In Which I Find More PS1 Games to Play, Somehow

The gritty, younger reboot of my Playstation retrospective series, 32 Bits, commences in a few months. Whatever form it may take, it will contain one new thing: demos.

I did take a look at some demos before, but I decided to look at demo discs more thoroughly this time around, as a peculiarity of 32 bit-era gaming culture. But one thing always eluded me, until now.

The US’ Official Playstation Magazine, with its monthly demo disc, began publication in 1997. So did Sony’s quarterly demo/video magazine, Playstation Underground. But the UK had a demo magazine since the system’s launch in 1995 – their Official Playstation Magazine debuted in November 1995, and ran absurdly late, concluding in March 2004 after 108 demo discs. While the American Playstation magazine mixed PSX and PS2 coverage, and alternated PSX and PS2 demo discs for a time before discontinuing the former in very early 2002, the British magazine just launched a PS2 edition and kept both in publication for…four years.

Obviously, the stray European exclusive or game that just wasn’t popular in North America can be found on OPM UK’s discs. And there’s a number of experimental, or obscure Japanese games that made it to Europe, but not America, such as Vib-Ribbon. But there’s something weirder: from 1997 on, many OPM UK discs included full games made on Sony’s Net Yaroze homebrew system. These hobbyist-developed games never really made it to American shores.

I fired up a disc – the thirty-eighth, more or less because its Net Yaroze game was one of the few I heard of. Haunted Maze is a weird riff on Pac-Man where you evade mummies to “In the Hall of the Mountain King”:

Other demos include B-Movie – which turned out to be the European name for Invasion from Beyond. Soccer games are far more prominent on the UK discs, and this disc contained one genuine exclusive: Fluid, a bizarre game where you swim around as a dolphin and unlock samples to use in the game’s real focus, a music sequencer. You then play through your own songs – one of a wave of surreal European music games that never reached American shores. Another disc contains an expansion pack for a racing game, Circuit Breakers.

But the star of the OPM UK discs are the Net Yaroze games it gave a platform to, and I’m glad I’ll be able to dive into them and every other oddity strewn about their collection.

Spyro: Year of the Dragon

My 32 bit era retrospective series, the creatively named 32 Bits, is on hiatus. In truth, I’ve been trying to pick it up again: as a video series, or by rewriting them (I’d need to at least edit every entry, as many of the images were hosted on Photobucket). Or just carrying on where I left off. But to try to renew my enthusiasm for the 32 bit era, I’m going to step back and post some impressions on games I’m revisiting more or less at random. I’m sticking to games I was already familiar with before 32 Bits: for instance, I might play Final Fantasy VII or IX, games I know well, but not VIII, which I gave up on early, or Tactics, which I never played. I don’t want to taint my opinion of a game I’d play later, so I’ll stick to the pre-tainted. Let’s begin with the only original Spyro game I never beat.

Spyro: Year of the Dragon is a Spyro game that doesn’t want to be a Spyro game. Breaking up the familiar platforming of the past games is a slate of new, largely frustrating playable characters.

Sheila the Kangaroo is the most successful, likely because her gimmick is more like the lack of a gimmick: Sheila is just a typical platformer hero, double jumping instead of gliding, kicking instead of charging or flaming. Her stages are more methodical and traditional; her last challenge is even a sidescroller. And it’s probably no coincidence, given the throwback nature of her gameplay, that Sheila has more stages than anyone.

Sgt. Byrd doesn’t have many stages of his own, and we should all be grateful. Imagining the creative process behind introducing a character whose central mechanic is “flying, but bad” is more interesting than any of Byrd’s plodding, clunky stages. There are already areas where the protagonist can fly, but sadly they don’t let you hover in place and get shot while trying to bomb a gopher. Byrd’s one interesting stage is “Enchanted Towers”, the only level where two characters can play the same area. Some parts are only available to Spyro, and others only to Byrd. If only the game expanded on this mechanic.

