Back in the very early days of the Xbox 360, one of the first titles to help shape the idea of what Microsoft's then-innovative Xbox Live Arcade service could be was PopCap's Zuma. The game was a rightfully popular puzzler which tasked players with firing coloured marbles into a rapidly-advancing line of similar marbles in order to match three, breaking the chain and preventing it from reaching a "game over" point. Go back even further and you'll find Mitchell Corporation's also-popular 1998 arcade and console title Puzz Loop/Ballistic, which was very much an identical concept.
Fast forwarding a decade from Zuma brings us back to the current day, with Finnish developer 10tons releasing their take on the game which, due to the number of clones and versions released since, is now almost a genre in its own right. Sparkle Unleashed is the name of this new approach and the main difference between it and previous attempts is that here you fire marbles into the playfield from a shooter that lives at the bottom of the screen and which can be freely moved left and right, as opposed to using a fixed shooter that can only be rotated in place.
While on the surface that's the only major difference that seems to separate it from Zuma, it isn't to say that Sparkle Unleashed is a direct copy, since it does at least attempt to bring some innovation along with it. Rather than trying to destroy a constantly advancing single chain for example, you have to get rid of a set number of individual chains, which appear periodically during play or if you clear the screen. Power-ups are deployed differently too. Rather than being triggered when you destroy specific marbles that are on the playfield, they appear when you reach a set chain level and need to be collected by firing a marble at them. You can also unlock different types of power-up and increase the effectiveness of the ones that you have by playing through the game's relatively lengthy campaign mode, picking up a new boost every time you beat a certain number of levels.
Talking of levels, there are plenty on offer here. 108 of them in the single player campaign in fact, plus a series of Survival levels which – if you want to get the achievement for getting a five star rating on each of them – will take a long old time to beat. In our first attempts at Survival mode, we found that we were only able to survive to the point of collecting two or three of the five available stars at most, so practice is definitely required. There are also "Hard" and "Nightmare" difficulty settings in the campaign to take on, which only the absolute best of the best will have any chance of beating. As it stands on the default difficulty setting, the game starts to get tricky about halfway through the campaign mode and once you've gotten through that middle section and are heading into the final straight, you'll find that you'll be attempting levels over and over again to try and beat them.
Indeed, Sparkle Unleashed will provide a decent amount of playing time for those that are hooked by it. Not everything included is as artfully considered as the difficulty curve, though. The chain system allows you to build up a multiplier by making chains of clearing shots and is certainly challenging and rewards forward-thinking play, but due to the complete lack of any scoring system in the game, the multiplier doesn't do anything but provide power-ups. It seems like a missed opportunity when you consider that if scoring is introduced, the natural progression of that would be to include online leaderboards that would keep you coming back to beat your best scores and those of your friends. Alas, neither is available here. You either beat a level or you don't. Not only that, but the chain system does fall foul of the random nature of the marbles that you're given to fire. You can do your best to build up a 20x chain, only to find that you've suddenly only got two yellow marbles to choose from and nothing in play to match. Unless there's a power-up available to grab (which continues the chain) your chain will be over and there's absolutely nothing you can do about it. Some will say that's down to poor planning by the player, but there really is no way to plan for a system that randomly selects which marbles you'll be asked to use next.
That's far from a deal breaker though and while we imagine that most people will find themselves tutting out loud when it happens, it won't stop them from playing. They'll carry on through single player mode, ignoring the bare-bones story – which is about as useful in a game like this as a chocolate teapot – and trying to stay ahead of the ever-increasing difficulty level.
Sparkle Unleashed is tremendously addictive and gets the basics of the genre right whilst adding a few changes to the mix. If you liked Zuma – which unfortunately for Sparkle Unleashed now runs on Xbox One via backward compatibility – you'll probably enjoy the challenge this provides, even if there isn't anything majorly groundbreaking going on.