To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.
-C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves
Nintendo is one of those companies that can get away with things that would have absolutely ruined someone else. They must command some sort of inordinate luck to pass unscathed through the things they’ve undergone. Perhaps that’s due to their size and influence, or perhaps to the size and influence of their fans, but it’s clear that the occasional complaint against their bizarre business actions and odd product concepts slides right off their backs like mud on a wild fowl’s feathers. The Big N has somehow survived to and even thrived in 2018 [insert any of a billion articles about the Switch’s sales here].
It’s apparently not enough to say “Nintendo creates artificial scarcity!”, “Nintendo games are ‘kiddie’, too simple and without depth”, or “the industry has moved on”, “they are stuck in the past”, “they really only sell games because of nostalgia”, “Nintendo has a lack of third party support and all their systems have are first party exclusives”, or my favorite: “Nintendo games are for children and you should be ashamed for playing them as an adult”.
Guess what? They don’t care. They’ll keep being themselves.
Nintendo’s unabashedly, irredeemably cute characters don’t care, either. Nowhere is that clearer than with Kirby Star Allies, which has become the fastest-selling Kirby title in UK. Kirby is more kawaii than you can imagine, my friend. He’s more “Hiyiyiiii~” than you can stomach. Look into his eyes and tell me you don’t see the distilled spirit of wanton victory. The rapacious appetite of his ineffably soft and pinkish persona is an analogy for Nintendo themselves: they cannot be stopped, they cannot be resisted, they can only supply pure and innocent joy, inexorably, forever, and you’ll play it and love it for what it is.
Kirby Star Allies in many ways bolsters a lot of Nintendo stereotypes. The game does feel too familiar, for one.
2017’s The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey in my opinion reinterpreted and repackaged both characters in foundational, influential games for a new generation without sacrificing the fundamental concepts of their respective histories. Breath of the Wild emphasized pure exploration and the joy of discovery in the open-world structure of games that was quickly becoming full of stale fetch quests, and for its part Super Mario Odyssey spared no expense in blowing up the game design of unlockables. They’re not without their disparagers, but both games did receive an overwhelmingly positive critical response.
Meanwhile, Star Allies seems entirely like it’s retreading old ground. That’s coming from someone who lays no claim upon having played all the Kirby games. The ones I have played (Dream Land 1 and 2, Adventure, Dream Course, Block Ball, Nightmare in Dream Land, Super Star, Crystal Shards, Dream Collection, Epic Yarn) are enough of a resource to give me the impression that Star Allies is nothing new in scope or scale, in concept or design, or even in refinement, for Nintendo’s pink puffball.
For instance, the leading gimmick for Star Allies (a harsh turn of phrase, I know, but one which suffices) is the ability to befriend enemies in stages and form a party. Other players can jump in at any time by grabbing another controller to play as the befriended foe, something easily furnished thanks to the utility of the Joy-Cons. This highlights one of the basic novelties of the Switch as a versatile system but in the context of Kirby’s series, it isn’t a new idea. Kirby Super Star featured the ability to make helpers out of monsters, which were controllable by a second player. Kirby’s Return to Dream Land would later expand multiplayer for four players.
That feature reappears here with up to four playable characters at once, each with their own health bars and unique powers. Kirby can convert any enemy into an ally by lobbing hearts at them and there is a benefit to having even CPU-controlled allies following you around. They are surprisingly smart, perfectly capable of using their own abilities to trigger switches, light fuses, blow up walls, douse fires, bequeath elemental powers, and tout umbrellas.
Actually, that was one element of design I wasn’t expecting but was delighted to see. I didn’t have to worry about organizing which members of my team had what powers because they all used them so liberally even when I wasn’t directly controlling them. Even so, Kirby can ride piggyback on top of his allies, which allows the player to take control over them for their unique skill sets if there’s ever a need for it, but that’s not a frequent occurrence.
Plus, beyond just interacting with the environment automatically, CPU-controlled allies will attack any enemy that comes too close. Sure sometimes that means they’ll defeat a foe that you as Kirby would’ve liked to swallow up to copy their powers, but that too is hardly a detriment since you can always come back to get the enemy to re-spawn.
Having a full party of four also means that Kirby now has his own mobile arsenal of abilities he can copy at any time. How’s that? Well, he’s got his own ability he can carry just like he always could, but then he can turn around and swallow an ally to take their ability if he should need it. Want that ally back? You can drop the ability, converting it into a star that slowly bounces away, then toss a heart at it to turn it back into a fully functioning ally. It seems like the developers built multiple redundancies into the game when it comes to copying abilities and making allies so I found that I could get what I wanted done in a certain situation in a variety of different ways.
Combining abilities is another feature of Star Allies that only looks new; Kirby could combine multiple powers in Kirby 64: Crystal Shards and Kirby: Squeak Squad. Crystal Shards in fact had a wider array of combinations than Star Allies. Setting aside its age and precedent, this feature remains as nifty as ever. Characters break down into three categories based on their weapon types: those with abilities that can be augmented, those with abilities that augment, and those that have grappling/tossing abilities.
