Kirby and the Forgotten Land Might Be the Best Kirby Game Yet

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Kirby and the Forgotten Land Might Be the Best Kirby Game Yet

It’s pretty easy to make the argument that there has never been a bad mainline Kirby game. The series, which sees its 17th entry with the brand new Kirby and the Forgotten Land, has a base level of quality so consistent that even the many spinoffs are (almost) universally worth checking out. Must-play titles are another story, though: for sickos like myself, they’re all must-play, but more generally, there are only a handful that you’d throw up against the very best of Nintendo’s impressive catalog if you were going to try to convince the unconvinced to spend time with the pink puffball. I bring all of this up not just to reinforce that the following praise is not the kind I’d heap on any old Kirby title, but also to tell you that, if you have not been sold on the idea of Kirby yet, Kirby and the Forgotten Land is maybe the best chance you’ve ever had of changing your mind.

Forgotten Land promised change for a series that has somehow never gone fully 3D before, and yet, it was also stuck with shouldering the burden of celebrating 30 years of that same franchise: Forgotten Land was the first—and only—significant announcement from Nintendo regarding recognition of that anniversary. The franchise rarely has this level of attention on it: Kirby isn’t Mario nor Zelda as far as the masses are concerned, and isn’t critically beloved in the way that the adventures of Samus Aran are. No other core Nintendo franchise has a mainline release until whenever Splatoon 3 arrives this summer or Xenoblade Chronicles 3 lands in September. So Kirby and the Forgotten Land is carrying the weight of expectations of both past and present, which is not how things usually go for the little guy’s games.

And yet, in this moment in the spotlight Kirby usually doesn’t have to itself, developer HAL Laboratory delivered what is, if not the best outing in the series, at least the greatest of this century we’re now 22 years into. And did so by showing great care and obvious love for what Kirby has been for 30 years now, as well as what it can still be, now and going forward—and in full 3D for the first time. Whether Forgotten Land sells the way Nintendo hoped it would when it was entrusted with this spring slot is immaterial to this discussion or its quality, but as far as from where we’re sitting in the critics chair, HAL crushed it.

Mouthful mode. That’s Kirby’s new power, the one in all the trailers, the one that lets him inhale a car and then go vroom vroom down the road. Unlike Nintendo’s mildly dishonest marketing with Super Mario Odyssey’s dinosaur, the car is something you will go to often. You will go to all of the Mouthful copy abilities often, as they’re not just a little gimmick, but an integral part of the game’s design. They are treated like any other copy ability, in that you can miss picking one up and therefore the opportunities to benefit from having it, in the same way that you might see a stake you could hit if you had only picked up that hammer ability earlier. They’re more baked into the required parts of the game than the standard copy abilities, however, so they aren’t exactly the same: you will drive around as a car, you will sail a boat, you will generate wind to move windmills, you will inhale a vending machine and start firing sodas at enemies and obstacles alike, and you will often have to do these things in order to make it through the ruins of whatever world you’re in.

The Mouthful copy abilities also have their own Thunder Road stages—more on those in a moment—of varying difficulty, and are as useful for defeating foes as any other copy power. They require more finesse and deployable skill than Kirby’s Return to Dream Land’s Super Abilities, which—I’m admittedly flattening things here—made your sword bigger so it could break more stuff. There is more variety and fun to be found with Mouthful mode, and better design around its use, to the point that even calling it a gimmick feels wrong.

Just how much of the series’ past was pulled from to create Forgotten Land is impressive when you consider that it still all feels new thanks to the changed perspective and the occasional design tweak or refitting. The semi-optional Thunder Road levels that test your skill with specific copy abilities are basically a combination of the overhead Kirby’s Blowout Blast level design and Return to Dream Land’s challenge rooms that similarly forced you to master specific powers as a clock ticked down. Collecting resources and upgrading your abilities to unlock new skills and strength is basically all you do in the Kirby Clash spinoff titles. The postgame unlockable mode where you play reimagined, tougher versions of the game’s worlds as lengthy, singular levels loaded with necessary and hidden collectibles and challenges? Every Kirby game where you get to play as Meta Knight in the postgame is designed this way.

