Having played through Sparkle 2 before trying out both the mobile HD version and lower-resolution PC version of the original Sparkle, I can objectively say that the first game is complete and utter trash compared to its sequel. First, some background—the Sparkle series is basically an incredibly polished Zuma clone. It’s not a big deal if you’re not aware of what that is (I certainly wasn’t before all of this), but suffice it to say that it’s a game where colored orbs slowly make their way along a twisted path toward a hole and have to be removed by matching 3 or more colors before they fall in. This is accomplished via the orb shooter. Really, the best way to explain how the game works is to direct you to the video below that I recorded of a few levels in PC version and then explain what’s happening and why.
First, the overworld map
Sparkle is a game that doesn’t really have a story, but it tries nonetheless. The end result of this is the overworld map where you move from level to level, sometimes being prompted to choose one of multiple directions to head in when the path forks. Ultimately, your choices don’t seem to make any difference whatsoever—all branches lead to collectibles that are mandatory if you want to finish the game.
Second, the amulets
Amulets are items occasionally acquired as you play through the game that can be equipped to gain helpful passive effects. For example, one of the early amulets I unlocked was one that increased the speed with which orbs shot toward the target, increasing my accuracy somewhat as a result. Amulets have a variety of different effects, from lowering the difficulty if you lose a life to removing an entire color and thus making it easier to match, but some of the later ones also come with downsides such as increasing the speed with which orbs head toward the you-lose holes. Overall, the passive effects didn’t have as much of an impact as I expected going in, with some amulet effects (such as the one promising a reduced level of difficulty when you lose a life on a level) not appearing to work at all, and I ended up feeling that the sequel’s items allowed for a more customized approach.
Third, the level design
The levels are the real meat of this series, and the levels in Sparkle 2 were all consistent, even when the game became more difficult toward the end. The original Sparkle, on the other hand, is a complete and utter mess lacking anything resembling consistency, with the first 85 or so levels being a cakewalk, only for the game to throw one of the most poorly-designed levels I’ve ever seen in a game at you. I included it as the first screenshot so you can see for yourself, and to give that picture some context, know that you have no control over what colors roll onto the screen, nor do you ever have more than 2 colors you can shoot out at a time (you always have three colors showing you what’s coming up next in the orb shooter, and you can alternate between the first two at any time). This level is designed so that you’re unable to shoot any unhelpful colors off of the screen, and as if forcing you to clutter things up isn’t annoying enough, it also includes angles that ensure that you’re only able to actually make matches in 2-4 spots.
The end result is that this level comes down to luck instead of skill, and this was the point where I said “screw it” and uninstalled the game after losing all of my lives multiple times. Of note is the fact that I had only lost a single life up to this point in the game, and that was admittedly due to a stupid series of decisions on my part. This level, on the other hand, saw me lose all of my lives in quick succession, of which there had to be at least 9 going in (if not more). It needs to be said that the level design is fairly bland even when it’s not actively sabotaging you; there are only a handful of different levels that repeat over and over throughout the game, so you’re eventually stuck repeatedly grinding through the same few levels.
At least I know what happens when you die now
This was something I was actually curious about since I had made it through the second game without ever losing all of my lives. As it turns out, using up all your lives in Sparkle gives you a “darkness swept the land” prompt that can return you to the last collectible you found. These are fairly rare, mind you, but I think there’s a pretty good chance that you also get returned to the last point where you gained an extra life, which works out to every 5 levels or so. I’m not sure of that, though, and that uncertainty comes down to the game never explaining how all of that works.
I should probably mention that my decision to uninstall the game wasn’t entirely my own. Giving up on games before I reach the end is an incredibly rare thing for me because it seems like a disservice to anyone reading when I review a game I quit before finishing, but I really didn’t have much of a choice this time around. As it turns out, getting the “darkness swept the land” prompt and returning to the title screen out of frustration instead of restarting then and there deletes all of your progress and forces you to start from the beginning. There was no way I was playing another 80 levels of repeats in the hopes of squeaking by that cheap, luck-based level. I’d sooner gouge my own eyes out with an ice cream scoop.
Matching and powerups
The strategy of the series comes in the form of powerups, which you gain after making 3 matches in a row. Powerups are random and vary from a fire shooter that destroys nearby orbs to joker orbs that allow you to make matches between different colors. There’s a pretty good selection (I managed to fit many of them into the embedded video above), and they’re helpful enough that you’re almost constantly setting things up so that you can make multiple matches and spawn them. However, you have to hit the powerups with an orb from the orb shooter before they become available to you, and sometimes they’re blocked behind incoming rows, leaving you no option but to let them expire.
The problems with the mobile and PC versions
This is a picture of Sparkle 2. Notice how similar it is to the PC gameplay in the embedded video above. Now compare that to the screenshots at the end of this review, all of which being from the Android “HD” version of the original Sparkle. You’ll notice that the orbs are not only much smaller, but also that the entire screen seems like it was smashed to fit a widescreen aspect ratio. That’s exactly what happened, too; Sparkle on the PC runs at a 4:3 aspect ratio, so the “HD” version has simply reduced the Y axis and made the orbs smaller to make everything look more high-definition-y. As an obvious result, there’s far less margin for error, with the areas you have to fit orbs into being much smaller and conducive to misses than the game is designed to accommodate. I could have also sworn that orbs moved slightly faster when fired to the sides than they did when fired upwards, but I’m not sure if that’s actually the case or just something I perceived to be the case because of my difficulties adjusting to the awkward Y axis.
The PC version of the game is rarer, only being available for purchase on Amazon and through Big Fish Games (who mandate their client to download games, it being one of the worst digital download programs currently in existence), but it at least has the decency to run at 4:3. Sadly, it also runs at a drastically lowered resolution, something like 640×480 or 800×600. To be perfectly honest, it’s impossible for me to know what the resolution was because the game crashed while I was playing, then refused to ever open again. No amount of reinstalling, computer restarting, or config file trickery could dissuade the game from crashing before it even started up, so I’m apparently locked out of the game forever.
Graphics and music
Honestly, there’s not much to say about the graphics. On the PC, they’re at least pleasant, but the mobile version’s squashed look is incredibly unappealing compared to Sparkle 2’s more faithful look. Putting that ugliness aside, however, the Sparkle series boasts some really appealing art, with the orbs and everything looking incredibly professional and suiting the game well. The music is even better, too, it being the only thing I have nothing negative to say about. It’s memorable, interesting, and always betters the game without ever distracting away from it. I only wish the music had a better game to go along with it.