When I first sat down in the cinema to watch Inception, I was ready to have my mind blown. I’m a huge Christopher Nolan fan - Memento, The Prestige and the first two Batman films are all brilliant in their own particular way. With Inception, I was hoping Nolan would truly go wild in expressing himself, delving into the twisted depths of a human’s subconscious. I was ready for anything.
Instead, we got men firing guns at one another and a jetski chase sequence. This scene ended any hope I might still have - when ‘dreaming a little bigger’ is using a grenade launcher instead of a rifle, you can hear the death knell of creativity ringing loud. Inception ended up being a celebration of insipidity, and even something as slapdash as a Rick and Morty episode did a better job exploring the idea than Nolan did.
I find this level of blandness borderline offensive. It's one thing to make a dreary world war 2 shooter, and make it thematically dark and horrible. It's quite another to take a fantastical concept and somehow make it boring. Yet, year after year, we see exactly this happen in the world of video games, where incredible ideas get distilled into the same generic mechanical building blocks.
Time has not been kind to Bioshock: Infinite. It pulled off a very special trick in its bombastic last 15 minutes, somehow making people forget the previous 12 hours of repetitive, linear shooting. And the critical reception it got, with game of the years coming from every which way, made me feel I was going insane - what was it, exactly, that made the game so special? Luckily for my mental state, as the dust began to settle and people began reflecting on their experiences, the truth came out: Infinite was king of the generic.
The city was carried by balloons and blimps, but you may as well have been going down a series of corridors. It chose to attack the obvious racism of the past, instead of the more insidious racism of the present. And in its attempt to wash its hands clean of politics, it inadvertently makes a worrying political statement. Booker comes out and makes some asinine remark about both the establishment and Vox Populi being no different from one another, never mind that one is rebelling against institutionalised slavery. In its eagerness to play it safe it instead dumbs down a history of oppression into ‘they’re both the same’.
And that's to say nothing of the absurd wasted potential of its portals. Elizabeth can literally rip open holes in space and time to aid you on the battlefield, and what does she use it for? Ammo top ups. Health top ups. A random piece of cover occasionally. That's it, that's the grand sum of inspirational gameplay mechanics we get from these portals. And when you enter another corridor filled with chumps running in a straight line towards you, you can only sigh as Elizabeth conjures another magazine of ammo and hurls it in your direction.
The thing that made it hurt so bad wasn’t just that it was boring - it was a sense of wasted potential. There’s a reason games like Spore, Godus and No Man’s Sky create feelings of rage, betrayal and sadness. We were sold on these games being the next level, being the next evolution in gaming, but they all shook out as tech demos that barely deserved the tag ‘video-game’.
And that’s how I felt playing our game of two weeks ago. Kirby: Nightmare in Dreamland is the worst game I’ve played for the podcast so far. There have been games that annoyed the crap out of me, like Banjo-Kazooie. And games with shitty combat, like Silent Hill 2 and control schemes out of some fiendish hellscape, like Ape Escape. But Kirby commits a far larger crime, the crime of mediocre blandness.
Kirby is a platforming game with optional platforming. Kirby can fly, you see, for an unlimited range and unlimited time. Normally, if you give a character this kind of insane mobility, as iin Owl Boy, you’d expect there to be serious impediments to your progress. Not in Kirby. Feel free to fly over 80% of the ‘platforming’ with zero drawbacks in doing so!
Kirby theoretically has 15 or so minibosses - but it actually has 1. They all have the exact same series of three attack patterns, the third of which gives you the ability to attack them. They’re not even endurance fights, with all these idiots dying in 3-4 hits of your default attack. They’re so weak as to be bereft of any challenge, even if you weren’t repeating the same fight over and over again.
But the real problem with Kirby, the real sticking point jammed in my eye isn’t even the difficulty. I don’t mind a game if its easy, as long as it's interesting. And the most interesting feature of the game could be the flag bearer of wasted potential - the steal ability.
There are about 20 abilities that the monsters and bosses have in the game. Kirby can suck them in and steal their signature ability - for example, summoning an electrical field, shooting a bouncing laser, or turning into a rapidly moving tire and tearing up the rubber. It sounds really cool right? You can immediately think of cool puzzles and interesting scenarios built around specific abilities, or needing to have the right skills in the right spot at the right time. You could even build elaborate secrets around it!
Kirby does jack shit with them.
They’re generic power ups that let you kill enemies more efficiently. They’re all significant power upgrades, to the point where they let you kill bosses in seconds. But they may as well be identical because you never need any one powerup in any situation. There’s nothing ever barring your progress. You end up taking any powerup you can find and being apathetic towards which one you have, because they all fulfil an identical function - kill things faster.
I didn’t care about my progress. I felt nothing when I killed a boss, and nothing when I died. I held down the right key just so it would be over faster. There’s no challenge, no interesting mechanics, and it gives you the keys to skip what little content there is by flying over the top of it. Apathy became my battlecry as I played through the short 4 hour adventure; only feeling the emotion of relief as it came to an end.
And I know what you’re thinking. Kirby is a game for children. Its deliberately easy and lets you sleepwalk through it because it's meant to be finished by someone the age of 8. And actually, that's a fair point. This is a fine entry point for gaming - it doesn’t force players to engage with the mechanics or have any understanding of what they’re doing in order to complete it.
But for me games need to tickle something in my brain to be enjoyable. And Kirby does nothing with its mechanics, and barely qualifies as a game. It makes No Man’s Sky look like an engaging masterpiece. And if you don’t take that as a sign to never touch it, then I don’t know what will. Read a book, watch a movie, or go watch some paint dry - your time will be better spent doing that than playing Kirby: Nightmare in Dreamland.