Review by GBishop

Reviewed: 02/13/01 | Updated: 02/13/01

I don't condone torching sheep, but I still think this is a great game.

Spyro the Dragon just has that look about him that says “Hey, I’m mascot material; market me!” He’s got the right amount of cuteness and attitude, not to mention financial support from Sony, that can sell a game even if it’s total garbage, but, thankfully, Spyro’s first video game outing is a very satisfying experience. It’s plainly evident that developers Insomniac and Universal Interactive Studios borrowed heavily from Super Mario 64 when they produced this game, as have a multitude of other game companies, especially those developing for the N64. The end result, though, is far more than just some “Super Mario on the Playstation” game. Spyro’s got his own unique style, and there’s plenty of substance in his game to back it up.

Spyro the Dragon is not a game that takes itself too seriously, which is obvious from its funny introduction: everything starts when several of the dragons from the Dragon Worlds are being interviewed by some TV reporter. When asked about Gnasty Gnorc, a rather unpleasant fellow that was banished from the Dragon Worlds for repeated acts of mischief, the dragons talk about how stupid, ugly, smelly, and pathetic he is. Unfortunately, Mr. Gnorc happened to be watching this particular broadcast, and he’s a pretty sensitive guy. In a fit of rage he casts a spell that turns all the dragons into crystal statues; he then steals most of the dragons’ treasure, turning some of it into monsters that do his bidding. Luckily, Spyro the Dragon was out playing hooky, probably torching sheep or something, so Gnasty Gnorc missed him. Spyro, with a little help from his friends, goes out to set things right in the five Dragon Worlds and in Gnasty’s cesspool of a hideout.

Spyro the Dragon is all about action, focusing mainly on the big two in platform games: exploring and collecting. There’s a great deal of both in this game, as the worlds Spyro travels are fairly large. Each world has a home area that serves as a sort of hub, from which you can access all the other levels contained in that world, but the home area is a level itself, filled with enemies and goodies. Entrances to other levels are presented as arches (with the level’s name hovering in front of it), and most of them are easy to see, though not always easy to reach. Each world also has a bonus treasure round that has to be discovered by doing something special in the home area, so you may not have found everything in a particular world even if you think you have.

To help you keep everything straight, there is an inventory screen that pops up when you pause the game, and it tells you exactly what you have and have not found in every single board you’ve played. Nowadays this sort of screen isn’t a big deal, but I would have gone ballistic had it not been present; there’s simply too much stuff in here to keep up with for it not to be here, so the designers get a big gold star for doing it and making it easy to navigate.

So what have to you got to keep up with in Spyro? Well, this game is absolutely crammed to the gills with stuff to collect, just like a good platformer should be. First off, there’s a copious amount of treasure to recover, which is in the form of gems scattered about all six worlds. Most of it is out in plain sight on the ground, while some of it has been hidden in remote areas off the beaten path. Also, since almost all of the enemies in the game are actually transformed treasure, beating them will turn them back into gems, which you can then collect, so you ought to take the time to clobber every enemy. There are 14,000 in the game, but some crystals count as more than 1, of course (they range from 1 to 25).

As for the crystallized dragons, there are 80 of them, and every board except the bonus rounds and the final level has at least one of them in it. Aside from increasing your tally, rescuing dragons will often yield helpful advice and some comical scenes as well. The stones underneath the statues also serve as continue and save locations, and they’re always well-placed. The last items that Spyro is looking for are the dragon eggs that are being carried around by these annoying thieves that have to be chased down and bopped. Frankly, the whole thing with the eggs is a little strange. Among the 80 dragons, I think I counted only 1 female, which just seemed curious.

