Review: Kirby's Pinball Land (3DS eShop / GB)

Less than the sum of its parts

While primarily known as the star of a reliably charming series of platformers, Kirby has also starred in a fair share of spin-offs. One of those, Kirby's Block Ball, came to the eShop just a few months ago. It's a flawed but fun reimagining of Breakout. It plays to the strengths of both Breakout as a template and Kirby as a character, with each of these two otherwise disparate icons of gaming coming together to elevate the experience into something special and memorable.

As if only to serve as a cautionary counterpoint, the eShop now has Kirby's Pinball Land. In this case, neither of the elements complement each other at all, and they seem to be at odds to such a degree that the disparity interferes severely with the enjoyability of the game.

As you might guess, Kirby's Pinball Land is a pinball game featuring Kirby. So far, so good. However the hybridisation must have fallen apart early in development, because the Kirby aspects and the pinball aspects fight for primacy, rather than working together in any cohesive way.

Visually the game is fantastic. Familiar Dream Land obstacles, power-ups and denizens populate the boards, and everything is animated as smoothly as Kirby was ever animated on the Game Boy. Aurally the game is also well-served, with familiar — if sometimes mismatched — tunes from the pink puffball's original platformer.

That's about where the good news ends, however. For starters, the game has only three boards — or four, if you're generous enough to count an isolated boss battle with King Dedede. This is not a problem that many score attack games have to face — after all, some of the best original arcade games took place on a very small number of screens — but Kirby's Pinball Land doesn't easily fit into that genre.

Yes, the items and enemies give you points when you hit them. But scoring points is a secondary objective at best, and is outright irrelevant at worst. Well-designed pinball games — such as Zen Pinball 3D, or the more easily comparable Metroid Prime Pinball — make a high score its own reward. Ramps and targets are stationed in ways organic to the table and contribute to a welcome sense of momentum and flow. Kirby's Pinball Land, however, relies on these same components to restrict travel and fence you into a series of tiny areas, which makes it feel like an entirely different experience to pinball as we know it.

Each screen is less a series of opportunities to increase your score than it is another room in a gauntlet of unrelated puzzles. You may have to crack eggs or get a huge Kirby to raise his umbrella, but whatever you're doing you're batting the ball around endlessly in the hopes that you'll eventually hit the right things in the right sequence with the right timing so that you can move on. In a Breakout clone, that makes sense. When it comes to pinball, however, restricting access to such small, cramped areas at a time does not make for much fun.

If you make it all the way to the bottom of the table, you have the chance to relaunch Kirby into play, similarly to the stage-ending launch platforms in Kirby's Adventure. Make it to the top and you'll get to fight a boss.

The boss fights should be a highlight of the game, but they are quite disappointing. There are only four of them, and they are all extremely similar to each other. You knock Kirby into the boss and...that's it. Do it enough and you complete the table. But miss the ball even once and you're tossed back down below, where you'll need to complete tedious puzzles just to get another shot. This makes the game longer, yes, but it certainly doesn't make it any more fun, especially since each of the bosses has an attack that can freeze your flippers in place, and you're often booted from battle through no fault of your own.

Additionally, the game has an irritating habit of completely halting play in order to show you a celebratory Kirby dance whenever you reach 500,000 points. We can't imagine the developers ever played an actual pinball game before, because if they had they'd surely know that sudden interruptions to the rhythm of the game are not pleasant, and are hugely annoying.

Once you finish the three tables and the uninteresting boss fight against Dedede the game loops, and you'll get to replay all of the irritating puzzles you forced yourself through already. The entire game can be seen in around 20 minutes for those lucky enough not to have to replay too many areas, and perhaps an hour for those less fortunate.

Kirby's Block Ball knew how to take familiar elements of both games and combine them in a way that worked. Kirby's Pinball Land, by contrast, crams them together and ignores the fact that they don't quite gel. It's too crowded and restrictive to serve as a fun score attack game, and it's too loose and randomised to feel like a proper Kirby outing as well. In attempting to serve two masters, Kirby's Pinball Land just ends up disappointing them both.

Conclusion

Kirby's Pinball Land doesn't manage to assert itself as either a Kirby game or a pinball game, and because of that it feels more than a little aimless. It's an experiment that didn't quite come together properly, and so it's a minor — and incredibly brief — departure for an otherwise reliable Nintendo mascot.