Kirby: Star Allies reboots the series into HD by drawing on its history
Less a bold step forward than a remix of what's come before.
I recently reviewed the latest Kirby game, Star Allies, for Polygon. I found it to be… a fairly rote take on the Kirby franchise with few surprises on offer. However, I also found that by taking its premise at face value and playing it cooperatively with a young gamer, Star Allies actually shines. I played through the entire game in an afternoon with an elementary-aged cousin whose favorite thing to do when he visits us is to either play the Mario variants of Minecraft on Wii U or make progress in his ongoing save file for Super Mario Odyssey. After a few stages of Star Allies, though, he was hooked: I offered to let him jump over to play Odyssey on his own, yet he insisted on seeing Kirby through to the end. That speaks highly for the game.
I won't deny that I would have preferred a Kirby sequel that didn't spend so much of its running time retreading familiar territory. Most of the boss battles in Star Allies are straight-up repeats of battles from previous games. Of course there's the ol' Whispy Woods encounter (twice, actually), but you also fight King Dedede, and Meta Knight, and… well, you get the idea.
Even if I don't necessarily agree with HAL's creative choice to make Star Allies so much of a reprise of what's come before, though, I do recognize that it was an active, creative choice. This is the first-ever traditional four-player take on Kirby — that is to say, the franchise's first attempt to capture the chaotic appeal of New Super Mario Bros. Wii — and in that sense, the conservative design makes sense. Rather than presenting a huge amount of new material, Star Allies instead offers a new way to play old material, without simply being a four-player hack of Kirby's Adventure or something. And the boss battles really get to the heart of it, I think.
In Star Allies, Kirby makes friends by throwing heart icons at enemies. These allies can then be controlled by players two through four… and the enemies you can turn into frienemies include those aforementioned bosses (except Whispy Woods, because how would that work?). So yeah, it's kind of boring that you fight Bonkers again, but it means one of your real-life friends can run around as Bonkers. Or Dedede. Or even Meta Knight — who, incidentally, features in the game's one thematically appropriate battle by creating three mirror duplicates of himself to fight against Kirby and his three allies. The recruitment mechanic goes a long way toward justifying the actual contents of the game.
And the second half of the game does mix things up a bit. It echoes some of Kirby's recent adventures (namely, Triple Deluxe and Planet Robobot) by incorporating lots of big, flashy events and setpieces that involve the movement and destruction of massive chunks of the screen all at once. Unlike in those games, Kirby himself isn't the instigator of those cataclysmic events. Instead, he and his friends react to things like collapsing buolders and chaotic meteor storms. The Kirby team seems to have settled on "mass destruction" as the trademark showpiece for the series, and in each new sequel it take a different form. Since the ability to have four people running around attacking monsters is an overwhelming enough concept on its own, Star Allies seems content to offload the more explosive mechanics from the player — or rather, players — and use them as hazards that must be reacted to.
As I mentioned in my review, Star Allies also marks the first time a traditional Kirby platformer has appeared in high definition. The short, sad life of the Wii U meant that the most recent Kirby titles have tended toward the 3DS — only the decidedly non-traditional Rainbow Curse made it to Wii U. I can't help but see the series' move into high definition as another reason for Star Allies to stick to the tried and true. There's a certain novelty to experiencing a series for the first time in such high detail, and it looks like the Star Allies team decided to milk that opportunity for all it was worth.
In a lot of ways, Star Allies pulls elements from across the breadth of the Kirby catalog as it moves the series into HD. It's not just the bosses that feel familiar here; many game mechanics very conspicuously reprise ideas from older games. Kirby's Dream Land 3 in particular looms large over Star Allies — which is surprising, perhaps, given the way Nintendo omitted Dream Land 3 from last year's Super NES Classic Edition mini-console.
But just as in that game, Kirby can share health with allies by kissing them. As if that weren't enough of a callback, you can also hop on top of another ally and "ride" them around, giving the "rider" player both control and access to the "ridden" character's powers — an element taken directly from Dream Land 3 and its rideable animal allies. One of the few new powers here is the ability to "paint" canvases, which was a theme that appeared prominently in Dream Land 3. Heck, the first randomized in-game art gallery piece I completed was an homage to Dream Land 3; I don't know if that was a coincidence or by design, but I suspect the latter.
The core power-up variation in Star Allies also looks back to the N64 game The Crystal Shards. In addition to copying enemy powers, Kirby can "combine" them with elemental modifiers possessed by certain allies. While this is much less varied and wide-ranging than the fusion powers in Crystal Shards, the idea definitely calls back to that adventure. Star Allies even appears to riff on the eternally unloved Air Ride, as several late-game sequences (including the final battle) involve flying around on a star platform with your pals, turning certain sequences into something akin to an aerial race and shoot-em-up.
While I would hope the Kirby games get back on track to doing weird and unexpected things along the lines of Planet Robobot after this, I'm OK with the series taking an "off" year this once to pause and regroup in HD. I guess I'm a sucker for seeing classic franchises revisit their history in subtle, clever ways. And seriously, jockeying for the Joy Con that controls Meta Knight is every bit as potentially friendship-destroying a multiplayer experience as any troll action you could ever perform in New Super Mario Bros. U....