Kirby's Block Ball
3DS Virtual Console | Nintendo / HAL Laboratory | 1 Player | Out Now | $2.99 / £2.70
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28th June 2012; By KnucklesSonic8
As you could already guess by the title of the game, the gameplay here is fashioned after titles such as Breakout and Block Breaker, but with a Kirby twist. Basic threats appear in the form of common enemies taken from the pink hero's universe, food items serve as a mainstay for point bonuses, and power-ups are all but replaced with -- you guessed it -- copy abilities. The design predictably draws from Kirby's strengths in hopes of creating something superior to the original concept. But as you move forward, you'll observe some differences in how Kirby's Block Ball attempts to give players more control over the environment they have to work with.
First things first, though. Briefed to you at the very beginning of each world is a Border Line score that can be met if your goal isn't merely to complete the world, but also to do well. Achieving this will earn yourself a flag on the main map to mark such an accomplishment. Let me first say that it's harder than you'd think to reach these markers, and then, above these lie an additional Top Score to strive for. There's no shortage of goals you can set for yourself here, even after all is said and done. Each world consists of at least three stages of brick-destroying fun, followed by a boss battle. Paddle control is naturally mapped to the +Control Pad and the Circle Pad, but you also have the ability to volley a shot back with good timing using the A Button. The resulting effect is like Mario making contact with a small mushroom: the ball will grow, causing Kirby to emerge and giving you the ability to destroy two-hit or metal blocks in a single shot.
Adding to the advantages of the volley move are, of course, the copy abilities which appear in surprisingly limited frequency. It isn't until a few worlds in that you first encounter an enemy with a copy ability that you can make use of; the first of these being Spark, with Stone, Needle, and Burn to follow. And even after their appearance in a given world, they won't always be there to help you out in every stage. This means, then, that you need to hold on to the power-up for as long as possible since losing a life will send you back to the normal ball with possibly no further opportunity to get that ability back. Thankfully, even with this slight restriction, there are still other opportunities provided to keep the boredom of going back and forth with no real progress to a minimum.
One of the two secondary gameplay aspects revolves around the breaking of Switch Blocks that can trigger a bonus round that dissolves all breakable blocks into a form that you can easily pass through sans-deflection. This only lasts 30 seconds (faster than that in our time), but if you can perfectly get all remaining blocks, you can move on to the next round that much quicker. The second element is the existence of bonus games that can be visited if you can nab a Warp Star when it appears. You will be taken to a center ring seen on the overall map where four different activities can be played, including Air Hockey, Star Catcher, Up Cloud, and Up Down. Looking briefly at the process of arriving at these activities, Kirby's Block Ball presents this kind of neat idea of integrating bonus games into the gameplay, almost like it were part of a pinball table, but not quite due to its segmentation. At any rate, though they're not all that fun, they are basic chances to earn more lives and should not be seen as anything more than that.
When it comes to boss fights, the level that precedes the actual encounter will offer a bit of a sneak peek as to who you will be fighting against by making that enemy appear as an early target. If you defeat it quickly and effectively, you'll be given protective Star Blocks for the fight to follow. In these battle scenarios, you need to control not one, but four paddles (one on each side) to knock Kirby into the enemy in the center while at the same time using them to prevent him from colliding with a spike trap. This is where those Star Blocks come in, as they offer small one-hit shields before the underlying spikes are exposed completely. Bosses will perform attacks to destroy these or shrink your paddles so you have trouble deflecting the ball's movements. Overall, though, these are low-stress encounters where the depletion of boss energy is hardly a hassle.
Before we sweep things under the carpet, allow me to go back to the part about four paddles. I'd like to point that it is a manageable system that does what it intends to: give players more control over the ball's movements. And while I don't think it's a bad idea deep down, I also don't consider this organization to be the best way to go about it. This isn't just limited to bosses, though. Several levels use this same method of having you control multiple paddles in different places. When it's strictly left to just two paddles -- one at the top and bottom, both controlled simultaneously -- there's no problem to speak of. As a matter of fact, in some cases it's a real help. It's only when there's a paddle off to the sides that you start to see that maybe using this sudden oh-switch-the-other-way, somewhat fast-action approach doesn't always work out. Granted, it doesn't create considerable problems, but the overall feel of this design element doesn't really stick either.
Complicating things further are the level designs which have a tendency to be less than great. Once again, control is always a good thing with these kinds of games. But with the presence of narrow lines that you need to sneak your ball into, it often feels like you're playing basketball with the resulting dribbling motions that take place -- if you can even get to where you need to go. It's not so much that luck plays a huge role in this -- and just to be clear, it does to some degree -- but that the game's reliance on power-ups to make up for irritating layouts and designs leaves me feeling a little uneasy about the overall direction and the spirit of forgiveness Kirby fans may need to muster up in defense of these decisions.
Like a parent telling you have to do something mundane before you can earn a reward, there are many occasions where have to first be precise with your shots before you can open up the field for more opportunities. So, for example, you may have an enemy that, when defeated, will leave behind a bomb that will get rid of all the metal blocks. But this enemy will be fixed in an area that's hard to reach unless you employ a certain degree of precision which, for some, may be hard to come by. And to add to it, it's not even that you need to get this shot once, so having to repeatedly try again and again to squeeze the ball into a narrow crevice just to trigger something that will have to be hit a second time produces irritation.
As a result of these level designs, the pace of the overall experience tends to be wishy-washy. It may take you two minutes flat to clear one level, but then in the next level you're having to exercise patience just to get things positioned at the right angle over a span of 10 minutes or more. It's as if the game wants to be your friend one moment, and then have you jump through hoops the next. It's not a reflection of good design practices, and had this not been a Kirby game and just an ordinary Breakout title lacking in the power-up system we see here, I'd be even more mindful to penalize the game in this area. Again, this comes back to how much Kirby fans will allow themselves to be taken in by the experience in spite of these periodic annoyances.
In normal situations, charm could win over these issues, and what better way to do that than through a winning presentation focus. But you know, it was so unusual for me to go through this experience not caring much for the music or even feeling all that encouraged to keep going. I did appreciate the alterations on some themes featured in earlier Kirby titles, but other than that, I felt the music didn't carry much of a Kirby vibe. Furthermore, instead of making the game more cheerful, the only real effect the music had was make me think a little too much about how it wasn't the greatest fit. The visuals are pretty straightforward, though, as they contain expected elements seen in past efforts belonging to this franchise -- much like the gameplay, in all fairness. So no real complaints to speak of there.
Sadly, not everything about Kirby's Block Ball has an upside to it. While the integration of common Kirby elements have helped pave the way for a more familiar and less boring experience, there are aspects to the game's design that don't stand up very well, thus taking away from the overall strength of the package. Kirby fans will still give Block Ball the benefit of the doubt, I'm sure, but if you are one of those people, don't expect an especially memorable experience.
20/30 - Good
Gameplay 6/10 - Elements play to Kirby's strengths and move gameplay forward, design choices affect pace and controls both ways, layouts could be better
Presentation 7/10 - Predictable visual touches as per past Kirby titles, has a bit of charm to it but not a strong vibe, music unusually unimpressive
Enjoyment 3/5 - Irritation stemming from level layouts, may have to manifest a spirit of forgiveness to still enjoy the game regardless
Extra Content 4/5 - Bonus activities incorporated into the experience, multiple goals to set for yourself even after completing all stages
Equivalent to a score of 67% (percentage score is approximate and based solely on the previously stated rating) - Our Rating System