Changing an iconic video game hero is often a risky thing to do. People enjoy characters and come to expect certain things from them, and it takes a truly exceptional game to make people think otherwise. One only has to look at Sonic the Hedgehog games to see the frustration caused by giving the main hero a ton of abilities and powers distinct from his classic speed.
Kirby's Epic Yarn is a Kirby title where the main character has none of his iconic abilities. His powers have been almost completely changed for this game, and there is no unassisted flying or sucking up of enemies, but Epic Yarn is a rare title that manages to change everything while still retaining the charm and fun of the original. It may not be a sequel to Kirby Super Star, but Kirby's Epic Yarn is one of the best Kirby games out there.
Epic Yarn, like many of Kirby's adventures, begins with the pink ball of fluff looking for something to eat in Dream Land. He finds a magic yarn Metamato, who belongs to Yin-Yarn, an evil sorcerer. Kirby's prompt devouring of his favorite yarn Metamato sparks Yin-Yarn to suck Kirby into Patch Land, which is a yarn version of Dream Land that's ruled by the adorable but arrogant Prince Fluff. Yin-Yarn has stolen the magic thread that holds Patch Land together, preventing Prince Fluff from ruling his land and Kirby from going back to Dream Land to save the day. Kirby's body turned into yarn when he was zapped to Patch Land, so he doesn't have his powers. Kirby and Prince Fluff team up to the save their homelands from the evil Yin-Yarn.
On the surface, Epic Yarn is a straightforward platformer. The transformation to yarn means that Kirby has lost some of his most iconic abilities. He can't suck up monsters or float anymore because he can no longer hold air in his yarn body. That leaves you with only his jumping ability.
Luckily, the transformation has given Kirby some new abilities. He can alter his shape at will, and that opens up some new platforming possibilities. For example, while jumping in the air, you can hold the jump button to transform Kirby's body into a parachute, allowing him to glide slowly to the ground. You can also press down to turn into a giant weight to crush enemies or objects below you. Dashing forward turns Kirby into a car, letting him move faster and jump further than he normally could. Kirby can also turn part of his yarn body into a whip to grab things or defeat enemies.
These are straightforward platforming abilities, but they're well implemented and feel like a natural part of gameplay. Some of the mechanics could use more explanation in places, but the only reason it's an issue is because this game was made to appeal to young children. What might be obvious to an adult could occasionally use a little handholding for a younger kid.
The level design is fantastic, and each level has a distinctive feel and ideas. There is some repetition, but far less than I expected, and it is disguised with clever visuals. One stage, for example, has you running through a series of sinking ships while an enemy bombards you with explosives. You have to time your movements so the explosives hit blocks and objects you want destroyed, while also staying out of the blast radius. Another is an outer-space level where you alter gravity constantly to either jump higher or gain the extra weight needed to smash things. Yet another is set inside an active volcano where a tidal wave of yarn magma threatens to engulf Kirby if he doesn't move fast enough.
To the game's benefit, the yarn and fabric aesthetic is used constantly. You can pull a loose string to "pull" the background fabric so that a platform comes closer. You can jump into a hole in a tree to "slide" behind the fabric, complete with a cute Kirby-shaped bulge in the background. Zippers can be pulled to reveal secrets, loose threads of yarn unraveled, and various other cute gimmicks. Everything feels very sensible, which is an odd thing to say about a world made of felt and yarn. Despite my earlier complaints about some things not being explained well enough, most of the game is designed around instinctive knowledge. A young child can usually figure out the rules of the world because they're somewhat based in reality.
One of Epic Yarn's really cool features is the inclusion of cooperative play. Kirby can be joined by Prince Fluff, who looks just like Kirby, only blue and with a crown. The second player can work together with Kirby to solve puzzles or just come along for the ride. The game isn't easier in two-player mode, but it is significantly more fun. Having two players working together really shows how the game shines, especially if you have an experienced gamer playing with a newcomer. The only downside is that you risk taking more damage in co-op, but for reasons I'll explain later, that isn't as bad as it sounds. It's tough to name another game that is as co-op-friendly as this one. Anyone can pop in and play, and the controls and gameplay are so simple that even a first-time gamer can learn them.
Kirby may have lost the ability to suck up his opponents, but that doesn't mean he won't occasionally gain new powers. When Kirby enters a certain part of a level, he'll get some extra yarn and the ability to transform into an amazing new form. In a water level, Kirby may transform into a dolphin so you can speed around the water more quickly and dive through hoops. Another may turn him into an off-road racer and challenge him to beat a group of other yarn racers to the finish line.
These transformations represent the game's high point. Each one is distinct and adds a welcome change to the gameplay. Some of the most enjoyable moments in the game include controlling a giant Kirby tank and smashing through levels and enemies. If I had a complaint, it would be that they were not used enough. A few exciting transformations were only used once or twice.
