Being a relative Nintendo noob, my experience of Kirby has been solely limited to Super Smash Bros. where his ability to suck characters into himself has been the bane of my existence. But with the game releases being fairly quiet at the moment, what better time to experience Kirby than now, especially since his newest adventure, Kirby and the Forgotten Land, is his first fully 3D adventure! Can Kirby hang with the greats like Mario, Luigi and Link? Or has he bitten off more than he can chew?
So, let’s just assume that you, dear reader, are just like me and couldn’t tell a Kirby from a Pom Pom. Hailing from (I shit you not) Planet Popstar, Kirby is a tiny, round ball of pink cuteness designed to instantly capture the heart and soul of any kid who loves pink and cuddly. That cute outer shell, however, hides a horrible power – Kirby can inhale enemies in order to copy their abilities. Putting aside the many moral qualms about literally eating enemies in order to gain their powers, it’s a fun mechanic, and watching such a diminutive squirt become a terrifying pink hole is, quite honestly, kind of hilarious.
Kirby and the Forgotten Land kicks off in dramatic fashion as the lovable puff-ball is sucked into a mysterious portal in the sky and dumped into New World, a post-apocalyptic land that looks a lot like Earth if Earth was inhabited by lovable cartoon animals instead of considerably less lovable human beings. Kirby’s chums, the Waddle Dees, have also been sucked through the portal and are being kidnapped by the Beast Gang. With the help of a new friend named Elfilin, it’s up to Kirby to save his friends, defeat the strange evil lurking in this land, discover the mystery of the portal and get everyone home safely. And he has to do it all without speaking.
Normally this is where I’d delve deep into the story like a miner seeking a vein of gold or a toddler searching for that elusive booger hiding up a nostril, but like the classic Mario games, Kirby and the Forgotten Land doesn’t really have a story to talk about, at least not until the end. Once the initial premise is set up, the plot vanishes until the dramatic finale where things quickly go off the rails. I can’t even begin to describe it for fear of ruining anything, but suffice to say I spent most of the last 30-minutes with an incredulous look on my face. It certainly goes to some…er, crazy places.
As for Kirby, he knows what his job is; charm the pants off of whoever is playing. He does that job with aplomb, merrily waving, hoping and dancing his way through the levels, his pure innocence a welcome change amidst all the dark and grime of the world as we know it. Just look at the little guy – he’s like the incarnation of unicorns, rainbows and candy combined, at least until he opens his giant gob and becomes an eldritch freaking horror.
Really, though, the plot is just an excuse for a series of levels featuring platforming and light puzzle-solving action. My Kirby knowledge might be lacking but even I know this is the first time the little guy has been presented in a fully 3D game unless you count Super-Smash Bros. As such, there’s a somewhat Super Mario: Odyssey vibe to this little Kirby adventure, albeit on a smaller scale. This is a light-hearted adventure that doesn’t tax the brain or skills – I mean, one of the two difficulty settings is called Spring Breeze, so obviously, Kirby and the Forgotten Land isn’t looking to compete with Elden Ring or anything.
Kirby is a doddle to control, making the simplistic platforming breezy and fun. There were only a few moments where I misjudged a platform or jump, and most of those were actually due to the static camera making the depth hard to determine. Even when you do miss, Kirby’s ability to flutter around (complete with a hilarious sweating animation when he tires) gets you out of most situations. And death is hardly a big fear in Kirby since each level is maybe 10-15 minutes at most.
If you aren’t jumping around or solving basic puzzles then you’ll probably be sucking up enemies by holding down A and either spitting them back out as projectiles or absorbing their unique powers. It’s a pretty cool mixture of stuff, too, like an ice ability that lets you skate around and turn enemies into ice cubes that can be pushed around, or a drill so that Kirby can go underground and pop up beneath enemies. Levels are littered with foes so that you can swap and change, but many of them do tend to focus more on one or more specific skills, which is easy to see when one particular enemy constantly respawns, hinting that their ability will be useful for something nearby.
If 12-abilities doesn’t sound like that many then have no fear, my dear, because there’s a handy shop in the Waddle Dee town where you can spend Coins and special rare stars to upgrade them. The process is a lot of fun because to get Stars you need to complete optional challenge levels, each of which is based on a certain ability. You might have to bounce chakrams off of walls or race against the clock. These diversions are fun, and when you upgrade a power, Kirby gets a cute new hat to wear and a modified power, like perhaps now your basic flame ability will leave little fire tornados or the ice ability will create Snowmen that can be shoved into foes. My personal favourite was the Ranger – starting out it’s a simple pistol (Kirby with a gun. Huh.) but the final upgrade turns it into a laser gun, and Kirby gets a painfully cute little space helmet to wear.
