Nintendo is almost single-handedly keeping the 2D platformer in vogue, and with it is seemingly determined to cover as many bases as possible. While Donkey Kong Country Returns offers a return to the old-school of hard knocks, limited lives and mid-level checkpoints, Kirby weaves a tale that’s determined to allow everyone to reach its end. It propels the player forward through sheer good-natured charm and the undeniable force of its fabulous visuals, testing the notion that a game needs to be challenging to be fun. Appropriately for a game whose surfaces are knitted, stitched or woven together, its edges are very much on the soft side.
Almost everything in the world of Patch Land is made from felt, cotton or wool, connected by thread, yarn and the occasional button. Zips can be slowly pulled aside to reveal secrets, while patches hiding collectibles are delicately peeled off, as enemies unspool and unravel into the gentlest projectile weapons you’ll ever fire. Returning enemies from the Kirby universe are re-imagined in woollen form, while the environments really run with the central idea – Kirby disappears behind fabric surfaces as a moving bump, stitches are unpicked to move platforms within jumping distance, and cotton wool clouds drift lazily across the screen. The map is a particular joy, with every collected patch opening up the environment in ever more charming ways. A snowman’s hat unwinds; a yarn beanstalk sprouts from a tiny seed; an alarm clock awakens a mole that raises the earth for Kirby to access a previously unreachable door. Each new level heralds a fresh animation, almost all of which are either cute, clever or both.
Shorn of his traditional abilities in his journey to Patch Land, Kirby no longer inhales, but can instead collect pickups which allow him to transform. One early stage sees him mutate into a giant tank – complete with additional boxing glove in two-player mode – while fire-engine and dolphin variations are likely to elicit coos and chuckles from most players. Occasionally, the game even turns into a horizontal- or vertically-scrolling shooter, though these arguably take the game’s simplistic feel too far. With one exception, the controls are exemplary, using the Wii Remote held on its side, with just the occasional tilt as a reminder of why you don’t have a Classic Controller in your hands. The only awkward moments arrive alongside Locomotive Kirby, for whom tracks must be drawn onto the screen using the Remote pointer. At least here the level design is simplified and the number of enemies drastically reduced to compensate for the clumsiness.
Not that Epic Yarn is a difficult game, even by the hardly exacting standards of the protagonist’s previous adventures. Hitting enemies or dropping down rare bottomless pits simply reduces your bead count for the level. The challenge comes in attempting to complete each stage with one of three medals, though only the most slapdash of players will struggle to achieve bronze on their first attempt. Secret stages – unlocked by earning enough beads on the inventive and enjoyable boss fights – offer a more substantial challenge, but only in the sense that gold medals are slightly harder to come by.
Elsewhere, there are two secret items hidden on each level for you to find. A few are cleverly squirreled away and require continued searching in order to locate them, though the curious player will find the majority with a bit of exploration. Unfortunately, there’s not a great deal of impetus to collect the lot other than to improve your completion statistics. A few unlock additional challenges (see ‘Knitted Characters’) but otherwise there’s no real reason to obtain all the fabrics and furniture from the shops in Patch Plaza – particularly as Kirby can’t interact with them in any meaningful way. It’s rare that Nintendo collectibles feel so inconsequential.
Each stage also hides a CD of that level’s music, which can be listened to from the menu. While there are some nice remixes of classic Kirby themes as well as a handful of catchy new tunes, it rarely comes close to the orchestral majesty of the Galaxy games. That said, Melody Town beats Mario at his own game, with each platform adding a musical accompaniment as Kirby bounces off drums and cymbals, tinkles the ivories with each step on a piano keyboard, and delicately plucks harp strings as he swings past them. It’s the creative highlight of a game packed with touches of audiovisual genius.
Some will undoubtedly dismiss Kirby’s Epic Yarn as too twee or rudimentary, and they’d have a point, were it not for the elegance of its design and the verve of its art style. At around twelve hours in length, it’s not a particularly epic yarn, but it’s a good deal longer than your average FPS campaign. The two-player mode doesn’t add an awful lot either, but is an easy way for a partner or younger family members to join in without the worry of lost progress. There are hints of New Super Mario Bros. Wii or The Legend Of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures in the ability to pick each other up – and sometimes it’s all too easy to latch onto your partner rather than the button you were hoping to swing from – but with no meaningful punishment for messing about, it’s all the encouragement you’ll need to do so.
As when playing solo, it’s simply good, knockabout fun. Nintendo has all too often repeated its wish to put smiles on as many faces as possible, and Kirby’s Epic Yarn is arguably the most successful exponent of that mantra. In that respect at least, it’s a total success.
EDITOR’S NOTE: All photography supplied by Nintendo, who promoted Kirby’s Epic Yarn by cheering up the residents of Elephant & Castle with some colourful Kirby themed knitting. If you’re reading this on Thursday 24 February then you may still be able to go visit the site and win a free copy of the game.