Mario’s name has been plastered on more box covers than perhaps any other figure in gaming history, yet over the last decade, Kirby has consistently been Nintendo’s most malleable hero. While many of the series offerings over the past several years maintain the side-scrolling 2D aesthetic of the older, “traditional” Kirby games, most introduce some sort of singular key mechanic exclusive to that entry, whether it’s the stylus-drawn paths of Kirby’s Canvas Curse on Nintendo DS, or the yarn-based worlds and abilities seen in last year’s Wii release, Kirby’s Epic Yarn.
But that tendency to shift Kirby’s approach with each new entry provides an ironic level of consistency in the sense that even the best iterations’ hallmarks are rarely carried over and improved upon for the next go-round. Such is the case with Kirby Mass Attack, one of the most wholly distinct entries to date, but one that has the misfortune of following the aforementioned Epic Yarn — a remarkably charming affair that stands out as one of the Wii’s best titles, and a top pick from last year. Mass Attack brings out all the wit and vibrant appeal the aging Nintendo DS can muster at this point, but when some elements fall short, it’s an even starker reminder that this solid Kirby platformer isn’t his slickest recent outing.
Mass Attack’s core conceit is right there in the title: Kirby is no longer one blob against a bright world of friendly-looking foes. He’s now up to 10 such blobs against those very same enemies. Starting each larger world with a single character, you’ll guide the troop through forests, deserts, and underwater chasms with only the stylus, making sure to gobble up all the visible fruit to spawn new allies at certain intervals. Whether you’re one or many, Kirby controls the same: taps and flicks of the stylus are used to walk, swim, jump, and glide through the air, as well as fling individual beings into enemies and through hoops.
Initially, it feels like a parallel to LocoRoco’s side-scrolling management of numerous smaller beings – albeit without the option to merge them into one larger creature – but the ability to tap and fling individual Kirby heroes brings rare pitfalls amidst a largely decent single-player adventure. Launching a small army of cute characters onto foes has its gratifying moments, but the way Mass Attack handles damage and death can fluster and frustrate. Taking a hit turns the affected Kirby blue, while a second attack transforms it into a floating ghost, which ascends towards the video game heavens until you touch it with one of your living subjects. But at times, the game wrests that option away via poorly timed cut-scenes or self-propelled stage segments that whisk you elsewhere.
In most platform games, you might lose a life and move on. In Kirby Mass Attack, you’ll need as many as 10 troops to access certain stages, which means this one design flaw may result in replaying completed missions just to eat enough fruit to bulk up your posse. And with occasional missed stylus flicks further mucking up your progress, it’s tough to forgive this strict approach. Mass Attack caters towards a hardcore-oriented crowd, but not with its difficulty; rather, it’s the persistence needed to even see all of the stages in the game, a realization amplified by the fact that a coin must be collected in each of the first four worlds’ 45+ stages to even access the final missions.
Let’s face it – Nintendo doesn’t put out poor Kirby action games, and Mass Attack isn’t some late-era curiosity sent to die on the fading Nintendo DS. It’s a largely well-made platform adventure that brings in brief flutters of past Kirby brilliance while developing yet another new mechanic for a series that’s dabbled in a stack of them. And for serious fans, it’s another meaty offering that shows why Kirby is one of the publisher’s most enduring protagonists, even though his star’s never shined as bright as some others. But a mostly good Kirby game doesn’t carry the same weight it did in the past, especially when the series’ finest moments to date just barely ticked into the past.
Andrew Hayward is a Chicago-based freelance writer who spews words regularly for the likes of Official Xbox Magazine, GamesRadar, Mac|Life, Edge, and GamePro. You can follow his every silly whim on Twitter at @ahaywa.