Even if Kirby and the Forgotten Land does not use its tridimensional leap to shake the franchise to its core, it deserves a boatload of praise for being a joyful, amusing, and well-designed platformer
Throughout his long and storied career as a videogame mascot and unstoppable force that consumes everything in its path, Kirby has ventured down a variety of roads. Sure, he has not shown the same flexibility as someone like Mario, though he has also starred in his own take on the arcade racing genre, but the pink puffball has nevertheless used his platforming prowess in a myriad of settings. Aside from his most traditionally formatted quests like Kirby’s Adventure and Kirby’s Return to Dream Land, the little guy has also appeared on oddly charming detours with quirky clever mechanics, such as Kirby’s Epic Yarn, when his transformation into cloth was employed to uncover new thematically appropriate gameplay possibilities; the duology of Canvas Curse and Rainbow Curse, in which his turning into a limbless ball forced players to control him exclusively via touch commands; and the chaotic romp of Mass Attack, where the hero was split into ten versions of himself and had to tackle stages in an army-like fashion.
Despite those numerous variations and even though his franchise has been frequently getting new installments for quite a while, more than twenty years after the popularization of 3-D games, Kirby had – for some reason – yet to debut in the tridimensional realm; a transition that most major Nintendo properties experienced shortly after the tech for that jump was made cheaply available. Adhering to the better-late-than-never philosophy, though, the 2022 release of Kirby and the Forgotten Land at last allows the most notorious citizen of Planet Popstar to bask in all the glory that exists in three dimensions.
By far, the most interesting aspect of Kirby and the Forgotten Land as the transition of a popular gaming franchise to 3-D is how it executes that jump without tweaking the formula significantly. A quick look at Nintendo’s own properties reveals that the move is often accompanied by considerable gameplay changes. Super Mario 64, for instance, had the titular plumber exploring vast worlds with collectibles rather than clearing the obstacle courses that were the norm in Super Mario World and its sidescrolling predecessors; The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time deeply altered how Link battled enemies as well as the nature of the puzzles he had to solve; and Metroid Prime may have retained the signature nonlinear progression of the franchise’s 2-D outings, but its shift to first-person gameplay paved the way to a vastly revamped experience.
Kirby and the Forgotten Land, contrarily, performs no such tricks. Instead of being a quirky and experimental Kirby platformer, such as Canvas Curse or Mass Attack, it is a by-the-book quest, like the Switch’s very own Kirby Star Allies. And rather than taking advantage of the change in perspective to bring new elements to the table, it settles on the same mechanics, staples, and design choices the franchise has been using since its second entry, the 1993 release Kirby’s Adventure. On one hand, it is certainly disappointing the transition to 3-D does not bring radical changes, as they would have undoubtedly benefited the series and made for a more intriguing experience. However, the fact of the matter is that Kirby and the Forgotten Land is thoroughly engaging, using sheer design cleverness to sit among the character’s very best journeys.
It all begins when the pink hero is taking one of his relaxed strolls through Dream Land. That is when peace is suddenly shattered with the appearance of an ominous vortex in the sky, which is quick to consume not only the protagonist himself, but the many friendly Waddle Dees that inhabit the place. As soon as he wakes up, Kirby witnesses a magical flying creature, called Elfilin, calling for help as she is attacked by a pack of feral beasts. Following her swift liberation, she tells the hero that the same animals that cornered her have also taken the Waddle Dees as hostages for an unknown, but certainly not bright, purpose. Naturally, armed such knowledge, Kirby departs on a rescue mission that will have him sweeping all corners of the new world into which he was sucked.
What is nice about this forced move away from the familiarity of Planet Popstar is that the forgotten land to which the game’s title alludes is not simply yet another colorful fantasy setting. On what might be the adventure’s most notable twist, the vortex that appears on the opening cutscene actually transports Kirby to a post-apocalyptic version of our world. Needless to say, it makes up for quite a thematic clash; after all, the Kirby franchise is very likely Nintendo’s cutest and most family-friendly property, which is saying a lot for a company that also holds franchises like Mario, Splatoon, and Animal Crossing. All of a sudden, then, here is a game that takes a cuddly round pink protagonist along with the equally joyful enemies and assets that surround him, and throws them into a realistic world where humans are extinct. It is a clever and somewhat bold move that, along with a handful of other features, work towards defining Kirby and the Forgotten Land.
Truth be told, the game does not go all out on its apocalyptic vein, and – in fact – the regions in which its stages take place feature the usual platforming standards of starting out in grassy plains, moving through a desert, a watery realm, and an icy location, to finally arrive at a volcanic lava-ridden climax. However, in spite of that predictable thematic arch, good value is still squeezed out of the desolate realistic setting, as Kirby will explore unusual places – for his standards – like an abandoned shopping mall, a decrepit theme park, a partially functioning power plant, a collapsed concrete bridge, and other intriguing ruins of our civilization. Moreover, the extinction of humanity also comes to play a role in the development of the game’s story, meaning that Kirby’s transportation to a realistic scenario is not done just for wonderful visual effect.
