Spyro: A Hero’s Tail – The Future of Spyro

Spyro: A Hero’s Tail was dead on arrival. It was the direct sequel to 2002’s Spyro: Enter the Dragonfly. Purposely rushed to be released before holiday season, Enter the Dragonfly fulfilled the business part of video games by selling better than any of the first three, critically-acclaimed Spyro the Dragon games on the Playstation 1. Unfortunately for the quality side of games, Enter the Dragonfly was absolutely horrendous, and destroyed any trust consumers had of the Spyro brand. Yet, because of the amazing sales, the businessmen at Vivendi Universal put together another Spyro game just in time for the 2004 holiday season: Spyro: A Hero’s Tail.

The dialogue in A Hero’s Tail shows a lot of self-awareness. The first villain of the franchise, Gnasty Gnorc, is brought back as the opening boss, and he makes multiple amusing, self-deprecating comments about how he’s been defeated before. The Professor, another returning character, explains to Spyro that he needs to collect 8 things to power his latest invention, and arbitrarily settles on the purposely abstract McGuffins of Light Gems after rattling off other possible collectibles like “red coins”. The “true” 100% ending features the Dragon Elders talking over the credits and making fun of people who made the game. Considering that there is not a single reference to Enter the Dragonfly in A Hero’s Tail while there are references to the golden age of PS1 Spyro games, it seems clear that the makers sufficiently understood how much of a tragedy Enter the Dragonfly was.

Though the game understands its place in the world based on its past and present, one has to wonder if the game makers were self-aware enough to understand that Spyro’s future would not be A Hero’s Tail. I have to imagine they were, and, in that context, A Hero’s Tail has the personality of a prince to a doomed kingdom; he sees his father make mistakes that’ll leave his country in ruins, but, until that point, he tries to be as cheery as possible. Too bad the guillotines came for Spyro after A Hero’s Tail, and the two new kings that came after (A New Beginning and Skylanders) were just as horrible to the character as Enter the Dragonfly was. Okay, maybe they weren’t THAT bad.

Regardless, all of this is to give context to you that A Hero’s Tail had absolutely no chance at being well-received or well-sold after Enter the Dragonfly sufficiently poisoned the well. And that meant that A Hero’s Tail is often forgotten and overlooked since it rests cozily between two nadirs of Spyro’s history. But I’m here to talk about how A Hero’s Tail laid the groundwork for so many possible directions the Spyro franchise could go, and how it should be studied by Toys For Bob as an outline for what future traditional Spyro games could look like now that Spyro: Reignited Trilogy set the franchise ablaze again.

For those who don’t know, a traditional Spyro game stars the titular Spyro the Dragon. He’s a small purple dragon who can glide, charge, and breathe fire… and that’s about it for major abilities. He uses these abilities to traverse levels and collect whatever the latest plot-important item is, which has ranged from dragons, to orbs, and to dragon eggs. There were three PS1 Spyro the Dragon games developed by Insomniac Games, makers of 2019’s Spiderman among other critically-beloved titles, and it was their first flagship series. They were not as popular as the Crash Bandicoot series, the other major PS1 mascot, but they had a pretty decent following. However, it was clear that Insomniac had run out of ideas by the third game, when they introduced five other playable characters to take some pressure off designing even more stuff for Spyro to do, so they sold the license to Universal Interactive and went on to develop Ratchet and Clank for the PS2. I do not need to remind you what happened with Universal’s first attempt with the Spyro license.

Spyro: A Hero’s Tail continues in this lineage of traditional Spyro games. You primarily glide, charge, and breathe fire while trying to collect Light Gems and destroying Dark Gems. But A Hero’s Tail makes some smart updates to Spyro’s core moveset to open up design space. The biggest update is the double jump. There was a glitch in Spyro: Ripto’s Rage that allowed Spyro to effectively double jump. Now, the developers clearly did not intend for that, and it let the player jump out of bounds and all over the scenery in ridiculous ways. This time around, Vivendi Universal puts the mechanic in on purpose, and… there are still plenty of ways to glitch out of bounds despite the game being built around it. Ultimately, though, it is a great addition that allows for increased mobility and therefore more interesting platforming. In theory.

I’m getting ahead of myself a little. I already briefly mentioned how the game’s plot is self-aware, but that’s more in execution than actual plot. A Hero’s Tail rushes quickly into the action. A formerly exiled dragon elder named Red has recruited two powerful minions and built an army to siege the Dragon Realms. For god knows what reason, he decides to simultaneously take over the realms and plant Dark Gems that sap the land’s energy. If he thought this through at all, Red would realize that he’s destroying the very land he’s trying to take over but who cares this is a plot for eight year olds let’s roll with it.

As always, it falls to Spyro to save the Realms. In the first three Spyro games, there was an explanation that justified why the tiny purple dragon had to save the Realm. In the original, the other adult dragons were all turned to stone. In Ripto’s Rage, he was intercepted while alone on his way to the beach. In Year of the Dragon, the holes that led to the other side of the world where the Sorceress was hatching her plot were too small for any dragon but Spyro to fit through. In A Hero’s Tail? No such justification. The other Dragon Elders are straight-up too lazy to deal with it. Heck, even though it’s their realms, no dragon tells Spyro to do it. The Professor, who is a MOLE that lives in AVALAR and not the Dragon Realms and this is completely against the canon and oh no one cares, just tells him exactly what I said in the last paragraph and tells Spyro to go see Moneybags.

Now, that name may sound innocuous enough, but Moneybags is the most nefarious villain in the original trilogy. In those games, he arbitrarily gates off parts of levels and moves for Spyro in exchange for… ahem, a small fee. How on earth could The Professor’s first piece of advice be “go see Moneybags”? Imagine if someone was trying to motivate you to ___ and told you to see ___. How demotivating!

But Moneybags’ introduction does introduce the player to the most important collectible in every Spyro game: gems. In the past, there were a limited number of gems per level that were required to collect to reach 100%. In A Hero’s Tail, because the levels are bigger, the developers made the extremely wise choice to make gems simply currency and not a gating collectible to reaching 100%. It would have been terrible to comb the larger levels for every single gem. This change plus the addition of the double jump are two extremely good, fundamental changes to Spyro’s traditional formula that Toys for Bob should consider bringing back if they feel like making larger levels for a sequel. The only reason collecting every gem in the original trilogy didn’t feel like a chore (usually) was because the levels were small enough and had a built-in gem-finding mechanic to sniff out the last few gems.

Gems are still important in A Hero’s Tail for paying Moneybags. Here, he’s a lot more tolerable since he never actively gates off moves or portions of the level. Except for this first time, because you need to collect enough gems to purchase a lockpick to get through the opening gate. Lockpicks are fine since they always make gems relevant to pick up–there’s around 3 or 4 locked chests in each level that contain either light gems, dragon eggs, gems, or, if you got truly japed, breath ammo. The annoying thing about them is that you can only carry one of them at a time unless you buy an upgrade that’ll let you carry three. It should be the first upgrade you buy, by the way.

The other things Moneybags sells aren’t as useful. The majority of items available are breath ammo. What is breath ammo? Well, Spyro eventually is able to breathe four types of elements: fire, electricity, water, and ice. Each breath has its own special bomb breath that does larger AoE and remote damage than normal breaths. The added range is the main benefit since all vulnerable enemies die to one regular fire breath anyway. Since combat in Spyro has never been the focus (except for A New Beginning but again that’s a video essay for another time) they are completely useless.

Moneybags sells full heals, and an extra hit point for Sparx, your friendly animal buddy that protects you. That’s a good upgrade. But the shockwave upgrade that boosts the range of your headbash’s shockwave? That’s useless, because it takes so long to start a headbash that it’ll never be good in a combat situation. And the double value gems is a temporary upgrade that, well, doubles gem values, and that’s not useful because you never need to grind gems if you loot most of the chests that you come across. But that’s fine, because nothing should be gated by grinding gems; that’d be dumb. The last item Moneybags sells is a cheap ticket to teleport between his shops in a level which is GREAT. It saves so much time.

So those items are all what gems are used for. To reiterate, the change to make them limitless as well as unimportant for 100% was a great one that showed a great understanding of the implications of making Spyro levels larger. The only three items you need to collect in A Hero’s Tail for 100% are the 80 dragon eggs and 100 light gems, and “collect” 40 dark gems by destroying them. The dark gems are the main point of the game. You can’t actually beat the game without smashing all 40 because smashing all of them not only opens each boss door but also opens parts of the environment directly around the dark gem. I like this mechanic because it shows the world healing from the dark gem corruption and helps illustrate the player’s incentive to destroy the gems; namely, destroying them will save the planet. So, basically I’m saying we can solve climate change by destroying the dark gems placed over the Earth that’s causing it.

