There are plenty of games out there that are more difficult to enjoy without a healthy dose of nostalgia and that unfortunately cannot be prescribed to those around you who don’t already have it. Spyro the Dragon was a highly successful franchise and went on to star in some truly wonderful games that have aged quite well; unfortunately the best that can be said about the first entry is that this is where it all started. There are some good things here but without forgiving the areas it’s aged the most in, it’ll be hard to appreciate those moments that try so hard to shine through the dust that’s settled on this classic first entry in a now iconic franchise.
I grew up playing Spyro the Dragon and I remember how great it was when it released but like all first entries in franchises, the sequels almost improve on too many things. There’s a good foundation here but so many things were improved not only in the sequels from Insomniac but also in the 3D platforming genre. I remember playing Super Mario 64 and Banjo-Kazooie but still preferring the setting of the original Spyro however, when I revisit them I enjoy Nintendo’s offerings much more. Insomniac still created a highly successful and truly magical game. It’s just a much weaker spell these days, like something that you’d see out of Ron Weasley’s wand in the earlier Harry Potter movies. I know, I know. My references are out of control. Let’s pull it in so this review doesn’t dragon.
The first thing that absolutely needs to be said is that the presentation isn’t half bad. You have humor, charm, attitude, and colors in all the right places. This game had character. It wasn’t quite as developed as its sequels but it was still there. Insomniac created a more fleshed out character than Mario, Donkey Kong, or even Crash Bandicoot and while it isn’t completely necessary in a platformer, it’s definitely still impressive and appreciated. The enemies are more random but they still fit their settings, like Super Mario Bros. and Crash Bandicoot. There’s less attention to detail on them and they’re mostly just built around their setting and the method in which Spyro needs to take them down in. Enemies that need to be taken down with a flame may be big, round, and be exposed more than say a smaller enemy that’s covered in armor or holding a shield. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing but it’s only more noticeable because of the attention to detail with Spyro which makes it distracting.
The biggest problem with this title is the fact that the bosses are absolutely weak and that includes the main villain. You rarely hear from Gnasty Gnorc except when NPC’s briefly mention him. The environments are constantly changing world-to-world but there’s little talk of the big bad guy that you’re chasing after. Even Bowser has a bigger presence that this villain. The world bosses are even worse because not only are they not developed at all but they don’t even feel like they need to be. It’s as if someone said “Hey, we should probably throw some bosses in here, huh?” and then with a group shoulder shrug, the team agreed and quickly tossed some together. Again, I know it’s a platformer but these weak bosses are just distracting. There is a sense of fantasy and wonder that Insomniac sprinkles across portions of the game but then it feels as if they ran out a quarter of the way through development.
The story is in line with the boss design. It’s mostly just there but there are some cute moments. It’s funny to see the fourth wall broken but it’s a pretty basic story that’s right in there with Crash Bandicoot and Super Mario 64. The dragons upset Gnasty Gnorc and so he turns them all into crystal prisons, steals all the gems, and litters all the worlds and areas with his minions. Spyro is spared simply because he’s so much smaller than the other dragons and was able to dodge the spells that Gnasty tossed at the dragons.
The levels themselves can be interesting but fail to remain consistent in quality. There are some truly great levels but there are even more levels that just don’t hold up to the truly wonderful gems that are drizzled across the game. It’s like the game is a big cinnamon roll with not enough icing. There are some really sweet spots but you have to chug milk and work past some truly dry bites in order to taste greatness.
The gameplay is simple but it works. You’re a cute purple dragon whose purpose is to glide, charge, and breathe fire across 17 main levels, 6 boss levels, and a few “flight” levels. The main levels consist of you tackling enemies, rescuing dragons that Gnasty Gnorc has imprisoned and then going to the exit. You can also retrieve stolen dragon eggs from thieves in some levels which adds to the challenge some. Secrets are hidden in many of the levels and these are some truly great examples of the level design we would later consistently see from Insomniac. The boss levels are forgettable for the most part, especially the final encounter with Gnasty Gnorc. The flight levels task you with flying around and destroying items within a time limit to collect gems. They’re kind of fun but ultimately serve to break up the monotony and distract you for a little bit. They’re not overly difficult but can sometimes be tricky. You have the ability for actual flight rather than just being able to glide. The first few are fun but I found myself skipping them before long even when I was a kid. The hub worlds are inconsistent in quality. There are a few neat ones but the first few are pretty low in terms of quality and detail.
The controls have aged okay but it definitely feels wonky when you play it with analog sticks. It was definitely designed with the D-Pad in mind but Insomniac would fix this along with many other things with the two sequels they produced. The most difficult thing in terms of controls is definitely just battling the camera. There are many times it will cause issues for you and make things much more difficult than they need to be. It either lacks intuition or is completely passive, requiring you constantly babysit it while you slay enemies and maneuver across the environment. The platforming is honestly pretty satisfying as is the combat. I get a lot of enjoyment charging around and kicking ass but the often generic level design makes it difficult for me to have fun for too long. This is a game built for smaller play sessions even though that wasn’t intentional. It’s also not a valid excuse for bland level design.
If you played Spyro the Dragon as a kid then you’ll still get some enjoyment out of it but you’ll likely only play it for 20-30 minutes at a time. You may even lose interest halfway through which is a shame because the level design improves noticeably in later worlds. It’s not significant enough to overshadow the previous shortcomings but still something worth mentioning. I had to force myself to finish the game for the purposes of this review and it took me about a week. I will say that all I could think of was playing the two sequels though because Insomniac read this review and then jumped back in time to correct their mistakes. There’s so much more love and detail across the sequels and it’s spread throughout the entirety of the games.
This isn’t a bad game. It just had its day and the sun set on that day. If you have fond memories then, by all means, pop it in for a few hours. I just know you’ll want to turn it off and play the sequels before long. If you didn’t play this game then you’ll have a hard time overlooking the mediocrity that makes too many appearances throughout this game. I can recommend the sequels much more confidently though and if you come back in few weeks, I’ll do just that.
I had some fun replaying this game from my childhood. I just didn’t have a lot of fun and I don’t think I would have had any if I never played it when I was younger. Spyro made a huge impact though and helped inject some competition for the 3D platformer of the mid 90’s though. It also produced two wonderful sequels that I’ll be talking about soon! Make sure to check back every Friday for great retro reviews and you can follow me on Twitter at @Mrjoshnichols to see me tweet about my many gaming adventures. Make sure to follow us on @BagoGames so you can see all the great content that we’re constantly throwing across the internet.
Spyro the Dragon
- Surprisingly detailed main character for a platformer
- Platforming and combat are fun
- A few levels feature interesting detail and design
- There are few levels that shine above the majority of the game
- Enemy design can be generic and lacking in detail (especially compared to Spyro)
- Boss fights lack imagination and seem tacked on
- The majority of the levels feel rushed and lack in detail
- Gnasty Gnorc is a pretty lackluster final boss