One button to rule them all.
Of all the mascots in the Nintendo family, none have accomplished so much with so little as Kirby. He's got a giant mouth, but can't talk. He has stumps for arms and holes for eyes. He can float but not fly, run but not roll. It's a wonder the little gumball ever managed to land a contract in the first place.
But here he is again, elastic skin and all, in his first solo Gamecube outing. Oddly enough, Kirby Air Ride forgoes Nintendo's typical formula of tossing their mascot du jour into a 3D platformer, opting instead for Plan B, the kart racer. This one, however, is different from the likes of the supersonic racer F-Zero GX and the upcoming Italian Gran Prix Mario Kart: Double Dash in one key area.
A button. Or should I say, "A" button.
Indeed, Kirby Air Ride features control as simple and elegant as the pink sphere itself, relying on the control stick and exactly one button for its steering, gassing, braking and gumballing. And while some might argue that the classic Nintendo gameplay depth does make an appearance, it cannot save the mute ball from rolling into the bargain bin of boredom.
Unlike other Nintendo games, there is no story whatsoever in Kirby Air Ride. You're Kirby, you straddle various vehicles and you haul blob down big tracks aiming for the checkered flag.
And aiming is mostly what you do, as Kirby Air Ride's one button control layout makes it hard to do much else. The vehicles move on their own – all you do it steer and use the A-button or triggers to powerslide. However, this also functions as a brake, slowing you down to a stop if held down so that you can charge up your craft for a minor boost. It's extremely counter-intuitive.
Kirby's patented air suck is back (guess which button you use?), this time to gobble up other racers to temporarily gain their abilities. You might turn into Link Kirby and wield a sword, or fireball Kirby and huck flames a short distance, or spiky Kirby to go porcupine. In a thrilling design twist, you press A to use the weapons. You can also activate a nearly useless spin move to bump opponents.
None of it works well. You don't control the speed at all. The better you know the craft and tracks and the better you master powersliding, the faster times you will post, but that's true for every kart racer under the sun. It's sort of astonishing playing a Gamecube game that completely forgets about the other three face buttons. I suppose you could say there's something supremely efficient about it, but I'd prefer if you said that it was archaic and limits the gameplay, since that's more accurate.
Kirby Air Ride also strays from convention in its modes. The main mode is Air Ride, which pits you against three computer opponents across a bunch of tracks. The level design is a mix of very large and creative tracks that shoot you through beautiful, airy environments and insanely short ones that seem built for babies. Fortunately, all but one are available from the get-go; unfortunately, that means there's little incentive to play since you don't really unlock any tracks.
You do, however, unlock more vehicles, and this is where Kirby Air Ride is at its best. There are a slew of different 'karts' and they all have significantly different handling, speed and gliding values. Some are hovercrafts, while others are more conventional bikes. It's actually a bit of fun experimenting with them to find the most useful for each track, though it quickly becomes apparent that the balanced karts are far, far better than the ones with outrageously loose handling.
It won't take long before you move on to the other game modes. Top Ride is an interesting top-down race mode similar in many ways to Championship Sprint. You buzz around a track while picking up tons of little items to help your cause. The tracks here shift a bit during each race, so you have to keep an eye out for temporary shortcuts.
The problem is that this mode is treated as a mini-game diversion and isn't really built for long term play. After a few go-rounds on each track, you'll want to move on. It's a shame, too, because I think the game would have been much better had this been the main mode instead of Air Ride.
But move on you will, right into the confusing arms of the strange City Trial. This is broken up into two modes. First you zoom around a huge, wacky city whacking at your opponents and collecting powerups, which in turn give you boosts for the second half of City Trial – the random mini-game. Then you play the mini-game and boom, done.
At first it's discombobulating, but then you figure out that beating up your opponents isn't very important. Instead, the essential skill used in City Trial is the power of psychic clairvoyance.
I'll explain. For some fundamentally evil reason, they refuse to tell you which mini-game you'll be playing once the 5 minutes of zooming around the city ends (sometimes they'll give you a clue along the way), which means you have no idea what powerups you should focus on finding. Should you grab speed boosts and hope the mini-game will be a drag race, or scoop up defense and offense powerups in case it's an arena battle? That's where the psychic powers come in! Maybe they'll include those as part of a rebate or something.
So, City Trial winds up becoming a trial in itself, a guessing game that takes all the strategy out of what probably could have been a quirky, strategic mode. If Kirby could talk, his first words would be "D'oh!, D'oh!"
They even drop the gumball with the game's 360 goals (120 per mode). When you finish a race or complete a mini-game, you might open up one square on a huge goal grid. You have no idea what a square is until you accomplish it, though, and some are really bizarre ('Do Not Injure Any Opponent's In City Trial!"). Plus, the unlockables are usually just sound test items or new Kirby colors.
All is not lost, though, as Kirby Air Ride scores some points with its nice graphics. The load times are insanely quick, the effects are good and the framerate is crisp. This is a fast, colorful game.
Kirby Air Ride is also the first Gamecube game to support LAN play, which means you and three friends, four Gamecubes, four televisions and four copies of Kirby's Air Ride can one-button the night away. A watershed moment? Not unless you consider a feature that was available on the PS2 at launch 'watershed'. The split-screen mode is much more likely and works just fine.
But frankly, there isn't much reason to go to the trouble of teaching your buddies how to play Kirby Air Ride, although that will take all of five seconds as you point to the A-button and grunt. There's some decent stuff here, but it's wasted on a game that can't decide if it wants to appeal to three-year olds or thirty-year olds. The one button gameplay is frustrating and silly, resulting is an uneven, uninspiring racer that doesn't do the gumball justice. Perhaps he should shape himself into a pink triangle and look into guest appearing on Queer Eye.