Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Kirby's Return to Dream Land (Wii) (HAL Laboratory, Nintendo, 2011)


I used to be quite an admirer of Nintendo and HAL's Kirby series, even preferring it to Mario among platformers. I wouldn't argue that the Kirby games were better than Mario necessarily, but they appealed more to my personal tastes and background as a gamer. All the running around and jumping in Mario never meant much to me, but Kirby, despite being targeted at younger audiences, offered a much greater action component, with Kirby utilizing a variety of weapons and abilities to directly attack his foes. My favorite entry, Kirby Super Star (1996) for the SNES, even implemented a guard mechanic (the clear precursor to the guarding in HAL's Super Smash Bros.) and a more solid collision system that gave it slightly a beat 'em up feel—right up my alley. But perhaps the best thing about Kirby was the cooperative gameplay. Kirby Super Star and Kirby's Dream Land 3 (1997) both offered simultaneous play for two players—a rare feature in the genre—which allowed me to enjoy the games alongside my younger sister, who, at the time a beginner gamer, although more easily able to connect with Kirby than with most other video games in our house, still needed help to get through the harder parts.

That was all in the 16-bit days, though. Kirby was afterward relegated mostly to handhelds, or else the brand was used more for developers to pursue experimental designs. Finally, when Nintendo released Kirby's Return to Dream Land, a brand new traditional Kirby game, I was... well, not really that excited—my tastes having changed with age, I can't say the years-long absence of traditional Kirby had left any noticeable void in my life that needed filling—but I got a bit nostalgic and maybe hopeful for a chance to revisit old and simple gaming pleasures anew. Alas, this return to Dream Land felt a little too old and simple, while its primary addition to the classic formula—the souped-up four-player cooperative mode—proved its greatest source of frustration.

As mentioned, cooperative gameplay had been a hallmark of the series that had helped distinguish many of the entries from other character-based platformers. Following the release of Nintendo's own superb New Super Mario Bros. Wii (2009), however, suddenly co-op seemed less a bonus and more a necessity for 2-D platformers. Kirby's Return to Dream Land seemed to be following New Super Mario Bros. Wii's lead, not only riding a resurgence in the popularity of 2-D platformers, but also prioritizing the hectic co-op as the major selling point.

For Kirby's partners, the developers did not opt to bring back any of his old friends from previous games but instead turned to a trio of old foes, which is maybe not so strange, since the denizens of Kirby's world, rather than being principally good or bad, have always been more silly and lazy first. King Dedede and Meta Knight, familiar to Super Smash Bros. Brawl players, were obvious choices. The final player character is, more surprisingly (but an adorable surprise), a random Waddle Dee, this series' equivalent to the Koopa Troopa, although this one at least has a bandanna to differentiate it from generic enemy Waddle Dees, and it also has the previously undocumented ability to jump infinitely, which is how it keeps up with the other flying/floating player characters. Alternatively, players 2-4 can choose to play as differently colored Kirby clones (player 1 has no choice but to play as pink Kirby).

Disappointingly, none of the non-Kirby characters actually possess unique skills. Instead, they are each just based off one of Kirby's copy abilities—hammer, sword, and spear, respectively. Technically, playing as a Kirby then offers greater versatility, since you would have access to all those abilities and many more, but the major benefit to the other characters is that they are never unarmed, whereas Kirby can quite easily have any acquired power knocked out of him when struck by an enemy. And, of course, it becomes a very different, less mashy game when playing as a naked Kirby. Boss fights require a great deal of care suddenly, since your only source of offense is to wait for the boss to drop an object for you to swallow and spit back out at them. Theoretically, of course, any Kirby player has to be careful during boss fights, no matter whether they are naked or armed, because any misstep will leave you scrambling to recover your fleeing ability anyway. In practice, care and precision go out the window when playing co-op.

Anybody playing New Super Mario Bros. Wii surely has had the sensation of getting jumped on by one of their fellow players (as well as doing it themselves). It was probably funny the first few times, but if it ever happened accidentally during a more delicate sequence, it became infuriating and cause for icy glares at the culprit/saboteur. Kirby's Return to Dream Land has that same problem, but taken to an exponentially more aggravating degree. The characters are larger, first of all, and they can also fly. The effect is that playing this game with a full four players is often rather like having to navigate four helicopters through a tunnel. This would be a dicey proposition under any circumstances, but add to that obstacles and enemies, and, well, people are gonna die. Players inadvertently bounce off one another constantly and just generally get in each other's way.

Furthermore, although Kirby has always been regarded as a game for younger players, that's not the same as being suitable for casual gamers. It's less challenging but also less intuitive than Mario, which mostly involves only running and jumping. Kirby, besides being conceptually harder to explain ("You inhale and swallow your enemies, and that allows you to use their abilities as your own, because, um...."), involves a lot of different mechanics and accompanying button combinations to keep track of. Playing with a team of novices, the mayhem may be amusing during early levels, but once you get to the late-game, where the lesser players become complete liabilities, the atmosphere in the room completely changes, from one of group fun to one of three KO'd players holding their breaths on the sidelines while waiting for the one serious (and now extremely PO'd at his/her teammates) player to get through the tricky section alone before signaling the others that it's okay to jump back in. But why would they bother, since it's all just going to get too hard for them again very quickly?

And, yes, players 2-4 do enjoy infinite lives, in a sense. They must draw from player 1's extra lives in order to join in, but they can continue to come back even if player 1 has none in reserve. The only one with a finite number of lives technically is player 1 as the pink Kirby, although it helps a great deal for the other players not to be reckless and wasteful with them, or else you can expect more icy glares from player 1, as their incompetent teammates blow through all the reserves in a matter of seconds. (And I'll confess right now that I was not player 1, but rather one of the three fools in my group being advised essentially to "stay down" whenever I got put down during the harder parts. What can I say—I'm not as young as I used to be, and gaming is a perishable skill.) If you want to be cheap, one strategy is to have player 1 just play defensively, while the effectively immortal players 2-4 throw their bodies at the enemy until the fight is won. That obviously works better for boss fights than for some of the tougher auto-scrolling platforming levels.

So the co-op is an overly busy mess. But would I have preferred the game not have it at all? No, I don't think I would even have played it by myself. And there is still the option to play the game alone. In fact, the experience is so different that it's fair to treat the single-player and co-op as distinct modes, even if all the levels are the same. As a single-player (or two-player—still reasonable) experience, Kirby's Return to Dream Land is not especially fresh or exciting. As a more mature gamer, I can recognize it now as a slower, more tepid experience than Mario, and the armed combat is generally shallow and repetitive. If it can manage to hold your attention that long, the later levels and boss fights do offer enough challenge to stimulate, but it's not a platformer for the ages.

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