If I had to summarize SpiritSphere, it would be "battle Pong". This local multiplayer title is the work of the one-man team at Eendhoorn Games, and it takes some inspiration from games like Pong, Windjammers and The Legend of Zelda to create a competitive game with an old-school feel. It's a small and simple package, and it can be tricky before you get the hang of it, but it's still a pretty good time.
The standard mode is a lot like Pong, as I mentioned before. Each player controls a character on either end of the playing field, with a sphere bouncing around that they are trying to get past their opponent in order to score a point. Your character has a couple of different attacks, as well as a dash maneuver, to try and get to the increasingly-fast sphere and knock it away, or use your special attack to weakly control it for a moment. The first character, Lin, has a sword attack that feels clearly influenced by Link's controls from The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, which not only is a nice nostalgic throwback, but for many people they'll be able to adapt to the controls even more quickly. I never really got used to controlling the sphere after a special attack, though that might just be my relative lack of skill.
In addition to your basic maneuvers, the play field is often littered with powerups or even weapons. Picking up shoes will speed you up, grabbing a potion will grow your character, and bows or bombs help stun your opponent in order to get past them. If you're skilled enough to fling the sphere and attack your opponent at the same time, it will go a long way toward making you a SpiritSphere expert. It can be tricky, but landing an arrow shot in order to score is quite satisfying.
The gameplay sounds simple, and admittedly it is a bit simple, but that doesn't mean that it's easy. If you try out the single player mode on normal, you'll quickly discover how difficult it can be against a skilled opponent. Even if you're able to get to the speedy sphere, it's a different thing entirely getting it past your opponent to score. Once you are good enough to play at a decent level, though, it's quite enjoyable.
There are two gameplay modes: the normal mode (which I think of as Pong Mode) and Squash Mode, which plays a lot more like the indoor sport squash. Players take turns hitting a ball against a wall in front of them, hoping that on the rebound it makes it past their opponent to hit the wall behind them, netting them a point. You also get a point if your opponent touches the ball when they shouldn't, which gives you an opportunity to score by hitting them skillfully with the sphere. I like this mode a lot, perhaps even more so than the normal game mode, and it feels different enough to be a meaningful extension of the game.
The single-player mode has you playing through nine stages of either the normal mode or Squash Mode, with your opponents, stages and spheres randomized for each playthrough. The first few rounds are easy, but by the time you hit round seven you're going to really have to put up or shut up if you want to succeed. There isn't any story to speak of, since you're just advancing through different rounds, but that didn't really bother me. There's also a mini-game in the middle where you try to catch flying discs, which is a great way to practice your dash ability, though it didn't ultimately make me that much better of a player.
As you play, you'll garner coins that let you unlock more characters, stages and spheres, all of which are mostly similar, but different enough that switching from one to another is a meaningful change that makes the match feel different. I definitely ended up with some favorite characters and stages, myself. The different spheres are the most interesting, as they end up changing the mechanics of the game in more meaningful ways; the Double Sphere is my favorite, as it splits the sphere into two, and you have to keep an eye on both because both spheres are capable of scoring points.
The game's visual style is a throwback to the Super Nintendo era, and it does a good job of making the screen feel lively without also feeling cluttered. Each stage and character has a distinct look to it, which I appreciated. The music selection is a bit more limited, with only a couple different themes available for actual play, but it does the job well enough and doesn't grate. The sound effects are also a throwback and are very satisfying, especially when a heavy thud is combined with the shaking of the game screen.
Ultimately, SpiritSphere is a game you're going to want to play with friends to keep the replay value up, since there's only so much content here, but it's still fun to go back and play a few games against the computer as well, especially on the harder difficulties where you really need to work for a victory. If you're looking for a fun and retro competitive game, this is one worth looking into. For a one-man effort, it's definitely impressive.
Final Score: 7.1 out of 10
A copy of this game was provided for the purpose of review.