 9
Replayability - 10

Overall: 10


Press the jump button twice to glide, and don’t be afraid

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