Kirby and the Amazing Mirror succeeds not just because it boldly throws the character in a large world with no guidance, but also thanks to how it preserves the loose fun the pink hero is known for while presenting it in a distinctive format
Through the greatest part of Kirby’s life as a videogame superstar, his adventures have followed a pretty straightforward formula: some sort of trouble arises in Dream Land, and the character is subsequently forced to traverse a series of worlds, each with its own stages, until peace is restored to his cuddly country.
Throughout the years, such format has yielded a good amount of platforming classics that, thanks to their soft difficulty and adorable visuals, have successfully embraced a very wide audience. At the same time, though, due to the fact the franchise has been quite prolific when it comes to generating new installments, that traditional setup has also occasionally come off as safe and bland, as the pink hero has sometimes starred in quests that merely go through the motions, not offering any sort of notable gameplay point that justifies their existence. Nevertheless, amidst a journey holding various chapters that leaned towards that more orthodox configuration, there have also been a handful of delightful stops that have gone against the mold, allowing Kirby to get a breath of fresh air outside the confines in which he usually operates.
Kirby and the Amazing Mirror, released in 2004 for the Game Boy Advance, is one of those amusing detours, and it is a game that finds an excellent balance between the conventional gameplay the property is known for and the new realm it chooses to explore. The effort checks all boxes fans of the character expect to see in his outings: the visuals hold so much color that it feels like a rainbow has been splattered all over the depicted universe; the scenarios are simple, yet charming in a lovable and cartoonish way; the music is catchy and bursts at the seams with wacky energy; the fluid animations make both the hero and his foes look absolutely cuddly; and Kirby still has the habit of swallowing bad guys whole in order to absorb their powers and use them to cause havoc. In the case of Kirby and the Amazing Mirror, though, those standard qualities come wrapped in a rather unusual, and somewhat unexpected, package: that of a Metroidvania quest.
Yet, as weird as that development may be, it is not totally without precedents; after all, in one of the many parts that constituted Kirby Super Star, originally published for the Super Nintendo, the friendly puffball had – with a large degree of success – dabbled into the non-linear gameplay the genre is known for. As such, Kirby and the Amazing Mirror is not completely revolutionary, for – in a way – it replicates an experiment that had been previously conducted in The Great Cave Offensive; still, it is quite appealing to see the series return to that format and, this time around, choose to build a new installment entirely around the concept of having Kirby explore a wide and fully connected world. As a result of that approach, even when its other positive traits are removed from the equation, Kirby and the Amazing Mirror shines quite brightly solely on the freshness of its concept.
Kirby’s most labyrinthine adventure begins quickly, as within a couple of minutes players are given a glimpse of the plot-related happenings that trigger the game’s events. Parallel to Dream Land, a mirror world has always existed; one that reflects the minds of its opposing dimension. However, one day, an unknown process causes it to start emulating the thoughts of evil brains.
Aware of the problem and trying to save both Dream Land and its mirrored counterpart, Meta Knight travels to the place that serves as the entrance to that universe, but is cut down by a dark doppelganger and thrown into a mirror, which is then shattered into eight parts. Kirby, who is taking a relaxing walk, is also attacked by that that same mysterious villain, and ends up split into four differently colored versions of himself. At that point, the hero sets out to recover the fragments of the mirror, rescue Meta Knight, and stop doom from coming to his home. It is a silly setup, but it works towards getting it all started with brevity and also justifying the strong multiplayer component of the effort, as anyone with another Game Boy Advance system as well as a copy of the game can jump into the action and control one of the four available Kirbys.
Not too long after those occurrences, Kirby will find himself in the first of the game’s nine areas: Rainbow Route. From there, he must navigate to the other eight regions of the mirror world and, in each one of them, locate the boss, beat him down, and recover one of the shards he is looking for. It is simple, it is engaging, and it is surprisingly challenging for a game of the franchise. However, that difficulty, which is above the series’ average but still not big enough to make the adventure unwelcoming to youngsters and newcomers, does not come from where one would expect it to.
Kirby and the Amazing Mirror has platforming segments that when paired up with the positioning of enemies do produce some decently hard obstacles, especially towards its ending, but they never fly very high above being easy; moreover, its bosses and mini-bosses, which are varied and nicely designed, rarely pose a significant threat, especially the second group. Furthermore, the game is pretty generous in giving out lives to players, and the punishments for dying or running out of continues are not too harsh: as in the former case Kirby is merely returned to the entrance of the room where he died, and in the latter he is kicked back to the world’s main hub.
