Kirby and the Rainbow Curse is mechanically tied to Kirby: Canvas Curse, a 2005 Nintendo DS platformer. In Canvas Curse, you control Kirby with only the stylus, tapping to make him roll along and drawing rainbow lines to move him up, down, over enemies, and into the path of collectibles. Kirby could also copy enemies’ skills and use them to his own advantage, making for an interesting and versatile mix of abilities to guide the beloved pink character through a handful of worlds packed with environmental puzzles.
Canvas Curse innovated a new way to move Kirby around, but Rainbow Curse has squandered most of its charm. Despite the beautiful claymation art style and eye-candy coloring, the game is dull. Kirby’s movement and abilities have been oversimplified to the point that getting Kirby actually to do what you want is a gamble. This, coupled with a watery story mode and unexciting bonus modes, makes Rainbow Curse feel soulless, disconnected from a franchise that has made some strong decisions in past iterations.
Movement in Rainbow Curse is minimalistic. Gameplay takes place entirely on the GamePad. To move Kirby forward, you tap him with the stylus, and he rolls. To switch directions, you draw a rainbow line in front of him, which he bumps into and then rolls the opposite way. Rolling him into certain types of blocks breaks them, and rolling onto an enemy’s head kills it. To move Kirby up and through the air, you draw rainbow lines for him to roll along. Scattered through the environments are gold stars, and if Kirby collects 100, holding the stylus to the screen will charge him up for a more powerful attack that breaks metal and stone and damages larger enemies. He follows his lines dutifully, so draw them carefully.
Early levels are a breeze, but in later stages, Kirby’s Jello-y physics makes them more difficult to complete. Stages are all slightly-different variants on each other, offering the same obstacles, just in different places. Sand and water you have to manipulate using lines, boxes you have to ram into, keys you have to collect to unlock the next area–some form of this was in every puzzle in every level, making things monotonous. I could expect at least one door to unlock in every first or second stage level. I knew Kirby would be a plane or tank come the last level before the boss fight. This pattern became familiar by the third stage, so I always knew what to expect and how to get around the pile of boxes in the room or collect the key. There isn’t much variety to Rainbow Curse’s stages of puzzle-solving.
Some puzzles and boss battles require quick reflexes, calling for a fast flick of the brush to paint a path to safety or change directions to bump a projectile back into an enemy’s face. Guiding Kirby out of harm’s way can prove difficult; he’s a little slippery. Rainbow lines must be drawn quickly and strategically to roll him away, and sometimes even then, it’s not enough to get the bugger. Kirby will roll along the top or bottom of a line depending on which side he touches, and if you’re rolling on a line’s underside and hit a wall, you’re stuck, even if the line arcs over it and away. With this method, it’s easy to back Kirby into corners, especially when the level includes a screen-moving component that means instant death if Kirby falls out of frame. More than once I drew lines hoping to bounce Kirby to safety but instead painted him into a corner. Kirby himself has also been granted some floaty physics this time around, making it feel like you’re batting a bouncy cotton ball around the screen.
Every action besides drawing lines relies on tapping the GamePad–you never use the face buttons or triggers–and with everything mapped to a tap, navigation gets sticky quickly. In some levels, Kirby is transformed into a tiny plane, tiny tank, or tiny submarine. As the former, Kirby relies absolutely on the player to draw rainbow lines to guide him. When he’s a tank or submarine, you tap to both move Kirby and shoot projectiles at the same time. Submarine missiles, however, need those rainbow lines to guide them to targets; otherwise, they will shoot straight ahead. It’s monotonous and deeply frustrating to have both moves mapped to the one command. If Kirby is in the middle of the screen and you want to shoot enemies below you and move to the left to collect a star, you need to tap to Kirby’s left and also draw rainbow lines to guide the missiles towards the bad guys. The submarine-Kirby and tank-Kirby levels are also constantly, slowly scrolling along, meaning you need to keep in frame to stay alive.
The game has an infuriating learning curve. Being bound to a one-directional line is limiting, and the game demands early mastery without giving you time to adapt. When Kirby is forced to become a plane or tank, it limits movement even further. Fine control is difficult in many instances, especially when Kirby is in these vehicle forms. Plane Kirby is particularly unwieldy, and many times I went to draw a line only to accidentally tap on Kirby and have him speed away from the desired direction. And in one late-game boss battle, Kirby spent most of the time hovering on the screen’s edges, where I couldn’t reach him with the stylus and where the rainbow lines refused to appear to guide him. He was in a corner I couldn’t get him out of. The general line-drawing takes some getting used to, but even after becoming moderately comfortable, after seven whole words and 28 stages, I still never felt like I had proper control of Kirby due to his flighty nature.
Also, those rainbow lines? Your paint can run out, and you’ll need to wait for a quick two- or three-second recharge before you can use it again. This adds a bit of resource management when crossing wide chasms and dealing with loads of projectile-shooting enemies, forcing you to keep an eye on your reserves. The challenge in Rainbow Curse lies in mastering drawing these lines, but frustration can reach an all-time high depending on how committed you are to getting it right.
Kirby typically feels floaty, because you inflate him to fly over obstacles and earn new powers by inhaling enemies. But you do neither of these things in Rainbow Curse. But Kirby feels useless here because the delicate physics don’t quite sync with the mechanics. He can only roll into enemies or power up and roll into enemies, and if you roll into the enemy from the wrong angle–such as from the side or on top of its giant spiky head–you lose life. Some enemies jump or throw spears, and it’s difficult to time how long it will take you to roll along a line and slam down on their heads before they sneak a hit in. Your only option is roll into them, though, so it’s all you can do.
One way to get through the game is by literally babysitting Kirby, adding one to three other local players as his companion Waddle Dee to cover him to the finish line. Each Waddle Dee can jump, hover for a few moments, and slash enemies, totally free of the exasperating rainbow lines. I played with a friend as Waddle Dee, and he was able to do nearly everything without me; Kirby is needed to draw rainbow lines over un-jumpable spaces, and Waddle Dee took care of everything else solo. I played through several levels with my colleagues and nearly all of them preferred to grab Waddle Dee. It feels odd that the co-op character should be more powerful than the main hero.
There are a few more bells and whistles in Rainbow Curse that add content, but nothing incredibly interesting. Completing levels can unlock an additional stage that is accessible in Challenge mode. Each stage includes four small rooms packed with obstacles you’ve seen before; there’s nothing here that isn’t already offered somewhere in story mode. You must maneuver Kirby through each small room to a treasure chest. You only have 15 seconds to succeed in each room, and if you fail, you lose the challenge. These tiny contained challenges have no incentive to them, since they repeat ideas from the main campaign that have already been repeated umpteen times.
You can also use Amiibo with Rainbow Curse with some restrictions. Tapping a Kirby, Dedede, or MetaKnight Amiibo to the GamePad will grant you a power-up; Kirby lets you use his dash ability whenever you want, Dedede gives you two extra health bars, and MetaKnight makes Kirby more powerful. But you can only use one Amiibo once a day, and if you die just once, you lose the power-up and have to wait a day to use it again. Since losing life is an inevitability in Rainbow Curse, it’s disappointing that the Amiibo bonus is something you can’t hold on to for your entire playtime.
Kirby and the Rainbow Curse is a tiring game. It’s taxing without being rewarding, like doing a mile on a stationary bike and discovering that you only burned away calories from one bite of your lunch burrito. The game gets frustrating quickly due to repetitive obstacles and there’s not much incentive to dig into a game that won’t give you that agency. It’s a mediocre romp through a gorgeously detailed world that doesn’t give you the control you need as a player, which ultimately dulls its shine.