Until now, there have been two kinds of Kirby games. There are the candy colored side-scrolling platformers that feature an array of enemies that can be consumed to borrow their signature powers. These games tend to be easy and extremely simple which makes them excellent games for children or older players seeking an opportunity to unwind. The most recent of these games was Kirby Triple Deluxe on the 3DS.
The second type of Kirby game is defined not by the formula, but by the lack of one. Every so often, Nintendo has Kirby star in an unconventional game with mechanics or controls that are unlike other games the company produces. These include Kirby’s Pinball Land, Kirby Air Ride, and Kirby Mass Attack. These games try out different art styles, genres, and control schemes but never stray from the inviting aesthetic and friendly difficulty curve that defines the franchise.
Kirby and the Rainbow Curse cannot be classified under either of these categories. Kirby and the Rainbow Curse is something new and exciting.
HAL Laboratories has selected one of their past Kirby experiments, Canvas Curse, and honed it to a keen edge. As in that game, players must guide a rolling Kirby by drawing lines on the Wii U GamePad. The total amount of line available to the player at any given time is limited and Kirby must frequently rest on a platform not drawn by the player to give the rainbow meter a chance to refill. The amount of rainbow rope available and Kirby’s limited capacity to build momentum are the two key restraints that the player struggles with. Sure, the levels have obstacles and bad guys, but mastering efficient traversal is a challenging and rewarding task in itself without them.
Did you ever play old Castlevania games? The 8 and 16-bit era games. Those games could be incredibly frustrating. Your character had only a single jump arc that couldn’t be modified in air, a limited attack hit box that could similarly not be modified, and if you got hit you were punished with a big whollop of a knockback. And yet these games are remembered by many as classics. I think that’s because of, and not in spite of, these limitations. When you got good at playing one of those games you were able to apply those clumsy jumps and one dimensional attacks to make it through the levels just perfectly. When repeating a tricky level for the umpteenth time and successfully teasing your way through the obstacles just so, your complete mastery of the character made the game feel not clumsy but graceful. It would never seem that way to a casual observer, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder and once the player attuned to the wavelength of those games they really were beautiful.
That is how Kirby and the Rainbow Curse made me feel. Yes it’s a total pain that Kirby loses momentum at the smallest speedbump and that he’s always rolling without a stop button. Yes, it’s frustrating that the rainbow rope, the entire mechanism by which the player can control the game, is on a depleting meter making it that if you overextend you just don’t get to do anything for a little while. But when I was able to master those limitations and get Kirby to roll through a level untouched, it gave me that same high Castlevania used to.
There are differences, though. The primary differences are one, Kirby and the Rainbow Curse doesn’t have a brutally difficult campaign. The game eases the player into mastery rather than throwing them into the deep end. The proper order of things is to play the campaign (which is easy), play the campaign while getting all the collectables (somewhat harder), and then playing the challenge mode (often brutal, occasionally insane). The other key difference is that when I achieved mastery of the movement in this game it didn’t just feel graceful, it looked graceful. By making player control a rainbow rope that’s visually represented on the screen the skills of the player are made manifest. When I was just starting and still frustrated my lines were jagged, often little more than scribbles. Now my lines are smooth arcs between points of interest, often incorporating little jumps and loops just because I can.
It’s good that the mechanics are sound because this game focuses on them to the exclusion of all else. Canvas Curse let the player doodle Kirby through eight worlds. That’s been cut down to four. Canvas Curse let the player steal the powers of enemies, and that’s been cut out entirely. The real meat of the game is in the challenge mode, not the campaign.
Many games look to iterate on well explored gameplay mechanics and offer precise digital inputs for player control. If the player is confident about how to play and control they can better enjoy the contents of level design, storytelling, visual effects, everything. Kirby and the Rainbow Curse isn’t like that. This is a game where the player thinks about the strange gameplay and the exact moves to be made on the controller all the time. The delightful claymation look is wasted, frankly. I never had time to appreciate it as I played.
I feel like a lot of people aren’t going to get a ton out of Kirby and the Rainbow Curse like I have. It’s a Kirby game that draws on neither classic formula nor does it bring much along the lines of new ideas to the table. It’s harder than just about any other Kirby game (in the challenge mode at least) and it’s short. People who want to play a game to unwind, who want to be dazzled but what Nintendo’s crazy engineers have come up with next, or who expect iteration on the ideas in Canvas Curse are not getting what they want from this game.
The people who will most enjoy this game are the folks who like VVVVVV or Super Mario Bros. 3, which have a very simple moveset and force the player to master every last trick available within that limited space. It’s not a crowd Kirby games traditionally cater to, but maybe they should more often because Kirby and the Rainbow Curse is excellent.
Food for thought:
1. This game has a trophies to collect in place of the keychains from Triple Deluxe. Initially I went there to take the time to properly appreciate the delightful clay creations that fill the levels, but before long I was going there just to read the caption text. It’s funny stuff.
2. The multiplayer is available for those who want to play this game like a standard Kirby game. The moment there’s a Waddle Dee in the game most of the challenges become moot. It’s a good time with friends but it almost feels like the wrong way to enjoy the game if there’s such a thing. This game is all about boiling mechanics down, stripping away the fat, and rewarding elegant mastery. The mayhem that ensues with even two people is… not that.