Looking at Nintendo's platforming mascots, we can't help feeling we have more than a little in common with Kirby - much more so than with a moustachioed plumber with a penchant for princesses with poor castle security, anyway. Kirby's our favourite shade of pink; the colour we turn with more than about ten minutes of sun exposure; and he REALLY likes his food (as do we). While we may not be quite as round as he is (yet!), we can't help feeling some kind of kinship with the happy little soul, especially as his games are one of the few platformers we've ever managed to reach the end of under our own steam. Platforming goddesses we ain't, but we've made sure to check out each and every Kirby release ever since, and with the release of Kirby: Star Allies for the Switch, we weren't about to stop now.
Trouble is brewing in Kirby-land once more, and as always, it's up to the titular pink puffball to save the day. On a far away planet, a dark, crystalline heart explodes, sending fragments hurtling through deep space, falling to Kirby's homeland and possessing the likes of King Dedede, Meta Knight, and pretty much everyone that isn't Kirby. With that blockbuster setup being pretty much all the game needs in terms of plot development, it's up to you to chase down these pesky intergalactic hearts, beating up everyone who's had the misfortune to come into contact with one, and generally thwart a brewing evil scheme. The only difference is that this time, Kirby has friends to help him in his quest.
Presumably because his heart is so pure and full, or something like that, rather than turning the Kirbster evil, the fallen heart fragments have instead given Kirby the ability to befriend everyone instead, as he can now lob a seemingly infinite supply of hearts at anyone he meets. Turning perennial series enemies into your new best friends, almost anyone you lob a heart at in game can join your team - and if you've got a handful of Joy-Cons to pass around, your friends can take control of them, and play alongside you in co-op too.
A fairly traditional Kirby game, Star Allies is one of the pink puffball's more traditional platformers, and a world away from the Wii U instalment. As you jump, fly and inhale your way through stage after stage, with cutesy enemies lurking around every corner, lava pits, spikes and deadly drops conspire to stop you from getting too complacent. Still, in general terms of difficulty, Kirby is about as easy-going as platformers come - which is one of the reasons you'll notice our insane number of lives in most of these pictures. Instead, the real challenge here is in finding and collecting all the hidden collectables (jigsaw pieces this time around), most of which require you to make clever use of Kirby's trademark copy ability.
As anyone who's seen the Kirby cartoon (or played his past games) will know, the Kirbster is essentially a walking stomach - and this extends not just to his food, but also to his enemies. By inhaling and swallowing certain enemies, Kirby can steal their powers for his own - a move which also nabs him a dashing little hat in the process. Gobble up a swordsman and Kirby gets a sword; chew up a fire breathing creature and now he's a portly pink flamethrower; eat a bird and now he has wings, and can fell his enemies in a flurry of feathers instead. Different powers are often the key to getting into all those little hidden nooks and crannies in levels, whether it's using your flames to light a fuse, smashing your way through rocks with a hammer, or kickstarting an electronic door with a Kirby-induced spark.
However, it's in the co-op and friendship system that Kirby: Star Allies really shines, as many of the game's puzzles require a clever combination of two or more abilities to progress. You might need to get a friend (or AI companion) to hold a giant umbrella over you as you try to light a fuse beneath a waterfall; or combine your bomb power with a friend's electric ability to make a shocking bomb, perfect for hitting a hard to reach plug socket. Mixing and matching abilities is as easy as holding up on the analogue stick, and waiting for one of your friends to come along and "attack" you, which in turn ends up "lending" you their attack. With near endless possibilities, mixing and matching abilities with friends is great fun given how over the top and silly most of them are - and even if you're playing on your own with only some computer-controlled allies for company, the AI is surprisingly solid, with your companions knowing exactly when to jump in and help with puzzles, defeat enemies and combine powers.
Every so often, Kirby and co will stumble on a 'Friend Platform', a large plinth which will trigger a 'Friend Action' when everyone stands on it together. A kind of "bonus power" of sorts, depending on the level, these Friend Actions are essentially giant transformations, which may see you forming a massive wheel of destruction to bash through anything that stands in your path, or an improvised bridge over the entry to a chasm that has many a tunnel leading off from it - it's up to you to move up and down to lead a creature with a key to a locked door. Arguably our favourite, at least partially because of how random it seemed has got to be the Friend Train. Kirby, being the leader, gets a train funnel and everyone else puffs along behind, racing through the level, up walls, around loop the loops and through enemies in the closest a Kirby game has ever come to mimicking Sonic.
However, it's not all good news on the Kirby front. Given how co-op centric Kirby: Star Allies is, with all these friend abilities, combining powers and puzzles that require you to work together, it seems strange that Nintendo have somewhat gimped the multiplayer, making playing with friends a lot more awkward than it really needs to be. Because of how Kirby ropes in new allies - by throwing friendship hearts at enemies to recruit them to his team - any co-op players that want to join aren't actually able to start playing along from the off. Instead, they need to sit in the sidelines and wait until Kirby's found enough enemies that he can create enough allies for them to join - which, given that not every enemy in Kirby has a power, could take longer than you'd like. It just seems counter-intuitive that a game that's all about friendship makes it harder than it really needs to be to play with friends. Fortunately, once everyone's in, they're in for good and you don't have to go through the rigmarole for each new level, but once you turn off the Switch and come back another day, it'll have forgotten who was who, and and you'll have to re-recruit everyone all over again.
Despite the slightly awkward multiplayer set up, though, there really is a lot to like here, and more than enough charm that, as a whole, help to plaster over the game's few cracks. With some rather clever power-combining puzzles, fun 'Friend Actions' (let's face it - running over bad guys as a train, or sucking up friends with vacuum cleaners before firing them to the four corners of the screen will never get old), and loads of over-the-top silliness, Kirby: Star Allies is a blast with friends, and a game that proves that Nintendo still know what it takes to make a great multiplayer platformer - even if getting into said multiplayer is a little more troublesome than it needs to be.
Format Reviewed: Nintendo Switch