Picture this: It’s around the holiday season in the late ‘90s. Toys “R” Us is still alive and kicking, and they have a separate section for video games. A young nonbinary kid sees a hardcover plastic CD jewel case with a purple dragon on the cover. There are three games in the case, and it’s on sale.
Spyro Reignited Trilogy
Toys For Bob
PlayStation 4, Xbox One
November 13, 2018
This may not be the moment I discovered Spyro for the first time, but I do remember holding this for-sale bundle in my hand and begging my mom to get it. Over the years, my attachment to the franchise—the first three games in particular, as the later ones I played were just… bad—has grown past nostalgia and into a symbol of my childhood. My brother and I would play the Spyro games together, me collecting all the gems, him killing all the monsters, and every time he was done with the games, he’d snap them in half. We spent hundreds of dollars rebuying the trilogy, sometimes in a three-game case, sometimes separately. The longest sentence he has ever said—“I can’t believe you just did that!”—was because a family friend dove on-screen Spyro off a cliff and to his demise. A nonverbal autistic boy found joy in a sassy purple dragon trying to save the future of his race, as his older sibling watched on.
The Reignited Trilogy has let me relive everything I loved about the Spyro games in updated graphics, joyously familiar but “reignited” music, and the 21st century. The humor is geared towards a young audience, but fans of the original franchise will still be delighted in re-experiencing the levels of their youth. Still, replaying my childhood favorites has come with some reminders that the original game was not perfect in some of its hopefully unintentional background messaging.
But first, the joys of the three games.
For those new to the world of Spyro, the 3D platformers follow the titular purple dragon and his health indicator Sparks the Dragonfly, as they travel to different worlds collecting gems and other items, depending on the game. In the first game, Spyro the Dragon, Gnasty Gnorc turns all the dragons into stone, and Spyro, as the sole survivor, has to free them. In Ripto’s Rage, a little dinosaur dude decides to claim the world of Avalar as his own, and the people intercept Spyro on his way to a vacation after the first game and beg for his help. In Year of the Dragon, an angry dinosaur (what’s with angry dinosaurs) Sorceress steals all of the dragon eggs in order to bring magic back to the Forgotten Lands, where dragons used to live, and Spyro is off yet again.
Gameplay is straightforward. Spyro begins in a Homeworld which acts as a hub world, hosting portals that lead to other levels. There are several Homeworlds per game, and in Year of the Dragon, each Homeworld contains portals whose levels have certain gameplay mechanics (e.g. racing levels, playing as other animal characters) in addition to the usual ones. In Ripto’s Rage and Year of the Dragon, the levels are framed with stories, usually a character who would like you to kick out the baddies and with whom you reunite at the end of the level.
Everything I loved as a child is in sharper graphics, the same precise controls (for the most part—more on that later) and the same rich platforming areas. For those who played more than the first three games, you might remember that Moneybags, the pompous bear who—you guessed it—loves money, went from having a British accent to a Russian one; Toys for Bob was apparently not about that weird change, and he is yet again British. For the most part, actually, Toys for Bob didn’t touch the original content: the worlds are identical to how I remember them (and believe me, I remember a lot of them), right down to the location of eggs and egg thieves, and the dialogue is delightfully cheesy (especially in Ripto’s Rage), which will make young children laugh while the adults wonder at the questionable writing. (It is important to remember that Spyro was designed for children, and as a 27-year-old, I’m no longer the target audience.) The voice acting has been updated for everyone but Spyro—the old voice actor was hired for that role—to provide, if not the same tones of my childhood, ones that still bring back the feeling of wonder at exploring colorful, imaginative, and magical worlds.
I love how much fun it is to charge around an area, collecting the gems and charging into hidden areas. I still fist-pump in landing difficult skateboarding tricks in Year of the Dragon and hearing that “Skill Point Acquired” ring. One change the developers did make was adding skill points in the first game (originally introduced in the second game), small challenges akin to PlayStation Trophies. I didn’t remember so many of the ones in Ripto’s Rage relying on times on the racetrack levels, but many are, so I gave up doing them. Still, seeing 120 percent for game one next to 100 percent for game two is deeply satisfying. (My 117 percent for game three is slightly less satisfying. Two skill points missing! TWO.)
Each game is roughly 9 to 11 hours, progressing in novelty and innovation with each. Year of the Dragon has always been my favorite, and replaying it, I’m again reminded why. There are side areas you can play as Sparks; you don’t have to wait forever to get moves like headstomping and climbing; you can skateboard and mow down red lizards! HOW COOL IS THAT! Overall, Toys for Bob brought back my childhood in a way that makes me sing.
Except for one sort-of-maybe-not tiny thing. In Year of the Dragon, one of my favorite parts is when you play as other characters who the Sorceress has trapped—Sheila the kangaroo, Bentley the yeti, and the others. But in the remaster, these characters are painfully slow and clunky. Maybe that was also the case in the original games, but I certainly don’t remember that. And maybe that slow speed would be more tolerable if Spyro were also slow, but he’s not—even his walking speed is fast, let alone the charge. It makes going into side areas with the other playable characters a chore rather than a joy. These levels appear throughout the worlds, and they, unfortunately, don’t work as well as I remember.
