Nintendo / HAL Laboratory
Zelda? Check. Mario Kart? Check. Splatoon, Mario Odyssey, Fire Emblem Warriors, Xenoblade Chronicles, Pokken Tournament? Check times five.
There’s more to come: Hyrule Warriors is out in two months, and we’ve obviously got a Donkey Kong Country game, a Fire Emblem, a Smash Bros, a Yoshi game, Metroid Prime 4 and a new Pokemon in the distant future. Slowly but surely, fans of every series are getting games aimed at keeping them happy.
This week marks the next step in the process, with Kirby getting to take centre stage on the Switch for the first time.
Kirby Star Allies is the first Kirby console game since 2015’s Kirby and the Rainbow Curse on Wii U, and the wee floaty bollock’s first ‘proper’ console platformer since Kirby’s Adventure Wii back in 2011.
The game opens with a load of mysterious purple hearts falling from space. A number of them fall on Dream Land, where they land on various characters and turn them evil (including King Dedede and Meta Knight).
One of the hearts also lands on Kirby, but instead of a heel turn he’s given the ability to throw hearts at enemies to turn them friendly. Because reasons.
It’s up to Kirby to find out what in the utter hell is going on, starting off with the strange queue of Waddle Dees carrying shedloads of food to Dedede’s Castle.
For the most part, Kirby Star Allies plays like a classic platformer. Over the years Kirby games have had more gimmicks than Mick Foley – wee wrestling joke there – and while Star Allies is no different, its friend system (which I’ll get to in a bit) certainly doesn’t revolutionise things to the point that it no longer feels like old-school Kirby.
It’s still a side-scrolling 2D platformer, and Kirby can still walk, dash, jump and float for an infinite period of time.
And yes, he can still inhale enemies and steal their abilities in a way that should really be disturbing the more you think about it, but is thankfully still visually appealing and relatively gore-free.
There are 28 abilities to strip from enemy husks here, ranging from classics like Cutter, Fire and Sword (yes, the Link-like hat is still there) to less common ones like ESP (based on Ness from Earthbound), Beetle (which lets him skewer multiple enemies) and Suplex (returning from the SNES days).
Four of these abilities are brand new. Festival is a single-use ability which triggers a dance party that clears the room of enemies, while Staff is an extendable stick which can be used for attacking enemies and as a makeshift pole vault.
Spider, meanwhile, lets you capture enemies in webs and also create trampolines for other characters to jump on. The best of the bunch, though, is Artist, which lets Kirby draw basic sprite paintings of other enemies and send them out to attack others, or create sculptures and use them as weapons.
Abilities have been part and parcel of Kirby platformers since the NES days, mind you. The main addition in Star Allies is… well, allies. Though not necessarily of the star variety.
A nifty tap of the X button will make Kirby throw a small heart at his nearest enemy. If it’s an enemy with an ability (in other words, one you can usually swallow to gain new powers), the heart will turn them into your friend and they’ll accompany you as a partner.
This is where the game’s optional co-op multiplayer comes into play: up to four players can drop in and drop out, with Player 1 controlling Kirby and the rest controlling whichever enemies are recruited as his pals.
This doesn’t necessarily mean other players have a lesser role, mind you. Granted, the camera does stay on Kirby and if you stray too far you’re teleported back to him. But anyone playing as a frenemy also has the ability to throw hearts, allowing them to switch control to a different foe whenever they see fit.
While this has the potential to be confusing, it works relatively well. I played a chunk of the game with my wife playing as Kirby and we had a good time with it, though it did also highlight that someone maybe not used to Kirby’s controls may need a while to get used to it since all four face buttons are used now (jump, swallow, throw hearts and cancel powers). Younger or less experienced gamers may need an adjustment period.
“What’s the point of having these friends though, Chris?” I hear you ask. “This just sounds like rampant cronyism. I would expect nothing less from a Tory government, this country’s going to the dogs. And not even good dogs: ones trained to kill the homeless.”
Firstly, cool it. Secondly, the presence of friends also adds an interesting new trick to the mix: combining abilities.
Eight of the abilities in the game produce elements that can be added to friends’ abilities by simply ‘attacking’ them when they hold up on the D-pad or stick. This gives them new enhanced powers.
For example, your Sword ability is all well and good, but hold it up and get an enemy with an elemental power to attack it and you’ll end up with a Splash Sword, Sizzle Sword, Blizzard Sword, Zap Sword or Bluster Sword.
Naturally, these then give you more abilities. A Sizzle Sword can burn through blocks of ice where a normal sword maybe couldn’t. Or a Bluster Bomb may let you throw a bomb that’s then carried in the wind to an area it wouldn’t otherwise be able to reach.
If that sounds a little convoluted, don’t be too concerned. For the most part, these combinations are used in hidden rooms to unlock bonus stages and puzzle pieces (to complete Street Pass style illustrations), and even then there are usually tutorial images on the wall telling you which elements to combine.
These sections also conveniently provide suitable power-ups or enemies nearby to make sure you can solve the puzzle there and then instead of you thinking “ah shit, I don’t have a water ability” and having to backtrack later.
If you’re the more nostalgic type, you can also unlock a Dream Palace on each world: this lets you summon a classic Kirby enemy as one of your four partners. At launch these include King Dedede, Meta Knight and a Bandana Waddle Dee (each of whom can be combined with elements to make them more useful in this particular game), and more are to be added as free updates later.
It isn’t all good news. In true Kirby fashion the main game is extremely easy and it’s a little on the short side too: by the time I reached the fourth and ‘final’ world I already had 73 lives and had died once. The game throws stars and lives at you like confetti, but let’s be frank: anyone expecting a difficult Kirby game really should have figure out how the series works by now.
In fairness, once you beat the game (without spoiling too much) the real challenge kicks in, so it’s not entirely without merit for those who only play games to be tested. For those just looking for a good time regardless of difficulty, you’ll find it here.
It also runs at 30 frames per second in both docked and handheld modes, which isn’t a massive deal but also isn’t really Kirby. To the best of my knowledge only Kirby: The Crystal Shards and Kirby Battle Royale run at 30 instead of 60, meaning this one feels oddly rough.
That’s not to say it affects the feel of the game: expect a lot of people over-reacting a little and claiming they need 60 frames per second so they can get perfect control, as if it was tournament level Street Fighter 3 they were playing.
This is such a slow-paced game that a drop to 30 frames does not have any noticeable impact on how Kirby controls. It only has an impact on how smooth the game runs. So bear that in mind.
In a world where gaming is getting increasingly complex with loot boxes and microtransactions and season passes and whatever dabbing is supposed to be, Kirby Star Allies is refreshingly consistent with the old way of gaming.
It’s the video game equivalent of the old blanket you’ve had in your house for decades. It’s nothing flashy and you wouldn’t necessarily show it off to your friends when they’re over at your house.
But when times are hard and life’s getting too much, it’s sometimes great to just snuggle under it (this time with up to three family members) and enjoy its simple comforts like you’ve done for years.
Don’t analyse that metaphor too much: like my own family blanket, it’s full of holes. The game’s good, is what I’m saying.
Kirby Star Allies is out on Switch worldwide on 16 March for £49.99 / $59.99.
In order that I could write this review, I received a free copy of the game from Nintendo. The content of my review and the opinions therein were in no way positively influenced by this.
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