For a placeholder sprite that is an embodiment of gluttony (if it was pink and adorable) whose main villain is a fat penguin with a mallet, Kirby is the last character you’d expect to find success in the video game industry. However, here we are, a year away from his 20th birthday and we are in the middle of a Kirby buffet. It has been almost a year since we had Kirby’s Epic Yarn on the Wii and barely a month before the return-to-form Kirby’s Return to DreamLand helps retire the Wii in style. Here in the middle we have a sort of swan song for the DS in Kirby: Mass Attack.
The story begins as most Kirby games do. Kirby's chillin’ and enjoying life when without warning an evil entity (with my new favorite villain name: Necrodeus a.k.a. Death God) arrives to send Dreamland into chaos. Necrodeus’ first act is to wisely attempt to destroy Kirby, by first blasting him with magic that divides Kirby into ten smaller copies and then sending his Skull Gang down for the kill. With only one of these copies escaping, Kirby must now save his home and reverse the spell all while being only a tenth of his normal size and strength.
Kirby games are similar to Mario games in that there are “proper” games which play as platformers and “side projects” which explore various experimental gameplay styles using the license. Mass Attack is if the latter and the former had a love child. Instead of the 'inhale and copy powers' gameplay that Kirby games are known for, this game is all about growing a small army and using superior numbers to bring the hurt.
This game is entirely stylus controlled. Tapping on the screen will cause your Kirbies (Kirbi? Kirblets?) to move towards that point. Double tapping will make them run. You can fling them with a quick swipe in order to break down obstacles or other projectile based attacks. If you hold down on the stylus they will huddle to that point and you can then draw a short path for them to follow, allowing them to hover for a time. These are the basic movement actions and through the adventure you will be thankful for these intuitive and easy-to-use controls.
Attacking enemies is where the multiple heroes’ gameplay really shines. Tap on an enemy and a lone Kirby will jump on his head and repeatedly punch his stupid enemy face (like a boss). When he has brought the creature close to death he finishes him off by jumping in the air and body slamming the thing into the ground. It then explodes, usually leaving behind fruit which Kirby eats. So to sum up: in this game Kirby pummels his enemies before piledriving them and then eats the remains. This is instead of devouring his enemies whole and then stealing their essence like in his other games.
It’s always the quiet ones.
If that isn’t dark enough for you, wait until you see what happens when Kirby eats enough fruit. For every 100 “fruit points” Kirby revives another of his mini-hims, maxing out at ten little pink balls of wrath. Where a single Kirby might take a full five seconds to defeat a standard enemy, ten Kirblets will swarm the thing and be feasting on the spoils of war before you can blink. The more Kirbi you have, the more likely it is that you'll be able to tackle the massive enemies you encounter. The flipside of that coin is that a full arsenal is also a larger target for what quickly becomes a very dangerous place.
Your Kirblings start life healthy and in the pink. One hit will make him blue while another will turn him into a white angel that begins to fly to the great Masahiro Sakurai in the sky. If you can get another Kirbi to touch a dead Kirblet he will be brought back to life, albeit blue. There are, of course, instant-death dangers as well (like crushing or spikes) that could take out your whole squad if you aren’t careful. If this happens you aren’t set that far back. You have infinite continues and the game autosaves the number of Kirbies you ended the last level with. However, there are no mid-level checkpoints so you do have to tackle the whole level until you do it right.
Having played every single Kirby game that has made it to American shores, I can say that aside from not having his inhale/copy/hover abilities this is a Kirby game through and through. The graphics are smooth never showing a slowdown even when you have a full squad and a screen full of dangers. Kirby games have always worked to use the whole color palette never keeping it too bright nor too dark. It starts off so easy you could make it through with your eyes closed but slowly ramps it up to the point where it will take all of your focus and skills to make it through. This franchise has always had stellar sound design and Mass Attackkeeps that trend going with plenty of new music blending in with familiar favorites. The game design is such that right when you feel yourself getting bored, they toss you a curveball. You will come across side-scrolling sections that force you to remove obstacles or be crushed, levels requiring you to manipulate lights in order to see how to move forward, puzzle sections, shooting galleries, tank levels, and the holy grail of underwater sections that aren’t annoying slog fests. Seriously, I have not played water levels that were this fun to play, ever. They swim where you want them to swim, they can attack just like they can on land, and all you have to worry about is their air supply. Doing it right, Kirby team at Hal Laboratory, doing it right.
The other smart piece of design is in the collectables the game hides in each level - the medals. Getting these medals sometimes requires quick thinking and expert execution as you’ll typically only get one chance per level to grab them. Collecting these will unlock extras within the game. Some of these will be standard, like the soundboard or cutscene viewer, but others are minigames which are fun diversions in their own right. A full pinball game with bosses, a timing based RPG style game, and even a horizontally scrolling “shmup”. Many of these unlocked extras would not be out of place as a 99 cent iPhone game and really helps the whole package.
Now, unfortunately, there are a few things that keep this from being a perfect game. The first is the scale. A single Kirby takes up as much space as a typical platforming hero character would on the screen. This is fine. However, a full ten typically take up half of the screen’s width, making the levels feel a little too zoomed-in. It means that you will often get sucker punched by something just off screen because of how little warning you get if you are running. On rare occasions where the level has tight corners, a single Kirblet can get stuck, which does actually keep you from traveling forward. Again this is very rare, but odd that it wasn’t coded so he teleports to the group to maintain the gameplay momentum.
It might be nitpicky, but it did bother me at times that hardly any of the enemies were standard Kirby baddies. Outside of a few Waddle Dees, the occasional Gordo, and boss battles with Wispy Woods and King Dedede (told you I’ve played them all), there were not many of the usual gang of Dreamland’s worst. It feels like a missed opportunity to play through some familiar places while Kirby is a tenth of his size. Likewise, I can only imagine how interesting it would be to have an army of Kirbies who can copy powers and have their numbers effect the strength of said powers. Oh well, no use crying over spilled opportunity.
The whole game does include 60 levels (5 worlds 12 stages a piece) plus the aforementioned unlockables and even an “achievement list” of sorts, if you want to take on extra challenges to extend the life of the game. Each level can take an average of 10 minutes to complete, making the core experience last around 10 hours if you just want to scratch the surface. Getting everything you possibly can unlocked could take well over 30 hours, which doesn’t include the greatly replayable mini games. The insane among you might try getting a gold medal (making it through without getting hit) on all levels. I would also not be shocked if this game, with its shortcuts, optional levels, and other exploits, entices a few speedruns in the future.
Kirby games have a habit of showing up as swan songs for Nintendo’s consoles; those games that come out when everybody seems to be eager for the next thing, but really unlocks the potential of the current model. The more I played, the more I felt that this isn’t the swan song for the DS (heck, I played it on my 3DS). Rather, this game feels like an iOS game on a Nintendo console. There are full, touch-based controls and each level is very pick up and play, as well as self-contained. Now I know Nintendo’s shareholders have been pressuring Nintendo to develop for mobile platforms. I’m not speculating about the future, but it is an interesting thought. They took away Kirby’s trademark abilities and all the buttons and still gave us one of the best games I’ve played in a while.