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CONSOLE: PlayStation DEVELOPER: Insomniac Games PUBLISHER: SCEA
RELEASE DATE (NA): October 23, 2000 GENRE: Platformer
// review by SoyBomb

Skateboarding dragons just shouldn't exist.

Before I get into my review of Spyro: Year of the Dragon, I'd actually like to begin by recalling the many days I spent playing Donkey Kong 64. That is a charming game, that is, full of monkey mirth and little touches that kept me entertained and hooked to the end. However, for many years, I have proclaimed Donkey Kong 64 as also the most frustrating game I have ever played. The mini-games required so many retries that I was cursing at the top of my lungs, punching pillows and furniture, getting up and stomping my feet frantically, even pinching my own body, anything to release that built-up nasty energy! That was about seven or eight years ago. Flash forward to the present day -- 2008, when I popped in Spyro: Year of the Dragon. As I played this game, feelings of nostalgia flooded into me. Not memories of playing other Spyro games, no; memories of going absolutely bonkers over the annoying challenges presented to me. I have sworn at this game numerous times... but I didn't enjoy it like I enjoyed Donkey Kong 64.

The game most likely takes place in the year 2000, not only because that IS the Year of the Dragon, according to the Chinese Zodiac, but also because that's the year within which this game was released. Apparently, every twelve years, new dragon eggs are brought to the Land of the Dragons (as one would naturally expect), where they would hatch. This ritual is not only a good excuse to hold a large celebration, but it's also a subtle ruse that the male dragons use to avoid having to mate with female dragons. Damn, those things are ugly. I wouldn't marry one of those. Anyway, while the dragons are all simultaneously sleeping outdoors for some reason, a nasty little sorceress apprentice named Bianca leads a whole army of Rhynocs to steal all the eggs. They succeed, but not before Bianca accidentally steps on a sleeping dragon foot and pretty much wakes up the entire neighbourhood. So Spyro, being pretty much the only dragon lean enough to fit through the hole that the Rhynocs came from, was sent to recover them with the "aid" of his dragonfly buddy, Sparx. Yeah, he isn't THAT special. And herein lies the beginning of our quest. Oh, and you also need to collect gems too -- what a way to add to the replay value!

Basically, we're looking at another game where you have to collect a certain number of a certain object to complete a certain task. We've seen this formula countless times before, so what makes Spyro so damn special? Perhaps the answer lies in all the different types of gameplay that lies before us: first-person shooting, action-platforming, flying, racing, skateboarding, boxing... Oh wait... varied gameplay like this isn't new. Many games already did this. But it IS extremely annoying at times, in Spyro and I will gladly explain why. The average gamer, such as myself, is not an all-tempered gamer; that is, they show a strong preference and competence in certain genres of games over others. That's the case with me. But for whatever reason, although Spyro: Year of the Dragon may appear to be a basic 3D platformer on the surface, developer Insomniac Games seems to have decided that it would be in the best interest of their audience to take a ton of genres and smash them together. Thus poses a problem for me. You see, I am not proficient with sports games at all, and console shooting games also cause me some grief (although someday I'll figure those controls out!). My main focus is RPGs and basic action-adventure platforming games. That's pretty much it. Maybe a little Tetris or Dr. Mario thrown into the mix, but that's it. So when I am thrust into a skateboarding mini-game or a random boxing match, I can't handle it and I will fail. And I did. But then again, the boxing part was just plain cruel -- my opponent was way too overpowered. I'm not made of stone, but he sure seemed to be that way. And I can't skateboard worth a damn. But this isn't Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, so why should I have to? Plus there are several "Speedway" regions that require precision and excellent flying technique. They actually aren't as bad, but I still suffer from an unusual inability to fly with ease. This game should find one basic genre of gameplay and stick with it!

They also decided to throw in some extra characters, just to spice things up, but that really wasn't necessary either, especially considering you can only play with them in areas specific to them, so they generally have only been added to increase the longevity of the game. There's Sheila the Kangaroo, whose special ability is jumping really high... which is great. Sargeant Byrd can fly and also drop bombs on enemies below after he picks them up from somewhere else. Bentley the Yeti is the least handy, although he can beat things with a giant club. And Agent 99 is just a monkey who speaks too quickly; he may pack some heat with his little laser gun, but it's hell trying to aim that thing. Overall, the extra characters are just there for the sake of adding even more variety to a game that is already overwhelmed by it. The only one that I achieved some genuine enjoyment out of controlling was Spyro's dragonfly buddy, Sparx, which felt like a strange shout-out to games like Smash TV and Gauntlet in gameplay style.

It's hard to judge the controls on those sections of the game which I really stink at, mainly due to my overall poor performance in some situations. But I CAN say that the controls are actually a little flighty at times and sometimes not as responsive as I'd hoped, especially when timing is everything. I also can't seem to press more than one action button at a time -- that's certainly troubling when I need to make quick presses (such as gliding then quickly hovering at the end). Of course, like many other titles, flying is far from second nature to me. I have to be VERY careful, because even the slightest jerking of my stick (no innuendo intended) sends me off-course into an ocean that apparently kills me upon contact or into some other undesired direction. Maybe I'm just a pathetic gamer, but I feel as though the controls could have been tighter.

Now I realize that this game is not on any of the current generation platforms (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Wii) or even the previous generation of consoles (PlayStation 2, Xbox, GameCube), so I shouldn't expect much in terms of graphics. But somewhere along the line, someone should have had the guts to stand up and say, "Y'know what? 3D graphics on this 32-bit machine isn't cutting it. Let's face it -- we have some ugliness going on." And that person would be right. Granted, some of what I see is decent (although frequent jagged edges has never looked pretty). The environments don't cause too much havoc on the eyes, but that's not to say that the characters are in the free and clear. Some are fine, but others are downright awful. Hunter the Cheetah, as my primary example, is an absolutely appalling flat mess of leopard-spot polygons. Many of the enemies are bland as well. Star Fox tried the polygon look seven years earlier and the result was pretty damn horrendous-looking. Years later, only the total number of on-screen colours have changed. Yikes! The game is also plagued by blurry textures as well, which may not be immediately apparent, but you'll have to look carefully for that one, although it depends on how well you can adjust the sometimes wacky, floaty camera system.

From an audio perspective, the game fares better. Its soundtrack was composed by Stewart Copeland, the drummer from The Police, and while that seems impressive initially (at least to anyone who remembers the 1970s), the various tunes found in this game are not as poppy or memorable as I'd hoped. But perhaps it's best that the tunes aren't loud and in your face. Ambient tracks may be better to help you better appreciate the gameplay and the surroundings you can explore... and the wonderful 3D graphics. Voice acting is tolerable most of the time, but certainly far from excellent and more along the lines of cheesy and overdone. The sound effects are comical and serve their purpose in this menagerie of dragon-infested amusement.

Spyro: Year of the Dragon is the last title of the original Spyro the Dragon trilogy, and also the last one Insomniac Games ever developed. The reason cited behind it is because the company felt they could not go any further with the character. I certainly believe that; this game seems to be a massive compilation of a thousand ideas at once, many of which should not have appeared at all. Dragons just don't skateboard. While this is a competent effort in the action-adventure genre, I just don't think all parts of it are for everybody. Granted, the game can be completed without having to do all the hair-rippingly annoying parts, but people generally want to enjoy all aspects of a video game, which is not easily the case here. Too much is being done at once, and it just doesn't do Spyro enough justice.


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