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Sparkster (Super Nintendo) Review
~by tankMage (October 2017)
The 1990’s had more than it’s fair share of anthropomorphic protagonists, that ranged from blue hedgehogs to mercenary dinosaurs, but Sparkster manages to stand out from the crowd despite the fact that he has been largely forgotten. It’s not every day that I get to play a game about a possum knight who charges into battle with a rocket pack, which is enough to set this title apart from your average side scroller, not to mention the fact that Sparkster features a rather eclectic collection of stages. Alongside the obligatory platforming levels are vertical and side scrolling shooter type levels as well as a boss fight that plays like something out of a fighting game. Sparkster may be imaginative and offers the player quite a bit of variety, but I felt as though the game lacks much of the polish one would expect from a Konami title. In fact, this game left me with the feeling that it could have been a much better experience had some of the bosses been better balanced along with a more coherent story. At least Sparkster turned out to be a game that should prove entertaining to platformer addicts… oh I should also mention that this title is part of the Rocket Knight franchise and it’s the only game in the series to have been released for the Super Nintendo, so it’s also a nice curiosity piece.
Don’t play Sparkster if you’re the type that needs a good story to get into a game. First of all, there is no ingame text explaining what is going on, just a few cutscenes and short encounters between Sparkster (the hero) and the rest of the small cast within each stage that convey the story in a nonverbal manner, which would actually be really cool if the story were interesting or original. So what is this game about? Well, I was not successful in tracking down a copy of the manual, so all I have to go on is what is depicted within the game itself and the description on the back of the box, which is mostly mid 1990’s video game marketing gibberish.
At any rate, Sparkster turns out to be your usual “Rescue the princess and save the world” plot. So yeah, as far as the story goes it sucks; the plot is cliche, the endings sucks even though there are several of them, and there’s not really even any information out there on it. Maybe the rest of the Rocket Knight series has a better plot. On the bright side, the concept itself is fairly imaginative, thanks to the game’s rocket pack riding possum hero and it’s cartoonish steampunk style.
The story may suck, but this game looks nice. The world sparkster inhabits is colorful and filled with details, though some stages are a little bland. There’s also a wide variety of settings each with its own unique theme, which keeps the game from getting stale. Top that off with some impressive parallax scrolling (ok, ok, it’s only really impressive by 90’s standards) and you get a good looking game. Sparkster himself is really well drawn and animated, but many of the enemies could have used some work. While the various wolf men Sparkster fights are often detailed and in some cases creative (players will hack their way through fire fighter wolves, knight wolves, sailor wolves… basically the lupine version of the Village People), there are a fair number of stock enemies that look like they belong in a space shooter. The worst of the bunch are the turrets found in a number of areas that look like leftovers from another Konami game. The bosses can be disappointing too, but the giant robot knight and Sparkster’s rival, Axel Gear, make up for this a bit. Many of the bosses are somewhat generic looking mechs, one of which looks like a trashcan with arms.
Usually I complain about controls being too loose, but Sparkster’s play control feels like its on a hair trigger. Nudge the D-pad and Sparkster will GO and his rocket charge attack is one of the most finicky and overly sensitive moves I have ever encountered. I often found myself pushing the crosspiece a millimeter too far on an angle and ended up flying or running into danger. I guess it’s better than sluggish controls that fail to register half the time…this game would be unplayable with such play control.
Music and Sound
Sparkster’s BGM varies and is generally quite good. My favorite song was the end theme, which nicely encapsulates the adventurous spirit of the game. The sound effects are ok, but none of them felt very original.
Sparkster had quite a bit of potential in terms of gameplay and the end result is good aside from a number of amateurish mistakes on the developer’s part that detract from the experience. For the most part this title is a standard 2D platformer aside from a couple of special levels and the hero’s ability to use a flying attack with his rocket pack. Being able to charge across the screen with a rocket pack is a one of this title’s main attractions and it happens to be good fun… until you charge into a death trap or smack into an enemy just as the charge ends, taking damage in the process. A lot of the deaths I took early on in the game felt cheap, because of this and I had to resort to inching forward in order to see the obstacles ahead of me so I could determine whether or not a rocket charge was appropriate. Having to move about in this manner broke the momentum of the game and I found myself wishing the devs had designed the charge mechanic a bit more carefully. Despite its issues, the rocket charge ability gave the game a sense of speed and showed off the capabilities of the SNES. It it’s also possible to chain the rocket charge with a fire attack by pressing the L or R Buttons, which helped with the problem a bit, but doing so won’t save you from spikes or possum crushing machinery.
