Reawakened

So, I’m going to be honest for a second. I’ve been in a bit of a slump when it comes to writing.

It happens. It’s not an unusual phenomenon for writers and other creative folk. Except this time, none of my go-to methods for sparking inspiration have worked. I sit down to write and… nothing happens. I plan out the time to write, and… nada. I saw a great movie, came home and… nope. I felt like I was trying to force myself, and any time I sat down at my laptop, my brain became mired in fog. The crap weather is certainly a contributing factor, because winter is terrible for my mood, but it seems the well of inspiration has frozen over, and I couldn’t make it thaw.

I needed a “eureka!” moment, to crack the ice and make my fingers feel like typing again, to make the wheels in my brain churn out some new, fresh ideas. Nothing seemed to work, until a package arrived at my doorstep on Tuesday – an item that I pre-ordered four years ago. The much awaited PS4 game known as Kingdom Hearts III, which I previously spoke about in this post. The end of an era had arrived by post, and I immediately popped it in and sat down to play as snow softly fell to the ground outside.

And… “Eureka!”

20190129_144122.jpgAs soon as the opening cinematics played, I felt my chest swell with excitement, and the negative cloud in my brain evaporated. The music, the characters, the incredible graphics, the smooth game-play, the whimsy of Disney magic melded with the fantasy of Square Enix, all combined into one thrilling nostalgia bomb that overwhelmed my senses. Needless to say, I’ve logged 23 hours in 3 days. I’m well into the game, and absolutely loving it so far – which is big, considering I was very skeptical of the decision to include Pixar worlds. But, I must admit… KH is close to my heart, so it’s no surprise I was drawn in immediately.

And maybe that was all it took. I feel the itch to write again, and new ideas trickle through my head while I’m playing. Of course, I’ve been too busy plowing through Heartless, Nobodies, and Unversed to actually flesh those new ideas out, but, at the very least, I’ve been able to make note of them to come back to when the game is done. Which, at the rate I’m going, will be soon. But the gears are churning, and I don’t stare at my Word documents with dread anymore, so all I needed was a little help from Sora and co.

Anyone else ever had an “Aha!” or “Eureka!” moment after a long creative drought? I’d love to hear about other instances of reawakened inspiration from fellow writers, or other creative minds!

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Hearts, Hearts, My Kingdom for Some Hearts!

My gaming history is not as extensive as some, but, in addition to being a master at the original Spyro the Dragon trilogy (and the Reignited version,) three other prominent series feature in my repertoire. One is Final Fantasy – I have yet to play them all, but X, VIII, and Crisis Core are some of my all-time favorites. I am also a Pokemon master. But the last is Kingdom Hearts, and, since Kingdom Hearts III is FINALLY dropping at the end of the month, I thought I’d make a post about why I love the series so much.

Kingdom Hearts I was released for the PS2 in 2002, when I was ten years old, but I didn’t play it (nor KHII, released in 2005) until around eighth/ninth grade. I remember seeing the commercials for it, though – and being drawn in by Utada Hikaru’s theme song for the original game. Going into it, all I knew was that it combined Final Fantasy-type elements with Disney, an idea that could only have been cooked up by a Square Enix employee and a Disney employee meeting in an elevator.

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I thought it sounded silly – a wide-eyed, big-shoed protagonist named Sora fighting to save Disney-themed worlds from being engulfed in darkness with Donald Duck and Goofy at his side – but eventually picked up the game on special at Game Stop… and that was it. I was hooked from the first opening cinematic.

Now, I made things difficult for myself when I played KH1. I might have skipped over some tutorial stuff… and did not realize you could change your Keyblade until I was battling Ursula. So… yeah. I’m not going to claim to be some expert on the games, but I have since proven to be rather efficient at the series. I’ll admit, I have played, but never beaten, Chain of Memories (both the GBA and PS editions) and 358/2 Days. I hated the battle system in both, so I gave up before finishing them. The only hand-held games I really got into were Birth By Sleep and 3D, both of which I loved. I also own most of the manga series, a figurine, and a couple of blankets with KH designs on them.

