I’m sort of a weird latter-day fan of the Kirby series. Like most gamers my age I grew up with Mario, Zelda and to a lesser extent Metroid, but I didn’t get into the Kirby series until my early 20s. I missed out on the early Game Boy origins of the pink puffball but as an adult, I strangely found a lot to love about this endearing little series which Nintendo primarily develops for young kids.
I love that Kirby was designed to be an easier, friendlier platformer for little kids who might be intimidated by their older siblings’ Mario games. I love how Kirby started on a handheld because younger sibling would probably get stuck with the Game Boy anyway; I also love that despite having big console outings over the years, Kirby remembers and remains rooted to his portable past. I love that Kirby was Smash Bros creator Masahiro Sakurai’s first invention, which he made at 19! On a related note, I love that despite being an official Nintendo mascot, Kirby retains the unique, quirky identity of HAL Laboratory, one of Nintendo’s secondary development studios. HAL Lab has their own inside culture—it’s where the late, great Nintendo CEO Satoru Iwata got his start—and I love that Kirby, Smash Bros and Earthbound all reference each other in amusing ways as uniquely HAL Lab creations.
Most of all, I love that the Kirby series is just so friendly and non-threatening, but still has this winking sense of humor and subtle, self-referential continuity for longtime fans. While there is some faint awkwardness for me whenever I boot up a new Kirby game—I played a few of the previous games with an ex-girlfriend—a Kirby game never fails to just make me happy. It’s an innocent, stress-free little pleasure that you rarely see in video games anymore.
So it goes with Kirby: Planet Robobot, the latest entry on the 3DS. This new game is the perfect example of something else I love about the Kirby series: its consistent quality. Being a second-run mascot, Kirby (and as a result his games) don’t have the enormous pressure of bigger Nintendo series. Kirby games don’t have to arrive right at the launch of a new Nintendo console, so HAL can take their time perfecting each new entry. They also aren’t forced to innovate to such a raw extent; Mario and Zelda seem preoccupied with constantly outdoing themselves, adding on some crazy gimmick or big idea with each new game. Even after going into 3D with Kirby 64: the Crystal Shards—which arrived late in the N64’s life—Kirby firmly remained a side-scrolling platformer.
It was the same with Kirby’s Return to Dreamland, which skipped the GameCube entirely and didn’t show up on the Wii until fall 2011. Planet Robobot was thankfully preceded on 3DS by Kirby Triple Deluxe, but with Planet Robobot the puffball is still landing another great game on a platform in its twilight years. It’s also proving that you can retain the same basic format and gameplay for years and still find room to innovate, improve and deliver an incredibly satisfying experience.
The plotlines of Kirby games are just as endearing as the gameplay; usually some new villain shows up to steal Kirby’s snacks or something. In Planet Robobot, Kirby’s afternoon nap is interrupted when the Haltmann Corporation sends a giant flying saucer to completely mechanize Kirby’s homeworld, the planet Pop Star. Kirby’s longtime nemesis King Dedede (who is really more of an endearingly incompetent fremeny at this point) is defeated, as is the chivalrous and ever-mysterious Meta Knight. After plowing through the first three worlds Kirby meets and battles Haltmann Corp’s PR rep, a robot named Suzie, and learns that her boss President Haltmann is behind the evil scheme.
To be honest it’s a little more involved than the typical Kirby plot, with self-aware machines and a nature-vs-technology theme. What hasn’t changed is the rock-solid gameplay, which is somehow better than ever here. Planet Robobot continues in the excellent framework established by Return to Dreamland five years ago, but also retains the best elements from 2014’s Triple Deluxe. As usual Kirby can puff up and float for an indefinite amount of time, making platforming a snap…that is unless he’s carrying an item like a key, which adds a gameplay wrinkle for more advanced players to tackle. Kirby can also use warp stars to jump between the foreground and background of a level. This mechanic first gained popularity in studio Renegade Kid’s Mutant Mudds, but was also used in Triple Deluxe to showcase the 3DS’s glasses-free 3D effect. It’s used even better in Planet Robobot.
