Exit the Dragon, Enter the Mascot.
When it comes to innovation, no game genre is as lacking as the 3D platformer. Ever since Mario 64, 3D platform games have followed the same basic formula. This always involves a furry, lovable mascot who has to save other furry, lovable creatures from certain death at the hands of a distinctly un-furry, unlovable villain. Along the way, our furry mascot hero must collect some sort of coin/gem/jewel, apparently in order to buy our affection. He/she/it must also endure level after level of goofy, dimwitted enemies sent to stop the forces of peachy-keen goodness. To vanquish the denizens of darkness, you (you're the mascot, by the way) inevitably come up with the brilliant plan of jumping on their heads. Then you have to jump on countless platforms, some of which might be *gasp* moving! And all the while, the damn camera refuses to cooperate.
Yet despite the fact that these games follow nearly identical molds, the 3D platformer has always enjoyed a good deal of success. From the Crash Bandicoot series to the most recent Sonic game for the Dreamcast, the genre has spawned some of the most recognizable characters in video game history.
One of the newest additions to the 3D platform mascot pantheon is Sony's Spyro the Dragon. This painfully cute little monster delighted Playstation gamers with its vibrant graphics and smooth gameplay. How well, you ask? To the tune of over 1 million games sold, thank you very much.
Just in time to gobble up your holiday dollar, the little firebreather returns in Spyro 2: Ripto's Rage. For the most part, this title will please fans of the genre by offering solid gameplay, excellent graphics, and almost nothing new to shatter anyone's expectations. You can almost taste that sarcasm.
When we last left Spyro, he had saved the day by vanquishing the evil and alliterative Gnasty Gnorc. After such tribulations, a guy has a right to a vacation...or so Spyro thought. On his way to the resplendent resort of Dragon Shores, our hero is accidentally yanked into the world of Avalar by a not-so-brilliant Professor who built a warp portal. It seems that some freaky orange lizard named Ripto is giving everyone in Avalar a major headache, and the residents of the world figured that a dragon could save the land. And, as they say, that's where you come in.
The goal of Spyro 2 is to collect gems, orbs, and talismans (please see opening paragraph and pat author on back). Following in the footsteps of its predecessor (which itself followed in the footsteps of Crash Bandicoot), Spyro 2 has varying levels of 'completeness.' Collect all the talismans and plenty of orbs to face off against Ripto. Do this AND beat every level to finish the game. Beat Ripto, beat every level AND collect every gem to finish the game with a full 100% completeness rating, which earns you something special.
The game world in Spyro 2 is truly enormous. Avalar is broken up into three sections, which function as both gateways to smaller levels and as levels themselves. All told, there are a whopping 28 unique arenas to explore.
There really aren't any new moves for Spyro, though he can now activate certain powerups on each level to give him a boost. These are all just temporary and have very specific uses, like getting the 'Supercharge' to bash through a wall to collect more gems. For the most part, you'll just jump and glide through the levels while blasting enemies with your cute little flames.
And you'll have plenty of chances to toast some enemies, because this game is chock full of baddies. Spyro 2 features a wide array of creative enemy types, typically about 3 or 4 different ones per level. They each have specific attacks, so you never really get bored by killing the same things over and over again.
Spyro 2 follows the original with smart, smooth graphics. The framerates are high, the pop-up is low, and the animations are entertaining. The levels themselves look terrific; kudos to developer Insomniac Games for building some very imaginative and immersive worlds.
The sound is also well done. Once again, ex-Policeman Stewart Copeland composed the music, which is catchy and thematic. The voice acting is varied and charismatic - you'd swear that every character in the game was done by a separate voice actor (they're not). How about lending some of this talent to the Resident Evil series?
Despite these fine points, Spyro 2 occasionally gets caught up in the genre's typical problem area - the camera. While not nearly as annoying as some third-person games (Jersey Devil, Croc 2, etc.), the camera just doesn't seem to keep itself behind you. There are two camera modes you can toggle between (Active and Passive), but I didn't find much of a difference. Too often you find yourself running towards the screen, directly into god-knows-what.
Additionally, the control is not particularly spot-on. Whether you prefer analog or digital, you'll inevitably find yourself frustrated with the occasional lack of precision. Of course, this is more a result of the camera's shortcomings than bad programming.
When it comes right down to it, Spyro 2 is a very solid, fun 3D platformer that will certainly appeal to platform fans and younger gamers. Its graphical prowess and sheer size is more than enough to warrant a try. However, the game fails to actually introduce anything new to this quickly tiring genre. It's really time for some new blood...hey wait! Now there's something missing from all these games! Blood! We need more blood in these mascot games! And zombies! Hmmm...maybe I should give Capcom a call...