There’s always something appealing when new games go back to the basics and riff on some of the earliest experiences in the medium. Games like Pong or Tetris represent more than just games at this point, more than even genres. They feel almost like elemental parts of gaming, things that were always there and that form the building blocks of everything we’ve played since. Spiritsphere DX wears its debt to Pong (and any other tennis-like game) not so much on its sleeve as in big neon letters on its chest. The easiest, but not the most accurate, way to describe it would be Pong with a fantasy veneer. Far from just replicating a classic experience, though, Spiritsphere DX absolutely piles on new content and mechanics, in ways that are sometimes more novel than satisfying.
The best starting point for the game is its campaign mode. Consisting of 10 matches, this mode will get you acquainted with the game’s many quirks. It culminates with a boss battle against the demon Baphomet, so the stakes are just a bit higher than in your average tennis match. Even before that point, the game remixes its basic formula at every turn. In standard play, you’re trying to hit a ball past your opponent to the opposite side of the screen, but Spiritsphere DX has a way of building twists into essentially everything. For one, you start by choosing from a pool of characters with different stats for speed, power, control, and defense. Fairly standard for this type of game, but what makes it unique is how those stats are expressed in game, particularly control and defense.
Each character has a standard strike, a charged strike, and a dash. If you hit the ball with a charged attack, you can change its direction mid flight, making it much more valuable than just a stronger hit. Normal and charged attacks also vary from one character to another. Some characters, like the extremely unsubtle Link knock-off named Lin, just do a quick swipe in front of them for either attack. But choose Ozo, who is basically Orko from Masters of the Universe, and your standard attack reaches a short distance in front of you, while your charged attack extends from your sides. The Dwarf character, aptly named Dwarf, can throw his axe in any direction for a standard attack or swing it in circles for his charged attack. Each character also has a different dash move, and as you play, you’ll unlock even more that add further twists to how you play. If you think all these differences make the characters sound wildly unbalanced, well, you’d be onto something. Some characters’ movesets are just flat-out better than others, at least in certain situations. But more complicated characters also provide more opportunities for you to screw up, and frankly, it’s more fun to switch characters and experience the game in different ways than it is to stick with the one you win every match with.
Even more than its characters, what really sets Spiritsphere DX apart is just how many variations on tennis it manages to cram in. For one, each court is different functionally, not just aesthetically. One is diamond shaped, with a relatively small opening on each end, making precision strikes necessary to win. Another has lava flows that periodically obstruct your goal (or your opponents’). Different courts can reward different characters or styles of play, which helps lessen the impact of the unbalanced characters somewhat.
During matches, there’s just a lot going on. Much of it will make little sense at first, with skeletons across the court like they own the place and coins sometimes sprouting from the ball when it’s hit. After a while you’ll get a sense for these little quirks, which ones fundamentally change the flow of the game and which can be ignored. For instance, you can collect items from skeletons if you bash them, such as a bow to shoot and temporarily stun your opponent. Even the ball itself has a handful of permutations. There’s a magnetic ball that drifts toward the players, a multi-ball that splits when struck, and a fireball that launches a plume of flame at the opposite side of the court when you make contact.
These variations keep things interesting when you’re battling the CPU, but they really shake things up in multiplayer. Playing against another person is undoubtedly the way Spiritsphere DX was meant to be approached. In addition to versus, the game offers squash, a 2v1 boss mode, a cooperative target-smashing game, and — what I consider the crown jewel — a head-to-head mode where you and your opponent face one another and each use one Joy-con while they’re still attached to the Switch. This mode offers plenty of opportunities for poor sportsmanship, but assuming everyone is on their best behavior, it’s a riot to face off against a friend when you’re both looking down the length of the same screen.
If your taste is anything like mine, the graphics and sound may be your favorite part of the game. It looks and sounds a lot like an NES game in spirit, not entirely mimicking the style or technical limitations, but getting close enough to rev up the old nostalgia engines. If there’s one misstep on that front, I’d say it’s the color palette, which sometimes clashes a bit too much, but the tunes are catchy enough to stick with you long after you put the game away.
Despite all its variability, at the end of the day, Spiritsphere DX isn’t likely to hold your attention for long. It’s fun to try different combinations of characters, courts, and ball effects, but the game neither invites nor rewards mastery. I have no desire to sink more time into it to see the ample character skins and other unlockables, but I do still find it fun to play. It’s not the kind of game you’d plan a get-together around, but Spiritsphere DX is an ideal palate cleanser between more substantial games at any game night.
Spiritsphere DX remixes a well-worn genre, adding tons of variety on top of a simplistic core mechanic. It offers plenty of unlockables and play modes, but they don’t add much to its replayability. Spiritsphere DX shines in short multiplayer sessions, but likely won’t hold solo players’ attention for long.