What Curse does is something that's rarely accomplished in gaming; it connects you emotionally with the action.
Multimedia: Kirby Canvas Curse
Platforms: Nintendo DS
Number of players: 1
ESRB rating: Everyone
Developer: HAL Laboratory
US release date: 2007-07
The lack of Nintendo DS games is quite sad. To date the system has had eight months to build a formidable library, yet the catalog remains pitifully small. Worse yet, the majority of the games that are out there can hardly be called games. Many critics, including myself, have noted that most are nothing more than glorified tech demos, packaged and sold to Nintendo diehards willing to purchase anything new for their dual-screen system. The rest of the collection is unfortunately made up of N64 ports (Mario 64 DS, Rayman DS), games that could have been made for the GBA (Zoo Keeper, Mr. Driller, Polarium), and crap (Sprung, Pokemon Dash).
While it's still too early to call the DS a flop, when you consider that Sony is just about to start their hard marketing push for the graphically superior multimedia machine that is the PSP, its future isn't looking too bright.
Like any system, the DS needs a killer app that will sell not only itself but also the handheld. The NES had Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda; Tetris and the initial Pokemon games sold the GameBoy as did Sonic the Hedgehog the Genesis; the SNES was backed by Super Mario World and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past; Sony's first foray into gaming was made famous by Final Fantasy VII, Metal Gear Solid, Resident Evil, and Tomb Raider; the ill-fated Dreamcast had Soul Calibur while sales of the N64 were fueled by Super Mario 64 and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time; if it weren't for Gran Turismo 3 A-spec and Grand Theft Auto III there's a mighty good chance the PlayStation 2 wouldn't be as huge as it is today, and the GameCube would have been considered a colossal bomb if not for The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker and Super Smash Bros. Melee; then there's the killer app to end all killer apps: Halo.
Fortunately for Nintendo, Kirby Canvas Curse has finally come along.
In regards to my initial comments concerning tech demos and ports, Kirby is what I would call the first true game for the Nintendo DS. Even though I drooled all over Polarium, in retrospect there was little reason to release it on the DS when the D-pad would have sufficed had it been a GBA title. Canvas Curse, on the other hand, wonderfully utilizes the stylus as both a controller and story element.
Basically Kirby's world has been changed into a painting, and the hero into an arm- and legless ball. The only way to right everything is to pass through the various worlds on your way to hunt down the witch that has cursed you. However, because the little pink hero is virtually helpless without his limbs, it's up to you to use the Magic Paintbrush (RE: the stylus) to paint rainbow ramps and loops to guide Kirby over pits, spikes, and other perilous obstacles. Should an enemy cross your path, tap it with the very tip of the Paintbrush (to stun it), then tap Kirby to send him speeding into his would-be attacker. If you're lucky, the now dead enemy will bestow its power upon you, giving Kirby a beam of fire, super-speed, the indestructible form of a rock, and various other offensive and defensive attacks.
However, it's still up to you to guide the rolling hero to safety. Since the various worlds are comprised of many hills, Kirby rarely stops to give you a break. Blink for one second, and you'll find that he's bumped into an un-stunned enemy or tumbled downward into a bottomless pit.
While the concept might seem childish, what with a Magical Paintbrush and all, the game is truly a gem in that it's fully fleshed out from both a control and gameplay standpoint. Sure, the story itself won't win any awards, but the inclusion of the stylus (and therefore you) into it breaks down and rebuilds the fourth wall all at the same time. It's saying, "We know you're out there beyond the screen controlling Kirby, so we're going to include you and the controller into the game."
What this does is something that's rarely accomplished in gaming; it connects you emotionally with the action. While many titles have touched gamers from a story standpoint, few have accomplished this through the actual gameplay. ICO is the first to come to mind. Since you're charged with protecting the seemingly helpless Yorda, it's necessary to hold her hand throughout the adventure. Leaving her alone for too long will place her in grave danger, as the misty black spirits will come to claim her. Later on, when you find yourself separated from the pale child, a feeling of utter despair eats away at your heart. Yorda is gone, and so is part of you.
Continually holding down the R1 button connects you with the controller and, through it, the virtual girl. This holding of hands (or button, really) binds the characters and gamer in a way that had never been accomplished before, and losing her right at the moment of triumph (and then continuing the adventure without her) splits your heart in two. It's almost as if your own lover had been kidnapped right before your very eyes.
Kirby Canvas Curse isn't as visceral as ICO, but, by having been drawn into the game through the story and stylus, gamers will feel as if they're a guardian angel sent downward to protect Kirby from whatever dangers await. When you fail -- when he lands face first in a pool of lava or rolls right into an oncoming enemy -- there's a greater sense of failure because you didn't properly look after him. Due to this, you're more likely to stay one step ahead of both Kirby and the traps/enemies the next time around. Most guardian angles don't get a second chance, but you do thanks to the inclusion of extra lives. Ah, video games. Where one can never truly die.
Now as for my second comment about killer apps and the lack of one for the DS... this is it. Some might be turned off by the cutesy, colorful charm, but, much like Wind Waker, once you get past the look you'll come to realize that this is a truly fun, exciting experience that you'll want to tell your friends and fellow gamers about. Sure, they'll look at you like you're crazy for having played a "children's" game, but their verbal jabs will be silenced once you hand them the unit and tell them to give it a whirl, "Just for kicks," you'll say.
By the time Sony bashes us over the head with one PSP ad after another, the DS will be a year old. Hopefully by then Nintendo will have sold more units thanks to Kirby, and developers will have taken a serious look at its play mechanics and realized just what can be done with the DS's touch screen. Once they come to see that the machine is meant for more than ports and puzzlers, the anti-Nintendo/DS lot, just like your reluctant friends, will be silenced. Until then, however, the DS will sadly remain on course to becoming the next Virtual Boy.