Kirby has always been a flexible little guy; from his humble beginnings as a placeholder sprite, he’s been moulded into a pinball, a golf ball, and an animate collection of yarn - not to mention the many hats he wears as part of his trademark copy abilities. Kirby’s workable versatility is a huge part of his identity as a character, and so it only seems appropriate that Kirby and the Rainbow Curse, announced during the Nintendo Digital Event at this year’s E3, finds him cast in that most malleable of materials: clay. We got to take Kirby’s latest out for a spin, and loved what we saw - sporting gorgeous graphics and building on the gameplay of 2005’s Canvas Curse, Kirby and the Rainbow Curse looks set to carry on the legacy of its DS predecessor in style.
The E3 demo we played featured three separate levels, labelled simply ‘Beginner Stage’, ‘Water Stage’, and ‘Tank Stage’. We jumped into the Beginner level first, and were greeted with gameplay that felt pleasantly familiar from Canvas Curse: Kirby took the form of a limbless clay ball, and it was our job to guide him through a side-scrolling world using only the stylus. Tapping Kirby gives him a little boost forward - which can also be used to attack - while sketching out lines on the GamePad's screen will create rainbow-braided paths of clay for him to follow; as soon as he touches a rainbow rope, he’ll roll along it in the direction you drew until he reaches the end. These lines disappear after a little while - gradually losing colour as they weaken - and you only have a limited amount of clay to work with on-screen at any one time. A meter on the top left of the screen keeps track of your reserves, and Kirby regains clay whenever he’s not actively riding a rainbow.
After spending the morning running around in Yoshi’s Woolly World, Rainbow Curse initially felt a bit slow - Kirby rolls along at a stately pace that seems to befit a ball of clay, and the opening stage was clearly designed to help players get used to the game’s stylus-based control - but it didn’t take long for things to get interesting. As in Canvas Curse, the level design revolves around the path-drawing mechanic, and even in this opening stage that led to lots of satisfyingly acrobatic artistic expression - we had Kirby arcing up and over enemies, circling around platforms, and looping backwards into hidden passages to pick up items. One new element in Rainbow Curse is Kirby’s super dash: collecting a hundred stars (placed generously around the levels) will fill a meter, and by holding down the stylus on Kirby for a few moments you can unleash a powerful forward dash that can bust through blocks, roll over massive enemies, and help Kirby reach otherwise inaccessible parts of the levels.
After getting to grips with the Beginner level, we dove into the Water stage next, and the challenge here jumped considerably. Even as clay, apparently, Kirby’s still full of air; he floats up to the surface if left alone, and the trick here was to paint in paths above him to help him dive. This led to an interesting variation on forced-scrolling, as we tried to balance our clay reserves while steering Kirby safely through underwater caves and enemy gauntlets - having an anchoring arc expire at the wrong moment would send him speeding upwards towards untold dangers, and we lost a fair few of his four hit-points to spiky ceiling-mounted Gordos several times before the level was through. This stage also featured strong currents, which all but overrode our rainbow routes - a Super Dash was the only way to break through the undertow. Between trying to keep Kirby at depth and out of danger, navigating the currents, and keeping our eyes peeled for secrets, there was lots to keep track of in this stage, and nabbing all of the collectables - many of which were placed just out of reach of an easy path - required speedy reactions and split-second decisions.
The final stage we tried was built around one of Kirby’s new clay transformations: the tank. Kirby morphed into an adorably armoured panzer-puffball, and rolled steadily rightward on his tiny treads of terror. This level reminded us quite a bit of the Kirby Tank sections in Kirby’s Epic Yarn, but instead of aiming shots by tilting a Wii Remote, we simply tapped where we wanted Kirby to fire. It worked wonderfully and felt great, like a touch-controlled on-rails shooter, and it offered a noticeably different challenge from the other two levels. Since accuracy isn’t an issue with stylus-based shooting, the challenge came from the timing instead; as in the water level, there were lots of collectables and paths that needed quick thinking to reach or open up, a feat made even tougher by the added complication of enemies approaching from all angles at various speeds. Luckily, Kirby has an ace up his non-existent sleeve: holding down the stylus on a particular point will charge up a super powerful barrage of missiles, accompanied by a fantastic animation of Kirby adding increasingly absurdly overpowered artillery to his body before letting loose.
Like Yoshi’s Woolly World, Kirby and the Rainbow Curse uses its unique art style to its full potential, looking less like a clay-themed game and more like a playable piece of clay art. Lovingly-moulded imperfections make the character models, platforms, backdrops, and HUD elements all feel tangible and real, while background blur makes everything feel appropriately tiny, as if the whole game’s taking place inside a diorama box. The animations even have the stop-motion feel of claymation classics, all while the game itself runs at what looked to us like a silky-smooth 60 frames-per-second, using impressively fluid animation to emulate the look of substantially less fluid animation. It’s brilliant, and absolutely gorgeous in motion; while the effect is subtle at first, it’s stunning once you notice. The clay itself looks incredible, too, and we love Nintendo’s continued high-definition exploration of different materials - just as Yoshi’s Woolly World feels like a vibrant world made of fabric and thread, Rainbow Curse is a beautiful celebration of clay.
Our only real issue with this is one that stems from the handheld roots of its gameplay conceit: we found ourselves looking down at the GamePad the entire time we were playing, and even though the beautiful art tempted us upwards towards the television, the stylus-heavy gameplay made it tough to control Kirby without looking directly at the touchscreen. Of course, the demo we played at E3 was only a small (if remarkably polished) taste of a game that’s clearly early on in development, and we wouldn’t be surprised if HAL added in sequences and features which use both the TV and the GamePad in interesting ways by the time it sees release. Even if you do end up staring at the GamePad for most or all of your playtime, however, that’s not necessarily a problem; the demo was a blast, and we certainly didn’t mind looking down to play it. In fact, Rainbow Curse is a prime example of a console game that’s only possible thanks to the Wii U’s unique controller, and we loved getting to experience the mechanics of Canvas Curse with the higher resolution and increased real-estate of the GamePad.
Kirby and the Rainbow Curse was a wonderful surprise at this year’s E3. It’s stunningly beautiful, with a creative art style that stands with Paper Mario, Kirby’s Epic Yarn, and Yoshi’s Woolly World as a testament to Nintendo’s skills in both arts and crafts and aesthetic design, and it’s built on a solid foundation of stylus-based fun. We enjoyed our brief time with Rainbow Curse every bit as much as its DS precursor, and even in the three stages on offer in this demo, a Kirby-approved level of variety in the gameplay ensured that each level felt distinct. We’re excited to see how exactly HAL continues to mould Rainbow Curse leading up to its 2015 release, but from our early hands-on, it feels like it’s shaping up beautifully.
Be sure to check out our other hands on features from E3: