(This review is based on a digital copy of Kirby and the Rainbow Curse provided for free by Nintendo of America.)
When Kirby: Canvas Curse was released early in the original Nintendo DS’s life cycle back in 2005, it almost single-handedly legitimized the handheld’s touch screen and proved that touch controls can be an excellent alternative to a traditional control pad and buttons when married to the right gameplay. Players were tasked with controlling Kirby – who had been transformed into a limbless, round ball – by drawing lines to guide his forward movement, influencing and changing his momentum on the fly. It was a novel concept that proved to be smart, engaging, and challenging. Now, almost ten years later, developer HAL Laboratory has revisited the formula on a home console with Kirby and the Rainbow Curse. Unfortunately, while the core gameplay remains as compelling and engaging as it was back in Canvas Curse, it’s been diluted this time around by the introduction of a few too many gimmicky gameplay elements and level designs based entirely around those gimmicks. The result is a good-but-not-great game that doesn’t quite live up to Canvas Curse and its more laser-focused gameplay.
Rainbow Curse opens with our iconic pink hero lazing around on a sunny day with his Waddle Dee friend, chasing butterflies and rolling down hills. Just as he’s about to enjoy a snack, however, a hole opens in the sky and promptly sucks all the color out of the world and its inhabitants, leaving everything devoid of color and life. Just before the hole closes back up, a tiny fairy with a paintbrush for a head pops through and paints Kirby and Waddle Dee back to life, with an ominous pair of hands in close pursuit. Newly revived, Kirby and Waddle Dee rescue the fairy – named Elline – and fight off the hands before setting off in pursuit of their world’s lost color, which has been stolen by a new villain named Claycia. As is generally the way with Kirby titles, Rainbow Curse takes a minimalist approach to storytelling; the plot is expressed mostly through charming opening/ending cutscenes and exists mainly to give some context to the proceedings.
Instead of directly controlling Kirby as you would in most of his games, you actually play the role of Elline, painting rainbow-colored lines to guide the ball-shaped Kirby along. (Curiously, Rainbow Curse provides no reason for Kirby taking the form of a ball for this adventure other than simply enjoying it.) Tapping Kirby himself propels him forward in a dash attack that can break blocks and defeat enemies, and it’s through a combination of tapping Kirby and carefully drawing lines to guide his forward momentum that you’ll generally progress through levels. The physics in Rainbow Curse are impressively nuanced, giving you absolutely total control of where on the screen Kirby goes and, in turn, making the gameplay exceptionally rewarding; when you instinctively draw perfect lines and send Kirby right where you want him to go in the face of all the hazards the game is throwing at you, you feel an incredible sense of accomplishment because the core gameplay mechanic – drawing – is itself so tactile and the visual feedback is so immediate. There’s a sense of tangibly interacting with and influencing Kirby and the game world through touching and drawing that even the most responsive button presses on a traditional controller can’t quite replicate, and that’s exactly what makes Rainbow Curse’s core gameplay so special and consistently rewarding. It’s impossible not to notice and feel yourself getting better at the game the more you play.
Of course, there’s quite a bit more to it than just tapping Kirby, drawing lines, and going on your merry way. You can draw new lines through old ones to delete them, which is a necessity when wanting to quickly change Kirby’s direction. There’s also the Star Dash special move, which can be used every time you collect 100 stars (think Mario’s coins) in a level and causes Kirby to grow larger and fly forward in a damaging ball of light that is tricky to control but can destroy otherwise unbreakable walls. Finally, you always have to be mindful of how much line-drawing paint you have left at any given moment; drawing lines quickly depletes the paint meter, and once it’s empty you won’t be able to draw any more lines until it recharges, which happens very slowly while Kirby is on a line or in the air and instantly when he hits solid ground. This leads to plenty of tense, nail-biting situations where you’ve unwittingly used up all of your paint but there’s no solid ground around to recharge it, leaving you to desperately try and keep Kirby out of danger with the miniscule amount of paint that recharges while he’s aloft.
