2006. A new age in gaming was--sweet Mother of Christ, what are those things threatening to collapse upon Kirby's gorgeous eyes? Quick, someone call an ambul-oh, wait, are those furrowed eyebrows? Jeepers, Nintendo of America's marketing division, for a moment you had me worried for Kirby's physical well-being! But no, it's just another laughable attempt to prove Kirby's badassery by safeguarding his locked-away desserts from a gang of adorable anthropomorphic mice. You see now why this practice pisses everyone off?
But I digress. Now, where was I? Right, 2006. The transition into HD had just begun for the rest of the gaming industry, but Nintendo had other plans. Their E3 presentation of the Wii and its motion controls exploded with positive reception; so much, in fact, that it captured the attention of the general masses, even if they'd never so much as picked up a controller. The successful penetration into the casual sphere would spawn a new era in gaming, with developers everywhere scrambling to snag a piece of that motion control pie.
Gamers weren't yet sure what to make of the Wii. Some dismissed it as a fad, others called it Nintendo's final, fatal gamble. But what did capture everyone's attention was that The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess--still in development after that fateful E3 presentation two years earlier--had moved from the GameCube into the motion control realm of the Wii. While in retrospect it was obviously due to how there was no Nintendo-branded killer app for the system's launch (aside from Wii Sports, which proved to be a massive hit with casual audiences and held the title of best-selling video game for several years), but it was enough to wrap up Nintendo fans into fantasies of their beloved franchises adapting motion-based feats of wonder.
And Twilight Princess wasn't alone: the controversial Super Paper Mario and the ill-fated Donkey Kong: Barrel Blast jumped ship from the GameCube as well. As the purple cube's death was imminent, Kirby fans began to wonder if the same would happen with that unnamed title which all but disappeared following E3 2005. Announced shortly beforehand in Famitsu magazine, this new Kirby game would build upon the beloved partner mechanic from Super Star, although this time with up to three friends! Already a contender was being primed to dethrone Super Star...and yet we hadn't seen hide nor hair of it for a year.
Soon enough, "Kirby Wii" would be listed on Wii release charts. With motion control still igniting the imaginations of Nintendo fans everywhere, no one had a clue at how this game would utilize this new-fangled control scheme. But alas, Kirby's Wii affair was listed under TBD, so at the end of the year fans had to settle for a much less ambitious effort for DS, dubbed Kirby: Squeak Squad. Once again developed by Capcom subsidiary Flagship, previews indicated this game hadn't brought much to the table, which begged the question: had Flagship learned of their mistakes from Amazing Mirror? Perhaps going back to the basics would be a good idea, as they'd gain a much greater grasp on developing the series. Maybe they'd just pull it off...
If there is one aspect I champion about Kirby, it's that even when the series is at its lowest, the games still manage to provide entertainment. For the disappointment the likes of Amazing Mirror and (to an extent) Kirby's Dream Land 2 bring, the presence of Kirby's copy abilities ensure fun times ahead. The concept of plowing through plushy creatures with Kirby's repertoire of superpowers is just too enjoyable to pass up no matter the context, and I'm not one to turn that down.
In that respect, Kirby: Squeak Squad is just bizarre. When approaching it with absolutely no expectations, it's mostly a harmless little affair that attempts to channel the objective behind Kirby's Dream Land -- a title where even the worst of gamers can reach the ending-- for a new generation. Nothing if not noble, I suppose, but Squeak Squad is plagued with such uneven lapses in quality for everything from level design, music, game mechanics, periphery features and even the goddamn sound effects that it automatically earns the spot of Worst Kirby Game.
And unlike my disappointment with Amazing Mirror, I feel no shame in stating that. Squeak Squad isn't bad by any means, but is instead largely the victim of an ill-equipped development team. The ambition Flagship reserved for Amazing Mirror is now in tatters, as this game is a mess of uninspired concepts that either never go anywhere, or, even worse, never live up to its elusive stroke of potential. When juxtaposed to the occasional good idea Squeak Squad manages to cough up, it's readily clear the game was birthed from just about any ol' idea the development team could toss in.
A disastrous combination, especially in an era where touchscreen control was shoehorned in nearly every DS title. And make no mistake, Squeak Squad is the victim of this practice as well; indeed, while its touch mechanic certainly isn't intrusive, it is most certainly undeveloped. See, the game's levels are populated with bubbles containing goodies as such food, Copy Abilities, extra lives, and what have you. When nabbed, these bubbles move on over into the endless abyss that is Kirby's stomach (as depicted on the DS's bottom screen), where players can mix and match whatever's inside to their liking.
A decent concept; in fact, I actually give Flagship props for granting some context to the often-discussed, but never-seen mystery of Kirby's stomach. Unfortunately, anyone expecting Kirby 64-levels of creativity will walk away greatly disappointed. The Copy Ability combo pool is woefully small, and only culls together base ideas in "elemental" versions of Sword and Bomb (Fire Sword and Thunder Bomb? Lame). Meanwhile, combining food grants...higher quality food.
It goes without saying hardly any thought was put into this. What's worse is that in failing to provide a proper hook, what we have here is a mechanic that simply cannot differentiate Squeak Squad from its predecessors. This might not be so bad if the actual game itself was competently designed, but this is where that infrequent juxtaposition of quality comes in to muck things up.
