If you don’t like uncontrolled nostalgia, or rose-tinted goggles, then turn back now, as it’s time for me to gush over one of my top games of all time.
When I think back to the autumn and winter of 1999, I mostly think of darkness. Historical records may dispute this, but my impression of that period is always of a gloomy and foreboding time, under the shadow of the impending new Millennium. Fears were rife that computers would kick the bucket en masse, along with the usual end-of-the-world predictions that accompany any years ending in an even number.
It was around this time that I encountered several games that would have a distinct impact on me, courtesy of the Official PlayStation Magazine’s Demo Disc 51. For anyone not blessed to have received such a treasure, this demo disc included a number of great games, including Quake 2, Dino Crisis, and Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver. It also featured a demo of 40 Winks, with children’s platforming set in a slightly off-cute graveyard level, and Metal Gear Solid: Special Missions, a story-less return to the famous stealth adventure world.
I played that disc fanatically. Unaccustomed to FPS games, I tried out Quake 2 endlessly, to the point that I came up with identities and stories behind most of the individual enemies and rooms. Soul Reaver astounded me with graphics that I thought, at the time, were photo-realistic. And Dino Crisis gave me another taste of the ominous world of survival horror, which I’d previously delved into with Silent Hill.
But you’re probably wondering what I’m rambling about, given that this was supposed to be about Spyro 2. Well, there is some vague purpose in this babble, so let’s get back on track.
As Christmas approached, everything seemed shadowed and dismal, and the games and demos I was playing were similarly sinister. However, something poked its head in the door that was entirely different. And that was (surprise) Spyro 2!
Now, I’d played Spyro the Dragon back in the day, and I have a lot of memories attached to it. It was a bright and vibrant game with some cute ideas and the occasional moments of tension (I still remember the ominous theme that played in the Toasty level, or Gnasty’s World). But something was still missing. I’d played Crash Bandicoot 3 just before that, and the variety and scope of that game left Spyro the Dragon in its shade.
So while I was interested in Spyro 2, I wasn’t hugely hyped for it. I’d read a few magazine pieces on it, tried out a demo set in a couple of stages, and seen the occasional bits of walkthrough (one of which outlined what appeared to be quite a long final boss encounter), yet I still didn’t expect to love it.
But then I actually tried the released version.
There’s something spellbinding to the game from the very start. The original’s world was a magical one, but the soundtrack of Spyro 2 is distinctly more enchanting. Even in the rainy cutscene above, there’s a beautiful little theme that plays over it, taking me back through a childhood of old fairy stories and mysterious worlds (for more on that, maybe I should write an article about Blackgang Chine!).
In the opening, Spyro’s bored, and decides that he needs a vacation from the gloomy weather. Spying the portal to Dragon Shores, he hops through and embarks on another adventure.
It’s worth noting that I had the European copy of the game, which was titled Spyro 2: Gateway to Glimmer. The original version is Ripto’s Rage, but I feel that the European rename fell more in line with what attracted me to this game. In the middle of that gloomy season, Spyro 2 took me away from the grey clouds of reality to a world of wonder. And this may seem to be somewhat over-grand claims for what was essentially a wacky game marketed at children, but it’s stood the test of time for me, and I still replay it to this day.
Spyro 2 quickly establishes its villain, the diminutive wizard Ripto, along with his moderately-incompetent henchmen, Crush and Gulp. It also takes some time to bring in a small cast of distinct allies, where the first game was populated mostly by endless male dragons of varying temperaments. It’s not a complex plot, but it does the job – Ripto’s causing trouble in Avalar, and the residents try to summon a dragon to scare him off. Rather than pulling in a giant dragon, they get Spyro, who’s roughly the same height as Ripto and doesn’t appear too promising at the start.
The game takes place over a series of hub worlds, much as you’d expect, and Spyro is tasked with collecting a bunch of all-magical talismans that can be used to defeat Ripto. What this actually appears to mean is that the talismans can open boss doors, and Spyro works out that he can store said talismans within a book somehow, but let’s not overthink it.
Spyro the Dragon had a generous six hub worlds, where Spyro 2 “only” has three, but these hub worlds are crucial to understanding why I loved this game.
Visually, I feel that the game has aged very well. Yes, the characters have a lot of sharp angles and some textures are not exactly hand-painted, but overall it still looks great, and the animations are energetic and charming. The first hub world is Summer Forest, which as you can see above is a bright place indeed, quite in opposition to everything else I played around that time.
What really sealed the deal is the soundtrack, though. All the hub worlds kick out the usual quirky themes in favour of beautiful atmospheric pieces, brimming with magical wonder. They weren’t catchy themes, or cartoony, but pleasant to sit back and take in.
Something else that I’ve never really consciously thought on is that there are no enemies in any of the hub worlds, leaving you free to just take in the scenery. I loved exploring these places, watched over by the ominous banners of Ripto that flew from each of the castles he’d conquered over the course of the game. As a nice touch, defeating each boss also restores the original Avalar banners.
When it comes to gameplay, Spyro the Dragon focused on treasure-collecting, with some gliding and fighting to break up the searches. Spyro 2 meanwhile shook up the formula, adding in activities and mini-games all over the place. There are numerous events that I’ll always remember, from the violent ice hockey in Colossus to the Earthshaper hunts in Fracture Hills. It was a delight to see what I’d find next, and the sheer variation was staggering.
Speaking of minigames, I don’t think you can mention those without also talking about this guy up above – Hunter, your rival and ally in equal measure. I love everything about him, from his mannerisms, to the games you play with him, and especially his voice-acting. I’m pretty sure Gregg Berger also voices the guy who buys your vegetables in Final Fantasy XV, and even though that’s the most boring character in the game, he gets bonus points for reminding me of Hunter.
I made a lot of the fact that Spyro 2 took me away from the cold winter, but as the game goes on, you move from Summer Forest to the Autumn Plains, and then finally come right back to the Winter Tundra. This zone has probably my favourite theme and design in the entire game.
There’s something very special about the Winter Tundra, and I can’t quite put my finger on it. It’s almost like the game recognised that we were nearing the end of our journey together, and I was soon to return to the real world’s winter (and, inevitably, school).
When you reach the Winter Tundra, you’re done with the main direction of the plot up until that point – you’ve already got the fourteen Talismans, and unless you’ve been slacking, you’ll probably already have enough stuff to open up the door to the final battle with Ripto. Even Moneybags, who spends the entire game extorting your hard-earned gems, sounds somewhat melancholic as he announces that he has just one final thing to teach you.
But there’s still four more levels to clear, another speedway, and all the things you missed in the first two worlds. As for Ripto himself, I’m sure many people consider him an easy boss, but I remember finding him a challenging and worthy finale, and the final phase was quite a spectacle that’s stuck with me all this time.
So how do I sum up my feelings about Spyro 2? I suppose the game can’t take all the credit – as my bumbling intro hopefully made clear, it was a story and world that landed in my life at just the right time, leaving an impression that’s here to this day. But that would be to do the team a disservice – it’s a fantastic game that has aged remarkably well, and replaying it is a delight.
I can only hope that the upcoming remake does it justice, but when you’re running around with so many emotional attachments as I am, it’s probably going to be impossible. Still, I’m optimistic - I’d love to think that another generation will have just as special a journey as I did.
Update: Spyro 2 Reignited is out now and I've played it. Check out my article on it here!