Perhaps because of his rather inauspicious beginnings – in pleasant but forgettable fluff like the Kirby’s Dream Land series on the SNES – Nintendo’s tubby pink blob has never really shrugged off his (unjust) status amongst the hardcore as a mascot for the company’s non-AAA output. HAL Laboratories (the outfit responsible for almost all of Kirby’s games since his debut on the original Game Boy) really hit their creative stride with the GBA classic Kirby and the Amazing Mirror, and almost all Kirby games released in its wake have been reliably sturdy works of near-boundless charm and imagination.

HAL and Kirby’s latest offering is definitely no exception, and true to recent form Mass Attack is yet another Kirby game that bears scant resemblance to any of its predecessors. The story is as irrelevant as ever, consisting of a single, absurdly basic concept that is then shoehorned into a brief intro cutscene: a new villain named Necrodeus has split Kirby into ten miniature Kirbys. That is both the plot, and the gameplay set-up. All of his traditional powers are gone as a result too, and every aspect of the gameplay involves utilising your fluctuating little posse correctly.

There’s definitely an element of Pikmin about it all, and losing just one of your little pink cadets is every bit as painful as watching a single Pikmin soul rise into the ether. Although it’s periodically possible to grind a little bit to earn more Kirbys for yourself, the risk/reward element is what makes the game so exciting. Deciding to soldier onwards with a bruised brigade of blue Kirbys under your wing – all of whom are only one hit away from death – and then persevering beyond a level’s finale is genuinely thrilling; and as you progress, playing dangerously only gets more and more addictive.

But as was the case in Power Paintbrush – Kirby’s first DS bow, also known as Canvas Curse – none of the DS’s actual buttons are used, which results in Mass Attack’s only significant issue. It’s a minor one, but getting one of your Kirbys to jump involves having to make a very brisk upward stroke that feels strangely at odds with the rest of the gameplay. The command does work, but the experience is so serene that you’ll often find yourself tackling it at a very relaxed pace, and whipping upwards every few seconds feels jarring, initially. Nevertheless, it’s an issue that dissipates in less than half an hour, and will be a problem for Kirby’s target audience for all of about ten seconds.

And that quibble aside, the controls are marvellous. What’s most impressive about Mass Attack overall though is that it’s one of those frequently dumfounding games – which seem to appear on Nintendo consoles much more often than not – in which every idea feels as if it has been stretched to its absolute apex. Each world is based around a specific gameplay dynamic or idea which is then hammered relentlessly, and some levels – the handful that appear towards the end of the game especially – are masterpieces of ceaselessly smart design.

It might not quite scale the same heights as Power Paintbrush or the downright brilliant Wii smash Epic Yarn… but Mass Attack really isn’t far wide of that high mark. Once the laid-back opening tier has passed you’re in for a real treat, and one that breathes that unmistakably rich Nintendo air; challenging but rarely frustrating, smart but never intimidating and endearing without being manipulative. He may not exactly be Mario, but if HAL continue to make Kirby games like this, universal respect for the jolly pink puff surely can’t be too far away.

Kirby: Mass Attack is available now for the Nintendo DS.

Watch the Kirby: Mass Attack trailer below:

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