James Stephanie Sterling
Kirby's Return To Dream Land Deluxe - Mask Off (Review)
Kirby's Return to Dream Land Deluxe Released: February 24, 2023 Developer: HAL Laboratory, Vanpool Publisher: Nintendo Systems: Nintendo Switch
Kirby’s Return to Dream Land is a game I remember being particularly excited for when it first came to the Wii. It marked the first time in eleven years that a “proper” Kirby game would be on a home console, the last one being Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards. After years of wonderfully weird experimental games that saw Kirby rolling around in paint, splitting into tiny versions of himself, and being made of yarn, I was ready for a sequel steeped in the platforming basics.
It was wonderful, too. While I'm all for originality, I stick by what I said at the time when I declared Kirby doesn’t necessarily need to innovate, it just needs to be fun. Return to Dream Land was most definitely that. Traditional, classic, and lots of old fashioned fun.
Kirby’s Return to Dream Land Deluxe nevertheless puzzles me. While I happily welcome a remake of such a great game, I don’t quite understand why this got the Switch nod and the better remembered Kirby’s Epic Yarn hasn’t. The latter did get a second lease of life in 2019, but that was on the 3DS right toward the end of the system’s beautiful life. Then again, I’m not exactly complaining about the choice - more Kirby is good Kirby, no matter what Kirby it may be.
The Switch’s return of Return is a lovely little turn. As a remake it does very little to alter the foundational experience, choosing largely to rebuild rather than restructure. It only makes sense given that tradition's the entire point of the source game. Kirby still performs his usual nonsense with adorable duty - he platforms, he floats around, he gains abilities based on the enemies he swallows, etcetera. The standard platforming experience has been replicated pretty flawlessly, albeit with occasional modernization where needed and some additional content.
The most immediate change is visually. Deluxe takes the liberty of presenting a new art style that still fully resembles the Kirby aesthetic while adding more vibrant colors and bold outlines to provide an overall comic book look. It isn’t a dramatic shift, especially since there’s nothing wrong with the way Return to Dream Land already looked, but it’s pleasant nonetheless and it really pops on an HD screen.
A few little tweaks round out the basic overhaul job - there are improved sounds, greater visual details, some updated character models representing their contemporary appearances, and Kirby's screen-clearing Super Ability gimmick is faster and more dramatic than it was in 2011. These changes are subtle enough that I didn't even really notice much of them until I googled such elements for this very paragraph. I'm pretty sure my impatient ass would miss the faster Super Ability animations if I went back to the original though.
Kirby gets two new copy abilities for the remake, Sand and Mecha. Both are mechanically quite fun, though sadly only one of them actually feels particularly useful.
Sand is the more viable ability, allowing Kirby to kick up clods of the stuff to deal decent damage at mid range as well as create big dusty tornadoes that can seriously wreck enemies. He can also craft a hand from his granular ammunition (granunition), using it to grab targets and fling them about the place. During the Story Mode I found myself using Sand very often, since not only were the attacks powerful, they covered wide areas and were quite safe to use.
Mecha sees Kirby dress up in a cute Gundam suit and gives him a large variety of skills. He can fly with more control than his default floating or even the Feather ability, he can fire different projectiles that range from plinky energy balls to fully charged lasers, he can drop bombs, fire mortars, and slap enemies when they’re near. Despite all this, I found the Mecha rather disappointing. Attacks are either weak, specifically situational, or require more charging than is efficient. It’s fun to mess around with, but when it came to boss fights I felt more effective with almost anything else.
That said, I have to admit the Mecha ability is certainly a pleasure to mess about with.
Return to Dream Land introduced the character of Magalor, a sad little alien whose crashed spacecraft kicks off the plot. He’s the focus of Deluxe's most extensive new content, too. Firstly, there's a new “Helper Magalor” mode that sees the spherical knobend rescue Kirby from pitfalls and makes the game highly accessible to children. Secondly, and more importantly, he’s the star of a brand new campaign, Magalor Epilogue: The Interdimensional Traveler.
The name is about as descriptive as you can get. Unlocked upon completion of the main story, Magalor Epilogue is indeed an epilogue starring an interdimensional traveler called Magalor, explaining what happened to him after the events of Return to Dream Land. Having lost all of his magic powers, he starts the game barely able to do much else than move, pathetically glide, and fire a weak short range projectile. The Epilogue is all about regaining his lost strength, unlocking abilities, and using magic points acquired during stages to upgrade them.
