Spyro: Season of Ice is the first Spyro game on the GBA. Is it a worthy followup to the legendary PS1 trilogy?
|Console||Game Boy Advance|
|Publisher||Vivendi Universal Interactive Publishing|
|Release Year||2001 – 2002|
|Purchase (Spyro SuperPack)||Purchase from Amazon.|
|Purchase (single game)||Purchase from Amazon.|
After the release of Spyro: Year of the Dragon, the PS1 Spyro trilogy concluded and Insomniac Games had officially jumped ship for the rest of the series. It was the end of an era. In the year 2000, the PlayStation 2 came out and it’s time for Sony-published games to make a leap to the next generation of game consoles.
It’s truly a strange time to be alive when you’re a kid who loves gaming. The Sega Dreamcast ceased production in 2001, leading to Sonic the Hedgehog games to be published on game consoles of Sega’s former rival Nintendo. The first Xbox also came out in 2001, shifting the console wars to Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft. Furthermore, the original developers of Crash Bandicoot and Spyro the Dragon moved on. However, Universal Interactive still owned the rights to both series.
So of course Universal Interactive wanted to continue publishing games centered on the purple dragon and fans of the series wanted to see more games. So Spyro: Enter the Dragonfly was slated for release in Fall 2002. But to fill in that time gap, Universal Interactive had two more games with the Spyro name released: Spyro: Season of Ice and Spyro 2: Season of Flame. At this point, the Spyro the Dragon series was no longer Sony-exclusive and began popping up on Nintendo consoles.
According to many Spyro fans, this was a point in the series where the quality of the games dropped significantly. I’m inclined to agree somewhat, but this doesn’t necessarily mean the series as a whole became terrible. Just never quite as good as the PS1 trilogy.
Another thing to note is that handheld console games around the 2000s are typically of lower quality by a significant amount compared to console games. A handheld like the Game Boy Advance was a dumping ground for all sorts of shovelware, mainly because it had no real competitors at the time—it would be several more years until the Nintendo DS and PlayStation Portable came. Despite that, it was still a good quality handheld console with many good games.
So where do the Spyro the Dragon games on the GBA fit into this? Are they great titles for the system, crappy shovelware or just eh? Well, let’s find out by starting with the first of four GBA games: Spyro: Season of Ice.
Frozen Fairies and the Return of the Rhynocs
Season of Ice takes place directly after the events of Year of the Dragon, where Spyro and friends go on a beach vacation. But some random balloon with a note from Zoe the fairy passes by, informing the group of a new danger. An unknown entity had cast a spell over the Fairy World, freezing all of the fairies in ice crystals. Furthermore, the Rhynocs (the main enemies of Year of the Dragon) have returned to cause trouble and Bianca’s spellbook went missing. So Spyro goes on a new journey to free the fairies and discover who the villain behind this plot is.
It’s weird to see the Rhynocs again, particularly without the guidance of the Sorceress. I used to think they were just the Sorceress’s personal soldiers in Year of the Dragon just like how the Gnorcs were to Gnasty Gnorc. But I guess they could operate independently regardless if the Sorceress was around or not.
Honestly, Season of Ice has a pretty standard (if not lackluster) Spyro plot and the presentation is considerably weaker than that of the PS1 trilogy. Instead of animated cutscenes, this story is presented as a slideshow with text. That’s not the game’s fault though, as fully rendered animated cutscenes are rare to see on the Game Boy Advance. Remember, this was a time when handheld games weren’t up to par with home console games.
So here is the gameplay of Spyro: Season of Ice. For the most part, it surprisingly does play like an actual Spyro game. You can explore a large area where you collect stuff (gems and fairies). You can attack with your flame breath, charge enemies with your horns and glide across the air in short bursts. The main difference here is that it’s not a full 3D platformer, but rather an isometric platformer with a fixed camera. The controls are a bit clunky, but you’ll eventually get used to them as soon as you realize you’re controlling a 2D sprite and not a 3D model.
And I’m not gonna lie. This transition to isometric platformer actually works pretty well for the Game Boy Advance. While developer Digital Eclipse could try a true 3D game (believe it or not, but the GBA did have some 3D games), it was most likely too ambitious and easy to screw up. So for the most part, I’m fine with this change—until we start exploring this game’s major flaws, that is.
