Version tested: DS
What would you use a second screen for? Don't say map. Don't say inventory. In fact, just be quiet and listen to what HAL Laboratory and Flagship used it for: the inside of Kirby's tummy! Genius! With 2D platform gameplay sprawled across the top-screen, items that Kirby swallows hop the hinge and swim around his guts on the touch-screen. You can then activate them by tapping them with your thumb, or drag them into one another to combine them for bonuses or random power-ups. So, yes, it's an inventory after all - at least they were cute about it.
The rest of Kirby Mouse Attack (Kirby Squeak Squad in the US) follows the 2D Kirby formula with only a few deviations, which we'll get to later. That means that you move from side to side with the d-pad and jump with the A button, with the option of puffing yourself up and floating around the screen indefinitely by continuing to mash it. Super Mario, as they say, eat your heart out. Which of course brings us to the B button, which is used for gobbling up enemies, treasure chests and power-ups; pressing down on the d-pad then swallows them, while pressing B again spits them out.
Kirby's appetite is the basis of most of your interactions with enemies and switches, but the challenge in Mouse Attack isn't borne so much of combat but of level-completion. Your job is to collect treasure chests strewn throughout the game's bite-sized platform levels, and usually you'll need a specific power-up to do so. Gobble a prancing hare weirdo, for example, and you can burrow down to collect elusive goodies. Gobble a sizzling mouse and you can electrocute your enemies. As with Kirby's previous adventures in Dreamland, you'll encounter dozens (well, two-dozen) of these abilities - some familiar, some new.
The "Mouse Attack" element reflects the game's abandonment of old nemesis King Dedede. Instead you're up against a squad of mice, who will try and pinch your treasure chests - especially the big ones - and drag them off to their mousy lair. This transforms otherwise stunningly easy levels, introducing a constant threat that only abates when you make it to the final star-covered doorway and exit back to the world-map. With over a hundred chests to find, and lots of levels that will need to be scouted before you can revisit them with the correct power-up to reach the treasure chests within, there's a few hours here beyond the otherwise trim run-time.
Beyond the single-player story mode (I say story - the entire plot can be summed up thus: Kirby is trying to get his cake back) are a range of mini-games that call upon the DS' touch-screen and offer multiplayer modes. These are about as complicated as wearing a hat, although they're a bit more vigorous, involving lightning tap actions and sliding your stylus around precisely. We've seen better in other mini-game compilations Nintendo's strapped to the back of Mario games on the DS, although none's offensively awful; they're just a bit on the dull side.
Sadly, you end up levelling that accusation at Mouse Attack in general. There's a characteristic charm to the graphics - it's certainly Kirby's prettiest handheld game - but there's none of the invention that marked the excellent Canvas Curse out as a DS title of note in late 2005. There's little challenge throughout the general flow of the one-player game, and the optional treasure-hunting is a case of matching ability to obstacle and then outrunning feckless rodents. There's very little fight put up here either, despite my earlier encouragement - most of the mini-bosses can be beaten by walking up to them and holding B while your active ability traps them in a cycle of pain.
Meanwhile the level design, while often elegant in what it attempts, suggests that bright ideas are in short supply over in Dreamland. Almost confusingly simplistic switch puzzles abound, and by the time you encounter the Indiana Jones rolling-rock bits half an hour in, your jaw will probably be set.
That's a shame, because the Kirby concept's always been decent enough, and Mouse Attack's inventory, item-combination bits and mouse-chase bits could have reinvigorated it a bit. Ultimately though they're too flat, and bound together in a game that even the most cack-handed platform gamer will waltz through in less time than it takes to Nintendo to glance at the foreign sales (over a million) and commission the same thing again as soon as HAL and Flagship get back to their desks tomorrow morning.
Those in desperate search of a new platform game after completing New Super Mario Bros. upside down and backwards might get a few hours' respite from this, but otherwise wait until it costs nothing and then buy it for the nephew you gave your old chunky DS when you decide you had to have a Lite, and maybe invest your money in some of the Virtual Console's retro treats instead.
6 / 10