'Kirby 64' game targets young, young at heart

Cuddly character makes return on N64

For someone who loves the darker side of video games, the sight of Nintendo's cute and cuddly Kirby is enough to bring on a sugar high.

But give the little guy a chance. You might like him.

Kirby has appeared in a half-dozen or so Nintendo titles since 1992. Now, he's starring in a new production by HAL Laboratories called "Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards."

It's a wonderful game for children, and it might even make you "Doom" fanatics think twice.

In his latest venture, Kirby decides to help a fairy named Ribbon after her planet is attacked by Dark Matter, a sinister force seeking the fairies' secret treasure -- the Crystal.

Ribbon manages to escape with the Crystal, but she is followed and attacked by Dark Matter. The Crystal shatters and the pieces sprinkle down on planets in a distant galaxy.

One, of course, falls on Kirby's planet, Pop Star. Kirby's job now is to help Ribbon unite the Crystal's pieces. Of such trifles are video games made.

Kirby, who looks a lot like a pink gum bubble with eyes, must visit six worlds and fight more than 50 enemies and bosses on more than 25 levels before his quest is done.

He's not going into battle (such as it is) unarmed. Kirby has the unique ability to inhale enemies and spit them out as weapons. In the case of enemies with special abilities, he can acquire those abilities to use against future enemies.

Better still, swallowing two enemies with different powers -- called Burn, Stone, Ice, Needle, Spark, Bomb and Cutter -- creates a combo more devastating than any power alone.

The goal is to collect three shards of the crystal in each stage, although you can march right through the game without picking up a single shard.

Kirby has other assets. He can swim and jump and fly for short periods by puffing up like an adder. He collects junk food to restore health and stars to pile up for extra lives.

The game takes all the work out of deciding where to go; Kirby follows a preset path for the most part, and his 2D actions don't leave much room to maneuver.

"Kirby 64" isn't "Perfect Dark." The challenge is minimal, and I marched through a dozen stages in a very short time. The game is obviously and appropriately aimed at very young players who don't deserve to be tortured by complex rules and lethal opponents.

But that doesn't mean adults can't enjoy the game for what it is -- a bucolic trip back in time to when platform games were everything and cute characters were the stars.

Kirby's graphics get an A. They aren't complex, but they are gorgeous, full of lush pastels, cute characters and interesting detail. This game is a joy to look at.

Sound is a B, with tinky tunes and effects that will make kids smile.

Control gets an A. You can play almost the entire game with just the d-pad and A and B buttons. The joystick has no function, although the rest of the controls do come into play from time to time. Everything works perfectly, with no glitches to put a wrinkle on your charming youngster's unfurrowed brow.

Overall, this is an absolute A game for children, with enough entertainment value to snare adults, if only briefly.

"Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards" is rated E, for all ages.

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