Can a one-button racing game be fun? Kirby Air Ride answers the question with a resounding yes.
A fast and fun new racer from Nintendo is coming, and it's not F-Zero. Kirby's Air Ride (a.k.a. Kirby Air Ride in the U.S.) recently hit the shelves in Japan, arriving just before the higher profile F-Zero GX. With its simplistic, one-button approach, can Kirby Air Ride really provide much gameplay? After playing through single player and multiplayer modes, I’d say the answer is yes.
In most arcade racers, players usually just hold down on the acceleration button most of the time, until a turn or power up comes along. At this point, the player lets off the gas and starts using the brake. It seems that the designers at HAL saw this and asked themselves “Why make the players keep holding down the button? What would it be like if we just have them use a button when it's time to turn or get a power up?” The result: Kirby Air Ride.
Control, as you might expect from a one-button game, is fairly simple. Players use the A button to brake and to inhale the enemies to power-up Kirby. Which button allows Kirby to use these power-ups? I'll give you one guess. That's right, the A button! The popular A button is also used to take advantage of the speed boosts scattered through the courses. Holding down the A button is another way to build up speed, but doing so slows Kirby down, so this technique is mostly used when taking certain types of turns. To take a look around these turns, or anywhere else for that matter, you can pan the camera using, get this, the C-stick! Crazy isn't it? I'm sure if the GameCube controller allowed you to rotate the A button, you could have used it for camera control as well.
The control stick is used to steer Kirby as he rides his star (or any other vehicle) through the course. You can also perform a spin-attack by quickly pressing left and then right or vice versa. The spin attack allows you to do damage without a power-up, though at the cost of some speed and maneuverability. During jumps, the control stick is used to control Kirby's height and distance. Properly holding down on the control stick and then holding up will allow Kirby to cover a lot of ground quickly. Of course, you have to make sure you don't hold up for too long, otherwise Kirby won't stick the landing correctly and will lose any power-up in his possession as well as a few moments of precious time.
As with any good racing game, the vehicle you choose in Kirby Air Ride plays a significant factor in how you race. Each vehicle has its own unique turning ability, weight, braking, boost speed, acceleration, maximum speed, and jumping distance. Vehicle designs are fairly diverse, ranging from the default star (i.e. the well-rounded vehicle) to a rocket-shaped board (slow acceleration, great top speed) to a powered unicycle (good top speed and acceleration, sensitive braking), just to name a few.
Good gameplay in most racers comes from a combination of solid controls and good course design. The controls in Kirby Air Ride are tight and the course designs compliment the controls nicely. Though the game has only nine main Air Ride courses, there's sufficient variety among them. The simplest course, Plantes, is pretty much an oval with no shortcuts or alternate routes and is aimed squarely at beginners. The more complicated courses like Air Roon and Steel Organ have several shortcuts and alternate paths along a course of tricky twists and turns. Meanwhile, Galax, my favorite course, has a few gentle turns, an occasional ramp for jumping, a few question marks for random power-ups, and plenty of straightaways to take advantage of drafting to get some extra speed. The result is usually a race with plenty of lead changes and a lot of fun and excitement.
Although Galax uses question marks for power-ups, most Air Ride courses feature Chillys, Waddle Dees, Wheelies, and other denizens of the Kirby universe, slowly making their way through courses and acting as power-up material for the racing puffballs. A passing Kirby only needs to do what comes naturally and suck one of these morsels up to use them. Some enemies, like Waddle Dees, are simply spit back out and used as projectiles while others have their abilities copied by Kirby. For example, a shallowed Chilly allows Kirby to don a parka hood and freeze nearby opponents and. An inhaled Wheelie transforms Kirby and his vehicle into a single wheel with great top speed, though turning is understandably tricky. Of course, should a Kirby run into one of these enemies rather than suck it up, that Kirby will get smacked around and briefly lose some speed and control. While they don't present much of a challenge, these power-ups can fight back if you aren't paying attention.
Graphically, Kirby Air Ride has an appropriately bright and colorful look applied to the characters, courses, and backgrounds. The Kirby and various enemy models look good enough, but there's nothing really spectacular here. You won't see any superb texture or modeling work, nor will the level geometry blow you away. The character animation is solid, and on the whole, the game presents a nice cartoony world. Most importantly for a racing game, the game moves very fast with no framerate hiccups. There's definitely a nice sense of speed to the game, and for those lucky enough to have a compatible TV, Kirby Air Ride does have a progressive scan mode that looks quite nice.
The audio is quite similar to the visuals. While there's nothing special about the sound on its own, it does an excellent job of complementing the racing Kirbys through their colorful cartoon courses. The music should be familiar to players of other Kirby games and consists of fast paced tunes that accompany the on-screen action well. The same can be said about the sound effects, though the lack of voice characterization of the Kirbys is disappointing.
