Even with all the different genres he takes on, there’s a few things you can usually expect from a Kirby title. There’s going to be colorful worlds full of delicious snacks, a charmingy nonsensical plot told mostly through silent cutscenes, and it’s probably going to come out at the end of a platform’s life cycle for whatever reason. While Kirby: Planet Robobot might not be among the more inventive Kirby titles like Mass Attack or Canvas Curse, it absolutely stands up to his 8- and 16-bit classics and might honestly be the most well-rounded and entertaining Kirby platformer in a good long time.
If you played Kirby: Triple Deluxe, you have a good idea what you’re in for: an adorable romp across differently themed worlds, seeking out enough little collectibles (TRON-esq “code cubes”, in this case) to unlock the boss of any given world and move onto the next. Along the way you’ll be eating enemies to absorb their powers, solving simple puzzles to locate code cubes, and performing some fairly un-challenging but fun platforming tasks. While this isn’t vastly different from the typical Kirby formula of “jump, eat, repeat”, the flow – and reliance on finding enough of something to unlock future levels – is very much in keeping with the more recent handheld Kirby titles.
However, as the name has probably indicated to you, there’s a new twist on Kirby’s standard abilities this time: he gets to drive a robot. The surprisingly dark plot details an intergalactic corporation strip-mining Dream Land for natural resources and vowing to eliminate all native life in the process using an onslaught of robots and mechanized devices. Luckily for you (and Dream Land), this provides a convenient excuse for Kirby to hijack a number of adorable, vaguely steampunk, mechs in order to wreak havoc on his foes.
In opposition to Kirby Triple Deluxe’s reliance on the not-that-interesting Hypernova Mode that allowed you to eat nearly everything you encountered, which tended to reduce levels to a series of linear corridors full of enemies, the mechs are impressively melded into the game’s design in a much more organic way. Your robot has the ability to absorb powers much like Kirby does but they behave completely differently when you eat them, creating a number of different approaches to combat and puzzle solving as you slowly find your way around the mech’s mechanics. The areas where you drive the robot are fairly large and feel like a more intrinsic part of the actual level and experience, and you frequently find yourself looking forward to the next one or experimenting with different approaches for the fun of it.
Playing into this newly broadened skill set, Planet Robobot actually features a heavier reliance on puzzles than many previous Kirby games. Progress is impossible without collecting each of a given level’s code cubes, but the level design lends itself to this task by providing unique, well-thought-out layouts that encourage exploration without becoming huge or obtuse, and collecting them usually only requires a little exploration off the beaten bath, clever use of your powers and/or robots, or both. The puzzles and tasks laid before you aren’t the most challenging thing in gaming, but I can’t act like I never experienced the occasional moment of pride at completing one of the puzzles and finding each code cube in a given level.
Technologically speaking, Planet Robobot packs a number of graphical tricks up its sleeve that demonstrate HAL’s well-earned grasp of the 3DS hardware. Perhaps most shockingly, it actually looks and plays pretty damn good if you turn your 3DS’ 3D effects on, as the levels take advantage of the system’s depth effects to play with scale, rotation, and size in a way that you don’t see a lot of platformers try for. The music is appropriately cute and almost recalls synthwave/chillwave with its choice of melody and instrumentation, and fits the unique (for Kirby) techno-dream aesthetic pretty much perfectly.
Between the new robot, the new powers (one of which is a clear homage to Earthbound’s lead hero Ness), and the new worlds you’ll explore, Kirby Planet Robobot is easily the best handheld Kirby game since the Game Boy era, and maybe the best overall Kirby since the 16-bit days. New players will love it even if some of the puzzles may be a little too confusing or ill-defined for younger players to wrap their head around, and anyone who’s enjoyed a previous Kirby game will acclimate pretty quickly to the new twists on display.
In this, Nintendo has accomplished what they so frequently want to do with their flagship titles: add enough new elements to keep the experience fresh while playing to the series’ strengths and/or giving the people what they want. I’m not saying they need to hand all their series over to HAL, but if Nintendo takes a look at Planet Robobot the next time they decide to make a New Super Mario Bros, I won’t exactly be complaining.