(Note: I’ve chosen this format to talk about Spyro: Reignited Trilogy instead of a review because a review would just be me gushing for several consecutive hours. At least something productive might come of this.)
Spyro’s world-building is among the best in gaming history, and it doesn’t need a world laden with obscure history books or spin-off prequels or, whatever Kingdom Hearts is doing, to do it. Of course, “whimsy” isn’t something that can be scientifically deduced; there’s no such thing as a de-facto “Whimsy Rating,” and if there was I would get Jonathon Ross straight on it so it was alliterative. But what I mean is that the guys on the Spyro team, whether that be Insomniac for the originals or Toys For Bob on the remasters, put a huge amount of attention to detail into every aspect of their worlds, unmatched by pretty much any other except a particular portly plumbers. Developers like to call this “juice,” stuff that doesn’t impact the mechanical gameplay in any way, but nonetheless makes the game “feel” nicer, makes the games more enjoyable on the whole for its inclusion. I’m splitting up how the first and last two games generate their fantastical worlds, because they both do things slightly differently, a bit like an online slots machine, always offering up a new experience, with a final group at the end for things all three games do.
Spyro 1: Enter the Dragon
Obviously Spyro himself isn’t the only fantastical creature in gaming; Sonic is a blue, metre-tall hedgehog that would be terrifying in real life (as the movie posters have proven), Link is a small boy who defeats the king of all evil while wearing his pyjamas, and Mario is a plumber who actually shows up on time and does his job. But having a dragon protagonist, and by extension dragons as your main NPCs, at least in the first game, lends the worlds a ethereal, magical feel. The game leans into this hard, too; whereas most 3D platformers, both modern and of Spyro’s original release era, were so hard-set on the “grass world, ice world, fire world, panic” mantra that you’d think it’d come from a religious text, Spyro does things a little differently. While it does have grass worlds and ice worlds and the like, it doesn’t dwell on them, and instead prefers to categorise them by more wondrous themes – in the first homeworld, the Artisan’s, for instance, you have Stone Hill, a shepherding community, Dark Hollow, which has a eerie library aesthetic, and Town Square, a market hub. By choosing and grouping its level themes in this way, Spyro emphasises that these magical, less tangible elements are at the core of its world and design.
Spyro 2 & 3: Dra-gone In a Flash
While the Dragon NPCs are great, they do get tiresome after a while – moreso in the originals where they’re basically just five different guys swapping heads – but Insomniac capitalised on this in a really smart way. To keep the sequels feeling fresh without stepping on the toes (or I guess claws? Talons? Whatever dragons have, ask your local furry) of the first game, Spyro 2 and Spyro 3 are set outside the Dragon Worlds, in Avalar and the Forgotten Worlds respectively. This lets them really flex their creative world-building wings, and it shows.
One thing these games in particular get right where a lot of games fall flat – even that demigod of gaming Mario didn’t get this right until Odyssey – is filling each world with a unique inhabitant. Sure, Toad is a great NPC, but copy-and-pasting his silly screaming face everywhere makes the world feel shallow, and also makes me want to kick his sporous head off. Meanwhile Spyro 2 has Gemcutters, monks, Electrolls, weird god-turtles and seahorses just in the first hub world levels. It makes the world seem a lot more alive and lends your actions in them a significance, a meaning knowing they’ll affect this colourful cast. From there, Spyro games have these individual worlds interact with each other, unlike any other platformer I’ve seen – for instance, the Breezebuilders and Landlubbers are at war with each other, and the NPCs in one of their worlds are the enemies in the other, or the chap from Skelos Badlands taking a holiday and turning up a game later in Enchanted Towers. This doubling down on making the worlds feel consistent and coherent is really a tour de force of design, and I would love to see more of it from platformers in general.
We have to talk about the actual designs of the levels themselves, of course. Theming,as mentioned, is a big deal, and all the different denizens have a world to match. If I’m being unbiased (which when talking about Spyro is really darn difficult), Spyro isn’t particularly exceptional in this regard – games like Banjo-Kazooie and the sandbox Mario games (think 64 and Sunshine) do a good job of this as well. But Spyro’s gliding means the levels have a big focus on verticality in a way a lot of other games don’t – and yes Banjo-Kazooie and Mario can both fly (is it a bird? Is it a plane? No it’s a fat Italian bloke) but total free-flight would actually be detrimental to Spyro’s world-building. The game uses architecture in a particularly clever way to give you the height you need to make big glides without feeling like it’s funnelling you – Spyro doesn’t have many instances of “oh here’s some stairs” for example, clearly the designers were of a pro-Dalek agenda. It also recognises the freedom that height gives you for exploration, and treats said height as a reward – normally you reach a high point at the end of a level, and can use that to reach points you saw earlier but your stubby little wings couldn’t quite get you to. That the whole game revolves around these glides without it ever feeling forced is kind of incredible, and really underlines how well the worlds are built.
As I’ve mentioned of course, Spyro isn’t the only game with nice levels and theming, and if I wasn’t apparent I love talking about this more than I love mango juice (which is a lot) so let me know if you have any suggestions and maybe this’ll become a series of sorts.