2005. With the Nintendo DS defying nearly all projected market predictions and giving the Sony PSP a run for its money, no one knew what to expect from the two-screened handheld. Titles such as Nintendo's own WarioWare Inc.: Twisted! and Sega's Feel the Magic proved the unique hardware--complete with touch-screen play--could stand on its own as a genuine system that escaped the boundaries of mere gimmickry. With much-anticipated sequels for fresh IPs (Animal Crossing and Mario & Luigi) to brand new cult favorites (Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney and Jump Super Stars) just over the horizon, it gradually became evident the DS was no Virtual Boy.
But it wasn't until the three versions of nintendogs hit Japan in April (and America in late summer) did the DS become something else entirely. The whole industry was blindsided that a mere pet simulator--a virtually ignored genre in gaming--exploded in sales overnight due to no part of gamers who grew up with Mario and Zelda, but to a brand new audience charmed by touch screen interactions with virtual puppies. Any traces of awkwardness found in the system's two screens went unnoticed by the game's consumers: the expanded market, affectionately dubbed by dedicated gamers as "casuals".
The Gamecube's eventual slide into neglect and complete irrelevancy during this period was perhaps no coincidence. Nintendo's promises of a Revolution transforming the console market captured the entire industry's attention, and the Tokyo Game Show fall reveal of an outlandish motion-sensitive controller--in the shape of a remote, no less--ignited the minds of gamers and developers everywhere. For once, Nintendo skeptics were at a loss: could the company possibly succeed with marketing this offbeat controller? Could the emphasis on motion taint Nintendo's track record for precise controls? Would this foray into the casual market finally restore the Big N to its former glory, or doom them once and for all?
And what was Kirby doing in all this? He was no longer a cartoon star, for starters; the anime had long since ended in Japan, and 4Kids's subpar Right Back At Ya! localization had just about wrapped up. But the pink puffball wasn't done yet. While 2004's Kirby and the Amazing Mirror had been outsourced to Flagship/Dimps, his home company HAL Laboratory was hard at work on their first DS title. Touch! Kirby--localized as Kirby: Canvas Curse or Power Paintbrush in select Western regions--gained immediate attention from the gaming media for the sheer novelty of its stylus-only concept.
Canvas Curse was something of an anomaly for the gaming world; the title was so divorced from typical Kirby gameplay that any investment into the series wasn't required for enjoying the game, undoubtedly proving to Nintendo and HAL the usefulness of the character's malleable nature (see the Wii's Epic Yarn). But most interesting of all was how it grabbed the gaming media's attention: whereas other Kirby games were quickly forgotten upon their typical 7/8 scores, Canvas Curse was championed as the ultimate proof of concept for the DS, vindicating for many the system's ability to craft compelling unique games.
With a sequel finally arriving ten years later on the Wii U, I suppose there's a hint of truth to the game's legacy.
Playing Kirby: Canvas Curse is an exercise in low-key play. It's the rare sort of Kirby game that boots up with no fanfare on its part, asking only for the player to touch the screen before segueing into a menu host to a subdued, vaguely techno version of the Kirby 64 menu theme. It's a song that already expressed an ethereal solemnness in its source game, yet its being compressed further into a realm of moderated mellowness instantly sketches the world of Canvas Curse.
Indeed, Canvas Curse's dive into an unfamiliar atmosphere could be a cause for concern, but the way HAL Labs blends so many aesthetic and sound styles--be they an addictive techno-based soundtrack, the monotone menus contrasted by fancy touch-operated button and wheels, and gorgeous backgrounds ranging from watercolors to abstract scribbles to CGI-infused galaxies of geometry--all masterfully fuse together to not just craft an alluring atmosphere of its own, but one that coolly complements the already-exuberant world of Kirby (actually, since the game takes place in a dimension parallel to Dream Land, it's even more enticing as a mystifying counterpart).
Even the game's mood is just as malleable as the core series. Just take the first level -- the watercolors paint a familiar combination of blue and green, complete with a Vegetable Valley arrangement (one of the peppiest songs in Kirby history). If it wants to be energetic, it can be, just as it can dip quickly into realms of dreamy euphoria or bone-rattling eeriness. But no matter how many times it shifts tones, Canvas Curse never leaves that chill, sedate realm that seduces us so easily.
Because the game is so involved with touch control, we ease along with its calm no matter where it takes us. Even when Canvas Curse raises the stakes via rising lava, laser-filled corridors, or moving screens of death, we're too charmed and invested to be discouraged. In that sense, we can think of Canvas Curse as channeling the stimulating relaxation of 2010's Kirby's Epic Yarn, but as we'll discuss in a moment, it's far more difficult.
As the first experimental Kirby, its success stems from just how dang compelling its gameplay is. The touch-operated controls pervade everything from poking Kirby to dash, drawing rainbow-colored lines via stylus to guide him along, and operating machinery-based obstacles. It's a concept as fascinating as it is mentally demanding -- there's only so much concentrated rainbow to draw for Kirby, and because he spends so much time airborne, it's not uncommon to flail about in mid-air via hastily drawn scribbles, desperately trying to land Kirby on the furthest of ledges or avoiding spiky/bottomless pit doom from below. Knowing how to manage your paint bar will make all the difference in playing Canvas Curse, calling for a level of concentration that's already captivated by the overall aesthetic and concept.
