Have you ever played a modern age game that models its art style and gameplay elements after bygone days of pixelated simplicity? After the popularity of games like Undertale and Hyper Light Drifter reaching their respective boiling points, it’s safe to assume so. What once was a technological restriction has now become an aesthetic of its own, and SpiritSphere is no different. Well, actually, it’s quite a bit different thanks to the accurate execution of its old school presentation.
SpiritSphere is a Legend of Zelda-inspired, Pong-infused concoction, and developer Eendhoorn Games throws the concept against the proverbial wall from the very beginning–and it sticks, at least, for a short time. The game’s tutorial begins with an homage to The Legend of Zelda as you learn how to hit the sphere bouncing around the screen. SpiritSphere‘s quality pixel art and soundtrack are both immediately noticeable after the training session, leaving you at the main menu with a convincing air of nostalgia. Unlike other similarly stylized games, the lack of complication, both artistically and mechanically, really makes it feel like you found a gem from the early 90s that you had missed back in the day.
Controls are far from convoluted. You move to reposition yourself defensively or offensively, and you attack the sphere to knock it into your opponent’s territory. Get the sphere past them, get a point–first to three points wins the match. Normal attacks can alter the sphere’s angle of attack depending on directional input from the controller, and charging up an attack can add an unexpected spin to the sphere’s trajectory. Curving the sphere to collide with the terrain is a great way to catch your opponent off-guard, but the tactic can backfire on its user quickly. Each player has a sprint ability they can trigger to traverse the field at an alarmingly fast rate; mix this with the sphere’s seemingly unpredictable collisions with environments and players, and games can get out of hand in a flash. Once the sphere gets behind you there may be a millisecond for you to sprint into position for a block, but miss that and the destination of the sphere is up for the map to decide.
As far as multiplayer games go, this is a recipe for immediate, simple enjoyment. Once you understand the game’s controls and win conditions, it’s just a matter of outplaying your opponent. SpiritSphere isn’t modest in its simplicity, however, and it provides quite a few features to keep each match entertaining. While there are only a handful of maps to play, their dynamic responses to player (in)action add to the natural flow of the game. Most of the maps require a pretty strong understanding of angled shots to bypass your opponent’s body blocking and subsequent retaliation, but a few (such as the volcano environment) promotes map awareness over all else. Channels of lava will periodically flood various spots at the top and bottom of the volcano’s playing field, effectively opening and closing different segments of each goal. The lava will block any shot for as long as it’s flowing, but it could vanish and reappear somewhere else in an instant. Keeping track of the map soon becomes equally as important as keeping track of yourself.
Three characters are available from the start: Lin (girl), Buster (cat-thing), and Ozo (wraith-man), each one more distinct than the other. Characters have distinct attack animations and maneuvers that create an unexpected variety of tactics. The unlockable Kao perpetuates the disparity between play styles, adding another two character models that follow his movement and aid in his attacks. But the sphere is indifferent to your intentions of deflection, granting Kao the caveat of having three times the chance to hit the sphere into your own goal. If the sphere bounces past you, hits an obstacle and starts coming towards you once more, it’s entirely possible that you’ll give your opponent the game by body blocking the sphere into your own goal.
Losing? No worries, you’ve got a little dungeon of skeleton buddies that will come out to assist you—or your opponent if you are doing too well. Destroy these guys and they’ll drop a power up. Some of these can dramatically shift the outcome and pacing of the game. Throwing bombs, firing arrows, speeding up and enlarging your character, placing a metal shield down to help block a few shots—you never know how big of an impact these power-ups will have on any given match until they’re used. How you respond and react accordingly will determine your chances of success. It’s a quick, metaphorical chess game; stay one step ahead and you’ll persevere, but mentally outpacing your opponent can get pretty difficult when the game throws so many variables at you.
Matches can quickly become a series of nearly thoughtless reflexes until that one off hit slows the match to a near halt. Certain angles will smack the sphere horizontally, often taking far too long to get to a spot where you’re willing to attempt hitting it. A few maps are designed to combat this with angled sides, but when it happens it’s an instant transition from fun to frustrating waiting periods. This is not an atypical problem for the air hockey-type genre of games, however. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does it becomes particularly disruptive due to the momentum that picks up after enduring the fast-paced nature of the match prior to the moment.
SpiritSphere is a simple game that basks in the camaraderie of local multiplayer. Competing against the singleplayer AI is more irritating than it is enjoyable, but the game’s lower price tag is dense with potential competition. SpiritSphere won’t keep you away from the rest of your game library for long, but it’s a fun time with friends for however long the allure may last.
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Reviewer’s note: The author of this review was provided a PC code for purpose of this review.