It’s been a very exciting few years for Kirby fans. Last year brought us the charming and innovative Kirby’s Epic Yarn, and just recently the equally inventive Kirby Mass Attack landed on the DS. It would be inaccurate to call the more traditional Kirby’s Return to Dreamland a ‘return’ to its roots, since the game went through a very tumultuous development after initially being proposed once Kirby 64 was released. Kirby’s Return to Dreamland nonetheless demonstrates that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel to bring out the qualities that makes Kirby so endearing.
Return to Dreamland feels like entering a time capsule. The game channels the spirit of the older 2D Kirby platformers, most notably the excellent Kirby Super Star. No yarn, no Kirby clones. This is straight Kirby classic: Inhaling enemies, developing copy abilities, and using them to both navigate through differently themed worlds and access special areas. The fittingly simplistic story chronicles Kirby as he teams up with Waddle Dee, Metaknight, and Dedede to assist a stranded alien named Magolor, who has crash landed on Popstar and whose ship components have flown across the world.
The first world of the game risks feeling too much like a visually-enhanced Dreamland 3, but once you defeat Will O’ Wisps and enter the second world the game gets much more imaginative with the situations it puts you in. The differently themed worlds are bright and beautifully presented, but more importantly you encounter different set pieces and gameplay elements. Sometimes you’ll be navigating through moving blocks underwater, other times you’ll be navigating Kirby through spikes as massive gusts of wind carry him down hallways. It’s the sane fun, simplistic 2D platforming that has long characterized Kirby.
Return to Dreamland also makes a solid effort to give players more replay value. The overall Kirby formula has understandably never been characterized by brutal difficulty, but each level has several mechanical gears from Magolor’s ship. Finding these actually starts to get very tricky in the third world and requires you to carefully look for hidden nooks and crannies. In some cases you’ll have to drag keys to doors to unlock them, and other times you’ll need to use precise timing to get into a room containing a gear. Gear-finding actually became challenging to a point where I missed several gears and had to backtrack or retry levels to get all of them. It’s a fine balancing act between the casual nature of Kirby and doing something to appeal to older gamers.
One of the best benefits of gear collecting is unlocking special challenge modes where you race through a course based around a specific copy ability. You need to use whatever copy ability the course is based off of to collect coins, maximize your score, and get to a finish line before time runs out. As you collect gears you also gain access to two entertaining mini-games that are the only instance of taking advantage of the Wii motion controls. Additional perks are access to your copy abilities directly in Magolor’s ship as well as sound and video galleries.
Kirby veterans will recognize many of the diverse copy abilities, which retain their multiple skills. The flame-dash of Fire, the blade beam from Sword, the charging static shield of Plasma, and the slick techniques of Ninja have always stood out as personal favorites. Sadly some other favorites like Wheel have been phased out, but the new copy skills more than make up for it. The memorable Water skill lets you ride waves of water through stages, while the Whip technique gives Kirby an adorable Indiana Jones hat and whip. Some new abilities are repurposed, like the Hi-Jump ability, which feels like a modified Jet copy ability but is fun to use nonetheless.
As entertaining and fun as Return to Dreamland is, the copy techniques could have been more imaginative. Return to Dreamland has a similar problem as New Super Mario Bros. Wii where it’s just not as ambitious as the game it heavily emulates, in this case Kirby Super Star. While Super Star had a huge variety of new copy abilities and introduced the concept of multiple ability skills, about 80% of the Return to Dreamland copy skills are recycled. The new techniques like Water and Leaf are so fun because half of the enjoyment in side scrolling Kirby games comes from discovering new copy skills and how we can put them to use. It would have been nice to see more variation, especially because the new copy skills that we did get were imaginative.
The Super Abilities are symbolic of how the game is solid but doesn’t follow through on what it could do. Super Abilities are special technique you get when Kirby inhales a unique enemy. The Super Sword, for examples, cuts a massive swath across the entire screen and devastates enemies and environmental obstacles alike. It’s a lot of fun, but these are used in very specific situations where the primary goal is to unlock a mirror-world where you find two gears in a level.
When you get to the end of these parallel worlds you fight a boss. It would be imaginative if you didn’t fight the same copy pasted boss in every single parallel world. As much as I enjoyed using super moves to devastate enemies rip environments apart, I found myself wondering why the developers didn’t put the Super Abilities to more diverse use or why bosses weren’t more creative.
Return to Dreamland also demonstrates Nintendo’s commitment to sharing your experience with friends because there’s offline co-op. In keeping with the atmosphere of Kirby it’s very casual: Three other players can easily drop in and out and play as Waddle Dee, Metaknight, and Dedede. Each character has their own abilities but you still play on the same levels. It’s simple, fun, and mandates good teamwork because you all share the same lives.
Kirby’s Return to Dreamland channels the classic spirit of Kirby into modern times and it’s a resounding success. It’s not as ambitious or remarkable for the formula as some of the games it tries to emulate from the 16-bit era, but it definitely represents the best of Kirby. The colorful art, the creative copy skills, and the inherent cuteness of Kirby all make Return to Dreamland a solid, traditional platformer.