2004. The new year greeted Nintendo fans with the hush-hush PR announcement of a new handheld: the two-screen Nintendo DS, complete with a touch screen and stylus. The wild concept threw fans for a loop, and no one was sure what to make of it. Photoshops illustrating the plummeting of Nintendo's stock and comparisons to the doomed Virtual Boy begged the question: had the company fallen off its rocker? Had the years of backwards hardware and nonsense peripherals finally caught up to them? Much skepticism surrounded the new handheld, and with the Gamecube's fall schedule devoid of anything but sequels (Metroid Prime, Pikmin, and Paper Mario--all of them 2s, might I add), things were looking bleak...
...until Nintendo proceeded to open a can of whoop-ass at that year's E3. The new Zelda reveal for the Gamecube flung series fans into euphoria, but the explosion of game announcements for the DS completely turned heads around. With the likes of a Metroid Prime spin-off, the first true Animal Crossing sequel, a reimagining of Super Mario 64, and the first new side-scrolling Mario in thirteen years, opinions of the new handheld instantly shifted from indifference to uncontrollable hype.
While Nintendo initially marketed the new handheld as a "third pillar" to accompany the Gamecube and Game Boy Advance, it was only a matter of time until the latter began to be phased out. WarioWare; Twisted!, Pokémon Emerald and the long-awaited Mother 3 were still in the wings, but stiff competition from both its DS successor and the Sony PSP--all with their shiny 3D graphics and fancy screens and casual appeal--put a sudden halt to its growth. Too soon? Perhaps, but a new era was dawning for the Big N, and it soon became apparent the Game Boy Advance had no use in Nintendo's bid for the expanded market or in competing against the Sony PlayStation Portable..
Alas, our dear friend Kirby couldn't slow the GBA's descent into irrelevancy; if anything, the puffball was all set for his DS debut via Kirby: Canvas Curse, while his second and last GBA title stumbled into existence. Co-developed by Dimps Corporation and Capcom subsidiary Flagship, massive game-breaking bugs were discovered only weeks before the spring Japanese release of Kirby and The Great Mirror Labyrinth, and the game had to be pulled for another month despite advertisements and reported manufacturing of cartridges.
It goes without saying that Kirby and The Great Mirror Labyrinth is a badass title--one that doesn't quite roll off the tongue of American children, and one that's certainly not present in this blog post's title. Indeed, it was the rebranding into the bland, nonsensically joyous Kirby and the Amazing Mirror that directed fans' attention to the existence of not just the "Angry Kirby" phenomenon, but of some downright bizarre localization choices, be they blatant mistranslations or renaming longtime characters.
Do these translation fumbles permeate the entire game? Does Kirby bid his farewell to the Game Boy Advance on a good note? The answer might not be what you expect...
Kirby and the Amazing Mirror is a weird game. When considering how the context of Kirby games are only a tad stranger (and perhaps just as tonally familiar) than your average Super Mario game, that's one hell of a statement. Forget approaching by itself; as a Kirby title, it's vastly unintuitive and unfamiliar to the point of potential alienation. As Kirby games are meant to be easy gateways for anyone to get into, Amazing Mirror doesn't make for a great first impression.
Now, is this wholly a bad thing? Not quite. Despite its missteps in presentation, Amazing Mirror is still a solid game. It doesn't require the mountain of patience from Kirby Air Ride, as the traditional gameplay of swallowing and copying remains intact. So what's the problem? It's the change in framework; a shift in context, if you will. For as eager as Amazing Mirror is to embark into uncharted territory, it neglects in properly introducing its new persona to the player.
And what sort of identity does the first post-Sakurai Kirby brand itself as? Metroidvania.
That's right. After witnessing Meta Knight's retcon into the side of justice, being split into four by his not-so-justice doppelganger, and having an off-screen falling-out with the classic "run-straight-to-the-right" model of sidescrolling play, Kirby traverses the Mirror World as if he was spelunking deep within the crevices of Brinstar and Tallon IV. However, unlike Metroid lead Samus Aran, he's accompanied by his color-coded copies as they tackle one realm after the other, solving puzzles and ganging up on bosses.
