Featuring a lackluster beginning, a much improved sequel, and one of the era’s most expansive takes on the genre, Spyro Reignited Trilogy ends up being a mixed bag that provides an interesting look at how the franchise went from a naive shot at 3-D platforming to a fully realized concept
As the videogame industry evolves, it is perfectly natural that the types of products dished out by companies around the world change as well. Consequently, it is no surprise that, as time goes on, new concepts appear, old forgotten formats are revived, and – much to the horror of many fans – styles that once ruled the market are left behind. In recent years, there has not been a better example of that last sad fate than the 3-D platforming genre. When consoles turned the corner that allowed them to start rendering tridimensional visuals with ease, titles of the sort were seen as massive system-sellers. Besides, in many cases, having a strong product that fell into that category was such a big deal that the successes and failures of these titles had an impact that went beyond good reviews and sales.
Case in point, Super Mario 64 announced to the world that Nintendo had not only a powerful platform, but also the creative savvy to stylishly bring their properties to the 3-D realm. Sony, then emerging as a threat to Nintendo’s dominance, found success with Crash Bandicoot and immediately catapulted the marsupial to the position of mascot, contrasting the character’s wilder personality with the iconic plumber’s more well-behaved demeanor. Meanwhile, on a not so victorious side of the spectrum, Sega’s immense difficulty to make Sonic the Hedgehog star in an acclaimed tridimensional platforming adventure was a blunder that would signal the company’s trouble with the format and serve as an early signal of its incoming demotion from console manufacturer to an enterprise solely dedicated to game development.
Such immense importance, though, would not last very long, and two console generations after pretty much every gaming company out there was trying to extract a family-friendly marketable face out of a 3-D platformer, the genre would end up neglected in a corner as developers started to replace adventures of the kind with their much simpler, less expensive, more accessible, and considerably more profitable sidescrolling counterparts. Between that decline, which materialized when the Nintendo Wii hit the market, and the coming of the Nintendo Switch, not much has changed, since 3-D platformers remain very rare articles. Yet, new ideas (such as Yooka-Laylee or A Hat in Time) and remakes of old classics (like the Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy) do pop up every once in a while to remind everyone that the genre is still fun and viable.
Spyro spent the late 90s flying under the radar and being obscured by giants of the stature of Mario, Crash, Sonic, Rayman, and Banjo-Kazooie. However, anyone who owned a PlayStation during that time period, especially younger folks, is bound to have treasured memories of moments spent alongside the purple dragon. Spyro Reignited Trilogy repackages, remakes, and reintroduces the trio of games responsible for that platforming goodness, carrying graphically gorgeous versions of Spyro the Dragon (1998), Ripto’s Rage (1999), and Year of the Dragon (2000). And as they go through these quests, players will get a chance to witness the evolution of one of the era’s most beloved 3-D platforming series.
Evolution is the key word here. And that is because there is a blatant gap in quality between the games, especially when the debut is compared to its two sequels. Spyro the Dragon kicks off when a villain by the name of Gnasty Gnorc catches a broadcast of the Dragon News Network; in it, the dragons mock their orc neighbor with unfriendly terms. Terribly offended after being called ugly, he turns all of the creatures into crystal, leaving Spyro as the only unfrozen member of the tribe. Naturally, it falls upon the little dude to rescue his peers and teach Gnasty Gnorc a lesson.
Having come out two years after Super Mario 64 and a few moths following Banjo-Kazooie, Spyro the Dragon is better described as unremarkable, because rather than feeling like a product that takes advantage of the advances 3-D platformers had achieved at the time, the adventure comes off as if it were a very early shot at the genre. With the task of bringing his friends back to life, the winged hero will traverse six worlds that usually contain six levels each, and in every one of those courses he will not just save the crystallized dragons, but also pick up dozens of gems whose values vary according to their color and – in a few instances – be on the lookout for eggs that are carried by speedy thieves that need to be chased.
Structurally, Spyro the Dragon follows a pattern established by sidescrollers, since all of its worlds present gates that work as the entrypoints to the levels themselves. However, that format is sprinkled with a pleasantly open setup, since besides having to explore the relatively small overworld to track down the gates, gamers can also enter them in whatever order they see fit, a rule that even applies to the boss that lurks in each area. The only requirement set by the game comes in the trips between the worlds, as in order to take the balloon that transports Spyro from one location of the Dragon Realms to the other he will need to have acquired a certain number of collectibles, be them dragons, gems, or eggs.
