Spyro the Dragon (PS1) – Retro Game Reviews

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Spyro the Dragon is one the classic Playstation series I never got a chance to play growing up. With the upcoming remake, now seemed like a perfect time to see if the beloved series holds up without the benefit of nostalgia, and as for the first entry in the series, well it’s a bit of a mixed bag.

Spyro fits firmly in the collect-a-thon genre. The main collectible are gems which are scattered throughout the world and can also be gained by defeating enemies and opening chests. Additionally, you can collect dragon eggs by chasing down quick-moving Blue Thieves, and free dragons that have been turned into statues.

When you free a dragon, you are treated to a brief cutscene that will often give you hints about the game or a humorous exchange with Spyro, but some only say “Thank you for releasing me” which is a bit disappointing. Freed dragons act as checkpoints and allow you to save your game.

Spyro’s movement is limited to 8 directions which makes him awkward to control at times. (I found that switching from passive to active camera helped.) However, collecting gems is made easier thanks to Spyro being accompanied by Sparx the Dragonfly who will collect gems near you so you only need to get close to gems instead of running straight into them. This is a great addition, but Sparx makes a really annoying sound every time he collects a gem and I definitely could have done without it (especially considering that the background music courtesy of  The Police’s Stuart Copeland is really good).

Sparx also acts as you health meter, changing color as you take damage. You can take three hits before Sparx disappears, leaving you with one last hit point and forcing you to collect gems with Spyro directly. You can refill Sparx’s health with butterflies that are released by attacking sheep and other animals.

Spyro has two main attacks. He can shoot fire by pressing Circle or charge enemies by pressing Square, with certain enemies only being vulnerable to one attack or the other. Your fire breath has a very limited range and it’s sometimes hard to tell whether you’re close enough to hit enemies. The charge attack moves the camera behind Spyro and increases his movement speed and given the limited controls sometimes it’s hard to aim at enemies, which becomes especially annoying with enemies that can only be defeated by the charge attack and fire projectiles at you.

You can also get a powered-up fire breath from fairies in the game allowing you to take down enemies that are otherwise invincible or only able to be defeated with the charge attack and open certain doors and treasure chests. This is the only power-up in the game and only appears on a couple levels, so it would have been nice to have a bit more variety in the moveset.

Spyro can also glide by pressing X a second time after jumping, allowing you to reach far away areas. This is a pretty fun addition, especially considering the game’s impressive draw-distance for the era. Unlike other 3D games of the time, there is no fog hiding far away areas, and it’s really satisfying to see an area far in the distance and be able to glide right to it provided you have enough height. One minor quibble I have with the gliding is that you’ll keep gliding until hit something unless you press Triangle to cancel it. I always found myself holding down X to glide and releasing it when I wanted to land, so using Triangle took some getting used to.

The hub worlds are really nicely done. Instead of just a basic level select, each of them is like their own mini-level, complete with enemies, collectibles and unlockable areas. I occasionally had some difficulty finding the entrance to a level, but since each world has the same number of levels, it’s easy to know if you missed one. The transitions between the hub world and levels are really nice too. Spyro flies into the gateway to each level then seemlessly lands at the beginning of the level after a brief loading. It’s a small thing, but it’s a nice touch.

I really liked the enemy design in Spyro. There’s a good bit of variety and they have a lot of humor and personality. Some enemy types will even mow down others before you get to them, which is pretty entertaining. However, the bosses are a bit of a let down. They aren’t difficult (mosty your standard keep your distance while they attack and wait for them to become vulnerable) but each time you hit them, they’ll jump away to another platform and you’ll have to follow them and it just feels like padding. Apart from the final boss, they’re entirely optional too. When you defeat them, you only get the same gems scattered everywhere, and sure you get a lot of them but it’s still a bit anti-climatic.

Which brings me to my next point, collecting gems gets really boring after a while. You need a certain number of gems (or sometimes dragon eggs or freed dragons) to unlock the next world, but other than that they don’t do anything. It’d be nice if you could buy upgrades or something with them. The bigger problem is because the same gems are scattered everywhere, there’s not much incentive to pull off tricky moves to get to hard-to-reach places. Each level has a locked treasure test that you need to find the key for (usually in an out-of-the-way or hard to reach location) and then travel back to, but all for your hard work are more damn gems, so unless you’re going for 100%, what’s even the point?

There are some timed flying stages for a little variety. In these you’ll stay airborne the entire time, which flying through obstacles and destroying enemies and treasure chests in order to extend your time. They suffer from the same stiff controls as the rest of the game and if you bump into anything, you fall into the water and the level ends (though you don’t lose any lives which is nice). There are eight of each obstacle per stages and you need get all eight of the same type in order to receive any reward, and by reward, you guessed it, more gems. I never needed to complex any of them to have enough gems to progress so I mostly just skipped them.