50My favorite keyblades are Lionheart, Rumbling Rose, and Stroke of Midnight. My favorite worlds are Neverland (in both Birth by Sleep and the original game) Halloween Town (in both I and II) Space Paranoids from II, Castle of Dreams from Birth By Sleep, and both Prankster’s Paradise and Symphony of Sorcery from 3D. My favorite playable character is Aqua, my favorite villain is Vanitas, and my favorite Disney companions are Peter Pan and Tron, though Beast is a badass too. The boss battle I most struggled with (besides Ursula that first time through) is probably Xaldin, in II. And yes… “JUMP UP ON THE HYDRA’S BACK!!!” is probably the most annoying line in the entire series. I have yelled “SHUT UP, PHIL” many, many times at my television screen.

kingdom_heartsThere’s an earnest quality to the Kingdom Hearts games, which is part of what makes it so appealing to me. At it’s core, it’s a story about the power of friendship against the pull of the shadows, of darkness vs. light, and the mottled, massive gray space in-between it all. It’s unabashed fun that doesn’t apologize for being occasionally convoluted, that doesn’t acknowledge how absurd it is to have Squall Leonhart teaming up with Merlin, or Sora rescuing the puppies from 101 Dalmatians from the multicolored mouth of the whale Monstro, of the heroic trio beating Captain Hook in battle, then flying around the face of Big Ben in search of a keyhole. The artwork and character/world design is fantastic across all of the games, and the music is wonderful, combining original themes and Disney scores. Whenever I hear any version of the theme song, my chest swells with excitement, and I go into new Disney films wondering what a Kingdom Hearts version of that world would look like. It has become the series that I have bought entire consoles for – I bought a PSP just for Birth by Sleep.

I haven’t been waiting thirteen years for the next main installment in the series, like many dedicated fans of the Kingdom Hearts series have. Regardless, I cannot wait until the end of this month, where we will finally, after seventeen years, reach the end of the current saga, and the war for Kingdom Hearts reaches a dramatic and conclusive finale.

The Adventure Begins…

Rumors have been swirling from here to the Dragon Realms about a possible original Spyro the Dragon trilogy remaster coming later this year, on the heels of the successful Crash Bandicoot remaster from 2017. Considering the three PS1 games about a feisty fire-breathing purple dragon are my favorite games OF ALL TIME, these whispers and mutterings have me super excited.

I played the original Spyro the Dragon game constantly as a child (and teen…and young adult), to the point where I had all of the dragons and their dialogue memorized, and the first game will always be my favorite – though, for some reason, a lot of folks consider it the hardest one to beat. I think the first is the easiest and the third is the most difficult. Dino Mines and Haunted Tomb totally kill me on every replay.

Regardless, here’s a list of the levels I am most excited to see remastered in glorious HD hopefully later this year, if the rumors prove true!

1.) Dark Passage (Spyro The Dragon)
This one is actually my all-time favorite Spyro level. An odd choice for most, probably, but I look forward to the size-changing enemies, lantern-wielding fools, obnoxious red devils, and gorgeous color palette every time nostalgia compels me to play through this game. I even consider the little fireball-spitting metallic turtles to be adorable… though they are invincible when the light goes out. It’s also got one of my favorite music tracks from the original game, so hopefully, the OST survives the remaster!

2.) Metalhead (Spyro the Dragon)
With Tree Tops and Misty Bog complete, Metalhead, the “boss” level from the Beast Makers realm in the original game, is kind of a breeze to finish. I like the design of this level – sort of swampy, yet peculiarly pretty – and I appreciate the unique way you have to defeat the giant robot, so I’m curious to see what it will look like when it’s remastered, and if they’ll keep the mechanics the same.

