Developer: HAL Labs / Publisher: Nintendo / Played on: Wii / Price: $49.99 / ESRB: Everyone 10+ (Mild Cartoon Violence)
Nintendo is magic. That’s the only way I can describe the company. Whenever they release a new game in an old franchise I feel like a kid again. It takes me back to the early 90’s when I grew up exploring Hyrule, saving the Mushroom Kingdom, and escaping planet Zebes. Now I’ve returned to Dream Land with Kirby’s Return to Dream Land for the Wii. Ditching the yarn in favor of a more traditional outing, Kirby inhales enemies, copies abilities, and positively drips nostalgia. Oh, and did I mention the co-op adventure mode?
It’s a usual day on Planet Pop Star: Kirby running about jovially, King Dedede and his lackey Waddle Dee chasing after, and Meta Knight burying his head in a book under the shade of a tree… Until a giant spaceship crashes upsetting the peaceful mood! The four immediately rush to the crash site and find a tiny alien inside. The little blue extra terrestrial tells Kirby and his posse that without the five ship pieces that were lost during the crash he won’t be able to return to his home planet. Always willing to help those in need, Kirby volunteers to find the items, with Dedede, Waddle Dee, and Meta Knight joining as well. It’s a pretty straightforward plot, and if you have inklings of ToeJam & Earl you’re not alone. The story does have interesting twists and turns along the way to keep you entertained, but the narrative isn’t anything spectacular. That being said, the Kirby series is commonly considered to be targeted at children and adults alike, so the simple story favors the little tykes playing the game.
Return to Dream Land is a platformer that is similar to previous games in the series. The goal is to find the five missing pieces of the alien ship scattered across five zones in Pop Star. Also missing from the ship are 120 gears that are hidden in each stage. Collecting gears unlocks a variety of goodies, such as a couple mini-games, challenge chambers to test our your skills, and copy rooms to practice using Kirby’s famous copy ability. Kirby’s Return to Dream Land is a return to form for the series. Kirby uses his massive mouth to consume enemies and blocks hindering his path that can then be expelled as damage-dealing projectiles that fly across the screen. Better yet, Kirby can inhale enemies and copy their special abilities to use as his own until he either expels them willingly or loses them by taking too much damage. There are over 20 unique abilities to utilize, each with respective benefits and drawbacks. Old favorites like Beam, Sword, and Cutter return, along with new powers like Whip, Leaf, and Spear. Using abilities is a big part of gameplay. For example, with the Cutter ability Kirby can cut ropes to lower pathways, and with the Ice ability he can extinguish blocks that are on fire to reach new areas. Kirby can only keep one power at a time and when he acquires a new power the old one is dispelled. It’s good the copy mechanic works well because it’s the crux of the entire game. There’s some not-so-useful powers like Sleep but the rest aid in both combat and exploration which makes Kirby stand out from other games in the platformer genre. Besides adding a handful of new copy abilities, nothing new has been added to the series. While I enjoyed playing the original Kirby’s Dream Land on the Game Boy back in 1992, not seeing any significant changes in the formula nearly 20 years later is a bit of a let down.
When Kirby isn’t sucking up foes he’s probably floating through the air. The little guy can fill his body with air, which causes him to float higher and higher, oftentimes to avoid danger and/or reach high ledges. This isn’t anything new for the series, however it does mitigate much of the challenge. Instead of navigating through spike filled corridors or lava covered floors Kirby can simply float carelessly over the danger. Being able to just fly under traps and danger certainly takes away from the challenge. Levels themselves aren’t particularly hard, but stage bosses and sub-bosses provide the most challenge the game has to offer, requiring you to jump and dodge attacks while still managing to get in hits. Of the game’s seven worlds each gets progressively harder to overcome, and the final stage and boss will present the most trouble. Completing the game will take around seven hours and that time expands when trying to collect all of the missing gears. An “Extra Mode” is unlocked after completing the game, which has you go through all the stages again except that Kirby’s health is halved and enemies are stronger. “Arena Mode” is also unlocked upon completion of the main story, in which you play for the fastest time fighting off a string of bosses. After playing Kirby’s Mass Attack for the DS and seeing the abundance of quality mini-games it had to offer I was disappointed with the paltry showing of just two in this game. There’s a good deal of replay value, but no real incentive to collect everything and play through the game twice, except for added challenge or high scores. Fans of the Kirby series wanting a Kirby game akin to the gameplay Kirby was originally known for will get just that.
I can sum up the multiplayer in Kirby’s Return to Dream Land in two words: it’s fun (or is that technically three words?). Up to three other players can grab a Wii Remote and jump in at any time during the adventure to lend a hand. Secondary players can choose to play as King Dedede, Meta Knight, Waddle Dee, or a different colored Kirby. Playing as a non-Kirby has its advantages: Meta Knight has a sword that cannot be dropped and can fly quickly, while Dedede always carries his hammer and deals a more damage than other characters. Only Kirby can copy enemy abilities, but having an everlasting sword will come in handy.
Having that extra player by your side is both fun and functional. Taking down bosses is much easier with help, and certain puzzles are much simpler with an extra player. There are some drawbacks, however. All players follow the lead of player one, so for example if player two gets too far behind they’ll be teleported next to player one. Also, everyone shares one pool of lives, and once they’re gone it’s game over. It gets frustrating when a second player drains all your hard-earned lives, but it can be looked past for the help they lend in battle. Playing with friends is great, and a very welcome addition to the series. A few instances arose that required you to have more than one player to reach a gear or extra life, but there are no multiplayer-only levels to play through that capitalize on the co-op. It would be nice to see co-op-specific levels in any future titles.
Aside from the two mini-games, the entire game is played with the Wii Remote tilted to its side. The 1 and 2 buttons inhale foes and puff up Kirby respectively. With only two buttons to use the game is surprisingly deep in terms of variety of attacks. Each copied ability has a different move set, and specific button combinations do different attacks. Double-tapping forward causes Kirby to dash, and attacking while dashing is different than attacking while walking. There are a ridiculous amount of attacks in Kirby’s repertoire. Floating, running, jumping, and attacking controls are all solid. Certain ultra mode attacks, namely Grand Hammer and Snow Bowl, require you to shake the Wii Remote to execute. Shaking the remote while inhaling causes Kirby to suck like there’s no tomorrow, gobbling up otherwise un-swalloable large enemies or objects. The two mini-games have you hold the remote right-side up and are entirely motion controlled: One has you flicking the Wii Remote to throw a ninja star while the other has you pointing at the screen to blast away baddies. These are completely optional but can be fun diversions from the main quest. Overall the game is responsive and controls extremely well.
Playing Kirby’s Return to Dream Land is a combination of nostalgic fun and the child-like charm felt from every Kirby title. Devouring enemies, copying powers, and floating through a medley of visually appealing worlds is made even better with the addition of multiplayer co-op. Though it’s over in a few hours, the experience is a rewarding one that will delight series veterans and novice players alike.