Andrew in Steamland:
This Was Going to be a Sonic Mania Review
…but, unlike presidential assassinations and bestiality, Sega doesn’t approve of PC gaming, so that wasn’t possible. Instead, here’s the next best thing. While it isn’t a Sonic game, it’s very much a “Sonic” game, if you get what I mean.
Spark the Electric Jester is a Sonic-inspired game from the mind of Felipe “LakeFeperd” Daneluz, known to many as the creator of Sonic: Before the Sequel and After the Sequel. As his own original project, Spark distinguishes itself with fresh gameplay mechanics, new settings and characters, and by not being garbage. I bought Spark expecting more of the same: a great soundtrack unfortunately married to a barren, boring game. Instead I got one of the best indie games this side of Shovel Knight, plus a great soundtrack! The trick seems to be that instead of making a bad classic Sonic game, Daneluz made an incredible Sonic Advance game. You know, like the first two Advance games, which built on the Sonic formula with streamlined platforming and a greater emphasis on raw speed. For purposes of this comparison I’ll exclude the third game, which I shun like a Jehovah’s Witness shunning an apostate who received a blood transfusion from Satan.
But enough about Sonic. Whatever its developer might have made in the past, Spark is original enough that it deserves to be judged on its own merits. The basic outline is familiar (you go fast, there are loop-the-loops everywhere, the hero has an evil robotic doppelganger), but the exact direction the game goes with it came as a pleasant surprise. There are a number of elemental jester powers that alter Spark’s attacks and movement skills, allowing him to jump multiple times, run up walls, walk on water, etc. One power can be held in reserve and swapped with the active power at any time, encouraging players to experiment. I can’t say it works perfectly, since I spent about 90% of the game as Edgy Jester, who sports a black-and-red color scheme and wields a katana. I guess giving him a gun and a motorcycle would have been too on-the-nose.
If there’s one problem with the variety of powers available to the player, it’s that the level design doesn’t always account for most of them. I’d often spot a vertical shaft that I thought would serve as a shortcut to another part of the level, only to hit a dead end when I ran up the wall. It almost feels the levels were made first, with only Spark’s basic abilities in mind, and then powerups were added to the game. At least the powers are all balanced in relation to each other while also being fun and distinct. Daneluz even had the foresight to anticipate players like me by including a mode that lets Spark cycle through all of his abilities at any time.
One aspect of the gameplay that perfectly gels with the level design is the dash Spark can perform. It gets him moving quickly from a standstill but resets his momentum if used multiple times. This makes it incredibly useful for transitions between straightaways and slower platforming sections, as well as for maneuvering during boss fights. One thing the game hides from players is that this move also comes with a few frames of invincibility, making it an essential tool for higher difficulties, as well as the last few levels, which often degenerate into gauntlets of enemies.
Spark isn’t just good at running, though. Like fellow traveler Freedom Planet, his game is more combat-oriented than its inspiration. Every one of Spark’s forms has three attacks: a basic attack executed by tapping a button, and two charge attacks that can be used by holding the button. It’s a simple but well-constructed system that, again, I saw almost nothing of because I spent most of the game abusing Edgy Jester’s screen-clearing charge attack. But it’s there and you can use it.
The game’s greatest strength lies in its physics and momentum, which are one facet of it that do mesh with the level design. Slower platforming sections and lightning-quick straightaways are equally fun to navigate. All of the tweaks to the Sonic formula make sense: Spark has HP instead of being able to collect rings to avoid damage, and his jump doesn’t automatically do damage, but enemies don’t do damage on contact either. This prevents players from being blindsided by enemies during the game’s faster parts. The game was built for speed, with consideration given to making it fun as a more traditional platformer as well; at its best, the powerup system plays into that by giving players choices between abilities specialized for attack or ones that enhance mobility, like the Gravity and Hoverboard.
Nah, I lied. The game’s greatest strength is when you finish Spark’s story and unlock a different game that happens to use the game’s assets. There’s a whole second story starring Fark, a robotic copy of Spark who stole his job, presumably making him the real electric jester. This turns the game from a platformer into a beat-em-up, a shift in genre that works far better than I expected.
Fark’s gameplay is built around the static meter, which can be consumed to restore his health and grant a short period of invincibility. The meter is filled by parrying enemy attacks, and depleted by taking damage and mistiming parries. Completely filling the meter allows Fark to attain his super form, which has greatly increased attack power. He needs it, because all of Spark’s powerups are inaccessible to him. While it might sound like a questionable decision to present players with a wealth of options and then abruptly take them away for what amounts to the second half of the game, it does prevent the mechanics from becoming overly complicated; everything is built around the static meter and the constant tension between draining it for health and building it for greater attack power.
Additionally, while Fark traverses the same levels as Spark, they boast new layouts and enough new bosses to keep things fresh. It’s easy to tell Daneluz wanted to try some new ideas outside the Sonic formula, something at which he succeeded brilliantly. If there’s a damage source in the game that can’t be parried, I didn’t find it. With good enough timing, players can fly through the levels without taking a scratch, shrugging off even the final boss’ attacks. The static meter is a perfect example of a gameplay feature that’s easy to use while still rewarding mastery, and my only complaint is that the game’s sometimes-inconsistent framerate makes that more difficult than it should be. Due to being built on the same engine as Freedom Planet, Spark isn’t a terribly well-optimized game, leaving a few parts of the game with an evident lack of polish. For whatever reason, the music doesn’t always loop correctly, and the camera sometimes hitches during transitions to special rooms like boss arenas.
That said, I’m of the opinion that an unpolished game with great core gameplay is better than a flawlessly executed, unimaginative game. If I had to choose between Spark and a high-budget exercise in cinematic, masturbatory, AAA gaming, I’ll go with the former every time. Spark is a grab bag of old-school platforming concepts and new ideas that may not always play well together, but still come together to deliver a fun, engaging experience. Also, Fark’s unique boss theme is a blatant Crush 40 homage. If that isn’t enough reason to at least check out the soundtrack, I don’t know how to convince you.