In its adaptation of these ideas from the past, Forgotten Land adds a richness and depth that transcends that inspiration. In Kirby Clash, leveling up your gear is the entire point, but in Forgotten Land, it’s an integral part of a larger whole, of a game that is much more than just its boss fights, but will eventually require you to have moved on from the basic copy abilities in order to take on its greatest challenges and challengers. Thunder Road’s stages could be their own game, if HAL wanted to beef up the number of copy abilities and give the world more of that design in the future, as they’ve done on more than one occasion with Kirby’s side hustles. And the postgame with the redesigned levels is the best version of this that Kirby has ever featured: whereas previous forms of this kind of postgame content were focused on how quickly you could complete a streamlined (but more difficult) version of the game with Meta Knight, Forgotten Land forces you to slow down and explore every nook and cranny of the stages you’ve played before to collect around 50 MacGuffins on each stage, all while dealing with new challenges, and more of them, as you do so. Fewer recovery items, more and tougher foes, more obstacles, enhanced bosses, lengthier stages—and it’s all necessary in order to unlock the most challenging version of another classic Kirby feature, The Arena, here dubbed The Colosseum.

There is challenge to be found in Forgotten Land if you’re looking for it. That’s almost always the case with Kirby, but it’s maybe truer here than it’s ever been. Instead of unlocking a hard mode after completing the game once, Forgotten Land gives you the choice of playing “Wild Mode” or “Spring Breeze Mode” from the start. Wild Mode features more resilient foes and less health for you, as well as additional bonuses for completing Thunder Road stages and such because you chose to make life harder for yourself and deserve a treat. Spring Breeze is the version of Forgotten Land that my five-year-old is playing, and it should be noted that it has allowed her to play Kirby longer, and more enjoyably, than she has ever been able to in the past.

“Kirby is easy!” is a common refrain, but there’s a significant difference between easy in a traditional 2D platformer and easy in a 3D platformer that is often overlooked. Kirby was originally designed not to be “easy” so much as “easy for a 2D platformer,” which were notoriously brutal and often unforgiving affairs 30 years ago. There are only so many places for a five-year-old to hide or avoid danger in a 2D environment, though, even with Kirby’s ability to endlessly float above danger. Playing around in a 3D space has given this particular five-year-old more room to run away, to make a plan of attack, to dodge projectiles and fire them back at a boss from a safe distance that just doesn’t exist in 2D Kirby titles. There are no magma ceilings in Forgotten Land, falling down into a bottomless pit merely damages you rather than killing you, and extra lives are a thing of the past, with the game adopting Super Mario Odyssey’s tactic of exchanging plentiful in-game coins for another chance at a stage instead.

While Forgotten Land is approachable for a five-year-old in a way past Kirby games maybe haven’t been—even the death-free Epic Yarn had some mechanics that might require an adult to be on call—that design doesn’t diminish the experience for those with, well, more of it. Forgotten Land balances its Baby’s First 3D Platformer approach with an overall design that scratches plenty of veterans’ itches: it will reward those who obsess over exploration and discovering what’s hidden and might be inclined toward perfection, while simultaneously not making my kid worry about those things too much. It succeeds as a game for everyone to find something to enjoy where Kirby’s first Switch outing, 2018’s Star Allies, initially faltered.

Forgotten Land uses a mission structure in each of its stages, and the reward for completing those missions are rescued Waddle Dees, which were captured by an antagonist to be named later while Kirby was getting sucked into the portal that brought him to the titular Forgotten Land. You need an escalating number of rescued Waddle Dees in each world to open the way to every boss encounter, and simply collecting the three at the end of each stage isn’t enough. Every non-boss level also features somewhere between three and five hidden Waddle Dees to rescue, and then there are three secret missions, each worth one rescued Waddle Dee a piece. You will discover what these missions are by unwittingly initiating them with your behavior (say, surprising a bird and then finding out that there are three birds to surprise in the level) or by completing the level and having the game give you a heads up that you completely whiffed on one of the bonus missions and here’s what it was. This is just one example of Forgotten Land respecting your time and making revisiting levels you’ve already completed still feel joyful and fun instead of like a grind, and it helps motivate you to go back and find what you missed, even if you don’t necessarily need that extra Waddle Dee to open a boss door.

