Kirby Star Allies is a 2D Action Platformer developed by HAL Laboratory and published by Nintendo. It was released exclusively for the Nintendo Switch in March of 2018. MSRB is $60.
Back in the 1990s, most Platforming mascots like Mario and Sonic packed their bags and moved away to live in the Big City of 3D Platformers. However, Kirby stayed in its Sleepy Hometown of 2D Platformers, and has remained there ever since. That doesn’t mean that Kirby games aren’t good, though. In fact, Kirby Triple Deluxe and Kirby Planet Robobot stand out from the 3DS’s crowd of Platformers thanks to their creative mechanics and level design. However, in just a few weeks, all of this will change. Kirby will finally get its big break into 3D with Kirby and the Forgotten Land, and based on the demo I played, it’s going to be an amazing experience. But before we jump into this brand new era for The Pink Puffball, there was one last 2D game that I wanted to look back on: Kirby Star Allies.
At first glance, Kirby Star Allies is a safe and disappointing 2D game that could easily blend into the herd of Switch Platformers. It didn’t accomplish much other than being cute. However, the more time I spent with this game, the more I appreciated the subtle differences to its gameplay.
Now when I say that this game is cute, I mean it’s really cute. In fact, the 2D visuals are arguably the best of its genre on the Switch, better than Metroid Dread and better than Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze. The game literally glows with color — striking menus, pastel flowers, circle-shaped hills, interdimensional wormholes, autumn leaves, starry skies — every level is a painting of polygons. Kirby games have always looked good on their respective systems, but HAL Laboratory managed to optimize the 2D Kirby engine into something that looks much better than I ever anticipated.
The biggest drawback is that, from an art direction standpoint, Kirby Star Allies doesn’t look very unique. All of the levels are just standard grass, water, and ice levels… things we’ve seen platformers do for decades. The 3DS games at least had some visual gimmick to make them stand out: Kirby Triple Deluxe had a “Jack and the Beanstalk” theme, and Planet Robobot used a steampunk aesthetic. Yeah, that’s right, there’s a steampunk Kirby game. But Star Allies doesn’t really do anything like that. I wouldn’t blame anyone for forgetting that this game exists.
And unfortunately that lack of uniqueness bleeds over into the level design as well. Every once in a while the game will surprise you, like a level where you have to outrun a giant ball of a Waddle Dees stuck together. However, many ideas fail to develop to a satisfying degree. If Retro Studios had designed this game, the level after the Giant Waddle Dee Ball would have shown how these poor Waddle Dees got stuck in the first place. Maybe you would’ve even freed them, or used them in a miniboss fight. No such level exists in the actual game, though. It seems like most of the levels are more basic and flat in order to accommodate for this game’s one shiny new mechanic: co-op multiplayer.
In Star Allies, Kirby has the ability to befriend almost any enemy, up to a squad of 4, and make them fight on your side. Each friend can be controlled either by the computer or by a person, and in fact, I played the entire Story Mode in co-op with my partner. This friend mechanic is fun, but it’s also a bit of a double-edged sword. The best part of this game is picking the right squad and experimenting with the ways you can combine your abilities together. For example, if I have the Sword copy ability and I befriend a walking electric plug, we can charge my Sword with electricity, changing how my Sword attacks enemies and interacts with the environment. There’s always at least one or two optional puzzle areas in each level where the game challenges you to combine different abilities, like adding the Stone and Psi abilities together to float my rock ally into the air and hit a hidden red switch.
In addition to befriending normal enemies, you can also visit the Dream Palace and recruit characters from past Kirby games into your squad. The roster is quite large too, spanning across all of the Puffball’s history — from Susie, the robot secretary in Kirby Planet Robobot; to Gooey, the blue slime from Kirby’s Dream Land 3. My partner actually fell in love with Gooey and refused to play as any other character. Every Dream Friend has their own unique moveset with their own abilities to contribute, creating exponentially more ways to experiment.
The biggest downside is that all of these allies make this game one of the easiest Kirby games by far, and “Easy” what this series is known for. For us, that worked out just fine. My partner doesn’t enjoy difficult Platformers, so this was an ideal game for her. However, I can see how other people would have problems with this, even for other Kirby fans. I understand how, when this game was originally released in 2018, people breezed through it without a second thought, especially if they ignored the optional modes and secret levels. Thankfully Star Allies got some support with updates that added more content to beef up the experience. It doesn’t necessarily excuse the poor amount of content at launch, but it’s better late than never.
Speaking of extra content, Kirby games always offer a hodgepodge of smaller games to sample once you defeat the Story Mode’s final boss, and Star Allies does not break this mold. There are a few uninteresting minigames, as well as a Time Attack/Light RPG mode and a Boss Rush mode. I liked playing through both of these as different Dream Friends; they reminded me of similar modes found in Super Smash Bros. Melee. But the really good stuff here is “Heroes in Another Dimension.” This is basically a second, more difficult campaign. The game takes away the ability experimenting and instead gives you a set list of Dream Friends, levels, and bosses. I missed being able to experiment, but the challenge was a welcome change for me.
Overall, I can see many parts where this game could’ve done more. It could’ve had more interesting levels, or a more cohesive theme to tie the game together (imagine if enemy bosses could recruit your allies, and you had to win them back?), and in the end I feel like this game will end up getting forgotten as Kirby and the Forgotten Land sweeps everyone away. For a general audience, it’s probably best to acquire this game only if you like cute 2D Platformers and find it at a discount. And yet I personally found it to be a delightful and adorable co-op adventure. My partner agrees. It was the perfect warm-up for the grand adventure to come.