Here's where Amazing Mirror slips up: the context of the four Kirbies--such as their origin and rallying them via cell phone--are shown and explained. The Metroidvania exploration is not.
Needless to say, those not expecting the initial transition from Rainbow Route to Moonlight Mansion are in for a rather unorthodox surprise. Instead of simply ending the level, Amazing Mirror grants the player free reign over traversing the game's worlds until they stumble across one of the designated goal sectors. Upon entering its doorway or defeating its assigned boss, Kirby warps back to the central hub with the treasure he hoarded during his trek.
This concept of spelunking for treasure should instantly bring to mind that of The Great Cave Offensive from Kirby Super Star, but it's ultimately difficult to draw parallels between it and Amazing Mirror. Whereas The Great Cave Offensive encourages completion in a more confined design, the Mirror World is of a loose complexity. Within Amazing Mirror's biggest stumble is its greatest asset revealed: much like its source of inspiration, it's entirely possible to forge ahead in ways discordant to natural progression.
As Metroid and Castlevania before it, Amazing Mirror's greatest strength come forward in simply exploring this new world unfamiliar to us. We've crossed similarly unfamiliar realms with Kirby before, but never have we traversed such one in such a manner, and so we long-time fans are all the more intrigued by its implementation, however clumsy it's introduction. Just like the original Metroid, I'm compelled to turn on the game and trek deep into the unknown.
For the sake of exploration, Amazing Mirror does work on an inquisitive level. That it fumbles in introducing this new system no doubt implies there's other screw-ups awaiting us, but it's still interesting enough to hold our interest. For one thing, there's enough landmarks to grab our attention: just what are those star-marked stones lying around on Rainbow Route? Why are some of the Mirror Doors alive, and how can I outwit them so I can progress? What's that switch do, and where does this cranny lead?
It also helps that it's interesting to look at. New development team aside, this is still Nightmare in Dream Land's engine through and through, right down to aesthetics and music instrumentation. In regards to the former, the backgrounds don't dive as deeply into realistic fantasy, but thankfully Flagship recognized the importance of maintaining that delicate balance between children's fantasy and dark mystery.
These three backgrounds--Rainbow Route and two from Peppermint Palace, respectively--consist of a different vein of fantasy from the Dream Land we're familiar with. Rainbow Route's set pieces would be right at home with your typical outdoor oil painting, but I'm particularly a fan of Peppermint Palace; there are some vague resemblances to icy structures and mountains and the like, but they blend in so well the gorgeous weather patterns that they may as well be one and the same. I've always thought of the latter as a gentle cluster of sparkling azure blankets.
And here we take a dive into the dark unknown via Carrot Castle and Cabbage Cavern. The former's ballroom scenery provides a grand sense of scale for a handheld screen. A dim setting never before explored in Kirby, its fleeting yet imposing appearances are easily the world's highlight, and I dearly wish to have seen more of it. Thankfully, the overgrown flora of Cabbage Cavern provide not just a similar sense of scale but the perfect setting for Kirby's first foray into Metroidvania: an untouched cavern only intruded by stray rays of sunshine, its spoils ready for the taking.
When married to the set-up and action of the foreground, Amazing Mirror does succeed in providing something of a visually compelling world. This above shot of Candy Constellation proves this with yet another series first: traversing just above a planet's orbit (Kirby Super Star technically did this first, but the actual planet wasn't reflected in the background; just a cluster of equally dazzling stars). It's a wonderfully satisfying setting for the final level, as it comes complete with a phenomenal Smash Bros. reference (of several!) in a boss and a thundering, starry score.
We witness this nearly right away when Rainbow Route wholly hits the notes of "the first level". This one's always captured me in how it gently defies the signature Kirby opener: it's still upbeat, but what we have here touches upon an adventurous panorama, brimming with cavort at every corner. The song's of a short length and is prone to looping, but as it induces a desire for adventure into the player, it never grates the ears. With how Rainbow Route serves as the all-encompassing hub, it's a delightful introduction.