3.) Zephyr (Spyro: Ripto’s Rage!)
It’s got cannons, a birds vs. slugs dynamic, spotted cow-like creatures, and a Romeo and Juliet subplot… what’s not to like? I like all of the orb missions in this level, whereas in most of the other levels in this game, I hate at least 1 quest per level. Like, don’t even get me started on Fracture Hills, that alchemist shit is HARD. As such, Zephyr is my favorite overall level from the second game, and I’m probably the only one who is willing to admit that.

4.) Charmed Ridge (Spyro: Year of the Dragon)
As you can probably tell, I have a penchant for the more “magical” levels from these games, and Charmed Ridge is no exception. It’s got a bright look to it, cat enemies, fairies, some fun egg missions (though the Sgt. Bird one can be a bit frustrating) and when I first played it, it reminded me a lot of the Magic Crafters homeworld from the original game. In a good way, of course. The Jack and the Golden Goose mission is one of the best from the third game, and I can’t wait to play it again!

5.) Crystal Islands (Spyro: Year of the Dragon)
I’ll admit, I probably only like this level because it gives me Dark Passage vibes, and I abhor the slide egg mission with a passion. But I do love the colors, the crystal enemies are fantastically designed, and the flying mission is a lot of fun to do, as is the one where you beat groundhogs over the head with a club. Perhaps my fondness for this level also stems from the fact that it’s the easiest level on Midnight Mountain, and I despise all the other levels in this realm (ESPECIALLY DINO MINES), so I’m a fan of it by default.

6.) Jacques (Spyro the Dragon)
This level is frustrating for some, but it’s also beautiful to look at. It has one of my favorite level designs and a stunning red sky that is going to look amazing with updated graphics.  The whole “fairytale gone slightly wrong” aesthetic from the Dream Weavers realm comes to a head in this level and I look forward to experiencing the timer fools and the jack-in-the-box “boss” in HD.

7.) Cliff Town (Spyro the Dragon)
It might be a weird thing to point out, but the sky design from this level is my favorite in all of the games, as is the whole color scheme for this level. It is going to look stunning when it’s updated, I’ll bet.  It’s got a superb design, the dragons are fun to get, and there’s some good gliding experience and unique enemies to destroy in this level. Though, I hate getting slapped around by those ladies with the wooden spoons…

8.) Alpine Ridge (Spyro the Dragon)
A magical adventure with some adorable (if deadly) enemies, this level from the Magic Crafters homeworld features some tricky glides and paths to figure out, but that just makes it all the more rewarding to rescue the dragons. Besides… any level from this realm is a blast compared to Wizard Peak and High Caves. Those metal spiders still give me nightmares…

9.) Winter Tundra (Spyro: Ripto’s Rage!)
Oddly enough, my second favorite level from the 2nd game is a hub world. I struggled a lot with all of the sublevels in this realm during my initial playthrough, but I remember being blown away at how beautiful the homeworld is, and how calm and peaceful the music makes it feel. So no matter how frustrating the individual levels are, it’s a lovely place to come back to after collecting some orbs!

10.) Tree Tops (Spyro the Dragon)
I know, I know… why would I put the (arguably) most difficult level from the original games on this list? Because I am very curious to see if it’s difficulty and the frustration-level will survive an HD remaster. Will the monkey demon enemies still be annoying as all get out? Will the red and yellow thieves still be obnoxious to follow? Will the super-charge still be a creative, yet irritating twist to figure out? I really, really hope so – this is one of the most infamous Spyro levels of all time, and I cannot WAIT to attempt it if these remaster rumors prove true.

Pokemon World

When I was a child, we truly lived in a Pokemon world. Pokemon was EVERYWHERE. One of the greatest Christmas presents I’ve ever received is the Pikachu-themed Gameboy Color with Pokemon Yellow Version. With the recent release of Pokemon Sun and Moon, I’ve been reflecting on my history with Pokemon quite a bit, from winning $90 on a bus trip to NYC when I was a kid and spending all of it on Pokemon merchandise at FAO Schwarz, to watching the latest Pokemon movies over Skype with my best friend while away at college.

