Kirby Mass Attack is likely to be the last major game for the Nintendo DS, my favorite platform of this console generation simply because it’s the one that’s given me the most hours of happiness. It eschews many of the DS-specific controls that have made the system such a constant source of surprises; in fact, there’s little about the game that couldn’t have been done on the good old Gameboy SP. But when Nintendo is at their best, they remind me that innovation is just a delivery system for delight. And Kirby Mass Attack, developed by Nintendo’s in-house all-stars, HAL Laboratory (makers of Kirby Canvas Curse, the game that first convinced me to buy a DS), is emphatically Nintendo at their best: accessible, fun, and plump with joy.
The game’s biggest addition from previous titles is the multi-Kirby system (that’s the “mass” that’s attacking). Reasonably skillful gameplay will quickly put you in control of a whole mess o’ Kirbys, hopping over hill and dale to confront both standard platformer challenges and obstacles that can only be bypassed by a sufficiently big Kirby troop.
Group dynamics have always been difficult for game developers; it’s tough to give a player the level of precise control they’re used to having over a character when a whole group is being manipulated, and many an RTS has smashed against the rock of weak pathfinding. Kirby Mass Attack solves this problem by circumventing it; instead of making your controls precise, it makes the lack of precision not a big deal. Levels are designed with laid-back generosity; you’ll have to think fast to get past some of the challenges, but never too terribly fast.
The Kirby games have never been the most difficult of platformers, and Kirby Mass Attack’s touch-screen controls further simplify things by removing the need for precision jump timing. There’s still challenging parts, but the generous knock-out system, which lets you resurrect fallen Kirbys with quick screen-taps, reinforces the feeling that this is a game that wants to be your pal, not your enemy, delivering the pure pleasure of advancement little leavened with frustration. Even the completist-oriented coin hunts are relatively straightforward, the better to enjoy the simple mini-games that the coins can open.
Kirby Mass Attack drops the ingest-to-transform mechanic that’s defined previous Kirby games; in fact, there’s no additional powers at all, just multiplication of the basic pink puffball. What’s preserved from past Kirby games is the simple delight of exploration. Each level has unique challenges, including standard Nintendo platformer enemy-dodging (on land, under water, and in the air!) and more unique challenges like struggles against the physics of a collapsing tree and a delightfully abrupt shift into a pinball game. Every level has a charming surprise, and it’s all wrapped up in the cuddly visuals and chirpy music that Kirby games have always excelled at.
Though Nintendo has a well-cultivated reputation for their family-friendliness, they’re no strangers to perversity, and releasing such a perfect showcase for their talents on a dying platform surely qualifies as perverse. Kirby Mass Attack doesn’t answer the basic challenge of the iPhone: It’s still a full-price title for a specialized system in a gaming world that’s moving towards $1 games on general-purpose appliances. But it does remind me of exactly what would be lost if Nintendo disappeared from the gaming landscape: a conviction that games should make you smile.
There’s something terribly sad about people “relaxing” with a hobby that often makes us stressed and angry; look at the face of a player deep in an online death match and ask yourself if that looks like someone having a good time. Kirby Mass Attack is one of Nintendo’s best arguments in a while for the proposition that your hobby should make you happy, and the best way to make you happy is to treat you nicely. Kudos to a game that makes me want to play it, not in the hopes of proving my worth to a mean-spirited programmer, but because it’s an activity I can genuinely enjoy.