I can't. I just can't. Look at the Japanese box art for this game. Look at that glorious Nippon representation of Kirby, and then look upwards for we got for America. I've never felt more insulted by Angry Kirby, and yet I can't go on anymore. Is there any further point in discussing the fallacy of presenting your adorable pink marshmallow as a super bad-ass despite his being an adorable pink marshmallow instantly rendering him, uh, adorable? And that's not even mentioning how much time he spends in the game either smiling or using blank expressions, as he does roughly 70% of the time in nearly every one of his appearances. It's not fair, but I can't go on. I'm spent. Way to go, NOA.
Anyway, like the rest of the industry in Fall 2011, Nintendo was draining the wallets of hapless gamers with a populated release schedule. From the first semi-new Star Fox game in five years in Star Fox 64 3D to the still-popular Mario Kart 7, it was Nintendo's busiest holiday season in over half a decade...and their most acclaimed, at that.
Let us set aside any "real 3D Mario" arguments and my own dismissal of Zelda: Skyward Sword: every member of their holiday 2011 output was a million-seller, captivating the Nintendo gaming public at large, with Star Fox 64 3D paving the way for a series reboot, Mario Kart 7 set to emulate its DS predecessor's sales records, and Super Mario 3D Land and Skyward Sword sweeping perfect/near-perfect scores across the critical board.
Relative to its peers' praise, Kirby's Return to Dream Land sticks out like a sore thumb. As seen on its Metacritic page, the game was in no shortage of criticism directed its way. This came at the surprise of no one: deviations like Canvas Curse and Epic Yarn have always caught the attention of media and gamers alike, while traditional entries tend to be dismissed as safe, far-too-easy affairs regardless of whether or not they've succeeded in maintaining Masahiro Sakurai's original goal for the series: easy to play, hard to master.
In retrospect, it's a miracle Kirby's Return to Dream Land succeeded at this as well as it did; after all, it'd been in development for roughly seven-to-eleven years. Indeed, Return to Dream Land was, more or less, the fabled Kirby GCN game that up and mysteriously disappeared back in 2005, having been relegated to development hell and renovated no less than three different times before HAL Laboratory doubled-down on the final product.
Whatever the reasons were for the games' cancellations (Kirby GCN was vaguely dismissed with an imbalance between solo/multiplayer play), the eleven-year wait for a true-to-form Kirby console game was well worth it, for Kirby's Return to Dream Land was arguably Nintendo's finest 2011 entry.
Such a claim appears heresy in the face of ambitious efforts like Zelda: Skyward Sword, Super Mario 3D Land or even the competition's Elder Scrolls VI: Skyrim, particularly since the game lacks any ambitions of its own.
But that's because it didn't need any, instead staying true to its name by returning to 1996.
Let us bask in that title for a moment: Kirby's Return to Dream Land. Doesn't that feel so good? And it's not because it bears any context on the game's narrative; after all, that's just the name exclusive to American audiences. No, it's what it stands for the game itself that matters. For all the ups and downs Kirby had over the past decade, he's given the chance to properly return to his roots. Here, there are no more half-baked gimmicks and level design devaluing the brand, no--however successful--ambitious deviations from the tried-and-true formula, and no retreads on beloved adventures of days past.
In other words, it's a return to the Dream Land created so long ago by Mr. Sakurai. He may've not laid a finger on the game's design, but the philosophies from Kirby's Adventure and Kirby Super Star blossom from every design choice: plush aesthetics framed within dreamy fantasy, a plethora of multi-fledged copy abilities, numerous avenues for multiplayer play and content upon content upon content.
If you're paying attention, you'll recognize several of the aforementioned features were exclusive to either Adventure or Super Star. The beauty of Return to Dream Land is that it's not satisfied with just blending them together; it wants to surpass where Sakurai left off back in 1996. For all its new ideas and embracing of series history, at its core Return to Dream Land feels lifted right from the 90's.
