What Kirby’s very straightforward character design (a short, hollow pink orb with tiny, chubby arms and lace-less red kicks) lacks in complexity and elegance, it makes up for with its ability to act as a conductor, a sponge, and, quite literally, a vacuum for a variety of gameplay types that have gone from high concept and ultimately successful (Kirby’s Epic Yarn; this year’s other Kirby adventure Kirby Mass Attack) to relatively half-baked and forgettable (Kirby Air Ride, Kirby: Squeak Squad). The general consensus is that a Kirby game is at its best when it’s set within a style that’s as close as possible to its champion’s original passage through Dreamland—a classic side-scrolling platformer with Kirby’s signature suction moves completely intact. As its name suggests, Kirby’s Return to Dreamland is, at its core, a callback to the earliest, most cherished Kirby exploits, and while it doesn’t strive to reinvent the wheel, it triumphantly tacks on some sensational rims that make this vehicle one of the better efforts to spotlight the rotund, rose-hued warrior in the past decade.
I’ll go ahead and get this out of the way upfront: Return to Dreamland is far from a challenging game. If you have the time on hand, and you’re not too keen on collecting every last Energy Sphere (hidden items that open up extra, playroom-like quests) or dabbling in arena modes, you can easily clear the first version of the main mode in one marathon sitting. The difficulty level of Kirby’s lighthearted escapades has always been the primary argument hardcore gamers have for avoiding the franchise, but for those who’ve actually gone into a Kirby game with a positive outlook, a little faith in the esteemed creators (HAL Laboratory), patience, and, most importantly, an eye for the sheer amount of developmental detail that’s present, are rewarded in spades. Once the somewhat prosaic storyline (finding parts for the busted spaceship of an otherworldly visitor) is established, Return to Dreamland offers a bounty of delights at nearly every turn.
Taking Kirby’s trademark enemy-trait copy technique first considerably expanded on in Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards and ramping it up to interstellar heights (sans fusing absorbed powers), Return to Dreamland’s most noteworthy accomplishment is just how many different methods of laying waste to your foes are available at any given moment. The bulk of Nintendo’s mascots are limited in their basic control schemes and personalities: When you’re Mario, you’re Mario; when you’re Donkey Kong, you’re Donkey Kong; when you’re Link, you’re Link—but when you’re Kirby, you’re not confined to just Kirby, everything in your surroundings is at your disposal, ready for you to manipulate and absorb, practically creating a brand-new protagonist, aesthetically, whenever you wish. From the standard Cutter Kirby to the decidedly unorthodox Whip Kirby (which comes off as a comical cross between Indiana Jones and Earthworm Jim), Return to Dreamland features enough transformation variables to keep even the most restless gamers constantly searching for the next new adversary to make its debut appearance, so that they can thoroughly explore what they can do with their freshly acquired moveset. (Truth be told, each of the game’s copy abilities is so well-crafted and intuitive that it can border on distressing when it comes to having to eject it and move on to a power necessary to progress further.) In addition to the regular assortment of transmutable powers, Return to Dreamland boasts five super abilities that fill the screen with their gorgeously rendered, enormously destructive assailments: Sword, Fire, Ice, Hammer, and Beam Kirby all have big-brother modifications that aren’t just eye-candy; they serve as tools to open up gateways into the game’s many level-within-a-level segments that conclude with a mini boss. I can say with the utmost confidence that, when using one of these super abilities, Return to Dreamland accomplishes a task that’s easier said than done: making Kirby look and play like a total badass.
In defense of the game’s mildly unfair labeling as “too easy,” there are quite a large number of occasions when, in order to uncover every last secret within a certain stage, players must think quite a bit ahead in order to obtain full completion. Instead of jumping the gun and defeating an enemy whose copy ability seems out of place in the current environment (a fire-type moseying around in an ice world), Return to Dreamland rewards you for absorbing that enemy with an obstacle that materializes a ways down the road: See those random blocks encased in snow? Yeah, they’re in need of some melting. Return to Dreamland also contains a sizable amount of bonus content that significantly extends the game’s replay value. Multiplayer mode is great fun, allowing for up to three other players (assuming the role of Meta Knight, King Dedede, or Waddle Dee) to join you on your star-hopping trek across colorful, lively, brilliantly scored locales. Gathering up the aforementioned Energy Spheres unlocks rooms on the temporarily grounded Lor Starcutter planetary travel vessel; soon side-games like Ninja Dojo, Scope Shot, and various time trials for each of your copy abilities, while not as enjoyable as tackling the main narrative, become selectable, representing a pleasant respite from the proceedings and do well to illustrate HAL’s dedication to manufacturing a wholly balanced gaming experience.
While clearly not the most ambitious or cutting-edge title in the Kirby canon, Return to Dreamland harbors a serenely gratifying mixture of antique charm and modern flare that make it the antidote to commonly purist-shunned, art-game spinoffs like Epic Yarn. Above all, it feeds on the fact that Kirby lacks a true identity, giving him, and you, the player, the choice to mold the coral-shaded globe into whatever kind of hero your heart desires.