Okay. Let’s talk about how this game looks, because it’s a real highlight of the experience.
One of the things I really like about the Nintendo of the Wii U and Switch generations in particular is the fact that they’ve demonstrated themselves to not be afraid of experimenting with aesthetics and overall style — though there’s a certain amount of internal consistency there, too.
Specifically, it’s all about Nintendo’s desire to make interactive experiences that are as much “toys” as they are “games”. And Kirby and the Rainbow Paintbrush is a great example of this at work.
Nintendo’s “toy-like aesthetic” over the course of its work on HD consoles (and its parallel handhelds) involves a number of stylistic elements. In its most simple form, these games make use of “tilt-shift” techniques, whereby clever use of depth-of-field effects can really emphasise the toy-like feel of the visuals.
Tilt-shift photography has many possible applications, but one of its most popular uses is in ensuring objects in a particular plane are very sharp while other planes are hazy and unfocused. This creates the visual illusion of close-up, macro photography, as if the camera’s lens is right up close against an object, and the blurred elements are far away. In practice, the physical situation may be entirely different — using this technique, you can take a photograph from the roof of a building and make the cars on the street below look like toys, for example — but it’s great for creating a very specific effect.
Tilt-shift styles can probably be most clearly seen in the more recent Super Mario games — particularly titles such as Super Mario 3D World and its spin-off Captain Toad Treasure Tracker, both of which have a very “toybox” feel — but it’s also apparent in Kirby and the Rainbow Paintbrush. And it’s particularly effective here because of the other stylistic choices made for the game as a whole.
As you have probably already noticed from the screenshots, Kirby and the Rainbow Paintbrush makes use of a “claymation”-style aesthetic, in which all the characters appear to be modelled out of coloured or painted clay. What you can’t see from static screenshots is how the game makes use of a deliberately limited frame rate on its characters to provide the illusion of stop-motion animation; this is an extremely effective way of creating a distinctive style for the game as a whole, though it’s also worth noting that this doesn’t mean compromising on overall game performance. On the contrary, despite the animations playing at a deliberately low frame rate, the game itself moves smoothly, creating an interesting contrast between the character animations and their actual physical movements around the game screen, as well as keeping the mechanical side of things fully functional.
When combined with the use of tilt-shift-style techniques for the backgrounds, Kirby and the Rainbow Paintbrush has a very convincing look of being hand-crafted and having depth, despite unfolding as a strictly two-dimensional game. This is very much appropriate for the overall setting and tone of the game; the “villain” of the piece is a young woman named Claycia, who was once the best friend of the titular rainbow paintbrush Elline, and as you might expect from a name like that, Claycia was very keen on making things from… you know. Papier-mâché.
The use of clay as a key piece of the game’s overall style means that things can be rather flexible and interesting from both a visual and a mechanical perspective. The softness of unfired clay allows for the use of level elements that can basically be “poked” out of the way using the GamePad’s touchscreen and stylus in a particularly pleasing part of the game’s tactile experience, while its malleability means that we can have enemies that change shape, blend into the background and do all sorts of interesting, physically improbable things.
This all applies to Kirby too; while he spends most of the game in his iconic “ball” shape, moving by rolling rather than walking, running or floating, he will be affected by environmental elements in a convincing manner — fire him out of a cannon right into a solid wall and you’ll flatten him into a pancake, for example.
Alongside all this is a pleasing feeling of physicality to the overall gameplay. The rainbow ropes you (and Elline) draw using the GamePad’s touchscreen not only guide Kirby, they can also block various environmental elements. A well-placed line of rainbow rope can do things like block waterfalls and falling lava, allowing Kirby to proceed through otherwise impassable routes, and in numerous situations you’ll need to block incoming attacks by putting a rainbow rope in between a laser beam or bomb and Kirby. Both phases of the final boss of the game really put this particular technique to the test!
Kirby and the Rainbow Paintbrush is a game quite unlike any other platformer out there — I’d hesitate to even call it a platformer at all, to be honest, given that you completely lack direct control of the main character. It’s probably more accurate to call it an environmental puzzler in which you, as an invincible, omniscient, omnipresent external force, are tasked with keeping something eminently mortal, even fragile, from getting into mischief.
The more I think about it, the more it reminds me of a very old French game for home computers in the late ’80s called Bubble Ghost; in this game, you controlled a ghost with the mouse and used it to “blow” a bubble through a series of increasingly perilous environments. The bubble in Bubble Ghost was considerably more fragile than Kirby is in this game — it would pop the moment it hit a piece of scenery, so it could not be “rolled” along the ground like Kirby can — but the idea of never quite being in complete control of the thing that you, the player, were in charge of protecting is very much intact.
I’ve now beaten Kirby and the Rainbow Paintbrush’s 28 main story levels and a few of its infuriating Challenge levels, and I feel I’ve had a good time and learned a few things. Probably the most significant thing I learned is that Kirby games are not, as I had mistakenly picked up the assumption from somewhere, easy.
I’m not sure where I got this assumption from — perhaps the widespread belief that Kirby in Super Smash Bros. is regarded as a “beginner” character by some — but Kirby and the Rainbow Paintbrush most certainly schooled me on more than one occasion. In fact, there were several times at which I actually had to put the game down and walk away due to how infuriated I was getting; this wasn’t the fault of the game’s design by any means, more my own incompetence and inexperience with handling its unusual mechanics.
A good example is the aforementioned final boss — in its last phase, you only have to hit it three times to win, but the first couple of times you try it, this seems like a wildly unattainable goal. After much teeth-gnashing and colourful language, I stepped away, had a (soft) drink and pet my cat, then came back and beat it first time. Such is life.
With 28 main story levels, Kirby and the Rainbow Paintbrush may seem pretty short compared to some of Nintendo’s other games, but there’s a lot of replay value here. Each level has a medal to attain based on how many stars you collect, and you can uncover the complete story to the game by successfully grabbing a “secret diary” object from a rotating ring of rewards at the conclusion of each level. Then there are five hidden treasure chests in each stage, each of which contain collectible clay figurines and music tracks. And there are something in the region of 40 Challenge levels, each of which task you with completing a series of single-room puzzles against an extremely tight time limit.
I feel I’ve probably had my fill of this for now, but it’s nice to feel like there’s some stuff to come back and try for when I feel the inclination. I’m particularly interested to uncover the whole “secret diary”, as the entries that I did manage to collect over the course of my time with the game were absolutely charming. But that’s a job for another day, I think.
Kirby’s a pretty vast series and I’m not sure where to go next — any suggestions? I have a SNES mini so I’m leaning towards checking out the titles on there — Kirby Super Star and Kirby’s Dream Course. I’d love to hear what your favourites are, though!
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Thanks for reading; I hope you enjoyed this article. I’ve been writing about games in one form or another since the days of the old Atari computers, with work published in Page 6/New Atari User, PC Zone, the UK Official Nintendo Magazine, GamePro, IGN, USgamer, Glixel and more over the years, and I love what I do.
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