There are 300 Waddle Dees to rescue in total: you need 17 for the first world’s boss out of 46 possible, and that first figure keeps climbing until you need 32 from the final world to initiate the endgame. Keeping the required number in each world low keeps the stress levels down for my still-learning-to-read child, who can enjoy herself and make progress without solving the majority of the game’s hidden missions, and allows the rescuing of Waddle Dees and all the discovery and exploration that goes into it to be its own reward for myself. Given how excellent the actual level design is, and how well-hidden and thoughtful these mission components are, it really is reward enough. There is also the tangible bonus of rebuilding Waddle Dee Town, though, which adds new buildings and features the more of its citizens you safely return home. This is how you get Forgotten Land’s sub-games, its shops for healing items, boosts, and buffs, and even a home for Kirby to sleep in, which not only gives you a rotating set of sleeping Kirby animations, but also fully recovers his health.

Forgotten Land might be considered easy, especially at a time when we’re all obsessing over Elden Ring and fresh off another round of difficulty discourse, but there is a difference between “easy” and “boring.” Forgotten Land is certainly not boring: it is brimming with worthwhile things to do and see, and is loaded with levels that do not feel like a chore to replay immediately after playing them the first time. Bosses are often a highlight in Kirby games, and Forgotten Land keeps that tendency going. It introduces nearly all new opponents, and when it pulls from the series’ history, it is sure to add new wrinkles to those bouts, while adapting the old ones to 3D to give them new depth and danger to consider. Each boss has a “take no damage” mission to complete, too, so, good luck with that.

Forgotten Land is also a joyful game, and not just when you manage to complete a hidden mission before the game alerts you to its existence. That’s a vital consideration: who cares if a game is relatively easy if it’s bringing you joy? There is joy in navigating Forgotten Land’s platforming, its challenges, its boss fights, in discovering the attention to detail that HAL incorporated into Kirby’s facial expressions, his animations, the flattening of an enemy under a hammer, the way pieces of the franchise’s past so seamlessly made it into 3D for the first time. The animation is stellar, and the game’s bright colors and generally fantastic visual design ensure that it’s all a treat to look at on hardware that lagged behind even before they went and added another number after “PlayStation.” The soundtrack relies less on Kirby’s past than any Kirby game has in decades—maybe because Jun Ishikawa and Hirokazu Ando, who have been composing Kirby titles since 1992’s Dream Land and 1993’s Kirby’s Adventure, respectively, are just two of four composers credited in Forgotten Land—but it’s loaded with catchy tunes that will likely fold into the larger library of constantly rearranged Kirby music before long, and it’s all perfectly suited to the game it’s scoring in the present. It is as vital to the way the game makes you feel while playing it as any of the facial expressions Kirby makes, or his late-game wielding of dual flaming hammers, or the level design that has you coming back just one more time to rescue that last Waddle Dee.

Forgotten Land is approachable for less experienced players, and yet stuffed with reasons for veteran gamers to stay both interested and invested. It’s adorable at basically all moments, and it’s lovely to just look at the way Kirby moves around and interacts with his environment. It manages to straddle the line between valuing and carefully adapting the Kirby that was, while completely revamping what you thought Kirby could even be. Maybe it won’t sell you on the franchise if you aren’t already buying, but if any of the available titles were going to change your mind on that score, it’s this one, and well worth finding out if it will do the trick for you. After all, who doesn’t want to feel joy?

Kirby and the Forgotten Land was developed by HAL Laboratory and published by Nintendo. It is available for the Switch.

Marc Normandin covers retro videogames at Retro XP, which you can read for free but support through his Patreon, and can be found on Twitter at @Marc_Normandin.

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