The light gems and dragon eggs are scattered around the levels. Each minigame awards one of each collectible and is the most reliable way you’ll get these things. They’re also just… out in the open, or hidden in the world. These are nice. For example, one of the light gems in the Crocoville Swamp requires the player to notice a brick that’s sticking out of a temple hallway and knock it back in place, thus revealing a hidden passage to the gem. The gems and eggs make relatively loud “shining” noises when the player is nearby them, so listening for that tell can tip you off to these hidden goodies. Which is another great mechanic that future platformers put in place; Super Mario Galaxy does the same thing.

On the other hand, the minigames in A Hero’s Tail are a mixed bag. Which is a kind way of putting it. Continuing in the tradition of Year of the Dragon, you can play as more characters than Spyro. Sgt. Byrd and Sparx each make their returns as playable characters. Sgt. Byrd ends up taking over the speedway role rather than having Spyro be the one flying around as in the original trilogy. These are alright. Byrd feels a little too floaty and not as fluid in his aerial controls compared to how Spyro worked while in the speedway. And none of the four courses designed for him are particularly interesting in look or play. They all overstay their welcome because you have to run each twice and the second run barely changes the first by mostly lowering the time you can complete the speedway and light differences in target placement. Sgt. Byrd himself, a talking flying penguin, is still the best character in the Spyro series.

Sparx’s minigames in Year of the Dragon were all top-down shooters. In A Hero’s Tail, he’s now an on-rails SHMUP. These aren’t as interesting a spectacle as they could be, but the gameplay is interesting enough that I actually enjoy the 3 Sparx courses in the game.

There are two other playable characters in A Hero’s Tail. The first is another returning character: the competitive and widely disrespected cheetah Hunter. His sections are real interesting. He feels like a fully-fleshed out character in gamestyle. He has a higher jump than Spyro, climbs on walls to get around instead of gliding, and attacks with both his fits and his bow and arrow. He’s also the focal point of the most memorable part of the game, but more on that later.

The second new playable character is a new character entirely: Blinx the Mole. Personality-wise, he’s a mole that hates being underground, which is the explanation he gives you when you release him from a cage that’s on soft dirt which he could’ve easily dug through. It’s a weird, flimsy excuse. His levels are not flimsy. They’re rather involved affairs where you’re tasked to blow up 8 dark shards that are all around relatively open caverns. There was clearly a lot of effort put into Blink’s moveset and character, but his levels just aren’t that fun to go through. It is way safer to take these sections slow and snipe the enemies rather than get any sort of uptempo flow through the levels. Plus, they’re all far too long for their own good. Each takes around 15-20 minutes to complete and detract from the overall experience. I like the concept, just poor execution.

There are also technically two other playable characters. Ember and Flame are new characters that are randomly in the first level, Dragon Village. Both are dragons around Spyro’s age and finally show that Spyro isn’t the only teenage dragon alive in his godforsaken realm. It’s still very weird there are only 3 dragons that age considering there’s around 50 adult ones that you save in the original Spyro the Dragon. Regardless, getting all the eggs in Ember and Flame’s sets unlocks their models as playable “costumes” for Spyro.

Ember is the girl dragon and therefore HAS to be the pink one; she also has an unrequited crush on Spyro that she lays on thick in the two lines of dialogue she has in the game. One of which is skippable. Flame is a guy dragon and comes with a manly red-orange color. He was trapped in the cave that Gnasty Gnorc shuts himself in with the power of the dark gems (for… reasons. really unclear why the bosses put themselves in these sealed-off places). Once free, he says his one line of dialogue and… also goes away forever just like Ember. I like that these characters exist to give Spyro different looks and that they fulfill a gaping character hole, but they’re good examples of missed potential. Why don’t they do anything other than say two lines? And why can’t I get the way Ember says “because you like me” out of my head? And who is Spyro’s true waifu? Ember or Cynder? I know the popular answer but Ember has a cute personality from the start unlike that ungrateful–I’m getting off topic.

Now that I’ve thoroughly detoured from the level design to talk about everything but the levels, let’s get back to it. Joseph Anderson makes the best video essays, and each one of them features a beat-by-beat walkthrough of what happens in the game, so I should do the same.

The game goes pretty fast into getting you playing. The cutscene where Red comes out of the shadows to plant dark gems in the Dragon Realms is about 45 seconds. Then the Professor says “That’s Red. You must’ve heard all about him” to Spyro, who swiftly (and rightly) says “No, not really”. It’s a funny introduction that makes clear that this game is not taking its plot seriously, so neither should the player. And since the plot takes around 5-10 minutes of unskippable cutscenes and another 5-10 minutes of unskippable, voice-acted dialogues, the plot is unobtrusive.

Spyro is booted out of the Professor’s lab and, as stated earlier, sent to hit up Moneybags for a lockpick. The player is put into a safe, basic field and asked to collect 500 gems to buy that lockpick. It’s here that the game does basic, unobtrusive tutorials that state the controls in a dialogue box when the player is near something new to interact with. This does happen every time anything new shows up, even after the initial tutorial area, but that’s perfectly alright. It’s still unobtrusive.

Anyway, you meet Moneybags, and purchase the lockpick from the most frictionless store possible. Why can’t I go to a grocery store, stand on a pad, and select holograms of items to purchase today? Amazon, please read this (I’m sure you own WordPress). Going through the locked gate lets you meet Ember, who quickly makes her grand entrance and exit; she dies as she lived, shot down by Spyro. You then head through another cave to meet Elder Tomas. He gives you the ability to double jump, headbash, and listen to exposition. He’s one of the main elder dragons that decided to banish Red. But since Red’s come back with such strength and magic, Tomas doesn’t stand a chance. Or something. I’m not sure why Spyro specifically is a better fit for this job because he clearly doesn’t have the size that Tomas or the other elders have but whatever they’re too old and that’s the excuse given.

Tomas tasks Spyro with destroying the corrupting dark gems, and you get to smash your first one to progress through the level. The rumble feedback you get from headbashing these things is immensely satisfying, and is another serotonin hit combined with the obvious excitement with de-corrupting sections of the level. Follow the path opened by the dark gem being destroyed, and you reach everyone’s least favorite cat: Hunter. It is baffling that Hunter consistently gets chosen for re-use by game makers. Even though most players who beat Ripto’s Rage 100% hated him, he shows up in the direct sequel Year of the Dragon, he shows up in the completely unrelated reboot Dawn of the Dragon, he shows up in the weird spinoff Spyro: Shadow Legacy, and he even shows up as a playable character in Crash Team Racing Nitro-Fueled. Why on earth does he have the second-most appearances of any Spyro character that isn’t Spyro or Sparx? He actively hinders the player in the first five games he shows up in because he withholds at least multiple main collectibles from Spyro! It’s not until A Hero’s Tail when he actually helps.

Strangely enough, though he’s playable in this game, this isn’t the first time you play as him. He just shoots a target to open the door when you prove your gliding skills for god knows what reason. At least he didn’t hold onto a dragon egg or firefly until you did this. Through the door is a hologrammed Professor who then gives you the arbitrary directive to start collecting light gems since they power his inventions. Past that is another dark gem to smash, and the first Sgt. Byrd speedway is uncovered thanks to this. I’ve already said my piece on him. A cracked wall leads to the path with the level’s third and final dark gem to smash, which also repairs the broken bridge between your initial starting area and the entrance to the second level. It’s a nice piece of ourobouros level design. Even though the levels all have teleporters to get around quickly, they also tend to loop back on themselves. This isn’t even the only looparound in this opening level. The obvious path past the cracked wall eventually leads back to the Professor’s lab which then spits you back to the opening part. It’s good design!

Alright, that’s a bit exhausting and not interesting in text form. For a video, where the consumer has something bright and appealing to look at while someone else monotones boring facts, that style works fine. Here… not so much. Instead, it would be better to go through the levels and just pick out highlights rather than every little thing. I do think the first level is naturally inundated in things to talk about, though. That said, though the game does a lot to introduce concepts and get the player familiar with the controls, it also does indicate a fundamental problem with the game: the levels are too large and too uninteresting in design (visually and, uh, gamely? I don’t know the word to describe it) to warrant that largeness. I’ll talk more about this later, but the game tends to switch gameplay styles often in order to hide the relatively bland core gamefeel of traversing Spyro through these levels.

