Before Nintendo Direct livestreams were a thing, cover art was the best way — and sometimes the only way — to know what to expect from a video game. The cover of Donkey Kong Country, for example, makes it pretty clear that Donkey Kong likes acquiring bananas, and that a number of creatures will try to stop you from acquiring said bananas. The Ignition Factor, a firefighting simulator, has a fireman on the cover. Simple enough.
It’s harder with a game like Spanky’s Quest. There’s a monkey holding a banana, much like Donkey Kong. But he’s also got a backpack and a hat, each of which are quite cute.
But what’s really going on here? He’s on a beach with other fruit, who appear to be playing volleyball and surfing? There’s a witch? And then, of course, there’s that name. Nothing is clear here.
The game itself is also quite odd. But in a nice way. And if you’re a paid Nintendo Switch online subscriber, it can be played right now by downloading the Super Nintendo Entertainment System app.
Going into Spanky’s Quest without understanding what’s going on can be a confusing experience. Spanky, a monkey who has gotten himself trapped in a tower, is trying to get out. Enemies run around the tower’s levels with keys, But he doesn’t have many resources to get himself out. He can shoot balls out, but very slowly. These balls can either stun or disappear the enemies entirely. But if an enemy touches him, life lost.
Here is a comprehensive rundown of how to play Spanky’s Quest, which I learned partially from the game’s options screen and partially from a walkthrough: you press A once to shoot a ball, and press A again when the ball is mid-air to turn the ball into a baseball, which will get rid of your enemy entirely. Press B to jump. Those controls can be customized, but that’s the basic stuff.
However, the ball can be changed. If Spanky can get the ball to bounce on his head, it will get larger and change colors. This opens Spanky up to a wide variety of sports gear, including soccer balls, volleyballs, and basketballs. Spanky isn’t shown to have any particular athletic prowess — he honestly seems confused by what’s happening. But nevertheless, these balls have a few varieties in their abilities: soccer balls and basketballs appear in multiples, with basketballs raining down in fours. (I was unable to figure out what volleyballs do.)
There are also some cute hats, which the game’s cover suggested would come into play. These hats operate like Mario’s suits, granting Spanky special abilities like armor and making basketball bubbles (easily the most valuable of the four) appear faster.
With these controls mastered, the challenge of Spanky’s Quest is timing. There’s no speeding up the ball that Spanky throws, which moves pendulously. It reminded me of the infamously slow baseball psych-out pitch known as an “eephus,” where a pitcher counter-intuitively tries to throw a ball with a rainbow arc as slow as possible, in hopes that an overly eager batter will swing before the ball gets across the plate.
But Spanky isn’t a pitcher, and his enemies seem oblivious to the threat he poses. They run around the levels at various speeds and in various patterns. Sometimes they will follow Spanky around a level, sometimes they will stick to a particular zone. The key is to find their patterns, and be able to work your eephus pitch into theirs.
This puzzle-platformer is at times quite easy, which makes sense given how it is designed for kids. But Spanky’s Quest forces the player’s hand on some levels, when enemies start to swarm around a blocked-in Spanky. The game can be quite difficult without any 1-ups, considering lives don’t ever refresh. If Spanky hits zero Spankys, it’s game over, and the only password my copy would show was “000,” which sent me right back to Area 1-1.
Spanky’s Quest is easy at times, and frustrating at others, which is pretty much the goal of any good puzzle game. It’s backed up by bright, colorful backgrounds, ranging from jungles to fish-filled oceans. There’s an upbeat, jazzy soundtrack, similar to the feeling of optimism that abounds while playing Dr. Mario.
Spanky’s Quest was developed by Natsume, which made another quirky SNES hidden gem in Wild Guns. But there are no similarities between that rapid-fire game and this one. There’s no timer on Spanky’s levels, leaving players free to experiment with attacks and honestly just vibe a little if they want. A puzzler that is both engaging and calming, Spanky’s Quest is a great way to spend some time. As long as you learn the controls first.