Taking game mechanics from beloved franchises and utilizing them in new and interesting ways is one of the many reasons why the indie scene in videogames is so interesting. SpiritSphere aims to be another game in the indie scene that marries together two franchises to create something new. From what has been released by developer Eendhoom Games, SpiritSphere mashes together Zelda and Windjammers to create a local multiplayer-focused game for the PC. While I take umbrage with that analogy for a few reasons, I can’t help but admit that SpiritSphere is an interesting game that gets a fair amount right while taking its fair share of missteps.
SpiritSphere is a competitive game that revolves around two players on a court attempting to get the sphere they’re hitting to cross the opponent’s goal a set number of times. Think air hockey with a floating sphere, set in an 8-bit world. All characters have a regular attack, a dash move, and a heavy attack. While the heavy attack’s animation and range may be different depending on the character, it always has the same effect, allowing the player momentary air control to curve the sphere. This results in trick shots that are more difficult to predict and therefore more difficult to protect against.
As of now, SpiritSphere has seven characters that each play fairly different from one another. Lin, the game’s first/tutorial character, plays just like Link. That is to say that she looks like a Zelda character, walks like a Zelda character, attacks with a sword in the same way Link does, and has a heavy attack that involves spinning her sword around in a circle. Aside from Lin there are a host of characters that include a teleporting wizard, a bunny in a car, and a dog. Each character’s speed is roughly the same, though their size and attack style makes them play a bit different. I found it interesting to try and figure out what character I liked best, a decision that came down to how effective they were at goal tending. You see, hitting the sphere is the same with just about every character. Where the game gets interesting is how you goal tend. Ozo the wizard teleports, giving him a long range and instant save ability. Fennel the rabbit is quick and large so goaltending can be easy as long as you don’t knock the sphere into your own goal.
These character differences add a nice level of depth to the game but it feels like more could have been done here. While there is certainly some differences between the characters, there isn’t enough differentiation to be meaningful. In the end, they all play the same way and once you pick out the one or two nuances the character you like has you’ll be just fine. Games like Windjammers were interesting because there wasn’t much difference between characters, it came down to skill and slight speed and power differences. Other competitive games in this genre go whole hog and try to make the characters as wildly different as possible, making the game fast and unpredictable. SpiritSphere feels somewhere stuck in the middle as the gameplay isn’t skills-based enough to make it Windjammers-esque but at the same time the characters aren’t wildly different enough for those differences to matter. There are power-ups that litter certain arenas as well but they too are grouped into the categories of stuns, shields, and speed or size boosts for the most part.
To increase the variety of play in SpiritSphere there are also different stages and spheres to master. While different levels in most games of this genre don’t matter, they change the game slightly in SpiritSphere due to edges to look out for that can cause odd bounces. Similar to that are the different spheres that may be faster or larger than normal spheres or disappear for a second or two after a strike. While these features add a nice sense of depth and differentiation to the regular gameplay, I couldn’t help but feel like it took away from the pure one on one gameplay that the game was going for. Sure, it can be fun to put four players in a game with a sphere that multiplies in a level with sharp angles to look out for, but that isn’t the pure game of one on one “air hockey at your local arcade” that SpiritSphere touts.
One of SpiritSphere’s biggest strengths is also a significant weakness. Its 8-bit art style is one of the most faithful ones of a modern videogame and the soundtrack by Gas1312 is worth touting as well. If you’ve played Escape Goat before, you’ll be familiar with the retro, bass-heavy soundtrack that is much appreciated in games like this. The art style is also worth talking about as every character and in-game element looks like it was picked out of an obscure NES game. Lin looks like a carbon copy of Link in the best possible way and the other characters feel like they call fell into SpiritSphere from other NES titles we may or may not have played at one point. The downside is that the gameplay can feel slow and sluggish at times and not at all as fast paced or tactical as a game like Windjammers. I bring up Windjammers a lot because the game compares itself to that beloved franchise but I think the comparison that is more fitting is Zelda and Pong. I don’t mean that in a bad way, it’s just that Windjammers evokes a sense of speed and competitive multiplayer that SpiritSphere can’t hope to match with its graphical restrictions. Sure, you can curve the ball like a special throw in Windjammers, but for the most part it feels like an intricate game of Pong.
While multiplayer is the focus of the game, there is a fun single player mode attached as well. The single player mode consists of ten randomly generated levels that involve a random enemy, arena, and sphere to compete with. This can lead to some frustrating moments as the fire sphere that shoots out a burst of stunning fire is the bane of my existence and I ended up having to play with it three times in a single run. The randomness can also lead to some great moments like playing against the hard to beat Ozo with a speed sphere and acing a serve right past him to win the match. Let it also be known that Ozo’s AI is a bit off, as the developer has admitted, and when played by the CPU he has nearly perfect teleports that make him a real challenge to play against, even on easy difficulty. The single player is also where most players will be introduced to the squash mode in the game, played just like squash in real life, which offers a nice change of pace in a ten round mode. Overall I found myself enjoying the single player mode quite a bit despite some tough to beat AI moments.
SpiritSphere has a lot going for it: dedication to the 8bit style, a fantastic soundtrack, novel gameplay, interesting characters, and a myriad of spheres and arenas. There was clearly a lot of work put into SpiritSphere to marry together two disparate genres and it shows. Unfortunately, when stacked up against other competitive games of this nature, SpiritSphere looks like a novel idea that is fun to play for a few hours but lacks the real competitive nature of faster, more hard-hitting games due to its self-imposed 8bit restrictions. While the idea is great and executed in a fun way, it’s hard to recommend SpiritSphere to anyone not interested in an interesting 8bit competitive game due to its lack of depth and competitive multiplayer.