Welcome back to Sound Test, our feature where we talk about games we love and the awesome music in them! In this episode, we cover a personal old favorite of mine: Spyro the Dragon, the third-person 3D platformer developed initially by Insomniac Games for the first Playstation console. The first game in the trilogy was released in 1998, with each sequel coming just a year after it, in 1999 and 2000. This trilogy was remastered in 2018 by Toys For Bob, but in this episode we will be focusing on the original soundtrack.
A favorite aspect of the Spyro soundtracks is centered around the man who developed them. Music for all three games was handled almost exclusively by Stewart Copeland, who is mostly known for being the drummer and co-founder of iconic rock band The Police. Spyro was his first game soundtrack which he composed in a small and discreet Hollywood studio. The music of the game is led by bright and upbeat piano chords, supplemented mostly by rock instrumentation. There are many other elements to it, including full orchestral flourishes that he recorded in Utah. The amount of space available on CD-ROM was enough to give him creative freedom to make the soundtrack much bigger.
Copeland used a very interesting setup to make the music of Spyro. Most of the sounds are created on a Kurzwell 2500, a synthesizer and sampler that he used orchestral ROMs on to make his magic. The tracks were put together in Digital Performer with a lot of outside sounds pulled from Spectrasonics libraries. Copeland‘s writing process typically took two days, with the first primarily being the writing of the chords and melodies. On the second day, he would come back to them fresh and tweak them as needed while adding in the other elements and fine-tuning them. Part of this is shown in an old insider interview Playstation did during the game’s development, which shows him splicing together “Wild Flight”.
Creating these soundtracks was no easy task. Copeland had very little time to churn out a lot of tracks for these games, but he claims it made him work better, and he described it as some of his best work ever in a 2018 interview with SyFy:
‘Each year, I had to deliver like 30 tracks of four, five minutes duration. Man, I just had to churn and burn. Now, you would think that music created under those conditions would be shallow, but the opposite is true. Something about having to work at that speed means that all you’ve got time for is instinct. And guess what? Instinct, when it comes to creating music, is better than intellect. The music gets deeper and better because you’ve got this momentum, and you really get on a roll.’
This being some of his favorite work might be the reason for one of my favorite tidbits on the series. The music for “Wizard’s Peak”, which is one of the coolest levels from Spyro the Dragon, might sound awfully familiar to some fans of Nickelodeon during the late 90s. The Amanda Show, the popular sketch show that aired from late 1999 to 2002, actually featured the same music as “Wizard’s Peak”. After being contracted to write music for the program, he used the melody from that level to write the theme song. It’s something I never realized as a child even though I was a fan of both source materials. But now I can’t hear one without the other.
One element of the soundtrack that makes it one of my favorites of all time, and the reason I actually chose it for this feature, is because of the ways inspiration was drawn for individual songs. Insomniac sent Copeland early builds of all the levels for the games he was tasked with, and it was only after he had gotten through levels that he would write the music for them. The ‘Speedway’ levels in the game are fast-paced and intense flying missions that see Spyro taking to the air. Copeland wrote loftier pieces like “Icy Flight” with more orchestral design to try to fit their feel. In parts of the games that you run around scorching enemies with fire, there are more rock influences.
“Metalhead”, a late-game boss level in the first game, is a good example of this style. Pounding rhythms and heavy guitars permeated these tracks, backing the high-paced action perfectly. Copeland would even take the time to go through each Homeworld, central areas where you access individual levels. Getting a feel for the individual Homeworlds helped him to create the more ambient songs to fit them. As awesome as this was, Insomniac actually randomized many of the tracks in the game, mixing them up so that the true pairings were never heard for the majority of the trilogy.
The sequel to Spyro the Dragon, Spyro 2: Ripto’s Rage (or Gateway to Glimmer in Europe) features a very similar design to the first as far as both the game and music go. Critics loved the first, but faulted it for being a bit too easy and simplistic as well as short. Insomniac added many new elements to Ripto’s Rage, such as new power-ups for Spyro as well as a couple of new platforming mechanics. Copeland must have taken the changes to heart, as his soundtrack also became slightly more varied. Joining in on the electronic guitars that rocked out the first game, more acoustic variation was added in. “Glimmer”, likely the first song you’ll encounter in the game, features acoustic and electronic layering to the guitar. The soundtrack is spiced up from the very start.
“Summer Forest”, the first Homeworld, is a track that relies 100% on ambience. It is a looping ethereal track, as are all the Homeworld tracks in the sequel. These tracks are all atmosphere, relying on the world to draw you in and give it legs. This has an effect to strengthen the individual level tracks. When you enter a new area and the music really hits, it feels more grand. In the first homeworld alone, there is the addition of horns, the twang of steel guitars, and even an entirely surf rock track in “Sunny Beach”.
