Spyro the Dragon - Retrospective Review
One of the PlayStation's key challenges during its release was providing a credible alternative to Nintendo. It already had a few head starts thanks to the likes of Resident Evil and Tomb Raider, along with the "defection" of Squaresoft, arguably one of Sony's biggest coups, during those important early years - with the Final Fantasy developer being more inclined to release the seventh instalment for a disc-based console rather than the older cartridges that the N64 was still using. This is especially ironic, considering the PlayStation was initially conceived not as a console, but as a CD drive add-on to the N64...
Still, it proved more of task to beat Nintendo in its own backyard, so to speak. Platforming has always been at the heart of the big N's games line-up, something which is especially apparent even to this day. While Sony never really had anything that directly challenged the platforming supremacy of Super Mario 64 it certainly wasn't for the lack of trying. Crash Bandicoot, Klonoa, Croc, 40 Winks and a host of other titles all found homes on the little grey box that could. Whilst many of these games were good or decent, Crash especially, none of them quite managed to capture the same boundless fun of that moustachioed plumber. Except one.
Spyro the Dragon is arguably the best platformer to make its debut on the original PlayStation. With bright, colourful environments, a fun main character and some gorgeous animations, Spyro was very much the closest the PlayStation ever got to Mario.
Crash Bandicoot might have stolen more of the headlines, yet Spyro is arguably the better game. Whilst Naughty Dog's game makes do with impressively detailed yet constricted level design, Spyro instead has a huge open world to explore. More importantly, it's a world that you actually want to explore, thanks to the abundance of addictive collectibles scattered around for you to collect.
In the original game, these came in three different forms. There were dragons, imprisoned in crystal by chief baddy Gnasty Gnorc, dragon eggs that had been stolen by thieves, and gems that were scattered all over the place. Rather than simply being an idle pastime these collectibles were crucial for progressing throughout the game, with advancement throughout the game's six worlds sometimes depending on how many dragons you'd freed or gems you'd collected - operating much in the same way that Mario's star system does.
Spyro the Dragon's success wasn't just built on its adherence to platforming staples however. No, what made Spyro work is that it did so whilst creating a wonderful fantasy world. Freeing dragons would regularly get you snippets of information from the grateful reptile in question, or they'd perhaps reference a hidden location in a level. The terrific animations were certainly a help here, breathing life into everything that inhabited Spyro's world.
Mario games might have some of the best designed levels around but they're always abstract chunks of game space; they're there to have fun in but do not to create a meaningful world in and of themselves. In contrast, Spyro the Dragon's medieval fantasy world feels oddly plausible, in a cartoonish fashion at least. This would be something that both Ratchet and Clank and Naughty Dog's Jak and Daxter would go on to cement even further, with their Saturday morning cartoon feel. But it all technically began here, with Spyro.
It also helped that Insomniac's game had a seamless, if rather low, difficulty curve. Enemies had clearly explained rules, with small monsters vulnerable to both charging and flaming attacks, big foes weak to Spyro's flame only, and armoured baddies being flameproof. It was a simple system that worked well, with each of the game's levels usually putting a simple twist on what you'd previously encountered.
Likewise, the hub system was a great touch, especially considering that the hubs themselves were levels in their own right. It meant that Spyro never "stopped" in order to load up a level, you were always playing, immersed in the adventure and the simple enjoyment of scooping up gems and torching bad guys.
In fact, finding anything to criticise about Spyro the Dragon is almost seems churlish. As mentioned earlier, the difficulty curve remains somewhat flat, as if the developers were a little scared of making a few more challenging levels. Likewise, the enemy designs can be somewhat hit and miss, with some of the later monsters looking like they belong in completely different games and sometimes lack a unifying visual theme. There's also the problem that Spyro can occasionally feel a little loose to control, it's never a major issue, but can sometimes be frustrating given that the game is a platformer after all.
Ironically, many of the weaker elements of Spyro the Dragon are highlighted because the two sequels that followed it tweaked and sharpened the core gameplay to near perfection. Both Spyro 2 and Spyro: Year of the Dragon would go on to fine tune the series until Insomniac left for pastures new by choosing to develop Ratchet and Clank for the PS2.
Spyro the Dragon is very much the quintessential platformer for the PlayStation. Even now it remains remarkably playable despite being nearly fifteen years old. It might not have bested Mario, but it sure did come close.
Spyro the Dragon was released exclusively for the PlayStation in 1998.
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