Monday, 5 November 2012

Kirby, Kirby, Kirby

  Strolling around the Google search results looking for new innovations in gaming seams to bring up a lot of hits, but terribly few of them overlap with Nintendo, my main game system and affiliation of choice.  This leads to a sense that Nintendo never does anything new, but if true, that would be a wholesale inversion of the world we know, or rather, knew.  Anyone with a box hooked up to a TV could probably point to something totally new that Nintendo introduced, in the long, long ago time.  Can they really be out of fresh ideas? 

  I tend to believe the answer is no, and to prove it, I’m not going to focus on the long, long ago times (*gasp*).  I also intend to stay away from talking about the WiiU or 3DS; big innovations that have far too much negativity on the web pulling them down.  I want to focus on what Nintendo does brilliantly, more times than not.  The games.  Let me take two that I’ve played recently and demonstrate how much Nintendo remains such a great innovator.  My games of choice for this effort, are Kirby: Mass Attack, and Kirby’s Return to Dreamland.

  First, the obvious criticism; I’ve chosen two games within one series that can be defined as one of Nintendo’s classics.  How can I say they are innovative when the face on the box hasn’t greatly changed since Kirby’s Dreamland?  Trouble with that claim is that it is inherently biased against sequels, because every sequel features the same (or similar) face on the box.  It ignores the possibility that a game series could be so good as to be deserving of being continued.  And Kirby undeniably is that good.  But while sequels continue a good thing, they come with their own dangers; a sequel can fall a bit too close to its origins and fail to surpass it.  I choose these two games because together they overcome these dangers better than they could alone, and they were released so close together (Kirby’s Return to Dreamland in North America October 24th, 2011, Kirby Mass Attack in North America September 19th, 2011) they can well be claimed to be reflections of each other, at least in their development phases. 

  Kirby’s Return to Dreamland is a Nintendo Wii exclusive and solid action platformer with deep roots in its design.  You can find a proper, conventional review of it here.  I want to focus on all of the new things it did, but let’s be very clear; the game is Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards (released 2000) crossed with Kirby Superstar (released 1996 on the SNES).  Kirby walks left to right (mostly), jumps, inhales enemies and spits them back, floats through the air, and copies powers, all fundamental actions for the character.  It is more like Superstar than Crystal Shards in that Kirby cannot combine powers, but each power has multiple variant actions to discover.  It is more like Crystal Shards in that there are objective items, with no increase in power, but requiring clever or foresighted use of powers to obtain.  The point is that it has all been seen before, with three big exceptions.

  The first is advertized on the box – 4 person multiplayer.  The terms are little uneven, but a nice add on that reinvigorates the game as a party game.  The second are the Super Powers, monsters with overpowered abilities and Kirby can copy for a limited time, and can use to crash through everything in his path.  It’s fun, if a little too easy.  Then there’s the counter balance, as almost every stage uses the Super Powers to open the way into dark world stages.  These stages threaten to crush Kirby against a wave of darkness, and the only way forward, more often than not, is not in copying powers, but in inhaling (or using the new Super Inhale, accessed by shaking the Wiimote) the blocks and barricades to clear the path forward.  Waiting at the end is choice of powers to access, and a short boss fight with the Energy Sphere Bats.

  The cartoony aesthetic favours exploration, especially in the use and application of the powers, though choosing one of the other characters undercuts this aesthetic.  There’s a significant challenge present for those looking for it.  With up to four players, fellowship factors heavily.  The bright colors and whimsical music could be sense pleasure.  All told, though, Discovery and Challenge are the core aesthetics. 

  When playing the game I had the distinct impression that it was very safe, almost too much so.  There isn’t much original about it.  It was fun alright though, and challenging enough, but somehow lacked engagement.  It’s hard to say why exactly.

  Kirby Mass Attack is the opposite of just about everything said above.  Released on the Nintendo DS, after the 3DS was already on the market, it seemed lost, though as it happened it would not be last first party title to miss an upgrade to the 3DS.  Here`s the traditional review.

  Though a conventional platformer, Mass Attack used almost no buttons.  Its’ primary command system involved tapping Kirby on screen and flicking him into the air.  He could gather food to fill a gauge, and when filled, there would be a new Kirby added to the squad, up to ten at the most.  Filling the gauge again gained points, and the high score table became a big part of the game.  Tapping an enemy or object caused the Kirby squad to mass on to it, and work together to either defeat the enemy or trigger the object. 

  Kirby travels to some truly diverse locales, and puzzles inspired by the need to flick Kirbys around like slingshot ammo become truly memorable.  Perhaps better still is the arcade full of unlockable bonus games; this proves a truly brilliant way to incorporate Kirby’s enormous and diverse cast without letting them bog down the main story, something a blue hedgehog might consider copying if it is not judged beneath him to copy a second stringer.

  As for the aesthetics of play, I’m going to loft sense pleasure way up on the list of reasons to play it: pixel art graphics and limited tonal music dominate the piece!  That says nothing of the immensely memorable melodies or brilliant sense of play imbued into the art.  Love it!  But I recognize that it isn’t for everyone (spoiler alert: Kirby’s Return to Dreamland is for everyone).  A nod can be given to Fellowship through the high score table, but only if you have a friend determined to beat your score at any cost.  There’s the usual, fairly limited Narrative, but the true core aesthetics of Kirby Mass Attack is still going to be Challenge and Discovery.  With no powers, playing with copy abilities is now a thing of the past (or one month into the future; Mass Attack came out before Return to Dreamland), but finding ways to get around the world, discovering ways to use the Kirby squad to interact with the world, and the challenge of keeping enough Kirbys with you to interact with the exclusive objects still offers the main draw.

  By now, my thesis is probably plain.  Both Mass Attack and Return to Dreamland have what the other game lacks.  Return to Dreamland is a collaborative romp through classic platform gaming, with two dozen copy powers to play with and tons of hidden challenges to sort through.  Mass Attack is a frantic effort to manage a large host of hungry Kirbys and some of the most creative stumpers made in recent years to challenge one player.  A high score table and lots of bonus games and unlockables boost replayability.  The art style also speaks to a subtly different market; Return to Dreamland features an approachable cartoony aspect realized in 3D polygons, an easy standard that`s very approachable to anybody, including classic gamers.  Mass Attack revels in its sprite work and melody restricted musics, an art style that resonates more heavily with classic gamers than just anybody, but invites newcomers in on those terms. 

  In their near simultaneous launch dates, the games try to have it both ways, appealing to both classic gamers and everyone else, encouraging cross examination in every way, except in direct interfacing.  Honestly, though, Nintendo`s been-there, done-that once before (The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons) and the Pokémon series may have a lock on it.  Aesthetically, the games feel different, and play differently, but both offers an experience slightly different than the other, and complementary to boot!  It`s a great way to offer Wii/DS owners something new, without mandating purchasing both.

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