The challenge of Kirby and the Amazing Mirror, and the main reason why the game is so entertaining, lies in its absolute lack of guidance. It is surprising to see Kirby, the king of accessibility, tackle the fully connected map found in Metroidvania efforts whilst doing so by taking the extreme route of not giving players a single indication of where they need to head to, but that is what it does. It is a choice that may turn part of the audience away from it, but those who think the concept of having to explore the world in order to figure out how to progress is a bit too daunting may, nonetheless, find that clearing the adventure is plausible if they give it a shot.
Firstly, because the world, although complex and fairly big, is not overwhelming. Secondly, because the rooms carry the signature brand of platforming and simple combats, with some straightforward puzzles occasionally sprinkled on top, that defines the Kirby franchise, and it is all very well designed. And finally, because the game takes steps towards smoothing out its difficulty curve.
Whenever Kirby steps into a new area, he will do so without the place’s map, which must be found in an enormous chest hidden somewhere in the region. For the first few levels, locating that coveted asset is not too hard, and it will not take one long to acquire it. However, towards the quest’s second half, the item gets harder to find, which will pose an interesting challenge even to experienced gamers.
Given the maps highlight the position of the boss, display all the rooms of the level, and showcase how those connect to one another as well as to other regions, going through each area is usually a process divided into two phases: that of blind exploration, when gamers walk by the rooms and deal with their multiple exits without knowing for sure where they are going; and that of traveling to the boss, which although possible without having the map turns into a far simpler task when a full outline of the route can be accessed at all times.
The mixture clicks, and it is pleasing to see what is at heart and in level design a Kirby game gain such a shape. Moreover, it is interesting how much freedom there is to the exploration seen in Kirby and the Amazing Mirror. Since the game does not feature the traditional Metroidvania progression of having the hero gain a new ability that unlocks new paths, the world is virtually fully accessible from the get go, because Kirby opens the quest with all skills he needs to get to the end: he walks, he floats in the air for an infinite amount of time, he performs a sliding kick, he sucks foes and blocks to shoot them out as projectiles, and he can – of course – copy a whopping twenty-six abilities, including some that debut here, by swallowing specific enemies. And even if those skills he can steal are not as full-fledged as the ones seen in Kirby Super Star, where each ability had more than one attack according to the buttons that were pressed, they are still a lot of fun to use.
With those tools, Kirby and the Amazing Mirror builds a world with a lot of the complexities found in most Metroidvania games. There are multiple routes that can be followed to get to the same place; there is a great deal of map and level analysis involved when it is time to discover a path to a new area; and there are many secrets, in the form of chests, to track down, and they will reward those who go the extra mile in exploration and puzzle-solving. Additionally, the game does a pretty good job in making its intricate journey enjoyable, whether it is in providing Kirby with a system of warp points – all centralized inside a single room – that grants him easy access to places he has already explored, or in letting the hero be teleported back to that central location, at any time, by a warp star that is summoned via a humorous phone call. Yet, in spite of all the praise it deserves, there are points where Kirby and the Amazing Mirror could have been a little bit better.
Getting to the end of the game should not take one more than a handful of hours, which makes it a bit too short. Fortunately, although the three extra mini-games it carries do not amount to much, going for full completion, which means tracking down all chests as well as defeating all bosses, does extend the title’s length to a great degree; and it is quite nice how the game helps players in that task by highlighting rooms that have had all of their secrets uncovered. In addition, it is somewhat weird how some of the areas feature branches of rooms that lead to goal mini-games that, when cleared, cause Kirby to be taken back to the world’s hub.
Inherited from the character’s traditional platforming games, those goals – even if awarding players with extra lives – do not make sense in a Metroidvania setting, and it is annoying how accidentally stumbling into one will cause the hero’s exploration to be halted and force him to backtrack to the area he was adventuring in. Finally, the map itself, which represents rooms as squares and the possible exits as lines that lead to other squares, may confuse some players, as the nature of some routes is a bit obscure and the relationship between the lines and the multiple doors in each room can occasionally be slightly foggy.
Independently of those shortcomings, which are likely the result of how the game marks the franchise’s first full-fledged foray into a fully explorable and intricately connected map, Kirby and the Amazing Mirror is a standout entry in the series. Not just because it boldly throws the character inside a large world with no guidance whatsoever, but also thanks to how it preserves the loose and light fun the pink hero is known for while presenting it in a rather distinctive format. And even if it is arguable the maze-like inspirations of its areas act against the all-encompassing accessibility the property is known for, the game succeeds in making its progression approachable for all ages. Kirby and the Amazing Mirror is, then, a well-executed and brilliant detour, as it finds balance between the characteristics expected from a Kirby game and new features that create its identity. As such, the result could not have been much different, as the adventure is one of the saga’s most notable peaks.