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A long, long time ago, during the dawn of the original Nintendo Game Boy, Nintendo charged a young, up-and-coming Masahiro Sakurai (yes, of Smash Bros. fame) with creating a new game for them. This game would act as an onboarding mechanism for the new audience that the house of Mario was trying to cultivate with its new portable device. You see, Nintendo envisioned its Gameboy as not only as a great device for its core audience, but also as a gateway to new potential customers looking for something to do with their hands on their transit commutes.
Sakurai knew that in order to persuade non-gamers to buy in, he would need to build a game that was both fun and very accessible. The intense (at the time) platforming of Mario, or the cryptic exploration of Metroid, could end up being far too frustrating for someone who could very well be trying to play their first ever video game. This was kind of an overwhelming task for the then 19-year-old Sakurai, so instead of focusing on characters, story, or art, he wanted to make sure all of his initial efforts went towards simplistic and fun gameplay mechanics. He did need something to put on the screen for testing purposes, though, so he quickly scribbled the simplest character he could think of. In just a few moments, what stood before him was a simple pink blob with eyes and a smile. With his temporary asset complete, Sakurai and his team got to work creating easy to digest levels and fun mechanics that would be suitable for new players.
While everything was coming together, though, something unexpected happened. As he and his team spent weeks and months designing levels and mechanics with this temporary character asset, they began to grow fond of its cute simplicity. So after spending most of the game’s development as a throw away asset, Sakurai gave everyone’s favorite blob some arms and legs, which would then give birth to what we now know as Kirby. Since then, Kirby has gone on to be one of the biggest IPs in Nintendo’s stable with countless releases on several different platforms.
Thirty years later Nintendo’s newest handheld is becoming one of the fastest-selling consoles of all time, and Kirby’s latest adventure is poised to act as that same onboarding mechanism for yet another new audience. Were they successful? In order to find out, I recruited one of the best people on this planet to help me: my 5-year-old daughter. She has dabbled in a few games, but always as a player two. This time, though, I’m the player two, and she is taking center stage as everyone’s favorite pink blob. Was she successfully on-boarded? Or does this game suck? Let’s jump in!
It Doesn’t Always Suck to Suck.
Upon launching Kirby and the Forgotten Lands, you are immediately offered a choice to opt for the game’s normal difficulty, or the “Spring-Breeze” mode for an even easier experience. Having a 5-year-old at the wheel, we opted for Spring-Breeze mode and began our journey. The game tells the story of our pal Kirby getting sucked away from his home on Planet Popstar and into a new, mysterious (forgotten) land. As soon as you arrive in the Forgotten Lands, you befriend the Waddle-Dees, one of whom will be controlled by player 2 during co-op. You quickly learn that a mysterious foe has riled up the beasts of the land, attacking and kidnapping the Waddle Dees, so now its up to Kirby to save them. There is a story here, and the short cutscenes that advance it are charming, but it’s clearly meant to be enjoyed by children or the young at heart.
When this game was first revealed, many believed it to be a Kirby meets Mario Odyssey of sorts, but in reality it is a lot more linear. The game is made up of several biomes that contain different levels, ala Super Mario Bros. 3, with no individual level reaching the openness of what Mario Odyssey offers. That is not entirely a bad thing, though. Each individual level has its own unique theme, and despite having a very obvious path to the finish line, there are tons of nooks and crannies to explore. Exploration is heavily rewarded as well, as you can find collectables and blueprints to upgrade several of the many abilities Kirby can obtain, sucking up his enemies via his iconic vacuum-like mouth. These range from being able to shoot ice or fire, to being able to throw bombs or turn into Link from The Legend of Zelda.
The final level of each biome contains a major boss battle, and these are some of the best parts of the game. Every boss was a memorable encounter and perfectly balanced to where we routinely defeated them with only a sliver of health remaining. The sense of awe these big battles drew from a first time 5-year-old gamer was incredible to witness, and the near perfect increase in difficulty as she increased her experience with the game made every one of them so memorable for her and me.
Perhaps the most iconic new addition to the Kirby sandbox is that of the “Mouthful mode,” in which Kirby will swallow very large objects like vending machines, cars, or even planes. Some objects are so large that his body stretches to fit them, and he, in turn, gains the ability to control them. These segments are found quite often amongst the game’s levels and are always a fun experience. While there may only be 10 or so of these Mouthful Objects in the game, the developers continue to present new and interesting ways to implement them throughout your playthrough.
Also hidden amongst Forgotten Lands’ 30+ levels are the kidnapped Waddle Dees. Rescuing them is important not only for the story, but they are also a key part of the game’s progression. After rescuing a few of them, they will try and get their lives back on track after going through a traumatic kidnapping by rebuilding their Waddle Dee Village.
This acts as the game’s hub world. After starting out as a small settlement with a shop and a bed to sleep on, it will quickly grow into a full town, full of different things to do. You can upgrade you gear here, buy some consumable items, go fishing, play a boss rush mode, and much, much more. All and all the game is a joy to play, especially from the perspective of someone who is new to video games. The game’s difficulty is delivered at a near surgical pace, and the amount of variety provided kept us constantly excited to see what was around the next corner.
