SPYRO: YEAR OF THE DRAGON (2000) – INSOMNIAC GAMES
The year 2000 was a funny old time. The threat of the Millennium Bug passed away rapidly, everyone forgot about the Millennium Dome, and it just so happened that a small purple dragon was going to get its third game on the Playstation. Spyro 2: Gateway To Glimmer was a tremendous success for Insomniac Games, and therefore its follow up would have to be pretty damn good to keep the quality levels high. In a strange twist of fate, 2000 was actually the Year Of The Dragon in China, so Insomniac got lucky with a title name. The rest of the finished product didn’t need luck in the slightest to shine brightly.
Having saved the world of Avalar, the opening of Spyro 3 shows Spyro returning to his home of the Dragon Worlds, where 150 dragon’ eggs are ready to hatch. However, a thief comes through a hole in the ground and steals all the eggs while the dragons are sleeping, and Spyro just misses the chance to catch her. We quickly find out that there is a spiteful Sorceress on the other side of the world who plans to use the magical eggs to restore magic to her world. Fearful for their eggs, the elder dragons decide that only Spyro can fit down the hole and go after the thief, and send him, his trusty dragonfly companion Sparx and Hunter The Cheetah (still as derpy and fantastic as ever) to ‘The Forgotten World’ to retrieve the eggs.
It does not sound as initially promising as the start of Spyro 2, but the great thing about Spyro 3’s story is that it gets stronger as you go on; a lot of the major characters from the second game (including Hunter, Moneybags and Zoe The Fairy) are all here to provide some continuity, and like Spyro 2 each world has unique inhabitants that all have their own personality quirks. There are small bears dressed in togas, stone carvings that run a travel lodge and many more that all need Spyro’s help. We also get to know four more characters in much greater detail…but more of that later. Combine another superb Insomniac script to the story and again you have a platformer that manages to keep you engaged and amused time after time.
Whereas the difference in gameplay between the original and its sequel was vast, the jump from Spyro 2 to Spyro 3 is much smaller, and given the quality of the second game it is not surprising. All the basic elements that defined the series are present; big 3D worlds for levels, and Spyro can still charge around, set fire to enemies, glide around and do what a small purple dragon can do. As ever there are gems to collect in each level, which are required for game completion, but whereas in Avalar Spyro would be collecting talisman’s and orbs, this time around its all about the dragon eggs; each level has a set goal that you must help with/get to, and at the end you will get an egg. However, each level is bursting with distractions. By entering portals strewn around the levels, Spyro can engage in various mini-games which if completed will give him more eggs. The range of these games were impressive in Spyro 2, but this time they went one step further; there are submarine battles to be had, supercharge races with egg thieves, ice cat hockey to be played (which isn’t as cruel as it sounds) and Hunter gets in on the action in the speedway sections to take down alien sheep in what are genuinely hilarious moments (myself and a friend still fondly quote ‘I’ll lure him down the river of honey!!!’). The best minigame by far however is the skate parks, where Spyro gets his flips and tricks on in a surprisingly robust engine. I’ve spent so much time in the skate parks its unreal, and I’m still very proud of my 23,000 high score in Enchanted Towers.
Where the gameplay really sets itself apart from Spyro 2 however is with the four aforementioned characters. By paying Moneybags at various points in the game, Spyro can free new allies with their own abilities and levels that they can play; Sheila the Kangaroo (no Australian stereotypes there…) can jump incredibly high and stomp enemies to death, Sgt Byrd is a military trained penguin who can fly and fire rockets, Bentley the Yeti has a massive ice club and can deflect attacks, and Agent 9 the monkey spy has a laser gun. These characters add a different dimension to Spyro; they all have at least one tailor made level for their abilities, and many of the minigames involves them as well; Bentley has a boxing match with another yeti, and Agent 9 shoots dinosaur bandits in a Wild West Town. Even Sparx gets his own levels, in the form of 2D shooting levels which remind me of the likes of Galaga or Aegis Wing. The introduction of these additional playable characters is what sets the game above its predecessor for me; it just opens up a bit of variation and ensures you aren’t doing the same thing over and over again. You will be playing a long time to get the 120% completion for this game, and it’s a joy from start to finish.
Given the relatively short timespan between the release of Spyro 2 and 3, it was perhaps unreasonable to expect Insomniac to do much on the graphics front; Spyro 2 was already a very pretty game, and Spyro 3 for the most part runs on the same engine, meaning we get more colourful and charming worlds to run through. I’m more than content with this though, as Insomniac did a bit of work to make sure that the characters do not look as jagged in cutscenes as they did in the previous game, so its not quite a copy and paste job. The soundtrack, again composed by Stewart Copeland, retained its high quality and sense of character; I must admit it hasn’t stuck in my head quite as well as music from the other two games (the original will always have the best music for me personally), but there are some great tunes to listen to, including Midday Gardens, Sunrise Spring, Molten Crater and Fireworks Factory. Spyro 3 also features some of the strangest voice acting ever seen in a game with Sparx, where he doesn’t actually speak but instead just buzzes.
On balance, I would say that Spyro: Year Of The Dragon is my favourite platformer of all time; it strikes the excellent balance of a good story with interesting characters with a brilliantly balanced gameplay system that is easy and fun to use, just nudging out its closest competitor, which I feel to be its excellent predecessor. Sadly though, it just falls short of the magical 10 out of 10 for me. There are a few things which seem slightly unpolished; whereas in Spyro 2 you knew who the antagonists were in Ripto, Gulp and Crush, but in Spyro 3 you have no reason to fear or hate the bosses because they come out of nowhere. Also, on the whole I would have to say that it’s a relatively easy game to complete; a few tricky egg challenges and skill points aside, its not quite the challenge that Spyro 2 offered at times. I also hate the fact that this game marked the start of the downfall of Spyro; Insomniac left the series to focus on Ratchet & Clank (another game series I have played an enjoyed) and in the meantime Spyro has become quite frankly crap. But I shouldn’t mark it down for that; instead I see it as the last of the great platformers from my childhood before I moved onto RPG’s and sandbox games.
It will be 2012 when the Year Of The Dragon hits us again, but you really shouldn’t wait that long before you get your hands on this game. One of the all time great platformers in its prime, and an unmissable experience for the Playstation. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m back off to the skate park to pull some Twisted Limes…