The First Time: Spyro

A tale of three games, two decades, and one very excited kid

Christmas 1998 was a big one for my family. Sure, it wasn’t snowing, and I wasn’t old enough to drink yet, but this was the year that we got a PlayStation. My only console experience before this was with my original recipe GameBoy and a few go’s on my best friend’s MegaDrive. This gorgeous grey box came with three games: Crash Bandicoot, Fifa ’98, and Spyro the Dragon.

Look, we were never gonna play Fifa first.

A problem of my generation was always one of screens; there simply weren’t enough. My parent’s house had two televisions, which at the time was  still moderately ritzy. The large tv was in the living room, and a second, smaller set was in my parent’s bedroom. This is why, about midday on Christmas, my sister and I were tangled in RCA cables dangling from a wall mounted TV taller than either of us, and about the width of the console itself.

Today’s kids will never know, amirite?

Spyro was the first game we played. Spyro the Dragon, of course, focuses on Spyro… a dragon. All the adult dragons have been turned to crystal by Gnasty Gnorc, but little Spyro was too small to be hit by the magic that did this. Armed only with his trusty firefly Sparx, his fiery breath, and an impressive superiority complex, our purple pal set out to free his imprisoned brethren, and kick some Gnorc butt.

It’s practically Shakespeare.

Looking at Spyro now, it’s not hard to see why it captivated our young minds. In a time of side-scrolling Mario games and Crash Bandicoot, Spyro’s less linear approach to level design was refreshing, as were all the hidden secrets and areas. The first world, I remember, had stepping stones that, when jumped on in sequence, opened up a waterfall to reveal the first time trial mode. Finding that out was a big deal for us, because we’d never seen anything like it before. The sense of discovery my sister and I experience when finding things like that is rare, and wonderful.

By today’s standards Spyro’s controls were, let’s face it, not spectacular. The camera was pretty iffy, and the charge attack was a nightmare to aim at close range. Gliding also had its issues, dropping you straight to the ground the second you pressed anything. And of course, he couldn’t swim; dipping so much as a toe in the water meant instant death. But this didn’t affect our enjoyment of the game one iota; my sister and I both adored that thing, and played it for hours, ate dinner, then played for hours again.

The game looked great, and even aside from the snazzy graphics, Spyro’s music was, and still is, one of the best game soundtracks ever. Composed by the legendary Stewart Copeland, former drummer for The Police, the whole thing is full of bells, swoops, and a playfulness that perfectly complements the colourful design of the world and its characters. Just listen to it, and tell me it doesn’t sound like a magical wonderland: then I’ll call you a goddam liar.

Spyro was also, surprisingly, a pretty hard game. Oh, getting through it was easy enough, but a closed door in the final world has infuriated me for twenty years. It requires 100% completion of everything in the game, and I just couldn’t do it.

But it seems like my time may yet come, eh Insomniac?

Spyro 2: Gateway to Glimmer (I’m European, deal with it) was a gift my sister received for her birthday the following year, and improved on the original in every conceivable way. The addition of new NPCs like Hunter, Fauna, and Moneybags breathed new life into the immersion, and Spyro’s new abilities (swimming, headbutting, and hovering after a glide) showed how a little goes a long, LONG way. Ripto was also a far more interesting villain than Gnasty, and the whole thing was an education in how platformers should feel; challenging, rewarding, and just plain fun.

My best friend and I, when we were about 14, spent a long sleepless night getting 100% in Spyro 2. Swapping over depending on the situation, we hunted down the last orbs and gems to unlock the secret power up in the endgame.

I remember the last orb we got, for a charging challenge in the second hub world. The elation we felt at our eventual victory was intensely satisfying, on par with any of my major gaming achievements since. Then, because it was 5am, we fell asleep. That evening remains one of my fondest memories, and the Spyro franchise is central to that feeling.

Spyro 3: Year of the Dragon was released in 2000 which was, conveniently, the Year of the Dragon. Spyro 3 is definitely the best and worst of the series. The addition of new playable characters was inspired; Agent 9 and Sergeant Bird stick in my mind as some exceptionally enjoyable levels. That said, there were misses too, the skatepark in Ancient Rome being an especially bizarre choice. The story was more developed, there was more to do, and I would still call it my favourite of the series, if only because of the sheer amount of time I spent in there.

Spyro 3 was also the first game I ever completed to 100% on my own. Considering how many Platinum trophies I have now, I think I may have Insomniac to blame for how I’ve spent my time since.

There are other Spyro games, of course, but after Insomniac left the series it suffered heavily. The PS2 incarnations felt clunky and unpleasant, and the GBA games, while I played them, just didn’t have the same magic to them. Skylanders was probably the best place for the beloved beast, but he’s a star, and deserves the center stage.

The news that a Spyro remaster is coming fills my jaded heart with anticipation. After seeing how much the Crash trilogy was lauded last year, it was a no brainer to bring the diminutive dragon to current gen consoles, especially since they are arguably (and I myself would argue this) better games. And with the fatigue I’ve been feeling lately of every game seeming to be just rehashes of each other, another return to basics could be the breath of fresh air I need.

Sure, Crash has the gains and the glory but, as far as I’m concerned, Spyro has my heart. It might be the year of the dog, but please, bring on the dragon.

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