Crocovile Swamp is a good example of the slightly off gamefeel. There are a couple of Indiana Jones-esque sequences in which you have to guide Spyro through a collapsing temple, but the floaty movement of Spyro makes it far more difficult than it should be to make it through safely. Platforming safely around the aforementioned swamp is similarly too hard, and it’s easy to drown Spyro in mud over and over. There’s unlimited lives and plenty of checkpoints, so it’s not too much an inconvenience, but it still breaks any rhythm the game was building when you die. As cool as the look of the swamp’s treehouses and temples can be (and the main temple setpiece that you climb is real cool), the swamp makes a real bad impression as the first “main” level of A Hero’s Tail. Its saving grace other than the somewhat interesting visual design is the move you get from the dragon elder here that lets Spyro flip on poles with his tail. No, not like a stripper. It’s a neat platforming move that opens up some more interesting platforming, even if the justification for the existence of these tail-flipping poles at, say, the bottom of the ocean doesn’t exist.

I really think the first go through of Crocovile Swamp makes for a bad first impression. It’s dark, you might not have a complete feel for Spyro’s controls, and it’s hard to understand where you’re going. The larger levels in A Hero’s Tail offers more non-linearity than basically any Spyro level in the original trilogy, but a player expecting level design similar to old Spyro may quickly find themselves overwhelmed and lost in the murky swamp. On second or third playthroughs, it’s easy to efficiently pathfind through Crocovile, and it’s not nearly as bad. But that first playthrough, where you feel beset on all sides by never-ending spider spawns, can’t find the path to the elder’s house, and get your first not-too-bad-but-pretty-bad taste of Blink’s levels? Not great.

Anyway, Crocovile Swamp also does a nice job looping back to its entrance so that you can get back to the “hub” world of Dragon Village. In the first four Spyro games, the levels were marked off via portals in a hub world. Entering one would send Spyro into a loading screen as he slowly glided towards the level. In A Hero’s Tail, Universal tries to connect the levels so that the individual hub worlds feel like one large connected world rather than disparate, strewn-about parts. I can say that this would work better if the ways you traveled to the other levels weren’t just loading screens in disguise. For instance, getting to and from Crocovile Swamp requires Spyro to stand on a floating platform in a cave for about 30 seconds. It’s still obviously a loading screen, even if the game doesn’t want to admit it. The concept is good but the optimization is lacking.

To get to the third and final level in this part of the game, you need to go see the Professor again. You need 8 light gems to power his transportation system there, which is a decent enough way of roadblocking players. You can’t get the necessary 8 without going to Crocovile Swamp. Older Spyro games also did this, so it has precedence. The transportation system to Dragonfly Falls is more involved than, say, a bus. It’s a hamster wheel that you charge around in. Super goofy. Has no real in-game justification from a plot perspective. I kind of love it, but it also only appears three times in the game, so it’s a weird use of resources on the developer’s part.

Dragonfly Falls is a lush jungle that hides a bunch of collectibles behind breakable walls, waterfalls, and flora. It is the most interesting level design in this first world because it plays with verticality far more than the prior two levels (though the temple set piece in Crocovile Swamp is quite good). This works out to its benefit when Spyro is in relatively small rooms, such as the hidden locked chest in an alcove directly above the entrance that Spyro can glide to from the top of ladders nearby, but the lack of defined boundaries in Dragonfly Falls’ largest open space makes it extremely difficult to tell where Spyro can and cannot reach without further movement abilities. There’s a particular moving platform that can let the player partially sequence break if they do the right jump off it, but finding the right path off it is required to find all four dark gems in the level. It’s a surprisingly frustrating bit of freedom.

Other parts of the Falls are better. You get your first Hunter section during this time. Like any other sidekick level, it’s optional. However, the length of this section should foreshadow to the player that Hunter will not be optional in the future. And it’s a fine introduction. The section is designed around giving Hunter plenty of opportunities to snipe, climb, and scour the area. There’s a surprising amount of care put into his level design–almost more so than Spyro–but it helps that the level designers don’t have to worry about Hunter gliding to places he really shouldn’t be.

There are only two other parts about Dragonfly Falls that ever really stood out to me. The first is a door locked behind having 75 or so light gems. It always ignited my curiosity to know what was behind it, and it was a bit of a let down to only find a dragon egg in the small platforming section behind it. I understand now that such a reward was the only thing the game could reasonably have for a player, but it was slightly underwhelming. The other thing that stands out is the amount of wall jump walls in the level. I get that the game is teasing the player that they’ll be able to do it eventually, but nowhere in Dragon Village nor Crocovile Swamp really does this without providing the way to unlock those moves. Crocovile Swamp does have a supercharge powerup that the player can’t use at first, but the explanation given is that the Professor needs 40 light gems, and that’s understandable. Here, the player simply sees a weird mineshaft column at the bottom of a ledge, and is told they might one day learn how to get up the shafts. It’s irritating.

Dragonfly Falls is definitely the best of the three levels in this first world, and has cool sequences with the terrain coming back to life or rebuilding itself as you smash dark gems. I think it does a great job of giving the player a decent bit more freedom to explore while still having a relatively linear, understandable path through to destroy the dark gems. And now that all ten are gone, the path to Gnasty Gnorc is open. Taking the hamster wheel back to Dragon Village makes me wish that you could bring the thing into the boss arena.

It would’ve made the fight a lot more interesting. As it stands, the Gnasty Gnorc fight is pretty generic. He uses his electric rod to smash the ground and try to hit Spyro with a never-ending series of rocks from the ceiling. I don’t know how the cavern doesn’t collapse halfway through the fight. To beat Gnasty, you just have to wait out his combos and charge or flame his heart-underwear-wearing butt when its exposed. The fight requires the player to learn how to control Spyro’s jumping height as different shockwaves and patterns come out. Gnasty takes 9 hits, but after every 3 a new phase comes and the fight is checkpointed. It’s a good system that all the bosses use as a template. It’s just that Spyro fights have never been very interesting because the games should never be about combat (looking at you, A New Beginning trilogy). There’s also some funny bits of dialogue that indicate that A Hero’s Tail could benefit from more NPCs to just talk to. A shame that every piece of writing had to be voice-acted as that was also tradition. Probably prevented some good dialogue.

Beating Gnasty frees a fairy that has the power of electricity. She passes the power onto Spyro, letting him use electricity breath. It isn’t used very creatively in this game, mostly as a key that activates certain switches, though the elemental breath idea has potential to do much more if the developers leaned into it. I’ll talk more about what they could do later, but just know that using any breath other than fire breath makes killing enemies take longer and isn’t worth it. It pierces armor but then takes three seconds to kill the enemy. Just charge and flame instead. Not worth it.

Once Gnasty has been kicked out, it’s onto the next hub world. In this game, moving across the land is justified because the other parts of the world that are corrupted by dark gems are physically closer to the dark gem mine. Dragon Village is the far end of corruption, and each major teleport closer brings you to a relatively safe hub world nearer to the mine. This teleport takes Spyro to the lovely yet melancholy beach hub world of Coastal Remains. I understand why Moneybags set up a shop there for game reasons, but it makes no sense in story reasons. There is just one NPC on the island that could potentially buy anything from Moneybags, other than Spyro, and it’s a surfboard otter dude who sounds stoned all the time. Now, in the past games, Moneybags has been explicitly evil. He locks up your allies, sells parts of the level that should be owned by the locals to you, and even mentally blocks you from doing basic stuff like swimming until you pay him. This game, he’s shown to be more benign as a simple shopkeeper. He doesn’t block anything off, but that just means his shop outposts in unpopulated areas like Coastal Remains or the Dark Gem Mines make no sense. There’s no one there to buy his crap nor is he there helping out Red. But I’m overthinking this, as you might expect from over 5000 words about a very forgettable game.

Speaking of forgettable, Coastal Remains is, well, forgettable. The first two homeworlds just aren’t very interesting. The second half of the game is far more intriguing in design and structure. But, for now, Coastal Remains is a standard hub world. It’s mostly corridors. Sometimes, these lead to gloomy beaches; despite the sun being out, I think the brightness in these sections is weirdly dark and adds that melancholy mood I first mentions to this level. Other times, they lead to further corridors that may test your tail swinging abilities or your conch-shell dodging. Ineptune, basically Ursula from The Little Mermaid, introduces herself, and hides herself in a cave, requiring another 10 dark gems to be shattered to unlock.

