I was getting a little worried about Nintendo's 3DS output there for a while. Between the lackluster Chibi Robo sequel (presumably the last we'll see of the little guy), the promising but broken Tri Force Heroes, and a handful of other first-party releases that failed to live up to their potential, 2015's 3DS line up made it look as though the system would be ending its tenure with a whimper rather than a bang.
Thankfully, with Kirby: Planet Robobot HAL Laboratories has stepped up where others have faltered and given me a reason to dust off my 3DS. Isn't that always the way, though? Nintendo struggles, HAL saves the day, time and again for 30 years. Of course, those feats were usually the doing of the the late Satoru Iwata; and to be completely honest, the heartwarming sight of HAL continuing that legacy of pinch-hitting even after Iwata's passing would be enough to make me feel kindly disposed toward the latest Kirby game all on its own. But that's kind of the point — Kirby: Planet Robobot doesn't have to coast on warm sentiment. This good-hearted, high-energy platformer that shines on its own merits.
What Planet Robobot isn't is innovative. HAL has said Kirby games work on an alternating annual cycle, with weird or inventive spinoff titles appearing one year and core platform action games connecting back to the original Kirby's Dream Land showing up the next. Last year, Kirby got weird with the stylus-driven, matériel-based Kirby and the Rainbow Curse, so this year it's back to basics. That is, a run-and-jump platformer with multiple worlds broken into smaller stages, and a heavy emphasis on Kirby's iconic ability to swallow enemies and copy their powers. This is not a game about redefining the nature of the medium or changing how you think about Kirby, but rather about putting a modest new spin on a familiar and well-defined franchise and seeing what results.
Planet Robobot begins by building on the over-the-top style of Kirby Triple Deluxe, playing with the scale and spectacle of the Kirby formula. Where Triple Deluxe added the "Ultranova" power that allowed Kirby to basically consume the entire screen at once, Planet Robobot dials things back a little and instead adds robotic power armor to the mix. It's an odd pairing — Kirby and mobile suits — but it works... and much better than the Ultranova ability did, at that. Triple Deluxe's unique gimmick was so overpowering that it limited the game design, turning the sequences in which Kirby reached max power into frictionless opportunities to steamroll everything in sight. The Robobot suit, on the other hand, greatly boosts Kirby's power, but it does so in a way that feels more cleverly integrated into the world's design.
While Kirby is nearly invincible while decked out with super-armor, the theme behind these sequences evolves as you advance into the later stages. Initially, hopping into a Robobot suit simply gives you a chance to turn the tables, smashing through previously indestructible hazards, but before long you start to come across spaces where simply shattering everything that stands in your way won't do the trick. You'll need to use the armor's strength to move blocks to solve platforming puzzles, exit the suit to navigate narrow spaces, or flip between foreground and background planes to solve convoluted stage design. And speaking of planes, there are also a few stages where the suit, which carries over Kirby's copy ability, has to transform into a fighter or race car (using the Jet and Wheel powers, of course) in order to clear linear or auto-scrolling sequences. A lot of thought went into making the Robobot armor a seamless and interesting part of the action, and it resultantly works out much better than Triple Deluxe's fun but limited gimmick did.
Planet Robobot also feels in many ways like a game looking back to the best of the 16-bit era for guidance. Kirby's ability to hop onto differently powered armor calls to mind the way he rode around on his animal buddies in Kirby's Dream Land 3 for Super NES. The armor handles and feels a lot like the Ride Armor from Mega Man X, which is a good thing indeed. The Ride Armor sequences were always one of the best parts of those games, and Planet Robobot goes it one better by simultaneously granting the mecha suits a wide array of skills and making them more integral to the design of the game as a whole.
