There’s a reason so many of us who played Kirby’s Epic Yarn at E3 this last June voted it Game of the Show. Beyond the perpetually solid foundational gameplay native to most Nintendo platforming titles, Epic Yarn is, amazingly, yet another fruitful permutation of the classic genre.
True, you don’t suck up enemies and steal their powers, which might make you wonder why precisely the game received the Kirby makeover (it was, in fact, originally planned to be called Fluff’s Yarn, starring Prince Fluff as the protagonist—who is now Kirby’s sidekick in the game). But all of the other properties mandated by Kirby—pleasant, explorative platforming; cutesy (almost perversely so), colorful environments; transformative powers; and plenty of collectible goodies and treasures—are perfectly intact. Epic Yarn feels like a Kirby title in spite of its deviations from the template, but it’s different enough to warrant attention from anyone who enjoys this sort of gameplay.
Whip it good.
A World of Yarn
Suitably, the world Kirby explores in this game—so-called Patch Land—is fully comprised of cloth and yarn. Everything is depicted in this form, regardless of its nature: land, water, fire, creatures—you name it. The antagonist, Yin-Yarn, has split the world into pieces, prompting Kirby to hunt down special pieces of Magic Yarn to tie it back together. Each piece of yarn you find opens the next world to explore; each world, meanwhile, is home to four levels, a boss, and two extra levels accessed by performing well during the boss battle.
Performing well, by the way, means collecting beads, which are ubiquitous little gem-like morsels scattered throughout every level. As you collect them, a meter at the top of the screen fills up, indicating which medal your current performance warrants (should you finish the level with your current number of beads): bronze, silver, or gold. While Kirby doesn’t have a life meter in this game, taking damage spills out tons of gems around him (Sonic style), forcing you to scramble to retrieve as many as possible before they disappear (it might not sound like much of a punishment, but if you’re going for medals, it sucks). That means that, while the game is easy to complete, finishing each level with the requisite number of beads to achieve a gold rank can sometimes be moderately challenging. It’s still often quite simple, however, as there are more than enough beads in each stage. Finally, every level also features three collectibles: two of which can be used to decorate condos in the hub world (it’s really more of a stickers mode than a furniture selection), and the last of which is the obligatory music CD.
None of that is unfamiliar to platforming fans, but the true appeal of Epic Yarn is how well the game leverages its theme to produce creative situations for the player. Apart from the obviously unique art style, the yarn motif also permeates the basic gameplay and provides some truly entertaining (and always adorable) opportunities. Kirby’s basic attack in the game—a yarn whip—can be used to unravel or pick up and carry foes (who then become helpful ball-of-yarn projectiles), grapple from buttons, and even yank the background in special locations to fold the world-building fabric and thereby move platforms and obstacles around. It’s hard to explain in its full glory, so be sure to watch at least one of our direct-feed gameplay videos to get a better idea of how this works.
Fluff tags along
These rules extend beyond the levels to even the map/hub areas, where progression requires the “patch” obtained by completing the previous level. Once attached to its proper location, each patch kicks off a chain reaction of some sort of to open the door to the next level. As superfluous as it might seem, it’s always cheerful and silly and manages to bring a smile to your face.
The yarn concept is constantly exploited and never stales—and even when the gameplay innovations are not directly attributable to the one-of-a-kind art style, the change in theme still provides opportunities for zany physics-defying obstacle courses that sometimes resemble the subtle brilliance of Super Mario Galaxy (swimmable, moving blobs of water; layered “quicksand”; threaded electrical barriers that can be “yanked” flat by an attached button). And while the gameplay isn’t traditional choose-your-power Kirby, the sense of variety isn’t far off. Even the enemies you pick and throw produce varying projectiles depending on their nature (arrows fly straight and travel through enemies, while UFOs send three saucers spiraling around the screen and homing in on targets). No rhyme or reason is necessary; the only motive is fun.
Although you won’t be stealing powers in Epic Yarn, Kirby’s body of yarn also allows for some great transformative prospects. For instance, at any time, our hero’s repertoire of (familiar) talents includes:
Parachute, which slows Kirby’s decent while airborne
Weight, which send Kirby plummeting downward violently
Car, which is Kirby’s form of dashing
Submarine, used underwater
Backdraft… cloth version
At particular moments, even more dramatic transformations are possible (and often required), however. These are invoked by picking up a metamortex orb, and there are lots of different varieties. Some examples:
Tankbot, which you’ll probably recognize from the E3 demo and trailer
UFO/Saucer, which allows Kirby to fly around and suck things up, then release violent shockwaves
Off-Roader, which is a souped-up vehicular form that can also pick up dash power-ups
Train, which sucks if you ask me, but is still creative. You point the Wii remote to draw the tracks ahead of Kirby which determine his route; B switches directions
Dolphin, which is a sweet form of underwater travel not unlike DKC’s Enguarde
Mole, which allows Kirby to dig through soft earth a la Little Nemo
Fire Engine, which can shoot water and fiery threats
Surfboard, which also allows you to springboard off enemies to higher ground
Shmup Ship (or so it should be called), for shmup segments
If you happen to be playing with a friend in co-op mode (which you can do throughout the entire game, by the way), you’ll find that sometimes the responsibilities for controlling these characters are split down the middle. For instance, one player controls Tankbot’s movement, while the other handles the weaponry. Nothing else major changes in co-op mode; it’s exactly like previous Kirby titles in that a friend can jump in on any level to help out if they so wish. Sometimes it’s more of a burden trying to get two players through the obstacle courses under the constraints of a single camera, but it isn’t often that the game is challenging enough to truly prove frustrating even under these circumstances.
The curse of accessibility
One miasma which has long mitigated avid gamers’ excitement over new Kirby titles is their seemingly invariable lack of challenge. There is no denying that the games are easy to pick up for newcomers, but rarely do they provide enough obstacles to stand in the way of seasoned platforming fans. Epic Yarn continues the trend of relative ease, with few opportunities for failure beyond missing treasures and medals. In fact, the only true pass/fail scenario beyond those extraneous items is the assortment of several dozen challenges which can be played on levels once they’re completed (stuff like Hide-and-Seek, racing, transporting a character to the goal within a time limit, and so on). These challenges are fun, though unfortunately, completing each one only earns you a lame decorative pattern.
The importance of difficulty in games has long been a topic of debate. What’s the point in playing a game that you can practically walk right through? Although I’m a strong proponent of well-balanced challenging games, Epic Yarn represents a powerful example to the contrary. While the game rarely presses the player, the fact that it’s so darn fun and pleasant nearly offsets the lack of excitement inherent in the trials therein. The basic gameplay concepts refresh so often and unexpectedly that you truly never know what’s around the next corner. And the world is so beautiful and ridiculous; it’s a sight to behold the environments as you progress. In many ways, this is like a lighthearted, two-dimensional Super Mario Galaxy—just quite a bit easier and shorter.