One year ago, publisher Activision released the Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy, a remake of the original three PlayStation classics with next-gen graphics. Gameplay-wise, the Crash Trilogy attempted to perfectly replicate the original games, and it came extremely close, but ultimately fell short of making the PlayStation 1 originals completely obsolete. A few seemingly minor changes – such as adjustments to enemy hitboxes and the ill-advised choice to use the jump physics from Crash 3 in all three games – kept the remake from fully living up to its potential. Still, developer Vicarious Visions put in a ton of work to make the game feel authentic to the hardcore fans, and for the most part, they succeeded.
Sony's other big 1990s franchise was Spyro the Dragon. Like Crash, Spyro starred in a trilogy of universally acclaimed PlayStation games (Spyro, Spyro 2: Ripto's Rage, and Spyro: Year of the Dragon) before fading into obscurity during the PS2 era. In the long run, the little purple dragon is arguably more successful than Crash; while the plucky marsupial had been largely absent from the gaming scene following the failure of 2008's Crash: Mind over Mutant, Spyro managed to eke out a measure of success in the cult favorite Legend of Spyro trilogy and as a key player in the best-selling Skylanders series. Now, Activision is wisely bringing the character back to his roots with a remake of Insomniac's original titles, Spyro Reignited Trilogy, developed by Skylanders developer Toys for Bob.
Like with Crash, old-school fans have significant questions about the gameplay of this new take on Spyro's classic adventures. Will it feel absolutely perfect to the PS1 originals? At E3 2018, I got extensive hands-on time with two levels from the original 1998 title, remade for PS4, and came away with some distinct impressions which may be surprising to longtime fans of the franchise.
As a lifelong fan of Spyro's original adventures by Insomniac (I can proudly say I never played anything after 2000's Year of the Dragon, the third and final game on this collection), I knew that I would notice if everything wasn't absolutely perfect, just like how I noticed when the Crash Bandicoot trilogy was good, or even great, but not quite perfect compared to its progenitor. Upon getting my hands on the controller and booting up Toasty, the first boss level from Spyro's original adventure, the first thing I noticed was how gorgeous it all looked. Spyro's character model, in particular, is a sight to behold. Stylishly angular and youthfully emotive, the pint-sized dragon, simply put, has never looked better. Similarly, the environments, while apparently geometrically identical to their PS1 counterparts, are full of tiny visual details which add up to a fully believable environment. With a tap of the circle button, Spyro shoots a short geyser of fire from his mouth. The flames, while still as cartoonishly stylized as the rest of the revamped visuals, have a deviously visceral impact; they light the environment in a way which was simply impossible back in 1998, and they even scorch the grass in front of Spyro, to say nothing of what a plume of flame can do to his numerous and dangerous enemies.
Of course, Spyro's newfound visual flair doesn't mean much if the gameplay doesn't stack up to the original. In that respect, unlike Crash Bandicoot, Spyro Reignited Trilogy doesn't attempt to play exactly like the original. Back in the PS1 days, Spyro felt very heavy, a bit slow, and had a noticeably wide arc when it came to turning, making sudden changes in direction a bit difficult. It wasn't insurmountable, and shouldn't even be described as a fault; it was just the way Spyro moved. He was different from Crash, from Mario, from Banjo, and all the other 1990s platforming heroes, who each had their own respective and distinct "feel."
Immediately upon nudging the analog stick forward, I noticed how different Spyro feels from his heyday. At first, it was a bit distracting, being able to turn on a dime and run circles around enemies, but I quickly realized a shocking truth: Spyro Reignited doesn't play like the original game; it plays better. Back in the day, camera control was mapped to the shoulder buttons, which was the standard, but would be downright archaic today. Now, the camera is controlled with the right analog stick, which lets the player see more of the environment, and see it more quickly than ever before.
The proof is in the pudding, as they say, and I could sense my enhanced control as I tackled the enemies in the Toasty stage. As I looked around me, I saw other E3 attendees getting mauled by the big grey dogs who populate the levels. I don't blame them, since those enemies are notoriously pesky, especially to untrained players who haven't yet realized that it takes two bursts of flame to bring them down, and they always counterattack after the first hit. On the PS1, it took a while to figure out the rhythm of the movement, and it was always tough to get out of range of their counter. Here, it was as easy as pulling back on the left analog stick. Spyro's movement is stunningly smooth and I was weaving through the level with a newfound fluidity and speed which is entirely different from the much heavier motion of the original. It's a bold change, but having played it myself, I must admit, it was the right move.
After making short work of Toasty, I moved on to Tree Tops, one of the more infamous levels in the first game, due to its supercharge ramps and tough-to-reach secret areas. In this level, the visual acuity of this next-gen remastering is even more apparent than in Toasty. The dark, earthy palette of the level, which left much to the imagination in the original, really comes alive in this remake. In particular, the enemies, originally rendered as somewhat nondescript blobs of polygons, look like actual creatures this time around.
Testing out the supercharge ramps, it only took me a couple of tries to make it to the secret area on top of the final island, and I was pleased by how smooth the controls felt... Although I had a bit of trouble knowing when to transition from the jump to a glide, leading to a couple of deaths before I found the precise moment to get the most distance out of the supercharge jump.
The main collectable in the game is trapped Elder Dragons. Trapped in cages of green crystal, Spyro breaks them out of their prison, at which point they give him a brief word of advice before disappearing. While the original game had a degree of variety in dragon designs, assigning different body types to each of the first five worlds (the sixth, Gnasty's World, features a mixture from the previous settings), Reignited appears to be taking things a step further, making every single dragon unique and full of character. In the original, some of the dragons lacked fun dialogue, instead offering a simple "Thank you for releasing me!" It's unclear if that will be retained in this remake, or if any new interactions will be written for those dragons.
At this point, I'm happy to report that Spyro Reignited Trilogy feels good, and I can't wait to get my hands on the complete game. I'm eager to embark on an odyssey through the worlds of Spyro, Ripto's Rage, and Year of the Dragon, combining my nostalgic memories of classic settings and enemies with the remake's significantly revamped gameplay mechanics. Of course, there are still questions remaining to be answered. Will Year of the Dragon's additional playable characters be as smooth to play as Spyro? Agent 9's first person shooter levels, notably, haven't aged very well. What about the numerous minigames from parts two and three, like Ice Hockey, boxing with Bentley the Yeti, and the numerous attractions in Dragon Shores, the bonus level from Ripto's Rage? Will these all be preserved/remastered for this new release? Spyro 2 opened and closed each level with a brief cutscene. Will they be remastered here? Year of the Dragon suffered from lacking these fun vignettes. Will developer Toys for Bob be bold enough to unify the sequels by creating brand new cutscenes for Year of the Dragon? One can only hope.
One final question involves Year of the Dragon's main collectable, Dragon Eggs, which would hatch upon being rescued. While they each possessed unique names, many designs and animations were frequently repeated, robbing the baby dragons of their individuality. Will this HD remake go the extra mile and make sure every baby dragon feels like a unique character with their own custom animations?
So far, all of Spyro Reignited Trilogy's marketing has focused on the original game, with only brief, fleeting glimpses of the sequels. Hopefully, they'll peel back the curtain soon. They have to; after all, the game is slated for release on September 21 on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.
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