Season of Ice looks surprisingly decent for a GBA game attempting 3D gameplay. Spyro himself is well animated and actually does look like his PS1 incarnation, which is an impressive feat. Though at times, the character designs of the NPCs seem too… childish, even by Spyro the Dragon standards.
It’s odd to say this but it feels like some of the NPCs don’t belong to a Spyro game, but rather a CGI TV show for toddlers. I don’t know. That mermaid just looks a recolored Greta to me. Maybe this is just me but I sense an odd clash of art styles for Season of Ice. It’s like many of the characters have childlike appearances, but some of the levels have more washed out colors to make an attempt at making the environments look more realistic—or at least, as realistic as a Spyro game can get.
The levels can look pretty at times, with some nice backdrops and good sprite work. But in other times…
Yikes. Sometimes, the levels can look too busy and too cluttered. It really doesn’t help that the game’s overall level design is unremarkable and that the depth perception of sprites can be completely off, which makes the visuals appear repetitive and mind-numbingly chaotic. While the graphics are bright and colorful overall, it can be tiring to look at them for long periods of time.
Also, some graphical glitches. While I didn’t encounter them too often, there are times when certain character sprites change color for no discernible reason. And also, some of the environmental sprites seem to not be in their proper layers, so Spyro’s sprite seem to clip through certain objects. And it can look really bad.
Like, ugh. This is such an eyesore.
The overall sound design is actually pretty good for a GBA game. Many of the sound effects were taken directly from the PS1 trilogy and barely sound like they were bitcrushed at all. Kudos for that.
And while there is no iconic Stewart Copeland soundtrack this time, some of the music tracks aren’t too shabby. Some sound pretty bland and feel like they don’t belong to a Spyro game, but there are some standout tracks for sure.
What is Depth Perception?
So let’s talk about the gameplay in more detail. While Season of Ice introduced the isometric gameplay to be used in later GBA titles, it did not come without its flaws due to attempting to emulate a 3D action-adventure game.
First, let’s discuss the level designs. As I mentioned earlier, they’re unremarkable. Unlike the mostly linear 3D environments of the PS1 trilogy, a typical level in Season of Ice consists of an open-ended network of islands surrounded by water/lava or a bottomless pit. While the idea of a more open Spyro level sounds interesting on paper, the game doesn’t compensate this design choice with anti-frustration features. Remember, this game is a collectathon like its predecessors. However, the PS1 trilogy did include some anti-frustration features to bring you closer to completing whole levels, such as giving Sparx the Dragonfly the ability to point to the nearest missed gem.
Season of Ice doesn’t have this feature, so it’s very easy to miss gems while going through each level. And because of the convoluted and generic level designs, it’s easy to get lost. And in order to access the final boss, you need to find all 99 fairies before you can fight him. This game would’ve benefited so much from a level map just like the ones featured in Ripto’s Rage! It would save so much time.
Season of Ice also has this tendency to play around with the illusion of depth. Sometimes, it’s unclear how high certain platforms are when viewed from a distance. So you’ll often jump from a lower platform and inadvertently try to land on a much higher platform, only to fall to your death.
It doesn’t help that Spyro’s sprite doesn’t really change that much when he’s on higher altitudes, even after he jumps. His sprite should resize depending on his current altitude, but it stays mostly the same size no matter what. Your best bet is to pan the camera and look for similar terrain to the one you’re currently standing on. Then after you perform a glide, watch his shadow to figure out where he’ll land.
And let me tell you. Nearly every death in Season of Ice is punishing. Yes, especially compared to that of the PS1 trilogy.
Sometimes, the levels are designed in a way where you have to move more diligently and carefully… because it’s easy to die in this game. Charging often is a no-no, so you’d have to walk most of the time. Also, water kills Spyro. Why, after he learned how to swim in the PS1 trilogy? I have no idea.
I’m serious. Remember when Spyro can sink into water in the original Spyro the Dragon, but he has a chance to jump out and save himself? He just sinks like a rock in Season of Ice. Yep. He just dies as soon as he touches water. That’s… just… HUH!?
And that was just the tip of the iceberg. There’s a lot more shit to dig through here.