As stated earlier, this level is mostly corridors to relatively more open rooms that have relatively interesting set pieces. There’s one section where you glide around to a central island so you can shoot parts of the wall down with a cannon. There’s another section where you meet the surfer otter and fix a bunch of broken waterwheels to bring the water back to his surfing hole. There are small islands on the beaches that lead to caches of gems and some light gems. And there’s a Blink level near the edge of the level. Each of them are fine enough set pieces, and there’s some stuff I even neglected to mention. It’s just the rhythm is slightly broken up by having to travel via corridor, and Spyro’s movement across the world isn’t inherently interesting. I’ll talk more about this later, but the biggest failure of Spyro: A Hero’s Tail is that the level design doesn’t mesh with Spyro’s moveset for the game. Regardless, Coastal Remains is a nice enough level with interesting things going on, even if it also has weird and off-putting tiny Tiki people.

Coastal Remains is the hub world for the three levels in this section of the game titled “Lost Cities”. Though you’re far freer to do either of the other two in either order compared to the first world, it is recommended you take the propeller platform up to the skies where a dragon elder is waiting with a new move in Cloudy Domain. I think this level is the nadir of the game. The look of Cloudy Domain is unpleasant, the level is broken up into a series of floating islands with few landmarks to allow the player to know where they are, and it is extremely unclear to know where you can go without opening the map every couple of minutes. It doesn’t help that the move you learn, the wing shield, is almost entirely useless; it simply beats certain enemies, and is never used for minigames or platforming like the other moves.

Certain parts of Cloudy Domain are alright. I like how the houses look, the hamster wheel challenge where you have to speed down a hill in less then 45 seconds is a fun piece of gameplay, and seeing Sgt. Byrd is always fun. But then you come to the set piece where you have to hop across a giant gap using two rotating platforms to travel, and everything crashes to a halt. It’s simply not fun. And I need to stress how hard it is to figure out where to go when the stormclouds are purposely masking the crappy draw distance and the map doesn’t show anywhere you haven’t been. I like the gimmick of smashing the dark gems to turn on propellers and allow Spyro to go up, but it’s not used well here.

It’s funny that Cloudy Domain is the nadir of the game because the third level in the Lost Cities realm, Sunken Ruins, is the physical nadir of A Hero’s Tail, and also the area most of my early playthroughs of the game would end. It’s a water level, and my younger, dumber self could not navigate through it. It’s dark and has a similar sight problem to Cloudy Domain. However, because Sunken Ruins is a water level and not an air level, you can actually travel to most places you see. You just need to look around. And I couldn’t do that! I usually got stuck on the first swimming section, even though it has helpful guiding gems to tell you where to go to progress. I’d wind up meeting the mermaid in a dead end and then make my way back to the start on accident.

Heck, I even got stuck trying to find Sunken Ruins on a bunch of playthroughs. The elevator down is hidden underneath a breakable glass ceiling–all the women out there should thank Spyro btw–at the top of a lighthouse. Even though it has a target painted on it like all other things you can headbash, it’s not immediately obvious that the ceiling is breakable. Especially because a similar lighthouse model is used in another beach section of Coastal Ruins that doesn’t break when headbashed. I like the concept as the transition is naturally integrated into the world but it’s still hard to find it.

Once in the Sunken Ruins, the place is a mess. In a good way! It feels like Atlantis post-destruction. Most of the machinery is turned off until Spyro provides power back to it, and the machinery itself suggests a relatively advanced society lived down there, just like the myth of the “real” Atlantis. Also, other than the very out of place mermaid at the end of a dead end, there are no friendly NPCs for Spyro to talk to, further giving a spooky atmosphere. The level is also pretty straightforward, which is good because the dark and same-y looking corridors are hard to differentiate from one another.

The main memorable set piece in this level is when you reach the bottom of the Ruins and come to a flooded-with-poison circular room. As you headbash targets and a Dark Gem, the poison begins to drain and turn back into water as the queen-looking fish sculpture in the middle is repaired. I think the game implies this statue is Ineptune or at least some race of fish people Ineptune is related to. It’s not perfectly done because I get the feeling this game was slightly rushed and those small details are the last to get completed, usually. Though Sunken Ruins was the worst part of this game for younger me, it’s details like this and the well-done atmosphere that make it the highlight of this world.

Ineptune herself is a pretty lackluster fight. Her fish lasers are her most dangerous attack which does not fit with her theming as Ursula. Plus, her fight has the same fundamental problem every fight where the main character is on platforms in the middle of a pool of liquid that only the boss can attack in: why doesn’t Ineptune just destroy the platforms? Spyro can only charge underwater, and Ineptune obviously has the advantage down there because she survives the poison. Just break Spyro’s platforms!

She also has the other dumb boss problem like Gnasty Gnorc where she’s vulnerable only after a specific attack. This one is a breath attack that leaves her, well, out of breath once done. It doesn’t have great range or tracking ability so… just don’t use it, Ineptune. She really lives up to her name. 9 charges into her belly later, Ineptune dies, and Spyro gets the water breath ability. This is the only breath that can’t do damage, so its water bombs are even more useless than the other breaths’ by orders of magnitude. Water breath does get a chance to do damage in the last section of the game, but even those enemies can be killed by other breaths that it’s pointless to switch to unless you need to unlock doors by turning waterwheels. Which is the strangest unlocking system I’ve ever heard of. Imagine needing to fetch pails of water every time you wanted to get into your house. Unless you’re Jack or Jill, it’s not viable.

Once done with Ineptune, Spyro can just teleport to the next realm with no story explanation tipping you off about this. Which is strange because it’s easy to forget that you came to Coastal Remains via the large teleporter. Regardless, the next world is the Ice World. And I think it’s the strongest part of A Hero’s Tail. Both world three, the Icy Wilderness, and world four are singularly-themed. Unlike the first two worlds that have 3 distinct themed areas each, world three and world four focus only on ice and fire respectively. And each world does a great job of exploring this element theme.

The opening area, the Icy Wilderness, is a decently open and non-linear starting level. You’re put into the center of the world and have four different routes to go in search of five Dark Gems. Before this, the most dark gems a world had was 4; here, the game is telling the player to just go wherever they feel like in order to smash all 5 to get to Red, now that he’s out of minions. And it’s because the game sets up the player for all this freedom that makes world 3 both frustrating and brilliant.

You can’t smash all 5 dark gems in the area your first visit. Even with the help of a penguin couple (the best NPCs in the game), Spyro will come across a bunch of areas he can’t access. Most of them are at the top of cliffs that have shafts similar to those found in Dragonfly Falls. So the player knows they have to find the dragon elder to learn the wall jump that’ll get Spyro up the shaft, but finding the dragon elder is impossible as well. Three of the corners end up being dead ends with some loot and perchance a dark gem or two, but no dragon elder to make it up to a cannon to blast down a wall that may have another dark gem nor up other shafts. Despite the freedom seemingly allowed, the game still has a primary path and isn’t as non-linear as it wishes it could be.

That primary path will take Spyro to a clearing with a Wooly mammoth hanging out. In the cutscene that played before Spyro teleported to the Icy Wilderness, Red gives this mammoth orders to destroy Spyro when he comes through or else the rest of his kind will be exterminated. Red puts the mammoth there because that path is the way to the Icy Citadel, the place Spyro is told the dragon elder should be. For the first time in the game, we’re setting up a miniboss.

And so the player walks Spyro into the clearing, which seems like a decent arena for a fight, with the ability to clearly see this mammoth before the cutscene trigger is activated. Then the cutscene plays and Spyro appears to get ambushed by the ginormous mammoth. Somehow. Even though you can see him very easily before stepping into the cutscene. But that’s not a big deal, it’s time to have an epic fight with a mammoth! Well… not quite. The mammoth steps on Spyro, instantly incapacitating the dragon. Sparx manages to get away through the mammoth’s nose which makes zero sense on a whole bunch of levels, but whatever. The mammoth thinks his job is done and then somehow throws Spyro into a cage on the far edge of Icy Citadel. Instead of, you know, killing him. Which he could have. By stepping on Spyro more.

