While Nintendo mascots will always live in the shadow of Link and Mario, it feels like Kirby has quietly shored up his reputation as the most trustworthy b-tier star. Well, as quietly as you can when you’ve a honking great vacuum cleaner for a gob.
Since Kirby’s mainline comeback in Wii’s Kirby Adventure, HAL has been sucking up converts like Kirby going to town on a breakfast buffet. It cooked up some of the best stereoscopic 3D in its 3DS duo and, in 2018’s Star Allies, gave us what is secretly one of the best looking Switch games. The buzz around Forgotten Land is getting to see HAL stretch its legs in a full 3D adventure. Can Kirby leave the 2.5D tracks without going off the rails?
The immediate impression is of a team dipping their toe in the 3D platforming waters. Do not expect the complex landmasses of Mario Odyssey, but the penned in runs of Super Mario 3D World. Like that game, this is old fashioned stuff given an HD coat of paint: floaty platforms, chunky fireballs, cracked bricks that collapse underfoot and plenty of barriers to keep you charging ever forwards. Combined with Kirby’s signature near-infinite jump it’s very safe and standard.
The setting is more unusual: a dystopian riff on our human world, stripped of people and left to overgrow in the style of The Last of Us. This helps disguise the meat-and-potatoes run-and-jump: a slippy-slidey ice world seems less tired unfolding in a snowed-in underground, like a cute Metro Exodus. As Kirby gormlessly waddles by beached ocean liners or abandoned funfair ghost houses the overwhelming desire is to see what it does next rather than tut at average acrobatics.
The real-world angle also introduces props, which are Forgotten Land’s answer to the supercharged Kirby mode seen in recent adventures. Where in the past he could hyper-suck or hop into a mech, here he takes on the physical properties of a vending machine or lightbulb, or simply attaches his lips to a hydrant to swell his body into a water cannon. Not as sexy as a mech, perhaps (though water-filled Kirby has a certain undulating sensuality), but it gives HAL a variety of moves to play with.
These ‘mouthful’ forms don’t replace Kirby’s traditional copy abilities, but power self-contained set pieces. You possess a car in a level with racetracks to zoom around, say, while a dive-bombing traffic cone can pierce water pipes to unleash gushing geysers. It gives the first few worlds a giddy rush of discovery, but those surprises do dry up and some of the best transformations – a glider and roller coaster car – get limited screen time. We’d rather dig into fewer, deeper ideas or go truly wild with heaps of throwaway asides – this occupies a slightly unsatisfying middle ground.
If mouthfuls end up more as nibbles, what of Kirby’s traditional abilities? If anything, these are in the inverse of mouthfuls: they start conservative and escalate into more enticing madness. Your pulse will not likely race when you first discover swords, fireballs and bombs, especially as the movesets are cut down from the 2D games. In those titles, powers almost had the depth of a Smash Bros fighter – there’s a clear throughline from Masahiro Sakurai’s Kirby work to Smash – but here your button combos are pared back to a couple of attacks per form.
This is compensated for by upgrading abilities by finding blueprints, which both redesign the look and add wrinkles to attacks. Improving bombs, for example, lets you chain explosives together to intensify the blast, turning a spamming move into something more delicate where you space bombs out to knit a snake of death towards your target. But it’s equally pleasing just to revel in new looks and animations – the common drill upgrades into a sharpened pencil, complete with wood shavings as you tunnel through the ground. It’s adorable.
“Where in the past Kirby could hyper-suck or hop into a mech, here he takes on the physical properties of a vending machine or lightbulb, or simply attaches his lips to a hydrant to swell his body into a water cannon.”
This, to us, taps into one of HAL’s greatest strengths: an almost unmatched eye for needless nonsense. Does it make much difference if you’re steering a giant ball of spikes or a giant ball of household knick-knacks gathered in a Katamari-ish orb? No, but someone has poured a huge amount of love into the animation nonetheless. You end up chasing upgrades, not because they’re powerful and give you an advantage, but to see what weirdo stuff they’ve cooked up. Honestly, by the time Kirby’s fully tooled up, you almost feel guilty about the death you unleash.
Annoyingly, embargoes prevent any specifics, but we can say that this sense of escalation gives Forgotten Land a juicier late game than you might be expecting. Kirby has long been chastised for its low difficulty – more on that in a sec – and while this is still a beginner’s 3D platformer, HAL find ways to test the wilder end of the upgrade spectrum. The obvious outlet is the returning boss rush Colosseum, which, as a time attack mode, forces you to squeeze every ounce of pain you can from each power – while picking the right form for the right fight. Absolutely monstering a screen-wide health bar in a matter of seconds is a frenzied treat.
There’s a similar focus on mastery in bonus stages littering the map. Each of these offers a gauntlet built for a specific power, and while most can be conquered with haphazard play (earning you the gems used to upgrade powers), hitting the strict time criteria is another matter. To nail these you’ll have to master hidden tricks and quirks of each form, really get to the heart of what makes it tick. This, in turn, gives you an edge in the campaign, Colosseum and… other things we won’t talk about due to Nintendo snipers on the opposite rooftop.
The point is, more than any other recent Kirby, Forgotten Land has more to say to more people. Getting hung up on difficulty is a particularly boring trait of Kirby reviews – I dare you to check out his Wikipedia entries and drink every time it’s mentioned – as if people can’t comprehend the idea of an entry platformer, a gateway drug to the heady delights of Mario. That’s what Kirby was to begin with, way back on Game Boy, and it’s an ethos HAL has correctly upheld. Games aimed at first-time players are largely dire; we should all be so lucky to be introduced by something this polished and charming.
This still adheres to that – it boasts an optional extra easy mode, and two-player co-op gives you a support Waddle Dee to act as a murderous wingman – but it has more challenging layers everywhere: hidden Achievement-like criteria for every stage, the aforementioned time trials, the… other things buried deep in the game. And in 3D, bosses all have a tiny bit more bite than their 2D counterparts – Kirby even gets a dodge role with Bayonetta slowdown when he darts at the last minute. Forget My First Platformer – is this actually My First Platinum Action Game?
Speaking of those character action masters, a special nod (once again) to the final stretch of the game. In true Kirby fashion, it boils over from rainbow-hued fun to something more cosmic. Outside of Platinum, no one knows how to end a game bigger than HAL. We just wish they channelled some of that five-star magic into the more low key platforming leading up to it – that would be a game worthy of the Nintendo greats. As it is, Forgotten Land is another accomplished charmer from HAL’s inhalatory hero.
The platforming won’t give Mario any restless nights, but the exuberant creativity around it makes for a bold, buoyant adventure.
- Escalating powers refresh the action throughout
- Weird world designs disguise simple platforming
- A better spread of difficulty options and challenges
- Mouthform modes are overshadowed by copy abilities