Similar to the likes of Ripto’s Rage! and Year of the Dragon, Season of Ice features multiple quests in order to get more collectibles. The main collectibles here are fairies, who are frozen in ice crystals and are scattered across multiple worlds. Most levels have 6 fairies to find, minus the speedway and Sparx levels.
The three common methods of finding fairies are:
- Defeating all enemies in the level, which grants you a fairy and an exit portal.
- Finding frozen fairies out in the open.
- Searching for flammable objects (like candles and lanterns) and flaming them all in the whole level
That’s pretty much each and every level in Season of Ice, aside from some exceptions. I know the level called Market Mesa has this side quest where you need to ring three bells in a sequence, twice each. But it involves constant running back and forth to complete it, and it just feels like an unnecessarily long and lazy quest.
Some of the levels even feature the iconic blue thieves from past Spyro games. You know the drill, right? They usually steal dragon eggs and run off with them, so you have to catch them. In Season of Ice, they steal frozen fairies.
But if you thought there were annoying before, you haven’t seen SHIT yet!
Because of the game’s clunky controls and the random movement patterns of the thieves in this game, it’s easy to run into environmental objects and even fall into water or off a cliff. And you can’t just catch up to them and use the flame attack either. You have to charge them down with your horns no matter what.
And someone clearly didn’t program the voice clips right either. They just constantly play as you keep chasing the thieves down. That is some obnoxious sound design there.
In order to minimize your frustration against these bastards, hunt them down last after you completed the rest of the level. Because what I’m about to tell you is the worst part of the game.
Did I mention this game is punishing? Well, here’s the kick in the balls:
Every time you die in this game, any kind of progress you made in the levels (number of enemies defeated, number of flammable objects lit, treasure chest key collected, etc.) is reset.
Seriously. WHY THE FUCK WOULD YOU DO THIS!?
There’s no good reason to reset your progress like that! All it does is add more play time to the game, making it longer than it really is! And part of the reason for that is that you have to look for everything you lost again.
Still need to defeat Rhynocs? Well, go fight them all again! Still need to find a couple of lanterns to light up? Well, go flame them all again! Need to open that one treasure chest? Go find that key you randomly came across before! Don’t remember where they all are? Too bad! Just wander around until you find them all again!
And this is what made Season of Ice much less enjoyable for me. While I don’t mind higher difficulty in a Spyro game, dying at any point (even by accident due to the convoluted graphics) places you in a state of constant backtracking. It makes an otherwise competent platformer into a real slogfest. It’s not fun. And it didn’t even need to be this way.
Oh! He said it!
There are also some other annoyances that I couldn’t ignore. Every time you go near a NPC, you trigger their dialogue. Even if you try running past them (but get too close to them), you’re forced to sit through the dialogue. Not a major deal but definitely annoying.
Another thing that really annoys me is that every time you complete a task (such as defeating all enemies in the level), the game forces you to stop what you’re doing and teleports you to the fairy. It sounds convenient at first since I don’t have to trouble myself in searching for the fairy. But here’s the thing: I’m still exploring! So whenever the game does this, I lose track of where I was previously and I have to go find it again.
Or hey. How about whenever you finish most levels, you restart at the beginning of the home world instead of starting in front of the level portal you just came from? And guess what? The home worlds are also designed with wide, open spaces so you’ll be taking a while to search for level portals.
Damn, this game is tedious.
Fight or Flight
Season of Ice also features more levels that derive from the normal gameplay. Speedways make a return, though not quite in the way you remember them. Instead of being full 3D obstacle courses where you need to pass through arches or take down certain NPCs, the speedways in Season of Ice play like a poor man’s clone of Space Harrier. Basically, you collect gems and kill certain enemies to get as much time as possible before you defeat the ending miniboss.
These stages aren’t really bad per say, but there isn’t much variety here and they play mostly the same. Even when you play these stages in Normal and Hard difficulty back-to-back, they’re not that much different. At least these speedway stages look really nice. They have some of the most scenic environments in the whole game.
Let’s also examine the Sparx stages. Honestly… I think these are an improvement over the ones in Year of the Dragon. At least as far as gameplay is concerned. Sparx controls more fluidly than before and his attacks feel less stiff. The levels also feel more compact and have a more labyrinthine design, which I think is better. The Sparx stages in Year of the Dragon were mostly straightforward, but also tend to have some backtracking through long hallways.