On a positive note, this openness will be a wonder for kids, given they will be able to go wherever they want and either leave or skip levels they may be struggling with. Moreover, since the threshold of the specific collectible required to travel to a new world is not high, progression will not be too tough for them, therefore allowing plenty of essential items to be missed; the only exception to that rule probably lies in the five eggs, out of twelve total, that are demanded so that the Beast Makers world can be accessed. Finally, and on what is a compliment that stands for the whole trilogy, it is simply astounding how with a whopping total of more than thirty levels, Spyro the Dragon manages to make them all visually unique, embracing both standards of the genre such as a desert and an icy cave, as well as more unusual themes like multiple villages and a medieval castle.
The problem is that the levels themselves are not too notable, and such nature can be attributed to multiple sources. Firstly, being capable of just jumping, dashing, spitting fire, and gliding for a short while, Spyro is not that flexible of a character; to make matters worse, with the exception of a few ramps that add extra speed to his dash, hence allowing him to break through strong obstacles and perform crazy long jumps, the first game of the trilogy does not offer many power-ups to expand upon that arsenal. Secondly, enemy variety, though great in terms of models, is ultimately thin, because all of them are either defeated via a hit by fire (for those that do not have armor) or a simple dash (for those that do). Thirdly, and as a product of these dull ingredients, there is simply not much that sets levels apart.
Ideally, be it in a 2-D or 3-D platformer, every stage would have a core mechanic that defines it. In Spyro the Dragon, sadly, there are no such twists, a void that makes the game seem like a naive early swing at the concept of a tridimensional platformer. Levels may be very different from a thematic standpoint and they may be slightly distinct in terms of structure, with some being more open-ended and others more linear, but since all of them play the same, they mostly feel like sequences of enemies that must be taken down while keeping an eye out for any crystallized dragons. And since most of those guys are not exactly hidden not even the process of searching is exciting.
Truth be told, Spyro the Dragon does try to add some extra sauce to the mixture occasionally; unfortunately, when it does so, results are sour. The few exceptions of dragons that are quite well-hidden end up generating frustration because the combination of jumping and dashing required to get to them involves trial and error as well as cumbersome controls. The bosses are lackluster, since they barely feel like they are worthy of that title, coming off instead like stages with an enemy that takes multiple hits to be defeated tacked on. At last, the flying-based levels, which appear once for every world, could be fun in the challenge they present, as Spyro must pass through all ring-like objects and beat all foes before the timer runs out, but they are held back by confusing commands, odd physics, disorienting design, and the fact the smallest mistakes will cause the character to fall into the water and have to restart the level from scratch.
Given all of those problems, the progress presented by the second game of the package, Ripto’s Rage, is a major relief and one that allows the Spyro franchise to finally bring its potential to fruition. Here, the hero learns how to swim, climb, execute a ground pound, and perform a little fluttering action at the end of glides in order to gain extra altitude. More important than those, however, are the powerups; appearing in pretty much every level as gates that grant Spyro temporary skills, these abilities include invincibility, high jumps, projectile-like flames, a freezing breath, a super dash, as well as flying. It goes without saying that these are marvelously explored to bring much needed variety to the proceedings and personality to the levels; moreover, given many of the portals are only activated when a specific number of foes is beaten, they lend extra motivation to killing as many bad guys as possible. Still, powerups and fresh skills are not the only elements that contribute to the better result achieved by this sequel.
Ripto’s Rage starts when the titular villain is accidentally summoned to the land of Avalar. Happy to see there are no dragons around, the tyrant proceeds to use the brute force of his minions to crown himself as king. Given the bad guy’s declared aversion to the flying lizards, the inhabitants of Avalar go on to use the same technology that brought Ripto to their shores in order to call forth a dragon, which is how a vacation-bound Spyro ends up unwillingly involved in the turmoil of another realm.
Essentially, the structure of Ripto’s Rage is not too different from that of Spyro the Dragon, as it is still a quest divided into worlds (three, in its case) that are open explorable areas containing the doors to a multitude of levels. Furthermore, every stage has valuable collectibles that are necessary to advance in the quest; the nature of these, however, is slightly different. Gems, which are present in the hundreds within each level, are still there, but their purpose is buying new abilities, unlocking new parts of the worlds, and – of course – counting towards full completion. The real stars of the show in Ripto’s Rage, and the ones responsible for paving the way to the end of the game, are talismans and orbs. The former, of which there are fourteen, are present only in the levels of the two first worlds, being the award Spyro gets for reaching the end of each stage, and all of them need to be grabbed so that the third world of the game is unlocked. The latter, meanwhile, appear in quantities that vary according to the level, usually between two and four, and getting a bunch of them is a must to reach the final boss.
