With the Wii U around the corner and only a handful of interesting games on the Wii's upcoming release schedule, the sun is clearly setting on Nintendo's iconic white game box. But night hasn't fallen yet, and if you're the kind of mom or dad who likes to play games with your kids, the Japanese game maker's latest, Kirby's Return to Dreamland, is worth investigating.
Nintendo's precocious pink puffball's latest console adventure comes a mere twelve months after the release of the beautiful and innovative Kirby's Epic Yarn and is a comparatively traditional romp that shares much more in common with the decade-old Kirby64: The Crystal Shards than last fall's daring platformer.
Things get under way with Kirby witnessing the crash landing of a spaceship piloted by an alien named Magolor. Kirby decides to help the stranded extraterrestrial by rounding up pieces of his vessel that have been scattered across the land, giving us all the reason we need to set out and visit a few dozen cleverly designed side-scrolling stages set in diverse landscapes ranging from lush jungles to dangerous deserts to weird warp zones.
As we begin our long march from left to right it quickly becomes apparent that this game is about Kirby doing what he does best: Swallowing enemies and copying their abilities. Players press a button make our amorphous hero open his cake hole wide and suck up pretty much anything in front of him, then press down on the d-pad to squat, swallow, and take on his meal's powers. This is how Kirby earns the ability to toss water on fiery blocks, swing a giant sword to cut thick ropes, turn into a tornado to fly around the screen, and spew fire to light fuses.
It should prove quite familiar territory for Kirby fans, but long-time Nintendo subsidiary HAL Laboratories' talent for making this kind of play seem fresh and fun is evident right from the start. The controls are tight, the level design can be challenging but is always fair, and Kirby trades his abilities so quickly that we never have a chance to grow bored. From whips to boomerangs to fishing spears and back again, they all feel different and have clever uses for gamers to exploit, not the least of which is creating passage into hidden areas.
In fact, finding secret spots is one of the most rewarding parts of the game. Caves inside hills, gates behind sand castles, dugouts just below ground -- none are particularly difficult to detect, but all are satisfying to access. And it's important to find them because they typically contain lots of stars (required to earn extra lives) and, more importantly, gear spheres that are used to unlock extra modes and challenges back at Magolor's ship.
This is all pretty standard stuff for a Nintendo platformer, and I might not even have taken the time to write up a review of Return to Dreamland except that, like modern platforming classics New Super Mario Bros. Wii and Donkey Kong Country Returns , this Kirby adventure is a great game for families to enjoy together.
Up to four people can play at the same time in the same room, all journeying cooperatively toward the same goal. More players makes taking on the game's frequent bosses an easy task, which means Return to Dreamland is a great way to introduce kids as young as five or six to the pleasures of platformer games without risking much in the way of frustration. Older players, meanwhile, can engage in some lightly competitive shenanigans, swallowing each other to steal powers and racing to grab abilities and stars.
As entertaining as it's turned out to be, it's still hard not to think of Return to Dreamland as a slightly desperate move. It was originally supposed to be a GameCube title, then an early Wii game, and then was presumed cancelled for a while until, in the face of plunging profits and a dearth of first-party games on the radar, Nintendo resurrected it with an announcement at an investor's briefing this past winter. It seems to me that Nintendo was frantic to produce more titles, even if it meant digging up something that, for one reason or another, had been set on the backburner for a few years.
It's unlikely that Kirby's Return to Dreamland will do much to reignite the sales of Nintendo's flagging console, but I suspect it will prove popular among existing Wii owners. Even if it isn't revolutionary, Nintendo's peerless expertise in traditional platformer play is plainly on exhibit here. It's the game I'll be playing with my daughter this fall.
Kirby's Return to Dreamland
Developer: HAL Laboratories
ESRB: Everyone 10+