It's been a good seven or eight years since 'Kirby Bowl' was first shown at Spaceworld for the 'Ultra 64' together with a certain Mario 64. Back then, it was an obscure game that saw Kirby being rolled around all kinds of terrain. It looked pretty decent, but it was seen few times since. Then it reappeared a couple of years later and had a new name in Kirby's Air Ride, and had evolved into a snowboard-like game with Kirby.Then it was cancelled all together and banished into the world of vapourware....
Now, Kirby's back in a game that seriously challenges Mario's latest Kart offering. Produced by HAL, the makers of Super Smash Bros., this game shares the same element that made Smash Bros. so great. It's incredibly easy to pick up, but at the same time, difficult to master. You see, the control is a thing of simplicity. Its uses just the control stick and the A button. Nothing more. Accleration, brake, weapons, powersliding, boosting, etc are all performed using just the stick and the A button. Confusing? Maybe a little at first, but it doesn't take long to realize that it's almost perfect. Kirby moves of his own accord, rather like a snowboarding game, so you don't have to worry about acceleration. The A button has many uses. Its strongest use is the powerslide boost however is device that will slide you around a corner and give you a boost of speed as you come out of it. For example....
Imagine you are approaching a 180˚ hairpin turn. Now just before the corner you will need to hold A in order to Brake. Whilst doing this you must use the Control stick to swing yourself around the corner to perform the powerslide all the while still holding A. While you are holding A, the power bar in the bottom corner of the screen will fill up. This represents the power of the Boost you have built up. So now, once you have slid around the corner, you must release the A button and this will give you your Boost.
Sounds simple? Well, fundamentally it is. But using it so it becomes most effective (getting FULL boost as quickly as possible) and using it in the right places is the hard part. This is just one example of the game's central law: in other words, it's easy to do, difficult to master. Another subtle skill is landing properly. Many times in Kirby's Air Ride you will leave the ground. When this happens, you need to prepare to land in such a way that your vehicle is parallel to the ground. Succeed, and you're rewarded with a small boost. This is done with careful manipulation of the control stick. Push too far forward and you will nosedive into the ground and lose speed. Pull too far back and you'll lose speed while in the air. With all the varying shapes and gradients of track on offer, it takes learning and practice to regularly do it correctly. And yet again, it's easy to do, difficult to master.
Now that's the controls out of the way, it's time to talk a little more on the game options on offer. There are actually three modes to select from: Air Ride, Top Ride and City Trial.
Air Ride - For me, this is the strongest mode of the game. It's a Mario Kart-type mode where you race over various tracks (8 in all) against the CPU. The tracks themselves are wonderfully varied, ranging from dusty deserts, star-filled night skies and fiery caves. The first track is the perfect start to the game and introduces you to weapons, rails, landing correctly and the powerslide boost perfectly. Weapons aren't held in boxes like in Mario Kart, bit in enemies that are scattered around the track. With a press of the A button (in true Kirby fashion), you can suck them in and use their abilities. These range from fireball attacks (spit fire at your opponents), speed boosts (you become a tyre-like object for a short while and are much faster because of it) a Link Sword (to hit away enemies at close range) and the trusty bomb (a bomb that will stop dead anything within its range).
Careful use of the weapons is needed as they use the A button, which remember is also your brake, so strategy is needed to decide when to use them as you will drop in a speed momentarily when using them. Rails can be found in each level also, and usually offer an alternate route or a faster option through a level. Only through experimenting with use of these rails will you find the quickest way through a level.
The usual option of Time Trials is there, and they're incredibly addictive given the nature of the powerboosts and landing techniques on offer. It always feels possible to better your lap time no matter how perfect you thought your last run was as you will always feels you could have boosted quicker around a certain corner, or landed cleaner in a certain section. Not since Super Mario Kart on the SNES has PALGN spent so long shaving millisecond after millisecond off lap times. And with the added bonus of unlocking things after achieving certain lap times, there's always a point to do Time Trial.
Top Ride - In a nutshell, Top Ride is a Kirby version of such classics as Off-Road and Super Sprint. You race around smaller tight tracks littered with powerups and changing events (such as a quicksand pit appearing in the sand level or strong winds that blow you about on the factory level). You can choose to control this in two ways: either through (and this is a method that Micro Machines veterans will have perfected) using left and right to rotate your craft accordingly, or by by simply pressing the stick in the way you want to go. I prefer the first option more, but both work well. Its worth noting that it features the same powerslide & boost of the 'Air Ride' mode, which again is the key to success here.