Skills, plot, and collectibles come together to inject major life into the stages of Ripto’s Rage. Perhaps affected by the fury of Avalar’s new leader, the creatures that inhabit each level will be at war with one another the moment Spyro arrives. In Fracture Hills, for instance, the local flute-playing fauns will have awakened the anger of their stone golem neighbors due to the music; meanwhile, in Metropolis, a city of robots will be invaded by a weaponized army of farm animals. Introduced and concluded via brief humorous cutscenes that will bookend the stage, the addition of these conflicts means that not only will all levels be thematically distinct from one another, but also that they will have a unique goal and an underlying storyline.
Consequently, where the stages of Spyro the Dragon seemed aimless, in Ripto’s Rage they will have a defined purpose. Getting to the end of the course will net the hero a major collectible; that is, a talisman in the levels of first two worlds and an orb in those of the third one. However, since each stage has more than one orb to be picked up, optional objectives abound, and therein lies a lot of the beauty of the second game in the trilogy. Borrowing a page from Banjo-Kazooie, the levels of Ripto’s Rage are filled with characters with whom Spyro can interact, and while those in the main path will cue him on the core conflict that needs to be solved, those out of the way will bring additional troubles to him. As a consequence, extra tasks, challenges, and mini-games are plentiful.
There is plenty of flexibility to be found in these detours of Ripto’s Rage. There is a trade sequence, ice hockey, racing, parasailing, blasting mines, protecting cavemen from dinosaurs, mine-cart riding, escorting missions, lighting up torches, beating down all enemies of a specific kind, looking for required items, and even backtracking to previously visited stages with new abilities in order to solve problems that could not be handled the first time around. It has to be mentioned, however, that despite the value they bring to the table, these extra tasks are not without fault; in fact, some of them are responsible for the most frustrating moments in the game. Sometimes it is due to the control issues that emerge when Spyro is put into gameplay-changing situations, like when has to duel on ice against an ox in Metropolis; occasionally, they are a consequence of the fact many tasks are completely restarted when tiny mistakes are made, which is what happens when taking a single hit from the flag thief in Scorch; and there are also cases when the activity itself is not very well-designed, as in the bandit-chasing of Mystic Marsh.
Nevertheless, the leap taken by Ripto’s Rage is incredible. Supported by major overhauls in the setup of the levels; the addition of new abilities; the creation of numerous sidequests of varied nature; and minor steps forward in the design of the bosses (which are actual battles here) and the flying stages (which are less confusing), the game manages to be a true platforming classic even if it still struggles with punctual control problems and infuriating moments that contrast heavily with the franchise’s general accessibility.
The final piece in the package of Spyro Reignited Trilogy is Year of the Dragon, and although the gap in quality that exists between it and its prequel is not as big as the one observed in Ripto’s Rage, the title feels like the culmination of the series’ evolution rather than a tired third installment that has run out of ideas. Kicking off when multiple dragon eggs are stolen by a sorceress, Year of the Dragon takes the wild variety of Ripto’s Rage and amplifies it to as extreme of a degree as possible, coming off not just as bigger and more fully realized, but also as a more mature effort.
If Year of the Dragon had to be defined by one adjective, big would probably be the best choice. Broken into four worlds, the game has a total of thirty-six levels, and as he travels through it all, Spyro will be looking for a whopping 150 eggs. Of course, as it happened in the debut as well as in Ripto’s Rage, not all of those are necessary to get to the end of the game; and the same naturally also goes for the gems that have to be collected and that are employed in the purchase of abilities, in the unlocking of overworld areas, and in the opening of a few levels themselves. However, when combined with the complexity of the stages, which is about the same observed in Ripto’s Rage, the amount of main collectibles means that Year of the Dragon is a game that will demand at least twelve hours to be beaten, as opposed to the four of the first game of the trilogy and the eight of Ripto’s Rage.