The best aspect of any Kirby game is his ability to inhale enemies and gain their powers, and every new game adds a handful of cool new abilities to test out. In Planet Robobot we get the “doctor” ability which gives Kirby some Dr. Mario-esque pills to throw, but also lets him charge up and store random concoctions from an adorable chemistry set, which can later be released as a vertical attack. The “poison” power doesn’t have the most hard-hitting outright attacks, but allows you to leave clouds of noxious gas or puddles of acid that are great for whittling away at a boss. The “ESP” power is by far the coolest new addition. It’s a direct reference to HAL’s Earthbound series—Kirby even gains Ness’s baseball cap—and this power allows him to control a ball of mental energy and teleport out of danger.
Each ability—new and returning from older games—has straightforward attacks, but the optional complexity of a Kirby game always comes from the fighting game-like moveset for each power. There’s a lot of hidden layers to each ability, and mastering them is the only way to access the game’s cleverly hidden secrets. You might have to puff a poison cloud into a fan to damage an unreachable barrier, or hit a switch behind a wall with an ESP ball. Planet Robobot also integrates Amiibo figurines into the ability system. By scanning a compatible Amiibo Kirby will gain a random ability, that is unless you scan the Smash Bros Kirby figurine. This will give you the devastating and versatile “Smash Bros” ability, which perfectly recreates Kirby’s moveset from the popular Nintendo mascot brawler.
Of course the biggest new addition is the Robobot armor: Haltmann mech suits in each level that Kirby can highjack and imbue with whatever ability he steals from enemies. The Robobot armor might seem a tad overpowered in a game that is already supposed to be on the easy side, but it basically works like a more versatile version of the Super Powers from Return to Dreamland and Triple Deluxe’s Hypernova ability.
The armor supercharges any normal copy ability, allowing you to cut huge metal chains with the cutter ability, move heavy blocks with stone, or cap off fuses with fire. The “bomb” ability sends out little autonomous explosive robots, which make for some tricky maze-and-switch setups. Basically you must send the bots off to trip a button or destroy an unreachable obstacle while hitting switches to manipulate the environment. My favorite use was using spark to send an electric current through a cable, and then use the armor’s strength to move modular cable blocks to keep the current going. The armor is formidable in combat to be sure, but it’s even more useful for puzzle solving, and the puzzles in Planet Robobot are some of the best in the series.
As usual, really digging into the levels to hunt down the secrets and solve all the puzzles is the best part for longtime Kirby fans. In this regard the levels design is just as good as the previous two games, if not better. The progression setup tied to these secrets is also very similar to past games. Instead of power spheres or sun stones you will now be collecting data cubes; each world’s boss is locked behind a gate requiring minimum number, much like the green starts in Mario 3D World. If you go to the effort to hunt down all the data cubes in a world you’ll unlock a secret level, which usually has the most unique gameplay in Planet Robobot.
These secret levels usually find creative ways to use the Robobot armor and a few of the longstanding abilities. There are racing levels that use the “wheel” ability to turn the armor into a racecar, challenging you to flip between foreground and background in rapid succession as you collect items and race to the goal. The “jet” ability transforms the armor into a battle plane, which is put to good use in some incredibly fun scrolling shooter levels.
Outside of the story mode, Planet Robobot continues the Kirby tradition of including some experimental side modes. Kirby 3D Rumble is a bit unusual in that it puts Kirby in small, fully-3D arenas and challenges you to defeat all enemies in as few attacks as possible. This involves sucking up a group of enemies, and then lining up subsequent groups so you can knock them all out in one shot. The idea is to not miss any enemies so you can get your score multiplier very high for the boss at the end of the stage. This is a pretty addictive new mode but unfortunately it’s super short in Planet Robobot; only three stages in all. It’s a fun addition you can complete in less than 30 minutes and I hope they expand it in future games with more levels, enemies and the ability to steal abilities.
