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?

Retro Gamer - - CONTENTS - Words by Adam Barnes While Spyro wasn’t the spark that caused the ex­plo­sion, the fiery char­ac­ter helped keep it ablaze

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.

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