Like most Kirby games, Kirby and the Rainbow Curse is self-consciously modeled as an object of beauty. As one of the most purely abstract major videogame protagonists, Kirby is almost infinitely malleable. In his first games, this shape-shifting was reflected in Kirby’s interaction with the dangers of his world. Unlike Mario, who jumped on hostile creatures, Kirby inhaled his enemies, absorbing their powers and weapons.
In subsequent iterations, Kirby has stretched to take on not just the qualities of other character sprites, but of different art and crafting materials, such as brushstrokes and paint in Kirby: Canvas Curse and felt and knitting yarn in Kirby’s Epic Yarn. Kirby and the Rainbow Curse adds modeling clay to Kirby’s repertoire, and when the game gives close attention to Kirby and the objects around him it’s hard not to get caught up in the magnificence of the digital craftsmanship. Up close, in pre-rendered video, Kirby’s digital clay is almost tangible, right down to the waves of constantly shifting finger impressions that mark each of the thousands of tiny adjustments animators have to make to create the illusion of stop-motion life.
It’s almost a shame when the camera pulls back to give the player control. Except for the occasional visual flourish—such as the way Kirby flattens in high speed collisions and has to take a moment to unstick himself—Kirby’s clay form becomes almost a side note, an irrelevancy in a hardened, terra cotta world.
In part, this can be traced to the lack of necessary connection between the game’s conceit of a clay Kirby in a clay world and the toolset the game gives Kirby to work with. Rather than controlling Kirby directly, the player in effect plays the role of Elline, a magical paintbrush who paints pathways in order to guide Kirby’s movement and otherwise interact with the environment. Together, Elline and Kirby are looking to restore the color that has been stolen from Kirby’s immobilized black-and-white world, itself largely relegated to the background.
This conflation of color and vibrancy requires only the slightest leaps of fairy-tale logic, and it is perhaps ungenerous to wish that Kirby and the Rainbow Curse had come down a bit more on the material side of its imaginative equation. Or, barring that, had made the restoration of color more of a functional operation in the play experience. If it doesn’t particularly matter for much of the game that Kirby is supposed to be made of clay, neither is it particularly apparent that a malevolent force is actively engaged in the theft of color and life. There are black-and-white patches which serve as minor obstacles (the player can’t directly paint in these areas, and has to use momentum to move Kirby through), and if the player explores enough, she will eventually reach impenetrable monochromatic borders. These areas, however, are exceptions. The world Kirby explores is solid, shining color, shaped rather than shapeable.
The aesthetic itself isn’t a point of interaction. The player doesn’t sculpt Kirby, or add color back to the world through their actions. It feels uncharitable to call this a missed opportunity except for memory of the zippers and seams of Kirby’s Epic Yarn, in which the player could find pockets in the world, flaps and folds, and open them up or stitch them back together. Which is not to say that Kirby and the Rainbow Curse doesn’t have just as many hidden corners, or that there isn’t just as much challenge and reward in discovering them. The best levels are still the ones where Kirby becomes something else entirely, painted by Elline into a tank or a submarine. Transformed, just not, somehow, tactile.
Kirby and the Rainbow Curse is still a thing of beauty, lovely to look at and challenging (but not punitive) in play. In places, you can even see the sculptor’s fingerprints, but you can’t leave any of your own.