This is just a fancy way of saying "Boy, Canvas Curse can get tough." A good deal more difficult than your average Kirby fare, in fact. And that calls to be celebrated as a triumph: that such a unique concept constantly demands the player's skill and judgment is rather bold for a series that champions beginner players. This is undoubtedly the key to why Canvas Curse was so successful among many non-Kirby fans, as the game provides bountiful content that's guaranteed to keep players challenged as they come back again and again, not the least of which are four unlockable characters (with his low health, the Meta Knight ball is essentially the game's hard mode).
"Bountiful content," of course, also refers to Rainbow Run--an assortment of time trials and challenges--and the mini-games, some of which are the most taxing affairs in all of Kirby. Rainbow Run alone is enough to give enough to give players aneurysms; so tough are its individual challenges that I have no choice but to leave them unnamed, lest their memory come to haunt my dreams once more. And that's a shame, for it's where completionists and players alike will spend most of their time in obtaining medals. They're all well-designed and engaging and fun and all that, just timed enough to drive players insane. Beware of the Special Courses.
I'm also quite fond of the Boss Sub-Games, particularly Block Attack, a Breakout-inspired diversion that stars the cloud bully Kracko. The "paddles" drawn by the player grant this mini-game a flexible, addictive depth that keeps my OCD in check; much as I'd love to demolish every block in Kirby's path, the time limit's urgency prevents that fantasy. That's not always the case, though, as evidenced by my pathetic high scores and that I've yet to clear Level 3. There's just so much of them, darn it! One day I'll figure out the secret to beating it, but for now it cleverly eludes me.
King Dedede's Cart Run is similarly challenging, although I confess to enjoying Paint Panic more as a concept. Drawing familiar Kirby icons within timed "connect-the-dots" sequences is a brilliant idea, but one that's rendered frustrating thanks to a rigid penalty system. Because you have to connect dots in a specific order, Paint Panic is quite unforgiving towards uneven lines, and an itsy-bitsy curve of the finger can dock off points. It's somewhat easier when meticulously dragging the stylus, but that's not an appealing solution when Bombers are ready to cook Kirby. We can chalk this up as one of the many instances where developers were just figuring out what did or didn't work out on the touch screen, but in this case I dearly wish it was fully functional. In any case, we hardly see the accompanying character (Paint Roller) as it is, so I guess I'm willing to forgive all that.
But all this talk of challenge and difficulty begs the question: has Canvas Curse, in its drive for ambitious utilization of the touch screen, forgotten the ultimate Kirby creed of treating beginners like kings? Of course, this is no concern to the aformentioned non-Kirby fans (if anything, I imagine they'd be delighted), but Canvas Curse is unnaturally tough for a mainline entry in the series. Regardless, fret not, for I can't speak highly enough of how HAL translated Kirby's tropes into the game.
Just look at how they've implemented Copy Abilities. All of them pull their weight and thankfully the developers remembered not to overcomplicate their function in a touch-operated game. That they work with or against the Rainbow Lines adds another layer to the gameplay entirely, be it having Needle or Wheel glide along its surface, guiding Missile to its destination, or finally rendering Spark useful within a mobile context as it summons kickass skyward bolts of deadly lightning. How I dearly wish it'd be able to do that again.
By successfully bringing Copy Abilities into the touch-operated fold, other familiar tropes rush in too. For example, those who've played the game may have noted how the iconic star blocks seamlessly integrate themselves into the levels. They can easily be tapped away, but their original purpose remains intact: to provide exhilaration and empowerment by plowing through hordes of 'em with the Copy Abilities, typically with those just newly introduced. While there aren't too many superpowers in Canvas Curse, the game isn't shy about decorating courses with star blocks for Beam, Spark and Wheel to smash through (in the case of the level Contrast Cave, this is actually utilized as progression. Fun times ensue).
While the deviant cousins that followed Canvas Curse--be they your Epic Yarns and Mass Attacks--are harder to peg down as true Kirbys, there's no mistaking the pink ball's touchscreen debut as a genuine foray. Oh yes, there's the absence of Dream Land's cozy landscapes and the familiar sugary atmosphere, but Canvas Curse echoes those setpieces all the while crafting its own unique, abstract feel. And the bridge between the ensuing gap is quite possibly the best part of the whole package: the music.
Helmed by series veterans Jun Ishikawa and Tadashi Ikegami, both composers dive into parts unknown within the Kirby realm: techno music. Not only that, but nearly the entire soundtrack consists of Kirby arrangements. Criticism could be made for the apparent lack of originality, but who cares when it sounds this good? Moreover, who's to say it's deliberately unoriginal? Even when dipped into foreign mellow tones or accompanied by unfamiliar instruments, the music remind yous "Don't fret, this is still Kirby."
