2011, where--No. NO. NOOOOOOOO. Oh, real funny NOA; way to build me up and knock me down with a dreadful one-two Angry Kirby combo. I mean, good god, this is easily the worst offender yet; just look at Kirby's uncharacteristic expression. I'd say this is one of this rare instances where the Japanese cover probably wouldn't gel with Western shelves, yet Europe seemed to deal just fine with it. Granted, they also got Freshly Picked Tingle's Rosy Rupeeland, so I suppose us Yanks have to deal with our violence-appealing culture and Kirby's attempts at the DreamWorks eyebrow.
But I digress. Anyway, 2011 brought the first of many problems that would plague Nintendo over the next half-decade: how to properly promote their new hardware. In this instance, the 3DS's March release was diluted by the annual iterations of the DS and DSi; unfortunately, this meant consumers couldn't tell it was actually a brand new console (that, and why would parents buy a new handheld when their kids received a DSi XL the previous Christmas?). Combined with how it was clearly rushed for launch--mainly with the weak launch line-up alongside the unavailability of the eShop--and the impending threat of mobile gaming, it was a rough start for the successor of the world's greatest-selling handheld.
Cue the following summer, which brought more confusing announcements in the form of Wii U and what is perhaps the quickest turnaround apology in video game history. Apologizing profusely for the 3DS's slow sales, president Satoru Iwata announced a price-cut that would not only halve his salary, but would offer twenty free downloadable games from NES and GBA libraries for those who had already bought the handheld. Alas, it would prove not to be the last of Iwata's miscalculations, and one thing was coming clear: Nintendo's dominance over the casual market was starting to wane.
Let it be known that while 3DS is undoubtedly yours truly's favorite handheld console of all time, the DS was in no rush to be replaced in early 2011. Pokémon Black and White was released just before the successor's release in all territories, and our favorite pink puffball wasn't ready to make the jump, either. The DS had served him quite well, and while HAL suggested otherwise, perhaps he felt it owed the handheld one last hurrah.
The ensuing title, Kirby Mass Attack, is something of an anomaly. It was the first mainline Kirby game to completely abandon the series' trademark Copy Ability in favor of an entirely new mechanic, one that transforms the game into something hardly resembling Kirby at all. We can trace elements of more offbeat entries like Epic Yarn and Canvas Curse back to the source material, but Mass Attack operates on a completely different scale barring its 2D gameplay. This, along with how more eyes were on Wii's Kirby's Return to Dream Land--which would release only a month later in most territories--led to Mass Attack having a muted launch...or did it?
Needless to say, it's an innately adorable concept that gels perfectly with the cuddly-cute image of Kirby. The enigma of Kirby's sweetness cancelling out its basely horrifying concept--a pink blob swallowing everything in sight--is channeled properly here, as the ten Kirbys rampage about in their efforts to put themselves back together. Its execution brims with ideas, hardly any of them having much to do with Kirby's original concepts. Mechanics like the Copy Ability and Kirby's infinite floatiness were designed primarily to help anyone reach the goal, and with those stripped away, there's no crutch for beginners to rely on. It takes raw skill to overcome its trials.
The implications are clear in that Kirby Mass Attack is the hardest game in series history. We've had rough patches in outliers like Kirby's Dream Land 2, but none have demanded such constant focus and demand as managing up to ten separate Kirbys at once. Even the generous compensations it makes for the series' intended audience aren't easy hurdles; for instance, take the way it handles damage/revival. Each Kirby can take two hits before it floats up to the afterlife, but a carefully-aimed Kirby fling via touch screen will send the soul crashing down to earth fully revived.
A fair enough trade, but not one that's guaranteed. As the game progresses, the Kirbys will be inundated with projectiles, enemy hordes and moving screens of death to the extent where it's nearly impossible to multitask. That's not a mark on the game; after all, it's the only way the game can raise the stakes. Mass Attack is not overtly difficult by itself, but I can certainly imagine a child struggling with the concept far more than the likes of Kirby's Adventure or Kirby's Epic Yarn, and it's in an entirely different league should you aim for 100% completion. This should go against the very grain of the series--and as explained with the difficulty, it does--but it's actually quite fascinating to witness how far HAL's willing to stretch the series' goals and conventions via such an oddball concept.