Speaking of tense situations and danger, Rainbow Curse can be a surprisingly difficult game, with a rather high learning curve that expects a lot out of players quite early on. While the beginning levels aren’t particularly dangerous, they do expect players to quickly become comfortable with drawing complex lines in order to collect stars and other collectibles. The gloves come off once you hit the second world, though, and suddenly the four hits Kirby can take before dying won’t feel so generous! Another steep difficulty spike makes itself apparent upon reaching the fourth world, at which point it’s all fair game: auto-scrolling levels with instant-death pits, enemies descending on and shooting things at Kirby from all directions, you name it. Just passing some of the later levels can be tough, but if you’re going for 100% completion by collecting every treasure chest in each level, expect to burn through extra lives at a rapid pace. Of course, in usual modern Nintendo fashion, the game will ask if you want to just skip to the next level after dying repeatedly in a particular stage. Doing so is of course entirely optional, and it’s a great cushion for younger, disabled, or less skilled players… not to mention a bit humbling if you think highly of your gaming skills.
The fact that Rainbow Curse’s core gameplay is so excellent, rewarding, and challenging only serves to further highlight the game’s biggest problem: that it gets in its own way far too often. Nearly every stage after the second world or so is based around some kind of gimmick that takes the focus away from the simple pleasure of drawing lines and finely manipulating Kirby’s movement and trajectory. There are auto-scrolling levels; vehicle levels, where Kirby spends the entire stage transformed into a tank, submarine, or rocket (more on that in a bit); gondola levels, where Kirby has to ride in a slow-moving gondola to progress with you drawing lines for the gondola to travel along; timed-escape levels, where you have to plot an escape route for Kirby on a map and are given a minute to see the escape through… I’m all for gameplay diversity, but there’s so much of it here that the fantastic core mechanics – the best thing about Rainbow Curse and Canvas Curse before it – often just get left by the wayside. Even the platformer-requisite underwater levels, which I would normally enjoy as a fun change of pace, end up feeling unwelcome because they represent yet more stages where the core mechanics are messed with in some way. This might not be as big a deal if Rainbow Curse was longer, but at only 21 levels short (not including boss battles), these gimmicks really do take up a large chunk of the main game’s overall length, which left me pining for more “regular” stages focusing on the gameplay that made Canvas Curse so great throughout its entire length. Ironically, too, Rainbow Curse’s focus on several gimmicks over the core gameplay in a relatively short game ends up making the gimmicks themselves feel predictable and overused.
As mentioned before, Kirby rather adorably transforms into a tank, submarine, or rocket for certain levels, and they all control differently and have varying capabilities. The tank chugs along slowly and fires bullets wherever you tap on the GamePad’s screen, temporarily turning the game into something of a frantic shoot ‘em up; the sub constantly and automatically fires torpedoes forward, with you painting lines to guide them into enemies; and the rocket is always hurtling forward on its own, requiring that you focus entirely on using lines to change its direction in order to avoid hazards and collect goodies. All of the vehicles are fun to control in their own ways (though the rocket can be frustrating and two of its stages are nearly identical) and add a fun bit of variety to the gameplay; again, I just wish they were either used more sparingly to make up for the game’s brevity or that the game itself was longer, because none of the vehicle-based stages end up being nearly as entertaining as the precious few gimmick-free stages.
Rainbow Curse’s story mode is divided into seven worlds, each of which is made up of three stages and a boss fight. The stages themselves are generally quite long to make up for the fact that there aren’t very many of them, and you’ll likely find yourself replaying several of them to get any treasure chests you missed the first (or second, or third…) time through. Backtracking isn’t an option, either; the stages are clearly designed so that if you miss a collectible, you won’t get another shot at it until the next time you play the stage, further highlighting Rainbow Curse’s surprisingly difficult nature.
The boss fights in Rainbow Curse are quite fun and a definite highlight of the experience, which is why it’s a real shame that there aren’t more of them. Instead of fighting six different bosses at the end of the first six worlds, there are actually only three bosses, with each of them showing up in two worlds. It’s really disappointing to see reused content like this in a game that’s already short as it is; while it’s true that Rainbow Curse is supposed to be a $40 “budget title,” the definition of “budget” can only be reasonably stretched so far at that price point! That said, Canvas Curse also reused boss fights, so it’s not as if Rainbow Curse is the first offender here.
Rainbow Curse includes multiplayer support for up to four players, with one player drawing lines and guiding Kirby with the GamePad like usual and the other three players using Pro Controllers or Wii Remotes to play as Waddle Dees. The Waddle Dee players can pick Kirby up and carry him through hazardous areas in order to support the player using the GamePad, and they can also defeat enemies directly with spear attacks. Because the game’s levels are clearly designed and balanced around the core single-player experience, the multiplayer tends to utterly wreck Rainbow Curse’s difficulty curve and make the game far too easy. Still, it’s a nice inclusion and having the option to play with others certainly isn’t a bad thing.
