I wouldn’t instinctively point to the Spyro trilogy as a paradigm of level design for 3D platformers. That’s what Nintendo’s for with The Legend of Zelda and Mario, but besides these games, how many other titles have great balances of exploration, platforming, and combat? You’ve got Crash Bandicoot, but as good as the trilogy is, it’s more of a pseudo 2D platformer with its tight, linear levels. There are modern attempts to invigorate the genre with Yooka-Laylee, Knack, and A Hat in Time, but I’d say they fall short of capturing all the aforementioned elements. Banjo-Kazooie, Conker, and Tomb Raider are potential contenders, but I don’t have the experience to say whether they’re good or not. Even if I had, my point stands—there’s a dearth of quality within the 3D platformer genre.
Even though the Spyro trilogy is easy as a whole, I feel safe rescinding my reluctance to praise their level design because—within the scope of the genre—there are gems of levels worth digging out that lured me in with their shine. After going through the Reignited trilogy, I’d like to mention 10 of them, so let’s hop to it…and don’t forget to press the action button at the top of your jump.
In the warm, summer evening of Haunted Towers, ghostly knights roam a floating castle’s grounds. These guys are among the first enemies that you can’t normally charge or flame, and after so many fodder foes, a case of invincibility is a fresh change of pace. The only way to dispose of them is with a fairy’s kiss, which is a unique power-up that temporarily boosts Spyro’s flame alongside his blushed complexion. Players have to hurry and search out the level for active and empty suits of armor since they all drop gems. There’s a secret door to find and some crafty gliding to do along the way, but the final and most engaging part is using a supercharge ramp within the castle’s halls to jump back around to the entrance and soar to a previously inaccessible veranda. Next comes a timed platforming segment where you have to reach the top of these stairs before knights awaken from their slumber. If you don’t make it, the last one prevents you from reaching a stash of gems, but once you do, you’ve would up playing a quick game for a quick kiss so can happily melt their metal.
Spyro the Dragon’s best levels involve unconventional means to secure the last of their collectibles because most solutions are simple or self-evident. Haunted Towers may not be the supreme example, but with enemies that insight backtracking and time consolidation, it makes the list for being one of the few levels in the first game that caught me off guard with its unique traits and flashes of fun difficulty.
A sparkling river flows through the exotic ruins of Idol Springs. The local inhabitants have been taken over by tiki statues that have come to life, and it’s up to Spyro to charge and flame ‘em so he can free the villagers, who help him in turn by destroying the locks on gates blocking his way. Reaching the end of the level is straightforward enough, but its depth is revealed in its side objectives. You’ve got the first instance of supercharging in this sequel with Spyro needing to expertly navigate through gates without missing one. Another standout aspect of the layout is a subtle pathway above the level that leads all the way back to the entrance, where a tantalizing treasure chest (that was visible from the start) can be accessed.
The most unique part of Idol Springs is a three-part series of puzzles that you can play after gaining the ability to swim. You’ll be treated to a “lights out”-style puzzle, a reflex-based, color matching game, and an order-based color/symbol puzzle. Thinking like this is rare in the Spyro trilogy, which may be simple enough for kids, but it contributes to a well-rounded level; one of the first level you play in Spyro 2 that stands out until the end.
Otherworldly trees that ascend from foggy depths, dwarfing the tallest of Sequoias; a starry sky brimming with the swaying, celestial waves of aurora borealis; the soft glow of candles and torches amid carved-out rooms and twisting ramps—this is Tree Tops. I fumed while playing it.
Not because it’s bad, but because I couldn’t remember how to reach two devious platforms for the third time playing it. This level is one of two defined by and great for mastering the supercharge, which will have you jumping to distant areas with the most supreme self-satisfaction once you connect the dots…or ramps, in this case. If you think Spyro is a casual experience through and through, prepare to be stumped. Tree Tops is great illustration of making the player feel like they’re employing unconventional means to cheese their way somewhere, but not in a cheap way—a gratifying way.
There’s order to the mess of Lost Fleet. It’s built around the remains of a pirate ship surrounded by segments of other ships, as if everyone lost in a grand sea battle (there are even skeletons strewn around). The vessels are half-submerged in green acid and surrounded by vibrant coral under a purple morning sky, and it’s Spyro’s job to help a strange hermit reach the treasure inside the central ship. The Rynocs are amusing in this level since they wear white sheets to pretend they’re ghosts. One type flies around and throws rocks, whereas the other is two stacked on top of each other. Once you flame them, they scream and run in different directions, so you have to grill them both before they start tossing rocks, too.
