Review by Anclation
Short, but sweet (not to mention cute!)
Back in the day, the N64 was THE console for 3D platformers, being home to so many of the best games in the genre. Thus it might seem somewhat odd that on the Virtual Console, you actually have more 2D platformers than 3D platformers available in the N64 section. That is, you have one 3D platformer and a whopping two 2D platformers to choose from. Super Mario 64, the 3D platformer, needs no introduction. Meanwhile, the first of the 2D platformers is Yoshi's Story, the decent but disappointing sequel to Yoshi's Island for the SNES. The second game is Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards, easily the more favorably received of the two, by critics and gamers alike. And while it certainly has its fair share of problems (level design, difficulty and overall length chief among them) it is definitely still a fun game well worth checking out.
Kirby 64 is a 2D platformer with 3D graphics, which was released for the N64 in 2000 and became available on the Virtual Console in 2008. The story of the game is simple, but not at all bad. We start off at Ripple Star, a peaceful, heart-shaped planet populated by fairies, which is attacked by Dark Matter. Dark Matter is after the Power Crystal, the great treasure of Ripple Star. Ribbon, a pink-haired fairy, does however manage to escape from the attack with the Crystal, and is chased by Dark Matter's minions across the galaxy. The chase ends when the evil creatures smash into the Crystal, breaking it into 74 pieces and sending Ribbon crashing into the planet Pop Star.
Fortunately Pop Star is the home of Kirby, who quickly comes across the distraught fairy (actually, she crash-lands right on top of him) and decides to help her find all the crystal shards, as well as free her planet from Dark Matter. During the course of their adventure Kirby and Ribbon are joined by a friendly Waddle Dee, painter girl Adeleine, as well as King Dedede, all of whom frequently help Kirby out as he visits many different planets in search of the crystal shards. The story is told through a number of cut-scenes, which are both cute and funny, and work very well despite there being no dialogue whatsoever.
For an N64 game, Kirby 64 is very pretty indeed. Its 3D backgrounds look great, while clever camera angles play around with the combination of 2D gameplay and 3D graphics in cool and unexpected ways. As you'd expect, the worlds Kirby explores are appropriately colorful and quite varied, with plenty of neat details and nice touches added. Very good graphics overall.
Music & Sound
Kirby 64's soundtrack is absolutely delightful, featuring plenty of upbeat, catchy tunes which you'll really enjoy listening to. Moreover, it also delivers in terms of diversity, with a number of the music tracks being surprisingly epic and a few even being downright chilling. The music is consistently good and really adds a lot to the atmosphere of the game. The sound effects are pretty good as well, with plenty of appropriate sounds backing up Kirby's many different abilities.
In many ways Kirby 64 is a pretty standard 2D platformer. It contains 6 main worlds, each consisting of 3-4 standard levels, as well as one boss level. The gameplay is simple and straightforward: You move from left to right (avoiding or destroying the enemies in your way) fight mini-bosses and otherwise run, jump and climb your way through each level. However, Kirby also has some interesting abilities that can spice things up: For starters, he can inhale a lot of air and then actually fly for a short period of time, making the standard platform jumps incredibly easy and enabling him to nab otherwise hard to reach crystal shards. Even more notable is his ability to swallow enemies and steal their powers (more on this later). Unfortunately, he's also a pretty slow character, making the gameplay quite slow paced even when running.
Now, being slow paced is in itself not a bad thing. Heck, my favorite 2D platformer of all time is the distinctly slow paced Yoshi's Island, due to its outstanding level design and emphasis on exploration. Kirby 64 is however no Yoshi's Island. The levels are very linear, with no exploration aspect beyond finding 3 crystal shards in each level (and many of them are pretty much in plain sight anyway). To make matters worse, the level design is generally uninspired and sometimes even repetitive, a number of levels for example forcing you to make the same kind of jump/get past the same kind of obstacle over and over again, making them feel drawn out. They are also incredibly easy, life being plentiful and the mini-bosses pretty pathetic. The slow pace and lack of challenge, coupled with the linear and uninteresting level design makes the game pretty boring as a pure platformer.
To be fair, the levels in Kirby 64 aren't without their strong points. Overall variety is good, with settings not just including the likes of forrests, deserts, beaches, underwater- and snow worlds, but also some really cool futuristic and surreal locations. A number of levels also feature interesting set pieces, which can involve stuff like riding various vehicles (like a mine kart, a raft and a sled) or controlling King Dedede as he smashes his way through many obstacles. The end-of-world bosses are pretty cool too, and the later ones are even somewhat challenging. Still, it's not any of these factors that eventually end up saving the game.
What really transforms Kirby 64 from a subpar platformer into a genuinely enjoyable game is the many abilities at Kirby's disposal. As previously mentioned, Kirby can swallow his enemies and steal their abilities. There are 7 types of abilities: Bomb, Burning, Cutter, Ice, Needle, Spark, and Stone. Swallow an enemy that possesses one of these abilities and that ability is yours to use. Absorb two enemies with the same ability to make it much more powerful. However, the big twist in Kirby 64 is that you can actually combine all of these different abilities, setting the stage for plenty of odd combos like Bomb + Ice, or Needle + Spark. Overall you have dozens and dozens of different combinations to experiment with.
And boy are these abilities fun to use! Notable examples include an ability that turns Kirby into a volcano, one that lets him use explosive ninja stars, a very cool one which gives him a double edged lightsaber, Darth Maul-style (well, almost) and even one that turns him into a refrigerator. The abilities are very imaginative, well thought out and with the exception of a few joke abilities (Burning + Ice is just as worthless as it sounds) very useful as well. With all these amazing abilities to play around with, the weak level design becomes much less of an issue, as the abilities provide so much entertainment on their own.
The Crystal Shards
Interestingly, some of the crystal shards can only be gotten if you get hold of the right ability. Sometimes crystal shards will be hidden behind weirdly colored rocks, the exact colors indicating what mix of abilities is required to break through (each ability type is associated with a specific color). On other occasions, solving puzzles is required (like using the lightbulb ability to light up a dark room for crucial info, or breaking through an ice barrier with the Burning ability) in order to get the crystal shards. Some of the puzzles are actually kinda tricky, which means that getting all the crystal shards is not as easy as it initially appears.
Kirby 64 is not a long game, certainly not a difficult one, and can easily be completed in a couple of hours. Thankfully, setting out to find all the crystal shards can add a lot to its lifespan, not to mention that getting them all is the only way to see the true ending of the game. It also unlocks some really neat features, like a Boss Rush mode. In addition to this, there are three fun mini-games available, which you can play alone or with friends, as well as enemy cards to collect. Still, for most players Kirby 64 will be a 8-10 hour game at best.
Considering how Kirby 64 only costs 1000 Wii Points (the equivalent of 10 bucks), that's not actually such a bad deal, especially when compared to the limited value of many full priced Wii games. However, at 1000 Wii Points Kirby 64 is in the same price range as the likes of Ocarina of Time, Majora's Mask and Paper Mario, all offering much better value for your money. Kirby 64 is fun to play, but lacking in the longevity department compared to many of the other N64 games available.
While far from the best 2D platformer available on the Virtual Console, Kirby 64 is nonetheless well worth downloading if you already own most of the big name platformers. It looks and sounds great, is fun to play and very, very cute. As long as you don't expect a real challenge or tons of content, you'll have a great time with this game.
Rating: 3.5 - Good
Product Release: Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards (EU, 03/06/08)
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