Though I’ve fallen out of the fandom as far as the training cards and anime go, I’ve played the games from each generation; they never seem to lose their charm for me. But nothing can erase the glory of the first generation – the original 151 Pokemon. So, I thought, as a child of that era, I would compile a list of my favorite Pokemon from the first generation, and here they are!

1.) Gengar
Gengar is my boo, man. Sadly, I’ve not always been able to procure a Gengar for my team, 600px-094gengarespecially back in the early days, when trading wasn’t quite as easy as it is now. As in, back in the prehistoric era of trading via cable, not the wireless deal we’ve got these days. Gengar is equal parts adorable and terrifying, which is all I need in a Pokemon, and I think Ghost types are severely underrated. Plus, he’s PURPLE. With the right training, the Hypnosis/Dreameater combo can be lethal. And I totally buy the fan theory that Gengar is Clefable’s shadow. It’s not quite as credible as the “Cubone was originally intended to be a deceased Kangaskhan’s baby” theory, but it would be cool regardless.

2.) Alakazam 
Alakazam is a staple for my team, if it’s possible to catch an Abra in-game. Getting it to 065alakazamthat phase is a pain (Abra only knows Teleport, so getting it to evolve to Kadabra can be a trial, then I always have to enlist someone to trade with to evolve Kadabra into Alakazam) but I’ve always found it beneficial to have a strong psychic type on my team. In my Diamond/Pearl days, I had a lvl 100 Alakazam and it was a total boss. Currently, in Moon, I have a Kadabra I’m waiting to evolve so I can get the brilliant spoon-bending fox-like psychic master back into my squad. AND it can learn Charge Beam! So if you find yourself bereft of an electric type on your team, Alakazam can fill that void. And it carries spoons, so if you find yourself with a bowl of soup and no utensil to eat it with, you’ll be set!

3.) Blastoise
I admit, I am biased toward water-type starters. I have almost always started with the 600px-009Blastoise.pngwater starter on my initial run of a game, with the exception of Pokemon Moon, where I couldn’t resist Litten’s adorable charms… and I wasn’t a fan of Popplio, to be honest. But, as much as I loved Feraligatr, Samurott and Empoleon (Feraligatr is great, an Empoleon with Pokerus was my first lvl 100, and I think Samurott is awesome) Blastoise will always claim the top spot in my list of favorite starter evolutions. So many people love Charmander/Charizard, but Squirtle has always been my preference.  I mean, Blastoise is a massive tortoise with water cannons on his shoulders. What’s not to like?!?!

4.) Marowak
How about a creature in a legit skull helmet, with a bone it can use as a boomerang? I 600px-105marowakabsolutely love Marowak, but, to be honest, I usually don’t end up with one on my team. By the time I encounter a Cubone, I usually have a pretty good idea of where my team is going to go, and even if I catch one, it just ends up in the box. The whole plotline in the game with the sad baby Cubone and the vengeful Marowak ghost is absolutely heartbreaking, though. However, I do currently have an Alolan Marowak on my team in Moon, and I adore him, even though he is currently the weakest link on my squad. The Alolan version is black and has a flaming bone as a boomerang, so it’s even cooler than the normal version!

5.) Raichu
I was actually disappointed that you were forced to follow the anime’s plot in Pokemon 600px-026raichuYellow, and could not evolve your Pikachu into a Raichu. But ever since then, if it’s possible to catch a Pichu/Pikachu in game and acquire a thunderstone along the way, I always have a Raichu by the end of the game. Having an adorable electric mouse with a cool-looking tail has often come in handy on my travels, especially when Water-type gyms are involved. However, as much as I love Raichu, I usually end up keeping one on ‘reserve’ instead of on my main team. I currently have a Pikachu on my main team in Moon, and will soon have an Alolan Raichu, though I think I like the original a bit more than the new version.