After blasting a hole in the side of the ship with a cannon, the most unexpected part is how you can swim underneath the acid you previously avoided with a shield power-up. Finding eggs down here takes keen observation and quick movement before the power-up depletes. There’s a side mission where Spyro pilots a submarine that fires missiles, and while that’s a decent distraction, the most fun comes from the best skateboard track in Year of the Dragon. There are plenty of off-road shortcuts and thrilling jumps to pull off, and taking the time to beat the course record is a true accomplishment that will make anyone proud.
“They blow you up today, you blow them up tomorrow. It’s just business.” That’s what DJ told Finn in the pinnacle of filmmaking known as Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Or was it Spyro? That’s what you’d think since the dragon swaps both sides in a conflict against the Landblubber slugs and Breezebuilder birds, but his first foray has him on the former’s side. Giant trees loom all around as you fight your way through fields of grass and a wooden fortress amidst a stone enclosure. I was stunned by how brutal some birds are to take out with their homing rockets and teamwork in using them (among the only AI that work in concert). Another bird throws barrels like Donkey Kong that you have to jump over until you make them chicken sandwiches. After using a couple cannons to blow up some birds and walls as well, the fun, breezy pacing of the level doesn’t stop there.
There’s an amusing side mission where you help return “cowlecks” to an unusual Landblubber with goldilocks by flaming them up and down platforms until they return to their pins. However, my favorite part is a large platforming section similar to the one from Charmed Ridge (which I discuss below). You’re given seeds to grow vines of different lengths and have to figure out which ones you need that might puzzle you for a bit. The context of the challenge is also rooted in uniting a young Landblubber and Breezebuilder who are in love. Who cares for Romeo and Juliet when you’ve got these two? When all’s said and done, Zephyr is a well-balanced level with an appropriate amount of openness and challenge.
You know the trials that Indiana Jones goes through in Raiders of the Lost Ark? Ben Gates in National Treasure? Haunted Tomb replicates the pulp action of those appealing, treasure hunter scenarios by applying it to Spyro’s quest. Deep underground in what might be an ancient pyramid, mummified monsters and traps encompass the entirety of the circular level. Some will continue to spawn until you destroy their sarcophagi, whereas another throws balls of fire that explode after a few seconds. I didn’t realize for a while that you could pick up the balls and spit them back, which would’ve made things a lot easier, since they’re the only way you can destroy those sarcophagi (a neat instance of turning an enemy’s attack against them).
The level is divided into rooms with different combinations of enemies, but what makes them challenging is how you must stand on buttons and make it to the other side of rooms before their doors close. When you throw in a couple areas with boulders tumbling from the ceiling, you’ve got some fancy pawwork to do. There are cute little additions like solving two riddles and going down a slide without falling off, but the real meat on the side is found with two minigames: one where you control a tank in a competition, and another with Agent 9 in a top-down arcade shooter with multiple rounds. One of Year of the Dragon’s defining traits is loads of content with little compromise. Haunted Tomb is among the levels I’d point to as fitting examples.
The award to the most stereotypical fairy tale-like level goes to Charmed Ridge, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I was captivated the moment Spyro was standing in a field of grass and flowers. Magnificent stone walls with arches and a romantic castle lay before me, nestled within a range of snow-capped mountains and waterfalls. You’re set up to play the role of a knight in shining armor as multiple fairies plead with you to rescue their beloved princess from the clutches of the cat prince and his magical minions. The latter aren’t playing around since they’re among a handful of foes in the trilogy that demand rolling, since they fire off successive spells, so no charging or jumping. The Rynocs also involve trial and error because some wizards will make them double in size, rendering them susceptible to flame alone. One wizard floats a pillar around that will crush Spyro if you don’t move fast enough. Another makes platforms come in and out of a wall, so you’ll get pushed or fall off if you don’t navigate them right.