There's one final hint of 16-bit inspiration in Planet Robobot: The game's entire premise, which sees an alien corporation attempting to harvest a planet's natural resources (and, in the process, turning everything in sight into a mechanized version of itself), comes straight from ’90s eco-themed action games. There's a little bit of Sonic the Hedgehog, a little bit of Awesome Possum, and a lot of familiar sights and creatures rendered as cybernetic versions of themselves. This lends itself to novel twists on expected standards; the now-mandatory first boss fight with a mechanized Whispy Woods, for example, plays out through multiple phases as the mecha-tree appears midway through the first world as an implacable Terminator-like monstrosity in pursuit of Kirby before showing up again for a proper battle that shifts through multiple modes.
Planet Robobot brings another, more subtle, yet quite significant change to the table: The inclusion of amiibo. HAL's use of the figurines here manages to walk the tricky line between mandatory and useless, a rare feat. Tapping an amiibo to a New 3DS's lower screen grants Kirby and instant new copy ability based on that figure. You can use amiibo up to 10 times per stage, and there's almost no limit to when and where they can be activated. The game dispenses fixed powers per usual, but amiibo add an enormous amount of flexibility to your tactics. Granted, this renders the game trivially easy, but it's not like much of anyone over the age of five plays Kirby to be challenged.
Curiously, only certain amiibo have fixed powers. You'd think the Smash Bros. Ryu would give Kirby the Fighter skill, since that power is almost complete a direct riff on Ryu's abilities from Street Fighter II, but no — he reads as a generic amiibo that confers a random copy skill. Animal Crossing characters read as the "Animal Crossing series" rather than as individual characters and all grant the Leaf power (which makes sense, as the series' Japanese title translates to "Animal Forest"). But some match-ups work better, including a few great in-jokes. I love that Palutena gives you the Mirror power (another reference to a game's Japanese title), and that Ness and Lucas grant the new PSI skill, which is clearly based on EarthBound — one of those Nintendo games HAL stepped in to save — with the corresponding hat to denote that copy power not-at-all subtly resembling Ness' sideways baseball cap. And while most Mario amiibo will give you the Fire skill, of course, the Dr. Mario amiibo gives Kirby another of the game's new powers: Doctor, whose corresponding "hat" and visual iconography also make a clear and direct reference to Dr. Mario. Again, you don't need amiibo to finish the game, but it's clear that Planet Robobot's designers had as much fun integrating the figurines into the action as they did with creating the rest of the game.
Kirby: Planet Robobot feels almost like the family-friendly equivalent of the new Doom. It's light on new ideas and big on fast-paced, unpretentious entertainment. It's a breezy eight-hour romp through some gorgeous scenery, centered around an odd combination of cotton-candy hero and transforming robot suit that somehow works perfectly. The handful of secrets sprinkled throughout the game reward players for exploring out-of-the-way nooks and recesses, and the obligatory bonus modes (including a clever RPG-like multiplayer adventure that feels a bit like Find Mii transformed into a proper game) add even more novelty and replay value to the package. There's always a great Kirby title or two at the very end of practically every Nintendo platform, and it's comforting to see that tradition being upheld once again. Things have been quiet on the 3DS front of late, but Planet Robobot offers a compelling reason to charge that battery and crack the lid open again.
A simple, straightforward action game. No surprises here, and no tricky learning curve.
Planet Robobot features a single, limited collectible that unlocks new content and requires thoughtful exploration to find, minimizing the collect-a-thon grind.
About what you'd expect — some driving tunes that occasionally drift into annoyingly peppy territory.
The 3DS at its best: Dense, detailed, candy-colored graphics, with multiplane level design that play up the 3D effect — yet the visuals never seem too busy.
Planet Robobot does nothing to advance the state of the video game art, or even to reinvent the Kirby series. And that's fine. Sometimes you just need a straightforward, energetic, and above all fun game, and it's here where HAL delivers. Centered around a brilliant upgrade mechanic, bursting with lively graphics, and featuring dozens of thoughtfully designed stages, Kirby's latest is one of the most entertaining chapters to date of a long and storied franchise.