Kirby, Kirby, Kirby, that’s the name of the show! Kirby, Kirby, Kirby, his new game is so-so!
Kirby Air Ride is a peculiar hit-or-miss title. At first it seems mediocre at best, in no way worthy of Famitsu’s praise, but with time comes an appreciation for what HAL’s second GameCube game does right. A less-than-stellar multiplayer package coupled with an impressively addictive solo racer, Kirby Air Ride both entertains and annoys. Whether or not Kirby’s positives ultimately outweigh its negatives depends on what the player is looking for in the title.
As mentioned in my early impressions, Kirby Air Ride is divided into three sections. Air Ride, the game’s namesake mode, is the prominently featured 3-D racing game with floating warp stars, unicycles, and other loony vehicles for the puffball to ride. Many of Air Ride’s courses feature well-designed branched pathways, while every locale teems with edible enemies full of classic Kirby coolness.
From the kart-racer appeal, one would anticipate Air Ride to be an ideal multiplayer game, but in actuality, Air Ride is best played alone. Air Ride’s numerous missions are perfect for solo sessions, where players can hone their skills while unlocking alternate songs, new rides, and a few other surprises. Air Ride’s significant shortcomings lie in its multiplayer races. The mode’s biggest flaw is in its power-ups: whereas Mario Kart has standard long-range attacks such as shells, lightning bolts, and banana peels, all of Air Ride’s attacks have a very limited range, making a surprise comeback nearly impossible. Indeed, once separated from the pack, players will feel as though no competition even exists. A more subtle design flaw stems from Air Ride’s unique vehicles. While the variety makes for an excellent, strategic single player experience, as players must discover and master the best vehicle for each course, it tears holes in a multiplayer race’s balance. Some of the more bizarre vehicles’ strengths become more apparent with practice, but even so, vehicle choice will often determine the winner before a race even commences. For instance, unicycles have trouble with slippery surfaces, making them considerably slower than the competition on the ice course. This puts newcomers at a severe disadvantage and essentially restricts racers to the most conservative vehicle choices when selecting a random track.
Kirby Air Ride’s second mode, Top Ride, houses the game’s real multiplayer action. An overhead 2-D racing game in the spirit of Off-Road and R.C. Pro-Am, Top Ride is a mode of constant party-game chaos. Top Ride’s hordes of power-ups and miniaturized tracks ensure that everyone is a part of the action at all times, regardless of placement. Like Air Ride, Top Ride includes its own missions and secrets, making it an enjoyable (but simple) single-player game as well.
Kirby’s third game mode, City Trial, is a conglomerate of mini-games haphazardly linked together. Initially, competitors explore a large 3-D city in search of better vehicles and stat upgrades to use in the following battle round. The city feels barren, however, and competitors will rarely interact while drifting through the city. What’s worse, the task of upgrading your wheels/wings is more of a chore than anything else, making the city arena by far the most disappointing section of Kirby Air Ride. Pseudo-random special events attempt to break up the monotony, but fail miserably.
Each city scavenger hunt is followed by one of many brief mini-games of varying enjoyment where gamers can use their souped-up ride to whip the cream-puff competition. Some of the mini-games, such as the battle arenas and enemy-clobbering marathons are great. Others, such as the single lap races around standard Air Ride courses, come off as uninspired and cheap. In a huge oversight on HAL’s part, Kirby Air Ride fails to provide customizations for any of the mini-games, which can all be played separately once unlocked. Though some mini-games understandably have little room for tweaking, a permanent limitation of one-and-a-half minutes for death match battles is unacceptable.
Kirby Air Ride would have benefited immensely from more polish, but it still has its moments. Time trial aficionados will appreciate Air Ride’s cast of vehicles and courses when flying solo, and party game fans will adore Top Ride’s nostalgic, chaotic nature. If you fit both descriptions, this game is for you! If you’re only looking for a hearty 3-D racer full of heated competition you’d best turn to F-Zero GX or wait for Mario Kart: Double Dash.