Since the barren wasteland of 2008, everyone that hadn't jumped ship more or less came to terms with Nintendo's new direction. As 2009 would entail, new releases for Punch-Out!! and New Super Mario Bros. were accompanied by Wii Sports and Wii Fit. Despite the release of the DSi handheld upgrade and an ever-growing trove of third-party gems, this juxtaposition of "casual" and "core" offerings continued to incite controversy. "Nintendo's too kiddy" may've been a thing of the past, but "Nintendo has no games" echoed everywhere from message boards to comment sections. Of course, that wasn't quite true, but this stigma continued well into the next year.
Up until the buzz of next year, anyway. Springtime of 2010 brought with it an unexpected announcement: the 3DS. Heads were scratched at the prospect of yet another DS, especially since it was just days before the DSi XL model was set for American release. However, Nintendo made it abundantly clear this was not a new iteration, but a successor. After six years, the time seemed ripe for a handheld newcomer to enter the stage, but not even the euphoria of Super Mario Galaxy 2 kept analysts and players alike from wondering how it could top the cultural penetration of DS.
The explosion of news at that year's E3 put those thoughts on hold. Storming right out the gate with a new Zelda, Nintendo's conference tore all heads away from rivals Microsoft and Sony's takes on motion control. Retro Studios was reviving Donkey Kong Country. The first 3DS game revealed was a Kid Icarus sequel courtesy of Masahiro Sakurai. Animal Crossing was set for a big overhaul on the system, and remakes of beloved N64 titles were on the way.
At one moment, NOA president Reggie Fils-Aime sauntered onto the stage and briefly reflected on the past collaborations of Sakurai and Nintendo president Satoru Iwata; in particular, the cuddly softness of Kirby. "Somehow, he's managed to work his way into the hearts of a lot of hardened games," he said as he pointed to his chest, "they know Kirby's got game."
After seven years, Kirby would be returning to home consoles! But what would it be? Thoughts immediately turned to that of the long-lost GameCube title, but as Reggie launched into a tirade of fabric-themed metaphors, hope seemed to slip away...
Entitled Kirby's Epic Yarn, the game would be the first Kirby title not to be developed by series developer HAL Laboratory. Good Feel, the folks behind Wario Land: Shake It!--a 2D platformer released for Wii just two years before--were to helm the title independently of Kirby's creators. With the drastic new changes to gameplay involving yarn whips, bead collecting, and the inability to die, many Kirby fans couldn't help but doubt the title's potential to live up to series standards. Could a Kirby game devoid of Copy Abilities feel like a Kirby game?
My friends, you already know the answer.
Obviously, that didn't happen. We mustn't forget Kirby's Epic Yarn was handled by a different developer, and while they were certainly given HAL's blessing, Good-Feel's philosophies in gameplay weren't going to overrun those of the original (particularly when Kirby's Return to Dream Land was soon to see the light of day). And yet while I was wrong, I've found it's actually made Epic Yarn's niche even stronger.
Make no mistake: this is easily the biggest Kirby departure barring Mass Attack, with level design and attack mechanics completely different from the works of HAL Laboratory. No longer does Kirby rampage through levels in a sugar rush frenzy, as the game aims to be softer and cuddlier than Dream Land 3. It wishes to be more inspired, however, and as it deviated from the series formula just as Canvas Curse before it, it remains one of the very few Kirby games to capture the gaming public's attention.
There are Kirby fans out there who do not like this game, and they'll likely tell you it's because Epic Yarn is not really a Kirby game. This is a valid opinion; indeed, there's no denying the game is firmly stitched to outlandish outskirts. You're still in control of Kirby and will meet familiar characters, but there's no Copy Abilities or lives or health-restoring food lying around. An argument can certainly be made that the game achieves the "easy to play, tough to 100%" mantra of Kirby games (more on that later), but how it ultimately played was enough to turn those fans off.
The key, then, is to approach it on its own terms. Maybe some couldn't do that, but if I have to raise any voice of objection, it's that I don't know how it's possible your heart cannot melt by the very first level. I daresay Epic Yarn is in possession of one of the best opening levels in 2D sidescrolling history: Fountain Gardens. Okay, maybe that's a little bold, but gosh, I can't express enough how happy it makes me! Be it watching your first enemy encounter (a Yarn Waddle Dee) stumble and fall in his tackle attempt, the bead-propelling waterspouts that have Kirby cheering in ecstasy, latching onto a tree button and having Kirby sway back and forth as a pendulum as he shakes off the tree's beads...