Meanwhile, Olive Ocean represents the finest of the game's sense of, as it comes packaged with all the urgency found in your typical claustrophobic water levels. While not necessarily eerie, that it conjures up recollections of other similar urgency via Super Star's Revenge of Meta Knight and Kirby 64's Dark Star renders it a soundtrack highlight. It's granted a scale that swallows the player into the chilling depths of a bottomless ocean, its pounding pressure pushing us deeper and deeper into the unknown.
The aforementioned Candy Constellation rounds out the game with a stellar astral motif, opening with an explosive rocket launch fanfare before segueing into its dreamy main theme. It's sprightly and whimsical all the same, and I love how its intro both complements and contrasts the actual song--it bursts with all the importance of a finale that the starry peppiness thoroughly conveys, yet I can't help but feel it channels the jubilance found in most Kirby openings (as opposed to Rainbow Route). I wonder if it's just coincidental.
Bringing our musical tour to a close are the themes for the Rainbow Route hub and the intro/collection room, of which share the same motif and excel in illustrating an unknown, mystical realm just outside the boundaries of Kirby's world. Both reside in opposite ends of the repose spectrum: the former possesses a tad of urgency, whereas the collection room's contents are rendered all the more sacred thanks to the meditative pace.
If only such care was lavished upon the new Copy Abilities. There's only five of them, but Amazing Mirror's repertoire fluctuates so unevenly in quality and utilization that it's a wonder the later Squeak Squad barely edges it out for the title of "Worst New Abilities in a Kirby Game." It's that dire.
My heart continues to be broken by Cupid Kirby, for instance. The sight of Kirby gently flittering about the sky with the aid of itty-bitty angel wings, beady eyes and halo and all, is so innately adorable that you wonder why it hadn't been done before. And they screwed it up. It's simply too slow and clunky and just plain weak to derive any enjoyment from, and believe me, I tried. I tried so hard. I am still legitimately depressed by this; Kirby was made for that copy ability, and they screwed it up!
Meanwhile, Magic and Mini only serve as gimmicky one-trick-ponies, the former for a worthless reward-granting roulette wheel and the latter only useful for scampering about in tiny pathways. The former is just simply baffling; it's only use is for providing some extra 1-ups or food or y'know, stuff that's probably already lying in the room you're in. It's easily the most useless ability in the entire series, and as we'll learn in Squeak Squad the staff hadn't learned from their mistake in the Bubble ability. There's also the problem of Mini's unorthodox usage, but we'll get into that later.
Only Missile and Smash pick up the slack in providing some enjoyment. Of course, the latter would have to be fun given its source of inspiration (the hint is in the name!), but thankfully Flagship understood that missiles are speedy agents of death and so it's the Copy Ability of choice to slaughter Mirror World denizens and bosses alike. Yay.
To the game's credit, it is much appreciated that it returns to Super Star's multi-fledged ability system. While it's not as robust, most powers aren't restricted to a single action anymore and there's even some new twists (Street Fighter fans should get a kick out of Kirby's "charge" move). Despite Flagship's insistence on remolding the Kirby formula, this proves they at least researched what made the series' most popular game so successful (or could we chalk this up to Sakurai's credit as a "Special Advisor"...?).
There's the localization, for starters. To criticize a Kirby game for it's localization--which may come across as the ultimate nitpick-- is nothing new. It's astounding as to how games aren't exactly verbose, and yet we've had major translation blunders since the days of Kirby Super Star, with a notorious error regarding the villain Marx's motives ("The sun and moon are fighting. Go find Nova.") and barely-decipherable checklist missions in Kirby Air Ride.
Amazing Mirror continues this "tradition" alongside some woeful renaming. Okay, maybe we can forgive changing Mirror Labyrinth into Mirror World and Angel Kirby into Cupid; after all, names undergo changes all the time in the American industry for the sake of simplification and religious sensitivity, so why call out Amazing Mirror for that?
The real problem lies in name changes that didn't need to be changed; case in point: Crackity Hack. Crackity Hack, a mini-game starring the four Kirbies adorned in badass headgear and contesting to decide who can rupture the earth's crust the most via their destructive stubby arms. Needlessly to say, the name is horrendously embarrassing on all levels, be it not making any sense (there is no "hacking" going on!), cheapening the context into pandering kids' fluff, or that they actually chose it over the original Japanese "Gigaton Punch" title--a homage to the Megaton Punch mini-game from Super Star.
