Mario is a flexible character. Running, jumping, fighting, racing, athletics, baseball, tennis, football, basketball, party games; he’s a veritable decathlete, but at times I feel he’s phoning it in. Stuck in the titular role and never able to stray too far from his comfort zone, he’s a definite safe, if unexciting, bet.
And then we have Kirby, a veritable chameleon of a mascot; albeit a decidedly pink chameleon. His gameography is a smorgasbord of variety; from his classic platforming days of Dream Land through to his Line Rider-esque Canvas Curse, our bloated little friend has been anything but pigeon-holed. He’s branched out and experimented with the possibilities of the touch screen, tried his hand as a golf ball, and even spent a whole year pretending to be a ball of yarn, all because he’s free of the burden and pressure that comes with being a Mario.
Mass Attack again sees Kirby trying something new. Although this time he’s gone to pieces. Literally.
An evil power has invaded the Popopo Islands and is spreading across the land. Its leader, Necrodeus, catches Kirby unawares and splits him into ten, each copy having only a fraction of our hero’s greatness. Besting nine, Necrodeus turns his attention on the only one standing between him and control of the islands. Thankfully, jumping on a passing star, Kirby escapes, regroups, and thus prepares to take back the land from the dark invaders.
He’s nothing if not hardy, and we take control of the lone Kirby bumbling his way through green fields at the start of his travels. Control is solely handled by the stylus. Tap it to the screen and he’ll follow its point, the level scrolling as you reach the screen’s edge. Similarly, flick your stylus across Kirby’s path and he’ll leap as though a pink projectile in the same direction. It’s a neat, simple system, minimising the need to obscure the action and easily capable of allowing you and Kirby to set off on a platforming adventure.
Inevitably along the way there are friends of Necrodus who wish to interrupt the ramble and, as adorable as they may be, it’s kill or be killed. Unlike more traditional platformers though, there’s no need to jump on anyone’s head here. Tap on an enemy and Kirby will head straight for them, fists flailing, as though he’s learned this particular form of martial arts from watching my wife play Wii Boxing.
Being but a fraction of his former self however, the monster will soon shake him off. From Kirby’s point of view, this is rather embarrassing. It’s like a former England international insisting to play on in the Conference, and to this end he does what a Kirby does best to right this indignity: eat. Scoff enough of the fruit lying about the world or dropped by defeated foes and you will soon summon another Kirby, both of whom can be thrown about and sent into battle. Continue filling their pink bellies and another and another will appear until eventually you have all ten Kirbys fighting for your attention.
Having ten run and bump into each other as you direct them across the screen is utterly charming. They won’t all space out and walk like ducklings following their mother, these fellows feel like young siblings squabbling to get the best of their brethren. They’ll clump on top of each other, all jostling for position, and then, when called into action, bravely dash forward with the same mob mentality, fighting to be first into the brawl.
Unsurprisingly, such fights become much easier once the squad size has risen. Small critters crumble under the flurry of blows, and only the much larger creatures will ever brush off your first wave of attack. To such an end, most enemies you meet prove no bother, simply an excuse to see your decakirbhedron break out into the animation where they look all flustered and furious.
Where the challenge lies is in leaving an enemy alone for too long. Some might just try and punch you quite hard, but others will fire electric bolts, encase you in purple jars or even try and carry you away. Very rarely does a creature out-and-out kill you, instead they aim to impede, or sneak one of you merry band away. It’s a very forgiving experience. Even if a Kirby is terminally injured – having already turned a sorry looking blue to warn you of his fragile state – that’s not the end. They will rise angel-like towards the heavens and should one of the surviving Kirbys grab them before they disappear, then they’re back in the fight. This is a game where everything possible is done to keep you in the fight and keep frustrations to an absolute minimum.
As such, the only real test of mettle comes with frequent boss battles that mark the end of each of the world’s areas. From boulder-spitting pigs that live in volcanoes to piranha plants determined to shake you off of a giant see-saw, there’s a diversity in both boss and battle that can make you eager to see just what pickle you’re going to be dropped into next. Between balancing on a constantly toppling tower, to counter-weighting an evil’s clock’s dials, so many try and bring out different the facets of controlling a herd it only occasionally feels repeated. Admittedly, very little cannot be achieve by hurling Kirby after Kirby at the problem, but it’s all about finding that opening.
Although they start out relatively straight, the levels also start adding in bags of variation. Early stages will deem it enough that you know how to run and jump and simply find the exit, but as you progress through deserts and forests then a series of secret passages, timed gates and alternate routes will see your pace slow as you look to unlock hidden treasures. The platforming itself is not difficult and precision is not a factor so these and other distractions unique to each world help keep Kirby’s adventures fresh.
On one hand these diversions are as simple as a fresh set of enemies with as yet unseen powers, but every now and again something truly special will crop up. There’s nothing like popping through a door and finding that on the other side is a tank that you cannot only pilot but fire Kirbys out of the barrel. Or maybe a giant game of pinball where, once again, our pink friend plays the role of the ball. These oddities are delightful and make you wonder whether you’ve accidentally gone into the Extras menu, which itself is home to a handful of mini-games that are of a surprising quality given their status.
In fact, Mass Attack seems nothing but a large collection of deviations, content never to leave you alone for too long a period without changing it all up again. The first portion of the game lulls players into a false sense of security, bedding them down that they’re about to embark on a relatively straight forward platformer before slowly releasing the trickle of distractions. The sheer breadth of the variety goes a long way in masking the lack of challenge, but at times you do feel as though certain sections are but window dressing to cover some of the basic shortcomings.
Therefore the latest Kirby continues to mark him as somewhat of a risk taker, striking out and doing a lot of different and unique things. Most are successful, but every adventure falls just short in carrying a consistent quality. And that definitely something that could be learnt from his moustachioed comrade: he may be safe, but he’s nothing if not consistent.