Because we've already done away with the cozy tutorial level, we're left to experiment with Kirby's new Yarn Whip and transformations in a level bursting with life, all accompanied by a wonderful, wonderful music piece courtesy of Tomoya Tomita. Good-Feel's composer helms most of the soundtrack and is a perfect fit for capturing the mellow side of Kirby, and as seen above he can fluctuate the score to a more active mood. It is as grand and joyous as you'd expect a yarn wonderland to be, and the effect it has on the level cannot be stated enough. Without fail, all of the level's set pieces immediately reduce the player into a childlike state of catharsis, and everything from stitching and stretching the landscape to watching Kirby weave his way into the background fabric all grant a genuine sense of wonder.
The tree shaking is the perfect example. Catching all the falling beads may be the only purpose, yet I'm always compelled to keep swinging long after the tree's run dry. Maybe it's the innocent smile Kirby holds all the while, or the feel of the swing being so satisfying all the while distorting his bell shape (look at how fat he gets!). Kirby turning into a giant yarn tank at the end is the level's showstopper, but this one moment captivates me above all else.
(Speaking of the irresistible, we cannot gloss over the game's one instance of openly embracing Kirby's dark side: Yarn Waddle Dees sleeping underneath a red bead-shaped heart, who are just begging to be squished under Kirby's weight pound. Rest assured, their romance always ends in tragedy under my watch)
Such moments keep building and building. Flower Fields' take on the gentle piano of the main theme sends me into nostalgic contemplation as I'm swinging on dandelions, swimming in the soft rain and abducting helpless yarn baddies as UFO Kirby. Rainbow Falls etches the biggest smile on my face with the most delightfully adorable music and having Kirby playing in rapids as a surfin' penguin. Big Bean Vine has me going up, up, and up as Yarn Waddle Dees sail on balloons to the chillest of songs.
So much of why Epic Yarn works isn't just because of the wonderful relationship between concept and music, but in that it's purely a joy to play. It wouldn't be as stretch to say the game has the best level design in Kirby history, as the absence of Copy Abilities means they have to flex their imaginative muscles; imagination, you understand, that has to prove these new mechanics have value. And they certainly do. There's the matter of beads, for instance. Since you can't die, the game has to rely on making this whole collection thing fun. Like how any good action platformer handle collectibles, beads are tantalizingly placed above pitfalls and near enemies and the like. By adhering to a medal system, Epic Yarn's difficulty lies in conserving your beads by the end of the level. It's not terribly hard, but it's a painful affront to our dignities when beads are dropped all over the place (especially the large star-shaped crystal beads, ouch!).
Yet it's hard to stay mad when the game's bursting with such imagination, with the Melody Town level being a perfect example in the relation between beads and level design. As the name implies, the level is strewn with instruments of all sorts, all of which reward beads through interactivity. Jumping on drums and cymbals unleashes beads in music notes, swinging on harp strings will nab the beads strewn across, and traveling through music staffs (played by trumpets!) requires careful precision to collect note beads.
Really, I can't express enough how much I love the Yarn Whip. The lasso doesn't reach the destructive thrills of the Copy Ability, but it doesn't try to be; it instead chooses to innovate and wow us. With the Yarn Whip controlling the very fabric of Patch Land, Kirby can do anything from fixing up crying teddy bears (who, in return, kindly let the pink ball use their outlines as platforms) to quell raging bead-spewing volcanoes.
And for those seeking Kirby's destructive prowess and aren't satisfied with untangling yarn enemies and throwing yarn drills (although I find much sick pleasure in doing so), you may find your wish in the Metamortex transformations. But while I do rather love the Tankbot and the UFO, my personal favorite lies in the Dolphin. Any concerns regarding swimming controls should be dispelled, for it swims like a dream and twirls with a surging force that rips through enemies (and hoops!) like butter.
This is all just a long way of saying by golly, how much do I love the overall presentation? Saying the yarn aesthetic is beautiful goes without saying, but the real triumph is how it weaves itself into the actual template of gameplay. Take the winter stretches of the Snow Land world: Snowy Fields, the opening level, portrays snowballs big and small as overstuffed balls of wool, and we cannot help but delight in not just how Kirby can ride on top of them, but at his misfortune at getting swallowed up in their paths (particularly at his already-minimalist shape is reduced to his facial features struggling to remove himself).
