Ultimate Guide: Spyro The Dragon
Blazing after the trail set by Naughty Dog’s Bandicoot came this adolescent purple dragon. Spyro The Dragon was a smash success, but what was it that made the game such a firestarter?
The concept of the third dimension understandably doesn’t seem so alien to us nowadays. While it’s come full circle and now pixel art is seeing a resurgence in seemingly every other new indie game released on Steam, back when the Playstation was causing a ruckus it was 3D graphics that was all anyone could talk about. Genres were being torn from their traditional, two-dimensional perspectives and thrust into the black fog of early 3D. Almost overnight, gaming had once again become a frontier, and inventive ways of gaming were being adopted and adapted with practically every new release. While Spyro wasn’t the spark that caused the explosion, the fiery character certainly helped keep it ablaze after the likes of Super Mario 64 and Crash Bandicoot had already begun to popularise the concept of the 3D platformer.
In fact, there are close ties between Naughty
Dog’s destructive orange mascot and that of Insomniac Games’ purple equivalent. It began with Disruptor, an impressive, if overlooked, cinematic shooter developed by Insomniac. Though it hadn’t sold well, publisher Universal – which had also worked with Naughty Dog on Crash Bandicoot – was impressed enough to go ahead and commission a second game from the young studio. The focus on dragons for the next game was there from the very start thanks to studio artist Craig Stitt and his fondness for the mythical winged lizards. The ability to fly was a big boon for the game, since it added a whole extra layer to the 3D platformer genre
that didn’t really exist previously. Just think of Mario’s winged cap in Super Mario 64 and how that brief burst of three-dimensional freedom just felt so thrilling. Spyro would have that freedom permanently and would be designed with flight in mind.
But in fact the initial style of the game was completely different. Despite the desire to create something more lighthearted than Disruptor – hence the push for a dragon – the look of this platformer still leaned closer towards dark and gritty. The inspiration, in fact, was 1996 flash-in-the-pan movie Dragonheart, with Insomniac wanting to capture a similarly sombre approach to fantasy. Spyro was initially to be named
Pete – as hard as that might be to imagine
– a comically pedestrian name, and one associated with a 1977 movie, that may well have been intended to be taken seriously but was supposed to be a mythical dragon and all that entails. The change came about fairly early on in development, with guidance from Mark Cerny – who was then working at Universal Interactive – to change direction to something more family friendly. The reasons were many, but primarily it was to target a younger demographic in a bid to take a slice out of Nintendo’s domination. Mark never quite forced the change, but was eager to see Insomniac switch tact after noticing that the Playstation was targeting an older audience than the N64, and that the space for a high-quality family friendly game was waiting to be filled. Pete became Spyro and a more colourful, Disneylike tone was adopted.
Mark’s input didn’t stop there, though. The executive producer had the idea for a panoramic 3D engine, essentially meaning large open environments that didn’t suffer from the same dark fog that so many Playstation games did. It was up to Insomniac’s Alex Hastings to make this dream happen, however, who resorted to assembly language – which was rarely used, even at the time – for the majority of the coding. And in fact Spyro’s engine would become quite inventive, essentially using two separate engines: one to render the distance
in lower polygonal quality and one to render the closer spaces in much better detail, transitioning between the two seamlessly as and when they were needed. Nowadays this is a common technique to maximise visual fidelity, and back then Insomniac was something of a pioneer with this tech. This engine would become an integral part of the game’s design and would allow players to see far into the distance a help to ascertain the gaps that they were looking to glide across. Without this engine powering the game, Spyro The Dragon would have had to be a different experience entirely; there would have been no option for floating islands with secret treasure or long distances to traverse as part of platforming. Even the bright, cheery tone would’ve felt more oppressive and grim if it had suffered the same dark fog of early 3D and likely not have become the popular Playstation mascot it ultimately ended up being.
Of course this would have all been for nothing if the character of Spyro couldn’t match the qualities of the environments. For that, Charles Zembillas took control
Spyro’s engine would become quite inventive, essentially using two separate engines
» [Playstation] Each of the worlds had their own aesthetic and purposefully avoided familiar level tropes like ‘ice world’ or ‘fire world’.
» [Playstation] A subtle, but brilliant, addition to the engine was how even if a gem wasn’t rendered in the distance, its glimmer could still be seen to entice the player.