At a glance, you would be forgiven for thinking SpiritSphere DX was a sequel to one of The Legend of Zelda titles released long ago on the Game Boy Color. It looks, sounds and feels like one of Link's outings on the classic portable device, but upon closer inspection, has absolutely nothing to do with adventuring. This is more like a glorified sports title set within the confines of a fantasy universe.
Its concept is simple - two competitors hit a sphere back and forth until one is outplayed. It's sort of like the Mario Tennis games, although, the game's creator cites Windjammer and even arcade air hockey as sources of inspiration. The cast of playable and unlockable characters on offer all have abilities that enable them to hit the sphere and move about the court slightly different from one another. An example of this is 'Lin' who can perform the iconic spin-attack with her sword. Sound familiar to anyone? Other characters include a dwarf with an axe (obviously, what else would any self-respecting dwarf wield?), a mage with the ability to teleport and many other appropriately-themed creatures who all have unique performance stats.
In each arena - ranging from springs to forests and volcanos - items can appear. These include a bow and arrows, bombs and even potions. Using certain items means you can temporarily stun your opponent or power-up in the heat of battle to nab a vital point. Each level also has its own hazards and dangers that will need to be taken into account. One particular dungeon-themed arena has a crowd of skeleton spectators that jump out to engage in battle with you, all while you're busy trying to win a point against the opponent on the other side of the court. As exhilarating as this may sound, it doesn't necessarily elevate the title above the competition.
The erratic nature of the sphere physics can be troublesome, as intentional as this design choice appears to be. This is especially apparent on higher settings, requiring players to have both luck and skill on their side. While it's easy to dictate the movement of the ball when you hit it, on the receiving end you'll often find yourself taking a wild guess as to which direction it will travel or rebound. One mechanic to recover a play seemingly out of your control is the dash function. This allows you to prolong games, or might even give you a match point. If your character has problems returning shots, you can always slow down the play by making direct physical contact with the sphere. Fortunately, the controls are responsive, making sessions more tolerable - especially when opponents become impossible to outsmart on higher difficulties.
When you've adapted to standard matches, you'll find there are plenty of other events to master in the campaign section of the game. On the same courts, you can partake in a game of squash - where the players take turns hitting the ball against a wall - and there are even bosses to take down. After each session, you are awarded lucky coins which can be spent at the 'sphere fountain' to unlock new character costumes and spheres.
Outside of the campaign, there are even more options. You can play a regular match with up to four players, play in a special hand-to-hand vertical mode with a friend, enjoy squash as a stand-alone spectacle, play the boss mode with two other people and refine your skills in the practice section. In the options menu, you can even enjoy a quick game of frisbee. There's also a target mode, and a ghost mode for players who want to contribute but don't have much faith in their own skills. The local multiplayer is on par with the campaign in terms of the value on offer. You can adjust the points required to win, enable or disable items, select the type of sphere you use and pick the level you play on. It's just a pity there is no online play to extend the life of the game.
The graphics, as previously noted, act as somewhat of a focal point. Although the sprites look straight out of Zelda, they still add a great sense of personality to the game. Some visual aspects outside of matches and menus don't look as impressive - such as enlarged characters on the selection screen. The music and sound effects aren't a direct homage to Zelda, but still do an optimal job at recreating classic sounds you would commonly associate with games featuring these types of aesthetics.
SpiritSphere DX is possibly the closest we may ever get to a tennis game based on The Legend of Zelda series. In fact, in contrast to similar offerings currently available on the Switch eShop, this is a good budget pick. It's got a small but challenging campaign mode with three difficulties, an adequate amount of local multiplayer content for up to four players and does a convincing job channeling the spirit of retro games.