I am also quite fond of the hidden Evergreen Lift, which revolves around a Christmas tree elevator of sorts that Kirby has to constantly spin and maintain while dashing for Christmas-themed beads and collectibles and is under attack from wintry foes. It is not at all easy, yet we are too under the spell of the accompanying track to notice. Shared by the aforementioned Snowy Fields level, it is absolutely the most heartfelt song in the entire soundtrack and will prod at every one of your pleasant Christmas memories into a swirling vertigo of warm sentimentality. (Let us dismiss any similarities to the dismal Yoshi's Island DS theme as an uncanny coincidence).
In that sense, Epic Yarn's other area of success is how it siphons the number one creed of Kirby games: that they make you so goddamn happy just by playing them. That the fuzzy graphics recall just as much gooey nostalgia as Kirby's HAL best is merely a bonus; it's a game that wants to bend the rules of Kirby all the while recalling that creed for the purpose of relaxing the player (and with how a certain world (correctly!) takes inspiration from Kirby Super Star's godly aesthetic, you know Good-Feel had the series's best interests in mind).
And by "bend the rules", I'm especially referring to how this is a Kirby game with honest-to-god voiced cutscenes. No, none of the grating 4Kids accents from the anime dub are present, for the story is presented as a gentle storybook tale told by a warm grandfatherly voice. I'm told the Japanese version is performed by a young woman, but I cannot imagine it any other way, what with the English narrator performing deliberate intonations for all the characters involved (his take on King Dedede being a particular highlight). Regardless, even when the story focused on the idyllic mischief of Kirby and Prince Yarn, I enjoyed the sweet tale all the way to the end.
By the way, Kirby lives in an apartment in this game, one you can decorate with furniture and wallpaper and carpets and the like that you can purchase with beads. Upon first glance, it's a wholly pointless feature until you realize the game grants free reign over object placement and you can have Kirby snooze on any bed of your choosing. Oh, and there's pancakes. Needless to say, anyone who's sunk time into Animal Crossing will undoubtedly unleash their inner Feng Shui here. Be it guitars or rock gardens or dinosaur slides or sci-fi walls, anything and everything goes here alongside a bare minimum of interactivity (my room always features some sort of strumming guitar). I often find myself leaning towards cloud-based motifs, but in my last playthrough I attempted a sky pirate ship of sorts. What about you?
I may or may not have publicly expressed my desire for a similar feature in future Kirby title, a wish that did not come true. Kirby games have always been meaty in their accompanying sub-games and whatnot, but here we have a fun distraction that runs parallel to the main game. You could dismiss it as a worthless distraction, yet there's the presence of Kirby's flatmates, who require the presence of specific furniture for them to move in; that, and they visit Kirby's apartment and challenge him to various mini-games. All of these games are great, and I was surprised at not just how many there were, but how brutal they could get.
I found that in both instances of my post-game play, much of my time surrounded around the apartment building. You could say that's to be expected in achieving 100% completion, and yet both times I found myself completely absorbed in this trivial feature. Not that I didn't have fun revisiting and fully completing the game's levels, mind, but it became something of a pattern: start up the game, spend time rearranging my apartment, go earn beads in levels and whatever collectibles I missed, splurge on my earnings and then rearrange some more. (Actually, thanks to Kirby's dash animation turning him into a Yarn Car, I always pretend he's going off to work to earn beads.)
When analyzing the fruits of my fabric-inspired labor, it's hard for me to handwave the apartment business as a simple distraction. It's an organic component of a game I can already lose myself in by itself, and I find it an adorable fit for the series. I'm not exactly sure how it could work within the main Copy Ability template, but my goodness, there is potential here for HAL to mine.
Much as I've sung the game's praises, I cannot label Epic Yarn as a complete masterpiece. As inventive as the boss battles are, they're the one instance where the inability to die comes across as rather jarring. Yes, the "don't get hit" objective has its challenge, yet that Kirby is placed in direct conflict with oversized enemies undermines his immortal status (barring the magician Squashini, whose clever magic tricks are enough to distract me). There are other missteps, like how the Train Metamortex attempts to channel Canvas Curse's draw direction, but ends up being a frustrating chore to control.
But such niggles hardly weigh down Epic Yarn's direction. To me, the game's crowning achievement lies in how much it channels and even celebrates the beating heart of what makes Kirby "Kirby" while trying not to be Kirby, and somehow we ended up with the best Kirby game that doesn't have the words "Adventure" or "Super Star" in its name. That this was accomplished by an outside developer that wasn't HAL only renders Epic Yarn even more magical in its status as one of the best Wii games.