The Backlog (8):
Jump for Joy (1)
I forgot how much I loved, and how many hours I played, Super Mario 64 DS until I opened the Switch remake.
I spent months, if not years, coming back to that game, exploring as many of the nooks and crannies of Peach’s castle and the worlds within its paintings. The fluidity of Super Mario 64’s controls, the clarity of its level design, and the bright ebullience of its world combine to form one of the greatest achievements in gaming . Its DS remake was an improvement on all fronts, with substantial quality-of-life tweaks and expanded gameplay via alternate playable characters; it loses out only thanks to some of its clunkier uses of the DS stylus. I say this having now played the N64, Virtual Console, and now Switch versions of the game. The Switch version is a great example of how to fail through faithfulness, sacrificing the improvements of the DS version for a religious recreation of the original.
That central mechanic though — travel from a vibrant hub world through portals to a variety of brilliant platforming worlds — is a tenet of many 3D platformers thanks to SM64’s influence, at least according to Wikipedia and also every old-school 3D platformer I’ve ever played. Which brings me to the focus of today’s conversation, a game that I knew I would like but was still surprised about how much I liked: Spyro Reignited Trilogy, the Toys for Bob-developed remake of the first-three Spyro games. Now, unlike Super Mario 64, these are games I have never played in a substantial way. I do, however, have a surprisingly clear memory from my youth about it. I was about nine years old, on a ski vacation over March break, and there was a PlayStation in the little cottage we were staying in. Spyro was the only game I played on it — Spryo: Year of the Dragon, I think, based on a freeze-frame image of playing as characters other than Spyro the purple dragon himself — and I loved it. Note: My mother recalls me being deeply frustrated with the game, which I don’t remember, but feels on-brand considering my general patience with gaming failure.
Either way, I loved the smart-mouthed Spyro and his best friend Sparx the dragonfly. Running around headbutting and breathing fire at things brought a stupid smile to my face when I finally got a Spyro game of my own. This was Attack of the Rhynocs, a Game Boy Advance game that lock Spyro in an isometric perspective, and which had distinctly less pure platforming than Insomiac Game’s original trilogy. I think I almost 100%-ed that game but could never squeeze the last few gems out of one of the levels; it’s another I spent years coming back to. I enjoyed my GameCube dive into the world of Spyro, too; A Hero’s Tail, a slightly less-brightly-coloured but still fun adventure that let you breathe fire, water, and lightning. Unfortunately, it died a slightly sad death as its disc developed an error and I stopped being able to get it started. I think EB Games paid me $3 for it.
Years later, however, I still had an inkling to try and recapture that initial spark. So when they announced Spyro Reignited Trilogy, a faithful — yet not detrimentally so — recreation of the first three games, including Year of the Dragon, I was excited to pick it up and try and recapture a little childhood joy.
They don’t disappoint. Spyro’s fun, direct gameplay and vibrant, upbeat scenery carry you through, and I enjoy exploring its little worlds, even as the simplistic motives get mildly repetitive. This simplicity, however, lets me really appreciate how well constructed its level design is. The compounding of skills and narrative is effective enough, and the free-roam nature of its collecting is fun and challenging enough to keep me interested. The characters are well-designed and have enough personality — notably Moneybags the bear, a pitch-perfect spoof of a greedy-guts millionaire with a debonair English accent — to keep you entertained, and the stories always have enough stakes to motivate you, despite their lack of real substance. It’s a fun time, purely so: the experience is about fun, and the mix of gorgeous level design, addictive collect-a-thon exploration, and goofy characters support that central approach.
I realized how much fun it was after picking it up to kill time as I downloaded what I thought I was going to be playing this week (which I’ll leave a mystery should it end up warranting one of these). The loading times on the remaster are abhorrent, and it intermittently chugs when things get a little too taxing. Admittedly, I’m playing the Switch, but those seem to be universal issues. It was a strange feeling, playing games that I had ostensibly never tried but felt exactly like my childhood. This got me thinking about the death of that style of 3D platformer, at least in the more popular veins of gaming. I know very little about gaming history in depth, but I definitely felt the industry transition from 3D platforming to open-world-not-RPGs as the default format for mass-appeal games. Insomniac Games and Naughty Dog (who developed the Crash Bandicoot series) evidence that transition in the style and direction of their games as we moved into the 2010s. Insomniac followed up Spyro with the Ratchet & Clank series, another slightly more action-oriented approach to the 3D platformer, eventually going on to build 3rd-person shooter Sunset Overdrive and eventually Marvel’s Spider-Man. Naughty Dog moved into Jak and Daxter, which falls in the same vein, and then into Uncharted, and eventually to The Last of Us, slowly shaving off platforming elements as they progressed.
This paralleled by a lot of other shifts — from detailed single-player experiences to expansive online multiplayer — but it’s notable for me, because it embeds that style of game into my childhood. The coupling of the collect-a-thon platforming gameplay and its cartoonish art style feels anachronistic to my adulthood. Falling back into those worlds — through remasters or revisiting old games— brings back a distinctly youthful version of the joy I feel when I get into a good game. I think it’s interesting, the impact that art has on your youth, and how quickly art can bring you back to those times. It’s somehow still a surprise that, years later, hearing the overproduced yet absolutely delightful debut album by These Kids Wear Crowns makes me feel like a teenager again. Years of jaded artistic cynicism wash away and I bask in the joyful abandon. It’s the same feeling I get when I land in Peach’s garden, or Moneybag’s mansion; a sense of being able to recede, for a little while, back into that safe little space. It’s not exactly the same feeling, it never is, but it’s enough to bring back a big stupid smile on my face and suck me in for a few hours. That’s really all I can ask for — a place where I can just jump for joy.