In recent years, top people at Nintendo have vowed, despite scorn and eye-rolls, to make games that keep people smiling. Ignoring the grumps, the company brings us Kirby's Epic Yarn, a Wii testament to the potency of joy.
Kirby's Epic Yarn is a side-scrolling adventure in the vein of Super Mario Bros. and previous adventures that star Nintendo's pink puffball Kirby. In his new Wii adventure, our happy hero runs, jumps and eschews his trademark ability. He inhales no enemies and adopts none of their powers. Instead, his 2010 quest is defined by three things: 1) the gorgeous graphical weaving of Kirby's cast and world in what looks like real yarn and fabric, a visual redeisgn perpetrated in the game's story by the evil Yin-Yarn; 2) Kirby's ability to be transformed, mid-level, into various controllable vehicles (from fire engine to rocket ship); 3) the game developers' knack for giving the player something new and fun to do and observe every 30 seconds.
Kids as well as any adult who is more interested in visual creativity than they are perturbed by incessant cuteness.
Nintendo has used its Kirby series as a laboratory for ideas, from early motion control to ambitious stylus-based gameplay. This time Kirby is the test case for a sort of simulated yarn equivalent of claymation, one of the most radical and successfully implemented new styles of game graphics tried in many years.
Yarn graphics? Really? This is the fall of 2010 and that's enough to make this game stand out during prime gaming season? Yes. The gameplay in Kirby's Epic Yarn could be atrocious and this would still be a game worth checking out. The game doesn't just look as if it was created with yarn and thread — as if our TVs used stitches instead of pixels — it behaves as if it was. Backgrounds fold and unzip. Enemies unravel, some as neatly as a sweater pulled by a loose end. Not a second goes by in this game when its creators aren't delightfully showing what the yarn and fabric elements of a side-scrolling video game might look like. Yarn electricity. Yarn lava. Yarn dinos.
Isn't it backwards to praise a Nintendo game for its graphics more than for its gameplay? It is odd, and the graphics get the higher praise partially because the gameplay is merely good here and not brilliant. The closest antecedent to Epic Yarn is the great Yoshi's Island, another visually creative game that, like this new one, doled out a creative tweak to side-scrolling gameplay each level. Yoshi's was far more clever, ingenious enough to spawn imitators, which the engagingly varied but not groundbreaking Epic Yarn may be. The two share a knack for occasionally transforming their heroes into vehicles that are fun to control.
Kotaku said earlier this year that this game was easy. Kotaku doesn't lie. Was this game too easy? Kirby can't die. He can collect gems and score combo points for consecutive successful attacks. But the biggest penalty for bumping into some enemies is a loss of some gems. Gems help unlock a handful of bonus levels, but their loss is no tragedy.
This all sounds too good to be true. No, it's true. Kirby's new game isn't hard, but neither is eating a fudge sundae, which is the experience playing this game most closely resembles: all sweetness, no frustration. Think of it as the anti-Demon's Souls, to reference last year's favorite game of masochists. The designers of Epic Yarn clearly want you to be happy and you'll be happy for it (Smile-promoting former Nintendo exec Cammie Dunaway was right!). Fall down a bottomless pit and lose your gems? Expect a fun way to collect more around the next corner.
Is a game like this better in co-op? Not really. Kirby's Epic Yarn allows a second player to control Prince Fluff, who is essentially a blue version of this game's pink alpha-puffball. Few people playing this game will need the help of a second player and may find it frustrating when the breezy lack of challenge allows one player to run ahead and leaves player two clipped off the back of the screen, respawning right away. The better way to play co-op is for me to be Kirby and for you to watch, as I point out how good-looking the game is (as if you couldn't tell).
Extras? What about the extras? You can use decorate Kirby's apartment with furniture collected in the world (not exciting), spend gems unlocking new items for his apartment (not exciting), or jump into timed challenge levels that are extracts from the game's main levels (semi-exciting). I didn't sweat the hundreds of collectibles and preferred to replay fun levels and try to beat the game's bosses well enough to unlock a few full-size bonus levels. Kirby's Epic Yarn is meant to be replayed the way a beautiful painting is made to be looked at more than once. The initial helping of content suffices.
Don't expect a drawn-out or challenging affair from Kirby's Epic Yarn. This is a game designed for constant smiling, a side-scroller that will soothe the stressed. As impressive as video game graphics often are, it often falls to creators in other media, say the folks at Pixar, to show how enchanting creative visuals can be. Kirby's Epic Yarn gets it right in video games. When even the unfurling of the map for the game's second world is so clever and lovely to watch that you tell people about it, you've got a game well worth looking at. And it is worth playing. Don't be afraid to smile at this one.
Kirby's Epic Yarn was developed by Good-Feel and published by Nintendo for the Nintendo Wii, released on October 17. Retails for USD$49.99. Supports two-player local co-op using Wii Remotes only. A copy of the game was given to us by the publisher for reviewing purposes. Played through all seven game worlds, defeated Yin-Yarn, in about seven hours.