Anyway, one thing that I absolutely love about Spyro the Dragon is Spyro’s little helper, Sparx the Dragonfly. He constantly buzzes around Spyro, and even though he’s a tiny insect, this guy is strong enough to pick up gems and other such stuff. What this means is that you only have to get close to gems in order to pick them up, as Sparx will grab anything within range. Words cannot express how helpful that is in keeping the game’s pace from slowing to a crawl whenever there’s a ton of stuff on the board. The only downside is that the designers also made Sparx a sort of shield/life gauge for Spyro. In fact, Spyro, behind his big talk, is actually pretty wimpy, so Sparx has to take hits for him. His color indicates his strength, and if he takes too many hits, he’ll disappear, leaving Spyro to fend and collect for himself. Sparx can be revitalized by defeating smaller enemies like sheep and rats, which somehow release butterflies that Sparx can eat. Yeah, it’s weird, but it is imaginative.

Another thing that’s kind of weird is that Spyro, as versatile as he is, can’t swim. I’m not as well versed on dragon lore as perhaps I should be, so I can’t say whether or not swimming is usually a talent associated with dragons, but I can say that it’s almost always found in 3D adventure games like this one. Water hurts Spyro, as does other liquids such as lava and toxic ooze. The good news is that the levels in Spyro the Dragon are so well designed with the talents that our hero does possess in mind, that this omission doesn’t stand out that much in the end. Spyro is more of an aerial creature, so gliding and flying are used all over the place. In addition, Spyro is naturally gifted with the ability to breathe fire, and he also likes to charge into enemies and ram them like a goat. Those are his two main weapons for the various enemies in the game, and most of them are only susceptible to one attack.

Pulling off Spyro’s moves is generally easy, as the control in this game is very good. Analog control is available, and it’s perfect for the many wide open spaces in the game. There are times when I would switch over to digital, though, when I needed to line up for something just right. The biggest problem with the control for this game, and every other 3D platformer out there, lies with the camera. There are worse offenders than Spyro the Dragon, but I would have liked a few more options for viewing the action than just choosing an active or passive camera. It’s endemic in this genre, so you just have to learn to live with it. It can be very frustrating to fall off a cliff or get pounded by an enemy because you couldn’t see what was coming, but if you find that happening a lot, the answer may be to just take things a little slower and more carefully (and that can be tough to do in a game with a lot of action).

I may not have fallen in love with the camera work in this game, but the other facets of Spyro’s visuals are quite excellent. The worlds in this game look terrific, but the highlights are the dragons, all of which are detailed and well-animated. So when will we get a Spyro cartoon show? Graphical glitches are kept to a minimum, though there’s quite a bit of fog and subsequently pop-up in several stages. You can’t see everything in the distance, but the game gives you an assist by showing you the gleam of any gems that are a ways off. The framerate for Spyro is solid, and everything moves as smoothly as you could want.

The sound in Spyro is also grade-A material, featuring a brilliant soundtrack (by Stewart Copeland) that sets the mood perfectly without being overly light. Here’s yet another game that deserves to have a soundtrack CD available, but I haven’t seen one. The voice acting is superb for all the dragons, especially Spyro, and the actors were actually given some good dialogue, which always helps people sound good. Sound effects are often important for finding out where certain items are located on a stage. For instance, dragon statues will shake and produce a very distinct sound whenever you get close to it, even if it’s above or below you. Also, those pesky thieves will let you know they’re around by their annoying laugh.

Spyro the Dragon has what I’d call an even challenge: it’s not so hard that inexperienced gamers can’t get to the end, but you’re going to have to be very good and very determined in order to get everything in the game. Several stages contain super charge ramps that allow Spyro to reach blazing speeds and new heights, but figuring out how to use them properly and then doing it will truly test your mettle. Also, the bonus stages are the only areas where Spyro can fly, not just glide, and some of these are extremely challenging. On the other hand, the boss characters in Spyro are total pushovers; the only way you’ll have trouble with these guys is if you’re controller isn’t plugged in. They could’ve used a little more work.

Overall, Spyro the Dragon is an excellent 3D platformer that I enjoyed a great deal. Insomniac and Universal played it right when they put this game together; the best way to start a mascot-based franchise is by backing up your star with terrific gameplay. Getting this one is a no-brainer.

Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

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