Good penmanship finally pays off in this magical adventure.
In the months following the Nintendo DS launch, many owners have grown frustrated at the lack of quality new games that intelligently use the system's touch screen. Mini and micro-games have displayed what could be done, but the first few games were content to offer a variety of quick diversions in lieu of fully explored game mechanics. The result is a library of DS launch games that have painted a gimmicky picture of the lower screen's claim to fame. Thankfully, HAL Laboratory took a different path with Touch! Kirby (Kirby: Canvas Curse in North America) and has created a brilliant, touch screen game that every DS gamer should own upon its local release.
Kirby's first DS game is thoroughly intuitive. All of the action takes place on the lower screen, where Kirby is trapped in the world of paintings, cursed to live his days in ball form. By tapping the touch screen, players can destroy blocks, stun baddies, and hit switches in the side-scrolling levels. Tapping Kirby will unleash a special ability absorbed from a foe; if Kirby has none, he will attack by briefly dashing forward.
Most important, however, is Kirby's magical paintbrush (a.k.a. your stylus). Players can draw rainbow-colored walls, floors, ramps, and everything in-between to turn Kirby around, make him "jump" or otherwise manipulate his velocity. The magical lines can also shield the hero from enemy projectiles. Drawn lines exist for roughly two seconds before disintegrating, and when Kirby comes into contact with one, he is pushed in the direction in which the line was drawn. If Kirby is not bouncing, he will hug a line's curves, defying natural forces such as gravity and buoyancy. Kirby's paint supply is not unlimited: drawing depletes a meter displayed on the upper screen. The meter refills almost instantaneously while he is on the ground and gradually while off of it. This clever mechanic enforces proper rationing of paint, lest the player find his tank empty in a crisis. Simply controlling Kirby is fun—finally, a touch screen-oriented DS game that controls naturally and feels finished.
Touch! Kirby's main game is straightforward enough: get through each stage to reach and defeat the witch who cursed Kirby. While players could adjust to the game's physics and blaze through the main twenty-two stages in less than three hours, doing so would be foolish. Much of Touch! Kirby's pleasure comes from exploration and experimentation, and players will appreciate the game more as they learn its subtleties. Playing at a casual pace, I completed my first run through the main game after just over four hours.
The game may sound short, but it is very comparable to Kirby and the Amazing Mirror, since there is plenty to do after the initial run. Players can revisit stages to hunt down the three medals scattered within each stage and other more transitory goodies such as extra lives. The top screen contains a map of Kirby's immediate surroundings that is useful for medal hunting and navigation. Even with the map though, finding and claiming every medal will take skill. A few stages also contain large switches, guarding secret areas throughout the main game.
Once the player clears a stage in the main game, he can revisit pre-selected sections of that stage in Touch! Kirby's time trial and line trial modes. With sufficiently high scores, players can claim the three medals per stage for each mode. Time trial works as one would expect: the player must guide Kirby through the sub-stage as quickly as possible. Players must think on their feet and elegantly guide Kirby through the quickest route. Well-placed rainbows are often the key to swiftness, but overly-hasty players will find themselves cursing their custom paths as they transform into blockades.
Line trial is time trial's antithesis. While time trial encourages gratuitous use of rainbows and dashing, line trial demands Spartan use of both. The player is scored according to how much paint is conserved. This original mode requires a mindset focused on well-timed dashes, tiny lines and daring ricochets. Even the health meter can be a valuable resource: taking damage from spikes can prove less painful than traveling over them with drawn lines.
The medal changer provides a way to spend your hard-earned medals on goodies. One of the most prominent unlockables is the selection of alternative playable characters. Fat King DeDede is slow and mostly useless, but the other two characters handle similarly to Kirby and are often great choices for improving a high score. Waddle Dee is bouncier than Kirby, making him better suited for some line trials, while Meta Knight is significantly faster than Kirby but has minimal health (providing a greater challenge). Other prizes include special ability-themed stages for both trial modes, different line patterns, music tracks for the sound test, and extra health containers (for Kirby only). While there aren't nearly as many unlockables as in Super Smash Bros. Melee or Kirby Air Ride, rewarding players for collecting medals helps keep their interest well after they have defeated the final boss.
Bosses double as Touch! Kirby's sub-games. After clearing all three stages within a level the player must face off against Kracko, DeDede, or Paint Roller. Kracko's sub-game is loosely inspired by Kirby's Block Ball (GB): players must draw springy lines to ricochet Kirby around the screen, clearing blocks and enemies to rack up points and ascend. Kracko awaits his battle with Kirby at the uppermost level.
The other two sub-games are less complex. King DeDede's mine cart racing sub-game alludes to the Gourmet Race from Kirby Super Star (SNES). The player must adjust the vertical placement of the stylus to define the mine cart's path as it rushes forward. Guiding Kirby to food will boost his speed, while failing to evade obstacles will slow Kirby's ride to a crawl. Appropriately enough, Paint Roller compels the player to draw crude pictures of various items and characters by connecting dots, and finishes with a game of quick reflexes resembling whack-a-mole. Once a boss sub-game is cleared on level two in the main game, it becomes accessible through the menu, along with a third difficulty level.
Touch! Kirby's fantastic art direction celebrates the game's drawing theme to its fullest. As Kirby ventures through the game, he is greeted with a wide variety of scenery. Players will be wowed with the colors of pastel plains, vector art sunsets, stencil cities and charcoal caverns. Touch! Kirby's vibrant worlds are countered by black-and-white industrial settings, sandy ruins and more abstract scenery rarely associated with a squishy pink ball.
The game's soundtrack echoes Touch! Kirby's bold departure from the saccharine. The songs consist almost completely of remixes, but some of the classic Kirby tunes are so manipulated that Nintendo fans may not immediately recognize them. I would classify one or two remixes as encroaching on trance; even the most straightforward remixes are highly decorated with surreal electronic noises and effects. The music's liberties may annoy fans who want to hum along, but such unexpected renditions add another layer of maturity that betrays the franchise cute façade.
Touch! Kirby may not be perfect, but it's pretty darn close. It offers the most intuitive, polished and entertaining use of the touch screen yet. What's more, it has enough depth to hold a player's attention for hours on end. If you liked Super Mario 64 DS's line-drawing mini-games or Yoshi Touch & Go, you'll adore this game. If you found those games short or shallow, you'll adore this game. Heck, anyone who owns a Nintendo DS should love this game.
Kirby: Canvas Curse has a June 13th date in North America, but if you cannot wait that long for this excellent game you can purchase an import copy from our friends at Lik-Sang.