On top of the core 12 abilities, there’s also the new Mouthful mode where Kirby gets to really test the limits of his gag reflex on big objects. The earliest example of this is when the pink puffball attempts to eat a car, resulting in a wonderful moment of body horror and humour. Shoving the vehicle into his gaping maw lets Kirby drive around, a concept that baffles me the more I think about it. Is he pushing the pedals with his tongue? What’s going on? Regardless of the practical implications it immediately adds some extra fun. Another great example is Kirby latching onto a gushing water pipe in order to turn himself into a walking water balloon. The other examples are a bit less exciting, mind you, like becoming a locker that just tips over. It’s impressive how much fun the developers get out of seemingly mundane and dull items; who knew being a set of stairs could be so entertaining, especially as you hop around and crush enemies? My favourite might be swallowing a giant circle, turning Kirby into an air-gun. Yup, mouthful mode does a good job of mixing up the basic platforming and very straightforward adventuring.
Every level has a bunch of the cutesy Waddle Dees to find and rescue. That in itself is actually quite satisfying but Kirby and the Forgotten Land takes it one step further by having a Waddle Dee town which the rescued Waddle Dees will head back to. The more critters you rescue the more the town is rebuilt, revealing some cool minigames like serving lunch or a genuinely very fun marble game. Rebuilding the town provides a great reason to fully explore the levels, so it’s a bit of a shame that finding all the Waddle Dees doesn’t unlock anything extra.
And if you really like collecting stuff there are heaps and heaps of capsules to find that contain tiny figurines, some of which also come with a bit of descriptive text. You can even put three of them up on Kirby’s mantlepiece to admire. These little figures are purely optional and don’t unlock anything else, or at least, they don’t seem to – I wasn’t about to chase down every single one to be sure.
The ultimate goal is to find enough Waddle Dees so that they’ll break down the special so that you can challenge that regions big bad boss before moving onto the next region. These fights are a lot of fun, pitting you against a fast moving circus cat with sharp claws or a massive gorilla. Having a boss battle at the end of every region is some seriously old-school videogame design, but as the old saying goes if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Less entertaining are the mini-bosses that seem to have been dumped haphazardly into certain levels. Most of the time you can avoid most enemies in the game by simply ignoring them and jogging off into the distance, but these minibosses have to be fought and they are chore. It doesn’t help that there’s only actually a couple of minibosses that you’ll have to face multiple times, and later fights pull the horrible trick of just having you fight two or more of them at a time.
Some people may deem this to be unfair, but I can’t escape the ever-growing feeling that the Switch’s hardware is struggling, especially since I’m lucky enough to own a PS5 and a decent PC. I’m mostly talking about the 30FPS and the fact that enemies and objects in the distance are displayed at a much slower framerate in order to keep everything running smoothly. It’s not too noticeable, in hand-held mode with the small screen, but on a 4K TV it’s a little jarring to see things jerking around like they’ve been animated at 10 frames a second.
The rest of the graphics are a little more of a mixed bag. The colours are frequently vibrant, Kirby’s animations are incredibly charming and some of the enemy designs are freaking adorable, dude, like the Awoofies who I always feel bad about sucking up and spitting out. Poor little guys. It’s the environments I don’t like. The decision to go with an Earth-like setting and semi-realistic style means Kirby explores such exciting places as…a mall, and a generic bridge. Some areas are more exciting and artistically interesting than others, but many of them are simply boring. Kirby is such a fantastical character that it feels crazy to anchor him to our mundane reality.
On paper, Kirby and the Forgotten Land isn’t anything special. The core gameplay is all very basic, the levels are small and simple, the whole structure is pretty standard and so on and so on. But Kirby has that special Nintendo magic that is impossible to properly describe or talk about without actually experiencing it. The Forgotten Land is charming and absorbing, wrapping you up in this cutesy little adventure that is, above all else, just really fun to play. It’s awesome for kids, as my 8-year old niece will attest, great for a family to play thanks to the 2-player co-op mode where a second person can take on the role of a Waddle Dee with a spear, and is a lot of fun for an adult, as my stupid 30-year ass is telling you right now.
Sure, Kirby and the Forgotten Land doesn’t reach the soaring highs of Breath of the Wild or quite hit the brilliance of Mario: Odyssey or Luigi’s Mansion 3. It’s not quite there. But it does sit right at the tippy-top of the tier underneath those, which is still an impressive feat, especially when you consider Kirby only has tiny arms and legs. For a pink ball that resembles a marshmallow with a mouth, Kirby didn’t bite off more than he could chew when he jumped to full 3D.