The other day, a friend said to me "Once you've played one Kirby game, you've played them all." I agreed. Neither of us laughed or rolled our eyes, though: We meant it as a compliment towards HAL's long-lived platforming series. Kirby doesn't have Mario's knack for exploring wild new galaxies, nor does he carry Sonic's breathless love for high-speed adventures. Kirby is Kirby. He's solid. He's dependable. He's good.
So when I say Kirby Star Allies for the Nintendo Switch is "as Kirby as Kirby gets," I mean that as a compliment. It's an adorable and surprisingly gorgeous-looking side-scrolling platformer that won't take you long to bust through, but still offers up plenty of additional content if you decide you want to hang around the Kirbster for a bit longer once the credits roll. It's sweet and cozy, which makes it a lovely fit for a bedtime handheld gaming session on the Switch. Hands up if you're surprised.
Though Kirby games are dependable and follow a safe formula, it's unfair to accuse each one of being just like its predecessors. Nearly every title has a "gimmick" that sets it apart from its sibling games. 2014's Triple Deluxe lets Kirby slip in and out of different layers with the aid of the Nintendo 3DS's 3D capabilities, 2016's excellent Planet Robobot for the 3DS puts Kirby in a mech that transforms when it absorbed enemy powers, and Star Allies lets Kirby brainwash—er, befriend up to three enemy characters who pledge to fight and die for him.
Star Allies' gimmick isn't as cool as Robobot's mech customization and enemy-scanning, but turning your enemies into allies is still a hoot. Almost every regular mook and mini-boss is up for grabs, from Chef Kawasaki to Plugg to Broom Hatter (whose sinister witch hat becomes a benign but cheerful dust-deflecting rag when they're coerced to join the Light Side). A friend can take control of each reformed foe, but the AI performs well, even against big boss fights.
Kirby's recruits are more than just gumdrop-colored meat shields, however. They can share abilities and elemental powers between Kirby and each other, which comes in handy for walloping tough foes and solving puzzles. If, for example, you have Rocky on your team as well as Broom Hatter, Rocky and Broomy will sync up if they spot a sideways-facing switch that can only be hit if Rocky turns into a curling stone and Broomy gives him a good whack. Similarly, Kirby can absorb a Cutter's powers (because of course Kirby is still able to absorb and use his foes' abilities in Star Allies, there is no such thing as "too much power" where Kirby is concerned) and press "up" on the controller while he's in the company of a Burning Leo to gain a fire sword. There are dozens of combinations between Kirby and his allies, and I was still discovering new ones towards the end of the game.
Do you need all those powers to reach the end of Kirby's adventure? Nah. As with most Kirby games, the challenge is moderate at best. Extra lives are as plentiful as ever, and my palms only dampened ever-so-slightly during some of the boss battles (including the final boss battle, which, in grand Kirby tradition, is seething with quiet suggestions of dark lore). But more than any other game in the series, Kirby Star Allies made me appreciate what Kirby games are all about. They're not about showing off sharp reflexes or struggling against insurmountable odds. Kirby games are playgrounds, places to frolic and experiment without worrying too much about thickly-armored enemies and bottomless pits.
Have you ever noticed how every single one of Kirby's abilities comes with a carefully-crafted move set that's not dissimilar from what you'd find while studying a Smash Bros character? You don't need half of those moves, as spamming the attack button will get you through most fights. But they're there. They're there for anyone who wants to pull off sweet combos while they search for the puzzle pieces hidden in each level, or for anyone who wants to complete Star Allies' myriad extra stages with a little extra flair. Kirby's new instant friend-making ability adds a shiny new jungle gym to Kirby's playtime.
Lest you think that sounds too cute and innocent, here's an FYI: In a pinch, Kirby can still suck up his allied pals and copy their abilities. Your friends are one extended button-push away from being take-out meals. That's our Kirby.
Despite Star Allies' laser-focus on fun and its lovely visuals (a few particularly striking levels implement a rusty autumn theme with windblown grass and fast-moving cloud shadows), it's not immune to criticism. It could be my imagination, but I feel like Kirby floats more slowly in this game than his others. It might be to help all his allies keep up whenever the screen needs to zoom out. I managed without a problem, but neither did I pass up the quick-moving bird and beetle forms when they were presented as options. Also, your over-eager allies sometimes dispatch a potential friend before you can "convince" them to join you. A quick respawn rate makes quick work of this issue, but jeez, Wester. Maybe you should chill.
Finally, I suppose Star Allies' biggest compliment is also its most obvious flaw: It's a Kirby game. By now, you ought to know if you love the little guy, or if you can live the rest of your life without touching another one of his games. While anyone who's just not into Kirby should pass on Star Allies, I can confidently say the series' fans are about to make a whole bunch of great new pals. Just try to hold off on eating them until you're really desperate.
Kirby Star Allies' friend-making gimmick adds layers of playful fun to this solid Kirby adventure. It's a perfectly pleasant way to pass a weekend by yourself, or with friends of your own—though the game is best enjoyed via the Switch's handheld mode. You might not be impressed by Star Allies if you're just not into Kirby at all, but everyone else should say "Hiiiiiii~!"
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