[Originally posted on PopMatters]
Since his debut in 1992, Kirby has been one of Nintendo’s most reliable cash cows. Kirby has always churned out a decent platformer every few years, even if his heroics lack the fanfare that comes with every Mario and Zelda release. Still, the little pink ball is easy on even the feeblest of graphics engine and the open ended plot device of “defender of Dreamland” allows virtually any idea to make sense. In the case of Kirby Mass Attack for the DS, Kirby is split into ten separate forms and venturing to become whole again.
For the most part, Kirby Mass Attack is a Kirby game. The player controls an adorable pink puffball with a squeaky voice through a series of obstacle courses. The world are themed according to classic platformer principles (Forest world to start, desert level soon after, water world in the middle, lava world near the end and so on). However, the DS allows a completely new method of playing the game, and on no other console could Kirby Mass Attack exist. The new means of controlling the game is its raison d’être, the source of its novelty, and therefore worth mentioning at length.
The player controls up to ten Kirbys with the stylus, pointing where they would like the Kirbys to go and letting the puffy heroes run or leap there on their own. When 100 fruits are collected, the player gains another Kirby to control. Initially the control scheme seemed awkward to me, being unable to gauge exactly how far the avatar could jump or how fast it can run. But by the time three or four Kirbys pop on screen the stylus actually feels surprisingly natural and fluid. Flicking Kirby’s across the screen with the stylus allows the player to use their little army as projectiles, while pressing it down to the touchpad and drawing a line will levitate the troop for a short while.
The game holds an interesting balance: the Kirbys are most effective in higher numbers, but also more difficult to keep away from harm. Unfortunately, having so many avatars on such a small screen can be complicated at times. Dodging narrow obstacles can be difficult with such a large cluster of characters, the screen can fix frustratingly on one stray Kirby while you’re trying to progress the rest through a level and, perhaps the biggest issue, the pathing can create some pretty big problems. Often one Kirby can get caught on a ledge or take a circuitous route to a directive. Mostly these issues crop up only rarely and are never severe enough to make the game unplayable.
Other than the control scheme, Kirby Mass Attack plays much like one would expect from a Nintendo platformer. Nintendo has been making these games longer and better than anyone and the history shows. Just when the original formula in Kirby Mass Attack starts to grow stale, the game puts you in a tank, or in a space ship, or on a surfboard, or through a series of cannons. It establishes a mould and stretches it enough to keep every level exciting. Many levels also have branching paths, adding replay value even on a level-by-level basis. There are also plenty of interesting boss fights scattered across the game with none of them feeling like tacked on finales or unfairly challenging. The individual levels are a satisfying length but with only five worlds, it can seem a bit too short.
Like many recent Kirby games Kirby Mass Attack is fairly easy and most players will only die a few times in a playthrough. Some levels are certainly harder than others, but all are manageable for even the newest player. This is what really makes Kirby Mass Attack the great game that it is; it’s able to be basic and approachable enough for a child playing her first game ever but deep and fulfilling enough for her parents that have been playing games their whole lives. It really stands out among DS titles, especially in recent years that have been somewhat unkind to the Wii and Nintendo’s handhelds.
If nothing else, Kirby Mass Attack is a great game to have along for a flight or a train ride. It’s short and the controls aren’t without issue, but it takes a Nintendo staple and bends it in a unique way. The game takes full advantage of DS’s touchscreen but still feels as natural as the two button Gameboy that Kirby debuted on. Kirby Mass Attack is about as much as one could ask from a platformer even at its worst and at its best it adds even more.
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