Oh, Kirby, you blowhard...
This review, penned by Philip J Reed â our much-missed friend and Nintendo Life contributor â was originally published in January 2012. We're updating and republishing it to mark the game's arrival in the Nintendo Switch Online + Expansion Pack GBA library.
We have to hand this much to : it certainly isn't afraid of trying new things. We might not be totally convinced of the necessity of those things, of course, but it's always nice to see a series attempt to expand its boundaries somewhat.
The story forges no new ground whatsoever, though, as it's based on the standard light world/dark world dynamic that we've seen in so many of Nintendo's flagship franchises by this point that it's practically a sub-genre. Kirby's mission is to collect the shards of a magical mirror that will allow him to seal off the dark world for good, and let Dream Land get back to... whatever it is Dream Land does when it's not under attack by something.
When you start playing, you'll feel as though you're in familiar territory: cute visuals, bouncy tunes, and some pretty standard platforming abound. Once you progress a little further, however, you'll realise that this isn't your standard, level-based Kirby adventure. Multiple exits adorn nearly every room, and if you find a map you can open it up and see just how convoluted the path ahead really is.
You see, within a single level you'll fight several bosses and reach multiple goal rooms, but that doesn't mean your work in that level is done. It's up to you to scour every corner and unlock every secret, both of which will require much backtracking and pathfinding, giving this Kirby game a peculiar Metroid-like vibe.
This idea is appealing: Dream Land is quirky and varied enough that a looser allowance for exploration should be a good thing. In practice, though, it becomes irritating: rooms start to look the same before very long, and for most of the game you can only access certain levels through particular rooms in other levels. If you want to return somewhere to uncover a secret you couldn't find before, you're likely to find yourself trying every possible path until you stumble upon the right one.
The map, once you learn to read it as an abstract, is certainly helpful, but you'll need a different map for each level. The hidden exits and alternate paths should liven up the experience somewhat, but, in actuality, it just manages to hide simple tasks behind tedious backtracking.
Kirby's abilities shouldn't surprise anybody who's played a Kirby game before: he can fly, swim, inhale enemies, and steal powers. So far, so familiar. The controls feel a mite sluggish in their responsiveness, which really becomes a problem during boss fights and other fast-paced situations. There's a slight delay between input and execution, and once that leads to a few cheap deaths you'll come to regard it as a serious flaw.
Unfortunately, that's not the worst of the problems with Kirby & The Amazing Mirror. One conceit is that Kirby has been split into four entities of different colours, and let's just say that the traditional pink Kirby must have all the brains. The other three Kirbys chaotically bound about, far more irritating than they are helpful. You can't control them, so you just need to let them dominate the screen with their antics as they steal powers you wanted, get in your way, and even budge you into enemies and hazards.
Ostensibly, these additional three Kirbys are here to help, but good luck with that. Their AI is an embarrassment, and it's a particular problem when you need one of them to trigger a switch, or a bomb block, or â heaven forbid â help you move something heavy by inhaling it with you. These three Kirbys do not stop moving long enough to realise you need their help, and their inclusion â and necessity â in this game drags the experience down severely. When playing multiplayer, however, each player gets to control a Kirby, and all of you work together or go off your own way and do whatever you want, even being able to go to completely opposite ends of the game world. With other people, it suddenly makes more sense (and, thankfully, the Nintendo Switch Online version enables you to play with others locally or over the internet).
It was a bizarre enough decision to give Kirby a cellphone in this game (yes, really), and the fact that he uses it to summon these rampaging nincompoops just adds insult to injury. The fact that the cellphone also has a function that causes you to exit the stage immediately makes things even worse: press the wrong button in the heat of the moment and you're back to the start. The third or fourth time this happens, you might start to wonder why you're bothering. We sure did.
The game's not without its charms, though: the presentation is typically strong, with brilliant visuals and music as always. In fact, playing in short bursts can be quite fun: the classic Kirby actions of inhaling enemies and whooping them with their own weapons are as great here as they ever were. Unfortunately, the game isn't really structured for short play sessions, what with its maze-like design and long-term goals rather than short, stage-based missions. There are a few minigames available to play which aren't much fun solo but were largely intended for multiplayer and definitely work better with friends.
The main appeal of the game is meant to be the exploration, and for many it will be. For us, though, the exploration doesn't feel particularly rewarding, the constant backtracking is unintuitive and dull, and your required companions are a group of hyperactive imbeciles. Fortunately, HAL would eventually get multiple-Kirby gameplay right in Kirby Mass Attack. This time around, though, consider it one big, well-intentioned misstep.
Kirby & The Amazing Mirror tries to introduce a lot of new things to the series, and because of that it was destined from the start to be a divisive title. Ultimately, though, we feel that the innovations here just aren't particularly fun â certainly not for solo players. Sluggish controls and abysmal AI for your required companions sour the experience, and exploration quickly becomes more of a chore than a reward. Kirby's had his share of ups and downs, certainly, but this is not the game we want to remember him by.