Many games portray themselves as being inspired by great retro classics such as Zelda, Mario, and other seminal NES/SNES titles. Some even go so far as to try to emulate the GameBoy era.
It’s a specific throwback style of game development that indies have taken to in recent years, and it’s a very difficult one to pull off. Many gamers will have specific expectations when it comes to nostalgia, and sometimes those expectations can betray us as we remember things for being better than they actually were. SpiritSphere manages to encapsulate what made the era great, but without falling short when it comes to presentation and gameplay.
SpiritSphere, developed by Eendhoorn Games, is beautifully simple, and reflects a development style that existed long ago when there were such things as ‘technical limitations’ floating around the game development scene. While today’s high-powered GFX cards are capable of reaching 2000mhz or higher on their core clocks and processors can reach the heady heights of 5.0ghz, the NES/SNES era was defined by how much gameplay and variety you could squeeze out of a limited hardware. What resulted were games that cared less about graphical polish, but more about pure gameplay.
That’s exactly what SpiritSphere manages to capture; a simplicity of design that extends into a varied game mechanic which can be used by the player to express their own playstyle. In a fantasy twist on tennis/squash mixed with PONG, the idea is to knock a sphere back and forth and get it outside of the opponent’s area before they can hit it back. The sphere bounces off the walls and other objects, but there’s always a goal of some shape or form towards the back that you’re constantly aiming for. You’ve got a few ways to go about it: you can simply knock the sphere by walking into it, or you can dash into it (which is useful for making last-second saves and fix your positioning quickly). Your main means of contesting the other player however, is by either attacking, or using a powered attack (which you can then influence the direction and curve of the sphere afterwards by tiling the stick).
SpiritSphere lets you choose from three characters to start with, but more unlock as you play. Each is unique in every aspect, from movement speed and momentum dampening, to the type of attack they use for both their standard and charged versions. For instance, the standard character resembles The Legend of Zelda‘s Link in that he uses a sword to hit the sphere forward, and can charge a spin-attack to send the sphere further and add some curvature to the direction. There’s also a mage who has a less generous attack radius, but can hit the sphere from further away. The mage becomes a good defensive player, who’s able to quickly teleport to a new position and has a wide charged attack to recover any shots that might just skim around you.
The first character I unlocked was a mini-kart type character, whose speed and movement meant that you would slide around quickly and you’d need to concentrate on how you were navigating the court. The plus to this character was that sliding around whilst attacking made it easy to outmanoeuvre an opponent and land a quick succession of hits. It was hard to get anything past me since I had the speed to move quickly, and was able to attack whilst still moving around. With each character being so different, you’ll find one that suits your playstyle, and there’s genuine fun to be had in giving every character a try and stepping outside of your comfort zone from time to time.
As well as unique arenas and characters, SpiritSphere also gives you items to help you out. There’s quite a few on offer, but the most useful ones are a shield to place down as an automatic wall defence, a bow to shoot your opponent and stun them before they can get a chance to return the sphere, and a bomb to throw which also adds knockback. There are also various types of spheres to vary the matches. Some simply create copies with the real sphere having a subtle highlight around it. Another shoots a fireball when it is struck, so you have to dodge the fireball first before moving in to strike. Another speeds up rapidly after each hit, and there are others as well.
Whilst the single player mode is fun and offers a lot of variety, there’s also a multiplayer mode to delve into. The AI is very serviceable, and I found it rather challenging on the easiest difficulty, let alone the hardest! However, there’s much more fun and humour to be had in grabbing a few friends and playing a local multiplayer match. I don’t want to say this is where the heart of the game lies because ultimately it’s a different, party style of experience. Still, there’s something ultimately more fair, satisfying and consistent in facing off against real human opponents. I found a few exploit techniques that worked fairly consistently against certain AI opponents, where most had a weakness that was easy to notice. Perhaps that’s a good sign of intentional design however; that they do have those blind spots or playstyles that can be countered? It’s hard to tell, but I’ll give the benefit of the doubt here and go with good design!
Overall, SpiritSphere offers a great little package. Considering it has such a simple mechanic, it does a lot with it, and adds more variety with different types of items, spheres, and characters. The game could have easily stayed with a standard character type, one arena, and a default sphere, and it would still be engaging and fun to play with. The variety that comes out of limiting the game design to emulate the restrictions and capabilities of the era it draws visual and musical inspiration from however, means that the gameplay loop is nice and tight without fluff or distraction. It’s one of those pure experiences that just allows you to play, and doesn’t put anything in the way of that enjoyment beyond a first-time-bootup tutorial.
In the same way that a game like Rocket League can create its own unique variation of a sport, I think SpiritSphere manages to accomplish just as much – even when it applies a very strict set of retro-restrictions to itself in the process. Personally, I think it’s better off for having done that. If you’re looking for something unique with a great replayability factor – and most of all, lots of fun – then SpiritSphere is worth checking out.