Just take the Copy Abilities. Squeak Squad more or less operates on the same engine as Amazing Mirror (which in turned was based off of Nightmare in Dream Land), so the powers borrowed from that game still function well. In particular, Magic's pointless debut has been redeemed, as it's now developed in a creative, full-fledged moveset involving pigeons, cards, and even a giant jack-in-the-box sprung from Kirby's magic hat (even cooler is that these attacks can change color according to whatever decorative Spray Paint you've used on Kirby. Rumor has it this actually isn't the only Copy Ability to do this...).
In comparison, the design behind the new abilities feels all over the place. Bubble is quite possibly the worst Copy Ability in Kirby history, its only purpose being to reduce enemies into the aforementioned goodie-filled bubbles. Kirby's stomach can only hold five bubbles at a time, so unless you're in the mood to constantly forge pointless combinations, it quickly renders itself useless. Given the wand attached the Copy Ability, it's a wonder why this wasn't an attack-based transformation. Meanwhile, Metal is just a useless version of Stone; despite being mobile, Kirby's slow movement and inability to fly only serve as hindrances. Yes, it's sensible for him to be that way, but it's not fun in the slightest.
Only Animal proves itself within the whole lot. Donning Kirby in some sort of feral werewolf suit has its appeal, especially with how he scampers about like a rabid raccoon (it's almost scary how wild he looks!) and his "scratching behind the ears" idle animation. It helps that it comes with some cool attacks, too, like mid-air claw spinning. Quite helpful for digging through dirt, you understand.
Which brings us to where pretty much everything goes wrong with Squeak Squad: level design. The concepts and ideas for progression could make even Kirby's Dream Land 2's first two worlds blush, as Squeak Squad's level design is a hodgepodge of unfocused material. See, the game brings back the collectible treasure concept from Amazing Mirror, but unlike that ambitious effort though, it's really not all that interesting here, for Squeak Squad makes the mistake of babying its audience right out of the gate. The second and fifth levels in the first world alone are nearly criminal, the former serving as just an obnoxious tutorial level that slaughters the initial pacing, while the fifth one spectacularly fails to build up the King Dedede boss fight by...having you just explore one room of his castle.
Anyone familiar with sidescrolling gaming at all should already gauge the game's quality by that point,, so like Dream Land 2, it's something of a miracle it picks up after that; unfortunately, unlike that game, Squeak Squad's almost always settled within the realm of neutrality. When it's not aping tropes we've seen a dozen times before (you could probably make a sandwich by the time you finish lighting your first cannon fuse), levels are generally uninspired and hardly ever make an effort to distinguish themselves. For every rare stroke of mild creativity (such as a forest maze in Nature Notch), there's a flood of apathy and dull familiarity waiting. Levels simply blend into a generic, homogenized state; it's bizarre how inspired one idea can be and then the next level is just a one-room affair.
It tries to spice things up through constant environmental interaction via the Copy Abilities (such as slicing through tall grass with Sword), but who cares? It's hardly ever used to locate treasures and typically only exists for the sake of existing. It really goes to show how boring the new powers are when the game only bothers to design sequences around Animal, which to its credit does involve some cool digging sequences. But aside from that, the only remotely interesting use is for Spark, which can conduct stray lightning currents on metallic surfaces and sport rides on thunder clouds, forming a plasma shield. Anyone who's played the game should note how involved and fun the latter can be, yet the former has no purpose aside from just killing enemies. It's a cool idea, but why not integrate more into the level design? What a waste!
The titular Squeak Squad pops up at the end of nearly every level to steal giant treasure chests, but alas, these new characters stumble in their introduction. Their sequences are designed as timed events get to or past the Squeaks before they return to their base, but what's the point when you just charge in and take back the treasure? Before, the general ease of Kirby bosses was never a problem, but that works against the game here, resulting in a waste of challenge.
And what a shame it is, too, for some of the original stuff is actually pretty good. The thundering Vocal Volcano is a great example, its percussion-heavy beginning setting the stage for a kickass fire stage...that we never get, of course, and it remains woefully underused. And for all the recycling of familiar tunes, we're treated to this lovely combination of The Legendary Air Machine and the map from Revenge of Meta Knight.
I do wonder about who was responsible for this laziness, but I'm more interested in whoever thought the sound effects for Sword Kirby were okay. See, every time Kirby unleashes his swordplay combos, a nasty "SHING!" erupts at approximately 194 decibels, immediately piercing the eardrums of the unsuspecting player. It's seriously unpleasant, and I was not happy in the least that it was present within a series I've always associated with the softest, nostalgic sound effects. If memory serves, the same was the case for the claw swipes of Animal, too, which may've been why I didn't use it too much.
But I digress. In any case, we have boring new features, messy and incomplete level design, a lazy soundtrack, and one of the worst sound effects known to man. It's the perfect recipe for a bad game, but as hard as I've been on it, I can't quite call it that. As mentioned earlier, if approached as something of an afternoon appetizer, Squeak Squad is still largely functional and playable. Most of the Copy Abilities are still fun to play with, and I can't be too mad at the Kirby that brought back Meta Knight's Halberd, can I?
While Squeak Squad isn't necessarily bad, it's the flawed, mediocre offering of a company that clearly didn't understand the property it was working with, and it shows in every sloppy decision made. Why do I lose the endgame Triple Star weapon if I die against the final boss? Why is the UFO copy ability awarded in a level full of destructible clouds, despite the fact it can't even though its awesome moveset proves it totally should? Why that goddamn sword sound effect?
Thankfully, this would be Flagship's last shot at Kirby, as the Capcom branch dissolved shortly thereafter, ensuring they'd never touch another Kirby game again, leaving HAL Laboratory to get the series back on track.