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%?

Gex 3

Gex 3

Christmas, 1999. My gifts were just what I wanted.

One was a game I had looked forward to for months. I braved my family’s dinner, and chat, and the interminable parades they watched, hoping I could get the TV for myself and play my new gift. Finally, it was my chance. I sat, cross-legged, by the Christmas tree and gripped the controller as the Playstation started up. I basked in the television’s glow as the first level loaded up. Why, it was even Christmas themed! Could this game be a more fitting gift? I was overjoyed to be playing…Gex 3!?

Looking back, I have no idea why I desired a game so…mediocre. 1999’s Gex 3 was the last installment in a moderately popular and rarely loved series. The first Gex was a simple 2D platformer that debuted in 1994 on the 3DO console; Gex became the 3DO’s mascot. The sequel came four years later, long after the 3DO’s unmourned demise. That game took the titular gecko into three dimensions for the first time; it also recycled the same levels over and over and looked extraordinarily cheap, so those were possibly three dimensions too many.

Gex_3_-_Deep_Cover_Gecko
These were games of limited charms. There were many platformers in the late 90s, and far too many were identical: wrestle with an awkward camera as you jump around, collecting hundreds of useless items. The best platformers were clever: Banjo-Kazooie, Rayman, Spyro the Dragon, Jumping Flash, and a select few others all had creative level design that made all the collecting worthwhile. No such luck in the Gex series, where you grab remotes to unlock further levels; gather 100 flies to find an additional remote (a mission stolen from Super Mario 64’s ‘collect 100 coins’ quests); and find coins and paws, whose functions are more obscure. Gex 3 asks nothing more of you than to walk over objects so you can unlock new levels in which you can walk over yet more objects.

Gex 3 still looks relatively nice today, especially compared to its simplistic predecessors, but that wasn’t why I – or anyone else – wanted it. Gex’s true selling point was its humor.

Gex’s humor is firmly based in lazy pop culture references. Gex is voiced by Dana Gould in the United States, and Cat from Red Dwarf in the UK. The jokes are just as bad on either side of the pond. Each level has a television theme – gangsters, superheroes, anime, and so on. In the Christmas level, the game offers up such wisecracks as Gex saying “Herbie, I want to be a dentist!” in a funny voice, or “My name is Jack Gexington, from Halloweentown!” in a different funny voice. Dancing candy canes prompt him to make a comment about sticking tongues to metal poles. Some gags are timely – when Gex jumps on a snowboard at the end of the level, he bemoans that there’s “another snowboarding game”. How many today remember the days when mediocre snowboarding games were everywhere? There is no satirical twist to most of the jokes; Gex asks you to laugh at the mere act of quoting a movie, as if it’s the most hilarious thing in the world to know lines from old Christmas specials.

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The level itself is devoid of interesting sight gags, because anything funny is repeated ad nauseam. The first level’s big centerpiece is an evil Santa Claus. He throws a present at you; Gex chucks it back at him. “You’re on the list!” he cries. Repeat twice more. Everything in Gex, and other games of its ilk, is drawn out. Once, Mario would encounter certain boxes containing multiple coins, requiring multiple jumps to get them all; imagine if every box had multiple coins and you have a good approximation of the Gex experience. Every penguin, box and enemy must be hit three or four times to gather every fly; the level’s twisted elves require two or three hits to die. Anything can and will be drawn out by the developers if it means you can trumpet “20 hours of gameplay!” on the back of the box.

Why did nine-year old me make Gex 3 such an important part of his Christmas? I had never played any of the previous games. Gex 3 was the best-selling game in the franchise, yet it was still only a minor success, and critical reaction was decidedly mixed. I could have asked for any number of better games, yet I asked for this one. Perhaps it’s best to leave my puzzling childhood affection for Gex 3 as just that – the affection of a child, delighting in the snowy world of Gex on Christmas Day.

Notes

  • One curiously primitive aspect of Gex 3 – every time you find a remote, you’re kicked out of the level. Sure, Super Mario 64 did this too – but Gex 3 is no Super Mario 64, and it gets grating to run through the same areas.
  • Another odd element, seemingly designed to waste time: Gex 3’s mechanics are mostly copied from Gex 2, yet Gex 3 has a tutorial and Gex 2 doesn’t. And the tutorial is required if you want every remote.
  • A sign of what gaming was like in ’99 – Gex 3 comes with several demos, in a day when discs carrying dozens of demos were common and eminently disposable. Now, few companies even bother with demos. One demo is of a game that’s near-great, Soul Reaver (which runs on the Gex 3 engine); the others are the obscure, voodoo-themed action game Akuji the Heartless and Warzone 2100, an awkward attempt at a console RTS. All three are rather bloody and extremely M-rated; odd matches for a game as juvenile as Gex.

Crash Bandicoot in 2012

And here’s a fan’s tech demo of a modern Crash Bandicoot. It looks great, but that’s to be expected when all they needed to do was focus on graphics; after all, any real attempt at a Crash Bandicoot remake would be hit with a quick cease-and-desist order.

Crash Bandicoot is looked back at nostalgically as part of the first generation of 3D platformers – the Playstation’s Super Mario 64, if you will – but what’s interesting is how, besides graphics, the series was distinctly 2D. Movement alternated between side-scrolling areas where you could occasionally move further or closer to the camera and top-down platforming sections that still didn’t have much free movement; often, levels would switch between the two styles. Only the third game – also the best in the series – had open levels, in the form of jet ski and biplane minigames:

This hybrid between 2D gameplay and 3D graphics was pioneered by Bug! and Clockwork Knight on the Saturn, and was furthered on the Playstation with games like Crash, Tomba! and Klonoa. These types of games came along during a time where 2D games were on their way out; Sony discouraged their release, and in the United States they were eventually banned from being released at all on the Saturn.

These “2.5D games” fell out of favor on the Playstation 2, and now it exists mainly in the form of franchise throwbacks. Truly 2D games have made a minor comeback – in the form of an endless stream of “retro” indie games and occasional big releases like the brilliant Rayman Origins. Crash Bandicoot was innovative technically (it was among the best looking games on the Playstation and doesn’t look bad today), but in many ways it was just as old-fashioned as the 2D platformers it helped push to the fringes of gaming.