When Nintendo sends Kirby away from the usual Dreamland scene, the results can sometimes be surprising. This is especially true of games on a portable console. Kirby's Pinball Land may not have been Nintendo's first pinball game, but it was the first one where the main character was transformed into the ball itself. Kirby's Tilt n Tumble took that same ball concept and made it into a top-down adventure game while Kirby: Canvas Curse let you create rails for the pink puffball to ride. For one of the company's last games for the Nintendo DS, they decided that Kirby should once again explore a crazy new game mechanic. The result is Kirby Mass Attack, a title that is as zany as it is entertaining.
The plot is similar to Kirby's Epic Yarn in some ways. In the land of Popstar, while taking a nap on a hill, Kirby meets up with the leader of the infamous Skull Gang, Necrodeus, who wants to take over the land and cover it in darkness. Before our hero could try to stop him, Necrodeus uses magic to split Kirby into 10 smaller versions of himself, all of them much less powerful than his original form. One by one, each Kirby is defeated until only one Kirby remains. Without his powers, the lone Kirby is saved by his heart, now transformed into a star. He follows it, hoping to find a way to put himself back together and stop Necrodeus from shrouding the land in darkness.
Kirby platforming games usually have him sucking up everything, including enemies, and either spitting them back out or swallowing them to copy their attack capabilities. With his small stature, the rules of engagement have changed. Using your heart, you can lead Kirby to enemies so he can latch on and pummel them to death. You can also have him eat various fruit to fill up his gauge, which gives him another piece of himself to roam with; you can have a maximum of 10 Kirbys roaming around the screen. The numbers add more strength to his attacks and give him the ability to pull several switches at a time and pull down or pull up heavy objects.
The control scheme ditches the traditional d-pad and face button combination in favor of touch-screen controls. Touching any part of the screen causes the Kirby horde to move in that direction. Double-tapping before holding causes them to run there instead. They can easily climb over low ledges, but anything higher either requires you to flick them up to the designated area one by one or transport the pack there by holding down on the Kirbys and tracing a line to their destination, a move that hearkens back to Kirby: Canvas Curse. Tapping enemies or flicking the Kirbys toward them causes an automatic attack that you can amplify by constantly tapping on the enemies during the attack phase.
In a way, the controls and multitude of Kirbys are reminiscent of a side-scrolling version of Nintendo's semi-RTS game, Pikmin. You can simply lead the Kirby pieces to your enemies so they can initiate the attack, but most of the time, you'll be flinging them to take down both airborne and ground-based enemies. You'll also fling them toward objects they can push or pull, and you can fling them toward more fragile objects to break them open. Finally, some levels and objects require a certain amount of Kirbys before you can access the level or activate a particular switch.
The abilities of the gang of Kirbys are toned down in comparison to his previous outings, but it stays fresh because of the good level design. Just about each level provides you with collectible medals in both secret and not-so-secret places. Some require simple block-breaking while others have you thinking strategically. One situation might have you trying to take down a large boulder so it can smash through metal blocks while another might have you racing down the level while powered up so you can activate the switch. Some levels introduce branching paths while others introduce new abilities, such as pushing large blocks or using a fallen log to traverse deep waters. Lots of minibosses also plague most of the levels, ensuring combat isn't always going to be simple. You still control the Kirbys, but it's these little touches that keep the game from growing stale.
That good level design in Kirby Mass Attack is complemented by the copious levels. There are five different worlds to play through, but each one has at least 10 different levels. These levels also contain certain Kirby requirements, so not having 10 Kirbys with you at all times can be a big limiting factor. Couple that with the fact that you don't necessarily have to complete all of the levels to progress to the next world, and you have a gameplay experience that can vary from person to person. About the only consistency you'll find is that the game still isn't very long. It clocks in at about five hours if you plan on finishing up the main quest, but you can expect that number to double if you try to explore everything in the main game.
While Kirby games are generally considered simple and easy to finish, it's the management and control of 10 Kirbys that amplifies the difficulty. Unlike most situations, your heroes tend to be wider than they are tall, so there's more of a chance that you could get hurt. This is even more important to remember when you're attacking an enemy and have to deal with a narrow ledge. The Kirbys don't behave autonomously, but you also can't expect them to behave exactly the same just because you fling them down the same path. Some will stand on top of others while others will step aside for some breathing room. Some will finish a jump while others will hit a wall or fall short of the ledge. The lack of precision comes with the territory, but expect it to make things just a little tougher.