Just like the other bosses, the final battle against Gnasty Gnorc isn’t that great. First you need to chase down two Blue Thieves with keys running in a circle, then chase down Gnorc himself and hit him with your fire breath, after which he’ll run away and you’ll need to do some platforming over lava as the platforms recede into the walls. Hit Gnorc a second time and you beat the game. You’ll need to do this all in one go and there are a lot of sharp turns while chasing the thieves and Gnorc where it’s easy to run off the stage while charging. I enjoyed the Blue Thieves as a quick challenge in other levels, but running in circles over and over again isn’t my idea of a good time, and having the final boss running away from you the whole time isn’t exactly an epic showdown either.

For all its faults, Spyro the Dragon does a lot of things rights. While it’s not the most exciting game in the world, the first Spyro lays down a very good foundation for the rest of the trilogy to build off of. With a bit of tweaking and some added complexity and variety, Spyro is a little dragon with a lot of potential and I’m eager to see what the sequels have in store.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (PS1) – Retro Game Reviews

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When approaching a game like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, there’s always the worry that it won’t live up to the hype. Despite selling poorly upon initial release, SOTN’s reputation quickly spread through word of mouth, and now it frequently appears on lists of the greatest video games ever made. Coming out early in the PS1 lifespan when most games were experimenting with clunky 3D, SOTN instead takes pixel art to a level previous consoles simply weren’t capable of. Add to that CD quality sound and a huge map full of unique enemies and it’s not hard to see why gamers back in 1997 were blown away, and for me at least, Symphony of the Night completely holds up.

Symphony marks a departure from previous Castlevania games in many ways. Instead of controlling a member of the Belmont clan, you play as Alucard, the son of Dracula and a supporting character from Castlevania III. While previous Castlevania games are fairly linear, SOTN places you in the middle of a large, winding castle to explore at your own discretion. Some areas require power-ups to access, but a large amount of castle is open to you right away provided you can survive the more powerful enemies guarding some segments.

Though often compared with Super Metroid, director Koji Igarashi was instead inspired by the dungeons in the original Legend of Zelda, and there are some key difference between the Metroid and Igarashi-vania games. In Metroid, everything is about conquering your environment with the enemies being just one more obstacle. Most enemies can be taken care of very easily with a few shots from Samus’ trusty arm-cannon or avoided entirely.  In SOTN and its follow-ups however, dispatching enemies is the primary focus. Most rooms have a very basic layout and the challenge comes from memorizing attack patterns and juggling enemies. Avoiding enemies isn’t really an option until you acquire the bat transformation midway through the game, and unlike Metroid, you receive XP for defeating enemies, further incentivizing direct confrontation.

Health pick-ups are rare in SOTN. Instead you’ll spend most of the game slashing through gauntlets of monsters in search of the next save point to restore your HP. This can lead a lot of harrowing moments where you’re one or two hits away from dying and have no idea when you’ll get another chance to save. Enemies respawn when you exit a room, so you’re often left with no choice other than to keep plowing forward and hope for the best.

When you die, not only do you lose all progress since your previous save, but you’ll be greeted with a Game Over and kicked back to the title screen, so it takes several minutes in total before you can reload your save and get back into the game. Some might see this as a design flaw, but it gives death in SOTN an impact it wouldn’t have if you could instantly hop back in right where you left off. (Don’t even get me started on how the fetishization of flow has ruined modern game design.)

The gothic atmosphere is nailed perfectly, from the enemies and the backgrounds to the story and the soundtrack. Each area of the castle is populated with its own unique monsters cribbed from every corner of horror lore, everything from werewolves, demons and haunted suits of armor to Lovecraftian eldergods and of course the notorious Medusa heads. The boss fights don’t disappoint either. Some are so huge they can’t even fit on screen, and between the difficulty and some of the best sprite work in any game ever, they’ll stick in your mind (and haunt your dreams) long after you finish playing.

The gameplay mechanics are polished to near perfection. Alucard is as graceful and deadly as a vampire should be, and you really feel like a badass helping him slash his way through waves of enemies. As you explore the castle and grow more powerful, you go from feeling like an invader surrounded by hostile foes to the master of the house surveying your domain and clearing away pests.

There are a ton of different weapons and power-ups to experiment with and hidden areas to find, giving the game a lot of replay value and facilitating different play styles. Your primary weapon is the sword, but there are also brass knuckles, daggers and rods with different attack rates and ranges. The game fully takes advantage of Alucard’s vampiric nature, allowing you to transform into a bat, a wolf or a cloud of mist (each of which is upgradable) and unlock a number of familiars to help you in combat.

One big annoyance is that it isn’t always clear what different items and power-ups do, so you might want to have a strategy guide handy. And once you have a large number of different items, it can be a pain to scroll through searching for the one you want. There are also spells that can be activated with button combinations, but I found these next-to-impossible to pull off with any consistency. Since none of the spells are necessary for completing the game, I ended up just ignoring them.

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is something all gamers owe it to themselves to experience at least once, especially fans of gothic horror. It might not be a perfect game, but it’s pretty damn close. More than two decades after its initial release, it’s aged incredibly well and will likely stand as one of the true masterpieces of gaming for the rest of time.

Final Rating: 5/5 – Must Play