I have a pretty deep history with the Kirby franchise. The original Kirby’s Dream Land released when I was about five years old. For over 20 years, I’ve been solidly attached to what is one of Nintendo’s most stable, simple and iconic characters, and I have yet to play a truly disappointing entry in the franchise.
Well, except for Kirby Star Allies. Not because it’s a bad game; the Nintendo Switch debut of the pink puffball has actually been a sweet retreat. It’s colorful, charming, exciting, accessible and well-constructed: Kirby Star Allies is an enjoyable experience from start to finish, a suitable follow-up for this beloved series.
But, my disappointment is because it’s “suitable”. It’s not stupendous, or super, or striking, or even particularly savory. There’s a more nefarious “S” word to describe this Kirby game: “safe.”
Kirby is a fascinating franchise for correlated reasons. The first is that the Kirby franchise is largely stable, rarely breaking the mold of its core mechanics. Light platforming, you defeat enemies by eating them and either spitting them out or swallowing them to gain unique abilities, then you fight occasional bosses; that’s really about it. The second is that the Kirby franchise is largely experimental. The concept of absorbing powers from enemies holds limitless potential, and HAL Laboratories does a fantastic job spreading their ideas wide. If you sweep the massive catalog of Kirby games, nearly every title in the franchise has brought something new – whether it be a twist on the core mechanics, a distinct art style, or a unique approach to the entire series (Dream Course, Air Ride, and even Super Star come to mind).
Kirby Star Allies' problem is a failure of distinction. The intended twist comes from a “Heart” ability that turns enemies into allies, allowing you to create a troop of four everywhere you go. There’s also an interesting take on the powers system: some abilities augment others in unique ways, which plays well with the ally system. Unfortunately, those mechanics don’t feel any different from ideas executed more sharply in previous titles. This game has all the working pieces, but I can’t recommend it over most of its predecessors. It lacks visually distinction (unlike the recent Planet Robobot, Epic Yarn or Rainbow Curse), the mechanics are mostly just a different rendition of Return to Dreamland (Wii), and the content feels fairly bare (not nearly as fulfilling as Super Star Ultra or Crystal Shards). Even the boss design is lackluster, often favoring brawling over strategy. Each is easily brute-forced with your star allies, leaving engagement at an all time low.
There’s unfortunately not a lot of variety in unlockables either. There’s a boss rush mode, which admittedly was the most fun part of the game, but the “Guest Stars” mode is literally just a replay of the main game substituting Kirby with your choice of a power character (which should be creatively limiting, but the ally system renders it pointless).
Here’s where I stand: I enjoyed Star Allies. I’ve been waiting for a traditional Kirby game for many years now, and this was sweet and satisfying. But I don’t think I can recommend Star Allies; it’s just not special enough. The game is good, but it left me more invested in Kirby’s history, not his future.