Kirby's Block Ball
  • Genre:
    • Puzzle
  • Platform:
    • Game Boy
  • Developers:
    • HAL
    • TOSE
  • Publisher:
    • Nintendo
  • Released:
    • JP 12/14/1995
    • UK 12/25/1995
    • US May 1996
Score: 75%

This review was published on 01/09/2015.

Kirby's Block Ball is a Breakout and Arkanoid clone developed by HAL Laboratory and TOSE and published by Nintendo for the original Game Boy. The game was released in Japan on December 14, 1995, Europe on December 25, 1995, and North America on May 1996. Kirby is no stranger to spinoffs involving balls, having previously appeared in Kirby's Pinball Land and Kirby's Dream Course, two other spinoffs consisting of Kirby rolling around as a ball. It makes perfect sense, since Kirby is, by nature, a spherical fellow. This is no simple Breakout clone, though, as Kirby's Block Ball ups the ante considerably by adding a ton of entertaining innovations. Many of these innovations originated from the Kirby series, which makes Kirby's Block Ball feel at home with the main series despite being a spinoff. Kirby's Block Ball marries core game mechanics from the Kirby series with the fundamentals of Breakout to create one of the best Breakout clones ever made.

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The basic mechanics of Kirby's Block Ball is precisely like Breakout: Kirby transforms into a tiny ball that can be bounced around via moving paddles controlled by the player. Objectively, the objective of each stage is to destroy all the blocks in the area by knocking the ball, Kirby, into them. Some blocks are destroyed in only a single hit, while others take multiple shots. An advanced technique is to press the A button just as Kirby touches the paddle to knock him with greater force, allowing him to break sturdy blocks easier, in addition to letting him withstand a single hit. Unlike Breakout, there are other objects Kirby can interact with besides blocks, like enemies and items. Most items merely give points, but some actually do things. As for enemies, they're simply there to give Kirby goodies when killed, so they aren't much of a threat. That's not to say that there are no threats, though. Just below the paddle is a bed of spikes that instantly kill Kirby if he falls into them and that's where the primary challenge comes in. Carefully clearing the screen of stuff and avoiding a spiky doom is what the game is all about. This requires a lot of patience, but that's Breakout for you.

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There are eleven worlds with five stages each; if you do your math right, then that means there are a grand total of 55 stages in the game! Kirby's Block Ball is one long game, that's for sure. Primarily, stages differ in block layouts, but there are also new mechanics and gimmicks introduced as you progress through the game. For instance, one stage introduces an explosive enemy that drops a bomb when defeated, letting Kirby destroy a bunch of blocks all at once. Prior to the beginning of each stage is a short clip that teaches you a new technique or shows off a new gimmick, which is a nice touch. Challenge in Kirby's Block Ball is mostly achieved by increasing the number of spikes and paddles to deal with. Spikes and paddles will be placed on walls and even ceilings in certain stages. You could say there's a bit of a difficulty spike. An issue the game has, however, is the imbalanced difficulty. The difficulty rises and drops inexplicably from one world to the next. You'll be in a stage with spikes covering every inch of the room, only to be sent to another stage with barely any spikes at all. Some consistency would be nice.

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What separate Kirby's Block Ball from Breakout are the copy abilities. Just like in the regular Kirby games, Kirby can copy abilities from enemies. Obviously, that mechanic works differently here than it does in the normal Kirby games. For Kirby to copy an enemy's ability, he need only hit it. Only certain enemies have abilities that can be copied, though, so this doesn't work against every foe. After successfully absorbing the ability, Kirby is then able to use it at any time by pressing the B button. Copy abilities are very handy and they make the game far more enjoyable. For example, the Spark ability allows him to break through multiple blocks in a row, the stone ability makes him fall in a downwards motion, and the burn ability turns him into a fireball that flies upwards. Kirby will survive spikes if he touches them while using abilities, but in exchange, he loses the ability. He also loses the ability if he dies, so these are temporary luxuries. This is the best feature of the game, as it's the main thing that makes Kirby's Block Ball unique from both Breakout and Arkanoid.

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At the end of each world lies a formidable foe of ferocious fortitude. I'm talking about bosses. The penultimate stage of each world is sort of a preparation area for the boss. In order to open the path to the boss, you usually have to kill a mini-boss in the second-to-last stage of the world. However, there are star blocks within the mini-boss stage that can be broken to give you an advantage during the boss fight. The more of these star blocks you wreck, the more temporary cushions you'll have to protect you from spikes in the boss arena. As for the bosses themselves, their whole strategy revolves around trying to push Kirby into the spikes at the edges of the room. All you have to do to win is repeatedly knock Kirby into the boss to deplete its life bar; Kirby himself cannot be directly harmed by the boss. Sometimes bosses will use attacks to freeze or shrink some of the paddles, which is kind of cheap. A few bosses also change their tactics after their health goes down to a certain level, a feature that helps keep the fight interesting. The boss fights are fun and exciting, but they do feel a tad unfair at times.

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Occasionally, Kirby will find a hidden Warp Star in a stage that will take him to bonus levels. There are four bonus stages in all and you can choose the one you want each time you get a Warp Star. The purpose of bonus stages is to gather extra lives. Each bonus game has different rules, but they almost all involve hitting balls for one reason or another. Most of the bonus games are pretty lame, though some are cool. One of the better ones is the air hockey game, which is basically a vertical version of Pong; Kirby has to hit the ball past his opponent to win 1ups. The other bonus game that's marginally okay is the star catching one; Kirby shoots out stars and bombs from the center of the stage, and it's your job to catch the stars and avoid the bombs using the four paddles on the four corners of the room. Every other bonus stage sucks, but this is hardly a detriment to Kirby's Block Ball, because these stages play such a negligible role in the game. Free 1ups are always nice, though.

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Border Lines are borderline stupid. No, I'm not talking about immigrants trying to cross the border illegally. "Border Lines" are a dumb way of saying high scores. To actually reach the final world in the game, you not only need to complete all the other worlds, but must also surpass a Border Line in each one. That means you'll have to replay the same world multiple times if you don't get the high score on your first try. To add insult to injury, it's nearly impossible to get high scores on some stages on the initial attempt, because you have to return to the stage with a copy ability that's gotten from someplace else. This is stupidity to the highest degree. While this does add replay value, it does so in a sick, depraved manner. The game is already hard enough as it is without the Border Line nonsense. It would have been excusable if the Border Lines were optional, but forcing the player to beat all the high scores to unlock the last area is a low blow.

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Kirby's Block Ball is a great game in its own right and possibly the best interpretation of Breakout there is. It takes the basics of Breakout and builds upon it with mechanics brought over from the Kirby series, making for a far better overall experience. The copy abilities are particularly fun. Despite its simplicity, this game has lots of depth and is fairly lengthy. There are definitely some problems, though, like the infernal Border Lines. Being forced to revisit stages to get high scores is a cheap method of artificially extending the game's length. Kirby's Block Ball can also get tedious, as completely clearing a stage of blocks sometimes takes forever. That's more a problem with the Breakout formula than with this game specifically, but it's a problem nonetheless. Additionally, this game gets insanely hard during some parts, which may deter people. All that aside, this is as good as it's going to get for a game based on Breakout. Chances are, if you don't like Kirby's Block Ball, you won't like any Breakout game.

Word Count: 1,534

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