In an era where New Super Mario Bros. Wii sought to bring audiences together and Donkey Kong Country Returns awed players with its level design, this could result as disappointingly safe, and yet it's something of a miracle Return to Dream Land is not that. It strikes a wondrous balance with the old and the new, all the while borrowing the ideas of its sidescrolling peers to translate the Kirby brand for Wii.
This isn't a dig against Kirby's Epic Yarn, by the way; if pressed between the two, I'd pick Good Feel's effort as being the stronger title. And yet, there's just no denying the gradual ascension of excitement that opens Return to Dream Land: we spot this firsthand when we're given control, when game starts out in a Kirby's Adventure-styled hub where players new and experienced can feel out the controls.
But by the first level's end, we're blown away by a whirlwind of new mechanics and design. By shaking the Wii Remote, Kirby's gusty inhale becomes a ferocious cyclone that swallows multiple enemies at once. The Super Abilities, amplified versions of certain Copy Abilities obtained through glowing enemies, rampage through levels in a ferocity never seen before in Kirby. At the end of Kirby's killing spree, we uncover dimensional warpholes that thrust our hero into a mad escape from an ominous anti-matter scrolling screen.
The momentum successfully carries throughout the rest of Cookie Country. For the first time since Kirby's Dream Land, items appear to aid Kirby and co. on their quest. Crackers shoot bombs while the Stomper Boots provide some addictive timing via bouncy acupuncture footwear. Entertaining as they are on their own, all are expertly designed around puzzles to nab the game's collectibles (Energy Spheres).
As opposed to an overhaul of the mechanics ala Epic Yarn, Return for Dream Land opts for building upon the core mechanics. That the showstopping likes of Super Abilities and Dimensional Holes compose the game's organics render it not a Squeak Squad misfire, but allow it to sit comfortably alongside the evolutionary achievements of Adventure and Super Star. Granted, that the game arrives after years of mixed efforts and remakes leaves a stronger impact, but that it's this good is what makes it go above and beyond.
In particular, the evolution of Copy Abilities are on a level not seen since Super Star. The new powers--Water, Leaf, Spear and Whip--all echo that game in their flexibility, be it the delightful excess of Spear/Whip maneuvers or going a step beyond with environmental effects (Water automatically surfs on, well, water). We've seen occasional winners in the years since Super Star-- notably Smash, Missile and Squeak Squad's version of Magic--yet hardly any scratch the depth and personality found here.
Meanwhile, one-trick ponies like Stone or limited efforts like Ninja always stood out in Super Star's plethora of powers, but you'd hardly recognize their transformations here. Stone, Needle, Hi-Jump and Tornado are now fully-fledged behemoths, whereas Ninja is complete with all sorts of ninja tropes. The lengths of HAL's polish know no bounds, for even 1-hit wonders like Mike and Crash or the adorably useless Sleep are supplied with new tricks (Mike being a animation standout solely for the visual of a headbanging Kirby--all the while sporting a 90's mohawk).
With such care given to the Copy Abilities, it's no surprise they don't forget to design the levels around Super Abilities. As fun as it is to scorch landscapes with Monster Flame and slice the opposition with Ultra Sword, the Wii Remote-shaking thrill of Grand Hammer and Snow Bowl render them the most involved, and therefore, the most exciting. The latter in particular recalls the best of the Giant Snowball from Kirby 64 in how it not only absorbs everyone in your path (the hapless Dream Landers!), but with the added bonuses of demolishing giant sandcastles and bowling pins.
This emphasis on environmental destruction breeds new territory for Kirby, one that would be expanded upon in Return to Dream Land's successors. On a thematic level, it places a humorous spotlight on the senseless devastation often sugarcoated by Kirby's dreamy sweetness; on a gameplay level, there's nothing funner, and the way it makes room for even the little things is impressive. The Star Spit, once Kirby's only attack, can be upgraded relative to the number of enemies that fall victim to the Super Inhale. The potential result is a massive star cluster that plows through baddies, blocks and bosses alike; in that sense, I guess they're not little things after all.
