Nostalgia By (Art) Design: ‘Spyro the Dragon’ Analysis, Part One

[Art by Ashe]
[Art by Ashe]

One of the most vivid video game-related memories of my childhood came in the form of a little purple dragon. While I know I’m not alone in turning a platformer into a symbol for idle childhood days spent slumped in front of a television, it unfortunately hasn’t escaped my notice how this symbol in particular has fallen out of the public eye. It might have something to do with the original studio, Insomniac Games, signing the rights over to another company after the third game and the direction of the series becoming polarizing for old fans (I have a less-than-fond memory of tucking Spyro 4 back into my shelf after an hour, never to touch it again). It could also have something to do with Spyro‘s recent revival in the pocket monster-esque franchise Skylanders where he’s delegated to a supporting character. Needless to say, time isn’t always kind to its subjects.

I picked up the game recently, buried it was beneath old books and yellowed fanart drawings in the boxes of my garage, and attempted with varying degrees of success to get it to function on my old PlayStation 2. The majority of my younger days were spent hunched over copy paper, construction paper, or a notepad—anything to better give life to the ideas brewing in my head. Picking up Spyro again was like being catapulted back into those days, but this time armed with an adult perspective and all the analytical, jaded implications that comes with it.

Everything from its signature soundtrack to loving art design reignited a fire in me. It really cemented that without art theory, a meaningful atmosphere, and strong visual and narrative contrast, no video game can stand the test of time and remain stamped in memory. Let me tell you why you should be familiar with him—in his very first title, no less.

This is one of the prettiest damn games I’ve ever gotten my hands on. I couldn’t be more thankful in retrospect that the mainstream industry trend of assembly line grim-dark AAA titles gained traction later in 2K, because Spyro the Dragon set me up with good taste early through color and charm. The game’s plot is very simple: after the adult dragons blatantly insult a vicious gnorc named Gnasty that has recently moved into their world, he turns them all into crystal, prompting Spyro to go on a massive journey to free them as well as collect their stolen treasure. And what a gorgeous journey it is—the game’s visual influences range from eclectic Middle Eastern mosques, such as the beautiful Wizard’s Peak level, to western medieval European design, like Stone Hill. This game left you wanting for nothing. In the mood for cobblestone castles and green hedge mazes? Or are you more of a desert fan? How about some mysterious swamps or a surreal dreamscape? The first Spyro had it all.

Good art design makes you ask easy questions with complex answers. As a kid, I spent a lot of time not just setting fire to my foes and breaking open chests, but wandering in a daze through dimly lit caverns and lush landscapes framed by ornate castles. Stone fountains and alpine tunnels lined with lanterns fascinated me. To put it plainly: I wanted to know more about these places. Why was there nobody for me to talk to and interact with, unlike the other games that filled up my time like Mario 64 or Ocarina of Time? What exactly did the dragons do in these beautiful plazas and caves, castles and gardens, snowy mountains and beachside towns? I’d ask, over and over, and gradually fill in the blanks myself. Spyro captured what it’s like to be a naive kid in a big world without being overbearing and hammering it down your throat, fostering a curiosity that peaked early and never slowed down.

Spyro the Dragon

In the first game, you are all on your own save for your silent dragonfly companion doubling as a health meter. Dragons you free from crystal say only a helpful line or two before vanishing, with no supporting cast to trade quips with or expand upon exposition. Enemies exist only to be taken down for their gems, regardless of whether or not they’re attacking, sleeping, or mooning you as you run by. Heck, Spyro‘s promotional taglines are, ‘the biggest little hero,’ ‘a mischievous little dragon on a gigantic, go-anywhere adventure,’ and ‘who says size matters!’ This touch ends up establishing the game’s strongest atmospheric pull. Rather than telling, the game shows you while you play: just like being a kid, the world little Spyro is in is enormous, mysterious, gorgeous, and dangerous all at once. It’s an effective and relatable visual narration that runs through the veins of this deceptively simple game.

Spyro also taught me at a young age to never underestimate a game’s unique sense of wonder. Unlike a painting or a song, where your interaction is generally limited to the passive interpretation of a viewer, a video game gives you the extra option of exploring and taking in the scenery at your own pace. You can stop to admire the environments. You can take your time defeating an enemy or exploring each level’s unique quirks (I repeatedly threw myself off the cliffs of High Caves just so the fairies would catch me). You can skip certain levels entirely provided you meet a bare minimum requirement and go have fun with flying mini-games or chase down thieves carrying off kidnapped dragon eggs. Games like this give off a veneer of pressure to meet certain goals with a dash of individuality to go about it your own way. It’s not entirely flexible, being limited code, but it’s a simple enough suggestion of freedom for a young mind, one that is bolstered by an art design that feels alive.

The soundtrack, created by Stewart Copeland (the former drummer of The Police, for all you fact lovers out there) is delightful. Each level has a track completely unique and crafted carefully to accentuate the varied worlds you charge through. “Stone Hill” is a soft and adventurous number characterized by rollicking drums and dainty chimes, with other tracks like “Treetops” and “Dark Hollow” adding more subtle moods with minimalistic ambience. The aforementioned “Lofty Castle” is easily one of my favorite video game tracks in memory (yes, right up there with Final Fantasy IX‘s “You’re Not Alone!”). It’s dreamy, it’s grand, and it’s something you need to listen to right now. The level itself has stuck with me vividly all these years (recreated in my header image, no less!). Its starry, sunset skies and floating islands are something straight out of a kid’s dream, and it remains a solid memory in an already significant game for me.

Spyro the Dragon

Even back in the ’90s, the desire to scrape the bottom of the barrel for bare minimum appeal to kids’ rebellious desires resulted in some shamefully less-than-stellar titles, including but not limited to Gex (a self-aware gecko goes on self-aware adventures while lusting after real human women), Blasto (unfunny, mediocre Batman meets Space Ace) and Ty the Tasmanian Tiger (too forgettable for words). The first Spyro wasn’t interested in that: it instead breathed fire to ignite many a child’s imagination, keeping the totally radical!!! elements (Spyro’s mohawk and the bad reality TV interview that kicks off the game, respectively) to a humorous minimum. Recent titles have accomplished this, too—from the indie title Child of Light to the cult classic Okami—and it’s no coincidence they took a lot of inspiration from older games in the ’90s.

Some of the common complaints with the AAA industry are the shady marketing campaigns and unwelcome nerd culture that are regular occurrences on blogging and social media. Just as teeth-gnashing are the cloned gritty brown landscapes that seem to dominate every action, science-fiction, horror, or first-person shooter. Games with visual and narrative flair that eschew this are here and there, like Enslaved: Odyssey to the West and Mirror’s Edge. Games with an artistic bent back then, though, seemed more plentiful, if only for the lack of shortcuts in an industry still developing ways to smooth out pixels in real time, much less get dial-up to work with confidence.

Don’t confuse this for a rant against “kids and their Call Of Duty nowadays!” Rather, let’s ask what we can learn from games of the past. How else can we push forth worldbuilding besides wooden dialogue and mile-long cutscenes we keep hitting the X button to skip? What cements a game in memory while others slip through the mental cracks? The first Spyro the Dragon has shown us that a living, breathing world can exist almost entirely within the art design and little exposition. It’s shown us that some genuine passion and child-like wonder stands the test of time much better than unfunny one-liners and dated references. It’s shown us that isolation is not a bad thing and can be grounds for reflection and curiosity. It’s shown us that, at the very least, a little really does go a long way.

Join me for part two, where I take a look at games two and three (Ripto’s Rage and Year of the Dragon, respectively) and how they treat their lady characters!


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