If I had a nickel for every time a game was released in 2017 by former Sonic fan game developers I’d have two nickles, which isn’t a lot but it’s weird it happened twice. Spark the Electric Jester is 2D action platformer charged with fun. It combines elements from both Sonic and Kirby to create a fast and frantic game. However, there are a few too many breaks in the circuit to make this a great game. Its ideas, while fantastic, are flawed in execution, preventing Spark from reaching the highs of a Sonic 2 or Rush.
Spark the Electric Jester is available on Steam for $7.99
Story – A Spark Contrast to the Game
Unlike the happy-go-lucky feeling of the gameplay, the story takes itself a lot more seriously, to a fault. What starts as a simple setup of an Electric Jester that tries to find the robot that replaced his job, turns into a plot of high stakes, drama, and climactic action. I could not get into it no matter how much I tried. Not only does it not suit the game tonally, but what this builds up to is a dead simple tale of good and evil. Which would be fine, if the game decided not to halt in place occasionally to have an overly long cutscene.
Not helping is the occasional quip the characters say that not only fails to land but gives a bizarre jolt of tonal whiplash. There’s also the occasional grammatical error, which can be ignored, but it furthers the amateurish, secondary school feeling of the story. I think a simpler, less ambitious approach could have done the story wonders. It may not have been great, but it would have been far less distracting.
Gameplay – Buzzing with Speed
At first, I was hesitant about the game in terms of controls. The wall jump felt a little bit over-tuned, flinging me across the level whenever I jumped. I wasn’t a fan of the momentum either. Spark accelerates and decelerates up and down slopes too quickly, making movement feel unnatural. This along with the level design issues can make keeping a good speed through the level cumbersome. Spark does have a dash that the player can spam to get past the momentum issues, but it results in a speed cap that’s less satisfying than a Sonic run or a Mega Man X dash. Then you get a Jester Power. And then, it all clicks.
Much like Kirby, the electric jester can pick up a variety of powers that change his moveset. This can be a hammer that can slam debris up from the floor to deal with enemies, to an ice hat that lets Sparkskate on water. Finding the right power to keep the speed going is a key part of Spark the Electic Jester. My favorite was Wind, which gave Spark a triple jump, air dash, float, and a charge shot that can fling Spark in the opposite direction you aim it. This was very useful to find higher pathways and skip huge chunks of platforming. However, there’s an imbalance in power usefulness. On one hand, you have Wind and Fire, which have large, interesting movesets that break the game when mastered, to the likes of Mage, which makes Spark stop in place to shoot a large beam and nothing else.
The Jester Powers make the game as fun as it is, and they can also drastically change the combat.
Spark the Electric Jester has a fairly robust combat system that’s fun to use. By default, Spark has a three-hit combo and a chargeable projectile. If Spark performs enough attacks without getting hit, it fills up his static bar. Once full, Spark can perform a more powerful version of the charge move. It’s simple to understand yet not brain-dead. It will keep you engaged for the short adventure and it makes boss fights fun to go head to head with. Jester Powers help this massively. These can change not only the basic combo and charge move but also can give you directional attacks and the ability to attack while dashing depending on the powerup. The best is by far the hammer as its maxed-out charge move can eviscerate boss health bars.
The big problem with combat is that there isn’t really much motivation to do it while platforming. It’s very fun, but it doesn’t really reward the player for defeating enemies. There’s the occasional health pack and bits. Bits fill up a bar that when full, can lead to a full health revive. But it takes far too long to fill up and I never found it too useful. It’s quicker and more efficient on your health to just skip the enemies, especially since they can get rather spongy near the end of the game.
Level and Enemy Design
Both levels and enemies come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Are they all good? Well… Some levels such as Sunfire Forest and Network Coast are great levels, with fun gimmicks, good platforming, and fun speed sections. Levels with interesting gimmicks like Turbulence Plains’ deadly fans and strong wind turbines also do a lot to make a level fun and memorable. However, you then have levels like Smog Sewers, which are cramped to hell and back. This breaks up any sense of flow the player could have had, by making spark trip over claustrophobic corridors. Reynol Complex and a lot of Spark’s levels suffer from this, which is a shame because the locations are really neat.
Enemy design is ok. The fact that they don’t do contact damage on Spark is great. It prevents the player from diving headfirst into damage, at least at first. Even the smallest enemy can pose a threat which is appreciated for a combat-focused game, and they often take inspiration from Jester Powers which is really cool. Unfortunately, later levels just spam the buggers across the screen, making combating them a huge time sink. The sponginess doesn’t help. On the plus side, bosses are great. Attacks are well telegraphed, boss designs are varied, and they are the best test of the player’s combat skills.
Graphics and Audio – An Excellent Jolt to the Senses
I have little to no complaints about the aesthetics of Spark the Electric Jester. The graphics are an evolved approach to 16-Bit games, which can make it feel rather timeless. However, this is juiced up well to make the game really pop. Smear frames, after images, and even small details such as tufts of smoke when you jump, do a lot to enhance the speed and make it look much more fluid. Stages are full of color to make them pop, yet all contrast well against all of Spark’s colors. My favorite little detail is the different feeling animations given to each Jester Power to heighten their personality. Gravity’s relaxed idle animation conveys to the player that they can drift through the level carefree and Edgy’s snappy attack animations show how it’s much more aggressive and “cooler”.
And then there’s the music. Oh my god, the music! It’s far better than the game it’s scoring and the game is already good. It’s full of energy to pump the player up while dashing through the stages, with tunes and melodies that ledge in your brain instantly. Each track also ranges in genre from retro-styled synth to harder rock to hip hop to atmospheric to lush jazz. If I can convince you to do only one thing then it’s to listen to the soundtrack!