The first category of character is the typical non-elemental, tactile enemy type: Sword, Cutter, Bomb, Stone, Whip, Hammer, Ninja, Yo-yo, and Staff. These can raise their weapons over their heads as an indication to the second category of characters to augment them. Cue characters using Fire, Ice, Beam, Plasma, Water, ESP, Wing, and Cleaning which can grant elemental effects to the first and sometimes even the second category of weapon types.
Put a few of these together and you can create a bigger attack like Icicle Lance (Ice and Water) or make a burning blade (Fire and Sword). It’s not just cosmetic differences, here. Certain buttons and puzzles can only be activated through augmented abilities. Further, augmentation often changes the behavior of abilities. For example, the Ninja can throw kunai straight forward horizontally but when a Ninja is modified by Wing (Wind) then the kunai are thrown in an upward spiral
The third category includes Fighter, Suplex, Beetle, Spider, Parasol, Artist, and Cook. Because of the unique forms of attack in this tertiary category, they cannot augment or be augmented. They have extra abilities instead like the Parasol’s Chumbrella which can be used to defend your entire party.
Star Allies also introduces dream friends in playable King Dedede, Meta Knight, and Bandana Waddle Dee. Using some of these, I felt like I was having a round of Subspace Emissary in Smash Bros. Brawl!
So if this all sounded so far like a mix of pros and cons, it sort of is. The one big con is that Star Allies is too formulaic, but the many pros are the enjoyable features the game boasts: convenient A.I., combining abilities, forming a party, built-in redundancies, seamless multiplayer, the promise of future updates, and a last boss that feels like Kirby meets Shadow of the Colossus.
Should Kirby change? He’s one of the Nintendo icons that seems more resistant to reinterpretation, ironically despite his signature ability to change his form and powers. Star Allies takes to the axiom “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, though how far that gets a series which emphasizes ease and accessibility far over challenge and depth is up to you. Kirby doesn’t need to change, unless Nintendo wants to see some critical applause for him.
All I really want to know is… where’s my UFO Kirby?
The 8-bit Review
Star Allies honestly suffers from its own HD graphics. In the past Kirby games that I’ve played, there was never a whole lot going on and it was easy to distinguish Kirby’s bright pink body from the surroundings. Not anymore. Now I found it difficult to pick out my character from the loudly colored backgrounds, the multiple on-screen enemies, and my full party of allies all rendered in glistening pastel colors. Add the explosions, flames, snowflakes, and/or electricity of augmented abilities and the screen can quickly become an absolute, vivid mess.
Good thing there isn’t any real sense of danger, yeah, though I lost one or two lives due to not seeing where I was and stumbling into a hole, but the problem is some things just don’t look good when they’re crystal clear. Kirby’s eyes are interesting to look at with their multiple blue hues but the rest of his body looks like early Pixar. Maybe Ninty can figure out how to add some texture in there somewhere. The debut characters and locales either gel with the Kirby aesthetic or look totally foreign, such as the three generals and Jambastion, respectively. I feel like the Kirby universe has a lot of potential for visual intrigue, but in a lot of ways Star Allies looks like a game that could’ve come out a long time ago. It doesn’t have to be complex. It’s Kirby. But then, maybe Kirby never needed this style of graphics.
I do like the half-tone comic book stuff this game used sparingly! I wish there was more of that.
I couldn’t help but be reminded of Super Mario Galaxy upon hearing Star Allies’ orchestrated soundtrack. While not quite as grand in scale as Galaxy, the orchestra here helps in fleshing out Kirby’s macro-verse and giving it a sense of size. Fortunately, the symphonic approach doesn’t swing too far into pretentious gravity so as to destroy any last vestige of traditional Kirby cuteness. No, every song is as happy and light as you’d expect, maybe less fast-paced then is typical of Kirby’s games but no less sensitive toward fun.
What would a Kirby game be like without the motifs of archetypal songs like “Green Greens”? Fans of the series will recognize this and many others orchestrated in this soundtrack. It’s a delight of course, and no Kirby game should be without them, though I struggled to place the musical identity of this game in particular in my memory.
Riffing off of Super Star, Star Allies’ main menu can take you to several segments of the game. There’s a Story Mode, Star Slam Heroes, and Chop Champs. Two other modes are unlocked after completing Story Mode for the first time: Guest Star ???? Star Allies Go! and The Ultimate Choice.
Story Mode is broken down into five worlds each with traditional platforming stages and a few short shoot ’em up sections. Some stages contain special switches which open up secret stages when activated. After progressing through World of Peace Dream Land, World of Miracles Planet Popstar, Fortress of Shadows Jambastion, and Far Flung-Starlight Heroes, Kirby and co. confront the final boss in a shmup world entitled Kirby Star Allies.
Star Slam Heroes and Chop Champs are both mini-games that are unlocked right from the start of the game. The first involves some timing where you have to get Kirby to swing a baseball bat at a meteor to see how far you can hit it. It’s like America’s favorite pastime played out over several light-years. Chop Champs prompts you to cut down a tree faster than your rivals while watching out for worms that’ll stun your character. Those log cabins aren’t going to build themselves.
