Review: Kirby Mass Attack

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The time is almost upon us where there will be no games coming out for Nintendo’s very popular and lucrative DS family of handheld gaming systems.  It has been a long ride and there have been a ton of great games, a run of nigh-unopposed awesomeness – with, granted, more than a fair share of shovelware – that is reminiscent of the glory days of the SNES.  For good or ill, Club Nintendo’s going to switch over to the 3DS soon.  I can’t tell the future for Nintendo, but I can say that one of the last big games for the DS, Kirby Mass Attack, is different and usually fun.

Per usual Kirby games, and really all that is first party from Nintendo, the story is not the focus.  Told in a handful of cut scenes, the game’s instruction manual says it all: “Our hungry hero, after being split into 10 by the Skull Gang boss, Necrodeus, sets out on an adventure to make things right.”  Not much of a premise I’ll grant you, but it does explain the main concept of the game: use the stylus to guide and manipulate a bunch of Kirbies to get them to the end of a whole lot of levels.  While Kirby may be split into multiple parts, his Heart is doomed to wander the world unless he can put himself back together.  This is what you will play, Kirby’s heart as represented by a star that appears wherever you put the stylus on the bottom screen.  The top screen is usually used for information, but in some encounters there is action on both.

The game is played almost exclusively with the stylus.  When the screen is tapped, the Heart/Star will appear and however many Kirbies you have will try to get to it.  The journey starts out with the ghost of Kirby leading one mindless portion of himself through the various levels.  After enough fruit is eaten, another Kirby will pop out of nowhere, and the Heart now has two soulless Kirby bodies to manipulate.  The game is less sinister than that. At no point does it refer to the mass of pink men as a murder of Kirbies, but that is the basic progression: start with a Kirby and consume until you have an entire gaggle of ten squishy star guys.

Given that this is a stylus controlled game, there are a limited number of ways that the world can be interacted with.  Taping the screen once will lead all the Kirbies to that point — if the little men can get there.  As Kirby can only jump so far, and since being divided into so many parts apparently causes him to lose his classic ability to suck up air and fly, tapping will not be enough.  If the stylus is held down on the screen, the entire mess of Kirbies can be gathered into one big clump, and a line painted on the screen is used to (very slowly) float the Kirbies to the end of this string.  This method of movement does not last forever and will eventually run out as indicated by the line’s color (blue is still good, red is almost dead – end of the rope).

The game is not all moving to the right of the screen and tapping to guide the flutter of Kirbies out of harm’s way — sometimes Kirbies can strike.  En masse.  There are two ways to accomplish this, the most basic method being to either tap an enemy or lead the pink train over an enemy.  This will cause Kirby’s many selves to engage in the world’s cutest gangland style beat down.  The more Kirbies that are on any given enemy will determine how much damage they can do.  Smaller foes can be defeated by one Kirby, but larger ones will shake off Kirbies like a dog shakes off rain.  Which means that the adorable, ever-hungering cloud of Kirbies have to go back again and again until the enemy is defeated.  For foes that are not on the ground, Kirby’s Heart — you — must fling them towards the enemy.  In other games you could just hammer on the shoot button; in Kirby Mass Attack you’ll have to be quick in making flinging motions if you hope to survive to the end of the game.

All of the Kirbies appear to be doing something different when moving on screen.  I don’t mean that some of them appear to be reading the Wall Street Journal while others examine a crime scene, but more that while there are only a handful of animations that Kirby can do, it usually does not seem that they are all doing the same thing at once.  This helps to increase the sense that there are actually different Kirbies in the game, not just one very slow, blobby character who happens to look like a bunch of Kirbies.  The levels are colorful and filled to the brim with classic Kirby franchise characters.  If you’ve never played a Kirby game before, the best way to describe the look and tone of the game is to use the word “adorable.”  It is cute and appealing and quite varied from one World to the next.  But if you’re afraid that people on the bus are going to judge your manliness based upon the game you’re playing, don’t play this game.  At least not on the bus.  People not concerned with such things should get a kick out of the huggable swarm’s adventure.

