Kirby’s Return to Dreamland has travelled a long, rough road but it is finally nearing completion. Originally announced way back in 2004 as one of the final titles for the GameCube, Hal Lab apparently shelved the title while they worked on other projects. After not hearing about it for years many gamers, myself included, figured it had been cancelled outright, and when the fantastic Kirby’s Epic Yarn came out last year it was only logical to assume that Kirby’s Return to Dreamland had been reworked as the crafty adventure.
Thankfully for Kirby fans, this wasn’t the case at all. Epic Yarn started as a completely different game developed by Good Feel studios and was eventually adapted into a Kirby game, while Hal Lab kept chugging away on Return to Dreamland. After some serious hibernation time the plucky little game is almost ready for its late October release, and I got to go hands-on with it at the Nintendo Holiday Tour last week.
Return to Dreamland is, astonishingly, the first traditional Kirby platformer since Kirby and the Crystal Shards back on the N64. While Good Feel handled Epic Yarn, Kirby creators Hal Lab worked on Return to Dreamland, and the classic style and gameplay is clearly evident in the new game. Kirby is back to his spherical pink self and his legendary appetite is intact: he can inhale all of his familiar enemies and gain their powers once again, including needles, fire, sparks and swords. Return to Dreamland is a 2.5D sidescroller very similar to many of Nintendo’s recent efforts, and is thus played NES-style with the Wii remote turned on its side.
While the controls remain simple, Kirby has a few new tricks. You can shake the Wii remote to turn up Kirby’s vacuum power, allowing him to inhale huge enemies and obstacle blocks and launch them right back at more enemies. There are also super-powered abilities Kirby can gain from special enemies or bosses. While these powers eventually run out they’re really something to behold; I snagged an enormous sword early in one level that literally let me cleave my way through the landscape and anything that got in my way.
Kirby is also joined by up to three co-op allies: Meta Knight, King DeDeDe and his minion, Waddle Dee. I’m not sure why Kirby is teaming up with a few of his old nemeses, but it does make for great co-op play. Chuck, Jeremy and I were having a blast tearing through the levels, massacring the cute enemies with our specialized powers and items.
Compared to Epic Yarn’s measured, calculative 2-player mode, which emphasized good teamwork and coordination, Return to Dreamland is pure chaos. Adding two more players turns it from an elegant dance or partnership into a candy-colored beat down of anything that gets in your way. In fact it’s very similar to the barely controlled insanity of the co-op story mode in Smash Bros. Brawl, but this time it’s far more refined and focused. This is no surprise considering Hal Lab made both Brawl and Return to Dreamland, and a few years have let them polish the somewhat random and aimless 2.5D adventuring in Brawl.
Of all the holiday titles hitting this year I’m surprised that Kirby’s Return to Dreamland is one of the few I can’t wait to get my hands on. It’s a little ironic that, after such a long absence, Kirby claims two entries out of Nintendo’s retro resurrection: Kirby’s Epic Yarn and Return to Dreamland stand tall with New Super Mario Bros. Wii and Donkey Kong Country Returns. I absolutely loved Epic Yarn for its amazing art style its and charming gameplay, but I’m just as happy to see Kirby popping back into the third dimension and getting back to what he does best.