Review by horror_spooky

"The reason for insomnia"

When Sony first jumped into the console market, it was facing massive competition. Sega and Nintendo both had secure footholds in the gaming market, and both had a slew of first-party franchises and recognizable mascots under their belt to draw in consumers and maintain their respective loyal fanbases. Sony took a huge risk with the original PlayStation, but that risk paid off. Due to the PlayStation being cheap to develop for, and the new disc-based media providing a ton of extra space for developers to maximize their creativity, developers jumped on the bandwagon. However, consumers took notice thanks to the games available on the PlayStation that, at the time, weren't available anywhere else. Square had put its faith in Sony and released a trilogy of Final Fantasy games on the system. A pre-merger Enix also trusted the PlayStation enough to release the latest entry in one of the most popular video game franchises of all time, Dragon Warrior, on the system. Even though they had great third-party support, Sony also needed to nab studios to call their own, and start developing their own franchises.

Sony was off to a good start with this venture, as made apparent by the Crash Bandicoot games as well as other titles like Twisted Metal. However, there was another studio that Sony dumped a whole ton of money into for them to make games exclusive to the PlayStation. That studio was Insomniac Games, a humble studio that had previously created a well-received first-person shooter known as Disruptor, also exclusively for the PlayStation. The first big hit Insomniac had was this game, Spyro the Dragon, and thanks to the success of Spyro, Insomniac has flourished; since the release of this game, Insomniac has created some of the most popular video game franchises of all time. They have developed all of the major Ratchet & Clank games, and also helped launch the PlayStation 3 with the great World War II/science-fiction hybrid, Resistance: Fall of Man.

Spyro the Dragon, however, is one of their most important works. It gave Sony faith in Insomniac, and it allowed them to create much better games in the future. I am reluctant to call it one of their "best", because, though it is a pretty great game, it does have a few glaring flaws.

The gameplay in Spyro the Dragon is that of a simple platformer. Players take control of a spunky purple dragon, the titular Spyro, and are accompanied throughout the adventure by Spyro's dragonfly companion named Sparx. Sparx is useful for collecting gems when Spyro runs near them, but he also serves a more important purpose. When Spyro takes damage, instead of having a health bar or hearts at the top of the screen, this information is conveyed through Sparx's color. The first time Spyro is hit, Sparx will go from a golden and magical dragonfly to a sad, blue one. When Spyro takes another hit, Sparx goes from blue to a sickly green. One more hit will get rid of Sparx all together, and any further damage will result in a loss of a life. Spyro can revive Sparx by killing the various animals encountered throughout the game that are non-lethal. By killing these animals, butterflies will start fluttering around, and Sparx can consume them to regain his health, and consequently, Spyro's health as well.

Sparx is a unique aspect of the game, but the rest of the game is, like I described, a simple platformer. Spyro jumps across gaps, fights enemies, collects things, fights bosses, and all that jazz. One could play through the whole game, just going level-to-level, and probably be in good enough shape to beat the game without getting too side-tracked. Hell, you wouldn't even have to play every level to go through the game's storyline. In this sense, Spyro is like every other platformer around, and playing the game like this results in a very unsatisfying experience.

Instead of the gameplay benefitting from expertly designed levels, the entertainment factor in Spyro is more focused on exploring the levels. Every level in the game, including the hub worlds, weren't built for quick one-throughs; they were made to be taken apart. They are to be taken apart not in a literal sense, mind you, but in a figurative one. Each level is ripe to explore, and it's fun to discover new, hidden areas and complete each level 100%.

There are a variety of factors that go into Spyro completing each level to its fullest or not. There are dragons trapped in stone that need to be saved that also serve as checkpoints and saving opportunities. After freeing all the sometimes helpful (and sometimes irritably stupid) dragons, Spyro then needs to focus on collecting all the gems in that level. There are hundreds of gems in each level, and some of them are hidden very well, or require expert platforming skills to reach successfully. On top of all that, a dozen or so dragon eggs have been stolen from Spyro's fellow dragons, and these multi-colored thieves need to be dealt with so Spyro can get the eggs back.

Exploration and discovery is key to Spyro the Dragon. If you are more into an action-packed experience, then this is not the game to play. Spyro is slow-paced and challenging, and benefits from it. Spyro is a fine example of a game that doesn't have to have killstreaks and online multiplayer to be entertaining. It's nice and slow, and if it were more fast-paced, more action-packed, more like your standard platformer, then it wouldn't be nearly as good.

Breaking up these exploration levels, however, are flying levels. These levels are timed and have a few different goals to accomplish within the time limit in order to receive the maximum gem reward. These levels are annoying, if anything, and feel awkwardly thrust into the game. There's no reason for them. While they can provide for a couple of thrilling moments, these thrills only occur after repeated frustration and failure. It doesn't help that these flying levels generally require a very specific flight pattern in order to complete, which essentially boils down to trial-and-error gaming, which clashes horribly with the rest of the game's slow, room-for-creativity approach.

