The Nintendo DS suffered through a lot of mediocrity in the first six months of its life, a situation exacerbated by Nintendo’s claims of brand new experiences thanks to its unique combination of features. The few solid releases that existed weren’t enough to make us forget about useless touch-screen steering, awkward command touch-menus in action games (requiring us to shift focus during combat), or 3D platformer ports that tried to have us use touch sensitivity to replicate analog controls. Kirby: Canvas Curse stands as the first big leap–and, to date, one of few–in transplanting traditional action into an entirely new paradigm using the DS’ strengths, but even taken out of historical context, it’s a fantastic game on its own.
Canvas Curse dares to strip away any traditional button-based controls while delivering an experience traditionally played with said buttons. The game’s fiction explains this transition: Kirby, under a spell cast by a witch, has lost all of his limbs and is now nothing more than a pink ball. Restricted to rolling around while at the mercy of Mother Nature’s physics, Kirby now relies on you–armed with a magic paintbrush (and conveniently breaking the fourth wall)–to guide him around by drawing lines that do everything from propelling him along a path to changing his trajectory (either by drawing a line in the opposite direction or drawing a quick vertical wall).
There were hints of line-drawing affecting character movement in previous games, most notably Yoshi’s Touch N’ Go and, to a lesser extent, one of the “boss” mini-games in Wario Ware Touched!, but Canvas Curse is neither an auto-scrolling, hands off experience like Yoshi’s DS debut; nor is it a mini-game collection like Wario’s maiden touch-screen voyage. You can accelerate Kirby by directly tapping him, stun his enemies by tapping them (which allows Kirby to then copy their attacks), give him a speed boost by drawing a loop as opposed to a straight line, and shield him from oncoming projectiles by drawing barriers. You’re also forced to work with a limited ink well that regenerates slowly enough for you to have to think your actions through.
Combining all of these elements together proves to be an exciting exercise in stylus gymnastics, and challenges not only your reflexes (as any good platformer should) but also your capacity for physics and planning. To get Kirby across a chasm and onto an elevated ledge, what combination of loops and quick strokes–and at what angles–will propel him upwards in the right direction, without depleting all of the ink? Thanks to some fantastic level design, this type of thinking and activity is everywhere. In some scenarios, you’ll be guiding Kirby up chimneys lined with spikes. In others, you’ll be shielding Kirby from dangerous falling icicles with horizontal lines while coaxing him along a bottomless pit, enemies nipping at his heels—oops, I’m sorry, he doesn’t have heels this time–every step of the way. Still other scenarios are exercises in guiding Kirby towards and around enemies, using the most appropriate strokes possible to avoid dangerous situations and pick up collectibles.
The brilliant level design is mostly responsible for keeping the line-drawing motif from getting stale, but there are other elements–both mandatory and optional–that further serve to make Canvas Curse a varied and replayable experience. For starters, the “boss” battles at the end of each stage aren’t exactly battles, but rather three types of stylus-based challenges. One has you racing to a finish line in a mine cart–for which you must draw the trajectory, natch–grabbing fruit for speed boosts and avoiding mines and spikes. Another has you scribbling through strictly-timed series of Connect-The-Dots, while the final type has you drawing spring boards to guide Kirby through a gauntlet of Breakout-esque obstacles. Not only are these unlockable as bonus games, but time- and ink-trials for each world are unlockable as well (the latter of which rewarding you for making it to the goal using as little ink as possible). While playing each of the game’s worlds, as well as the bonus games and trials, you collect medals that will serve to unlock even more bonus levels and extra niceties (such as an increased life bar), keeping you motivated to search every nook and cranny and beat every time.
Kirby: Canvas Curse is also aesthetically appealing, though those without a sweet tooth might grimace a little. Canvas Curse doesn’t change up Kirby’s whimsical and cartoony style, instead pushing it even further with a mixture various themes including angles, watercolor splotches, and even broadly-stroked mechanical designs. None of this pushes the technical envelope, but it’s perfect for the series and fits into the mythology of this particular game. With the musical score following suit in its upbeat whimsy and simplicity, it’s fair to say that the game’s presentation successfully ties everything together–so long as you can handle its insistence on being cute.
It should be noted that this is being written nearly four years, and plenty of top-notch Nintendo DS releases, after Canvas Curse’s original release. To answer the obvious question given this revelation, then, the game absolutely holds up as an all-time great DS title. It also stands as one of the platform’s most unique titles, which would be surprising were it not for the fact that very few action titles have dared to follow its lead. What HAL Laboratories accomplished with Kirby: Canvas Curse was and is extraordinary; that it hasn’t been aped since is baffling and, ultimately, unfortunate.