Magalor’s gameplay is obviously a little different than Kirby’s, since Copy Abilities are out of the window. Instead, the aim is to use a growing suite of attacks to hit stuff as much as possible and keep a combo counter running. Over time, one is able to combine projectiles with such offense as bombs, dash attacks, and summoned energy spikes, all with the aim of getting combos as high as possible and earning more Magic Points as a result.
Now, this is hardly Devil May Cry, so the action isn’t particularly showy, versatile, or challenging. It’s cute though, and the upgrade screen allowing players to choose which attacks and character traits to improve is just compelling enough to make those combos worth pursuing without being very complex.
The epilogue is a fairly breezy affair that features reworked versions of the main game’s boss fights and a smattering of levels with ability-centric challenge stages along the way. It’s certainly fun, and as an extra mode tacked onto the end of the game it’s more extensive than one might actually expect. Then again, the Kirby series has never been shy about offering endgame content.
Luckily, Magalor wasn’t too busy with his little epilogue to have a hand in Return to Dream Land’s most vital new feature - Merry Magoland. Fortunately, it has no association with Merry MAGA Land, which is an entirely different beast. Despite Magalor's pathetically conceited branding (not that I'd know about that), this brand new mode is by far the best reason to pick up the game, not necessarily because of what it offers in direct gameplay terms, but for the sweet, sweet cosmetics it holds.
Merry Magoland is basically just a collection of minigames that can be played solo or with local friends, presented in an adorable theme park hub. The games themselves are simple enough - there’s a shooting gallery one, a “hot potato” style tennis one, and a sumo-style bumper car one alongside a whole bunch of others. Once a day, you can also play the Samurai game online, where you just have to press a button when prompted and see how responsive you were in relation to 99 other players. Despite how utterly rudimentary it is, I really love that one.
All of these shenanigans earn stamps that unlock stuff at certain amounts. “Souvenirs” are consumables that may be carried and used in a campaign level, such as health items or a random Copy Ability. That’s neat and everything, but it’s time to talk about the masks. Masks are the main event as far as stamp unlocks go. They’re what I care about. They’re what I need.
The masks are the point of everything.
They add nothing mechanical, they just cover Kirby’s face and a few of them replace his voice with the voice of a given mask’s likeness. That’s all they do, and I can’t get enough of them. Kirby can unlock and wear the faces of such characters as King Dedede, Meta Knight, Waddle Dee, and a bevy of enemies and bosses. There are tons of characters drawn from the entire Kirby series including the likes of Marx, Chuchu, and Adeleine. You’ll be thrilled to know that a few Forgotten Land references make their way into the wardrobe - there’s a mask of Cone-Mouth Kirby and, for the pleasure of her many fans, Clawroline’s thirstily popular visage is also available.
Like I said, none of these masks do anything to alter how the game itself plays [Note: I've since been informed the Mine & Kine masks enhance attacks while swimming]. It’s a silly cosmetic addition. That said, I am quite sure I found myself more compelled by the acquisition of masks than anything else. It’s just a delightful idea, and I love all the references to previous games. I've argued for years that cosmetics do impact gameplay insofar as they enhance one's enjoyment regardless of whether or not they come with stats or upgrades. The fact I was so invested in mask collection inherently proves the point.
I wish the masks weren’t so heavily tied to the minigames, however. While a few stamps can be acquired by finding tickets scattered throughout some levels, and defeating bosses will unlock their masks automatically (as well as invite them to hang out in the Magoland hub), you’ll need to keep playing all the sub-games to earn stuff at a decent clip. These games have got limited replay value if you’re playing alone, especially since there’s only a single once-per-day online attraction. I didn’t really find them all that fun and only played the things to get those precious stamps. I’d have rather mask acquisition be more tied to the main game, really.
Still, I’m glad the masks are there. I’m happy there’s finally a game where Kirby can wear his own face over his face.
After all these years, the series definitely needs to go online more than it does. A daily button press and online gameplay stats are cute, but with so many Kirby games pushing co-op play and multiplayer sub games, I've become officially frustrated by the insistance on local friends. Sorry, but nobody I know offline is quite into Kirby like I am. I'd very much appreciate some online help with that.
Kirby’s Return to Dream Land Deluxe is a great time. The remake is faithful in the ways that count and adds enough new content to be well worth revisiting, even if that content isn’t universally brilliant. I could take or leave the theme park conceit, and I wish the Mecha ability was as good as Sand, but with an enjoyable epilogue campaign and a bunch of unlockable masks that I couldn’t stop thinking about, there’s no denying this is a remake that puts the work in to justify itself. I like it when things do that.
Did I mention the game has masks? I can’t emphasize enough how important that is.