The GameBoy Advance is like a breeding ground for these damn things. Platformers, that is. While it has its fair share of innovative and distinctive games, developers seem keen to exploit the system's 16-bit gaming roots, so we're stuck with an endless stream of cheap, uninteresting rubbish. Spyro 2, at first glance, would appear to pander to this very trend.
Relight my fire
The basic essence of the storyline is that when Spyro returns to the Dragon Realms from his adventures in the first title, Season of Ice, he discovers that the Rhynocs have pinched all of the fireflies, in turn causing dragons to lose their fire breath. Naturally being the kind of upstanding chap that he is, Spyro sets about recovering all the fireflies. What follows is a pretty basic, innocent adventure through a number of lands splintering off from the main hub of the game, the Sunny Plains.
Unlocking portals from the hub to outside lands requires set amounts of fireflies in your collection, thereby encouraging - or rather forcing - your exploration of every nook and cranny of every level to ensure your progress in the game. Thankfully your progress isn't at all linear, and once you've opened a level you can leave and return to your heart's content. This serves a purpose; throughout the game Spyro can gain new abilities, such as regaining his fire breath (to start, he is simply endowed with ice breath, which serves to freeze enemies and fireflies for capture), and a rock-smashing headbutt. As you gain these abilities, previously inaccessible areas become unlockable through their use, and so travelling back through levels to obtain more fireflies becomes essential.
As a diversion from the main isometric platforming of Spyro's quest, you can also take the role of his two sidekicks Sheila and Agent 9 in their own short levels by paying your way through portals with collected gems. Sheila's levels are jump-fests over multi-layered blocky landscapes where you, ahem, grow flowers by jumping on plant pots (shrug), while Agent 9's are simple side-scrolling shooting affairs. Completing each of these earns you a firefly but aside from that function, they offer a nice respite from Spyro's often tiresome adventure.
And we've just identified Spyro 2's major and quite glaring shortcoming - boredom. There's plenty to do here, but none of it really makes you want to carry on the story through to its end because none of it is particularly fun. Even the promise of an extra game mode to unlock once you've collected every gem and finished every level doesn't do much to motivate us, due to the very basic nature of the game. There's nothing to surprise, nothing to amuse beyond the admittedly charming graphics, and nothing to challenge apart from the occasionally irritating reliance on pixel-perfect jumping. Gradually, as you get bored, frustration will set in too, as you wrestle with navigating Spyro around the isometric landscapes.
Spyro 2 starts off really quite well, but when it fails to gradually improve on its own good starting points and doesn't introduce more variety beyond the initial extra game modes, it gets stale very quickly. There's a well produced title in here somewhere, with excellent cheerful visuals, nicely realised characters and a skilfully crafted progression model - all that's missing is fun. It's strange how the game avoids being fun so easily, and despite having its moments, particularly early on, we just weren't hooked by it.