Every game needs a moment - a moment that it alone can offer. I'm thinking of the fuse block in Lumines, where you chain a single colour through a mass of blocks and then set it off and you realise that the entire game is really about laying channels of dynamite. Or the lovely corrugated rumble in WarioWare Twisted where you turn your whole GBA to send a capsule toy down a chute and into your hand. (Random examples; I played both over the weekend.)
Kirby's Dream Buffet has that moment. It has the moment that purely belongs to Kirby's Dream Buffet. It comes at the end of one of the races. You have battled rivals and rushed across twisting, treacherous tracks made from waffles, strips of bacon, Victoria sponge, pools of chocolate icing. You're ahead of the pack so when you get to the finish line you can jump into the really, really big bowl of strawberries. And then? Then you spin the left stick - I think it's the left stick; I am always swept up in the sugar rush by this point - to eat all the strawberries. Chomp chomp chomp. It's fabulous stuff. One last strawberry ere we die!
And at first this moment is just one bit of business in a game made of bits of business. At first, in fact, you don't so much play Kirby's Dream Buffet as exist through an onslaught of colour and antic chirpiness. Slowly, though, slowly and steadily, structure emerges. But even within the structure there is a certain headlong wildness that remains. As with a house cat, you can never entirely tame Kirby's Dream Buffet.
The idea here is a sort of blend of Fall Guys and Katamari and a bunch of other things popping up now and then. I should add that the Fall Guys element had to be pointed out to me because Kirby's own aesthetic is so overwhelming that I didn't spot it. The theme is pudding and breakfast and lunch - spongey burger buns and buttery pancakes. This is what the world is made of. In each Grand Prix - the central mode here - the pudding and breakfast and lunch forms two tracks for you and three other players to race across, eating strawberries and growing larger as you go. Then it forms arenas for mini-games and a climactic battle royale. Whoever has eaten the most strawberries - and grown the biggest - by the end of it all wins. Done.
The races are a lot of fun. The tracks are inventive and tricksy, throwing in asparagus chicanes, say, or a mountain of stacked waffles you might race up after getting a bounce assist from the yoke of a fried egg. Power-ups litter the course, such as one that turns you into a racing donut wheel and another that lets you set enemies on fire. Fall off and you get a sort of Yoshi float period to get back on the track.
The confusing thing is that you're not only racing to the finish line. You're trying to eat the most strawberries too, for the most part, and these - along with the odd blueberry and whatnot - are scattered about the place. Why you're racing at all is because the person who gets to the finish line first gets to eat a really big pile of strawberries - cue the signature moment - but there's still a bit of, not tactics exactly, but tactics' sugar-dusted sibling. Take it slow and get as many strawberries as you can, or zip along and cash in on the big strawberry bowl at the end? Like many of life's conundrums, I am still pondering this one.
In between races you get mini-games, which tend to be top-down and deeply chaotic. Collect strawberries as they fall from the sky or spawn in teacups! Defeat enemies as you collect strawberries! As with the climatic battle royale, which sees you bouncing your enemies off the map in order to make them lose the strawberries they've collected, it pays to be large, and you get large by eating strawberries. So I guess there's a thematic richness to Kirby's Dream Buffet, or at least a strong focus: ABES, as the guy from Glengarry Glenn Ross might shout at you in between threats of firing: Always Be Eating Strawberries.
It's knockabout stuff, and it's at its best when it's embracing chaos rather than aiming for precision. The courses are elbowy and swift, the mini-games filled with accidental disaster. It all ends with four Kirby-alikes set on scales as various bonuses are applied and the biggest Kirby wins. Four players makes for pretty tight games, and there is a lot of back and forth when it comes to the top spot. I've had a lot of fun, and for a few evenings Kirby knocked Mario 3D World aside as the go-to multiplayer game to play with my daughter.
You can play online - there's a decent playerbase from what I can tell - or with CPU opponents. You can also play two-player local against online or CPU, each holding a Joy-Con, or four-player local, but everyone will need their own Switch and copy of the game, and even as Kirby fan I think that's being optimistic. In between Grand Prixs, you can tackle individual races and mini-games, knock about in freeplay, and look through the unlocks you've gathered, which I think can be used to decorate a cake or turn your character into a pirate and all that jazz.
It's fun, I think: a budget Kirby about rolling around and annoying your friends, an amuse bouche, which may or may not be how that phrase is spelled. I worry it won't be too long before this sinks down the rankings in our house and disappears from the main Switch screen, but it will leave some lovely sugary memories behind. And the subconscious desire, perhaps, to eat an awful lot of strawberries.
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