Insomniac Games’ debut platformer outing remains a bastion of 3D collectathon gameplay – a beautiful; challenging; inventive and enjoyable game that remains as good now as it ever was.
World-building & Story
Set in the Dragon Worlds – five (or is it six?) kingdoms ruled by the dragons, Spyro follows the titular hero as he attempts to free all of his elders who have been turned to stone by Gnasty Gnorc, the bad guy who found himself tired of being bad-mouthed on TV interviews. It’s a silly, nonsensical setup yet provides the perfect backdrop for Spyro to go on his adventure.
By visiting each of the kingdoms – each set of a different theme ranging from desert to dreams – Spyro can free the other dragons and earn tips on how to progress, as well as beat the Gnorc army. This ultimate culminates in a boss fight with Gnasty himself, easily the most charismatic of the cast and a very good choice for a final boss.
Despite this, narrative is very sparse in Spyro – while you’ll interact with freed dragons, it’s never much more than a fleeting “thanks for releasing me” before you move on. That’s okay though – the game is a surreal fantasy adventure that tells more through its world-building building than plot – and what a fantastic job it does of this.
The world created here is truly magnificent – each dragon kingdom has a distinct personality, shown through its environmental design; enemy attire and colour palette that makes them all unique and memorable. From the bright whimsical wonder of the Dream Weavers world to the militant desert of the Peace Keepers world, you’ll fill in the backstory of what each land was like before the Gnorc invasion and what has happened since then simply by exploring them. There’s a sense of magic throughout that – for me – is almost unrivalled in videogames and is absolutely nailed in Spyro, creating levels you’ll remember for a long time afterwards.
Presentation & Sound
Despite being an early 3D platformer, Spyro never feels particularly graphically dated when playing on Vita thanks to some brilliant cartoony modelling; sharp animation and fantastic use of colour. Individual element can be picked apart but on the whole, the game is an absolute triumph even now.
So let me start with what I think is hands down the most impressive, brilliant element of Spyro – colour. Nearly everything in the game is dripping with bright, vibrant shades that really make things pop on screen (increased even further if you have an OLED Vita). Yet it’s used very smartly in order to create atmosphere – the Beast Makers world, a murky swamp, chooses browns and dark greens to create a grim atmosphere; while the world of the Magic Crafters is full of pastel shades of purple and pink to create a dreamy, otherworldly feel. As such, every area feels brilliant and distinct and most are a joy to look at.
This smart use of colour serves to overcome some of the game’s technical shortcomings too – while environmemts at times feel sparse, lacking objects or geometry and featuring sharp edges and texture work (even if it was decent for the time), none of this matters when the zones themselves are such a beautiful, colourful joy to explore.
A similar effect is found in the character modelling. Dated by today’s standards, featuring things like blurry features and big, un-moving eyes, this scarcely bothered me considering everything is animated so well. Spyro charges around with force; recoils his head when he breathes fire and has an adorable idle animation. Enemies seem to have an even greater attention to detail – dogs bounce towards you; soldiers cower when discovered hiding behind corners and wizards flee in terror once you overcome their traps.
It even happens when you’re not expecting it. One of my favourite things I observed in Spyro is the enemies interacting with each other – in the Peace Keepers world, foes would fire cannons at each other – while in the Magic Crafters world, wizards would be playing around with spells before they spot you. In the Beast Makers world, you can find Gnorcs laying traps to catch turkeys in, then cheering with joy when the creature unwittingly walks in. It’s a fantastic level of detail and something that truly impressed me and created the feeling of a living, breathing world.
Sound is the final part of the presentational package and is honestly something I could write essays about (but I won’t). Voice acting is very impressive for the time, with a wide (if sometimes repetitive) range of voices for the dragons. Spyro, meanwhile, has a spunky, attitude-filled voice that’s very representational of the time the game was made.
It’s the soundtrack that steals the show, however. Stewart Copeland’s score is magnificent – truly one of my favourite collections of videogame music ever and still as beautiful now as it ever was. Each track is a masterpiece, individual and fitting to the theme of the level each is in yet retaining a distinct ‘Spyro‘ sound through clever use of familiar instruments and noises. There’s so much beautiful music here that it really elevates the platforming action (already enjoyable) to a whole new level, and I cannot recommend giving it a listen enough.