Despite that thematic change and the new tridimensional perspective, there is not a whole lot that is different about how the levels of Kirby and the Forgotten Land are setup when compared to those of traditional titles of the franchise like Kirby’s Return to Dream Land. Given he can float in the air for a while, the brand of platforming faced by the pink puffball is different from the one that appears in the Mario franchise, for instance. Because instead of being challenged by bottomless pits and traps that need to be jumped over, Kirby is more about enemy-placement and careful navigation of obstacles.
Although the addition of 3-D environments is not used by HAL Laboratory to implement major changes in the franchise’s structure, it is worth noting that they do impact gameplay to a certain degree. For starters, there are numerous occasions when Kirby will be thrown into slightly more wide-open pieces of scenery in order to clear exploration-based goals, such as in the numerous areas where has to collect five pieces of a star in order to open the way forward. Additionally, every level has between three and five caged Waddle Dees waiting to be rescued, and finding them – which is mostly optional – also entails a degree of 3-D exploration. Still, much to the delight of those who prefer straightforward platforming and perhaps to the slight disappointment of those who appreciate a more expansive experience, none of those instances are too radical in their openness, and the stages in Kirby and the Forgotten Land are – true to the franchise’s traditions – sequential linear areas separated by doors or Warp Stars.
As usual, the main tools that Kirby will employ to deal with the obstacles he will face are the abilities he can steal from enemies after sucking and swallowing them. Where most of the more recent outings of the series featured more than twenty of these abilities, Kirby and the Forgotten Land trims them down to only twelve. Initially, it absolutely sounds like a downgrade, and old fan favorites like Fighter, Wheel, and Beam have not made the cut. But this smaller set of skills ends up not leaving a bitter taste in its wake for a multitude of reasons.
Firstly, the collection of abilities is varied. Hammer and Sword are great melee moves. The guns of the Ranger skill and the traditional boomerangs of Cutter are effective long-ranged weapons with very different characteristics. Elemental attacks such as Ice, Fire, and Tornado are a blast to use. Bomb has good explosive power. And more situational moves are also present, like the devastating rolling power of Needle and the underground surprise attacks allowed by Drill, which alongside Ranger are the two skills introduced by the game.
Secondly, a narrower group of abilities seems to have helped developers focus more effectively on designing levels around them. Kirby and the Forgotten Land still gives players plenty of room to pick the ability they want to use in order to face what is ahead, especially when throwing the protagonist against hordes of enemies or when one of its grand and excellent boss battles occur. But mostly, it thrives in the creation of challenges centered around specific abilities, unearthing a lot of smart small puzzles and thrilling platforming gauntlets that require a certain skill, like when Kirby must use Ice to skate over fiery blocks or employ Tornado to fly over spikes whilst destroying everything in his path.
Nowhere is that facet of Kirby and the Forgotten Land more blatant than on what the game calls Treasure Roads. Other than featuring four levels and a boss, every one of the game’s six worlds also boasts between eight and eleven of these optional special stages, and they are nothing but short and decently challenging platforming gauntlets centered around a specific skill. In them, Kirby and the Forgotten Land abandons superficial matters such as scenery and cohesion to go all out on testing players’ mastery of each copy ability, and although simply clearing them is not too hard, every Treasure Road also has a target clearing time that – if hit – will reward gamers with a few extra coins as well as the satisfaction of beating a nice challenge. And given how brief Treasure Roads tend to be, with the longest ones lasting for about two to three minutes, replaying them to achieve a better time is a very fun activity.
Finally, the Treasure Roads themselves are linked to the third benefit produced by the reduction in the number of available copy abilities. In Kirby and the Forgotten Land, for the first time ever, skills can be permanently powered-up (with most being upgradable two times) and this task can be done in the game’s hub, Waddle Dee Town, by spending some cash; a blueprint related to the specific ability, which is found as a collectible on certain stages; and a few Rare Stones, which are mostly obtained as the reward for clearing Treasure Roads. Once upgraded, whenever Kirby acquires that ability out in the wild, he will automatically have access to its more powerful form.
What is so great about these upgrades is that every time a skill is powered-up its behavior will present a slight change; meaning that with a reduced set of abilities, developers had time to polish each of them to the point they landed on different versions of the same power. The Ranger skill, for example, originally has Kirby carrying a single gun; its final version, however, has the character wearing an astronaut helmet and yielding a mighty laser weapon. More notably, even each ability’s special move, which is triggered by holding the B button rather than pressing it, changes. Again taking Ranger as an example, if on the first-level version its special attack is merely a sequence of quick shots, in the third-level upgrade it unleashes a black-hole-like vortex that hits enemies repeatedly and causes massive amounts of destruction. Upgrading Kirby’s skills is not necessary to clear the game, but besides the fact it is satisfying to have access to mightier attacks, powering them up will also unlock new Treasure Roads that are designed around the enhanced versions of the abilities.
