When a video game can genuinely delight you, then you know that it’s doing the right thing, that its purpose is clear and its execution successful, even though the stubborn cynic inside you is searching for loose boards to knock down. Kirby’s Epic Yarn—a 2D platformer for the Wii co-developed by Good-Feel and HAL Laboratory—did that for me. I knew that the game wasn’t perfect, that individual sections fluctuated wildly (from indolent to inexplicably tricky) and that innovation would take a back seat to charm, but in the end, I didn’t care. Veteran gamers, I think it’s safe to assume, have built up calluses that transcend digits and make it nearly impossible for games to transport and amaze without also inciting them to scrutinize its systems and reinforce the insuperable link to big business. I’ll freely admit that I’m one of them. So when something like Kirby’s Epic Yarn comes along and disarms me, and has me enjoying every cute and goofy minute of it despite its flaws, I love it (and this hobby) even more.
The story is unashamed with its silliness: Kirby, the ever-transforming spherical pink protagonist, is sucked into a slightly dirty sock which transports him to Patch Land, a world made entirely of fabrics and stitching under attack by the nefarious wizard Yin-Yarn (!), much to the dismay of Prince Fluff, an equally rotund puffball who asks for Kirby’s assistance in sewing the different slices of the world back together and restoring peace. Patch Land is a visually stunning video-game world: swaths of felt, clouds of cotton, and platforms made of fleece and wool look as tangible and inviting as the real thing. The backgrounds are so warm and beautiful, in fact, that most players won’t mind the fact that Kirby, Fluff, and most of the enemies are depicted as simple transparent outlines of yarn; instead of distract, it adds to the illusion that you’re playing around with living materials (wisely, synthetics are nowhere in sight). It’s also a testament to the detail and care that Good-Feel puts into their character animations; they were also responsible for another gorgeous looking Wii title, Wario Land: Shake It!
The bulk of players’ actions in the game revolve around running, jumping and whipping various enemies and objects with a rope of yarn, which have varying degrees of results; enemies can be “wound up” into a ball and thrown at blocks or other enemies, for instance, or patches can be lifted up to reveal hidden pathways and collectibles. The way that the fidelity of the environments are incorporated into stages occasionally flash brilliance, such as tugging on a loose button attached to a backdrop to scrunch an area together and traverse areas that were before inaccessible. Kirby can also duck behind the background at certain points, his round bulk bulging out from the literal fabric of the game. While the various lands Kirby and Fluff visit are culled from the standard Platformer Handbook (water, snow, and desert worlds all make an appearance), each level has a unique look and, more importantly, feel that kept me constantly interested in what Kirby might stumble upon next, whether it be a futuristic roller coaster or a “quicksand” pit made from an unraveling square of knitting.
A cooperative two-player mode is simple and intuitive; two players can play as Kirby and Fluff from the get-go, or a second player can drop in and elect to play before a level begins, and can even join mid-level, provided that a second controller is connected to your Wii. Once both players are in a stage, they team up by using one another as a balled projectile, and share both items and “beads,” the in-game currency. If one player outpaces the other or becomes stuck, they can be carried over at will to the others’ position without penalty. It’s perfect for “shoulder-to-shoulder” play meant for couples or pairs where one may be slightly more advanced than the other.
Besides basic hop-and-hurl Kirby platforming, Kirby Epic Yarn also features vignettes of gameplay where Kirby and Fluff are transformed into different characters or vehicles, slightly more involved than mini-games but fleeting nonetheless. Sometimes these sections control wonderfully (snowboarding is particularly fun), others are more clunky (the large missile-spitting tank feels a bit too “heavy” and cumbersome), and some do not work at all (the mechanical “mole” and flying saucer sections, while interesting in concept, are awkward to pilot and become monotonous after the first 10 seconds of their first appearances). The variety and surprise of these short gameplay bursts save even the worst of them from becoming a substantial detriment to the game, yet I still wish a few of them were edited down.
Another curious element of Kirby’s Epic Yarn are the collectible items and various fabrics that are gathered in each level and used to decorate Kirby’s pad, a bare room in an apartment building that can be filled with found furniture and toys, as well as items purchased with beads in the game’s main hub-world. Different patterns can be used to reupholster existing furniture or turned into wallpaper and rugs. It’s oddly reminiscent of Animal Crossing, but completely optional and pleasantly extensive, and I was addicted to finding specific items of furniture that would attract new neighbors to move in, whom I could then visit and play one of several mini-challenges with—hide-and-seek and timed bead collecting, to name a few—in order to earn even more items for my room.
In the end, Kirby’s Epic Yarn has the kind of charm I haven’t seen in a video game for quite some time. By default, Kirby games are relatively non-threatening (and experienced players will have no trouble completing this game in 10 hours or less), but the philosophy behind the series was never to compete with heavy platform contenders like Mario—constructed on the conceit of death and repetition, of practice and steadily developing skill—and instead craft an experience of lightness and relaxation. It’s easy to feel jaded about the too-cute visual style and sauntering pace of Kirby’s Epic Yarn, but those who actually take the time to settle down and let Kirby innocuously pitch his woo are bound to be won over. It’s the kind of game one should return to every few years, to remind themselves that value can indeed be derived from the soft and joyful.