It's bizarre that Kirby and the Rainbow Curse even exists. As a sequel to Kirby: Canvas Curse, it borrows wholesale the mechanics of a game that successfully showed off the unique capabilities of the DS. In the decade that's passed, though, Kirby has moved on to more traditional platformers, and the weird experiment that was Canvas Curse seemed forgotten. Reviving it on the Wii U appears to be a natural fit in many ways, but it fails to define the system like its predecessor. In fact, in one significant way, it illustrates a drawback of the Wii U.
Who Needs a TV?
Namely, there's simply no reason to ever play single-player on your TV screen. The gameplay is Canvas Curse through and through--you navigate a balled-up Kirby through stages by drawing paths and platforms for him to roll and bounce along, planning your own hills and loops for him to gain momentum as necessary. It's a tactile experience, and in its day it really illustrated how touch devices could be used to make complex, core-focused games. But now that means your eyes will be glued to the GamePad, making the television a useless appendage. It's essentially a portable game released on a console.
A second player can join as Waddle Dee using the Wii remote, so the TV does come in handy for a second player. Given that even the multiplayer screen notes that the second player can quit at any time, though, it's pretty clear that Rainbow Curse was designed primarily as a single-player experience.
It's really too bad there's so little reason to use the TV, though, because the visuals are absolutely gorgeous. Nintendo has made a point of showing how its console can do more with less, and it's been doubly keen on using Kirby to experiment with different styles--from the painterly backgrounds of Canvas Curse to the wool-craft of Epic Yarn. Rainbow Curse fashions itself after modeling clay, and it may be the best look yet. Everything from the backgrounds to the enemies are crafted with rich textures and irregular shapes to pull off the effect. The cutscenes, few as they may be, even use jerky animations as if it were a stop-motion art project.
Those scenes tell a simple, storybook fable about two friends, Claycia and Elline, who used to craft and paint clay worlds together. Something drove Claycia mad, and she stole all the color from Kirby's world to make seven new worlds. Elline, a spritely little paintbrush, recruits Kirby to bring back the colors and help her friend. It's cute, and gives a nice world-building rationale behind the rainbow paths you draw for Kirby to roll along. You aren't really controlling Kirby, you're controlling Elline.
As much as it borrows from Canvas Curse, though, it does build on that basic idea. In some of the stages, the game finds really inventive ways to use the path-drawing gameplay to solve puzzles and defeat enemies. On the whole it will feel very familiar to those who played Canvas Curse, and the first few worlds are a breeze. The difficulty quickly ramps up, though, to the point that its childlike art style hides some fiendish stage design. Particularly in the last few worlds, I found myself memorizing exactly where and when to swipe to make a new platform to get past the tricky obstacles. I'm not exactly proud of using profanity while playing a game so clearly aimed at children, but there it is.
The ordinary drawing stages are broken up by occasional transformation segments, in which Elline uses her powers to turn Kirby into a submarine, tank, or rocket ship. While these aren't quite as smooth as the easy intuitiveness of drawing a path for Kirby to follow, I never felt disappointed to run into them. They largely still use the drawing mechanics, but instead of drawing a direct path for Kirby, the lines would be used to steer projectiles or tilt the rocket just-so. It's just another way that Rainbow Curse iterates and improves on the foundation set by Canvas Curse.
Rainbow Curse is a little on the short side, but that also means it doesn't overstay its welcome. At seven worlds consisting of four stages apiece, it can be finished relatively quickly. It feels like a nicely complete package regardless, especially when you factor in challenge stages, collectibles like Elline's diary, and the multitude of hard-to-reach treasure chests.
Clay for Keeps
Ten years ago, Canvas Curse helped Nintendo explain its handheld oddity better than any press presentation or Q&A session ever could. The gameplay was so intuitive, so immediately familiar and smartly designed, that it went a long way toward convincing me that a touch interface could do more than simple mobile experiences. A decade later, those mechanics work just as well wrapped in a beautiful new presentation, but by its very nature, it feels more at home on a handheld. Just in this case, it's a handheld system that's tethered to your living room console.
This review is based on a Wii U retail copy provided by the publisher. Kirby and the Rainbow Curse will be available in retail stores and on the Nintendo eShop on February 20, for $39.99. The game is rated E.