Welcome to Save State, where jesters dream of electric sheep. Over the course of last month’s Steam sale, a game called Spark the Electric Jester 3 caught my eye, and not just because the title sounds like a method of torture a Bond villain would subject someone to. The Spark games are inspired by Sonic the Hedgehog, at least to a degree, with the first one being a 2D game with various costume-themed power ups, the second being an attempt at something like Sonic Adventure, and the third game takes everything learned in the second and makes a truly fantastic experience.
Editor’s Note: Check out Vincent’s full review of Sonic Frontiers.
Spark the Electric Jester was created by the same mind behind Sonic Before the Sequel, a very popular Sonic fan game from around a decade ago. The first Spark game is a 2D platformer that’s like one part Sonic the Hedgehog, one part Kirby. You can speed through levels filled with traps and enemies, and grab power ups that will offer you new abilities for traversal or attacking foes. Movement is fluid and entertaining, and it’s pretty easy to get into a flow where you’re chaining together actions skillfully to get around a bunch of obstacles. There’s a power up storage system, but speeding along into a new powerup instantly overwrites the one you currently have, which can be slightly annoying in some instances as some powers will stand head and shoulders above the others in defeating minibosses and bosses (the mage hat just seemed outright bad, for example).
Great level design and unbalanced powers are two of the big things that make up Spark the Electric Jester. There’s a pretty simple story told, as well, and I’m unaware if this was because I primarily played the game on the Steam Deck, but sometimes performance would absolutely bottom out for a second or two, and this persisted no matter what troubleshooting I attempted to do to fix it. Those things aside, however, Spark 1 was a good bit of fun, especially using the Bat power to clear out enemies and using the Wind power to zip through stages with ease. Spark 1 is a cheap game with a short run time, but it doesn’t overstay its welcome.
Spark the Electric Jester 2 shifts the Spark Cinematic Universe into 3D, and the title Spark Adventure wouldn’t be remiss in describing it. The controls are spot on, for the most part, with the player character Fark (yeah that’s, uh, that’s his name) having a quick and snappy Homing Attack that launches you into targetable foes, which can be helpful for clearing gaps or scaling areas. Booster pads, loop-de-loops, and general level design that incorporates some solid platform tricks allow the player to feel as if they’re in control during high speed segments, rather than automating them all like 3D Sonic titles tend to do.
The real problem with Spark 2 is its combat- it wants you to engage with it, and it’s not the worst combat system out there, but most of the time you’re better served just zipping past the enemies that the game wants you to fight as the foes won’t give chase. Bosses don’t really have the platforming sensibilities of the battles from Sonic Adventure, and are instant button mashers on flat ground, basically. The fun in quickly clearing stages, collecting medals from getting fast completion times or high scores, all abruptly comes to a halt the moment you have to engage with the combat systems.
Combat in Spark 2 is an extremely strange entity- either you destroy a boss quickly and without any trouble whatsoever because you can spam the block button to parry, or you get annihilated because there’s no i-frames when you take damage. So, some bosses are too easy even on the highest difficulty, and some will nearly take you out in one hit if they just so happen to touch you, it’s some super strange balancing. If someone enjoyed the combat in a game like Sonic Heroes, you might enjoy what Spark 2 offers in terms of a combat system, but it absolutely was not my speed in spite of my having an even better time playing the actual levels of Spark 2.
Spark the Electric Jester 3, however, is a completely different beast from the prior two games in its series. It’s still a 3D game inspired by Sonic Adventure, but it takes even greater care with its level design, enemy placement, and improves the combat to the point it’s reasonably enjoyable to engage with. Many powers that would be familiar to fans of 3D Sonic games are present in Spark 3, and there are many differences that can be seen as improvements in their implementation. Grinding on rails is quick and snappy, and switching rails, something most 3D Sonic games still can’t do properly, is performed with ease and has a helpful visual cue to help you know that you’re not going to careen off into the abyss.
Rather than having floating jester powerups in the world, Spark 3 elects to just outright give you alternate characters to play as, and there’s a variety of unlockable abilities that you can equip like an equivalent to Sonic Adventure 2’s Lightspeed Dash that lets Spark quickly travel among a line of bits while simultaneously gaining speed. There are also abilities that consume energy that provide a variety of benefits such as raising your speed, dash ahead, or reveal items around you. Using all of Spark’s traversal abilities will quickly reveal to players that areas out in the distance aren’t actually background noise, but are oftentimes paths the player can explore or use for faster clear times.
The stages of Spark 3 generally have speed and score medals you can acquire, and many have exploration medals that are hidden all over them. If you play Spark 3 with just the goal of getting to the end of the stages, you’ll actually miss a ton of well-designed levels that hides bits, medals, and just fun things with which to interact. Spark 3’s diamond medals encourage the player to do fun skips of the environments by way of mastering the physics and movement abilities, like using your charged dash on a sloped surface to gain a ton of air and skip a slower platforming segment.
Combat still isn’t incredible, but now you can attack and swiftly launch enemies into the air to juggle, etc., instead of just spamming for parries. The damage multiplier increases as you use a variety of moves, as well, which means the more of Spark’s moveset you take into consideration, the quicker you’ll clear most combat encounters, which is nice. Much of the time you’ll still want to attack until an enemy telegraphs an attack you can parry, but after that you can unleash a shocking assault, launch the enemy, and juggle them like the jester you are.
Some locations in Spark 3 really show their inspiration from titles like Sonic Heroes, as there’s a stage where you primarily rail grind over series of rails and dodge trains that’s extremely reminiscent of Rail Canyon, but is nowhere near as frustrating to play due to better rail grinding controls. Of course, the Sonic inspired roots don’t stop at just stage design, either, as the final hour of the game incorporates a ton into the story as if it were written by a Dollar Store version of Hideo Kojima, featuring a team up between rival characters almost as satisfying as the first time Piccolo first fought side-by-side with Goku (my perception of this may be blurred by the fact that I played all three Spark games in quick succession).
This isn’t withstanding that in the last few months, every single stage from Spark 2 was actually ported into the third game as a free update. While Spark 2 may have only lasted a couple hours in total play time, Spark 3 offers its improved physics and mechanics to not just all of its own stages, but also all of the stages of the previous entry, too. Spark 3, as an indie production, has a ton of rough edges, still, but Sonic Frontiers had design elements that were frustrating, at times, too. Things that Sonic has been relying on, like locking the player into 2D environments, are rarely found in Spark 3 despite the levels being, at times, substantially larger than what you’d see in your average Sonic game.
There are many design pitfalls that Sonic Team keep incorporating in 3D Sonic that kill the pacing and flow of their stages, and the developer of Spark the Electric Jester not only understood this, but improved upon many elements that people have had minor complaints about for years. Good rail controls (and more decisions to make while locked to a rail), fewer automated segments, and a lack of forced 2D sections really make Spark stand out from Sonic in surprising ways that hearken back to the days when this formula was still special. The solid controls, unlockable abilities, embracing of speedrun paths through stages, and great level design show that with just a little creative spark, you can out-Sonic Sega.
With that, we’ll bring this week’s edition of Save State to a close. Join us again next time, where it will be the seventh week in a row I’ve shown a Steam indie game in class.