Kirby, everyone’s favourite pink puffball, has hopped on his Warpstar and blasted into the world of “kart” racing in Kirby Air Ride for the Nintendo GameCube. He’s brought with him a few of his brethren, a unique set of controls, and some recognizable scenery, which is packed into this multiplayer-centric package. While the game may be reminiscent of Mario Kart, and maybe more so F-Zero, it also has the accessibility of a game of Candy Land (yes, the uber-jubilant board game for children), and retains a feel all of its own. Nevertheless, just because it’s a charming little racer doesn’t mean it’s for everyone.
The thing that immediately differentiates Kirby Air Ride from other racing games is the ultra-simple control system. This is an interface so basic that gameplay is restricted to the analog stick and the A-button. You’ll use the analog stick for steering while the A-button is used for various actions such as sliding, boosting, and inhaling enemies. You may be wondering how you accelerate, but as is the case with so many modern-day smartphone racing titles, that’s not your responsibility as your vehicle will automatically move forward. This simplicity serves its purpose of being instantly accessible but also risks alienating an audience looking for any sort of complexity, so it won’t appeal to everybody.
The game is comprised of three different modes. The first mode, aptly titled Air Ride, will have you racing against three opponents through lush environments inspired by past Kirby games. The course designs and layouts are similar to that of F-Zero X, though unlike the brake-neck speeds of that futuristic racing series, Air Ride mostly moseys along at about 25 mph. There are boost pads and on-rail “shortcuts” scattered throughout the nine courses to increase your speed, and utilizing these in succession will often mean the difference between winning and losing. In typical Kirby fashion, you’ll also be able to inhale the various enemies littering the courses to obtain their abilities and use them against your opponents. Some will bestow offensive powers while others allow you traverse the roads at increased speeds.
This all works relatively well, even if it is a little underwhelming at times, but you may often notice that your opponents will pass you seemingly without effort. That’s because like many other racing games, the players that fall behind will have a slight boost in top speed to keep things balanced. So even if you’re an experienced gamer, you can be beaten by someone picking up the controller for the first time. Thankfully, this "rubber band" mechanic can be turned off by accessing the settings at the course select screen. This option will be greatly appreciated by those waiting for the day when they can remove those atrocious blue shells from their otherwise sublime Mario Kart experience.
Next up is Top Ride, the most elementary yet frantic mode of Kirby Air Ride. Here, you’ll have a single top-down view of an entire course much like the classic Super Off-Road arcade game. There are seven courses available, all of which are limited in size to fit the screen. Power-ups are strewn throughout these constrained tracks to help you bash up or blaze past your competition, making for more thrills-per-minute than the other game modes. If you’re a fan of top-down racing action, Kirby Air Ride may be worth checking out for this feature alone. It doesn't offer any real depth but it’s a blast to play with a room full of friends all within swinging distance.
The last mode, City Trial, is the only mode that’s not focused exclusively on racing. Here you’ll be placed in the middle of a sandbox-type city with three other opponents and five minutes on the clock. The goal is to power up your vehicle by collecting patches scattered around the city. This works similar to gaining HP in an RPG game. You’ll find patches that increase the speed, weight, handling and other such attributes of your vehicle, which will be integral to remaining competitive in the randomly chosen mini-game to follow. These could be anything from a drag race to an arena battle cluttered with Kirby’s enemies. One of them even has you facing off against King Dedede himself. While the mini-games can be pretty entertaining, you’ll be sure to run into many instances where your vehicle doesn't even have a chance of competing, which can make it feel more like a game of luck rather than skill.
Each of these modes can provide a deal of fun but they don’t offer much beyond their multiplayer allure. Yes, you can play any of them with computer-controller racers, but there is no Grand Prix or any mode focused on the single-player experience. The only thing that resembles any level of progression is that there are 120 achievements to complete per mode. These can be as simple as finishing a course in under a certain amount of time or as random as coming in first place while simultaneously taking damage from an opponent. Completing these tasks often does nothing, but some will unlock new vehicles, sound tests, different coloured Kirbys, as well as other things. This is a nice addition and will no doubt give completionists incentive to keep playing, but most aren't going to care enough to focus exclusively on clearing them all. The omission of a truly focused single-player mode is the biggest misstep of Kirby Air Ride and causes the package to feel a little shallow, which is a shame considering the high volume of multiplayer options.
The visuals and music compliment the cherubic atmosphere that we've come to expect of the Kirby franchise, although the intro and menus look to be taken directly out of Super Smash Bros Melee. This works fine for the game and it makes sense that Hal Laboratory, coders of both these series, would reuse this interface - even if it may appear a bit lazy on their part.
This is a game about having some mindless fun with your friends. It’s obvious that some people may be turned off by the nature of the controls, but they feel like a fairly realistic translation of the controls from 2D Kirby offerings, so they get the job done. Love it or hate it, Kirby Air Ride accomplishes what it set out to do, which is to be a widely approachable racer, and you can’t really hold that against it.
As we’ve learned from the casual gaming market in recent years, "simple" doesn’t always equate to a "dull" experience, and that mostly rings true for Kirby Air Ride as there's a fair amount of multiplayer fun to be had in each of its three game modes. In fact, parents of small children just may find it to be the perfect way to introduce their kids and/or non-gaming spouses to video games. However if you’re an adult looking for a game to play alone - or you’re a hardcore gamer looking for something that demands a higher level of strategy and skill - it would be recommended that you hitch a ride with Mario or Captain Falcon instead.