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Video Game Characters on Life Support: Spyro the Dragon
Origins & Glory Days
In September of 1998, Insomniac Games released the first Spyro the Dragon, for the Sony PlayStation. In the game, the young Spyro avoids being turned into a statue like the other dragons in his realm by the agitated Gnasty Gnorc, and teams up with his dragonfly pal Sparx to save the dragons and his land. In the game, Spyro can ram enemies or spew fire at them, and he can glide to cover large distances. This game was well received by critics and fans alike, spawning multiple sequels.
The first, Spyro 2: Ripto's Rage, also came out for the PlayStation. The game, which features Spyro taking on the titular villain in a new world, was also well received for its fluid gameplay and vivid visuals. The third game for the PlayStation, Spyro: Year of the Dragon, was a further improvement to the previous two games from a gameplay and graphical standpoint, and remains a favorite among many Spyro fans today.
With such an impressive start to a series, what could go wrong?
What do you think has been the worst Spyro the Dragon has been through?
What did go wrong was that Insomniac Games had grown tired of developing Spyro games and released the IP, eventually being picked up by Universal Studios (also known later on as Vivendi Universal). Insomniac Games, soon after, developed Ratchet & Clank, a similar platforming game for the Sony PlayStation 2. It's noteworthy that Insomniac Games has since developed over a dozen Ratchet & Clank games for various Sony platforms since. Meanwhile, poor Spyro had to deal with the forceful hand of Universal Studios.
Spyro had two early releases on the Game Boy Advance - Spyro: Season of Ice and Spyro 2: Season of Flame. Unlike the PlayStation games, these two were limited by the GBA and were presented in an isometric perspective. Subsequently, reviews on these two games were mixed.
The next "major" release for Spyro came in the form of Spyro: Enter the Dragonfly, released for both the PlayStation 2 and the Nintendo Gamecube. Notoriously, Universal Studios rushed development of the game in order for it to be released by December of 2002, and the game suffered significantly as a result. The game suffers from bugs, long loading times, an inconsistent framerate and several features had to be omitted to make the deadline. Subsequently, the game was panned by critics and fans alike for being underwhelming and nearly unplayable. This complete loss of quality control gave a strong signal for the dragon's fate to come while under Universal Studios.
After that failure, two more games came out for the Game Boy Advance. These include Spyro: Attack of the Rhynocs, a game which featured more RPG elements than your standard Spyro game. This game had a mildly positive critical reaction. Next came a collaborative set of titles: Crash Purple: Ripto's Rampage and Spyro Orange: The Cortex Conspiracy. These two Game Boy Advance games feature each character facing off against the other's major antagonist in a crossover between two franchises that were falling apart (a VGCoLS article on Crash Bandicoot will be written at some point, by the way). Neither game was particularly well received.
Spyro: A Hero's Tail was released in 2004 for all three major consoles at the time. The game had multiple playable characters alongside both Spyro and Sparx and the game had more gameplay styles as a result. While the game was better received - and more playable - than Enter the Dragonfly, some critics started to note that the series' gameplay has gotten stale and the series would need to change things up to remain relevant.
In 2005, Spyro: Shadow Legacy was released for the DS. Yeah, I'm surprised that's a thing that happened, too. It wasn't well received, perhaps fueling the need for the reboot the series was about to receive.
Vivendia Universal, as a gaming publisher, wouldn't last much longer. Ultimately, the Spyro IP would be given to Sierra Entertainment, another subsidiary of Vivendi Universal at the time, and that publisher decided to take the series in a new direction.
The Legend of Spyro ended up being a trilogy of games, based on an all new continuity, featuring darker scenarios, gritter characters voiced by "top" actors and more action-oriented gameplay. The first game of the set, "The Legend of Spyro: A New Beginning", came out for the PlayStation 2, Gamecube, Microsoft Xbox, GBA and the Nintendo DS in 2006. The three console versions flexed a top line of voice acting, including Elijah Wood as Spyro, David Spade as Sparx, and the likes of Gary Oldman and Cree Summer as well. The reboot was received about as well as other recent Spyro games at the time.
The Legend of Spyro: The Eternal Night, came out in 2007 for the PS2, GBA, DS as well as the Nintendo Wii. The game features mostly the same voice talent (some changes, like Billy West now voicing Sparx, occurred) while continuing the "super serious" story of the previous game. The console versions of the game were met with similarly lukewarm praise.
In 2008, Vivendi Universal merged with Activision, and the Spyro IP became part of what became "Activision Blizzard". The Legend of Spyro: Dawn of the Dragon, was the final game in this trilogy. released in 2008 for the PS2, PS3, Wii, DS, and Xbox 360. Serving as the conclusion to the storyline started in A New Beginning, the game also featured more complex gameplay, but like the other two games, was met with very little praise.
Now in Activision's care, Spyro was allowed to be rebooted once again. Toys for Bob was the development team in charge of this reboot and while ideas for how to do another reboot were floated around, ultimately it was decided to include Spyro as part of a video game which utilizes physical toys as playable game characters.
This game, "Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure", was released in 2011 for basically every platform at the time. Intended to be played by young children who would likely have no experience with prior Spyro games nor any idea who Spyro is/was, the game became a massive hit. Still, while in the game's title, Spyro has very little to do with the actual game's story and lore and is basically no different from the many other characters that players would have to buy to be able to play as.