Unwinnable fights in video games always feel unpleasant to play since video games give the impression that you, the player, do have a say in what happens. Especially in action games where you have the ability to fight back in real-time. This “fight” is stupid, but it’s forgivable because it leads to the most interesting section of A Hero’s Tail. Sparx managed to reach Hunter after escaping the mammoth’s nose and gets him to save Spyro. In another Spyro game, this would’ve been a cutscene as well. In this game, you play as Hunter as he works his way through a cave to the Icy Citadel so he can free Spyro.

I’ll be very, very clear: I hated this section every time I played the game until exactly the last two times I went through it. And I got to this section at least five times prior. Hunter’s gameplay is very different. He’s a bow sniper. Instead of rushing in to use your close-combat breaths like as Spyro, you need to be patient and shoot down your enemies to make a path. Hunter has a punch-dash but it has a long windup and there’s a lot of small floating platforms with enemies on them in this section that make it difficult to punch while staying on the platform. Speaking of, the platforming as Hunter is also quite different. He has the double jump, but can’t glide. There’s not as much a safety net as there is with Spyro. He also can climb on walls to get around and up if need be, unlike Spyro who can travel very far horizontally but not so vertically.

And the level designers do great work with all these slight differences in gameplay to make the Hunter section extremely memorable. I said I hated this section at first, and I absolutely did. But I 100% remembered it after playing it the first time, and it always stuck in my head. The section opens with a cute little cameo. Hunter makes his way through the opening cave that reminds players how to control him or teaches them if they skipped his Dragonfly Falls section and comes across a locked door.

The only one who can open it is Bentley the friendly and well-versed Yeti from Year of the Dragon. But, alas! His home in the Icy Wilderness (a second outpost, I presume) has been ransacked by other Yetis, jealous of his home. So Hunter has to go over there and kill them all and it’s a neat little sequence where the game makes an icy mountain home a mini-dungeon. Hmm, wonder what level designers might’ve been inspired by this very dungeon? *stares at Twilight Princess*

Though it’s never made clear how Bentley got to his home at the top of a cliff which Hunter can only reach by climbing walls, Bentley still unlocks the way forward once the evil Yetis are gone and gives Hunter a light gem to boot. What a nice guy. Pretty soon after this comes the spookiest, most terrifying section in a video game. Or, it was for me, anyway.

3 invincible necromancers come from the ground and lock Hunter into a small combat arena. They each take turns summoning skeletons and Hunter has to go around and kill ten of them before all the buried bodies in the area are, uh, too busted to revive, I guess. I really, really hated and still actively dislike this section. In the past, it’s because the necromancers’ design unnerved me and actually scared me. Nowadays, it’s because you have to punch each skeleton since they’re invulnerable to arrows, and their attacks come out faster than your punch. You only have 4 hits before death, or 5 if you buy the health upgrade, and it’s very easy to lose the war of attrition before you kill all 10 skeletons.

The setup goes completely against Hunter’s gameplay. He’s a sniper, not a puncher (and definitely not a lover–there’s a reason why Bianca isn’t in this game). There’s also no chance to use Hunter’s upward mobility to get a good vantage point or even a way to use his best tools to fight the necromancers. It’s a really bad section that already has the potential of annoying players by forcing control away from Spyro, the character they bought the game to play as, and it comes early enough in the section to leave a lasting, poor first impression.

It’s also very strange because, though those skeletons do appear later in Hunter’s section, there’s no other time where it’s necessary to kill them. It has no later payoff. I guess it’s part of the tutorial for people who skipped Hunter’s earlier stuff, but it’s poorly balanced and unfun.

Most of the rest of the combat encounters let Hunter either snipe from a distance or press on with the risk of getting hit. Usually these involve bats circling around the ceiling that swoop down when Hunter gets close. So it can be tough hitting these guys before trying to cross over collapsing skeletons. But at least you have the option to make it easier on yourself or take less time. And the platforming is decently balanced around Hunter’s floatier jumping. There’s some setups with small floating platforms and some tightropes that Hunter is agile enough to hotfoot across or balanced enough to stand and snipe from.

After making it through one more set of collapsing platforms, complete with bear traps for Red knows what reason, Hunter will make it to Spyro’s cage. It’s held up by a rope that Hunter easily shoots down that sends the cage and Spyro crashing down hundreds of feet to Spyro’s death. Nah, just kidding about that last part, but it was super dangerous for Hunter to do that. Still, this is a kid’s game, so Spyro brushes himself off and delivers some snark before starting his exploration of the Ice Citadel. For contrived reasons, the cage was placed over an entrance to the Citadel but it was just a window in the ceiling that Spyro can’t jump to so he has to go through the entire mazelike Citadel to get out and no of course you can’t just go backwards through Hunter’s section as Spyro.

It’s not well-explained, but it’s forgiven. I guess. The Ice Citadel itself starts with a Moneybags’ shop which means you can immediately teleport away. Which is lame. This Citadel is Spyro’s prison! There’s an implied explanation for Moneybags’ presence here, but it still feels weird. The Citadel also has 5 dark gems to make up all 10 in the world since Hunter can’t destroy dark gems despite his own version of the horn bash that ends in a stomp. Which means that Red could’ve placed one dark gem in that hidden tunnel and would’ve won. Or at least had corrupted the Icy Wilderness’ hidden tunnel, and isn’t that a win?

Within the Ice Citadel is that all-important dragon elder that teaches Spyro wall-kicking. Since there are only very specific walls you can use it to get up from, the move isn’t as useful as Mario’s wall-kicks. But wall-kicks will work to get you out of the extremely large trap hole you got yourself into destroying the dark gem that led to the dragon elder. Convenient! By the way, just a refresher: have you used the wing shield since the floating level? Yeah, me neither.

The Ice Citadel has a really cool design once you’re outside. Spyro gets to climb over a castle like all the cool, taller dragons get to in fantasy novels, though he definitely can’t intimidate kings and queens like, say, Eragon could. Or, excuse me, Eragon’s dragon. The inner workings of the Citadel aren’t quite as interesting–it only has got curb appeal. The floors were never finished in the Ice Citadel. They’re all the same color of dirt brown that either implies there is literally no floor or they just carpeted everything with the ugliest color possible.

The only other decorations indoor in the majority of the Citadel are actually important. They’re boilers that Spyro can light. Sometimes light gems will just come out of the furnaces which raises a lot of questions that I, an English major and not an engineering major, cannot answer. Not only will lighting them as you get to them bring rewards now, the Ice Princess will reward you for lighting all of them. Now, most of the friendly NPCs in this game are slightly inexplicable. From the friendly, southern crocodiles in Crocovile Swamp to the random surfing otter in Coastal Remains to the amazingly dressed penguin couple in Frostbite Village to the out-of-nowhere flirty mermaid in Sunken Ruins, the friendly NPCs are a mixed bag in terms of how they fit in to the level.

The Ice Princess makes complete sense as a character in her world’s context. What doesn’t make sense is that her throne room you meet her in is super far into the level and the task she gives you is something you should be doing from room 1 in the Citadel. Her dialogue of Red’s army coming in, placing dark gems, and freezing the joint up gives added significance to this level. Now you, the player, are even more motivated than you were to drive Red away–look at how they treated the poor Ice Princess! She’s freezing!

And yet it’s super easy to miss this character. She’s hanging out in a side room from Spyro’s path that takes some puzzle-solving and tough platforming to get to. Next time, it’d be a lot better if the throne room was the second room Spyro gets to after being freed from the cage so that he can learn about what Red’s done to the poor Ice Princess’ kingdom and Citadel. Ripto’s Rage and Year of the Dragon always opened their levels with a friendly NPC giving Spyro the local rundown of what the bad guys are doing and how he could help, and it’s an effective motivator.

I’d also like to add that the fellows who put together Eleum Loyce for the Dark Souls 2 DLC were 100% influenced by Ice Citadel’s design and setting. So, uh, Spyro is Dark Souls and should be universally loved. I will say that a few of my rare runs that made it this far got wiped out in Ice Citadel against my will. I haven’t talked about it before, but A Hero’s Tail’s biggest problem has nothing to do with level design. It has to do with autosave.

Autosave is another piece of Dark Souls that should immediately endear any fan of Dark Souls to A Hero’s Tail, but this autosave is just bad. There’s a small flashing square that’ll show onscreen in the upper left corner when it’s autosaving, and it’s hard to notice. Which should be good! Unobtrusive UI is something most designers strive for. But the problem is that turning off your console during autosave will 100% corrupt your savefile. These autosaves happen whenever you get zapped by Zoe, teleport, or collect a light gem or dragon egg or destroy a dark gem. I corrupted probably 8 or so save files of this game and figured it had the same disc problems as my Year of the Dragon disk before figuring this problem out.

