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Kirby: Canvas Curse (DS) artwork

Kirby: Canvas Curse (DS) review

"I was going to say that Kirby: Canvas Curse does for the touch screen what Super Mario 64 did for the analog stick, but that isn’t right. The latter standardized the concept of movement in a three-dimensional space and is now the model for console games, whereas the former has been out for over four years now, and I still have yet to witness anything else like it. Rightly so, too – flipping Samus into perpetual morph ball mode and guiding her around the screen with a hand-drawn ..."

I was going to say that Kirby: Canvas Curse does for the touch screen what Super Mario 64 did for the analog stick, but that isn’t right. The latter standardized the concept of movement in a three-dimensional space and is now the model for console games, whereas the former has been out for over four years now, and I still have yet to witness anything else like it. Rightly so, too – flipping Samus into perpetual morph ball mode and guiding her around the screen with a hand-drawn rainbow just doesn’t strike the right chord. But while Canvas Curse didn’t change the industry forever, it’s important to think of the game as a boost of confidence to us DS owners who’d seen the system’s darkest days and were ready for a real killer app to justify the handheld’s considerable price. Just when Nintendo seemed perfectly willing to port Super Mario 64 at launch and then sit back while mini-game compilations and extended tech demos carried the scene until the “next Game Boy” came around, along came something that could never be replicated on another platform… and functions as a full-fledged game, too.

Canvas Curse, more than anything else, is the perfect compromise between a system that calls for innovation and a franchise that has only seen its best days when it has strayed from the norm. Prior to the little guy’s first appearance on DS – that would be this, of course – my favorite Kirby game was Kirby Tilt ‘n’ Tumble, a Game Boy Color title that had a gyroscope built right into the cartridge. The game called players to physically tilt the handheld in order to roll Kirby across the 2D planes that made up each level. Really, why build this franchise into a generic side-scrolling platformer when you’re coming up with ideas like THAT? Kirby is more or less in the same position here, as Canvas Curse sees him getting his arms and legs removed by a witch, leaving him more or less what he was before: a ball, albeit without the means to guide himself. That is, as you’d suspect, where you come in.

You have very little direct control over Kirby, and instead are forced to alter his path. As Kirby rolls through each side-scrolling stage, you’ve got to take the stylus in hand and draw rainbow-colored lines, along which he travels. It’s a mechanic you’ll have down in an instant, and you’ll spend the remainder of the adventure perfecting your technique: Send Kirby through loops to pick up speed, create ramps to make him bound through the air, or raise vertical walls if a sudden change in direction is called for. The understated physics system is a crucial ingredient to the game’s success, as it means Kirby reacts to his surroundings the way a rolling ball really would. His movements are predictable, and as such, what could have been a tedious mechanic is instead a delightful twist on the usual formula that has painted most of this series’ history. I see no reason why Canvas Curse, with a little tweaking, couldn’t have retained its core design and stuck to its traditional platforming roots, but that would rob the game of everything that makes it one-of-a-kind. It’s truly an experience that couldn’t be replicated anywhere else.

After all this time, however, the DS’s library has grown considerably and the thrill of playing games on a touch screen has worn off, especially with the iPhone coming along and totally stealing the idea. Canvas Curse is still a joy to play, however, and I’ve come to realize that this isn’t due to the unconventional mechanics at work, but rather to the sense of pace it inspires. Since Kirby is constantly rolling, stages progress with a certain momentum, and call upon the player to keep up. The level design seems modest and unspectacular until you realize how well it caters to Kirby’s ball form. The colorful Tiny Town is lined with tubing that engulfs our hero (willingly or not) and sends him spiraling through the stage in a literal rolling coaster ride. Kirby launches out of cannons and ricochets off bumpers, and moving platforms lined with a green adhesive keep the little guy in place until a well-timed spin attack sends him rolling toward his next destination.

Really, Canvas Curse accelerates at such a constant pace that you’ll begin to savor the few moments you have to rest. It’s like when you’re playing pinball for a lengthy period of time and are relieved when you’re able to trap the ball inside one of the upright flippers, knowing you can relax for just a moment before starting up again. I don’t want to give the impression that this game is difficult, but this newfound sensation sheds an entirely new light on Kirby’s shopworn platformer workings. It’s now an atmosphere in which you’re constantly on edge, in which you can’t afford to get careless. In one instance, I was confronted with a narrow vertical corridor lined on either side with spikes. In a normal Kirby game, I could clear that blindfolded, but with the physics system in place here, Kirby can’t simply “go up.” Instead, you’ve got to juggle him back and forth with carefully placed, inclined paint strokes. Later I came across a lava pit too large to carry Kirby across with a single line (since paint is limited, and merely recharges), and thus I had to bounce Kirby across with a series of small bumps, conserving paint until he made it again to solid ground. Moments like that run rampart throughout Canvas Curse, and really define the experience.

Even with a core concept that relies exclusively on the touch screen, Canvas Curse could easily have fallen into a now-familiar trap that many DS games buckle to, in which a few stylus-related interludes line an adventure that is otherwise free of innovation. Canvas Curse smartly gets the mini-games out of its system during the boss battles, which have you combating your foes through such unconventional tasks as drawing racetracks or connecting dots. This leaves plenty of room for the main adventure to stick to its principles and further experiment with its unique setup without getting gimmicky, such as when you come to an impassible laser field and must cut it off with a line juuuust long enough for Kirby to slip underneath unharmed. Even the obligatory underwater levels are a blast. Since Kirby is a puffball and thus filled with air, he naturally floats, meaning that the game’s physics remain intact while he’s underwater – they’re just upside-down. You must simply take the skills you’ve accumulated and apply them in reverse. It’s an ingenious take on what could have been simply another tired platformer cliché.

I have fond memories of Canvas Curse being the first game to really sell me on the DS, and that automatically gives it an advantage over any other game in the handheld’s library. But when I say that Canvas Curse is still the best DS game ever made – a view that puts me squarely in the minority – I say that because it does what every DS game should do: It takes a gaming environment we’ve grown accustomed to and twists it into something that could only work on a touch screen, but doesn’t feel at all forced in doing so. Canvas Curse is colorful and wildly imaginative from beginning to end; it’s so much better than anyone gives it credit for.

Suskie's avatar
Community review by Suskie (August 05, 2009)

Mike Suskie is a freelance writer who has contributed to GamesRadar and has a blog. He can usually be found on Twitter at @MikeSuskie.

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