Having played virtually every Kirby game since the N64, I was readying myself up to blow the doors open with a very critical take on the new Kirby game. I had felt that Kirby: Star Allies for the Switch had so much potential to be the most creative game in the recent string of kinda same-y games in the Kirby series, including Return to Dreamland, Triple Deluxe, Planet Robobot, and of course the Switch release. When it failed in a lot of ways, I kinda responded with, “Huh, that’s all?” So much so, I started to question why I liked this series so much growing up.
Kirby has been with me for as long as I can remember. Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards for the Nintendo 64, is some of my favorite games of all time. It’s part of my gaming blood, and my developmental years. Seeing the series lately leaves me craving so much more from developer HAL Laboratories. That’s not to say the recent games are bad, instead they feel manufactured compared to the genuine-comfort games of the past. I realize now that an article about the disappointments of Star Allies would be sad an obnoxious. In an attempt to be more positive, here’s a meticulous comparison of Kirby 64 and Star Allies.
Right off the bat, I suspect a lot of newer Kirby fans are skeptical of The Crystal Shards. The controls, art direction, and limited scope at first glance can be off putting. With or without the expansion pack, Kirby 64 looks captivating in a 1920's way: like starting something exciting. Abstract geometric structures, bright colors, and a polygonal look define Kirby 64 and its era. Expanses of popping visuals feel anywhere between thought provoking, nostalgic, and sweet. By contrast, Star Allies’ visuals, while beautiful, seem too polished and not experimental enough, making it predictable. We’ve seen looks like this in previous games, more so in the previous three main series games that came before it.
The 5th Generation of consoles spawned many games that play with camera angles, like Klonoa and Nights into Dreams on the Playstation and Saturn; Kirby follows suit. In many of the newer titles in the series, the camera seldom changes, transforms, or displaces itself from the track that it’s on. Much like an amateur film, stagnant camera work flattens any otherwise competent production. In every stage in Kirby 64, the designers wanted to remind you this is a 2.5D game. The camera will often pivot, zoom, swivel, and move in ways that feels like there is no way the camera is on a straight path the whole time. Sometimes, the level designs itself in a circular way, allowing you to see parts of the level in the background of foreground.
Clocking in at 22 levels and a sub 5-hour story mode, Kirby 64 is short even by modern Kirby standards. Star Allies is longer, but still within the range where certain gamers may feel disappointed by its campaign length for $60 release. It’ll take longer than 5 hours for sure, but a 12 hour playtime would be pretty generous. Separated from the initial MSRP, Kirby 64’s length adds to it’s memorability and replay value. A replay is appealing because the game is a fast, fun way to enjoy an afternoon or evening. In an age of monstrous RPGs and limitless exploration, a shorter title is a palette cleanser.
Regardless of their length, platforming games like Kirby should thrive off flavorful environments. Kirby 64’s levels look completely different from one another, offering a new visual treat each time. If not, the art direction and camera work can back it up too. A desert stage, for example, also features an alien spaceship, departing from the usual round of desert combing in platformers. Star Allies not only reuses many assets and aesthetics, but all the bonus levels are different layouts for past stages. Visual diversity varies in importance across genres, but platformers bring out the best in clever art directors.
Today, Kirby titles pride themselves for having myriad copy abilities at his disposal. As early as Super Star on the SNES, Kirby finds a truckload of new abilities as well as an expanded movepool. Kirby 64 has a much smaller pool of abilities, and even lack the Smash Brothers-esque fighting controls of Super Star, but the former comes out swinging with a killer feature. Combination Abilities breathe new life into the predictable nature of copy abilities. Combining two abilities of seven allow for creative additions like Refrigerator, Fireworks, Lightsaber forms.
Kirby, despite his limited moveset in Crystal Shards, still has tricks up his sleeve. He can still slide, as well as jump under enemies to deal damage to them (what?). Interestingly, Kirby can now hold and throw objects too. Mundane, but makes for an underutilized mechanic that shows HAL’s attention to detail. Unlike in Star Allies where Kirby can’t befriend powerless enemies, Kirby can hold his foes and use them in clever ways. For instance, Bronto Burt will cause Kirby to spring upward for a brief spell, the rock enemies can be thrown far distances with its segmented body, holding a fish will make Kirby swim straight. It’s a neat feature to play with, despite its trivial nature.
Replaying through my favorite game in the series is reminding me that certain things are hard to replace in your heart. Star Allies upholds the fan held tradition of the majority of games in the series are great. For better or worse, good and boring can co-exist. I still want HAL Labs to experiment more with Kirby, in the form of looking at other game genres.
HAL is catering to fans by including lore, continuity and fanservice in the recent games. I don't mind, but I am curious what a Kirby RPG would look like given this trend. A new platformer would be cool too, if and only if they manage to surprise me from the very beginning. It is more and more evident to me that risk taking will always be apart of creative things, and games are the same way. Hopefully there will be someone there to appreciate those risk. A return to form is as simple as turning back, not staying the same.