This is perceived almost right away in the second level. Accompanied by the above Bubbly Clouds arrangement, while I'm at a loss to the name of the cartoonish artstyle for the level background, any Kirby fan can discern its alien nature. Such is the case for most Canvas Curse backdrops, but as all rules are off within the alternate world context, Bubbly Clouds is our ever-present lifeline within this bizarre new realm. What should be chaotic and off-putting is instead mellow and warmly familiar.
Again, the late-game level Frozen Fantasy presents an unfamiliar aesthetic, although it hits a tad closer to home. Note how the Rainbow Resort arrangement not only steals the show once again, but the way the background prods at the mind. Examples like Tiny Town's futuristic setting are, in fact, a rarity within Canvas Curse, for context and form are abandoned in favor of wondrous abstraction. Frozen Fantasy is barely discernable -- we could assume it's a frozen cave of some sort, but those weird purple branches and what exactly those rock spires (Is it snow? Water?) are protruding from throw a wrench in that. In the midst of it all lies a mysterious staircase, its destination unknown and its exact placement unclear.
On the furthest end of this extreme lies Collapse Castle. A formation of undiscernible constructs and shapes drift about in an orange abyss, accompanied by cloud imprints and a slow, faint recollection of Float Islands. That we're told its a ruined castle already prods at us; when putting the actual level aside, the stunning artwork above presents no relatable match to castles within reality nor fantasy, let alone fits by itself within the context of Kirby (or Nintendo games in general; its closest counterpart is Sector X's ruined space base in Star Fox 64). Considering this, to choose Float Islands as the level's BGM comes across as bizarre given its tropical origins until you remember it was already one of Kirby's more reserved songs. The end result unites two of the unlikeliest concepts into something that miraculously works: a dreary Kirby level with one of the most fascinating level backdrops in series history.
In that sense, Canvas Curse recalls the best sort of Kirby, the kind where we're so stimulated by both action and setting that our minds are enraptured by nostalgia and wonder. Again, that it establishes a reserved tone is a blessing; Canvas Curse operates as a mobile counterpart to show-stopping moments such as Kirby Super Star's save huts and Kirby's Adventure's silent arenas. Those pockets of awe captivated us as windows into the unknown, compelling us to question as we soak into their reverie.
One of my favorite examples is the above "lived-in" detail rarely found within this realm of abstraction. Dreamy Darkness (as well as Ghost Grounds) is decorated with lightened windows and balconies of all sorts within its landscapes, and I can't help but ask "who lives there?" Who would choose to live within Drawcia's artificial paint worlds, particularly in an area populated by ghouls and gravestones of all sorts?
The answer? Probably no one. All of the Paint World's inhabitants are merely replicas of familiar foes intended to halt Kirby's progress, and I imagine Dreamy Darkness's "homes" were designed so as to tickle Drawcia's aesthetic fancy. Such melancholy would suit the emptiness of her realm, and what a shame that'd be given the beauty found within..
Canvas Curse naturally picks up on this melancholy and enforces it on us at the end of every level, via a Jump Game meant to score points and extra lives as Kirby dashes off on Rainbow Line ramps. This is all accompanied by footage on the DS's top screen, depicting a familiar setting in decrepit sepia. It's the Kirby Super Star iteration of Dream Land, with five Kirbys lined up ready to perform the iconic Kirby Dance.
Kirby: Canvas Curse arrived at a time where, against my own will, I began drifting away from the idyllic realm of childhood and into that murky transition into the teenage years. That core of nostalgia and imagination I treasured so much was sapped away in favor of a nebulous purgatory, one that would gradually ebb away to reveal a future of dismal hope. From that perspective, Drawcia's interpretation of Dream Land mirrored my own, and these small glimpses into a bygone era--only three years prior into another life--were all I had to look forward to. Even today, where I'm much healthier and now have something resembling potential, do I grow more than a little sentimental whenever I see this.
For all the praise I've lavished upon it, I have difficulty considering Kirby: Canvas Curse a masterpiece. It has all the makings of one, and comes damn close to achieving that status, but makes the mistake of homogenizing nearly all the levels into just three acts. It makes for speedy pacing well-suited for a handheld, but I can't help but wish for more variety in level length. We witness this in Rift Ruin and maybe another level or two, and I'm certain elongating Frozen Fantasy and Mad Mechanism would ensure their outwearing welcomes, but homogenization in general rubs me the wrong way. I'm also still a bit heartbroken over the potential regarding the Paint Panic mini-game, even if I'm entertained enough by the other two.
Kirby: Canvas Curse is the closest Kirby has ever dipped into dreariness (aside from Brawl's Subspace Emissary escapades, if that counts), and maybe that can't quite match up to the feel-good reverie of Happy Kirby at its finest, but who cares? That it sucessfuly carved out its own niche within the series but also bridged together a product both fans and non-fans could greatly enjoy is something to be applauded, and that alone is why I consider it one of HAL's finest triumphs.
You may've noticed this is a tad more condensed than the other Kirby pieces. As we're launching into a new phase for Leave Luck to Heaven, I'm still juggling what should be appropriate length since I'm aiming for a weekly to biweekly model for reviews now. Let me know what you think!