On Tuesday, a listing for a new game, Kirby Fighters 2, mysteriously showed up on the Nintendo eShop. Almost as soon as it appeared, it disappeared. Then, last night, without the faintest splash of fanfare, Nintendo released the game into the world.
Kirby Fighters 2 is a 2D fighting game with platforming elements. You and up to three other Kirbys populate a stage. Most stages have several floating platforms. You can pick up various items, including bombs and food. Often, a box will fall from the sky. Busting it open will unveil a small trove of items, which you can then throw at your opponents. Your goal is to be the last puffball (or team of puffballs) standing.
If that all sounds a lot like Super Smash Bros. to you, you’re not wrong. Kirby Fighters 2 unmistakably shares some DNA with Nintendo’s flagship series of fighting games. (Fitting, since HAL Laboratory, the developer of many Kirby games—including Fighters 2’s predecessor, the 2014 3DS game Kirby Fighters Deluxe—also developed the early Smash games.) But this is no Smash. Rather, Kirby Fighters 2 feels like a knockoff version of Smash I’d play at a summer fair: hand over a buck, play a round, maybe win some serrated tickets I could then exchange for a Kirby plushie.
Instead of a carnival game, though, this is the latest release in a slow year for one of the biggest video game publishers on the planet. It’s fitting that, if Nintendo would release something out of the blue, it would be a Kirby game. Believe it or not, the eternally sidelined shapeshifter is one of Nintendo’s most prolific stars. Dating back to Kirby Dream Land’s 1992 debut, Kirby has rarely missed a year. In 2014, three whole Kirby games came out. Two more released in 2017 (well, stateside). If nothing else, Kirby Fighters 2 keeps up the streak. It’s just a shame that it’s not a better game.
The core of Kirby Fighters 2 is that you get to literally try on Kirby’s many hats. At the start of each match, you select a “move” for your Kirby. In any other fighting game, moves would be referred to as characters or fighters; your choice dictates what attacks you can perform in the ring. Sword comes with a knit hat and allows you to swing a blade. Wrestler allows you to perform lariats and the like. Yo-Yo gives you a supercharged yo-yo that wouldn’t be out of place in Ness’ arsenal. You can even walk the dog!
Given the similarities with Smash, you’d expect all these various Kirbys to play identically to how Kirby plays in that game. There’s some foundational overlap, for sure—you can jump, float, perform special attacks, and dodge—but Kirby has a noticeable weight in Kirby Fighters 2 that just isn’t present in Smash. Every match feels like a Smash match in which the gravity has been ticked up by 20 percent and the speed slashed by the same amount. My muscle memory is conditioned by hundreds of hours of Smash, so trying to land attacks felt like walking through a foot of snow.
There’s a story mode, technically. In classic fighting game fashion, you and an optional co-op partner have to fight your way to the top of a tower. Win one fight, and you go to the next floor. When you clear five floors, you finish the first chapter and are sent back down to the lobby. The next chapter, you have to clear ten floors. (Though the early game is saddled with this repetition, late-game chapters could shake things up. I haven’t played that far to know one way or the other.) It’s all wrapped up in a narrative involving King Dedede and Meta Knight—two longtime series villains—teaming up to do typical bad guy stuff.
But people generally don’t play fighting games for the plot. They play fighting games for the fighting. Unfortunately, Kirby Fighters 2 doesn’t make it easy to play with friends. To ensure a computer-controlled character doesn’t show up in your rounds, you have to actually select that computer’s move as “nothing.” You have to do this for every match. If you want to add a third or fourth human player, you have to quit back to a previous menu and reload the mode. Small quality-of-life misfires like these don’t hold Kirby Fighters 2 back from greatness, but they sure don’t help its case.
That’s not to say that Kirby Fighters 2, even as an off-center facsimile of Smash Bros., doesn’t have its merits. For one thing, there’s a leveling system that you can progress through at the speed of sound. Personally, I’m a total sucker for sugar-rush level-ups (it’s one of many things I loved about 2019’s Fire Emblem: Three Houses), so I’d be lying if I said that leveling up once every round or two wasn’t exciting. Still, I’d bet a carnival-prize Kirby plushie that, once the sheen wears off, once I’ve unlocked all of the moves and stages, I get bored and put it down for good.
It’s also loaded with Kirby fan service. A lot of these fighters and stages are callbacks to earlier Kirby games. Your co-op buddies can play as Gooey, the perpetually cross-eyed series mainstay. You can even fight at the Fountain of Dreams! (It’s more colorful but less glossy than the comparable stage in Melee.)
For all intents and purposes, Kirby Fighters 2 is a greatest hits album of Kirby references. That alone could charm longtime fans. Since I’m rather take-it-or-leave-it on the series, though, I think I’ll stick with Smash. Unless Kirby Air Ride gets a proper re-release.