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How To Retrain Your Dragon

Part of Activision’s business mimics archaeology – digging through decades of gaming history left behind by other development studios with the hope of reshaping their work for a new generation to enjoy. Last year we watched Activision subsidiary Vicarious Visions dig up Crash Bandicoot’s first adventures, which date back over 20 years to the original PlayStation.

In creating the Crash Bandicoot: N. Sane Trilogy, Vicarious was tasked with what may sound like a fool’s errand: preserve the nostalgia so fans would feel like they were revisiting their favorite games, but also make it look state-of-the-art so the next generation of gamers thought it was new and exciting. To accomplish this feat, not one line of code from the original games was used. Vicarious rebuilt those titles from the ground up, replicating the design right down to the exact placement of specific items. Crash’s movement speed was also unaltered. The one significant alteration was enhancing the visuals. Vicarious made it look as beautiful as any big-budget PlayStation 4 game out there.

Crash Bandicoot: N. Sane Trilogy was a critical and commercial success, leading many to believe Activision would explore Spyro the Dragon’s history next. Activision made this decision well before the launch of N. Sane Trilogy, enlisting developer Toys for Bob to resurrect Insomniac Games’ original three Spyro games for the PlayStation. Fans now get to experience Spyro the Dragon, Spyro 2: Ripto’s Rage, and Spyro: Year of the Dragon through the Spyro Reignited Trilogy. Toys for Bob is no stranger to Spyro – this beloved dragon was a key player in this studio’s wildly successful Skylanders games.

Spyro’s fire breath won’t just torch enemies, it can melt ice and burn grass

Toys for Bob’s mission to retain the nostalgia of a series but enhance it visually proved to be a little more challenging than Vicarious Visions’, as the visual fidelity of the original Spyro games didn’t hold up as well as Crash’s. The narrow play space of the Crash titles allowed for more detail to be included in the environments, whereas Spyro’s worlds were more open and less defined. Toys for Bob’s artists did their best to try to get into the mind of Insomniac’s artists to figure out their grand vision. Some of the stages teased the idea of ancient civilizations and magical places but ended up consisting of just two huts and a streak of magical light in the distance. Without adding any other geometry that would change the play space, Toys for Bob’s design team expanded on this vision as much as possible. The environment still consists of just two huts, but they look entirely different, and are now intricately detailed to convey the sense of society and magic. It looks like a new game, but fans will find it oddly familiar.

Josh Nadelberg, art director at Toys for Bob, says there’s a tricky balance to this process. “We tried to evoke the memory you had,” he says. “Memories are always seen through rosy glasses. I had this experience showing my kids the original The Legend of Zelda. I told them, ‘You’re going to love this game. It’s so cool!’ They looked at it and didn’t see what I saw. It totally wasn’t what I remember.”

We’re trying to stay true to the original intent, but 20 years have passed, and when you go back and see what those games look like, you have a nostalgic idea in your mind, but it isn’t what you expect. – Josh Nadelberg

Toys for Bob showed me two stages from Spyro the Dragon, both set in the introductory Artisans Homeworld. Even in the original games, this realm delivered a strong European and Tuscan vibe, but I now find myself focusing more on the foliage than the architecture in the distance. The stage of note is called Toasty. Spyro is in ankle-high grass that flows with the wind and turns to cinders when his fire breath scorches it. Even the grass completely changes the look of the game. In the original title, Spyro just stood on a flat green slab. I notice a series of sparkling gems sitting along a brick wall are slightly hidden in the grass, and are also in shade – another new element as the games didn’t have any form of lighting and instead relied on vertex coloring to simulate it.

Toys for Bob rebuilt all of the games from scratch in Unreal Engine 4, and developed tools to extract as much data from Insomniac’s games as possible. “It wasn’t the actual source assets, however,” says Peter Kavic, senior producer at Toys for Bob. “The tool allowed us to map out the precious placement of objects in the world, and lines things traveled on. We have all of that accurately captured and recreated here.” Insomniac was able to rely on the exact level meshes, and used them for paint overs for the artists. They also used the original collision meshes to deliver what is essentially the exact same experience, but with a fresh coat of paint.

“The original game is basically running under a bunch of layers,” Kavic explains.

All of the enemies have new animations, but exhibit the same behaviors as before

The enemies that prowl these stunningly detailed environments offer the same behaviors and basic designs as before, but are now filled with life. We come across a scruffy white dog, but don’t engage it. We instead sit back to see what it will do. The dog sniffs around, yawns, and curls up to take a nap. As we approach, he opens one eye to see if he heard something. We freeze in our tracks, and he falls back asleep. His ears perk up with our next step and he leaps to action, barking incessantly. A blast of fire breath burns his hair off, revealing a hilariously skinny pup underneath.

The wizard, who is with the dog, starts an assault but again isn’t a match for fire. His physical being goes up in smoke, and his hat sinks comically onto his cloak. Spyro looks exactly the same, but the lighting in the environment often makes him look different in color. He is still gold and purple, but his shiny scales are pulling in the shades of pink from the artisan sky.

The gate the wizard was protecting leads to a hallway filled with paintings of dragons and vistas. This is a nice touch that showcases the skills of the dragons that once roamed these lands. As the plot details, Spyro is the only dragon left in this world, a result of a magical spell cast by Gnasty Gnorc that trapped all of the elder dragons in crystal shards. Spyro must free all of them, and take down Gnorc’s forces in the process.

The worlds all feature new details inspired by Insomniac’s original vision

The one big change fans of the PlayStation games will see is every elder dragon has been redesigned. We had a chance to see one, which Spyro frees after exiting the art gallery. Toys for Bob wants each dragon to hammer home the theme of the world they inhabit. This particular one holds a paint tray, wears a stylish cap, and sports a tiny moustache. None of the dragons are just palette swaps.

As Spyro converses with the beast, we notice his voice has changed. In this first game he was originally voiced by Carlos Alazraqui, but then was replaced by Tom Kenny (best known as SpongeBob SquarePants) for the next two games. Kenny now voices Spyro in all three titles.

Composer Stewart Copeland’s original scores are being used, but the music is now dynamic, shifting in tone when Spyro moves from exploration to combat. It’s a small change that goes a long way in heightening the moment of facing off against Toasty the scarecrow, who now has a mischievous grin, fluid animations, and can eventually be burned down to reveal he’s a sheep standing on stilts.

The second stage we see is Stone Hill, another space that showcases just how big of a difference a detailed field of grass can make in redefining the look of the game. In this area we get a good glimpse at how Spyro’s companion Sparx feeds. A sheep turns into a butterfly that is chased and consumed by the colored firefly. Sparx looks a little different, thanks to him having arms and legs, which he uses to express himself more.

From my brief look at Spyro Reignited Trilogy, I was impressed by the visual changes to the environment, but wonder how fans will take to the newly designed dragons, which are a great departure from the original games’ vision. Regardless of this one hesitation, this remake looks like it’s going to be good fun, and a great way to explore the series that put Insomniac Games on the map.

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