I’d say at least 3 of those files went down during a particular point of Ice Citadel. In one of the open areas outside the Citadel, you can find Sgt. Byrd near Zoe. So I’d do the Sgt. Byrd speedway segment, have the game save me winning the light gem from his section, wait for the autosave that comes post-conversation to end, then simultaneously get zapped by Zoe as I turned off the console. When I’d turn the game back on, it’d tell me the file was corrupted and it was back to square one. This is about 10-12 hours into the game and it happened multiple times, including on a run when I very much knew about the autosave. It’s super disheartening to lose all this progress. I know it was always my fault when it happened (another thing Dark Souls fans love), but it still sucks. I guess what I’m saying is if you read none of the other 10,000+ words here, you should know to never turn the game off during autosave.

All that aside, I think Ice Citadel’s level design makes it the best in the game. Though the insides are bland-looking, the enemy encounters are varied and interesting, the inner platforming on floating platforms is well-done, and the exploration feels exciting–especially when you find the throne room. Outside of and around the Citadel, Spyro dashes through sewers, jumps up snow banks, walks on drawbridges, and climbs on the Citadel itself to find all five dark gems and the other light gems and dragon eggs. And it’s just really well-done. Ice Citadel was probably the blueprint for the rest of the game’s levels, but none of them do it as well. Its sections are distinct and memorable compared to the rest of the outdoor-heavy levels. I think putting Spyro in traditional Middle Age fantasy levels like Spyro 1 started doing and Ice Citadel would do a lot to make Spyro stand out. In fact, just end the charade and make Spyro platform through Dark Souls levels.

With the wall kick in hand, Spyro can clean up Ice Citadel’s secrets right away. Near the end of the level is a re-entry to Frostbite Village that leads right back to the major teleporter you took to get here. It’s a great piece of world design that lets it wrap around. Now, with that wall-kick, you can get the other couple of dark gems hidden in the Icy Wilderness to break the wall down to Red’s lair. I truly think the entire game post-wall kick is super well done. There are no more movement barriers preventing Spyro getting anywhere, and the level design is just far better when all the moves are available. They shouldn’t have been locked from the start. Plus, as stated earlier, the actual levels in world 3 and 4 are just far better designed than the others.

The re-exploration of Icy Wilderness is nice, even though you’re not allowed to re-explore Hunter’s area as Spyro. You can still re-access it if you missed a light gem or egg in his area, but you can’t glide around. There’s not much to say about Icy Wilderness. It doesn’t have too many set pieces or a big central piece like Ice Citadel. It’s mostly a mix of tight, obstacle-filled corridors and open areas with goblin snipers and falling icicles. I think it’s quite pretty and a great take on the ice world concept, but it’s a little same-y. A Hero’s Tail does a great job providing bleak atmospheres after the first world. The three worlds in Coastal Remains are each broken down, and Icy Wilderness/Citadel is inhospitable AND broken down. The environment does a great job enforcing the narrative that Red is corrupting these once-beautiful places; I just wish some NPCs might be there too to comment.

Red’s fight is weird. You make your way through the cavern that was once protected by the dark gems (which still doesn’t make sense; how could dark gem energy be localized like that and if it can why isn’t it being used for better reasons than sealing in a major commander in Red’s army gah) to the freezing bottom where Red is waiting for Spyro in the middle of an ice-covered platform which is itself is a raised island in the center of a bunch of spikes. If Spyro slips too far, he’ll fall off and be impaled. Have you noticed a pattern with these bosses yet? The developers really struggle coming up with fights that don’t restrict your movement with the threat of violence. It’s a good thing their day jobs aren’t for interior design.

Red has a magic wand just like all the other friendlier dragon elders, and I do like that consistency. What I don’t like is how Red uses it to either fire an ice beam or conjures up TNT crates. Which Spyro can ignite and send his way to damage him. The boss makers really struggle with designing bosses that don’t hand you the keys to defeating them as well. It’s a good thing they aren’t behavioral therapists, either, because I have to imagine they’d design an automatic rehabilitation system for drug addicts that 25% of the time decides to just relapse the patient.

Also, Red could just use his magic wand to do pretty much anything besides those two things. Unless that’s all his magic can do. In which case, what kinda niche wand store did this moron get his wand at? In what world do you ever need a dual-purpose device that can both shoot ice and conjure up TNT crates? I guess it’s meant for a really bad birthday party clown. Enough riffing on this fight. It’s adequate, I guess. Harder to actually hit Red than the previous two bosses so getting the 9 hits to take him down may take longer, and the icy controls pile further difficulty on top. It’s the most interesting boss fight but that’s not necessarily a good thing.

As you might expect from Red’s attacks, beating him unlocks the ice breath, the best and most underused breath in the game. I love ice breaths in Spyro games. Frozen Altars in Year of the Dragon is one of my favorite levels. He can only breathe ice at the start of the confusingly titled Spyro 2: Season of Flame GBA game. And Spyro’s ice breath is key to his usefulness in my middle school fantasy shonen anime that starred King Dedede, Kirby, Bowser Jr., Spyro, and a Penguin named Freezeflame that had the power of ice and fire. I never wrote a script for it but believe me it was hype as heck.

The ice breath in A Hero’s Tail isn’t used for much. Breath of the Wild stole its main purpose of freezing water spouts coming out of walls that Spyro can then use to platform around. When an enemy is hit by it, they are frozen and Spyro can just charge to kill them, making it far more effective than electricity’s “shoot for five seconds to kill” and water’s inability to kill, yet still way weaker than fire breath’s “hit them once and they’re dead”. I also have never used Ice Breath’s ammo shot and cannot comment on it but I can’t imagine it being useful. Regardless, ice breath got done dirty because it showed up so late, and even its effectiveness against enemies in the final world doesn’t make up for it! The developers just should’ve allowed Spyro all four breaths at the start.

Spyro is onto the fourth and final world after defeating Red… wait, why do we need to continue this quest if we just blew Red up with a whole bunch of TNT? Well, Red just flies away after the fight. Spyro sends him off with a quip before making his way out thanks to the ice breath. And then Spyro takes a teleporter to Red’s base of operations in the Volcanic Isles. Just as you teleport in, a short cutscene of Red flying into the volcano plays. Which raises two questions: 1. how the heck did flying Red beat you when you literally teleported there? 2. how can Red still fly?

Regardless, the Volcanic Isles are the second-best part of the game. And it starts with the first level. Stormy Beach is basically Lost Fleet from Year of the Dragon. There’s a central wrecked ship on land, a cannon to shoot at crap, and some crazy NPC telling you to blow stuff up. Before I traded this game in, the furthest I ever got was up to this level before my save file was corrupted yet again due to turning the power off during autosave. That was definitely the last straw for me. I couldn’t break the final ten dark gems that corrupted my save files.

The Volcanic Isles are interesting because it’s four short levels and one long final level that wraps it up. The atmosphere of even the first level screams “final world”. It’s a dark, stormy beach that you yourself storm. My god… storming a dark beach to launch a frontal assault on the big bad guys? This level is D-Day! The “d” stands for “dragon”, in this realm.

I’ll be honest, I’ve only gotten through this part of the game twice, so I remember pretty little about the short levels. And that’s a good thing. They flow well into each other. There’s some weird magic carpet floating platform that bridges the gap between the ship and the small crack that leads further into the Volcanic Isles. Or maybe it doesn’t exist. I dunno guys my handle on this is as loose as Red’s grip on the Dragon Realms. What’s his plan retreating back to his home base, and what’s our plan following him there? Have we become that invading force which we hated so much? Pssh, of course not–we’re the good guys! Here to reclaim the uninhabitable Volcanic Isles. Okay, I guess Moneybags can stay after we’ve liberated it (I don’t know why anyone would want to live here).

At some point through a cavern or up a hill or however the heck you get there, you’ll pass from Stormy Beach into Molten Mount. I’ve noticed a trend with video game active volcano naming conventions. They are always named after the fact that they are active. Video game environment namers get away with their laziness because there is only one active volcano per game, but think about the ramifications if every real-life active volcano was named something like “Fire Mountain” or “Active Volcano” or “Molten Mount”. There’d be a lot of stupidly-named hikes.

