Those of you with long memories reaching back to the arcade days of gaming may remember Pang, a cute co-op action game which saw the player(s) shooting metal hooks into the air to pop balloons, which would then separate into smaller and faster balloons. It was a simple concept, executed well, and has since been copied in many ways over the years since (a recent example would be the sublime Pirate Pop Plus). Spheroids aims to continue this lineage by expanding the concept into a more ambitious platformer, but largely fails to either recapture the magic of its inspiration or to successfully develop the platformer elements.
Spheroids follows the story of a young Canadian boy who is handed a hook gun and ordered by a mad scientist to go around the world and eliminate the Spheroids, blob-like alien creatures that are invading the earth. It’s about as thin as a story as you can imagine, and while one doesn’t usually expect there to be a very moving story in a platformer (with exceptions), Spheroids’ attempt at storytelling is groan-inducing and actively takes away from one’s enjoyment of the experience. After every few levels, the scientist will beam you back to his lab for a jarring tutorial about some new stage gimmick or enemy that you’re about to encounter, accompanied by several poor attempts at humour and lots of awkwardly-written dialogue. This doesn’t even hit the ‘so bad it’s good’ kind of writing; it’s just flat and poorly written, although you can fortunately fast forward through it.
Gameplay in Spheroids takes the shape of an action platformer with the aforementioned Pang elements tossed in. Your character moves through painfully easy stages populated by the Spheroids and deals with them by shooting his hook into the air to pop them. Occasionally, you’ll be locked off into an arena-style room that won’t let you out until you defeat all of the Spheroids inside; these stand as the most fun you’ll probably have in the game, though that isn’t saying too much.
Level design is both uninspired and unchallenging, until you get to the latter portion of the game and suffer the whiplash of stages becoming unbearably difficult for all the wrong reasons. Most of the game will be spent making easy jumps and picking up collectable coins that seem to be thrown around with no rhyme or reason, but the later levels love to chuck in blind leaps of faith and glitchy hit detection, too. It’s rare to play a game that gets actively worse as it goes on, not just in level design but in actual stability as well, but this is one way in which Spheroids stands apart from the crowd.
For its part, Spheroids does its best to keep things from getting stale, introducing new elements to make levels more interesting, but it largely stumbles in developing any of these ideas beyond their most surface level applications. A Mutant Mudds-esque background-to-foreground hop is introduced, for example, but seldom does it improve stages or make any notable difference to them; you’ll occasionally hop to the back, collect a few coins, and then continue on as normal until the gimmick largely disappears from the game. Some of the new elements outright don’t work as they should, chief among them being an extremely indecisive grappling hook that appears to have a will of its own when choosing a grapple point. This is almost forgivable until you get to late-game sections that necessitate its repeated use, at which point you’re essentially at the mercy of luck.
The coins you pick up in stages aren’t entirely useless, although they don’t really add much to the experience, either. At the beginning of every stage is a shop that sells you powerups which upgrade your offensive or defensive capabilities, but these upgrades seldom feel like they make much of a difference to your overall combat effectiveness, and you usually lose them anyway if you happen to die. Like most other elements in Spheroids, this shop feature feels undercooked and poorly thought out, but at least the developers tried to implement something to deepen the experience somewhat.
From a presentation side of things, Spheroids leaves plenty to desired, being mediocre at best and just plain bad at worst. The art style does its job, finding some sort of cross between 2.5D and pixel art, but the environments themselves feel lifeless and forgettable; it’s easy to tell that you’re in Japan or Egypt or wherever, but there’s not much to make these levels feel alive or interesting. The titular Spheroids themselves are handled similarly; the varying types are palette-swapped so you know what their abilities are, but they all just kind of bounce around with these dumb grins on their faces and don’t have any personality or animations. The music is another low point, with many songs being irritating to listen to due to how heavily repetitive they are; this was a rare game that we preferred to play with the sound completely off.
Overall, Spheroids can be best described as a game that’s uninspired and unimportant at its best and a back alley dumpster fire at its worst. When the stages don’t demand trial and error with death pits to proceed, they’re just there and present next to no challenge, despite the regular introduction of what could be interesting mechanics. Couple that with lifeless graphics, a terrible soundtrack and cringe-worthy dialogue, and you’ve got a game that’s just not good. Considering the wealth of quality content on the Switch’s lively eShop, you should do yourself a favour and put your cash towards a game more deserving of your time – and if you really want to scratch that Pang itch, just play Pirate Pop Plus.