Let us not mince words: much like the days of Shinichi Shimomura, Mass Attack is a B-Team effort made by HAL's B-Team. Unlike Mr. Shimomura's works, however, I struggle in pinpointing any specific design flaws in Mass Attack. I mean, I guess I could, but most of its drawbacks result from the more overt shortcomings of its producers than anything else. I say this with no offense whatsoever; I'm more than willing to be lenient with an experimental Kirby (I mean, it's hardly the first), and that I cannot pick apart specific flaws as a functioning game speaks to Mass Attack's quality.
Really, I guess what I'm trying to say is...well, let's just start with the gameplay. Naturally, the first question that arises from such a concept is that "Is it hard to control?". Not at all, and considering the disorderly Kirby horde I'm actually surprised the touch controls register so smoothly. Most, if not all, of the Kirbys were felled due to my error as a player, not from any misguided controls or slacking AI. They quickly react to the stylus and loyally follow the star wherever it goes.
That, and it's great fun. Copy Abilities may be sitting out again, but who cares when you have an army of Kirbys ready to swarm and piledrive everything in sight? Be it meticulously aiming for airborne enemies or simply swarming helpless Beanbons, Mass Attack operates with such vigorous, calculated chaos that could very well be the side-scrolling lovechild of Kirby and Pikmin. (In fact, I'd even say for fans of the latter like me, it leaves us wondering how a 2D Pikmin would operate...)
Adjectives like "meticulous" are interesting here since they provide such an intriguing contrast to Kirby's core. Make no mistake: this is just as much of a sugar-rush as the rest of the series, but that it's underscored by constant micromanagement provides not just a gripping challenge, but a different level of engagement we've never seen before from Kirby. For instance, levels are gated according to the number of Kirbys you possess, so letting KO'd Kirbys go or passing by food is not an option.
Furthermore, the concept demands objective-based level design, and Mass Attack delivers. As mentioned previously, where Mass Attack does succeed is its progressive ascension. Simply observe how the game is bookended: the opening levels have the Kirbys working together to pull out giant radishes to scrambling around an alien spaceship for blueprints of their extraterrestrial vehicle by the game's end. The latter concept is particularly inspired by how open-ended it is: you don't have to get all the blueprints if you don't want to, but you'll hardly have enough manpower for the inspired shoot-em'-up section at the end (not to mention your chances for earning medals).
It's not that the instances of semi-regular sidescrolling greatly pale in comparison or anything, but the problem is that there's an awful lot of it. Levels tend to go on far longer than they should, and unless they break convention like the aforementioned UFO level, the game gets a little long in the tooth. This is especially troubling considering Mass Attack's abnormally large level-to-world ratio: each typically features 11 stages, and with only four worlds to venture--with a final one that's essentially a boss rush--the presentation of a confined, yet bloated context paves the way for some troubling flaws.
As already mentioned, the game does succeed in building upon ideas as it goes: Dedede Resort is a boon of mini-games and some great ice-related levels, and I dare not spoil the rest of Volcano Valley's surprises. No, Mass Attack's issues lie in how they're all framed. The "B-team" qualities are never stronger than they are in the accompanying visuals and sound, which rank among the lowest in the Kirby canon. They're hardly enough to cripple the game on its own terms, mind, but that they're this forgettable is a betrayal to the game's wondrous concept.
Case in point: the backgrounds. It's worth reminding 2D Kirby games have blended sprites and CGI in their backgrounds for a decade prior to Mass Attack. Here, the entirety of Mass Attack is sprite-based, with not a speck of pre-rendered models to be found. I can only imagine this was done in regards to the game's overabundance of sprites, hence the relative lack of detail.
About the only inspired setpieces lie in the Dedede Resort, home to fun imagery consisting of pineapple islands and puzzle-piece domes. Not pictured are the Dedede-shaped funhouses, which always delight in their signalling of an upcoming mini-game (and further displaying the narcissistic ego of everyone's favorite royal penguin).
