In the latest Kirby game, Planet Robobot, our pink puffball hero awakes to find that robots have begun to mechanize his planet. The trees are embedded in glass light-bulb cases. The cars along Resolution Road have become anthropomorphized, and glare at Kirby as he dashes by. Giant neon signs point to a casino, and the commercialized output of the Haltmann Works Company is most apparent when facing off against a giant droid that blurs the player’s vision by throwing wads of sticky bills into the screen of the Nintendo 3DS. Everything old is new again, from the techno remixes of classic chiptunes from the NES days to the way in which Kirby faces once familiar foes, like the giant tree Clanky Woods (now boasting a cybernetic facelift and an arsenal of missiles), a series of holographic renderings of the electric cloud Kracko, and an evil, poisonous clone of the obese eagle King Dedede.
For the first three hours, the game dumps no fewer than 25 different absorbable powers on players—straightforward Fire, Beam, and Arrow styles, but also the more complicated Circus mode, which conjures up everything from trampoline-assisted high-jumps to a flame-juggling attack, and one-off attacks like the supernova Crash. Kirby’s a one-man nostalgia trip through the Nintendo catalogue, from his Link-looking Sword form to his turns at playing Doctor (Mario) or hovering through levels in ESP mode, that distinct backward baseball cap from Earthbound proudly on display.
Mixing things up even further, Kirby can mount the abandoned Robobot Armor in some levels, which produces further variations to 10 of those powers (now called “modes”). The most mundane of these is the twin-sawblade-launching Cutter, and the most radical completely change the mechanics of the game, with Wheel transforming Kirby into a car that can shunt between the foreground and background environments and Jet allowing Kirby to fly as if transported into a horizontal shoot-’em-up.
All of these technological twists on the familiar Kirby formula help to keep things fresh. There are even bonus features, like a top-down arcade puzzler called “Kirby 3D Rumble” and a light action-RPG called “Team Kirby Clash” that takes its combat cues from the Tales franchise. But like many new, overly designed gadgets, Planet Robobot leans heavily on style over substance. All those flashy extras are relatively empty in design. The post-game time trial in which players control Kirby’s erstwhile rival, Meta Knight, feels like a recycled holdover from previous entries in the franchise; a boss-rush Arena mode serves only to demonstrate how scripted and, well, robotic those encounters really were, now that players are accustomed to each.
Even Planet Robobot itself simply can’t keep up its early, inventive pace. By the fifth of the six main zones, the game begins to turn away from the clever environmental puzzles that require Kirby to master each copy ability (using the Mecha-Parasol to clear away toxic smog, or a series of fans to maneuver a Poison cloud toward an out-of-reach switch), becoming a dull gauntlet of repetitive mini-bosses. There’s a second Casino level, another Jet transformation. It’s clear that the designers burned out at some point. How else to explain the one 30-second encounter in which gyroscopic controls are briefly toyed with? By game’s end, the thread is lost entirely, with a final boss encounter that plays more like a half-assed Star Fox knock-off.
Kirby games are supposed to be the bizarre stuff of dreams, such as when Kirby uses Ice powers to keep an ice-cream snowman from melting, or uses the Mecha-Mike mode to rudely wake the giant sleeping tortoises that are inexplicably blocking the city roads. When Planet Robobot merely imitates other games, it’s basically coding its own self-obsolescence.