Perhaps I never played a Kirby game when I was younger due to the aesthetic. It’s not that I was repulsed by Kirby or his cute and cuddly form. I just lacked a solid interest. I do recall drawing the characters using Nintendo Power as reference on occasion, but when it came time to check out new games on GameBoy or SNES, I just had other priorities. This has remained true as I’ve gotten older, carrying the assumption that the Kirby games were for beginners.
This assessment was not entirely inaccurate, but I was certainly making false assumptions as to what sort of game I’d be playing. Due to Kirby: Planet Robobot’s inclusion of Mech suits and the resemblance to the vehicular combat in Mega Man X, I finally pulled the trigger and gave the series a try.
Turns out Kirby’s cute and mallowy exterior is an intentional misdirection.
Kirby: Planet Robobot is certainly a beginniner game, but it’s essentially Baby’s First Platinum Studios Action Game. What would it look like if Platinum made a side-scrolling platformer for kids? Probably Planet Robobot.
Like side-scrolling action games of old, foes march in pre-determined paths and perform certain actions only when the player is suitably near. Foes are reactive, which is part of what makes it a beginner’s action game. You’re never going to find yourself chased by a foe, and once you learn their behavior you’ll be able to predict their actions and respond accordingly. Some foes are much more proactive in hunting Kirby down, but the majority patrol or stand and wait for Kirby to get close.
The difficulty comes into play in the most basic of Nintendo philosophies. First you introduce a concept in a safe setting, allow the player to practice, and then complicate matters by increasing the threats present. In Kirby: Planet Robobot, this isn’t really done by increasing the number of enemies present at once. Instead, it is in introducing environmental hazards in an easy-to-avoid fashion, and then introducing factors such as an enemy or two.
What provides an additional spin to this formula is the presence of the foreground and background as accessible platforms. By interacting with key objects, the player can swap between both portions of the stage. However, foes and hazards will often also be attacking or entering from the opposing end of the z-axis.
This is actually a really smart method of increasing the hazards present without cluttering the screen. A foe in the background is smaller and their physical presence itself is no threat, but a bomb they toss into the foreground will be. However, by chucking that weapon from the background, the player is given both warning and reaction time.
Tough, but fair. It’s a term often used for games seeking that old-school difficulty, but Planet Robobot is nowhere near so punishing. The challenge is focused more on keeping the player engaged rather than testing their skill, an important distinction to have in a child-friendly game. While adults will no doubt rack up the extra lives, kids will still face a challenge. No one’s fun is truly sacrificed. Adults are not as challenged, but they are sufficiently entertained and engaged.
If I were to have a gripe with Planet Robobot, it’s with the powers themselves. Many of the stages were designed with specific abilities in mind, and the first foe you encounter is often the one whose power you’ll want to absorb. Even if you miss your opportunity the first try, there will either be duplicate foes later on or you’ll be able to backtrack and respawn the foe back into the level. Again, old school mentality at work, only this time it serves a functional purpose. By allowing these (hardly proactive) foes to respawn, you give the player a chance to go back and snag a power-up they didn’t know they wanted.
In the stages they are intended, many of these powers are fine. However, when up against mid- and final-stage bosses, very few abilities seem truly adequate. The game will often give you a selection of powers to choose from, and the mid-bosses will often provide a key power-up after being defeated. Unfortunately the power-ups will only seem useful in select situations. Even power-ups placed before a challenging foe can feel absolutely useless, no matter how closely you study its full abilities.
This is only true outside of the Mech, though. For a game whose marketing gimmick is the ability to use a Mech—and man, are there a lot of great ways to use that mech—only the occasional (mid-)boss fight makes use of the machine during notable encounters. Otherwise it’s just Kirby by his lonesome against the majority of bosses or mid-bosses. I would have much rather preferred a greater variety of bosses that used the various forms of Mech available. Ultimately, the only boss that seems to capitalize on this concept is the final one, whose final phases seem pulled directly out of Platinum’s game design handbook.
I’m uncertain, then, if I’ll snag any other Kirby games in the future. The Mech was the highlight of Planet Robobot, and while I certainly enjoyed my time in and out of the Mech suit, I cannot imagine being so entertained and enthralled relying on just Kirby.
Even so, my interest will certainly be more piqued at the next Kirby game announcement. If you’ve never played a Kirby game before, Planet Robobot may be the one to try.