I must also call attention to the world map, which has never made an ounce of sense to me. For the uninitiated, Pop Star is supposed to be yellow, as stars typically are in children's properties; here, it's blue. I can only assume they're emphasizing the ocean surrounding the Popopo Islands, but it's rendered all the more bizarre since you witness Pop Star in all its yellow brightness during the ending.
For the record, I can't say I attribute Mass Attack's aesthetic issues entirely within its sprite-based confines; after all, the sprite animation works just fine (just watch the idle Kirbys!) with plush characters that easily fit within the world of Kirby. It's really more the art style that disappoints, as its limited detail cannot pick up the slack of the low world count. The game tries to subvert this by cramming numerous environmental tropes within each one, but even the likes of haunted graveyards and icy caverns beg the question if they didn't deserve worlds of their own.
Then there's the matter of music, which does break my heat a little. Look, let's be absolutely reasonable here: Shogo Sakai is not, in any way, a B-level composer, as attested by his work on Mother 3 (his masterpiece), Kirby Air Ride and the Smash Bros. series. Unfortunately, his first solitary Kirby work in Mass Attack is up there with his Squeak Squad collaboration as the weakest of his Nintendo output. While thankfully there's not a trace of GBA recycling to be found, the soundtrack's something of a mystifying mixed bag.
Which is all the more disappointing when considering how the game's main themes initially promise great things. Kirby Collecting is a joyously bombastic mix of percussion and vocals that greets the player at the title screen, instantly guaranteeing earworm hell over the ensuing week. The in-game variation, Meadow Breeze, carries the title's momentum with a lighter tone, as banjos and accordions come together to encapsulate the game's active energy.
An energy that, sadly, isn't consistently carried throughout the soundtrack. It's not so much terrible as it is forgettable; so forgettable, in fact, I struggle in highlighting any one weak track over the rest (and I have the game's Sound Player right in front of me!). It comes across as Sakai recognizing the concept calls for overtly-peppy, vigorous tracks that rouse the player into action, but fears of treading too much on that line in the event of carbo-loaded burnout.
This isn't to say there aren't such tracks in Mass Attack's repertoire, and as expected, they're the soundtrack's standouts. There are excellent Kirby Air Ride cameos, for one, but we must not lose focus of what's actually new. Snowy Zone and Ruins Ahead, the former as featured above, are genuinely spirited representations of their respective environments, and Fetching Fruit is undeniably the driving force of what makes its respective sections so fun.
The problem here lies in balance. Such fun bombast is far too few and between, and when that a) directly correlates with the theme behind the game and b) is drowned by tracks that don't stir much emotion at all (let alone evocative of Kirby), that's something of a shame.
But let us not be too harsh on Mass Attack. Any failures in visuals or sound cannot override its solid foundation in gameplay, and I ultimately forgive its missteps thanks to its one upholding of a certain Kirby creed: it remembers that Kirby games must be stuffed full of content; specifically, the mini-games. Mass Attack presents no less than six of the little buggers, and even then I pause at labeling them all as "little".
To the point, the volume of function and eye candy found in the likes of Kirby Brawlball (Kirby's second take at a pinball venture), Strato Patrol EOS (a multi-pronged shoot-em'-up) and Kirby Quest (a pseudo-RPG filled to the brim with fanservice) are particularly impressive. Much like how Kirby Triple Deluxe's sub-games would go on to be eShop purchases, it's very easy to see these three games polished up for digital release, and that's not even getting into how the latter two expertly weave the main game's ten Kirbys mechanic into their own domain.
This is not to sweep the other three mini-games under the rug; as a matter of fact, I appreciate Kirby Curtain Call's hilarious efforts to screw over the player (think about it: why does it have peaches mingling with the crowd?) as well as Field Frenzy's difficulty options offering a compelling crutch for its simple concept. It's an incredibly well-rounded selection of extras, enough to possibly render it the strongest mini-game collection in Kirby history.