My only real complaint about these Sparx stages is the lack of variety in visuals and enemy designs. In Year of the Dragon, Sparx fought against crawdads, spiders, starfish and robotic insects. In Season of Ice, Sparx only fights giant insects in similar forested areas. There’s really not much creativity here, honestly. But hey, at least it plays a little better.
The Ending Moments
So you might be wondering where the story goes in a small game like this one. Well…
So basically, the events of Season of Ice happened because a Rhynoc named Grendor took Bianca’s spell book and tried to use it to make himself smarter. It didn’t quite work out and instead gave him two heads. So Grendor froze all of the fairies in the Fairy World so that he can collect their wings for a potion to cure himself. Sounds a little too familiar, don’t you think?
The game only has two boss battles, both against Grendor. And they are really lame. He hurls very slow-moving projectiles at you (which fade away quickly) and you would have to attack him when he’s vulnerable. And for a big Rhynoc like him, you would think you have to flame him, right? Actually, no, stupid! You’d have to charge him.
Really? What sense does that make? Past Spyro games made it very clear not to charge large enemies, with few exceptions. There’s no reason for this one enemy to be immune to fire, but somehow vulnerable to being charged.
The final boss battle against him… works exactly the same. Except he uses ice attacks instead of fire attacks, which doesn’t really change anything. It’s just a re-skin. Pure laziness.
So Spyro defeats Grendor. Zoe the fairy helps Grendor with his head problem and restores him back to his original self. Everyone’s happy. The end.
I was never expecting any kind of deep story from a Spyro game, but this one was definitely uninspired. It doesn’t really try to make Grendor sound like a credible threat just like with past Spyro villains. Rather, it just makes him into a petty bad guy who made a dumb mistake in messing with forces that he has little control over. Furthermore, there isn’t really much of a story to go around. No mid-game cutscenes of any kind for Spyro to interact with the other characters. Hell, Hunter and Bianca barely have a presence in the game at all.
This is what collecting all 99 fairies gets you. A lame final boss against a boring antagonist. Roll credits.
So if you also went through the trouble of collecting all of the gems too, you will also unlock a minigame for post-game called Dragonfly X.
It’s alright I guess. In this minigame, you play as Sparx the Dragonfly with a slightly different control scheme. It plays like an arcade game where you need to break the spider’s defenses and attack it to go to the next stage. Then you try to get the high score. I don’t know if you can say if unlocking this minigame is worth the effort (and headaches), but it’s at least something.
And that’s about it. I just got one question: why is this game called Season of Ice anyway?
Yes, I know a major plot point is that Grendor froze the fairies. And he uses ice spells in his final boss battle. But… that’s really about it. It’s such a weak connection. When I see the subtitle Season of Ice, I was expecting something like an eternal winter or Spyro gaining some sort of permanent ice breath. But neither of these happened, so it’s just a weak subtitle that is irrelevant to the game itself.
Spyro: Season of Ice is not a bad game per say, even considering that it is on the GBA. But it is admittedly one of the most generic entries in the Spyro series. It lacks the character and polish that the PS1 trilogy had. While it’s definitely a functional game that does its job decently, it falls into a monotonous marathon of performing the same tasks over and over. Just an okay game for a small distraction, but not really worthwhile. Only play this game if you’re a real Spyro fan. Otherwise, give it a skip.
Spyro: Season of IcePrice Varies
- The isometric gameplay works pretty well for a handheld Spyro game, making it a good substitute for the typical 3D gameplay of the series.
- The game tries its best to retain the explorative elements of the PS1 trilogy, as well as the side quests.
- For the most part, the graphics are bright and colorful with some nice backdrops.
- Decent sound design with decent music.
- The graphics don't do much in showing proper depth, making it easy to glide to the wrong spots. Backdrops can be too chaotic and cluttered, making the game hard to stare at for long periods of time.
- The levels themselves feel too open and widespread, ending up with too many generic level designs that are tedious to backtrack through.
- While the game is not exactly hard, it punishes you constantly for dying by resetting your progress for side quests.
- The boss fights are too easy and the antagonist is lame.
- Underdeveloped and uninspired story that doesn't even try to be remotely entertaining.