6.) Ninetales
Ninetales is as beautiful as it is useful, and often serves as a valuable member of my squad. 600px-038ninetalesSince I typically don’t select the Fire starters, I try and nab a Fire type during the game, so if Vulpix is able to be caught, that is often my first choice, unless it isn’t available until late in the game. Ninetales is just so graceful and elegant, and it can be a total boss in battle if trained appropriately. I had a lvl 100 Ninetales at one point and it was equal parts tough and gorgeous to look at – I used it in double battles with my lvl 100 Alakazam and they were quite the team to reckon with. I haven’t managed to snag an Alolan Vulpix in Moon yet, but Alolan Ninetales looks even prettier, so I look forward to getting one!

7.) Tauros
Although I find it to be one of the most badass of the original 151, Tauros is the only 128taurosPokemon on this list that I’ve never taken with me to the Elite Four to grace the Hall of Fame. However, I always make sure to catch one if it’s possible, no matter how many hours (and I mean hours) I have to spend in the Safari Zone. Tauros just looks so intimidating and cool. Unfortunately for me, I’ve never been able to train one to actually be good and it usually just ends up dying in every battle, so I typically just catch one and leave it in the box. But if I could get a Pokemon to have in real life, Tauros would be one of my first picks, because I think it would be cool to roll up to work in the morning on the back of a Tauros. I could also take out my enemies with a well-placed charge!

8.) Vaporeon
Of all the Eeveelutions, my favorite is probably Espeon, but since this is a list of my 600px-134vaporeonfavorite original Pokemon, and Espeon wasn’t around until the second generation, I’m including my favorite from the first gen, Vaporeon. As far as I can remember, you can only get one Eevee in the original games, and  I’ve always chosen to evolve it into a Vaporeon, but if it’s possible to get/breed multiple Eevees, then I make Vaporeon my second selection (after Espeon). I also had a holographic Vaporeon Pokemon card back in the day, and I deeply regret that I gave it away.  I mean, Vaporeon’s got fins on its head AND tail – that’s pretty convenient. I imagine it would be very useful to take on a swim.

9.) Rhydon
Of all the Pokemon types in the original games, Rock and Ground are probably the ones I 600px-112rhydonused the least, and likely still use the least. There just aren’t as many Rock type Pokemon that appeal to me, so Brock and I probably wouldn’t get along very well. But if I had to finagle a Rock or Ground type, my first choice would be Rhydon. Well… technically, the first choice would be Rhyhorn, which, in my experience, is a complete pain in the rear to catch in the Safari Zone. But Rhydon is the bomb, and he’s got a drill on his snout, which I would imagine comes in pretty handy. I’m not terribly fond of the next evolutionary form, Rhyperior, but back in my day, Rhydon was the final form… and I like to pretend it still is.

10.) Pidgeot
As many aspiring trainers know, in several of the games, it is necessary to have a Flying 018Pidgeot.pngPokemon, because at a certain point, you get HM02 (Fly) and get to fly back to all the places you’ve already visited. Due to this, I almost always make a bird Pokemon a staple of my team, and the original choice was always a Pidgeot. I mean, it’s not like it’s hard to catch… you practically drown in Pidgeys at the start of the early gen games, so you get your pick of the roost. I once picked a Spearow instead of a Pidgey, intending to bring a bit of variety to my squad, ended up with a Fearow, and it just wasn’t the same – it didn’t feel right. I picked a HootHoot in Gold version, as well, but Noctowl just couldn’t cut it either. Maybe because Pidgeot’s got such a regal mane of feathers, and I admire a good haircut on a Pokemon.

*Photo credit to Bulbapedia!

REMINDER:
There’s only a week left to enter the Goodreads Giveaway for a copy (out of five available copies) of my debut YA novel, I’m With You – here is the link to enter!

A Dose of Nostalgia

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.

THE FACES OF TERROR
The faces of terror! (photo cred to the Spyro Wiki)

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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