I usually talk about level design a bit in my reviews and will do so with this title, but there’s not a lot to say about the topic as it pertains to this game. Most of the stages are fairly standard platforming areas that are laid out in a pretty fair and logical manner, but lack innovation for the most part. There are multiple paths and secrets hidden in many of the stages, but they do not lead to anything particularly interesting aside from the occasional (and very useful) extra life. The developers tried to add some pizazz to the game by throwing in a couple of shmup stages, both of which were fairly interesting and succeeded in making the game less monotonous. Unfortunately, the shoot ‘em up levels were integrated into Sparkster rather poorly. Any game that I have played that has successfully mixed genres has done so consistently, usually by alternating between game modes from one stage to the next. ActRaiser, Suikoden, and Guardian Legend (to name a few) alternated between different modes of gameplay throughout the course of the game, but the rules of each mode remained the same from one portion of the game to the next and three there was some sort of pretense to justify the special stages. For example, ActRaiser was broken up into a city building SIM and Platformer stages, and while each area had new challenges to offer, the controls, limitations, and general concept of both modes remained the same from area to the next, not to mention the fact that the story itself was designed around the unique combination of genres. This was not the case with Sparkster. The shmup stages each had their own controls and one was a side scrolling stage while the other scrolled vertically. The first of the shooter stages places Sparkster at the helm of a mechanical ostrich which runs non-stop through the level. Sparkster can perform all of his normal moves as well as a few new ones with the ostrich and it takes some time to adjust to the new style. It also takes time to learn how to play to the second shooter stage, which has the protagonist flying through space and controlling a giant robot at the end. In both cases, the stages ended just as I got the knack of playing them and nothing like them popped up through the rest of the game. While this wasn’t a major problem, it made the game seem cobbled together arbitrarily, since there was no real explanation as to why the shmup stages were put into Sparkster and they were both one-offs.
A number of bosses in this title were also very random in their attack patterns and could either be really easy or incredibly difficult depending upon your luck. The most random of the bosses was the final boss and it was nearly impossible to concoct a useful strategy against him, because his attacks could potentially fill most of the screen if he decided to spam them. While this may sound unfair, it actually removed any real element of strategy from some of the boss fights, because the player simply had to spam attacks and hope for the best, which would inevitably result in victory given the player has enough lives. To be fair not all of the bosses were so poorly designed and some, like the giant laser shooting knight robot from the first stage, were well thought out and required a decent technique to defeat.
Speaking of difficulty, Sparkster offers four difficulty modes (as far as I know) and a password system, which was a good choice on the development team’s part, because the number of times a player can continue is limited even when using passwords. The unpredictable bosses and a few cheap obstacles can cost player’s precious lives, which can make completing the game at higher difficulties a challenge for those with less experience. Some players may be disappointed with this game’s adjustable difficulty feature, because several stages and the ending are only accessible on hard and crazy hard modes and I personally have mixed feelings about the subject. On one hand its cool to reward those willing to go the extra mile and really learn the game to get the best ending, but on the other, there’s nothing in the game to warn the player that they can’t play the entire title on easy or even normal. I felt like I wasted my time after finishing normal and finding out the final stage was only accessible on hard and I’d have to replay the game again or get a password to play the entire game.
So overall, Sparkster’s gameplay is generally fun and manages to present itself as a title that’s just above average. Unfortunately, the flow of the game is constantly interrupted by foes and obstacles that pop out from the edge of the screen. Ultimately, the devs were unable to reconcile the hero’s impressive speed bursts with classic platfomer level design and the game feels stilted as a result, because the player must constantly edge forward to scope out the territory of each stage. Smoother level design, reasonable bosses, and shooter stages that were integrated into the game more purposefully would have done much to make Sparkster much more fun.
Many years ago, a younger me saw Sparkster in an issue of Nintendo Power magazine and thought it would be a great game to rent, maybe even get for Christmas. Sparkster never surfaced in the neighborhood game shop and I quickly forgot about it thanks to the amazing releases the SNES saw in its twilight. Years later, I struggled to remember the name of this game so I could review it and was even more confused when I encountered the Rocket Knight games on another console. Luckily, someone who follows this site (I didn’t ask permission to publish his name, so I can’t identify him) mentioned Sparkster and everything clicked into place. Finally playing this game after so many years was quite fulfilling, even if it’s not a masterpiece of platformer design. Sadly, while Sparkster was better than a good number of the games I’ve covered, it left me feeling as though it could have been so much better. On the bright side, the other games in the series seem to succeed in creating the sense of momentum and chaos I so longed for in Sparkster and I look forward to playing them eventually.
Sparkster isn’t an essential platformer, but it’s certainly a decent one that Super Nintendo fans may appreciate, so give it a try if you have played some of the console’s more illustrious titles and want to take a walk on the wild side.
Thanks for checking out my Sparkster review!