The modified health system also doesn't make things too easy on a player who's trying to make perfect runs through the game. There is no energy meter; instead, each Kirby relies on a two-hit system before expiring. The first hit changes a Kirby from pink to blue, and if the blue Kirby is hit again, it becomes a spirit. If the floating spirit is caught by another Kirby, it can be brought back to life as a blue Kirby. This modification makes things much tougher since there isn't an energy buffer like before, and give the chaotic situations you'll face, expect to have Kirbys die quite often.
There are a few minor flaws with Kirby Mass Attack. The levels may not be very long, but they also don't contain any checkpoints, so expect to lose all of your progress in a level should you die. You'll keep your numbers as you travel from level to level within one world, but the minute you traverse into another world, you lose all but one Kirby. While there is a convenient reason for all this, it simply forces you to replay a level or two to regain those numbers should you trek back and forth between worlds. This information comes in handy later when you discover that entry to the final levels requires you to find the special rainbow medals hidden in each level. Unless you know that requirement beforehand, expect to do lots of backtracking as you get closer to the end of the game.
Taking a page from Kirby Super Star, the title also includes a slew of minigames and unlockable modes when you obtain a required number of medals. The minigames run the gamut from ordinary to unexpected. Some of the required modes include a music and movie player, both of which come with little animations of the Kirbys. There's a whack-a-mole minigame as well as one where you have to help Kirby run as far as he can through a course by hitting the required symbols printed on the course.
Once you get past this, you'll come across three minigames that are worth playing if they were DSiWare games. Kirby Brawlball invokes memories of Kirby Pinball Land on the original Game Boy. Here, Kirby once again becomes a ball on a giant pinball table where you bounce him around, hoping he hits various targets for large points. Coming complete with boss fights, this is a minigame you'll return to quite often. Kirby Quest places Kirby in RPG-like battles against enemies. A rising meter determines who attacks first and how hard Kirby hits. It's simple enough, but it's surprising to see the game experiment with this play style. Strato Patrol EOS also takes Kirby to an unexpected genre: the top-down shooter. It starts off normally with you moving Kirby while he shoots down enemies. However, you quickly gain more Kirbys, at which point the game turns into a cuter version of the indie title Shoot 1up, where you amass more firepower once you gain more Kirbys. With five levels to play through, it becomes the longest of the minigames.
The same can be said for the achievement system for the game. Like any game for the PS3 or Xbox 360, Kirby Mass Attack gives you achievements based on the completion of certain tasks. The tasks range from the simple, like completing a level with all 10 Kirbys in tow, to the difficult, such as the completion of a level without getting any of the 10 Kirbys hurt. In truth, there are no special items or modes that unlock once the achievements are obtained, but it is a motivating factor for completionists who like to squeeze everything out of their games.
Kirby Mass Attack is no slouch when it comes to the sound department. The game still doesn't use a full voice cast, but the presence of Kirby's shouts of triumph and pained cries are enough. The sound effects are still top-notch, and the music is wildly varied. While you might not get many tunes that sound like remade versions of older Kirby titles, you will get ones influenced by several different musical styles, including a few with some vocals. One common thread to the score is that they all evoke the more action-oriented take of the earlier Kirby platformers instead of the more whimsical take heard on Kirby's Epic Yarn. That alone certainly gives you a reason to play the game with the volume on.
Kirby titles often have great graphics, and this one is no exception. The sprite artwork still flows with vibrant colors and has plenty of detail to back up its cartoon look. It's priceless to see the expressions on the faces of Kirby and the enemies, and it shows more character than you would expect. Despite the presence of more characters on-screen than before, the game never slows down, so you never feel like the system is being pushed beyond its limits. As usual, this is a great example of how well the system and developers have mastered 2-D sprites without forcing the game into a purposefully retro look.
If Kirby Mass Attack is really going to be the last Kirby title on the Nintendo DS, then it's ended its run on a very high note. The mechanic of controlling 10 Kirbys at once works like a charm thanks to great level design and good controls. The main quest runs at a good length, but the extra goals and fleshed-out minigames really make the package feel like a steal. By retaining the same quality of graphics and sound as before, the title feels warm and inviting to gamers of all types. Kirby Mass Attack should absolutely be part of your portable gaming library.
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