Bentley’s a sluggish but powerful yeti who bashes enemies with a club. There’s not much to say about his gameplay, and the developers don’t seem to have thought about him much either: he only gets one typical platforming stage after his homeworld, his others revolving around minigames like a deeply frustrating boxing match (which has some weird mechanics involving multiplayer – but this an impressions piece more than anything, and so the history lesson must wait until my real review in, probably, 2037).

The supremely toyetic Agent 9 brings, at long last, clunky first person shooting to the Spyro series. Hallelujah. Agent 9’s primarily used for a series of frustrating first-person and top-down gauntlets, and a late-game railshooter. None of it works, and the best you can say for Agent 9 is that he’s thankfully mostly confined to the final world. Agent 9’s mix of platforming and shooting at least presages Insomniac’s Ratchet & Clank – making him more of a tedious platforming caterpillar, who emerged from a chrysalis as something greater, or at least more playable.

Year of the Dragon’s challenges have an unfortunate tendency to repeat themselves; do this, then do the same thing but much harder. The second and third Spyros have a love of escort missions matched only by their endearing failure to convincingly depict escort missions: both features challenges where the escortee weaves a winding path through a clearly wide open area, heading straight into every enemy and obstacle in sight for no apparent reason.

Spyro: Year of the Dragon is the last hurrah of Spyro – or at least, the good Spyro games – and of its kitchen-sink platformer ethos. En vogue in the PS1/N64 era, the platformer that prized collecting whatsits by besting constantly shifting, widely varied challenges died off shortly into the PS2’s life cycle. The game’s challenges are defined by casual, radical shifts in genre and mechanics that you must adapt to in order to find every egg. The minigames in Year of the Dragon frequently dive into genres you rarely saw on the PS1: beyond Agent 9’s early-90s throwback first person shooting, which calls out Doom by name, you’ll engage in top-down SHMUP gameplay with Sparx, sidescrolling platform and a tank battle that harkens all the way back to Atari’s Combat.

It’s easy to be nostalgic for the variety of this type of game, up until you find yourself unable to progress because you can’t figure out some minigame, to master skills that you’ll never see again. I’m playing Final Fantasy VII at the moment and that game has a similar focus on making you do almost everything – not in a cutscene, not in a button prompt, but by throwing, say, a CPR mechanic at you that you’ll never see again. A game like this needs to move, and to get momentum this type of design needs to be paired with good execution of dozens of mechanics, dozens of challenges – and here, it isn’t.

The storybook aesthetic of the Spyro games, its gentle pastels and flat colors, has aged magnificently where many PS1 games haven’t, as has the percussive score by Stewart Copeland. When Year of the Dragon works, it works, but it’s the weakest of the PS1 installments due to its scattershot focus on underheated challenges and a cast of newcomers that are, at best, a dull distraction from why you’re here. And it’s glitchy as hell too, not just in the routine, fun, do-this-and-you-can-swim-through-air way but in gamebreaking ways. A gem can fall into a swamp and become irretrievable; one of the flight stages must be beaten in full on your first visit, or you can never recover every egg.

Year of the Dragon hails from 2000, the Playstation’s last relevant year. You can tell this by the obligatory bullet time gag. Matrix parodies infected seemingly all media until about 2002; it makes you long for the days-long meme cycles of today. At the least, seeing a Matrix joke made me think, oh, this game is old, much like we all are, or will be, until we crumble into dust. But I can’t place a grim reminder of mankind’s mortality on this game’s shoulders. When it hits, it hits: Spyro’s aesthetic, and the particular movement of its quadrupedal protagonist, still looms large in the crowded genus of Mascotus Animalwithattitudus. And at least it’s good to finally say I’ve found every gem, every egg, beat the vile bourgeoisie bear Moneybags and redistributed his wealth. That I’ve seen the super final final stage, the easygoing playgrounds that are the hallmark of completing a Spyro game. And that I’ve beaten the game…117%?