Team Kirby Clash is more substantial and even has a multiplayer component. In this mode you and three friends (or any combination of human and computer players) choose from various “classes” and do battle with the story mode’s bosses. All four players are Kirby but with different abilities, so Sword Kirby is a warrior, Doctor Kirby is a healer, and so forth. This mode also gives each class some new powers to encourage creative teamwork to defeat the bosses. It’s basically a very tiny Kirby RPG and it’s fun while it lasts, but like 3D Rumble there is virtually no replay value and it could use some serious expansion.
Meta Knightmare Returns is the third extra mode and is really more of a new game plus. It lets you play reworked versions of the single player levels with the addition of new bosses. Meta Knight differentiates himself from Kirby by having four unique abilities that you must balance against each other. It’s a great way to revisit the campaign once you’ve hunted out all the secrets and Meta Knight’s play mechanics add a surprising new angle to levels you’ve already beaten a few times.
Because they don’t feel the pressure to constantly flip the tea table in terms of gameplay, HAL routinely tries fun new approaches to the Kirby series’ production values. That’s no different in Planet Robobot, and while there are logical similarities to Return to Dreamland and Triple Deluxe, the mechanical nature of the latest game means there’s a cybernetic take on Pop Star. While cold and mechanical, it’s still consistently colorful and cute. There’s a casino where you must avoid pool balls and smack giant dice with the Robobot armor, and a Haltmann ice cream factory where the hazards are giant toppling swirly cones that splatter the screen with frozen dessert. In some ways it allows for more visual variety than the series has seen in years. That said it’s a little unsettling to see mechanized versions of classic Kirby enemies like Waddle Dees; they basically look like they’ve been assimilated by the Borg.
The Kirby games always have great music, and that’s no different in Planet Robobot. The familiar old tunes are all here, just as infectious and bubbly as always like a sugary soda you can’t stop drinking, but they have a mechanized, synthetic quality this time around. What I love the most though is that because the music is supposed to sound more artificial, longtime Nintendo composers Hirokazu Ando and Jun Ishikawa have slotted in little chiptune fanfares and segments from way back on the original Game Boy. It’s just one more connection to the series’ heritage for longtime players to pick up on and enjoy.
It’s difficult to sum up any Kirby game because so much of a Kirby game is in the playing of it. The unsinkable cheerfulness, the winking charm and sheer genuine goodwill is hard to put into words. It’s also hard to describe just how well the surprising variety of gameplay elements and modes gel together, and how HAL Lab always finds a way to slot in some new idea that somehow fits naturally. In this respect, Kirby Planet Robobot is probably the most seamless and effortlessly consistent game from the series in the last six years. It won’t make you laugh out loud or jump up from your chair in astonishment, but it will give you plenty of those small, purely happy smiles that make you feel like a kid again. Kirby games say it’s ok to feel like a kid again for just a little while, and above all else that’s why I love the Kirby series.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
Sean Colleli has been gaming off and on since he was about two, although there have been considerable gaps in the time since. He cut his gaming teeth on the “one stick, one button” pad of the Atari 800, taking it to the pirates in Star Raiders before space shooter games were cool. Sean’s Doom addiction came around the same time as fourth grade, but scared him too much to become a serious player until at least sixth grade. It was then that GoldenEye 007 and the N64 swept him off his feet, and he’s been hardcore ever since.
Currently Sean enjoys a good shooter, but is far more interested in solid adventure titles like The Legend of Zelda or the beautiful Prince of Persia trilogy, and he holds the Metroid series as a personal favorite. Sean prefers deep, profound characters like Deus Ex’s JC Denton, or ones that break clichés like Samus Aran, over one dimensional heroes such as the vacuous Master Chief. Sean will game on any platform but he has a fondness for Nintendo, Sega and their franchises. He has also become a portable buff in recent years. Sean’s other hobbies include classic science fiction such as Asimov and P.K. Dick, and Sean regularly writes down his own fiction and aimless ramblings. He practices Aikido and has a BA in English from the Ohio State University. He is in his mid twenties. View Profile