However, like I said, most of the levels in this game can be bypassed completely. Spyro doesn't require players to dump tons of time into it for the storyline to be played through, but there's also a ton of content for the more dedicated gamers to sink their teeth into. The fact that these levels aren't required to beat the game is a godsend. I'm not saying that these levels aren't a good idea and that there should be absolutely no action in Spyro the Dragon; I am just saying that the idea was executed very poorly.

Spyro has a lot going for it. The biggest problem with the gameplay, unfortunately, is the controls. While Spyro allows for movement with the analog stick, a luxury that not all PSOne games were allowed, the camera control is awful. The game doesn't use the right analog stick for camera control, and instead throws that responsibility on the shoulder buttons. That's fine, but it feels unnatural, especially since practically every other game like it uses the dual-analog scheme for not only character movement, but for camera movement. The camera is pretty bad a lot of the time, resulting in cheap deaths and ripped-out hair. While the game is forgiving enough in the sense that getting a game over really isn't a huge punishment and merely requires enemies to be re-defeated, there are jumps and platforming segments in this game that are difficult for all of the wrong reasons.

Fighting enemies can be a pain in the ass thanks to the bad camera and the questionable controls as well, but Spyro is surprisingly diverse in a day and age when most characters in platformers had two functions (those being "jump" and "attack"). Spyro can breathe fire to defeat his enemies, and he can also ram into them with his horns. Gliding is a big part of the gameplay as well, and carefully timed jumps are a necessity. The little guy can even perform barrel rolls to avoid attacks from enemies, and manipulate objects in the environment with his moveset to solve platforming challenges, among other things.

But once again, the main gripe here is that the controls are just plain bad a lot of the time. About halfway through the game, a gameplay mechanic is introduced that requires players to run on ramps marked with glowing yellow arrows. These arrows allow Spyro to build up an extra burst of speed, and then soar through the level momentarily. These ramps are all over the place with consistency. Sometimes they required me to tap X to jump off them correctly, and other times, Spyro decided to take a random nosedive to his doom. The forgiving nature of the game lessens these problems, but these issues are completely avoidable and unnecessary.

I don't expect a whole lot from the plot in platformers, but Spyro pushes my buttons for a couple of reasons. At the beginning of the game, an evil, goblin-like monster decked out with golden armor casts a spell that turns all of the dragons around Spyro into statues. Spyro, a runt dragon, was saved from this attack due to his short size. Spyro's goal is to free his dragon friends, recover the stolen treasure that the aforementioned antagonist, Gnasty Gnorc, has turned into his personal army, and to retrieve the stolen dragon eggs. That's all fine and good, but Spyro is really annoying in this game. As a character, Spyro is just awful to put up with. The dialogue he spouts is bad, and his short little conversations with the much larger and more-capable dragons he frees are awkward, mostly pointless, and lazy. There's zero character development, and Gnasty Gnorc isn't built-up as a villain at all. Besides the opening cut-scene and the final moments of the game, Gnorc's presence is non-existant. I'm probably being a bit too hard on the game considering the time it was made and the standard for storylines in platformers was set by a game about Italian plumbers in a kingdom populated with talking mushroom men, but when the protagonist isn't likeable, the game's quest then becomes irrelevant, and in many ways, kind of boring.

But where Spyro lacks in storytelling ability, it excels with the graphics. Spyro the Dragon is easily one of the best-looking games on the PlayStation. The character models are impressive and memorable. Spyro's design is pretty impressive, and the art style is very unique. Clipping is an apparent issue throughout the whole game, but the environments are crisp and well-detailed. Each world has its own special feel to it, and the colors and architecture of these worlds all help convey different emotions. While Gnasty Gnorc is hardly built up as a legitimate threat in the storyline, the visual presentation of his world gives off the atmosphere that Spyro's greatest challenges lies just ahead. It's a foreboding feeling that is amplified by the art style and visual design choices in the game.

While the dialogue is very bad, the voice acting in the game isn't quite as bad. It's nothing that's going to win any awards any time soon, but when it comes to the audio, the background music and the soundtrack are much more important than the voice-acting. Each world in this game has its own original tune, and the music is great all around. The soundtrack is memorable and fun to listen to. There was never a time where I felt like muting the game because a tune became repetitive, and that's actually quite an accomplishment when many games of the time tended to be kryptonite for the ears.

Spyro the Dragon can be beaten in just a few hours for those that blow through it, but for those that take the time to collect everything and obtain 100%, there's a lot more fun to be had. While the game still isn't long by any stretch of the imagination, at least it isn't obnoxiously lengthy and can be completed with satisfaction without dedicating your entire life to it. It's actually fun to try to collect everything in the game, a rarity for video games in general, the forgiving death system eliminates any frustrations and manages to make the game even more replayable.

Spyro the Dragon is a classic. Regardless of its overall quality, the game will always be revered and remembered as the title that put Insomniac on the map and paved the way for future gaming icons that the studio created. While Spyro the Dragon certainly isn't the best game around, it's still very good and worth playing through for the nostalgia factor alone.


Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 05/09/11

Game Release: Spyro the Dragon (US, 10/25/07)


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