While Insomniac Games has become one of PlayStation's most recognised developers, it cut its teeth with the little known PSone first-person shooter Disruptor, which launched in 1996. It was a DOOM clone among many others that populated the gaming landscape at the time, but there were aspects to it that made it stand out among the competition, such as the exciting weaponry of the main character, his collection of special abilities that could be implemented into guns, and FMV cutscenes that were more than competent from a fledgling developer. Despite surprisingly positive critical reception, Insomniac didn't wind up building its legacy on a vastly improved sequel or an entirely new shooter of epic proportions. Instead, it earned its place with a purple, little dragon named Spyro, and this sarcastic bundle of fire's first foray remains a fantastical experience that served as the studio's testing ground for its unique brand of humour, cartoony art direction, and joyful gameplay.
Spyro the Dragon is by no means a flawless game, though. One aspect of the gameplay that may turn off players is how easy it can be. There are a few moments where we were absolutely stumped in regard to where a couple of gems were or what we had to do to obtain them, but the majority of them are integrated into the level design to just barely challenge the targeted audience of kids. The same applies to boss fights, which can either be vanquished in a moment's notice or with a bit of patience as you exploit blatant weaknesses.
Even still, we firmly believe that a game's fun is not always determined by its difficulty, and this one largely avoids that trap in the pursuit of striking a middle ground that will entertain both old and young gamers. Non-linear, obscure pathways and minor side quests can test your platforming and flying skills, which will be satisfying enough for completionists looking for more – especially when you chase down those pesky thieves with dragon eggs. All of this will add another 3-4 hours to playtime, but if you're searching for a breezy journey, you can ignore these things and stick to the main objectives in the semi-open world levels that egg on just a bit of exploration from time to time to find a hidden area or stash of gems.
Spyro has a basic palette of moves, boiling down to a short spout of flame, flying short distances, charging enemies with his horn-laden cranium, and jumping. The controls may be quick to learn, but it still feels like a refined 3D platformer with tight movement and a near-perfect camera that realigns and reacts to even the most erratic motions. You'll rarely lose your place, and there are buttons to control the camera's direction if you'd like to give it some guidance. Besides the left and right rolling mechanic and the option to look in any direction with 'Spyro Vision' that we rarely found a use for, the mechanics as a whole haven't aged a bit, and thankfully the vast opposition that you encounter is colourful enough to keep things rolling uphill.
The bad guys can be killed by flames or ramming, and sometimes both will be required of you to defeat bosses. While this sounds lacklustre, you'll always find new foes on each level out of the over two dozen total. This mitigates an otherwise repetitive sounding experience by having continuous moments of figuring out which enemies do what and how you should approach them from the game's beginning to its end. They may have similar susceptibilities, but with some possessing magic abilities to others holding giant weapons to smash you with, you'll still need to be a bit cautious in every new combat scenario, even with some platforming sections. The AI is also programmed to interact with Spyro's presence should you approach them or if they hit you, which results in a cool mix of enemies taunting, running away from, or even cowering in front of you.
Speaking of platforming, the levels can be accessed through portals in five Homeworlds, which are surprisingly alive with activity (excluding the last one) and levels of their own, complete with enemies and gems. You can roam around these vast, beautiful places ranging from the grassy hills and castle architecture of the Artisans Homeworld to the swampy, Aztec-like region of the Beast Maker dragons. But you'll need to save a certain amount of dragons to progress through each Homeworld until you get to Gnasty Gnorc, which will have you going through portals to see what awaits you next, and there sure are a hodgepodge of different environments that you'll travel through that never look the same.
With vibrant skyboxes and graphics rendering that allows you to see farther than in most older 3D platformers to boot, Spyro the Dragon is still artistically and graphically impressive for what it is. Some of the character models and meshings are rough, but the body animation is still incredibly expressive, the world's colours are mixed well and coalesce perfectly with every stage, and everything sparks with imaginative wonder that makes the game feel like one crazy fairy tale.
What about those dragons that we mentioned? The beginning of the game has some dragons being interviewed on camera, and one talks about how peaceful things have been lately. The interviewer interjects to ask about the villainous Gnasty Gnorc, which the other dragon insults and brushes off as a weakling who isn't a problem. Somehow overhearing this, Gnasty turns all of the adult dragons in each dragon realm into a statue, and since Spyro was small enough to avoid the spell, he embarks on a quest to save his kin. There's not much of a story from there on out besides the cheeky conversations Spyro has with his rescued elders, but it doesn't feel necessary since the short experience spotlights its 3D platforming and collect-a-thon gameplay above all. That said, a more direct, continuous narrative with a stronger cast of characters would have really suited the kind of universe Insomniac set up here.
We can't move on without mentioning the utterly charming sound effects and music. We don't include the voice acting because while it's somewhat appealing, it's still cheesy, and you can tell that Insomniac hadn't quite found its comedic stride just yet. On the other hand, the high-quality sound effects of picking up gems, hitting or torching enemies, and even navigating the menus is nostalgic as ever. And don't get us started on Stewart Copeland's soundtrack. The whimsical, high-energy music contains the weirdest mixes of instruments, such as bass guitar, organ, synthesisers, and drums all thrown into one for particular tracks. There's nothing else quite like it, and you may even find yourself listening to a couple songs in your free time.
Spyro the Dragon may be divisively easy and not up to par with the Ratchet & Clank games in the writing department, but if you're into the classic, collectathon 3D platformers of the '90s, then this represents the foundation upon which many were built. Its broadly appealing yet simple gameplay, gorgeous stages, quality art direction, and innovative soundtrack combine to create a game that's truly, as they say these days, fire.