Epic Yarn is an incredibly easy game, as the majority of enemies are not very aggressive. They wander around and occasionally make a halfhearted attempt to attack Kirby, and some of them can't even harm him. There are a few aggressive enemies, including the bosses, but they don't actually threaten you because you can't die in the game. Instead, taking damage causes you to lose a chunk of the beads you've collected throughout the stage. When you take damage, the beads burst out of Kirby — not unlike the rings in Sonic the Hedgehog.You have a grace period in which to re-collect the beads before they vanish, and if you do, you'll survive, having only lost a small fraction of your beads. If not, well … the only punishment is finishing the stage with fewer beads. Even if you lose every bead you've ever collected, you won't die if you're damaged. Falling off a cliff won't kill Kirby. An adorable yarn angel swoops down and saves him, although Kirby begins losing beads rapidly while he's airborne.
Why is losing beads a bad thing? The game grades you on how many beads you've successfully collected throughout the stage. Depending on how well you've done, you can get a bronze, silver or gold medal at the end of a stage. There is a serious overabundance of beads in every level, so even if you get hit a few times, you'll be able to get a gold medal if you collect beads.
Hidden patches in boss stages require you to defeat the bosses while taking minimal damage and occasionally figuring out a trick to make the boss drop extra beads. This is the hardest part of the game, but it's not actually a hard thing to do, even for casual players. It encourages players to step up their game, but not to an unreasonable degree. The patches you earn from bosses can unlock new levels too, which is certainly worth a player's time. This may sound overly forgiving, but the game actually works out really well. The title is clearly designed to be accessible to casual or younger players, as opposed to those who felt that Ninja Gaiden was too easy. It manages to hit a sweet spot of being forgiving and encouraging better play, without actually punishing new or casual players with frustration.
The only real problem with Epic Yarn is that it is not really a game for people who thrive on challenge. It is one of the most relaxed and casual games on the market, and while the Kirby games have never been difficult titles, Epic Yarn is one of the most enjoyable platformers I've played in years. The lack of challenge does little to subtract from the level design and fantastic aesthetic.
If anything, the game benefits from being easy. Instead of worrying about death and doom, you can just have fun. You can experiment, goof around and enjoy yourself instead of keeping an eye on the health bar at all times. Getting the gold medals requires just about the right amount of focus to be interesting, while not enough to overwhelm other players. The co-op feature is almost a must for this game, as playing with someone else turns the game from "fun" into "fantastic."
Aside from collecting medals, there is a fair amount of extra content in Kirby's Epic Yarn. Every stage has three treasures located within. While these treasures are not extremely tough to find, you occasionally need to be creative to discover where they are. The treasures can be taken back to Quilty Square and placed in Kirby's apartment. This serves no benefit at all, except for the fun of making and customizing your own room. There is a lot of customization available to the player for Kirby's apartment, and it's a fun bonus, if not exactly something that keeps players coming back. You can also spend beads and treasures to upgrade the Quilty Square apartment building to attract new residents. These residents unlock various minigames that take place in stages you've already created. Zeak, for example, will challenge you to find his friends hidden throughout a level. Carrie wants you to get through the stage within a time limit while carrying something. These extra modes add a little fun challenge, although like the apartment, are not exactly something that keeps you coming back.
Epic Yarn is a pretty short game. You can probably run through the entire game in a night, especially since Kirby doesn't die. Getting all the treasures and gold might add a little extra time to the clock, but not as much as you'd think. Epic Yarn is a very casual platformer. It's a fantastic game to pop in and play with friends or loved ones. The fantastic visuals and simple gameplay make it something to show off and play over and over, instead of rushing through and then never touching again. However, if you're not interested in a party platformer, Epic Yarn may not be for you. It is adorable, fun and well-designed, but it's also short and simple. Fans of Kirby's Super Star or similar titles may be frustrated with the changes, as this game is focused on a very specific market.
Kirby's Epic Yarn is one of the best-looking games on the Wii. The graphics are good, but what really shines is the amazing art design. The world of Epic Yarn is filled to the brim with detail and style. As weird as it sounds, it feels like a world of fabrics and yarns has come to life. Enemies and objects are made of yarn that can be unraveled or bundled into new shapes. Instead of snow and dirt, you have giant tufts of cotton. Even the various beads you have to collect are often intelligently melded into the background. One stage has large pine trees, which are covered with beads to resemble Christmas trees, complete with a high-scoring star at the top.
The soundtrack is amazing, containing both brand-new songs and excellent remixes of classic Kirby tunes. The new version of the King Dedede boss theme is one of my favorite Nintendo songs to date. The entire game is narrated by a friendly "Sesame Street" narrator who actually improves the game. He hits that perfect soft-spoken tone that makes him accessible to kids but also allows some of his lines to crack up adults.
Kirby's Epic Yarn is a rare game that is good for everyone. It is charming, fun and easy to play, while well-designed enough that the lack of challenge doesn't become boring. The visuals are beautiful, and the art design is phenomenal. It may not have hyper-realistic graphics, but there are few games on the market that look as distinctive as this. There's so much that Epic Yarn does right that it is easy to overlook its faults. It is a short game, and the lack of challenge runs the risk of it being more of a rental than a purchase. In either case, few games are as flat-out fun as this one. If you're a Wii owner and not afraid of a little cuteness, you must play Kirby's Epic Yarn.
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