Friday, November 5, 2010

Kirby's Epic Yarn Review

This review was originally published on

Kirby’s Epic Yarn is the latest entry in Nintendo’s renewed love affair with the platformers of yesteryear combined with a modern twist. The game is a departure for the big N’s lovable but oft-neglected pink puff, eschewing the mechanics commonly found in a Kirby game for an all new set of abilities. The game’s visual style is its most-striking feature, basing its aesthetic on bits of fabric and string. The game’s charm is impossible to resist. The art evokes warm tingly feelings of childhood and offers enough sweetness to send you into diabetic shock. Levels are made up of swatches of cloth stitched together with string, buttons, and everything else from your Grandma’s sewing kit. It is, in a word, adorable. No scratch that. It’s beyond adorable. It’s order of magnitude cutesy. It’s little puppies frolicking with kittens. It’s bunnies crinkling their noses. It’s a baby’s first steps. It’s— well you get the idea.

The story begins...

Once upon a time, Kirby was out looking for some food and the evil Yin-Yarn sucked him up into his magical sock. (That’s right I said magical sock.) Once inside, Kirby discovered he’d been turned into yarn and lost his ability to gobble up enemies. But all was not lost for Kirby had a few new tricks up his stringy sleeve. Kirby could whip himself into the air, grapple unto buttons, and even turn into a yarn car! Along the way, Kirby met Prince Fluff, a resident of the magical world, Patch Land. Together, the two of them toppled enemies, traversed many strange levels, and defeated several inventive bosses bringing order to the kingdom.

If this review suddenly sounded like a storybook it can’t be helped. Kirby’s Epic Yarn brings with it many of the same qualities found in a really memorable children’s book complete with a soothingly-voiced narrator.

The yarn aesthetics don’t just work in favor of the visuals as the crux for the game’s level design and gameplay mechanics are reenforced by the string-based style. Kirby’s new abilities include the previously mentioned whip which allows him to grapple to buttons and swing toward higher ledges as well as new transformative powers such as turning into a parachute to float over long distances. Players can walk, hop, swing, and motor across levels collecting beads, the game’s currency, as they go. The platforming isn’t especially difficult, the only challenge being derived from finding hidden treasures which force Kirby off the beaten path and completing a stage with as many beads as possible. Throughout the game, Kirby will be able to transform into several vehicles including a sled, surfboard, and don’t forget the gigantic robotic missile-shooting tank. These moments are fleeting and work to break up some of the platforming. For the most part, these sequences work well except for Kirby's train form which could have used some more testing before shipping out the door.

The game doesn’t offer much by way of difficulty. Enemies are easily dispatched by a snap of Kirby’s whip and the platforming feels very much like Gaming 101. Soon, however, players might find themselves skipping past enemies because running into them, falling off a ledge, or anything which would ordinarily cause a player to lose a life and start over doesn’t apply here. Kirby’s Epic Yarn is devoid of fail-states. Meaning, there is no consequence in the typical video game sense of the word for falling or getting hit by an enemy. It’s a design choice which, on one hand makes it infinitely accessible to the game’s younger target demographic while making the experience feel somewhat neutered for the rest of us. I started to feel bored by the whole thing. The imaginative spark of the level design and art direction was enough to keep me going through the experience but, after a while, I started playing podcasts with my TV muted as I trotted along to the finish line. I felt like I needed to keep my mind active. There was no sense of urgency in my decision to play a new level or fight a boss battle because there was no challenge to overcome. However, it’s important to note this isn’t the game’s agenda. This is the perfect game to play with your kids or, at the very least, with somebody who doesn’t play games because they find the barrier to entry too high. It’s not here to punish you. Instead it wants to wrap itself around you like a warm fuzzy blanket, let you relax, and enjoy the experience without fear of frustration. While many gamers will find this off-putting there’s nothing wrong with this choice it’s simply a different one.

Despite the lack of challenge, the game offers some really unique concepts and ideas based around the yarn motif. Everything stays true to that core concept from the character designs, levels, and some fairly ingenious bosses. It all works in service of the art style and it’s unlike anything seen in a game thus far. It’s a shame the game feels somewhat light on content. At about six hours, it wasn’t so much about the time spent playing but more about this feeling I had when I was done that there was more I wished to see. Hidden paths, side-quests such as hide & seek, and decorating Kirby’s apartment with found furniture are a fun distraction but nothing quite earth-shattering. As I said, it’s the perfect game to play with your kids and co-op makes that even easier. Be warned, the co-op mode’s camera frustratingly lacks the necessary zooming-out feature of other multiplayer platformers such as New Super Mario Bros. Wii. As a result, the leading player will be constantly hitting the right side of the screen if their partner lags behind.

There are enough good ideas in Kirby’s Epic Yarn to make it an experience worth trying, regardless of whether or not you agree with its lack of challenge. It left me feeling conflicted. While I wish the gameplay had provided something more dynamic, it’s impossible to deny the game’s charm and relentless sense of imagination. The pleasure derived from the sucrose-sweet art style is immediate and makes the game undeniably enjoyable on a basic human level. It taps into the pleasure centers deep inside your brain reserved only for the idealized memories of childhood. This brand of nostalgia is something Nintendo has been dealing out for almost thirty years and they've become so good it's scary.


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