Magma Mount is a relatively large area for this world and comes with three dark gems, a couple of shops, and an NPC Hyena who only just before you got there had her house burned down by rock monsters. I have 3 questions: 1. why is a Hyena living on top of flowing lava? 2. how did it take this long for her house to burn down? 3. how on earth did rock monsters burn it down before the, you know, open lava and heat and just seriously how did it last this long? What is Teena the Hyena hiding from us? And why is she literally the only friendly NPC here in the Isles? Are we saving the Isles specifically for her? Does she pay taxes to the Dragon Realms? Why is she here? Alright, that was more than 3 questions but this NPC raises so many of them.

Somewhere around Teena’s home, also on top of platforms floating on lava, is the last speedway for Sgt. Byrd. That’s right, your boy the flying penguin is here for one last time… in an extremely hot place. Look, most people don’t know that penguins live all over the southern hemisphere, and up to the equator (hello Galapagos Penguins in the audience). But they still would not find an active volcano hospitable. Get my Byrd out of there. But alas his speedway is mainly flying through lava rings, not away from the volcano and into safety. Though I guess he did have a section in Molten Crater in Year of the Dragon. Ooh, check that creative naming! Phew, hope that distracted the readers.

Back to Molten Mount, which would be a terrible horse mount, Spyro presses on fighting against “fire cowboys”. That’s what the best GameFAQs guide calls these flaming enemies, and who am I to judge? Move over Dallas, the best descriptor of cowboys is now “fire”. I haven’t talked a lot about enemy design in this game because Spyro’s combat has always felt tacked on. The very first game’s enemies were just jewels turned into monsters (and also put inside pots, see Dry Canyon), and these baddies don’t even have that excuse for being lame. To kill some of the flaming enemies, you have to use your water breath. Or you can use your ice breath. Or you can ignore them. Except for snipers, there is no minion threatening enough in A Hero’s Tail that you HAVE to engage. And the snipers in this last world are really annoying because their lasers have AoE damage for god knows what reason. It doesn’t count as a snipe if a bullet’s shockwave is what hits me and not the bullet itself!

Back to the level, it’s an enjoyable enough jaunt through the mountain. It’s very linear with only one or two side paths for gems, which are very, very worthless at this point. The light gems and dragon eggs are obvious, and each section has a dark gem to smash at the end. Eventually, you’ll get to Magma Falls. God, would it have killed these namers to be any less descriptive? Astute gamers will notice that they start on “Magma Falls – Top” when they first arrive. These same savvy gamers will be able to predict you wind up going to “Magma Falls – Bottom”, but what about “Magma Falls – Middle”?

You do indeed travel through the middle of the falls rather than, well, fall all the way down. But instead of taking some lame switchbacks like a hipster hiker, Spyro travels down via hamster ball. Yep, just like Hunter’s extended gameplay bit let him shine, this is the time for the hamster ball’s big moment. It’s basically a rollercoaster with a bunch of different paths, some of which have light gems. You can’t get everything the first ride down, which is a little annoying, but I think it’s fine to give this a little replay value since the hamster ball gets so little play. It also has some fun spectacle with Red’s minions attacking you in the ball, but this might give Spyro veterans flashbacks to “trouble with the trolley” so it’s your call if the PTSD was worth it.

The bottom of Magma Falls holds the eventual entrance to the Dark Mine. This is the place where Red’s been mining all the dark gems in case you couldn’t have figured that out from the clever name. I really don’t mean to harp on this naming so much, but this world has really bad names. What’s strange about this place is that, despite being able to see dark gems naturally forming all over, there are still two to destroy that will open up further passage when destroyed. 1. Why wouldn’t we just destroy every dark gem here? 2. Why aren’t the other “natural” dark gems corrupting the path all over the place rather in these two instances? 3. Why does Moneybags have shops in the dark mine? I can accept reasonable answers to two of these questions, but not all three. Your call.

The Dark Mine is kind of neat since it brings back the swimming in a poisonous maze gimmick from Lost Fleet, only I think it does it a little better here. It’s not as maze-y because the map helps a great deal in figuring out correct passage. I want to say the level opens up with a bunch of mining machinery in place, because the laser-wielding gnorcs do not seem like great miners. But, then again, the best gemcutters of Glimmer were mice, so maybe the gnorcs are good enough. Make your way through the level and you’ll eventually come to the representative of the best race for mining, Blink the Mole.

This Blink section takes 20 minutes to do and it suuuuuuuuucks. It also has very difficult platforming with moving platforms and that’s not the point of Blink’s character. But this is his last mission, so it’s just giving him a nice sendoff. The strange thing about Blink is that none of his sections are necessary to beat the game. Even rolling around in a hamster ball has plot relevance, yet Blink could have just not shown up and Spyro would’ve missed out on 4 light gems and 4 dragon eggs. I think there might’ve been cut content where Blink has to do part of the rescue Spyro mission that Hunter ended up doing. Still, it’s not like Blink was alone–Sgt. Byrd, bless his heart, never needs to be talked to, nor does any of Sparx’s shoot-em-ups need to be shot. Only Hunter is necessary, which is TERRIBLE. I don’t want to be indebted to a guy that places plot-relevant items in his flippers.

I learned during this Blink segment that my Gamecube controller’s joystick was broken, and it couldn’t “go forward” as far as it should. It made jumping on the moving lava platforms way harder than it should be. My original Wii lost its ability to read discs around this time, too. The fourth world of A Hero’s Tail has hurt me three separate times in three very distinct ways. I wouldn’t be shocked if I suffered a heart attack the next time I got to this segment. The dark gems’ corruption reaches further than even Red expected, clearly. Yet after making it through the Dark Mine, you come to Red’s Laboratory. He’s putting his electronics right next to the dark gems and they aren’t doing a goddanged thing to them!

The Laboratory is a real nice last level. There’s three (or four? can’t remember) distinct sections to it that all end with destroying a dark gem, and each one tasks your mastery of a different part of Spyro’s movement. One makes you glide, one makes you tail spin, and one makes you charge the wrong way down a conveyor belt. Once you’ve smashed the 40th and final dark gem, you break the barrier in the lab leading to Red. This is the only barrier that makes any sense. It’s also nice that you don’t have to travel back to the starting area of the world like the other worlds made you, but you can if you want because… Moneybags has a shop. In Red’s lab. Which he called “Mechanical Mishaps”. Moneybags was painted as explicitly good in this game, but his loyalties remain in question as ever.

There’s also a robot NPC in the central part of the lab that talks to Spyro. I just wanted to point him out because it was a very strange decision to even include a friendly NPC here. I’m really not sure the point. Or the point of this whole thought piece. Hey-o! Hey, if you’ve ever read anything by me, you had to know the self-deprecation had to come sooner or later.

By the time you get to Red, you’ve definitely gotten enough light gems to unlock all the locked areas in the previous worlds if you cared about that sort of thing. None of those hidden areas actually have anything interesting beyond more light gems and dragon eggs. Which is fine. I just kind of wish there were some interesting hidden in the places beyond the eggs. Like a set piece. Or another boss. Or some friends. That seems like a reasonable reward for the hard work to unlock them.

Getting through the dark gem barrier brings you to the innermost part of Red’s Lab. Where it is revealed that he somehow kidnapped the Professor to make him do further research to power Red up to beat Spyro. By the way, if you were to visit the Professor’s Lab after unlocking Red’s Lab all the way back in the Dragon Realm, he’d still be there. This is a HUGE plot hole–how could the Professor have been kidnapped in the time that it took to teleport back to Red??? I’m am ANGRY about this plot hole. Furious! Incensed! Worst part of the game!

Anyway, back to the whole final boss thing. The Professor does not look very coerced into doing Red’s bidding (he is VERY safe in his overlook over the arena). There isn’t a single Gnorc holding him to laserpoint. And yet, he manages to fumble around and “accidentally” push the button that blasts Red with a beam that powers him up into a cyborg dragon. Moneybags was questionable enough, but the Professor also being on Red’s side? Spyro really has no allies. The most devious part is that after defeating Red Spyro still accepts the Professor as a lovable goof. He doesn’t suspect a thing.

Red the cyborg dragon looks kinda cool and is the most interesting boss, but that’s not saying much. The Professor managed to screw up his transformation slightly by making him too big and therefore immobile. He just shoots eye beams and tail missiles at Spyro instead of trying to crush him. Red’s not making the most of his new arsenal. Which makes sense since you fight him 30 seconds after he becomes a cyborg. He barely knew how to use his wand before becoming a cyborg anyway, and he must’ve had that thing for years. I’m really not sure how Red got an army to back him since he has a large hat and no cattle when it comes to combat might. Charisma, I guess? Or maybe dark gems sell for a lot of “real gems”.