City Trial - City Trial is an initially odd mode. There are two parts to it. The first part is the City, where you and three others (CPU or Human) race around the city under a time limit collecting items (to improve your stats) and veichles. These in turn unlock more secrets in the game like Kirby colours and actual vehicles to use in Air Ride mode. Tasks appear at random at certain points in the City mode. For example, areas will catch fire and need to be taken care of, or there's even this huge bird creature (and we mean HUGE) that appears and needs to be defeated. Once the city part is over, you take part in a mini game. These can range from a target game where you have to fly at a target for points, a ski jump type game where you have to jump as far as you can off a ramp, and even a Mario Kart-esque Battle Mode where you have to use the varying power-ups to gain kills. They're all a nice bit of fun and add some variety to the game.
Also, its worth mentioning that four player races are available in EVERY mode, and that there are CPU sliders to increase/decrease the CPU difficulty, so there will always be a challenge for you, no matter what kind of skill level you are at.
The graphic styles used in Kirby Air Ride are slightly different for each mode. Air Ride looks great, as can be seen in the accompanying screenshots - everything is very colourful, very crazy and very, very big. The tracks are well-created and are very '3D'. When I say that I mean they feature lots of hills and drops, twists and turns, alĂˇ F-Zero GX. One level even sees you travel from above the clouds to the surface of a vast planet, a ride made all the more impressive by the sheer scale of the track. All this, and the game commendably still runs at a solid 60fps.
The top-down view 'Top Ride' (which can also be seen in the media panel) is the most detailed of the bunch, with the sharpest textures, the most impressive effects (the water on that level looks brilliant) and certainly looks the most 'real' of the three. City mode is very different to the other two. Very simple shapes are used for buildings and trees, and few textures can be seen anywhere. That's not to say it looks ugly, as it doesn't. It may not technically look good, but it has a certain style about it and is pleasing on the eye. The only criticsm of City mode is that the perfect framerate evident in other parts of the game takes a hit, and the dreaded slowdown appears. It's neither that severe or that frequent, but it's noticeable.
Presentation-wise, everything is of a high standard. The menus are very much like Smash Bros. in terms of their layout and design, which can only be a good thing. Each level is varies nicely from others, with many different environments employed throughout the game. The usual sand, snow and fire-themed levels are all in there, and while they certainly don't bring much originality to the table, they do add a lot of graphical variety.
Coming from the makers of Super Smash Bros: Melee, it comes as no suprise that the music is stunning. A full, orchestrated soundtrack of Kirby tunes are on offer here, plus a lot more. Each tune perfectly fits it's level, whether it be the tingly notes of the ice stages or the Egyptian flutes that accompany the desert levels. Each vehicle has it's own specific noise, and this only adds to the personality of each. For example, the huge Kirby Motorbike grunts away like a Harley Davidson would, whilst the Rocket vehicle has a Wipeout kind of thrust nose and the Warpstar has the same kind of whistle noise to it, similar to the sound it makes in Kirby's platforming games. Unfortunately, Dolby Pro Logic 2 isn't deployed here, a shame as it would have been excellent during the race and city modes.
The lifespan is slightly lacking. While there's a great deal of things to unlock (150 items if we're not mistaken), three varied game modes to play, a nice selection of mini-games and, as I mentioned earlier, the powerslide boost nature of the game that really makes the time trial great, it didn't hold me for weeks like other racing/party games have. A few more circuits in Race mode would have been very welcome as I feel what's there just isn't enough. The multiplayer can provide extra fun though. and due to the control being so simple, virtually anyone can just pick it up and play, especially the simplistic Top Ride. Air Ride isn't as good as it could have been. Whilst the weapons work well against the CPU, they just don't work as well in multiplayer, meaning it's more of a racing experience than in Mario Kart, where weapons play a larger role. Whether that's a good or a bad thing is naturally dependent on what you prefer.
The general criticism of this game has been rather unfounded. What you'll find here isn't a simple on-rails kids game as many proclaimed, but a pure delight. The control scheme is simple, yet deep. The three distinct game modes are each great. Add the wealth of unlockables, an addictive time trial and a frantic multiplayer mode, and it makes a great buy. With a stronger lifespan and a more involving mulitplayer this could have been a sleeper hit, but as it stands, it's simply a good, fun, enjoyable Nintendo game that can be recommended to anyone, even if it means waiting a while for a lower price.