Pretty in Pink
Nintendo has always had a colorful, cartoony art style in most of its games, but with the release of the Nintendo Switch, especially, they have seemed to adopt a somewhat unique approach to their classic formula. Popularized by Mario Odyssey, many Nintendo games have opted to sprinkle in realistic textures in places where it makes sense. This is often done on things that tend to exist in the real world. A great example of this is the New Donk City level in Mario Odyssey, where you have a cartoony Mario running around what looks to be semi-realistic concrete sidewalks with a very realistic-looking rainstorm. In fact, one of the main reasons that level exists is to showcase this new art style.
Conveniently for Kirby and the Forgotten Lands, the entire game takes place in a post-apocalyptic setting, which plays right into this. The ruins of humanity are showcased in various ways, including old buildings, malls, cars, and machinery, each of which is depicted in a familiar way with realistic textures and lighting. However, the flora and fauna have overtaken what was left of this ancient civilization, and they are depicted in a much more cartoony manner. The entire game shares that “New Donk City” aesthetic and it looks really good throughout. While the game only runs at 30fps, it holds onto that framerate incredibly well as that typical “Nintendo polish” is put on display. As someone who is often a major stickler for 60fps, I honestly did not even realize the game was running at 30 until I sat down to write this review.
In my 20+ hours with the game, I did not encounter any bugs, with the only visible issue being that things rendered far in the background would sometimes obviously run at 15 frames or less. I assume this was in an effort to keeping the in-focus stuff running smoothly.
That Old Nintendo Feeling
Along with the Nintendo polish comes the Nintendo charm, and Kirby offers that in spades. In fact, it is the attention to detail and the little things this game does that really transform this game from a good 3D platformer into a great one. For example, this game offers a Theatre mode, a Boss Rush mode, and ability to listen to the soundtrack. These are a lot of common features that are found in many games.
Except in Kirby the Theatre mode involves you walking into an actual cinema, buying a ticket from a Waddle Dee box office attendant, finding your seat, and then watching the cutscene on the big screen. The Boss Rush mode is a massive colosseum in which you pay to enter, and a Waddle Dee does his best Jerry the King Lawler impression, providing color commentary as you fight each boss. The soundtrack is listened to by requesting the Waddle Dee band to play your favorite song for the whole village to hear in concert. All of these things and more could have easily been options in a menu, and for most games they are. The fact that the team at HAL Laboratory went the extra mile really paid dividends here, and it made things that are usually a trivial bonus feature an incredibly memorable experience for me and my co-op partner.
As mentioned before the game has around 30 or so levels, and there are a bunch of things to do to pass some time in the Waddle Dee village. However, once you get your fill at the village, complete all of the levels in the campaign, grab some collectables, and watch the credits roll… the game is not over. Kirby and the Forgotten Lands actually has quite a neat endgame experience that is tied directly into the game’s story. Without getting into spoilers, at the end of the main campaign there is still work to be done. You are tasked with hunting down something important that is hidden in new mash-up levels from the main campaign. While there are some aesthetic differences, visually these are very much remixes of the levels you already played. However, when it comes to how they play, they are very different.
These new levels make much better use of the various abilities Kirby can acquire from the game’s enemies, and the puzzles are much more intricate. On top of that, the boss battles are a lot more challenging and even have new mechanics introduced. These levels are bigger then the ones in the main campaign and are all a blast to play. Personally, I had the most fun here, but perhaps that is because I got to take control of Kirby. You see, the game’s co-op is designed in a way where Kirby and his Waddle Dee partner are not equals. This is Kirby’s game, and he is the one the entire game revolves around. The camera follows him, he is involved in all of the puzzles, and he is the only one who can use all of the cool abilities. As mentioned previously, the game is, in part, designed to on-board new players into gaming, and so player 2’s job is somewhat of a chauffer: a role that I admittedly enjoyed playing immensely.
When the content gets more difficult, however, that dichotomy changes. Suddenly, I’m in the driver’s seat and my daughter is an active spectator, in a sense. After spending over 10 hours getting engrossed in this game’s world and mechanics, it was a role she enjoyed and something that she never would have had the patience for had that initial time not been spent as Kirby. When the credits finally rolled a second time, my daughter’s and my delightful journey was over, and the first thing she wanted to do was to start it all over again. As a gamer dad desperate for his kids to share in his passion for video games, it was the best ending I could have ever asked for.
Kirby and the Forgotten Lands excels in what it’s trying to do. Not only is it an expertly crafted and accessible ramp for anyone to jump into the hobby, it is also an extremely fun and polished experience for experienced players. The charm and whimsy never wore out through the entirety of my 20+ hours with the game, and it took Nintendo’s New Donk City aesthetic to the next level. While it falls short in my eyes of the “Kirby’s Odyssey” I had hoped it would be, it deserves to share a spot in your collection all the same. Sensational.