As for the two unlockable mini-games, Star Allies Go! is a time attack mode played without Kirby. You build a party of monsters and dash through the game’s stages while picking up items that modify things like your speed and defense. The Ultimate Choice is my favorite of the four non-story modes and it’s essentially just a boss rush. It has multiple difficulty ratings measured out in terms of Kirby dumping increasing amounts of hot sauce on a plate of food (cute), though the hardest mode still isn’t so bad. Some of the boss fights in the game are pretty cool so running through them with a friend that’s new to the game is enjoyable.
I’ve played a lot of games that lazily muck about with the idea of “the power of friendship” but this game finally makes that idea a reality. Friendship literally gives Kirby the ability to ride a star-shaped weapon of destruction.
Add multiplayer to anything and it invites some of the natural energy between friends and family members into the game itself. Some of the best memories I have in gaming come from playing through games together with someone else right beside me (not online, locally, I should emphasize). With Kirby Star Allies, if you can get someone to play with you and somehow help them to stay engaged and amused the whole time in a game where there’s little tension and little reward, then that’ll add some extra level of enjoyment to it.
Playing through some portions of the game with my wife was of course a blast. I married my best friend and we enjoyed games together when we were single, when we were dating, when we were engaged, and even now when we’ve been married for nearly 7 years. We shared a good laugh when fighting Whispy Woods, taking the boss down to half health and saying “That’s it?” when there was a pause in the fight, then sharing a huge smile when the tree morphed into a gigantic beast thanks to the power of the dark hearts.
Star Allies hopes for this sort of experience but I can’t imagine it’s all that common.
One of the problems with this game is there isn’t too much content to it. I’m walking a fine balance here between passing things like that off just because this is a Kirby game while trying to determine if they took that concept too far. There aren’t that many stages, even taking the secret ones into account, and the level design is even on a scale that’s less complex than it was in Adventure over a quarter of a century ago.
Beyond completing the story mode, there isn’t a whole lot to drive the completionist to scour every nook and cranny. There are puzzle pieces which should be mentioned, though. Players can collect puzzle pieces throughout the stages and use these to put together portraits from past Kirby games after the stages are completed. Putting the puzzles together is an automated process and I almost wish it was something that could be done manually: a peaceful, casual mini-game. As such, this collectible gallery doesn’t add too much to the game.
Without much in the way of tension, both in terms of narrative and gameplay, too many extra lives, too simple level design, too much health for each character, and too few real obstacles, even in the context of its own series, it’s no wonder some have called this Kirby outing boring, especially if you’re playing solo. It is called “Star ALLIES”, after all.
Buff Dedede, the best part of this game.
Kirby games are all about accessibility, and Star Allies seems to fit right in. Though it’s occasionally too busy to see what’s going on, it remains an easy game to play and an easy game to learn. There are background tutorials everywhere and there’s plenty of room to experiment with different abilities and combinations. A game like this would make for the perfect introductory title for the very youngest of players, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Is Kirby stuck in a rut or is it that he’s just too lazy to leave his safety zone? Whatever the reason, his series hasn’t evolved much over the years. Star Allies takes its cues from the many Kirby games that have come before, yet startlingly it doesn’t present a good reason for existing. It’s another Kirby title because there wasn’t one already on the Switch but it doesn’t have any new tricks to dazzle us with.
From a publisher typically associated with innovation, I’m surprised at how limited Star Allies feels. Maybe it’s the skeleton of a bigger game the developers expect to build but where’s UFO Kirby, or Wheel Kirby, Laser Kirby, Cupid Kirby, Needle Kirby, Archer Kirby, Ball Kirby, Jet Kirby, Poison Kirby, Doctor Kirby, Circus Kirby, Cyclops Kirby, Ghost Kirby, Mirror Kirby, Hi-Jump Kirby, Tornado Kirby, Metal Kirby, or Over-Long-List Kirby? Missed opportunities which I hope for others’ sakes that Nintendo will consider for future updates.
For now, there’s Friend Train…
My Personal Grade: 6/10
Kirby Star Allies is just alright. It’s not worth the full price tag, in my opinion, unless you’re going to play through it with a bunch of friends. Even then, keeping four people who read long-form critiques on WordPress engaged isn’t something likely within the scope of Star Allies’ rather brief length. It’s beatable within a weekend, easily, but four friends trudging through to the end is going to be uncommon, especially with little reward beyond the face value of playing a cute Kirby game and hanging out together.
On the other hand, Star Allies provided me with an experience that is quintessentially Nintendo: I was able to play through a bit of this game with my two-year-old son. It’s that accessible and that simple. I was able to show him how to move his character left and right and attack.
I didn’t get to play video games with my parents too often growing up, but I do have vague memories of them watching me play and me trying to show off. I have old images in my head of doing that with Kirby’s Adventure and I hope that someday my own son will remember playing Kirby Star Allies with his dad thirty years from now.
Thank you, Nintendo.
Aggregated Score: 5.9
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