It seems unlikely that Nintendo would celebrate the Nintendo DS’ seventh year with a game about gang violence starring a pink blob, and yet here’s Kirby Mass Attack. The odds were certainly stacked against it. It’s a game released for hardware living out its final days in shovelware hospice, the latest entry in a series that has been known for simple quality but milquetoast challenge, and it relies completely on touchscreen controls that are archaic compared to those of the average mobile phone. So it’s surprising that Mass Attack isn’t merely one of the best DS games released this year, or the best game to star Kirby in longer, but arguably the finest creative work from HAL Laboratory since Super Smash Bros. Melee.
One day Kirby is hanging out, minding his business in Dream Land, when a skull wizard shows up and starts causing a ruckus. Unprovoked, the skull wizard splits Kirby into 10 Kirbys, while his heart takes the form of a star. You then control the star, which Kirby follows in his quest to prevent Dream Land from being covered in darkness.
The setup isn’t that bizarre for this series. (Kirby games are known for hallucinatory scenarios. Read: “Try to eat eggs, not bombs!”) The gameplay itself is unusual, though. At first, there is only one Kirby to lead around two-dimensional stages. Point at a spot on the right side of the screen, and Kirby will walk toward it; place the star on him, and you can pick him up and draw a path in the air for him to follow, Canvas Curse-style. Kirby can be flicked about to knock over obstacles, move a block, or mercilessly beat a sentient cactus until it breaks in half. Collecting 100 pieces of fruit will resurrect one of the other 10 Kirbys, eventually giving you control of an unruly, cuddly mob.
At first, Mass Attack seems like a simple game of left-to-right, but the sheer variety and quantity of tasks thrown into the game is shocking. One moment, you’re loading your murder of Kirbys into a giant slingshot; the next, you’re shooting them into the sky to pull bad guys down on a headphone-wearing turtle tank in the desert. The stages themselves are long but require multiple playthroughs to find collectible coins, which in turn unlock a selection of surprisingly fun mini-games. Among them is a sequel to Gameboy’s Kirby’s Pinball Land, and even a basic turn-based RPG fighter. All of it is sharply animated, pristinely soundtracked, and often very funny.
The only hang-up is the sometimes-frustrating imprecision inherent in all touch-controlled games. At times, the Kirbys simply don’t follow the path intended for them, and frustrating deaths result. It’s a minor gripe outweighed by many merits, though. This is delicious game design, and a fitting sendoff for a device that forced game-makers to think in unusual ways.