Just like all the other bosses in this game, you can only hurt Red when he gets tired. Here, though, the Professor actually helps out by pushing buttons to make rockets come out of the ground. His nefarious double-agent act continues to escalate. You have to ignite them with your flame breath and not your water breath because I cannot stress enough how useless the water breath is and then the rockets hit Red and do damage. What kind of wack robot armor can’t protect you from some fireworks? Cyborg Red kinda sucks.

After avoiding the next wave of attacks, you have to use your electricity breath and NOT YOUR WATER OR ICE BREATH to activate devices that’ll damage Red. Then you use your tailspin or head slam or headbash, that’s the one, to hit some targets on the ground to activate the last set of damaging devices. Zero fights required half of the breaths and that is lame. Like I said, the final boss is still the best fight in the game–but it really isn’t saying much. It’s slightly challenging in a fair way where it’s your fault if you get hit or can’t execute the damage sequence well. But it also feels like wasted potential. Why couldn’t Spyro have been hit by the beam too and we’d get a cyborg dragon on cyborg dragon fight? Or why couldn’t using the water breath short circuit Red’s armor??? Just make the water breath important next time.

The post-fight resolution is pretty quick. The Professor “figures out the machine” which he presumably helped build and shrinks Red even smaller than Spyro. The Professor then manages to get out of his overlook and into the arena. He then traps Red in a butterfly jar. Then the game ends. It’s up to you, the player, to imagine what happened next. I personally think the Professor somehow uses Red’s innate magical talent to take over the world, but I could see the entire Dragon Realms go through a sort of apocalyptic climate change due to the dark gems. Regardless, it’s a very rushed ending that was a little disappointing after finally beating the game after 10 years or however long it was since I got the game, sold it, and rebought it. But you don’t play A Hero’s Tail for the story. Hopefully. Now… the Spyro: A New Beginning games… those are games you have to play for the story.

But I’ve gone over 13,000 words before getting to the main point of this whole thing, which is to talk about how A Hero’s Tail could be the blueprint for a future Spyro game. The game waffles between four distinct gameplay styles that it needed to pick rather than not committing to any. In no particular order, Spyro: A Hero’s Tail is caught between being similar to Super Mario Odyssey, Metroidvanias, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and a traditional Spyro the Dragon game.

When I played Super Mario Odyssey, I found it to be the best collect-a-thon ever to be made. It has a huge variety of levels with a huge variety of ways to collect the same thing. Your only goal in that game (aside from saving Peach from Bowser, but you knew that) is collecting Power Moons. Every level is densely packed with these things. You can literally kick a rock and find a Power Moon underneath. What makes Super Mario Odyssey great is that the variety of ways to find each Moon comes at little cost to the originality behind each moon. Yes, it is a little tedious that there is a Moon in each world you collect by simply talking to an NPC or by spending 100 coins in each shop, but of the 880 unique Moons to collect, a good 500+ are genuinely fun to collect.

Spyro: A Hero’s Tail only has 100 light gems and 80 dragon eggs. That is not enough collectibles to make the levels dense and thick with things to collect. As such, there are too many open spaces and lulls in collecting that halts the flow of dopamine jolts from collecting a light gem. Yet there is simultaneously too many light gems and dragon eggs to collect to pass them off as mere baubles. The game somehow manages to over-value and under-value its collectibles. You only need 40 light gems to activate the Professor’s final invention which is the last plot-relevant lock, but you need 95 light gems to get into the final locked door in Frostbite Village. They should either have raised the importance of collecting the light gems for plot relevancy by increasing the final required total to, say, 75 or simply not have had them at all.

And the dragon eggs simply unlock extras. I’m perfectly fine with them being superfluous. But if they did want to go the Super Mario Odyssey route, they could’ve just made all of them light gems and had each set of ten light gems unlock bonuses. The way dragon eggs work in sets is arbitrary–yeah, you get half the Sgt. Byrd eggs in Sgt. Byrd games, but the other half just kinda… are found.

Finally, I said this earlier, but Spyro’s moveset isn’t diverse enough in A Hero’s Tail to make collecting as interesting as it is in Odyssey. There is so much freedom of movement in Odyssey compared to Spyro. Mario can horizontally and vertically travel on his own two feet and cap much quicker than Spyro, and he can simply do more things because of the hat capture gimmick. Beyond doing more with the elemental breaths which were underused, Spyro games that want to ape Super Mario Odyssey will have to add more mobility options. Which is very difficult conceptually for the dragon specifically. The double jump, tail spin, and wall jump were good additions to Spyro’s base moveset, but it’s so hard to find further innovations there. Which is why Spyro’s version of Super Mario Odyssey would have a tough time building levels that make collecting noticeably different across worlds. It’s a great option for a game since I believe Super Mario Odyssey is the best any collect-a-thon game gets, but maybe not for Spyro.

The next game A Hero’s Tail tries to emulate is the Metroidvania. Now, the implementation in A Hero’s Tail is pretty small. It just boils down to there being one or two doors locked in earlier levels that you can unlock with moves or breaths found later. But the roots of a solid enough Metroidvania are there. If the next Spyro game is built like Metroid Prime, there is enough of a foundation in A Hero’s Tail to base it off of. Make backtracking more important, increase the uses of the breaths to make them as used as the different beams in Metroid Prime, and put in more secrets like the hidden light gem in Crocovile Swamp. Now, there would have to be way fewer collectibles to make the exploration important, and the atmosphere of the game would have to be a lot lonelier if the next Spyro game went this route. Metroidvanias are about exploring a world, not about exploring a culture. I think this would be a fine option, and Spyro: Shadow Legacy kind of did this in a crossover game no one asked for.

Similar to Metroidvania, the next Spyro game could ape The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Instead of forcing backtracking like Metroidvanias, simply have Spyro unlock all of his breaths at the start of the game. Put him on his own Great Plateau (which is essentially the Dragon Village in this game) until he learns to glide, and you sincerely have the start of a really interesting open world game. As far as I know, there have been no open world games in which you play as a dragon. It would require way better world design than what is shown in A Hero’s Tail, but there is a start towards the idea. Worlds 3 and 4 are very interconnected and flow super well and the level transitions in world 2 try to give the sense of everything being connected, but loading screens and teleportation limits that feeling of connection greatly. Of course, some of that were restrictions due to old hardware limitations which can be easily fixed with current gen power.

I really think a Spyro game that puts as much time and effort into world design as Breath of the Wild could be really good. The one caveat is that Spyro’s moveset needs to be rebuilt from the ground up to make controlling him for 100 hours interesting. Spyro 1 could do it with the base moveset for 20 hours. By Spyro 2, the developers had to put in minigames, and the future Spyro games continued to increase the amount of time spent playing as not-normal-Spyro. This is the biggest problem a theoretical open world Spyro game has, because the Dragon Realms are an inherently interesting world to explore and the character already has a bunch of built-in “runes”. I truly believe that the next Spyro game could and perhaps should be open world.

Of course, the final game that A Hero’s Tail tries to be is a traditional Spyro game. The main characters are all the same, the plot is pretty much the same, and the gameplay loop of exploring to collect is the same. And the next Spyro game could very much be a traditional Spyro game, and A Hero’s Tail is a great example of what can be done when the core gameplay of Spyro is put into the next generation. The game takes some risks in level design by making the levels larger and devaluing gems, but there are a lot of smarts shown in just those two decisions alone. Replaying the Spyro games in the Reignited Trilogy showed how tiny the levels in the original Spyro games were, and I think Toys For Bob (the owners of the Spyro license as of writing) could learn a lot from how the levels in A Hero’s Tail tried to balance the increase in console power for larger levels with the traditional collect-it-all gameplay of old Spyro games.

I want to close these 14,000+ words by reiterating that Spyro: A Hero’s Tail isn’t a hidden gem, but probably equivalent in value to a blue gem from Year of the Dragon. It tried to resuscitate Spyro’s name after Enter the Dragonfly, and it never really got a chance. With Spyro getting a fourth chance (if you include his second chance as the star of A New Beginning’s awful trilogy and his third chance as the “star” of Skylanders) after the Reignited Trilogy’s success, Toys For Bob could learn much from how the team at Universal Vivendi innovated on Spyro’s formula in A Hero’s Tail should they make their own original sequel. Thanks for reading.

About pungry

Making strained metaphors funny.
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