Like HAL's other GameCube effort, Super Smash Brothers Melee, Kirby Air Ride is packed with plenty of replay value. While Air Ride is the main gameplay mode, there are two other notable game modes. One is an Overhead Racing mode which allows players to race a small course on a single screen from a stationary overhead view, playing like the arcade classic, Super Off Road. There's a strong old-school arcade feel that makes it well suited for multiplayer gaming. Control is identical to the Air Ride mode, though the control stick orientation is adjusted for the overhead view and power-ups are simple icons rather than enemies. Each of the seven courses in the overhead mode has its own unique obstacles such as trees that drop bombs when they are nudged, a collapsable rock bridge that falls after Kirby rides over it, and a sand whirlpool that turns the tables on a passing Kirby and sucks its victim into the ground.
The third mode is called City Trial which plays a bit like a battle mode where Kirbys roam through a city arena in search of new vehicles and power-ups that can increase or decrease a racer’s attributes (max speed, turning, boost speed, weight, jumping ability, etc.). Kirbys can attack each other in this city arena, but the gameplay here is not like a traditional battle mode where the goal is to score kills. Instead, after a set amount of time, the city arena action switches to a different stage where Kirbys compete in a random event to be number one. The vehicles and different power-ups that the Kirbys acquire from the city arena play a big role in deciding the event's winner. Some events involve a one lap race around an Air Ride course, while others will have the Kirbys race on more dragstrip-style levels. Other events include arena battles, where the goal is to score kills on your opponents, and jumping events such as jumping the greatest distance or trying to land on various targets with different point values. As with the Overhead Racing mode, City Trial can be a blast with a couple of friends.
Multiplayer gaming is definitely one of the more appealing aspects of Kirby Air Ride. All three gameplay modes are more fun with a couple of friends. The Air Ride and City Trial modes offer split-screen action, while the Overhead Racing mode allows everyone to play on the same screen. Actually, the Air Ride and City Trial modes can also be played without using split-screens: Kirby Air Ride is Nintendo's first foray into LAN gaming and while no new gameplay modes are offered via LAN play, the ability to play without having to share screen space is nice.
Up to four GameCubes can be hooked up to allow for multiplayer gaming over different GameCubes and TVs. So if you have friends who own GameCubes with broadband adapters, copies of Kirby Air Ride, and have LAN and extra TVs ready, you can play without having to use split-screens. Setting up LAN play is a fairly simple matter. Two GameCubes can be directly connected with a cross-over ethernet cable. If you want to hook up three or more GameCubes, or if you don't have a cross-over cable, you'll need to hook the GameCubes together through a router or a switch. Once your GameCubes are connected, starting a game is as simple as having each player select the LAN option from the game's main menu and choosing the number of systems to be connected. The GameCubes will take care of the rest and you'll soon be ready to play any mode without having to worry about your buddy's eyes wandering to your part of the screen.
Even if you don't have other friends to play Kirby Air Ride with, you can tweak things in the game to keep gameplay fresh. Adjustable options include the ability to set the CPU skill level, the choice of racing by lap or by time, the time limit or number of laps per race, and player health. The Air Ride and Overhead Racing modes can also be raced in a time trial mode to set record times for laps/races. Meanwhile, the City Trial allows you to play only one of the two parts of the normal City Trial match. Players can choose to play only in the city arena or they can choose to skip that part entirely and play only the event portion.
Beyond the single player and multiplayer versions of the different game modes, there are a number of miscellaneous objectives and unlockable extras, too. A number of new vehicles can be unlocked in addition to the initial three. New courses, characters, music, options, and City Trial events can also be unlocked when certain criteria are met. When a objective is met, a 10 x 12 grid of grey tiles appears after the race. A tile changes from grey to green for each objective achieved. Additionally, other adjacent tiles change to a lighter grey and players can highlight these tiles for new objectives. Sometimes an achieved objective unlocks a hidden extra and that tile changes to red instead of green. Also, purple tiles can be earned which allow you to choose any grey tile and instantly achieve that tile's objective. The game contains three of these grids, making a total of 360 objectives for that players can to accomplish. With the three gameplay modes, a good set of options, multiplayer gaming, and plenty of objectives and extras, Kirby Air Ride can keep a person busy for a long time.
The one-button design does not make the gameplay simple or boring. With only one button to worry about, a player can focus more attention on taking turns optimally and ensuring that jumps are used for maximum effect. Anyone can finish a race, but it takes a bit more skill to win consistently. The courses are designed to keep you from falling off the edge, but hitting the walls will slow you down and make winning nearly impossible. Despite the unusual one-button control scheme, HAL has created a genuine arcade racing experience that is as fast and fun as many of the best games of the genre.
Importers should be aware that most of the text in Kirby Air Ride is in Japanese, meaning that menu navigation will require some trial and error. Figuring out how to meet objectives and unlock extras without Japanese skills is nearly impossible. The game itself is entirely enjoyable, but you’ll need to get a translation to unlock the game's many extras.