One way Ripto’s Rage added variation was the inclusion of mini-games within levels; short but often difficult optional objectives that gave an enormous amount of new content. Copeland developed many tracks or variants of level tracks for the mini-games alone, which led to over forty tracks being included in Ripto’s Rage alone. Insomniac certainly kept him busy with this trilogy, but he didn’t mind. As he exclaimed in the insider interview, ‘They pay me for this!’ Copeland had a blast with this soundtrack, and I personally believe his passion and dedication show spectacularly. He was so proud of it, he even included “Rain (Jacques)” in his 2007 release, The Stewart Copeland Anthology.
While Ripto’s Rage is one of the best video game soundtracks of the 90s, and one of my favorite games in general, there were some minor moments where this soundtrack faltered. With the addition of new layers, it also increases the likelihood of certain things not working. The level “Magma Cone” features one of my least favorite tracks in the entire trilogy. To say it is the worst in the game would probably be accurate to me. While most of it is your standard Spyro music- programmed and quantized rock music- there is a weird vocalization added to it. The voice is thick and viscous, like the lava featured in the level. I get what the intent was, but my God. Every time I play this game I speed run the level so I don’t have to listen to it long. “Zephyr” is another example of one weird and off-kilter element takes away from an otherwise decent track. There is an added sample that sounds like a strange meow that pops up randomly throughout. Each time it makes me furrow my brow in a ‘Why is this here?’ kind of gesture.
“Skelos Badlands” is one of the most iconic areas in Ripto’s Rage, and a track that gives me insane waves of nostalgia. You hear it twenty years later and are rushed back to the level. That’s a wonderful feeling. The upbeat track is oft-frenetic, particularly in the altered version used in the caveman rescue mini-game. It is led by twangy guitar and frantic percussion; normal rock drums accompanied by bongos. If you grew up in the 90s with a Playstation in your household, it is very likely hearing this track will make you yearn for a Surge and a new Limp Bizkit album. Well… maybe not the latter as much.
Spyro: Year of the Dragon is the third and final game of the original trilogy. It is the second-to-last game in the series composed by Copeland. This game features the most variation in terms of gameplay and soundtrack, and is often regarded as the best. To me, Year of the Dragon is an example of taking a great design and mixing it up entirely without changing any of the core concept. With the inclusion of new playable characters, each unique in playstyle and with their own levels designed around their abilities, they added many new variables. New mini-games that change the playstyle more than ever also make YotD easily the most varied. Spyro also rides a skateboard in this one, which makes it 100 times cooler automatically in the 90s.
Tracks like “Buzz’s Dungeon” and “Fireworks Factory” make YotD easily my favorite soundtrack of the three games. There is so much difference in those two songs alone. “Buzz’s Dungeon” is a proggy, heavily symphonic, and ominous piece. “Fireworks Factory” is heavily electronica influenced, with one of the most memorable melodies in the series and addictive beat. Each level in the game can be entirely different than the last, and by this point Insomniac had the best level design of maybe any video game developer in the era. Copeland had tons of content to work with and write for, as this game features nearly forty tracks as well, with few to none recycling from either of the previous games. Instead of the tracks being stale and formulaic, they are varied level to level still. The core of them still has that iconic Spyro sound. Quantized synthesizers, orchestral sweeps, and heavy electric guitars and drums take the center as with the previous titles.
My favorite track and least favorite tracks in the series actually follow in back-to-back levels. “Frozen Altars” is a track that used to make me jump up and dance in 2000, while playing through this trilogy with my older sister. The tune is really upbeat, with a flute playing the leading melody. It’s one that I have hummed to myself for almost my entire life now, that’s how memorable it is. Cheerful and buoyant percussion lifts the piece, making it one of the brightest to me. “Lost Fleet” has a song that fits the level, but I still hate it. In a level where you are navigating wrecked ships on sandy beaches, it makes sense to have piratey, accordion-backed music. I’m personally not a fan of the instrument. This is the one melody I wish they would have replaced in the remaster. It’s the only track I feel that way about.
Spyro the Dragon spawned one of the most iconic set of games in the 90s and for the Playstation in general. Spyro became one of the brands leading mascots for the generation. All three titles sold very well and were heavily lauded by critics and consumers alike. One of the things attributing most to the games success to me was Stewart Copeland’s music. While the gameplay would have been just as fun with any other composition, the music of this series really brings it to life. The fact that one man made it all is astounding. I thank him to this day for making one of the most memorable soundtracks to my childhood.