Ranking the top-101 Nintendo games: No. 99, Kirby Mass Attack

Why have one normal-sized and very cute Kirby when you can have 10 of the little pink puffballs ahhhhh so adorable... ahem

I’m ranking the top-101 Nintendo developed/published games of all-time, and you can read about the thought process behind game eligibility and list construction here. You can keep up with the rankings so far through this link.

HAL Laboratory’s Kirby has, nearly from the beginning, been a series centered around experimentation. Even the more straightforward Kirby titles tend to have some kind of hook that differentiates them from their predecessors. Those hooks have varying levels of success to them — Kirby in a mech was pretty cool, for instance, but was comparatively forgettable gameplay-wise next to Kirby not having arms nor legs, or Kirby being too lazy to follow your button presses so instead you needed to tilt your Game Boy Color in order to roll him around the stages.

What stands out for me, though, even more so than what 2005’s Canvas Curse accomplished by removing said limbs and forcing you to draw paths for Kirby with the stylus of the Nintendo DS, is what 2010’s Kirby Mass Attack asked of the player on the same system. Kirby has been cursed, again, but this time, the curse split him into multiple little Kirbys, all of which, save one, were easily dispatched. A single little Kirby remains, though, as does Kirby’s heart, and it’s actually Kirby’s heart you’re controlling in Mass Attack. (Don’t worry, this is a Kirby game: his heart is a little star, not some red, bleeding mass.) You direct it with the stylus, and the little Kirby follows. Or little Kirbys, I should say, because you can have control of up to 10 of the pink puffballs at a time.

It is, in some ways, what a 2D Pikmin would feel like, at least in terms of trying to wrap your head around what you’re doing here. You use the stylus to direct the Kirbys and to fling them around at enemies, obstacles, items, and so on. You can make them all float as one unit, send them flying in separate directions or enemies, or organize them on screen to more easily solve some timing-based puzzles that require you be in more than one place at once. There is little a singular mini Kirby can do on their own, but with multiple Kirbys, the opposition can be overwhelmed.

Using the stylus rather than buttons might feel off at first when you’re moving just the one Kirby, but as you eat fruit, more Kirbys spawn and come under your control. You need 100 fruit to get your next Kirby, and different fruit have different values, so sometimes the new Kirbys can come to your aid in a hurry depending on what kind of drops you’re seeing.

And that’s good, because there is no health bar in Mass Attack. If a Kirby takes damage, they turn blue. If they take more damage, that’s it: they turn grey, grow angel wings, and start ascending to Kirby Heaven. That is, unless you can fling a Kirby at this lost soul and wrest it back from the world of the dead and into the land of the living. There’s no time to rest just yet, little Kirby, there are angry trees to attack.

Sometimes saving these angel Kirbys is a simple task. Sometimes you get crushed by an object or wall because you weren’t being cautious enough, and you can’t save them all, or any of them, and then you need to restock on Kirbys, as each level has a minimum number of Kirbys necessary to even enter, never mind to complete all of the puzzles and challenges within. You can revisit any level you’ve unlocked at any time, so long as you have enough Kirbys to play it, and if you’re doing so because you’ve lost a significant number of the pink puffs, the game even throws you a bone and ups the value of the fruit in one stage on the map to keep tedium from entering the equation.

You will both want and need a complete roster of Kirbys for these those challenges, as exploration and puzzle-solving will grant you hidden medals. Each level has one rainbow-tinted gold medal which you have to collect in order to access the final boss and their realm, but there are also two-to-four additional gold medals in each course. And those unlock a slate of minigames which might be the most impressive in Kirby’s deep history of adding minigames on top of already wonderful main games.

With just five medals, you can unlock a whack-a-mole game with a boss fight component. Simple, yes, but a satisfying distraction says a guy who still enjoys playing whack-a-mole in whatever physical arcade I find it in. Then with a little more collection, you unlock the real stuff, like a Kirby pinball game with multiple stages and boss fights. If you’re familiar with and enjoyed Kirby’s Pinball Land on the Game Boy, well, here you go. “BrawlBall” is surprisingly a little difficult in that you only get the one “ball” to work with. Your first failure is caught by a safeguard under your paddles, but after that, you’re living on the edge of failure with each move.

There is also a mini RPG, “Kirby Quest,” with a timing-based attack system, where getting the timing right results in more powerful attacks but getting it very wrong means you’re susceptible to enemy attacks. Most impressive, though, is that there is a six-stage shoot-em-up within this nesting doll of games, and I have wanted a full version of a game with this mechanic since I first played.

In “Strato Patrol EOS,” you begin as one little Kirby. Autofire is on throughout this vertical-scrolling shmup, as the game is also stylus-based and you need the stylus to move your Kirby. Or, again, Kirbys: you rescue additional Kirbys, up to 10, and can create either a wall of Kirbys autofiring across your screen to hit every enemy, or swing them into a singular space to have 10 times the firepower on a single object or enemy in your path. (It might not seem like you’d ever need that much firepower at first, but you’re eased into things before the screens fills with baddies.) Whenever you take damage, you lose a Kirby, which makes maneuvering easier, but lessens your attack and range.

It is not difficult to complete — shoot-em-up or no, it remains a Kirby game — but that’s because the real hook to the design is in its scoring. This is a game where, if you enjoy playing it, will make you want to challenge your own high score once you leave the default one in the dust. You earn combos by defeating enemies in a row, and those combos multiply the score you get from defeating an enemy by the size of the combo: let a single enemy scroll past, and your combo, and multiplier, are both over. Think Geometry Wars, how when your ship blows up, you need to start the whole process of impossibly high-climbing scoring again by getting a new multiplier going.

And this game is just kind of… here. You can unlock it before you even finish the first of five worlds in the game if you’re on the hunt for medals, and then play it whenever you want after that. I will not look a gift Kirby in the mouth, and not just because he’s liable to swallow me.

Mass Attack was a huge deviation from the norm for Kirby. You don’t copy powers. Kirby himself is weak. Inhaling isn’t a part of anything, because what can a Kirby one-tenth the size even suck in? (Please do not attempt to answer that.) Instead, you get a much different — and extremely satisfying — method of controlling and playing Kirby, with platforming that also strays from the series’ norms. It’s a little slower-paced than the more traditional Kirby setup, but it’s just as rewarding, and worth seeking out if you’ve never played before but like Kirby or just platformers in general.

Now if you’ll excuse me I’ve got a shmup high score I need to best.

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