October 13, 2003

Article at 1UP

Kirby Air Ride Review

It's different, just not in any good way at all.

Hit points
- Simplistic controls? Yes. Good controls? No.
- The saving grace?
- It's different, just not in any good way at all.

Kirby Air Ride occupies an awkward position in Nintendo's lineup, coming between futuristic hover-racer F-Zero GX and the alpha male of the mascot kart racing genre, Mario Kart: Double Dash!! The game takes elements of both (cutesy mascots racing on hovering jetboards), yet manages to look and feel wholly original. Pity then that what makes Kirby unique also prevents it from being a good game.

Take the, er, "unique" control system. The game takes care of such trivial things as acceleration for you, instead asking you only to steer with the control stick and brake with A. Oh, and holding and releasing A charges and activates boost. You'll also want to eat enemies, Kirby-style, to gain their powers. You can do that with A. And if you want to use those powers, you press – you guessed it – A.

In theory, this makes for a simple game, as people only have to remember to push one button (which, helpfully, is the very large green button on the controller). In practice it's an unintuitive mess. Never mind the fact that gamers are instinctively prepared to press a button to accelerate, but charging your boost by braking is an impractical affair that can also get you into trouble when you're stuck at the bottom of a hill and need a boost to get up. And then the fact that you have to hit A to suck up and use powers also means that you'll be slowing down and boosting again virtually all the time. It's not ideal, to put it mildly.

Kirby's main Grand Prix mode is also marred by some awful track design. Credit is due for including a few branching paths and shortcuts in otherwise linear tracks, but any goodwill there is lost in a sea of other faults. Take the fact that some portions of airborne tracks have invisible barriers preventing you from falling, while in other sections you to plummet to your doom. The actual aesthetics are cluttered, with interactive and non-interactive elements blending in (can I grind that vine or not?) to make it hard to spot enemies. Mind you, Kirbyisn't an ugly game – it's technically rather solid. Unspectacular, sure, and there are some truly dire special effects (like sub-N64-level explosions), but not exactly bad either.

Oh, and since hitting walls bounces you in the right direction, it makes the game all-too-easy. Poor AI doesn't help, nor does replacing the computer with human beings. Splitting the screen makes the cluttered design even worse, while any Mario Kart-style battles through rapid attacks don't work either. It's hard to control the special attacks, but that might not be a concern since races tend to space out quickly, keeping opponents out of the range of fire.

Did you know?: Kirby Air Ride was shown in 1995 at the N64's unveiling, alongside Super Mario 64.

The saving grace to the game is the Top Ride mode, a top-down single-screen racer in the vein of Super Sprint. Tracks are short but creative and filled with interactive elements that change each lap. Remarkably, the basic gameplay system of hold-A-to-brake-and-release-to-boost actually works well around the hairpin corners typical in this mode. It's entertaining but shallow in single-player, but a total blast in multiplayer.

The final mode, City Trial, boggles the mind because it doesn't really work on any level. You start in a huge cityscape – including recreations of traditional Kirby areas – and whiz around for five minutes collecting power-ups and dodging other characters (or occasionally a random special event, like a meteor crashing). After that, you play a random, short minigame. Winner, er, wins. It's over far too quickly considering just how damned long you're cruising around the city, which is too big to inspire any serious battle between competitors, whether artificial or human.

City Trial is symptomatic of Kirby in general. It dares to be different and is certainly a unique game, but it is hardly a good game. Some of the game's potential can be seen in the fairly good Top Ride mode, and for the dedicated there is a massive set of challenges (ranging from defeating a certain number of enemies to breaking certain lap times) to complete, but they're rendered irrelevant when the core of the game is frankly rubbish.

Finally, it should also be noted that Kirby includes support for LAN link-ups. The usual talk of how Nintendo would be better served with online play aside, the bigger problem with this feature is that you'll probably be hard pressed to find another happy Kirby owner to play with.

Score: 4/10

I Was Born in Hong Kong and No One Cares