I mentioned earlier about Return to Dream Land being a blend of Super Star/Adventure design philosophies, which is best described as the game possessing Super Star gameplay with Adventure level design. While Super Star's gameplay dominates over Adventure, the latter's emphasis on a sole campaign allowed for a consistent level progression aimed for beginner/expert audiences (not that Super Star didn't appeal to the same audience, but the sub-games aren't exactly sequels to one another).
Return to Dream Land takes this design philosophy to heart, even so much as lifting sequences straight from the NES classic, all the while tuning it to the multiplayer experience. Super Star was the first Kirby game to feature multiplayer, but this takes more pages from GBA games, where different-colored Kirbys could join in on the fun. More parallels still can be drawn from its Nintendo Wii contemporaries, where players can hitch a ride via stacking, perhaps screw each other over via Super Inhale, and control unique characters in the form of King Dedede, Meta Knight, and Bandanna Waddle Dee (all of whom had me frothing at the mouth following E3 2011).
Kirby isn't as physics-bound as Super Mario, so it's something that cannot fully mimic the innate hijinks of New Super Mario Bros. Wii; however, that plays into its strengths. Kirby doesn't emphasize platforming perils ala NSMBWii and Donkey Kong Country Returns, so anyone can keep up with the action (and in rare case you can't, you can always count on stacking onto a good player). In addition, the presence of items can either emphasize teamwork or brew chaos depending on their properties.
It's certainly one of the finer examples of Wii's later emphasis on co-op play--the convenience of simply jumping in via Wii Remote puts it a step above most--and yet it doesn't reach the perfection of Super Star's two-player. The one oversight lies in what's carefully crafted for single-player play: Super Abilities. Their function requires one person doing all the work, while the others sit around reduced to trailing behind whoever's a superhero. I imagine mileage on this has varied; it never ruined my couch multiplayer sessions, yet I could feel my companions growing a tad listless as I razed hill after hill.
This isn't a problem with every power--Snow Bowl saves the day by also scooping up players--and Dedede, Meta Knight, and Waddle Dee at least alleviate the problem somewhat in how they perform certain moves that Kirby cannot with their respective weapons (Hammer, Sword, and Spear). So while every not player is treated as an equal, it still remains a great co-op romp; actually some may raise credible arugments that the importance placed upon player one--such as he or she burdening the team's lives--may be beneficial for newer players as well as further emphasizing teamwork to protect that player. To HAL's credit, they were also very open on their struggles with the multiplayer design.
Do the accompanying aesthetics and sound make any missteps of their own? At the very least, I cannot even begin imagining criticizing the former: Dream Land is as plush and delectable as it was in the 90's, with squat, expressive roly-polys hopping about in environments bursting with such delicious, mouth-watering color. Once again, I can safely say I would like to nibble on the world of Kirby.
But it's not all about eye candy. Backgrounds like the enigmatic ice ruins of White Wafers make us want to know more, while Nutty Noon's soaring ribbons and overhead views may be just as cathartic and calming as the best of Sakurai's Kirby. It's perhaps the last of Nintendo's Wii games that maintains not just a consistently vivid look, but builds a compelling world to house it all in.
Which is all the better that Return to Dream Land embraces series lore. It's not that Kirby hasn't ever relied on plot and the like, but this is the first time Dream Land has been granted this level of a "lived-in" world, let alone a canon (this is present in Epic Yarn, but much of it surrounds Patch Land). Be it the pause screen descriptions of bosses or cryptic conversations with the mysterious wayfarer Magolor, it functions not on the level of Zelda world-building, but on a Mario level of "Oh, that's how that works"(or, in the case of the latter, "they're referencing THAT?").
Naturally, a return to Dream Land requires the musical presence of Jun Ishikawa and Hirokazu Ando, the original composers who introduced the music of Kirby's dreams to the world. Putting aside their large rate of success here, even if Return to Dream Land wasn't actually designed as Kirby's return, I can't help but feel that theme's reflected through the soundtrack.