There’s infectiously adventurous vibes throughout the whole level as the buildup to save the princess increases, but much like the anti-climactic ending to Colossus, you find out that the princess wants to be swept away by the edgy cat prince, so they ride off on a flying motorcycle together. Ah, the irrationality of young love. The side missions consist of a Sgt. Bird challenge room where you have to avoid and take down cat witches, and the other is a superb puzzle platforming level. Similar to Zephyr, you take seeds that grow plants of different heights, so you’ll have to think carefully of what you use where and when. Overall? The appeal of Charmed Ridge is in the name.
I can’t think of a more unusually compelling level than Mystic March. It’s set in a swamp of purple goo, replete with thick trees and pineapple-shaped huts. You’d think you’d get a common circular or linear layout, but this one twists and turns in ways that I couldn’t keep track of at first. You fight your way through huge elephant/snail hybrids that comically pop out of their tiny shells and charge at lightning speed. Once you’ve cleared the ground of them, you double back by running across the huts and bridges above while avoiding lemurs throwing fruit at you. Then you dive into a river and swim through two underground water channels until surfacing on the other side of the map.
From there, you can take on a scavenger hunt with the Professor where you take a host of items to their proper places on the map, which is fun since you’ll remember several unusual objects spread across the level that suddenly have meaning. You can also chase down these willy kangaroos that put the thieves to shame with their speed, which I was working on for nearly 10 minutes in a feverish sweat. These particularly unique challenges throughout the windy layout of Mystic March make it odd…for all the right reasons.
Plundering ancient ruins for treasure after avoiding traps and enemies everywhere…I got Tomb Raider vibes as I played Desert Ruins, and I laughed as I remembered that it’s a cheeky love letter to those games with a character you meet named “Tara.” Truly, it lives up to its inspiration in its own way. Two types of scorpions will punish you good if you don’t flame them fast enough, but the most unique enemy is a metal creature that heats up platforms after its own material, so you need to time gliding and jumping just right to charge him before he gives you the old hot foot. No matter where I turned in the level, there was always another path or ledge to reach with some fancy flying that I couldn’t resist.
Even then, I still missed two secrets that were expertly placed out of view.
There’s an amazing Sheila level that plays like a 2D platformer with excellent enemy placement (those dang scorpions) and moving platforms. And if you climb these ladders without getting burned by the metal creature heating up the rungs, you’ll find a hidden portal that takes you to Atlantean-esque ruins where you ride Hunter’s manta ray and destroy Rynocs with its rocket launcher. Desert Ruins’ temple—placed within a vast canyon flowing with green waters—is an absolute treat, being one of the levels that inspired me to pen this list. However, one barely rests above it.
A smile crept on my face the further I progressed through Icy Peaks. It’s an arctic land surrounded by beautiful, reflective glaciers and pale blue skies. The level itself is a glacier with carved-out tunnels and Himalayan structures built into its ice. You’ll encounter typical Rynocs with a large one you have to flame and another with a snowball gun. The most unusual one is a suicidal rat that ignites a box of explosives on ice, and when you’re sliding around, these rascals have to be avoided or flamed so the dynamite glides away from you, which can be used to your advantage by killing a Rynoc if he’s in your way. The groove of the level largely consists of skating across several lakes of ice and using cannons to blow up chunks of ice blocking your way (and vultures flying in the distance to attain gems, which forces players to expertly lead them to nail them from afar). But there’s far more than meets the eye to Icy Peaks.
I was amazed with how well several pathways were hidden along the edges of the level, where you’ll find more eggs and gems to collect. There are two side missions with a cute one where you frantically keep Rynocs away from a professional skater practicing her routine, whereas the other is a supercharge level with two unusually tricky Thieves to catch along with two hidden areas to find. One of my favorite secrets in the entire Spyro trilogy is found here. You’ll find yourself on a ledge looking down at ice, and there’s apparently nowhere to go from there, but if you look carefully enough, you’ll notice gems in the water. It struck me that I was supposed to use the headbash ability to crash through the ice! It’s a unique instance of using headbash. The rest of the level attests to great instances like this where everything has its place: a sign of some of Insomniac’s best with the Spyro trilogy, and what a treat it is to relive it with graphics that also make it one of the most visually beautiful environments, too.
That concludes my favorite levels in the Spyro trilogy! I had to cut several that stood out to me as well (Jacques, Hurricos, Seashell Shore, etc.) and struggled putting these in order, but this is as accurate to my impressions as I can get. Thanks for reading!