And there’s a larger issue I can’t ignore: the troubling worlds with Handel and Greta.
Introduced in Ripto’s Rage, Handel and Greta are the only human characters (unless you count the wizards that appear every now and again as villians you run over to get gems) to make an appearance in the Spyro trilogy. They’re small blonde-haired children; Greta speaks with a lisp and Handel is off doing things by himself, reappearing as part of the frame story at the end of the level. The weirdness of humans in a world run by creatures aside, our Hansel-and-Gretel callbacks appear in worlds that are… shall we say, awkward at best, racist at worst.
I’ll start with the world where it is less egregious. In Year of the Dragon, the twins are martial arts masters and take you into an East Asian-inspired world, where Rynocs (basically rhinos) dressed as ninjas have taken over the area and have stolen a rocket that Greta was going to use. This is one area that is “vaguely East Asian” without specificity as to either Chinese or Japanese inspiration—as shown by the Ninja Rynocs with Chinese architecture—and I find it troubling that these two white kids—purportedly secret agents—are masters of a vague martial arts. Anything for laughs, I guess.
What troubles me more than that is their appearance in Ripto’s Rage. Greta appears to you at the beginning of the level to say that Handel was kidnapped, which is keeping her from her mission of blowing up the level’s castle. Oookay, fine, what’s so problematic about that?
It’s a Middle Eastern-inspired world. Where at least one of the bad guys throw bombs.
Let’s see if this story rings familiar: white people go into the Middle East, take what they want, and blow up the rest (literally and/or metaphorically), then are confused when the locals in the area want them out, sometimes resorting to violence. No? Nobody? Maybe I’m just a sensitive Iranian who is tired of seeing anti-Middle Eastern and Muslim tropes and messages in the media, but this whole area really rubbed me the wrong way.
There’s another level in Year of the Dragon that similarly racially codes its bad guys, this time as sombrero-and-poncho-wearing dinosaurs in an American West-inspired world. A Chuck Norris-esque rabbit sheriff asks for your help in ridding the invading gang. This is fine and all, but with the coding of the villains as Mexican, there’s an implicit rewrite of U.S. history—the one where the honorable white settlers pushed west, only to ~inexplicably~ be harassed by unlawful Mexicans and Native Americans. This narrative ignores the violence of settler-colonialism, revises how people in the United States shoved Native Mexicans out of their homeland in our bid for power. And just as we rewrite history about Manifest Destiny, we currently ignore how U.S. intervention in Latin American countries has forced people to leave their homes to come to ours, throwing up our hands and wondering why “the illegals” are so thirsty for our country.
And I’m also not saying we can never have culturally-coded creatures or characters in our games; I’m saying we should be thoughtful about how those creatures are presented. Super Mario Odyssey, for instance, has a Day of the Dead-esque world as the second world you play, and it’s adorable—sugar skulled people running about, wishing it weren’t so cold. They’re not the villains, and even though they’re technically saved by a white character, they don’t treat Mario like their savior. We can have cultural themes as long as we’re not, you know, vilifying them more than the current media already does. (This is, however, ignoring how Mario wears stereotypical Mexican clothing as a costume, and other concerns few people have raised.)
At the end of the day, Spyro is a children’s game. This sort of subtle, hidden message is probably not going to be caught by many people. Yet I wish, when the developers had gotten to these scenes, they’d gone, “Oh, shit, this is not a good look.” I don’t mean to say they needed to necessarily change it—I can hear the cries of “PC SJWs” now—but maybe, they could have included a note at the beginning of the game mentioning that some of this content is outdated (at best).
Look, I love Spyro deeply. Playing this remaster filled me with so much joy, and while I don’t know if new players would find the trilogy exciting or innovating, people who grew up with it will love it. Still, acknowledging the narratives we build, especially for children, is critical. Assuring players the developers don’t intend to perpetuate harmful ideas nods to those histories of pain and complicity instead of pretending it’s not there. There’s no need to pull a National Geographic in this case, but we can’t ignore that we live in an Islamophobic, racist world; the news cycle reminds us daily. Just as Warner Bros. left a message for viewers before old Looney Tunes episodes, Toys for Bob could have left a warning note without changing the content.
It’s vital that we think about the messages in media, especially those targeted to children who haven’t yet developed critical thinking skills. An acknowledgment of the past isn’t an attempt to rewrite it, nor necessarily condoning it in its entirety. All it says is that we’re trying, we’re growing, we’re listening, all while encouraging the viewer/player/whoever to also be critical. And if all that note does is remind a Muslim kid that they’re not the images they see on screen, then even that is enough.
Sidequest’s former managing editor Naseem Jamnia used to do sciencey things, but they now slam their keyboard and call it art. By night, they play a lot of video games. And regardless of the time, they spend way too much of it on Twitter, @jamsternazzy. Also, their debut novella, THE BRUISING OF QILWA, comes out in August 2022!