I mean, it can't be coincidence it's there right when the game starts, right? This joyous song immediately greets us at the title screen (and later as the hub theme for Cookie Country), while seguing to a parade of trumpets and chimes in The Adventure Begins. It all signals a grand return to the world of Kirby, and as I always take the time to observe game title screens, that this pulled me in straight away was a great sign (and if you don't laugh at Dedede making faces at Kirby...well, there's just no hope for you).
The aforementioned ascension of that first level is effective primarily because of the Super Ability theme: Bring On The Super Ability. An orchestral theme of passionate valor, the way it accompanies Kirby's wrath injects such intense invigoration that it's impossible not to smile when in control. Truly, it operates on a level of incitement never before seen in Kirby.
Which is vaguely echoed by Looming Darkness, which plays during our peek into the realm of the Sphere Doomers. It signals that of desperate survival, urging the player desperately onward with its otherworldly instruments and sounds. It's the perfect complement to the grayscale dimension, full of passing solar systems and constellations.
But let us not forget that Kirby is home to the wistful and the melancholy, and Return to Dream Land turns to those themes in its later stretches. Aurora Area concludes the chilly recesses of White Wafers, bringing a touch of mystery and awe at the ruins. While it may be populated with the likes of Galbos and Chillys, the cold, windy howls of its accompanying theme instill an ever-present lonely ambiance.
However, such melancholy does not hold a candle to the pure joy of my favorite song: Sky Waltz. A mix of recorders and violins greet Nutty Noon as players fly over Dream Land and witness a wondrous view of the landscape below. Borrowing a page from Epic Yarn, it purposely elicits a sense of nostalgia that easily meshes with our wonder, rendering its accompanying level the very best in the entire game (which, when considering it has no Super Abilities or dimensional rifts of any sort, is no small feat).
Really, there's so many strong songs that I feel guilty about not sharing, be it all the rousing boss themes or an especially dreamy take on a Kirby's Adventure song. The entirety of the game's soundtrack successfully hits all the best of what makes Kirby,well, Kirby: orchestral triumphs, techno rhythms and sweet, soft nostalgia.
...which renders it all the more bizarre whenever it misses the mark. There's a number of real average tracks that either border on the overt childishness that Kirby's supposed to avoid (Walking in the Sea, as well as, disappointingly, the level-ending version of the *Kirby Dance theme) or serve to undermine their scenic set-pieces (the Caving song above). These misfires aren't enough to knock the game down from the upper echelons of Kirby soundtracks--let alone diminish its incredible highs--but its lack of consistency makes it miss the very top.
If I must continue harping on flaws--much as it pains me to do so--the lack of Dedede, Meta Knight and Bandanna Waddle Dee in single-player may also be a missed opportunity. While I understand the levels are designed around Kirby, only having them playable in The Arena feels like a waste. I can't help but imagine it could've made for some fun 100% goal completion (a 2D precursor to Super Mario 3D World, perhaps?)
But my hopes for Return to Dream Land weren't about whether or not it could succeed Adventure or Super Star; it all hinged on whether or not it successfully revitalized and built upon the Sakurai-era Kirby games for a modern age. This review should speak to its achievements at doing so, but I cannot speak highly enough at what it does surpass: the multiplayer mini-games, most notably in how Scope Shot far surpasses most console Kirby efforts even on a solo level; the Extra Mode, absolutely the series' most complete, fulfilling and even unpredictable since Kirby's Dream Land; the balance of difficulty for players new and old, as I still haven't obtained all the Platinum Medals for the addictive, hair-raising Challenge Rooms.
Fellow Kirby megafan Jim Sterling once said "video games simply do not get any more pure" than Kirby's Return to Dream Land. How delightful that in a sea of open-worlds and motion-control, HAL Laboratory found it necessary to give us a title that stood up and declared "I am from the 16-bit era." That it has since initiated and set the example for the current Golden Age of Kirby is of the highest honor.
*On the flipside, I should mention the boss version of the Kirby Dance theme more than makes up for the regular one if only because it's clearly based on the GBA games. Ah, the warm scent of 2002's holiday season!