It seems everyone these days wants to party like its 1999, or at least 1998. That was the year Spyro the Dragon was first released for the original PlayStation, and following the phenomenal success of the Crash Bandicoot N-Sane Trilogy remaster, it was inevitable that the orange dynamo’s scaly counterpart would also get a nostalgic makeover.
Even though Crash and Spyro go so well together, theirs has always been a mutually complimentary partnership rather than a Mario and Sonic style rivalry. Although both Spyro and Crash made their debut on Sony hardware, they were owned by Universal and after short periods of PlayStation exclusivity were soon spreading their wings – or paws – on other platforms.
Its worth revisting those early Spyro games, however, and appreciating just how charming and ambitious they were. While the first Crash games were linear platforming romps, the Spyro games as first developed by Insomniac Games were always more open and freeform, with sprawling levels accessed via a hub world, all the better to allow the plucky winged dragon to glide and explore rather than be constrained by corridors. Spyro evolved a lot over his first trilogy of games, going from low level gliding in the first title to a more complex moveset including hovering and headbutts by the end. His world was also fleshed out, with his sidekick Sparx soon joined by friends such as Hunter the Cheetah, Bentley the Yeti and monkey spy Agent 9, as well as enemies Gnasty Gnorc, Ripto and The Sorceress.
Though often viewed as being in Crash’s shadow somewhat, it was actually Spyro who had the most interesting games and you can see how the ideas first toyed with in the Spyro series would evolve into later Insomniac titles such as Ratchet & Clank. Spyro’s debut even had a little Hollywood glamor right from the start with Stewart Copeland, former drummer with The Police and composer of soundtracks for movies such as Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, supplying the music.
After three games in three years, however, Insomniac was ready to move on. The studio immediately began work on what would become Ratchet & Clank, and created another enduring collection of video game characters. For Spyro’s actual career as a video game star, however, the loss of his creators meant a difficult period and he spent the first five years of the 21st century in search of a coherent creative direction.
There were GameBoy Advance sequels with George R.R. Martin-esque titles like Season of Ice and Season of Fire. There were a couple of console sequels – Enter the Dragonfly and A Hero’s Tail - produced by a variety of different work-for-hire developers, but this nascent new trilogy fizzled fast, with its final entry, the RPG-lite Shadow Legacy, appearing not on the PlayStation 2 or Gamecube but the Nintendo DS.
There was even a two-game crossover with Crash Bandicoot, an event that should have been a huge deal, but which passed without much fanfare and has now been largely forgotten. Crash Bandicoot Purple: Ripto's Rampage and Spyro Orange: The Cortex Conspiracy both appeared on the Gameboy Advance and saw the two heroes swapping worlds and enemies, while rather obviously nicking the color-coded twin game concept from Pokemon. The side-scrolling action in these spin-offs was passable enough, but most of the gameplay was taken up with simplistic mini-games. It’s a weirdly unambitious effort, considering that Universal was pushing hard at the time for both Crash and Spyro to be breakout media stars, even going so far as to produce toys given away in cereal boxes, and yet the games designed to sell them as a marketable duo failed to sell the full potential of these late 90s titans appearing together for the first time.
In 2006, a more concerted attempt to create an ongoing Spyro series took shape. Originally planned as a prequel, the self-explanatory A New Beginning was instead a complete reboot with a slightly darker and less playful tone, and pitted Spyro and his pals against Malefor, the Dark Master, a predecessor to Spyro who had turned to evil.
Technically accomplished, the game also continued to illustrate Universal’s desire to turn Spyro into a multimedia star. Elijah Wood, riding high on the success of the Lord of the Rings movies, was brought in to voice Spyro in the games, while none other than Gary Oldman played his mentor, Ignitus.
A New Beginning also introduced Cynder, a sultry female dragon with black scales. Initially a servant of the Dark Master, by the end of the game she’s been freed from his control and would become a partner and love interest for Spyro across the remaining two games in this new trilogy.
Another trilogy? Yep, The Eternal Night followed in 2007 and Dawn of the Dragon rounded it out in 2008. It’s that final game that is most interesting from a gameplay point of view. Across all the games in the core Spyro series, it had always been a single player affair and Spyro’s wings were used to glide and hover, but never fly freely at will. That all changed with Dawn of the Dragon, with another player able to join in controlling Cynder (now voiced by Christina Ricci) and both dragons able to actually take off and fly around whenever they wanted. It was a much needed evolutionary leap for a series that, while always competent, had become somewhat mired in formula. Sadly, it would also mark the last true Spyro sequel.
With a Hollywood cast in place, Universal was ready to capitalize on Spyro’s potential outside of gaming, and an animated movie came very close to happening in 2009. Universal’s animation arm was going to work with a Korean studio on The Legend of Spyro 3D, with producer John Davis whose filmography includes everything from the Predator series to the live action Garfield movies. Mark A.Z. Dippé, who had worked on the CG special effects for Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park, was lined up to direct – his first directorial outing since 1997’s notorious Spawn.
As you have probably noticed, that movie doesn’t exist. Its proposed 2009 release was bumped to 2010, and then quietly abandoned. Meanwhile, and not unrelated, a new game in the Spyro saga was to be developed by San Francisco based developer Toys for Bob, and they intended to take the character down an even darker path, with an angsty teen Spyro and bloody combat. Thankfully, the studio saw sense and scrapped that idea as being too far removed from what had made Spyro a hit in the first place.
Instead, Spyro was used to pitch a new concept that the studio had been tinkering with, in which plastic toys could be used to interact with a game. That game became Skylanders, which eventually launched in 2011 with the subtitle Spyro’s Adventure. Cynder was also along for the ride. The determined little dragons very quickly became sidelined as that series snowballed, however, and with it the need to keep adding more and more characters.
Although variants of Spyro were included in each new iteration of the Skylanders toy line, by the time the series reached its fourth annual outing with Trap Team, only a baby dragon called Spry remained to remind players whose stardom the entire franchise was launched off. Meanwhile, other characters began cameoing in Skylanders games – such as Nintendo’s Donkey Kong and Bowser, and even Spyro’s erstwhile pal Crash Bandicoot – leaving the purple dragon even more in the background.
Which brings us to today. The Skylanders series is on hiatus, with the toys-to-life genre it spawned all but burned out and rival franchises Disney Infinity and LEGO Dimensions both cancelled after bombarding parents with annual updates. Yet it seems Spyro is set to rather appropriately rise from the ashes, with the upcoming Reignited Trilogy reminding fans from the 1990s just what they loved about the little fella in the first place. And after that…who knows? Maybe its time for that proper Crash and Spyro team-up to finally happen…