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Character Designer Nicholas Kole on Breathing New Life into Spyro & Crash Bandicoot

character designer Nicholas Kole interview Toys for Bob Spyro Reignited Trilogy Insomniac Games Naughty Dog Activision Crash Bandicoot 4: It's About Time

Playing classic games on the original PlayStation today is like getting hit by a nostalgia freight train. For many, Sony’s first gaming console recalls collecting hundreds of colorful Wumpa Fruit as Crash Bandicoot, while others can still hear the sound of Spyro’s fire breath. But let’s be honest: Our memories of these classic characters don’t exactly match up with reality. In terms of gameplay, both Naughty Dog’s Crash Bandicoot and Insomniac Games’ Spyro the Dragon hold up to their storied legacies. However, the 20+-year-old blocky visuals of the ‘90s aren’t exactly a feast for the eyes these days.

Game developer Toys for Bob was given the chance to update these iconic characters for new and old fans alike, first with Spyro Reignited Trilogy in 2018 and again in 2020 with Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time. Finding a balance between how millions fondly remember mascots from their childhood and creating something fresh is the ultimate task for any creator working with established IP, so being a fan from the old days can’t hurt. Artist Nicholas Kole, who served as a character designer on both titles, is one such fan, with roots that go back to his childhood.

“I had one particular childhood friend named James,” Kole said. “He was the one with the PlayStation, and I would go over to his house, and he would try to blow my mind with all these games that I just didn’t have access to at home. That was the first place I played Crash Bandicoot, and I think it was the first place I played any Spyro as well.”

character designer Nicholas Kole interview Toys for Bob Spyro Reignited Trilogy Insomniac Games Naughty Dog Activision Crash Bandicoot 4: It's About Time

Kole and his sister eventually got their hands on a PlayStation of their own, further cementing a fondness for Spyro and dragon designs in general. Later during his time in college, Kole would have the unique opportunity to work with the very company that helped instill a love for colorful characters. Insomniac Games was accepting concept art internship applications, and with a love for the studio’s work on Spyro and Ratchet & Clank, Kole was eager to take his shot. However, it didn’t turn out quite like he had expected.

“When they gave me my assignment for the application, it turned out to be an audition for Resistance: Fall of Man, which was the first big departure for Insomniac, away from that world of colorful platformers,” Kole said. “I did it, and they did offer the internship to me, but the work was so bleak, like, the experience of just designing it put me in a dark place emotionally, as silly as that might sound. So, I did actually turn it down even though I felt this enormous excitement to work on Ratchet and maybe something Spyro-related someday.”

It wasn’t until around a decade later that a past art director reached out with an opportunity to work on Spyro, and as Kole said, “I tried very hard not to completely freak out.” However, characters like Spyro and Crash aren’t just held in high regard; the two mascots represent a pivotal moment in gaming history. To add on to that history meant that Toys for Bob had to find that perfect middle ground between fresh and familiar to meet fans’ high expectations.

character designer Nicholas Kole interview Toys for Bob Spyro Reignited Trilogy Insomniac Games Naughty Dog Activision Crash Bandicoot 4: It's About Time

“It’s an intimidating task at the beginning, especially when you look at all the different ways (Spyro and Crash) have been interpreted,” Kole said. “Even in their original form, there’s the PlayStation 1 model, but then there’s the version of Spyro that’s on the covers of the PlayStation games, and that’s even different than the version of Spyro that they used for magazine advertisements, and that’s different than Charles Zembillas’ original concept art – and you’re wondering, ‘Which Spyro are we adapting? You know, what are the specifics?’”

Kole elaborated on the approach he and Toys for Bob took with Spyro the Dragon and Crash Bandicoot over the last few years, saying, “It’s a hard needle to thread, trying to create — or recreate — the world you remember as a child. The idea we had constantly in the back of our minds was to do our best to adapt it in a way that wasn’t necessarily literally what you saw on screen at that time, but how you imagined it and the kind of imagination that you had throughout the years since.”

The general response to Toys for Bob’s iterations of both characters has been positive, with Kole saying that it’s the fan art and cosplay that are especially surreal to see. Old and new fans love what Crash and Spyro have become in the last few years, and the art team along with the rest of Toys for Bob were crucial in making that happen. But did Crash and Spyro turn out as Kole had imagined they would from each project’s infancy?

character designer Nicholas Kole interview Toys for Bob Spyro Reignited Trilogy Insomniac Games Naughty Dog Activision Crash Bandicoot 4: It's About Time

“Yes, although — and I don’t mean this in a bad way — but I feel like that is a little bit reductive, in terms of how it works,” he said. “It’s not just about how I imagined. It’s I imagine something, and then pass it down, and sometimes somebody adds something in 3D or in rigging or in animation, where I realize when I see it that my imagination was limited. So, I really do think — especially watching Crash come together — that Crash himself in (Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time) is better than I imagined.”

How Crash and Spyro’s legacy will continue is about more than just creating strong designs, though. Spyro Reignited Trilogy is a collection of remakes, not something wholly new. So, in that case, Toys for Bob had to remember not to stray from the vision of the PlayStation originals. That said, a few restrictions didn’t completely keep Kole or the rest of the team from exploring a bit.

“The law of the land is — these are the three games, this is how they play, these are the levels, these are the color palettes, you know,” Kole said. He went on to explain, “It was surprising, actually; we really did get to have some interpretive space on the project, and I think that makes it more exciting and alive for the team working on it. To recreate something from the past, it’s a fun exercise, but we’re all designers and artists and people with our own thoughts and emotional reactions to the material, so getting to have a little bit of space to play with that was really great.”

Where Spyro Reignited Trilogy had cracked the door open for a bit of creative freedom, Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time left the door wide open. Toys for Bob was able to invent from the beginning, and Kole shared one of his own ideas that eventually came to fruition.

“I pitched to my art director like, ‘I really just want to draw a bunch of bats. I think that fruit bats would be really fun, and they would also be flying for the Wumpa,’” he said, “and then I had the idea of they could be distilling it into sort of a Wumpa moonshine, and that’s why they’re after it. And so, then this whole set of designs started to take shape, and from there, the sort of bayou levels kind of evolved out of that.”

Ultimately, the through line for Kole’s work on Crash Bandicoot, Spyro the Dragon, and everything else he does is a perspective of passion and love. These are two qualities that he shares with fans of the series that he and Toys for Bob have contributed to over the last few years. Thanks to these impassioned fans, Kole, and the rest of the development teams that worked on Spyro Reignited Trilogy and Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time, no one has to rely on a console from the ‘90s to experience the joy these characters have to offer.

Other than Jellybots, his own personal colorful sci-fi / fantasy project, Kole said to “stay tuned” for more updates on his work. Until he has more to share, you can follow him on Twitter, Instagram, and his website for more art updates.

About the author

Michael Cripe
Michael joined The Escapist team back in 2019 as a news reporter but has been covering games, movies, TV, and music since 2015. Most of his time is spent on the news team, but you’ll definitely see his name pop up in the opinion and interview sections from time to time. From the most obscure indie games to the industry’s AAA juggernauts, there’s nothing Michael isn’t interested in digging into. The vast majority of Michael’s work can be found at The Escapist, but his bachelor’s degree in Multimedia Journalism has led him to other sites like OnlySP, Gameranx, and Kansas City’s The Pitch. When he’s not writing, Michael is probably playing Super Mario Sunshine, Dead Space, or The Binding of Isaac. If you’d like to connect and talk about the latest in pop-culture, you can follow Michael on Twitter (@MikeCripe), Instagram (mike_cripe), or LinkedIn if that’s your thing, I guess.