That's not a condemnation of Kirby: Mass Attack, of course -- that sort of outside-the-sanity-box thinking also led to the creation of the magnificent Kirby: Canvas Curse. This latest aberration of the powderpuff series doesn't quite reach the heights established by that predecessor; but during those moments where its preternatural ideas work in tandem, it comes awfully darn close.
Rather than mount your roly-poly protagonist on a hand-drawn rollercoaster, Mass Attack sees your one Kirby divided into up to 10 Kirbys, whom you must guide through a series of obstacles using the stylus -- and only the stylus.
Your set of maneuvers are about as simple as you'd expect. You can tap on a spot on the screen to move your gaggle of Kirbys towards your pen, or double-tap to set them running. Clicking an object makes your Kirby-pile attack it, while sharply dragging across a Kirby sends it flying in that direction. You can also hold the stylus over the murder of Kirbys, and manually drag them in any direction for a short distance.
These interactions are easy enough to manage when you're dealing with one protagonist, but once you approach the maximum 10, things can get pretty hectic. Later levels feature time-sensitive traps which require fleet feet to avoid -- moving a screen-wide queue of Kirbys through without taking damage is nearly impossible. Once a Kirby takes two hits (or one particularly brutal one), he'll start to float away to Kirby-Heaven; if you fail to grab him before he leaves the screen, you'll have to collect enough fruit to summon a new Kirby from the ether.
Compared to other Kirby titles (in which death is usually an unthinkable fate), Mass Attack is incredibly difficult. There are elements strewn across each level which require a certain number of Kirbys (usually 10) to activate, so keeping up your roster is vital. Completing a level isn't terribly hard, but finding all of its hidden medals and fruit caches while protecting enough Kirbys to satisfy the next level's entry fee is, on occasion, a herculean task.
The end result is something of an unbalanced one: Some levels reek of monotony, especially after you've spent a few hours throwing Kirbys at foes and weaving through obstacles. Others were enjoyable enough to merit multiple playthroughs, sending me on a hunt for the hidden medals therein which are needed to unlock a separate set of bonuses and equally delightful mini-games.
If Kirby: Mass Attack is to serve as one of the Nintendo DS' first-party swan songs, the platform could do much, much worse. In a way, it's a perfect indentikit of the touchscreen genre which the DS effectively invented: It features both the tactile joy of the device's strongest offerings with the occasional clumsiness which universally haunts the system's stylus-centric games.
The highs handily outweigh the lows, thanks to a near-schizophrenic level of variety and metric tons of charm HAL Laboratory has included. Mathematically speaking, the sheer volume of Kirbys doesn't make Mass Attack ten times as good as any other DS title, but I'll be entirely damned if it doesn't make it ten times as endearing.
This review is based on a retail copy of Kirby Mass Attack for the Nintendo DS.