Nintendo has never been a company to focus squarely on driving or racing games, but the stars have aligned in such a way that the company will be releasing three such games in the back half of 2003. F-Zero GX is already out and brings with it a difficulty that is sure to please hardcore fans. Mario Kart: Double Dash!! is up later in the year, and it should provide some new spins on an old favorite. Kirby Air Ride is, in this case, the awkward middle child. The game attempts to appeal to the younger crowd by being, basically, a one-button racing game. But the gameplay instead feels so stripped-down and boring that even your younger brother probably won't get much out of it.
Air Ride is actually three games in one, though all of them use the same basic mechanics. Air ride mode is the basic racing mode, letting you pick a track and get to racing. Top ride mode has a top-down view similar to classic arcade racing games like Super Sprint and Ironman Ivan Stewart's Super Off Road. City trial is a weird one. It gives you five minutes to cruise around a city to collect power-ups, then it tosses you into one of a handful of minigames with your newly enhanced vehicle. Though the city is nice and large, you never really get a sense of what to do while you're there, and the fact that the minigame at the end is randomly selected means that you might have spent the five minutes in the city looking for bonus items that make it impossible for you to do well in in the end. As you can imagine, that really isn't much fun, regardless of how many players you're playing with.
The basic control is the same from mode to mode. When you want to do something--anything--push A. Under normal use, the A button slows you down and begins to charge your boost meter. Letting off the button causes you to rocket forward. So the gameplay basically involves holding A around corners, sliding around to face the track ahead, and then letting off the button to fly out of the turns. Air ride mode also has various Kirby enemies on the track, and tapping A when they're near will suck them up using Kirby's powerful mouth. Some enemies give you abilities when eaten, such as sword attacks, fire or ice attacks, and so on.
The manual and tutorial videos constantly brag about the game's "super-easy controls" or the ability to "feel the speed and use Copy abilities with just one button!" While there's something to be said for designing a game that is easy to figure out, Air Ride takes this concept to a ridiculous extreme. For example, you can find a rocket launcher in the city. Rather than give you any fire control over the launcher, it simply starts rapid-firing as soon as you pick it up, and doesn't stop until its timer expires. Would it have been that difficult to simply make the B button act as a fire button? Kirby can and does execute a variety of tasks in the game, and to not use the GameCube's other five buttons is just silly. As a result, the gameplay is a real bore.
The game has quite a few things to unlock, and it manages this via checklists that cover each of the three modes. Each mode has 120 tasks to be accomplished, and each time you fulfill one of these objectives, it's marked off on your 12-by-12 checklist. The game doesn't tell you what, exactly, you have to do to mark off these boxes, and some of the criteria gets pretty arbitrary--for example, one of the tasks is to finish with a lap time that has the same number in both of the seconds columns. But to egg you along, marking off one of these boxes lets you see the criteria for the boxes around it, so you'll always have something to work for, should you feel so inclined. Most boxes don't unlock anything, but some give you new colors, new vehicles to choose from, sound tests, and other items.
Kirby Air Ride, strangely enough, is also the first GameCube game to feature LAN support. Yes, if you have access to four GameCubes, four copies of the game, four TVs, and a local area network, you can play a four-player network game for Kirby Air Ride. This is a neat feature, but its inclusion in such an unworthy game makes one wish that Nintendo had chosen a better racing game--like F-Zero GX--to introduce this feature. The game also has support for four players on one GameCube, splitting the screen for air ride and city trial modes and putting all four players on the same screen for top ride.
Graphically, Kirby Air Ride maintains a bright, colorful appearance that is consistent with what you'd expect from a Kirby game. The environments look pretty decent, and some little effects--like the running water in one of the top ride courses--look really, really nice. The game also has a pretty smooth frame rate. Overall, it isn't a great-looking game, but it definitely gets the job done.
The same song and dance applies to the game's audio presentation. You'll find lots of sound effects and music that fit into the Kirby universe but nothing that will really wow you.
In the end, Kirby Air Ride feels like a bit of a throwaway. By being sandwiched in between one great racing game and one highly anticipated kart racing game, Kirby Air Ride makes almost no impact. The overly simplified gameplay really holds it back, and overall, it's a game that really can't be recommended to anyone, young or old.