Gameplay & Content
Harking from the era of 3D collectathon platformers led by the likes of Banjo-Kazooie, Spyro the Dragon carves its own niche through some brilliant design that keeps the core gameplay engaging. It’s a testament that even replaying today, things still feel as tight as ever and like they’ve hardly aged at all.
After watching a brief cutscene, you’ll begin in one of the game’s mini-hubs to learn mechanics. Spyro can jump; charge and breathe fire, alongside a few other tricks you’ll slowly pick up as the game progresses. The most important of these is gliding – he isn’t a fully fledged dragon and as such cannot fly, but Spyro can use his wings to slowly descend and this is used in a number of platforming segments to reach far-away areas. Platforming is never central to the experience, but it’s used enough that you’ll slowly hone your skills enough over playing to be able to take on some challenging segments by endgame.
You’ll also use Spyro’s moveset to take down foes who generally come in two types – smaller armoured enemies who must be charged; or larger foes who must be flamed. Thankfully the developers experiment with these mechanics and come up with some interesting ideas – larger gnorcs can be clad in full metal armor, but in an icy area this means they’ll slide across surfaces easily (and perhaps into a nearby ravine if pushed?). Enemy design is endlessly inventive, ranging from cute puppies to bow-wielding devils and the game is all the better for this.
This extends to the obstacles you need to overcome as well, making this a platformer about far more than simply collecting. One section may require you to time movement between electrified floors; while another might task you with lighting lamps to stop grotesque foes from growing huge in the darkness. Later levels introduce new mechanics like supercharge ramps and super-powered flame breath, requiring you to figure out how to use these to progress to the next area.
Having said that, many levels are mini-sandboxes with multiple routes to explore, meaning you’re often left to your own devices regarding how to progress. The way forward is nearly always obvious, but exploration is encouraged and actively rewarded making gameplay feel more dynamic and fluid- as such, Spyro feel like a masterpiece in 3D platformer design.
Of course, level design would be nothing without things to do, but Spyro excels in this regard too. Your main goal is to free the dragons turned into stone by Gnasty Gnorc, which is done by discovering where they are in the levels and stepping on them. Side goals include collecting the gems scattered in each world – a very satisfying task and something that’ll hook you in very easily. There are also thieves to catch, who have stolen dragon eggs, that you’ll need to hunt down and chase in certain levels (you’ll be tipped off to their existence by the sound of a taunting laugh nearby).
The desire to collect and see everything drives the gameplay forward, but the developers ensure players are constantly engaged by innovating new ways of doing familiar tasks. Thieves, for example, can take you on labyrinth chases around a level to parts you might not have previously seen, requiring keen manipulation of shortcuts to catch them. Gems are often found lying around, but are sometimes in crates that require you to charge; flame; jump or a combination of the above to get at what’s inside.
In general difficulty is tuned pretty well, starting out easy with new mechanics and tougher challenges slowly introduced over time. With that said, one of Spyro‘s few flaws is a couple of brutal difficulty spikes in the Beast Makers world, with Tree Tops being a particular highlight – a winding maze of supercharge pads that feels impossible to organically figure out without expending all your available lives in the process.
There’s still so much more about the game that I could talk about – how it cleverly uses Spyro’s dragonfly companion Sparx as a health indicator; the interesting flying levels that pit you against the clock or the surreal bosses that feel like something out of an LSD fever dream. It’s such a brilliantly complete package and a fantastic first entry in a franchise that it’s a marvel Insomniac found new ways to innovate it with the game’s two sequels.
While there’s certainly an element of nostalgia clouding my judgement, Spyro still remains a fantastically playable game to this day thanks to tight level design; constantly innovative gameplay and an addictive collection-focus to push it forward. That the title is also still beautiful thanks to its use of colour and still boasts an outstanding soundtrack is just the icing on the cake, meaning this is one that I cannot recommend enough if you want a fantastic 3D platformer to replay on your Vita.