The Wii U GamePad is not a gimmick, but by and large Nintendo's first-party exclusives have struggled to prove it. Kirby And The Rainbow Paintbrush was supposed to change all that. Controlled exclusively using the touchscreen and stylus, it's an attempt to create an experience that could only work on Nintendo's excellent yet under-utilised peripheral.
Unfortunately Rainbow Paintbrush is too successful for its own good. Instead of enhancing the experience, the GamePad dominates proceedings to the extent that you might as well turn the television off to save power. Indeed, it feels uncomfortably like the makings of a great 3DS game or even an iPad debut that released on the wrong platform.
After the colour is stolen from Kirby's world, our spherical hero rolls out to save the day. Literally. This time we can't directly control the pink protagonist, who's a slave to gravity and momentum. Once you've tapped him to start him rolling, you'll use the stylus to freely doodle rollercoaster-esque rails for him to follow around the 2D environments, creating loops to build up speed, platforms to reach lofty collectibles and paths to evade enemies, smash through blocks and circumvent obstacles. Later levels let you manipulate materials like water and sand in the same fashion, while you can tap to activate interactive level elements and activate a ruinous boost mode after collecting enough coins.
It's unique enough to make for a great first impression, especially since there's a satisfyingly meaty learning curve.
This great first impression is cemented by the visuals, which are breathtakingly beautiful. Rainbow Paintbrush is designed to resemble Claymation, in that every object and background appears to be painstakingly sculpted out of plasticine and animated by stop-motion. Fierce pin-sharp HD visuals and a vibrant colour palette make it sing. It's so endearing, so expressive and so disarming that I immediately fell head-over-heels in love with the whole thing... for an hour.
Which was as long as it took to realise its biggest shortcoming: Rainbow Paintbrush is a handheld game. You literally cannot play Rainbow Paintbrush without staring directly at the touchscreen at all times, meaning that it's impossible to look at the great big HDTV sitting in front of you. As such the gorgeous aesthetics and HD graphics are completely wasted (heck, you might as well just turn the television off completely) and worse the whole point of the endeavour seems to have been missed. Rather than demonstrating that a touchscreen can enhance traditional home console games, it proves that you can only choose one or the other.
We wouldn't criticise an Oculus Rift title for failing to display correctly on a monitor, so I would have let this slide were it not just the first of several annoying issues.
Despite the aforementioned learning curve and a smattering of great set pieces, most of which involve manipulating water or particles, Rainbow Paintbrush plateaus quickly due to some repetitive design elements, rote level structure and a number of time-sensitive optional challenges and even bosses being repeated to the point of being recycled wholesale. Collecting treasure chests to unlock plasticine figurines, meanwhile, feels like filler rather than extra content. It therefore manages to feel both padded and short, seeing as my first playthrough clocked in at just shy of the 6.5 hour mark.
The controls can also feel awkward and problematic at times, or more accurately their application. Freeform doodling lends itself to stress-free experimentation, but Rainbow Paintbrush often requires a level of precision and timing that the floaty mechanics can't quite deliver on a predictable basis. A milimetre can make the difference between Kirby following the rail and getting stuck on the scenery, while it can be difficult to judge exactly where he'll end up. This, in turn, can make the difference between passing or failing a challenge or timed sequence, proving absolutely infuriating.
Though fit for task in the main, the controls really do get put through the wringer during sections in which Kirby transforms into a vehicle, such as a tank or submarine. Guiding them feels clunky and cumbersome, while different commands are mapped to practically identical inputs due to the lack of multi-touch functionality. It's galling that these sections weren't designed to offer traditional thumbstick or D-Pad inputs, giving us the opportunity to look back at the television and experience a real change of pace while enjoying the visuals to the full.
As a fan of Nintendo's experimentation with real-world materials, such as Splatoon's paint and string in Kirby's Epic Yarn, I'm disappointed at how little effort went into uniting the visuals and themes with gameplay. The world may be plasticine, but there's no sculpting or deformation. The claymation aesthetic simply doesn't fit the mechanics, which all hinge around drawing. Shockingly Kirby's trademark ability -- consuming foes and stealing their skills -- doesn't even make a single appearance, even if it would have provided some seriously exciting new gameplay opportunities!
Damningly, Nintendo actually did a better job the first time around. Rainbow Paintbrush is technically a sequel to Kirby And The Canvas Curse, which featured broadly the same mechanics ten years ago on the DS. However, Canvas Curse boasted watercolour visuals, which fit the painting gameplay to a tee, and also allowed Kirby to scoff and steal his foes' abilities! Though it hasn't aged well, it's unquestionably a better, more varied and holistically designed game.
As a first-party Wii U exclusive there's still fun to be had. The core gameplay is functional, it's slickly produced, beautifully polished and makes for a Off-TV Play. Co-op can also be fun, which lets up to three friends drop in to control spear-wielding allies. Sadly, your friends will enjoy themselves much more as they leap around the screen together, treated to the full visuals, while slowly trundle towards the goal on your lonesome, which is rather suggestive in and of itself. Ultimately, it's worth playing if you can find a deal, but Rainbow Paintbrush is difficult to recommend at full price and a rare miss for such a beloved franchise. If DeNA are short of ideas for mobile tie-ins, this would be a great place to start.
- Unique touchscreen controls and puzzle gameplay power some great set pieces
- Enjoyable co-op (for everyone else)
- Utterly gorgeous claymation visuals...
- ...that you can't appreciate since it's impossible to look at the television
- Fussy controls annoy during timed or vehicle sequences
- Often feels repetitive, samey and padded despite short length
- No attempt to tie visuals, aesthetics and themes into gameplay - even if Canvas Curse managed it ten years ago
The Short Version: In an attempt to prove the viability of the GamePad touchscreen as a primary input device, Nintendo accidentally created an inferior sequel to a decade-old DS puzzler. Kirby and the Rainbow Paintbrush squanders much of its potential and achingly beautiful visuals, functional but lacking in lasting fun.
5 – AVERAGE: Average games are exactly that. Neither good nor bad, some clever ideas have probably been marred by patchy execution, or strong mechanics let down by a lack of scope, new ideas or ambition. Often reserved for the completely unremarkable, the realm of the apathetic, you'll also find games here whose good and bad qualities basically cancel one another out.
Platform: Wii U
Developer: HAL Laboratory, Inc.