Spyro the Dragon and the Search for the Perfect Reboot

Spyro the Dragon — that purple teenager with attitude who happens to breathe fire — is the epitome of an era in which big-eyed mascot characters ruled video games. Spyro was my introduction to 3D platformers, and like a beloved childhood toy, I thought he would be in my life forever, untouched by time. I was, of course, wrong.

But with the release of the Spyro Reignited Trilogy for the Nintendo Switch, Spyro has dive-bombed straight back into my business. And Spyro’s shiny, perfectly-rendered remake has brought up a lot of memories for me, as someone who was there through the franchise’s growing pains. While it’s been nice to catch up with my old dragon friend, I can’t help but feel like something is lost in the Reignited Trilogy — the unrefined weirdness of the original games.

New and Improved

Spyro was designed by animator and artist Charles Zembillas, who also did the character designs for The Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog and Captain N. Zembillas’ original sketches depict a wide-eyes, silly-looking creature who brings to mind a coked-up fantasy chihuahua. This was classic Spyro — he’d have a cockier expression on the 1998 Spyro the Dragon box art for Playstation, but this was the essence of the character. Cool, but family-friendly. The early Playstation model of Spyro was wildly animated with a limited number of polygons, definitely goofier than any kind of expression a Nintendo character could pull off at the time. Spyro’s close counterpart, Crash Bandicoot, had even more unhinged expressions. They were not elegant, or serious, but wacky with strong, simple features.

In contrast, when I first saw screens of Reignited Trilogy, I immediately thought of Zangief of Street Fighter fame’s Pixar-quality, cleaned-up expressions in the film Wreck-It Ralph. It felt like someone had covered Spyro in varnish and set him on a shelf in an Apple store. I missed the jankiness of the classic Playstation graphics mixed with the weirdness of a skateboarding purple dragon.

Of course, video game characters change visually over time. But after the final Spyro game produced by Insomniac in 2000, Spyro underwent a holistic transformation, a literal metamorphosis of brand identity that never stopped. Ironically, despite his various renditions, the Reignited Trilogy only makes me realize how far away wobbly, weird 1998 Spyro was.

Reignited isn’t just a simple return to form for Spyro, but another step in his arc from nineties darling, to dead mascot, to Frankensteined reimagining. Spyro is back, built from the ground-up, in the same year as the ultra-shiny, five-fingered Final Fantasy 7 remake. But if Spyro seems to have come full circle to find a place in the modern HD gaming landscape, it’s only because it took many bizarre mascot mutations for him to reach this point.

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After Insomniac’s original Playstation trilogy concluded, Spyro returned in the early 2000s in the form of a series of handheld games and two home console games all produced by different studios. Still, these games were all connected by the same aesthetic — lighthearted, obviously the same cartoonish fantasy world of classic Spyro. But as a mascot, our purple protagonist was starting to lag behind the new cool of the 2000s.

And so, like so many other beloved 90s video game franchises, Spyro went grimdark. Unlike so many other franchises, he was voiced by Elijah Wood. This “reboot” trilogy, titled The Legend of Spyro, was the mature re-imagining of Spyro’s world, leaving the wackiness of Zembillas’ artwork behind. It was a response to a fandom that wasn’t ready to let go of a character they grew up with but wanted “darker” stories. It introduced romance, the forces of evil, high stakes — “mature” storytelling. If the Lord of the Rings trilogy was such a hit, the reasoning might have gone, of course the same formula would work with teenage dragons.

Of course, it wouldn’t last. After Dawn of the Dragon, the final Legend of Spyro game in 2008, Spyro had a stint as a different sort of mascot for Skylanders, after seemingly getting in a car wreck and leaping headfirst into a deep fryer. This “reboot” was the first Spyro without a strong tie to the originals — he existed in a cultural vacuum without any reference to his platformer past, as he was being repackaged as the lead of the Skylanders franchise aimed at younger players rather than those who had grown up with him.

The Monkey’s Paw

In contrast to Skylanders, the Reignited Trilogy is definitely aimed at older players who experienced the original titles on the Playstation. Spyro’s look here recalls his famously-altered appearance in the Japanese releases of the classic Insomniac trilogy, giving him bigger eyes and a softer face. While he always reminded me of a Nickelodeon character, Reignited Trilogy plays into this appeal more strongly than any previous game in the series. Shiny, bouncy new Spyro isn’t Skylanders or Frodo Spyro, but he reminds us of when cool new animal characters carried whole consoles, when media seemed less complicated to our younger selves. 

Thus, Spyro’s remake is not so much a return to form as it is a rebuilding of the character from the ground up to recall a particular time and feeling. Reignited Trilogy wants you to picture yourself waking up on a weekend in the 90s to watch cartoons and play Playstation games. In that sense, the return of a cherished mascot becomes a reassurance that it’s possible to be a kid again, to live in what felt like a simpler time.

Of course, we can’t really go back to a time when skateboard-riding dragons ruled the world. And while it might be nice to remember it, if we really love mascots like Spyro, we should also recall the weird and sometimes awkward times that got us from then to now.