Everything looks and sounds like it would be right at home on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System.  Unfortunately, once the unique control mechanics are separated from the remainder of the design, the basic structure of the game is like any platformer on the aforementioned system.  Each World has several levels that require a certain number of Kirbies to enter.  If the star ridin’ pod fails to tip the balance at the beginning of each stage, they ain’t getting in.  Once in a stage the gameplay is, with but a few exceptions, get to the end and try not to die.  The game only ends when all of the Kirbies die.  Each one can take two hits before they turn into a rising angel and have to be pulled back to earth by one of his surviving comrades.  Sometimes it’s possible to have all the Kirbies get stuck in a trap which kills the whole lot, or the screen may not advance fast enough to let the entire pack avoid danger.  Both situations are equally frustrating and can lead to cheap failures.  There are coins for collecting that will unlock additional play modes, but other than that, it’s get to end and don’t let all your Kirbies fall, stage after stage.  And if they do die, you have to start over from the beginning of the level.  While the game is not fantastically difficult, some of the stages are tricky and dying means repeating the whole thing.  It is frustrating that games are still being made without checkpoints these days.

All of the bosses, which cap off each world and end some stages, are varied and pretty entertaining.  Defeating one will unlock the next world and cause the Kirby count to drop back to one.  Which does allow for players to experience the one to ten progression again and again, but still feels like a cheap way to drop the Kirby count.

If you collect enough coins, bonus modes are unlocked.  These fill the spectrum from lame to “this should be its own game.”  Lame things would be modes that let you look at cut scenes and listen to music.  Without giving all the great modes away, one is a pinball game that should remind long time Kirby fans of Kirby Pinball Land for the original Game Boy.  Another is a shoot em’ up that really should be released as downloadable game.  In this the “plane” is a flying Kirby that can pick up more Kirbies as the levels progress.  The additional Kirbies follow the first one, so a full set of “ships” will form a long chain of shooting pink men.  The whole screen can be filled with bullets by drawing a line on the bottom of the screen or just a small concentrated area by scribbling the stylus back and forth, causing their number to overlap.  This is a substantial, multi-staged mode, complete with bullet hells and screen filling bosses.  I’d pay five bucks to download it.

There isn’t anything quite like Kirby Mass Attack, so it is difficult to recommend one way or another.  The closest thing that this game brings to mind is Pikmin, but even that is not an accurate comparison.  If you’re a fan of Kirby games, you’ve already bought this game.  And if Nintendo’s pink ball of cuteness repulses you, you’re not even going to think about it.  To people on the fence, it comes down to whether you want an entirely new experience on your DS.  Not many games for the system really push the boundaries of controls the way that this game does.  It could not come out for any system that did not have a touch screen.  There is a fair amount of replay value to collecting all the hidden coins and the game takes a long time to finish, but many players will get frustrated in their efforts to wrangle a horde of Kirbies that appear to have no sense of self preservation and will let enemies murder them and their brothers unless they’re babysat.  It’s a fresh game that definitely takes a risk in the way it is controlled, but how well it pays off for you is going to be a matter of taste and how much tapping you are willing to do.

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Pros:
+ Unique multi-character platforming
+ Truly worthwhile unlockables
+ Appealing, adorable look
+ Plenty of content/levels

Cons:
– No checkpoints
– Not enough variety in gameplay
– Using stylus for sole means of control means that the action can get obscured

Affiliate Links:
Buy from Amazon or eStarland

Game Info:
Platform: Nintendo DS
Publisher: Nintendo
Developer: HAL Laboratory, Inc.
Release Date: 9/19/2011
Genre: 2D Platformer / Side-Scrolling Real-Time Strategy
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Players: 1
Source: Review copy provided by publisher

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About the Author

Steve has been playing video games since the start of the 1980s. While the first video game system he played was his father's, an Atari 2600, he soon began saving allowances and working for extra money every summer to afford the latest in interactive entertainment. He is keenly aware of how much it stinks to spend good money on a bad game. It does things to a man. It makes stink way too much time into games like Karnov to justify the purchase.