Speaking of name continuity, the most egregious error lies in a brain-dead renaming. Any Kirby fan should recognize the walrus-y fellow Mr. Frosty, yet a closer look at his name-branded health bar reveals a new name: Mr. Flosty. Yes, Mr. Flosty. Forget how "flost" isn't even a real word, it's an obvious bastardization of the Japanese phonetic rules regarding the L/R letters (there are many cases where the letters are interchangeable in the Japanese dictionary, and some translators strictly perceive it as "L"). When considering how one of the game's translators (Bill Trinen) had worked on previous Kirby titles that included the character, it reveals a shocking display of disinterest.
And general translation sense, too. We witness this with yet another enemy: a pair of flying giant lips being renamed from "Lip" to "Leap". My command of the Japanese language is only that of a fledgling quality, but even I know the romanji of the original name ("Ripu") only translates to "lip", and it's even dumber when you realize the English verb "leap" automatically disassociates itself to characters who are flying. Apologies to the super-awesome Mr. Trinen (and to Mr. Richard Amtower; another Treehouse veteran), but this is easily some of the worst localization work ever put out by NOA. Also, please tell Angry Kirby to go away; we don't take kindly to his presence.
The actual gameplay, too, suffers from inexplicable missteps. For all the fun parallels the Shadow Kirby character provides, his sudden encounters prove only to be confusing. Why exactly does he appear with zero context, and why are his battles so short-lived and easy? Why exactly does the last phase for the final boss suddenly turn into a scrolling shooter? Why did they randomly shoehorn the credits immediately upon his defeat?
Even the starring four Kirby mechanic keeps us asking. While it's a neat novelty to have the CPU wander off on their own, the AI is too poor to serve as reliable comrades and so they often end up being sent back to the Rainbow Route hub upon dying. There is little coordination or interaction between the clones, and only come to life when positioned next to a puzzle (such as, say, using all four Kirbies' Inhale ability to move a giant boulder)
And here we arrive at the crux of the matter: Kirby and the Amazing Mirror wants to be Metroidvania, but cannot be Metroidvania. The whole fun of those games is to slowly amass an assortment of gear to not only increase your chances of surviving in an unknown world, but to overcome previously insurmountable paths and obstacles. You gradually became one with the game's world as you traverse its nooks and crannies again and again, pumping fists in triumph when discovering Samus's newly acquired missiles can blast open those annoying pink doors from earlier.
The fundamental mechanics of Kirby games prevent Amazing Mirror from accomplishing this. With Kirby only being able to possess one Copy Ability at a time, the Mirror World instantly loses any chance it had in thriving as a fully organic map. For whatever interesting landmarks dot the landscape, most attempts at puzzle-solving typically revolve around whatever Copy Ability happens to be lying around (or not, which results in some annoying backtracking).
The aforementioned Mini Kirby is the perfect example. We can think of it as a homage to Samus's Morph Ball, which can also fit through tiny tunnels, but Mini Kirby serves little purpose in comparison. It's only purpose is for entering obviously inaccessible rooms, whereas the Morph Ball's multi-purpose design naturally compels the player to prod around the alien world via bombing, boosting, and rail grinding. In contrast, Mini is absolutely useless outside of mandatory exploration, and we are left to mourn the potential loss of any innovation it could've brought.
Being so harsh on Amazing Mirror brings me no pleasure -- I like getting lost within its maps, I'm rather fond of the color spray that can turn Kirby into different colors (why isn't that in more Kirby games?), and I do so enjoy gazing into its backgrounds. But such periphery pleasures only propels Amazing Mirror into simply being "good," and I'm rather bothered by how its core concept betrays the "newcomer" design mentality behind Kirby games.
I could perhaps go on with my criticism--mainly in that Flagship and Dimps tried to be too ambitious with a franchise they'd only just gotten their hands on, and how The Great Cave Offensive trumps it as an epic spelunking adventure--but what's the point? It still intrigues me on an experimental level despite it ill-fated lofty ambitions, and at the very least we can take pleasure in knowing that it ended up being better than Flagship's next Kirby effort. Much pleasure.