Poor Kirby. Mass Attack has the dubious honour of being Nintendo's last DS effort as the developer ditches the format for platforms new. Released without fanfare at a busy time a couple of months ago, this DS swansong slipped by almost unnoticed - by our reviews department, anyway.
But, in 2011's last days, it's time to set that right and salute a fitting send-off for the great handheld. Because those who do pick up one final game for the ageing device will find a showcase for some of Nintendo's best uses of the DS touch screen.
European gamers have never really taken to Kirby, yet 2011 could have been his year. Mass Attack is one of three games released in the past 12 months to star the pink puffball, alongside Wii adventures Epic Yarn and Return to Dreamland. Nintendo even saw fit to give Kirby his own anime channel on the Wii this summer. And while Return to Dreamland was a step back to the series' enemy-swallowing staples, Epic Yarn offered an imaginative take.
Mass Attack takes a similarly tangential approach, dividing Kirby into a flock of 10 smaller clones and tasking players with marshalling their Kirby collective to swarm enemies en masse.
Like Kirby's first DS outing Canvas Curse (some six years ago, how time has flown), gameplay is entirely controlled with the stylus. Mass Attack won't even let you past the start screen with a button press.
You can tap the screen to direct your Kirbys, a bit like Animal Crossing, or double tap to make them run. Tapping on an enemy or obstacle causes your Kirby group to attack, while individual Kirbys can be flicked into hard-to-reach spots. You can also gather your Kirby cluster up and move them as one, allowing them to float over obstacles for a limited time.
There's a decent variety of enemies, with foes that must be attacked from a certain angle to avoid spines, or that can only be fought in short bursts, your Kirby crew needing to be recalled to safety with a prompt tap of the stylus.
Kirby is strictly vegetarian this time. By munching on fruit dropped by downed enemies you can regularly max out a points bar, which then bestows another Kirby for your pack. You can have up to ten Kirbys in total at any one time, with further fruit bonuses then converted into points.
Kirby's initial segmentation comes during the game's opening cinematic at the hands of evil sorcerer Necrodus. I have always imagined this is how the Kirby race reproduces, each member's cheerful round-bodied blob splitting asexually as if it were a wriggling single-celled organism under a microscope. Instead, Necrodus' magic means that players start off the game with just a single Kirby, much weaker than his usual form, meaning you'll need to quickly amass a healthy brood.
Players move from level to level on a Mario-style world map, each course coming with an entry requirement of a certain number of collected Kirbys. Initially it is easy to corral a full quotient, but as the levels grow harder it is easy to lose a straggler or two along the way.
When hurt, a Kirby will turn from pink to blue. If that Kirby is harmed again it will then perish and float off-screen as a winged Kirby angel. Flicking another member of your troupe to rescue said spirit will revive the Kirby, albeit just in his damaged blue form. This mechanic adds a welcome layer to the fairly simple platform levels, making traversing the later trap-filled courses perilous.
At a time when Mario games are getting Super Guide features and invincible Tanuki suits, Mass Attack is comparatively unforgiving. There are no check point flags, and if you fail a level at its boss, you'll have to do the whole thing again from scratch.
This is especially troublesome when you have risked life and pudgy limb attempting to snatch the level's collectable coins, devilishly secreted throughout courses in a New Super Mario Bros. manner. There are varying numbers for each level, but every one holds a special rainbow-coloured version, and you'll need every one of these to progress through the game's final world.
Collecting coins, and indeed replaying levels to hunt out the ones you've missed, might not appeal to all. But acquiring the Mass Attack's selection of mini-games, unlocked individually after amassing various coin amounts, is a huge incentive.
There's Brawlball, a competent Kirby pinball game with levels and bosses that span the hero's history. Or Dash Course, a sort of Dance Dance Revolution affair where you must hit the right on-screen symbols to run.
Even more accomplished is turn-based RPG Kirby Quest, where your Kirby posse grows and fights by launching correctly timed attacks. Then - firmly reaching the level of quality where I would happily spend good money to buy this separately from the eShop - there's Strato Patrol EOS, a lengthy Kirby-themed shmup spread across six levels. It's strewn with cameos, including, in a rare transmedia reference, the villainous Customer Service from the anime.
The selection is definitely more hit than miss, although there are a few stinkers. Kirby Curtain Call, for instance, where you are tasked with counting the number of on-screen Kirby characters hidden amongst a hoard of other clutter. But there are plenty more extras to uncover. Mass Attack includes a large list of achievement-style Awards, unlocked for fulfilling various criteria. There are also many, many hours to be had accomplishing the best rank for each level.
Gaming platforms rarely go out with a bang. But the DS, at least, can end its Nintendo-developed life with its head held high. 'Best of 2011' lists may star Mario and Zelda, and rightly so, but that's no reason to ignore a strong effort from one of Nintendo's second-tier heroes in this little gem.