Lacking the storytelling charm of its prequel, Year of the Dragon has no opening or closing cutscenes for each of its stages; likewise, levels are not based on conflicts between two races of inhabitants. Yet, other than retaining the franchise’s impressive and notable thematic variety, they still have both plenty of characters in trouble and an astounding number of extra tasks, including skateboarding; battles aboard planes, submarines, and tanks; as well as a lot of mini-bosses. Year of the Dragon, however, tones down on the side games to a achieve an interesting balance between the exploration of Spyro the Dragon and the activity-based action of Ripto’s Rage.
As it happened in the latter game, one major collectible – an egg, in the case of Year of the Dragon – will be given to players when they get to the end of the level. Since most stages have a total of six eggs, that means the remaining five will have to be found, and while plenty of those involve helping someone in trouble, there is an almost equal number that are simply neatly tucked away in corners of the stages waiting for an exploring Spyro to come around.
As far as major changes go, the one that truly sets Year of the Dragon apart comes in the form of its extra playable characters. During the adventure, Spyro will meet animal buddies that have been imprisoned by the game’s antagonist, and once he spends the gems required to set them free, they will become available. Sheila is a kangaroo with a mighty kick and a super high jump; Sgt. Byrd is a penguin who uses a jetpack to fly and fire torpedoes; Bentley is a slow-moving yeti that carries an icy club; and Agent 9 is a monkey with a laser gun. Each one of those characters stars in a stage of their own, but in addition to that, they will also show up in regular levels to perform specific side-tasks that will invariably lead to extra eggs.
Alongside Sparx, Spyro’s companion dragonfly who also gets a few stages to call his own, these characters are essential in making Year of the Dragon an even more varied take on what was done by Ripto’s Rage. Sheila allows for challenges that match jumping and fighting; Sgt. Byrd stars in tasks that involve meticulous flying; Bentley deals with troubles that require brute force as well as block-pushing; Agent 9 engages in wild shooting segments; and Sparx gets to lead the way in four stages that nod to the overhead shoot ’em ups that once dominated arcades, with the bug playing the role of a rapid-firing starship.
With so much flexibility at is disposal, Year of the Dragon gets to be considerably big without ever feeling tired, making it the total opposite of Spyro the Dragon, which is dull even if its length is not considerable. However, the game falls victim to many of the same issues that plagued its predecessors. Once again, the quest has plenty of moments that produce frustration due to how small errors force one to restart tasks from the beginning and also thanks to control schemes that could have used some extra polish; this last issue even affects some of the new characters themselves, as Sgt. Byrd is a bit too floaty and Bentley is controlled via a camera angle that is odd to say the least, with his body blocking a big part of the screen. Likewise, in yet another issue that affects all games of the package, the relatively long loading times become an annoyance rather quickly because of how even losing a life leads stages to seemingly reload completely, forcing players to wait a while before they can get back into the action.
Yet, Year of the Dragon remains incredibly fun. And in addition to having alluring levels, varied mechanics, and a whole lot of objectives to be fulfilled, the game also includes some pretty good boss battles – both mandatory and optional – as well as truly full-fledged flying stages, which not only are much better designed, but also offer three different challenges each: a time trial that has Spyro flying through arches and bringing down foes before the clock runs out; a race; and an extra task that sees the hero helping a friend that is for some reason constantly being chased by flying foes.
Featuring a lackluster beginning in Spyro the Dragon, a much improved sequel in Ripto’s Rage, and one of the era’s most expansive takes on the genre in Year of the Dragon, Spyro Reignited Trilogy ends up being a mixed bag that provides an interesting look at how the franchise went from a naive shot at 3-D platforming to a fully realized concept that was able to stand up to the likes of Banjo-Kazooie, Mario, Crash, Donkey Kong, and Rayman. To further accentuate the contrast between its good and bad aspects, even the best two titles of the package stumble on crucial matters like controls, loading screens, and frustrating design choices.
Nonetheless, Spyro Reignited Trilogy is a worthy purchase to anyone who either has fond memories of the dragon or to those that have no nostalgia regarding the hero but that crave for a rebirth of the 3-D platforming genre. In the case of the first group, they will be happy to see classics that were a key part of their childhood be resurrected with so much care for visuals and music. Meanwhile, gamers that fall into the second category will discover at least two flawed but entertaining gems that prove that even if mascots are a relic of the past and 3-D platformers are far from having the importance they once held, the gameplay style still holds up quite nicely. And although there is no going back to a time when nailing the genre was a measure of success for pretty much every gaming company, there is still hope to see the format revitalized when its icons keep on being able to enchant by using old tricks.