Ironically, Rainbow Curse supports the Kirby, King Dedede, and Meta Knight amiibo figures even though the latter two are currently almost impossible to find on store shelves, at least in North America. Each figure can be touched to the Wii U GamePad to unlock a temporary gameplay bonus before playing a stage: Kirby allows the player to use the Star Dash ability whenever they want, King Dedede increases Kirby’s health from four to six points and gives him Dedede’s hat, and Meta Knight strengthens Kirby’s basic dash attack and adorns him with Meta Knight’s mask. Importantly, each figure can only be used once per day and the bonus effects only last for one stage and vanish if the player loses a life, ensuring that the use of amiibo doesn’t undermine the game’s difficulty too much or provide amiibo-owning players with too steep an advantage. While this amiibo functionality isn’t altogether that compelling, it’s a nice extra.
While Rainbow Curse’s story mode can be completed in an afternoon if you’re rushing, the game will last you a fair bit longer (probably around ten hours) if you’re looking to do and see everything. Each story mode stage has up to five optional treasure chests to find, a medal to earn based on the number of stars collected, and a secret diary page to nab. Treasure chests unlock new remixes of classic Kirby tunes in the game’s sound test menu as well as models of the game’s characters, enemies, and bosses (complete with their own delightfully-written flavor text) that can be viewed in the figurine collection menu. Diary pages unlock hilarious and adorable animated pictures that look like they were scrawled by a child and provide a glimpse at the adventure from Elline’s point of view.
Finally, earning gold medals in the story mode stages unlocks additional levels in Rainbow Curse’s challenge mode, a series of around 50 bite-size, rapid-fire challenges that generally give you a minute to collect four treasure chests (15 seconds for each chest). These challenges range from stupidly easy to deviously difficult, and the conditions for even unlocking the final challenges are quite demanding, so completionists will certainly get their money’s worth out of Rainbow Curse despite the story mode’s short length.
Rainbow Curse’s clay animation (“claymation”) art style is absolutely striking and lends the game an incredibly unique visual identity. The characters and environments really do look like they’re made out of clay both in cutscenes and during gameplay, and viewing the various high-definition clay models in your figurine collection only serves to further drive home just how impressive they really are. Multiple visual elements are even stacked “on top of” one another, just as they would be on real clay models. In fact, the stunning visuals and Wii U GamePad-based gameplay sort of end up existing at odds with one another; it’s the GamePad’s touch screen that enables Rainbow Curse’s unique gameplay in the first place, but the GamePad’s relatively humble screen simply can’t do the game’s gorgeous graphics and art style any sort of justice. As a result, Rainbow Curse ends up being the rare kind of game that is just as fun to watch as it is to play, and I often found myself wishing that I could look at the TV instead of the GamePad more often (or at all, really) while playing and fully take in the sumptuous visuals. This constant struggle between fully appreciating the gameplay versus the visuals does make one wonder if a game like Rainbow Curse is as at home on a console as Canvas Curse was on a handheld, but that’s a different discussion.
The soundtrack is also excellent, with heavy rock and jazz stylings that lend Rainbow Curse’s music its own distinctive flavor within the broader range of Kirby music. The soundtrack is split somewhat evenly between all-new songs and loose remixes of previous Kirby tunes, and while not every song is a winner, the majority of them are. Impressively – and I touched on this briefly earlier – there are also 36 unlockable songs that consist entirely of new arrangements of themes from previous Kirby games dating all the way back to the original Kirby’s Dream Land, which is a really nice touch for hardcore Kirby fans and game music aficionados. Meanwhile, the sound effects are appropriately “video gamey” and have that signature Kirby chunkiness to them, which is appreciated.
Ultimately, despite the fact that the core gameplay mechanics are just as compelling, rewarding, and enjoyable as they were back in Canvas Curse, the heavy emphasis on various stage gimmicks and alternate Kirby transformations this time around in Rainbow Curse ultimately dilutes the experience a bit too much. It left me wishing for a few more “regular” stages where I could just enjoy deftly manipulating Kirby with well-drawn lines without having to worry about other things breaking up that experience. That said, the game is still perfectly good and offers unique gameplay that you really can’t find anywhere else, the demanding difficulty level throughout is welcome and kept me engaged, and the claymation art style is just stunning – especially on the rare occasions that you can steal glances at the TV! It’s not quite Canvas Curse, but it’s still worth playing if you enjoyed that game or are a Kirby fan who’s up for something a little different.