Kirby's Return to Dream Land

Kirby's Return to Dream Land
Kirby's Return to Dream Land Cover
Platforms Wii
Genre Nintendo sidescroller revival 2011
Score 7  Clock score of 7
Buy from Amazon

For the longest time, all I wanted from Nintendo was a new Kirby game with awesome copy abilities like in Kirby Super Star. No franchise has a track record like Kirby when it comes to spinoffs and experiments, but the SNES classic that boasted "8 games in one" is the series' greatest feat. For over a decade, my wish went unfulfilled.

But hey, we finally got one, appropriately dubbed Kirby's Return to Dream Land! It's exactly what I wanted: the twenty standard copy abilities are the series' best, with strong debuts and enhanced returns counted among Kirby's repertoire. It's amazing how many tricks you have up your sleeve with just a D-pad and a single button.

You have to be careful what you wish for, though. When dealing with a genie or blowing out your birthday candles, always make sure to choose your words deliberately and plan for stipulations and potential fallouts. Otherwise, you might end up with Kirby's Return to Dream Land, a game with tons of cool attacks and not much worth attacking.

The latest adventure kicks off like most classic journeys: Kirby and frienemies King Dedede, Metaknight, and Waddle Dee are contesting a piece of cake when an alien space-boat crashes nearby. In the first of many cutscenes without dialog or even sound effects, Kirby up and decides to help the vessel's lone passenger retrieve some misplaced ship parts scattered around planet Popstar. Kirby and Co. waddle through grasslands, deserts, snowy mountains, volcanoes, and all the other round and inviting platforming locales they always do before ending up in some cosmic nightmare realm that you could stare at for hours with the right prescription and a prog rock album. Outside of that trippy finale, even the most perilous locales of Dream Land seem a bit like relaxation destinations.

Kirby's not here to relax, though. Kirby's here to devour his enemies alive and wear their scalps as war helms. As always, the carnivorous creampuff waddles, floats, and inhales his way through linear landscapes, stealing his enemies' weapons to use against them. Though you principally use only a jump button, an attack button, and the D-pad, Kirby's 20+ hats each boast a handful of destructive tactics. Pick up a Sword and you'll have a dozen different slashes, stabs, and spins to slice through the battlefield. Take the Water ability to create deadly waves, shoot geysers above, and even summon a killer rainbow. Some games suffer from such controller limitations, but Kirby's Return to Dream Land packs more combat tactics into two buttons and a D-pad than most of its contemporaries do with a full DualShock controller.

I guess it's understandable, then, that Kirby's outmatched foes rarely seem interested in actually going toe-to-toe with the fearsome marshmallow. Most tend to stand still and lazily flick a whip or spit some fire when Kirby approaches, but even mobile opponents confront you with the urgency of a hen protecting snake eggs. Kirby games are never more than a gentle challenge, but Return to Dream Land is perhaps softer than Kirby's Epic Yarn, a game made of cotton in which it is impossible to die. Combat can heat up a bit against bosses and mini-bosses, but there's never any urgency to extort Kirby's full arsenal. You've also got a failsafe with the returning Guard button, which basically nullifies most enemy attacks.

More than the lackadaisical foes, I'm bothered by how familiar all of Return to Dream Land's obstacles are. Almost all of the game's enemies are borrowed from earlier titles. The extra credit Power Spheres in each stage are set off by mechanisms and traps that series veterans will find utterly predictable (cutting ropes to drop platforms, thawing ice with fire, catching a switch in a wind tunnel). Many of the series' Easter eggs and running gags are accounted for, like the invisible moon-door in the final stage, the mini-boss rush tower level, and the adorably useless Sleep ability. Even the endgame genre switcheroo and final confrontations are ripped right out of Kirby Super Star.

Kirbys Return Dream Land Sword

I wouldn't mind retreading so much ground if there was more fresh territory as well. Every Kirby sidescroller has some extra gameplay hook to separate it from the rest of the pack. Return to Dream Land's only real gimmick is the handful of Super Abilities, situation-specific superpowers that decimate foes and solve environmental puzzles. Unfortunately, the giant swords and fire dragons and their related puzzle elements are all sizzle and no steak; a single button press instantly drops all enemies on-screen, and whatever environmental task requires the ability is glaringly obvious and foolproof. The rest of the game's scenario design may suffer for cruising on an even keel, but these spectacles mostly amount to flashy speed-bumps.

Ironically, the Super Ability segments always lead to one of the game's more understated and welcome additions, the Portal Zones. In these monochrome racetracks, Kirby has to outrun a crawling wall of death without the help of any copy abilities at all. Some of these dashes away from the approaching void get pretty frantic, as you're constantly skipping past plodding enemies and inhaling obstructions before you reach the exit. An extra, optional thrill is available in the Challenge Rooms, obstacle courses that test your prowess with specific abilities in a way that the main game never bothers to. Only complete and resourceful use of each copy ability will pass the gold benchmarks in each trial. Unfortunately, there are only seven of these optional trials, and the arcadey puzzle-race feel of them is over quickly.

Actually, there is an acceptable amount of worthwhile content on the disc for those who have some small desire for frustration. Unfortunately, much of it is unlocked by completing the main game in full beforehand. The "Extra Mode" is Hard Mode in all but name, filling the singleplayer campaign with beefier enemies, quicker bosses and mini-bosses with devastating new attacks, and a handicap to Kirby's maximum health. And, like the Super Star Ultra update on DS, there's a boss rush for the main story's vanilla enemies and a "True Arena" boss rush through the toughened-up Extra Mode foes (plus one more bonus fight). So, there are worthwhile challenges in Return to Dream Land, but not until you've already invested some 8+ hours into completing the main story mode. I miss the days when adjustable difficulty levels were available from the start...

If this all sounds negative, it's due to disappointment, not regret. This Dream Land homecoming has been in various stages of development since 2005; I couldn't help but give in to anticipation. I wanted it to be the New Super Mario Bros of the Kirby series: a game that smuggles some tight, fresh design inside sterile nostalgia, crafting its own identity in spite of itself. Return to Dream Land is not that game, content with giving the same old mechanics a new coat of paint. And for most people, that will be fine. But I've played through Kirby Super Star and its portable redheaded stepchildren enough times to foresee this Wii game's every trick and twist.

All said, I still enjoyed my time with this year's holiday season sidescroller revival from Nintendo. Great combat options, bubbly audiovisual fare, two decent motion minigames, and 4-player cooperative drop-in drop-out play make for an enjoyable romp, even if it does feel a little like Kirby's just spinning his wheels this time around. I wished for a game with a great copy ability system, and I got the best collection of Kirby powers in the series. Now I'm wishing for those cool copy abilities and some interesting challenges in which to use them. It would be extra nice to get that in under ten years, but I'm used to waiting when it comes to Kirby.

Kirbys Return Dream Land Boot_0