The other notable gameplay shift executed by Kirby and the Forgotten Land comes in the form of Mouthful Mode. In essence, it is not a concept that is too distinct from the character’s usual transformations, as this new feature has Kirby swallowing assets and using their power to his benefit. There are, however, two slight differences at play here. For starters, Mouthful Mode involves sucking in objects rather than living enemies. Furthermore, on what is an aesthetic note, instead of wearing a neat costume to denote the acquiring of a new power, this gameplay feature humorously – and sometimes in hilarious awkwardness – has the character stretching his pink skin over the objects, as if he swallowed more than he could chew.
Again, there is an argument that could be made against how different from the norm Mouthful Mode really is, because it boils down to Kirby acquiring unique skills via the usual way. But the truth is that like Hypernova Kirby in Triple Deluxe and the Mecha Suit in Planet Robobot, Mouthful Mode unlocks a crazy chaotic kind of gameplay that is certainly distinct from the one accessed via the traditional copy abilities.
More importantly, it goes without saying that Mouthful Mode unlocks funny and wacky instances of level design. Since the hero can swallow a car, Kirby and the Forgotten Land will put tricky racing tracks in the puffball’s way. Similarly, his swallowing of a lamp puts him in dark places that need to be illuminated, taking over a plane leads to flying segments, putting a ring in his mouth weirdly allows him to let out gusts of wind to move boats or power windmills, sucking a vending machine turns him into a can-spitting shotgun, and the list goes on. As it happens with the standard abilities, skills related to Mouthful Mode are used not just to create interesting level design in regular stages, but also extreme challenges in very wacky Treasure Roads.
All in all, going through the platforming amusement park that is the adventure found in Kirby and the Forgotten Land should take most players about twelve hours. And as it happens in most Nintendo-branded products, the game successfully embraces all kinds of audiences. For less experienced players, the quest has an easy mode; in addition, although it is necessary to rescue a certain number of Waddle Dees to open the way to each world’s boss, that threshold is low enough not to stop the progress of people who do not actively look for the little guys. Meanwhile, for longtime fans, the game has a massive trove of goods.
Sure, its so-called Wild Mode, which is the game’s standard difficulty and was intended to be a bit harder than the norm, is not exactly tough; save for the final boss, most foes are unlikely to kill a Kirby that is controlled by an experienced player. Yet, Kirby and the Forgotten Land still has plenty of decent challenge in it. Waddle Dees need to be found; each level, including the bosses, has three additional goals, which range from finding hidden locations to beating the big bad guys without taking damage; the dozens of Treasure Roads have demanding optional target times; Waddle Dee Town houses a truly hard boss rush mode; and, to top it all off, the game has a whole extra world – with six levels and a closing sequence of bosses – that brings extra difficulty to the table and paves the way to a new more complete ending.
Especially when aiming for this full completion, Kirby and the Forgotten Land showcases some minor frustrating issues that amount to silly, and basic, design oversights. Trying to clear a boss without being hit, for instance, is fun, but what is not nice is the fact levels that are not Treasure Roads have no retry button; as such, if players take damage during a run, they are annoyingly forced to go back to the overworld and walk the small segment that always precedes each boss.
Similarly, when trying to collect everything in a level, it can be grating to realize one has missed a Waddle Dee and there is no way to go back to a previous segment after Kirby has entered specific doors or taken Warp Stars. A final questionable design choice appears in the optional goals of every stage, as they are not revealed on a first playthrough. It could be argued that this decision allows players to make discoveries on their own, but it ultimately comes off as an artificial attempt to force gamers to replay levels.
Unlike other games that marked the tridimensional debut of major Nintendo franchises, Kirby and the Forgotten Land is not revolutionary; in fact, it does not even attempt to push the series’ basic formula forward in any significant way, emerging – therefore – like a 3-D take on the gameplay exhibited by the pink puffball’s most traditional outings. To anyone who expected the title to represent some sort of major break for the property, that evaluation may be disappointing, but the bottom line is that Kirby and the Forgotten Land is as great as a straightforward Kirby game can be, and it qualifies as one of the franchise’s best moments for a myriad of great reasons.
Its graphics are among the best technical achievements on the Switch’s hardware. Its decision to focus on a limited set of abilities pays off remarkably well thanks to their usage in clever level design as well as in the creation of a refreshing upgrade system. Its major new feature, Mouthful Mode, provides chaotic and amusing gameplay detours. Its optional content is challenging and extensive. Its cooperative gameplay, which has a second player using a Waddle Dee armed with a spear, is seamless. And although its 3-D visuals are not used to break into new ground, the extra openness they bring to the proceedings is nicely utilized. As such, even if Kirby and the Forgotten Land does not use its tridimensional leap to shake the franchise to its core, it deserves a boatload of praise for being a joyful, amusing, and well-designed platformer. And when it comes to Kirby, it is hard to ask for anything different or better.