This might just be the best Kirby since Super Star.
I’ll admit it—when I spent the short amount of time I did with Kirby Mass Attack at E3, I wasn’t too terribly excited about it. There were only a couple of stations anywhere that featured the game; the atmosphere was dominated by 3DS software and other blockbusters such as Zelda: Skyward Sword. However, despite the lack of emphasis it received at the expo (and its lack of the hallmark Kirby transformations), Mass Attack is the most fun I’ve had with a handheld all year, sporting loads of innovative mechanics, masterful level design, and a breed of quality and polish that stands alongside Nintendo’s best.
It all begins as predictably as it ought to. Kirby’s taking a nap in a field, only to be greeted by the insidious Necrodeus, who’s intent on drowning the world in darkness (oh, Necrodeus, you silly goon, you). Total nonsense, of course and that’s fine. It’s as happy-go-lucky and throwaway as any Kirby or Mario plot; effectively, an excuse to make a new game.
Like Canvas Curse before it, Mass Attack is fully touch-controlled… and it’s great. A simple tap (and hold) on the screen sends Kirby toward that location; double-taps provoke a dash. Flicking Kirby sends him flying toward blocks and other objects he can break or interact with, and also serves as a makeshift jump. You can also drag him for a limited amount of time to slowly move him along whatever path you choose (a replacement for his usual flight ability). In terms of combat, Kirby will automatically attack enemies he’s brought into contact with, just as he’ll interact with switches and levers if he’s flicked into them.
But the real hook beyond all of this is where the game gets its name. Collecting 100 fruits throughout the stages will earn you an additional simultaneous Kirby—up to ten at once. Commanding multiple Kirbys carries significant benefits: enemies go down rapidly and levers are pulled more quickly. Plus, hidden areas of the levels open up via switches and other features which require a certain number of Kirbys to activate (these are visibly marked with a number which indicates how many Kirbys are necessary). Even access to the levels themselves on the World Map is limited to a specific minimum Kirby count (also indicated by a number). As you might have guessed, then, these Kirbys remain with you between levels, but at the end of each world, it's back to one again.
If one of your Kirbys takes damage, it’ll turn blue, and if it’s damaged again, it’ll be KO’ed. Once in this state, it’s possible to revive it to its blue status by catching the floating Kirby ghost that drifts toward the top of the screen—though this is harder than it sounds in the midst of the action, especially when multiple Kirbys are KO’ed at once. There are no lives (really, what purpose do they serve anyway?), so the mass of Kirbys at your command essentially serves as your lifeline. Apart from little health-replenishing pink rings (usually located in the halfway point of each level) and the acquisition of additional fruit, there is no mechanism for reconciling your mistakes if you sustain too much damage.
And the levels aren’t short, either. If you’re looking to collect everything, the typical level will take you anywhere from five to ten minutes to complete, which is rather lengthy for an action/platforming game. That means that screwing up and losing all of your Kirbys (something which you’ll certainly do a few times throughout the game) lands you back at the world map, ready to start playing the level anew (there are also no checkpoints). Thankfully, for the most part, the challenge in Mass Attack isn’t overwhelming; if you’re merely looking to complete the game, it’s just about right—but if you’re gunning for all the hidden goodies, it’s much, much tougher.
Left: Mmm... fresh Kirby.
Right: ...same caption?
The goodies are plentiful, too. Each level is home to between three and five medals, tucked away in difficult-to-reach locations. Sometimes these are only slightly off the beaten path, but for a sizable handful of medals, a near-perfect traversal of the environment is necessary to acquire them. Collecting them all is no small feat—but what do you get for your trouble? Actually, it’s well worth it! Around a dozen “Extras” are unlocked after so many medals are collected, and they range from relatively robust mini-games (seriously—a few of them are awesome) to a music player and movie gallery. You don’t have to traverse every level to beat the core game (there are plenty of extra levels scattered across the world map), but to avoid spoiling anything, I’ll simply say that certain medals are also required to reach additional levels. There’s a great deal of content in this game!
