The remake game is a tricky business. If you change too much, you’re accused of betraying the spirit of the original; if you change too little, you’re accused of being slavishly devoted to it. Creative liberties or creative bankruptcy aren’t the only pitfalls, but they’re two of the biggest, and it’s a challenging tightrope to walk.
The remaster, on the other hand, is something a little different: it’s exactly the same game, only shinier and prettier.
As a gamer who usually isn’t too responsive to fancy visuals, the current spate of remakes and remasters don’t hold much value for me. To some, dated graphics are an impediment to immersion, but I think they’re part of the charm – a vital aspect of the game’s history and identity.
I don’t need the remake or the remaster, but right now there’s huge market for them, and not just in gaming: our cinema screens are dominated by franchises I grew up on, be that Star Wars or the deluge of live action Disney movies. The contemporary world has proven so distressing we’re reaching back into the recent past to resurrect old franchises, perhaps as a kind of mass cultural palliative for our present maladies.
It can’t be healthy, but here we are. There’s big bucks to be made cashing in on nostalgia and encouraging consumers to regress to ostensibly safer times (a dangerous myth).
After all, regressing in these terms is kinda pleasurable, right? And our cultural industries have always remade their own products, so it’s not exactly a new phenomenon. It’s just that their prominence on the cultural landscape feels out of proportion with new and original content. Doesn’t this generation of kids need – nay, deserve – their own heroes and legends?
Throw the lightsaber off the cliff, I say.
In 2011, Activision’s Eric Hirshberg mused that he’d love to bring Crash Bandicoot back if he could only find a way to do it. It turns out that “way” was simply to remaster the original trilogy for modern gamers. Activision declined the opportunity to either remake or reboot the franchise; they simply went back to the source and applied a fresh coat of paint whilst keeping every other aspect intact.
So, a few years ago we got a remastered, gorgeous rendition of the original Crash trilogy that followed their template to the letter (creative bankruptcy!!!). It was only a matter of time, then, before the PlayStation’s second great platforming franchise was similarly brought up to date, at least graphically speaking.
Enter Spyro the Dragon (thankfully not Spyro: Enter the Dragonfly, eh?).
I grew up on both franchises. I even replayed the first two Spyro games as recently as five years ago. At the time I don’t think it ever once occurred to me that they ought to be spruced up in any way. They played just fine – at least as products of the time in which they were made. But then I didn’t stand to make a bazillion bucks from doing so. I wish I had. I’d have remastered them in a fucking heartbeat.
I quite enjoyed the Crash remasters – I was, after all, simply playing Crash again! – but I think Spyro benefits more from the graphical update than Naughty Dog’s games do. Spyro’s 3D worlds are bigger and more diverse, as well as being luscious and fantastical in ways Crash’s islands and time periods generally aren’t.
The remaster here, then, is exquisite; it genuinely enhances the lush fantasy realms the original developers, Insomniac Games, created all those years ago. New developer Toys for Bob bring every possible sumptuous shade of purple to the vivid, painterly skylines, and each world pops with creative flare. It was a real joy to inhabit them once again.
A further component that these remasters successfully capture is the sense of progression from one game to the next. Spyro 2 was a significant step forward for the series, demonstrating the developers’ refinement of their core concept. It was tight, polished and assured – a better game in almost every way, even if it was still fundamentally a giant gem and talisman hunt spread across multiple worlds. All the same, I was happy that evolution had been effectively maintained.
Perhaps it’s inevitable if all you’re doing is replicating how they played – it’s all baked into the design anyway – but in that case, preservation of the series’ evolution is all the more important. They shouldn’t represent the gaming mores of 2020; they should remain as they were back in the late 90s. It seems to me that’s the key distinction between a remaster and a remake.
I speak only of the gameplay, though. There are several offensive racial caricatures within each of the three games, and erasing them ought to have been a priority. As it is, you’re interacting with a carbon copy of 90s platforming, with both its highs and lows.
I know some fans have issues with a few of the revamped character designs (creative liberties!!!), but these are minor niggles in what are otherwise pretty delightful remasters. I loved going through each of the games again, and it’s impressive how playable they still are today.
Some final thoughts on each game:
Spyro The Dragon
The dragons encased in crystal that you have to rescue are very dull indeed. They merely dole out gameplay hints, often in two sentences or less. In a clear instance of creative liberties, I’d ditch ‘Gunnar’ and ‘Lyle’ and friends and replace them with notable character actors. You don’t have to tweak the lines, you just need to model dragons based on the actors doing the voice work and name them accordingly.
Potential candidates: Billy Zane, Kyle MacLachlan, Willem Dafoe, Ana Lily Amirpour, Bill Murray, Louis Gossett Jr., Jamie Lee Curtis.
Spyro 2: Gateway to Glimmer (c’mon – ‘Ripto’s Rage’ is a crap title)
The best of the three, or at least the one closest to my heart.
It’s supposedly about Spyro helping some lovable new friends overthrow a sadistic tyrant called Ripto, but it’s actually a screed against disaster capitalism – before the term was even coined! So ahead of the curve this Spyro business. Because one of those new ‘friends’ is a swindler called – yes, folks – Moneybags, who’s straight out of Dickens’ unscrupulous Victorian London.
Moneybags is an evident parable for our late capitalist present, exploiting aforementioned sadistic tyrant’s rise to power by slapping a price on that which ought to be free. For instance, opening gateways to worlds necessary for the tyrant’s defeat or teaching Spyro how to swim. I would call these prices exorbitant, but that would be to miss the point: any charge on such necessities is immoral.
Moneybags isn’t interested in righting Ripto’s wrongs, because for him there is no right or wrong, only the unassailable might of gems.
Ergo, parable about disaster capitalism. Oh, and it’s also about the perils of travelling without insurance. But that’s an essay – and an important one, to be sure – for another day.
Spyro 3: Year of the Dragon
My parents bought me a pirated copy of this one back in 2000, and it crashed somewhere around Scorch’s Pit, so I never finished. A true shame: it’s a superlative piece of platforming, deftly taking each element of the previous instalments to the next level. There’s more to it in terms of objective-based gameplay, which helps pace the levels nicely.
I love the evolution of boss battles in this series, too. They sucked in Spyro 1, were generally pretty good in Spyro 2, but finally come into their own here. Year of the Dragon introduces a cast of new characters for you to play, and come the boss fight at the end of each hub world, the character specific to that world will hop (um, quite literally in one instance – there’s a kangaroo) into the arena to help you out. It’s a nice touch.
And women! Finally, more than one main female character, in the form of both the main villain – the Sorceress – and her conflicted minion, Bianca, whom I just love.
Oh, and Moneybags returns. This time he’s joined forces with the wicked Sorceress and is carrying out her will in exchange for filling his coffers, which means incarcerating her enemies – namely, allies essential to your struggle. Capitalism thrives in dictatorships, for the lack of regulation leads directly to amoral exploitation in the pursuit of profit (not that it has any real problem doing precisely this in liberal democracies, either, but you get the point).
But this is Spyro, so when it comes to Moneybags, let’s just say I’ve yet to play a game that so satisfyingly depicts the act of redistributing wealth. The dark twist would be our own claim to the loot…
Ahem. Spyro is a fun game for younger audiences. Please enjoy.