When I was about 6 years old, my dad had racked up enough Holiday Inn points due to his job that he decided to cash them in for a Playstation, which my sister and I were thrilled about, and the first game he purchased for us was the original Spyro the Dragon. Though I was still fairly young at the time, and my gaming experience consisted of ancient computer Solitaire and playing Mario and Kirby at my best friend’s house on her Nintendo, I consider Spyro to be the game that turned me into a lifelong video game fan.
I don’t know what it is about that spunky purple dragon, but I was in love with this game from the moment I picked up the controller back in 1998 and began my first run with my dad and my sister. The story is simple enough – you play as Spyro, a young dragon, as he ventures across the Dragon Realms to save the rest of the dragons, who have been trapped in crystal by the evil Gnasty Gnorc. The music (by Stewart Copeland) is incredible, the gameplay is fun with a high replay-ability factor, the game design and character design is superb, and the dragons and enemies vary in appearance depending on the world that they’re from, which makes excellent visuals for such an old game.
A couple days ago, eighteen years after I first played this gem of a game, I revisited the Dragon Realms for a dose of nostalgia. Now, I’m no speed-runner by any sense of the word, but these days I can power through the original Spyro game in 3-4 hours with 100% completion. However, when I was a kid, that wasn’t the case.
I consider the third Spyro game (Year of the Dragon) to be the most difficult overall, largely because the Haunted Tomb and Dino Mines levels on Midnight Mountain are the BANE OF MY LIFE, and the second (Ripto’s Rage) has a few frustrating levels (here’s looking at you, Fracture Hills and Cloud Temples), but there are 3 levels from the original Spyro that I could not figure out until a few years after the game’s release. As in, I found them so difficult as a child that I stopped playing the game until I was older.
Those three levels, you ask? The first is Wizard Peak, from the Magic Crafters World. The second is, of course, the infamous Tree Tops from the Beast Makers World. And the third is Haunted Towers from the Dream Weavers World. Even today, with my increased skills, these levels pose a bit of a challenge compared to the others, and I know a lot of players struggled with Tree Tops back in the day, and were driven mad by being able to hear the final dragon in Haunted Towers, without being able to see it. Absolutely maddening.
Honorable mentions go to Misty Bog, also from the Beast Makers Realm, thanks to terrifying dragon-eating trees and obnoxious attack frog enemies. However, that level wasn’t so much difficult as it was annoying. And another mention to High Caves in Magic Crafters, with those stupid impossible-to-flame cave spiders. They scared me so much as I kid I refused to finish the level because of them.
But let’s start with Wizard Peak. Looks like a beautiful, mountainous hideaway for those pesky wizards, right? WRONG. It’s a place of death and horror. And obnoxious supercharges. And pesky thieves.
I don’t think this is a level that troubled many people, but it’s actually the last level I managed to beat because I could not, for whatever reason, find the platform with the last wizard on it, so I was missing gems right up until the end. It’s more of a tricky level than it is a difficult one. But visually, it’s a nice addition to the game… I just hold a little extra resentment toward it for being 5 gems short for the longest time.
Next we have the arguably most difficult level in the entire first trilogy; Tree Tops. It is exactly as complicated as it looks and is inhabited by two super-charging thieves and freakishly deformed monkey creatures that throw bananas at you.
People who have played this game probably share my frustrations with this level. Once you’ve completed it a few times, it’s not that difficult… but getting to that point is a headache. It becomes a matter of remembering the tricks and turns of the supercharge routes, which, when you’re a kid, is freaking IMPOSSIBLE. My dad, sister, and I could not figure this level out during our first play-through, and I ended up finishing it solo four or five years later. I have wasted HOURS of my life trying to beat this level and had THOUSANDS of bananas hurled at me by monkey mutants. Now, luckily, I can do it without any trouble and only minor swearing. But it’s still one of my least favorite memories of this game, even though the day I finally beat it is certainly a memorable triumph.
Lastly, we have Haunted Towers, the level where armored knights attempt to bash you with their massive helmets and a fairy’s kiss can grant you the power of superflame. This level is actually really pretty to look at, but it’s a total bitch to beat.
This level is difficult because there is one dragon that’s extremely tricky to get to, much like Treetops. But while you could see the dragon in Tree Tops, and had to yearn for it in the distance, in Haunted Towers, you can hear the crystallized dragon, but you can’t see it. I remember spending hours on this level, staring up at the hole in the ceiling of the castle, wondering how I could get up there to save the dragon from his crystal prison.
Ultimately, this level is a lot of trial and error. I figured it out on a total fluke in the same session I finally beat Tree Tops, and I remember letting out a cheer when I finally got the last gem and saved the fairy that granted me perma-superflame for the remainder of the level. Of course, there weren’t many enemies left by that point so the power is mostly useless, but it’s still fun I guess.
However, I have much fonder memories of this game, too. My favorite levels from the first game are Toasty (Artisans), Cliff Town (Peace Keepers), Alpine Ridge (Magic Crafters), Metalhead (Beast Makers), Jacques (Dream Weavers) and my ultimate favorite, Dark Passage (Dream Weavers). Favorites from the second are Zephyr (Autumn Plains), Magma Cone (Autumn Plains), and the Winter Tundra home world. This is actually my favorite game in the series, because I think it’s the most well-rounded, I just don’t think there are any true standout levels. From the third, I loved Bamboo Terrace (Midday Gardens), Charmed Ridge (Evening Lake), and Crystal Islands (Midnight Mountain).
We won’t mention any other games…. because for me, they don’t exist. No offense. I just never got into any of them past YotD, and I barely recognize Spyro now.
As frustrating as I found these games at times, they will always hold the esteemed title as the first game trilogy that I ever beat, and I will always consider the original Spyro the Dragon series to be my favorite games. Are they the most polished? No. The most successful? No. The most popular? No. But nothing can compare with the memories of sitting in the basement, puzzling out how to save the dragons and recover the treasure with my dad and my older sister.