On top of that, you’ll find 35 Achievement-style “Challenges” available for completion, too. These aren’t immediately visible, but of course, if you complete one, it’s unveiled, and as you collect medals, you’ll earn the ability to see others which you haven’t yet completed also. Finally, finishing any stage without A) losing a Kirby, B) KO’ing a Kirby, or C) taking any damage at all will earn you a bronze, silver, or gold star (respectively). Earning these stars on all levels is part of the aforementioned challenges, but it’s unlikely to be something most gamers pursue—as it quickly crosses the line from respectable challenge to sheer frustration, especially when you’re going for gold.
A recipe for quality
While we’ve seen plenty of touch-based ventures on the DS since its 2004 launch, where Mass Attack really shines is in its combination of such unique gameplay with endlessly creative concepts and a perfectly-balanced difficulty curve—and, in its unwavering attention to fun. Much like Canvas Curse, a great deal of the challenge in Mass Attack is merely managing your movement (seeing as you’ve got ten Kirbys to look after). But most of the time, rather than serving as a source of frustration, it’s instead used as the foundation for a refreshing array of new gameplay concepts.
Few companies are as skilled at conjuring and implementing diverse gameplay concepts as Nintendo. Case in point, all of their highly-regarded action/platforming projects over the past few years have shared a common trait: an undying refusal to submit to staleness or repetition at any point throughout the adventure. This was the case with Donkey Kong Country Returns, Kirby’s Epic Yarn, and both Mario Galaxy games, as well as plenty of others—and it makes for a heck of a fine experience.
Left: The rainbow coins are necessary to open additional levels, so don't miss them!
Right: The environments are appropriately varied.
Kirby Mass Attack is the latest in the line of these relentlessly creative games. Each of the adventure’s fifty-odd levels is, in itself, a creative exploration of some new idea (or some significant permutation on a previous idea). Seldom are we forced to endure a recycled version of a used mechanic; instead, every opportunity to “think outside the box” is exploited to great effect.
The result is an adventure which is completely unpredictable and thoroughly creative. You’ll go from a seriously challenging boss battle to a goofy Pachinko mini-game or surfing challenge. One level features a hot air balloon whose path can be altered by moving your Kirbys to either side of the basket. The bottom screen depicts the action in the basket, and the top screen shows a zoomed-out view of the balloon’s path as it zips around the hazards and toward power-ups per your guidance. Still others include dangerous elevator rides, water level and sandstorm trials, and mazelike pyramids. You’ll even find a top-down shooter amongst the chaos... and none of this even makes mention of the frequent and numerous boss (and mini-boss) battles. It’s a parade of creativity from one level to the next up until the very end, leaving very little room for any filler at all.
It’s also thick with shiny polish; the game’s art is as great as ever, and the soundtrack is catchy and upbeat. Occasionally, some of the tunes do get a little bit tiring (after hearing them for the fifth or sixth time), but overall, there’s a decent selection of music accompanying the action.
Whatever minor criticism is justified certainly centers on the previously-mentioned troubles with control. Commanding ten Kirbys can be frustrating at times, especially when a sole Kirby decides to drop off the side of a ledge or walk into a hazard. It’s even worse because the camera tends to follow whatever Kirby is near the bottom of the screen—meaning that the rest of your guys can be put in peril by a single straggler, compounding the problems. The other issue is that, since there are no checkpoints, if it so happens that you lose all of your Kirbys at once (which is entirely possible in any number of areas if you aren’t paying close attention or simply weren’t expecting the hazard), you lose all of the progress you’ve made through the level, including any medals you may have collected.
For the most part, though, this is a thoroughly solid action/adventure/platforming title that is constantly creative and predominantly fun. If you’ve been a fan of Nintendo’s recent efforts in the field, you’ll not be disappointed by what Mass Attack provides.