Due to its success, Activision, in their usual manner of over-saturation, has since made Skylanders an "annual" series. There are have been four Skylanders sequels that have or will come out. The list of all five games are listed below:
- Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure, in October 2011 for Wii, Xbox 360, PS3, Nintendo 3DS, Windows and OSX.
- Skylanders: Giants, in October 2012 for Wii, Wii U, 360, PS3 and 3DS.
- Skylanders: Swap Force, in October 2013 for Wii, Wii U, 360, PS3 and 3DS. (PS4 and Xbox One versions in November)
- Skylanders: Trap Team, in October 2014 for Wii, Wii U, 360, Xbox One, PS3, PS4, 3DS, Android/Fire/iPad tablets and a few others.
- Skylanders: SuperChargers, due in September 2015 for Wii, Wii U, PS3, PS4, 360, Xbox One, 3DS, and iOS.
As you'll note, the latter four games do not feature Spyro in the title, nor as a selling point. I *think* Spyro is still playable in each of them but for many kids Spyro is as recognizable as any other Skylander, which is to say "barely".
If Activision revives Spyro for a standalone game, how much Skylanders would you want in it?
How to Revive Spyro
With the success of Skylanders, some rumors persist that some idea guys at Activision would love to try and make a proper Spyro game, of course with Activision in command who knows how likely this would actually happen.
The classic Spyro the Dragon games are available on the PlayStation network, so those kids who have played and enjoyed Skylanders can see the origins of one of the 300 Skylanders they may or may not remember; granted they have a Sony console or handheld to grab the game on.
So, with that, we're going to make a large assumption when it comes to reviving Spyro the Dragon. That is, I will assume that the IP will not be moved away from Activision. To some, that's the deal-breaker already, but it would be much easier just to say "oh well let 'X' developer or 'Y' publisher take the IP, that'll save it!
So, how could Activision properly give Spyro the love the dragon needs? Here's a few ideas:
1) Do not, I repeat, DO NOT, go for the quick cash grab of mobile!
I'm not even referring to Skylanders. It would be easy - extremely easy - for Activision to simply make a mobile game featuring Spyro and his old friends (and, more than likely, his new Skylander friends), engage in basic activities where players would have to spend in-game currency to get anything done, and the only way to get more in-game currency is to either wait forever to get more, or just spend real money to get it now. Please, Activision, please do not do that. You will insult everyone if you do that.
2) Get back to the basics.
Spyro games, originally, were about a tiny dragon ramming into things, setting things on fire, and flimsily flying about while trying to rescue a large quantity of things scattered throughout large hub worlds. This concept worked well in the late 90s, and while certain people (well, "game journalists", *cough*) grew tired of that concept, there's no reason why another game in that vein wouldn't work well nowadays. After all, the major problem most people had with Enter the Dragonfly wasn't the game's design or how the game played, it was mainly the fact that game was an unpolished, buggy mess.
If Activision were to release a Spyro game that played like a classic Spyro, but released it digitally for a small amount of money, I think that would be a great way to reintroduce people to the classic style of gameplay.
3) Don't be afraid to use Skylander material (!?)
That may come as a bit of a stunner to some people, but let's face the facts. Many kids today know Spyro because of Skylanders. It wouldn't hurt to throw in cameos or references to some of the more popular Skylanders characters in a Spyro game. It's nice to be able to have a new Spyro game that plays as well as the originals, but if it appeals only to the original fanbase, its not going to have any sort of future.
I even dare say, make a concept where all of the Skylanders have been captured or turned into statues, and Spyro has to go around rescuing them like how he used to rescue dragons and the like. The Skylanders wouldn't be playable, and the plot (as little of one there should be) can either reference Skylander lore or don't, but as long as the core game plays well, the cosmetics of the matter shouldn't matter too much, right?
I make this suggestion because sometimes I wonder if the higher-ups in Activision do not want to make a standalone Spyro game out of fears it won't sell. Throwing in Skylanders would be a good way for Activision to market the game to younger fans, and grow a new fanbase of people who enjoy core Spyro gameplay. If it succeeds, then future Spyro games can limit or outright eliminate Skylanders references if need be. As it is, though, Skylander fandom can't last too much longer (can it?).
4) Don't focus too much on plot or narrative!
I'm sure there are still Spyro fans who cringe or shudder when thinking about The Legend of Spyro games. They probably don't like remember that, essentially, Frodo voiced Spyro for a trio of games. The three games were, by far, the most narrative driven of all of the Spyro games and aside from Enter the Dragonfly, were the least well-received. In contrast, the original games have your basic plot (this bad guy did things, stop him!), which works just well within the context of those games.
This is the "get back to the basics" point again, but it hold true for the story. Developers, don't try to wrap yourself up in making an "interesting" Spyro story, trying to come up with "interesting" new characters or "love interests" or anything social-political like that. Keep the story barebones, and let the game focus on being fun to play. Kids will love it, and fans of the older Spyro games will love it, too.
Unfortunately, with another Skylanders release due up, we'll have to wait another year, or two, or three before the series Guitar Hero's itself out of relevance. At that point, we'll see if anyone in Activision is interested in (once again) rebuilding the Spyro IP to make an actual standalone game. At that point, I hope that development team - and Activision or another publisher should Activision sell the IP - follows the above steps to make Spyro the Dragon relevant again.