Ranking the top 101 Nintendo games: No. 61, Kirby's Return to Dream Land

The fourth and last (?) of the Dream Land games is also the best of the bunch.

I’m ranking the top 101 Nintendo developed/published games of all-time, and you can read about the thought process behind game eligibility and list construction here. You can keep up with the rankings so far through this link.

The original Kirby’s Dream Land is a short and sweet affair that introduced the world to Kirby, the pink — well, monochromatic at that point — puffball who inhaled enemies in his way and could float through platforming stages. The Game Boy title, released in 1992, is still fun to play, but it’s also the most basic Kirby going: he can’t copy enemy powers, there are no animal pals to ride like in the Game Boy sequel, Kirby’s Dream Land 2, and the levels are straightforward even for this often simplistic franchise. It’s a more enjoyable game than the Super Nintendo’s Kirby’s Dream Land 3, though, so it does have that going for it.

The Dream Land games had seemingly stopped after 3, with the titles coming after it named in a way that described what Kirby was up against or interacting with (Canvas Curse, Amazing Mirror, Squeak Squad, etc.), but that would change with the 2011 release of Kirby’s Return to Dream Land. Well, in Japan and North America, anyway. Europe and Australia received the same game a year later, but titled, “Kirby’s Adventure Wii” for some confusing reason: even the actual NES title Kirby’s Adventure had been renamed “Nightmare in Dream Land” for its graphical update re-release for the Game Boy Advance in 2002, so what was the point of that particular switch?

Regardless, whether it’s a continuation of the Dream Land subset of Kirby games or a direct sequel to Adventure, the name is implying the same thing: this was a return to the kind of Kirby game that the oldest fans of the series grew up on, the kind they first encountered with one of the Dream Lands or Adventure or even Super Star. Kirby, as has been discussed in this space before, is the mascot for whatever old game HAL Laboratory wants to make at that moment. Sometimes it’s a straightforward platformer. Sometimes the platformer is not so straightforward. Sometimes it’s a twist on a puzzle game. Sometimes it’s mini golf where Kirby is both the ball and the club, and also there are enemies and powers.

Return to Dream Land was, following Epic Yarn’s turn as a “not so straightforward” platformer, not a return to form for Nintendo’s most chameleon-esque mascot, but a return to a specific style of play that there hadn’t been a new entry on home consoles for since the Nintendo 64 era. And a far superior entry to the last of this particular type of Kirby overall, 2006’s Nintendo DS release, Squeak Squad.

Return to Dream Land’s critical success over another back-to-basics title like Squeak Squad comes down to the fact that it wasn’t just back-to-basics: it introduced new concepts and gameplay, but built that on top of the sturdy straightforward Kirby platformer foundation to create something new and worthwhile. You can argue that Return to Dream Land wasn’t just the best HAL had managed in this particular space of the Kirby universe in quite some time, but is also a better game than those in the same vein that followed it. Hell, I’m making that argument right now: Return to Dream Land is the newest Kirby game you’ll find on this list, and it’s nearly a decade old now.

So, those new concepts. Kirby’s Return to Dream Land can be played by up to four players, and those players can choose to be the eponymous Kirby, Bandana Waddle Dee, Kind Dedede, or Meta Knight. Player one is, of course, Kirby, with his usual array of inhaling and copying abilities and floating, and players two through four can also be Kirby, just a different colored one. There are those other unique characters, though, who have their own attacks and skills: Dedede has a big ole hammer, Meta Knight has his sword, and Bandana Waddle Dee has a spear. When playing multiplayer, everyone pulls from one pool of extra lives, which helps to keep some semblance of balance in the game when you have multiple protagonists beating down on bosses designed to be tackled by a minimum of one player.

In addition to his usual copying, Kirby can also perform a temporary Super Ability that often are used to progress through a specific environment. A massive hammer that can destroy not just enemies, but major obstacles you otherwise wouldn’t get by. A flame that burns large and hot enough to clear the path in front of you of, well, anything that’s in it. A comically large sword that Kirby swings to cleave anything in front of him in two. They’re fun to use, as they give Kirby more access to indiscriminate destruction than you’re used to seeing over a short time frame, similar to how the Mega Mushroom in some Mario titles lets you run rampant through enemies and the stage until its effects wear off — and hopefully only after you’ve secured whatever hidden item or collectible or what have you can only be unearthed by this temporary power.

There is also a Super Inhale which is very satisfying to perform: you shake the Wii Remote while inhaling, and Kirby’s suction ramps up in power, allowing him to pull in multiple enemies and huge blocks at the same time, which also creates a massive star to spit back out at other obstacles or enemies. It’s not just an optional thing, either: there are parts of the game where this skill is necessary, and sometimes, the levels that you need it in are auto-scrolling, so time and efficiency are both of the essence.

Kirby and friends have to collect the missing parts from a spaceship that crashed onto their planet of Popstar, and those pieces are scattered throughout the game’s eight worlds. Some are out in the open, but you can’t just float your way through these Kirby stages if you plan on finding these parts. You actually have to do some exploring, check the alternate paths, open up secret areas and doorways and so on in order to collect not just all of the parts, but the parts you need in order to progress through and unlock the whole game.

These 120 ship parts — known in-game as Energy Spheres — are found in all but the boss stages, and there are three to five per stage. As is often the case with Kirby games, there are a number of mini-games unlocked by finding more and more of that title’s particular MacGuffin, and since some of the more difficult platforming puzzles and harder-to-reach areas contain many of the game’s Spheres, you’ll want to go looking for them, anyway. And you’ll be rewarded not just with a better main game experience, but a slew of mini-games and unlockables, too.

The game’s design is some of the most sound in any traditional Kirby platformer, and the drop-in, drop-out multiplayer really adds to the experience without leaving the game a shell of itself when you play solo. And that’s what makes Return to Dream Land’s “Extra Mode” so satisfying: after completing the main game, you unlock a more difficult version of the game where Kirby has half of the health and all of the game’s mid-bosses and bosses are not only stronger, but also have new, more complex attacks patterns. Difficulty is never a thing in a Kirby game until after you’ve completed the normal version of the game — after all, the series was founded on the idea that it would be good for players who aren’t as hardcore about platformers to be able to enjoy one — but difficult does exist after an initial playthrough.

I’m not saying Return to Dream Land’s extra mode turns Kirby into Celeste or anything like that, but if you enjoyed the game on its default setting and are looking for an experience that’s twice the difficulty, well, you won’t be disappointed by Extra Mode. When returning to this game for the purposes of this project, I played around a bit in the default setting and was pleased enough — the game is what I remembered it to be, which is a good thing — and then fired up a new save with Extra Mode on. That, to me, was a difference maker, but even if you just want to play the game the one time on the default difficulty, it has so much more to offer than the traditional Kirby platformers that have come since.

Return to Dream Land isn’t the best Kirby platformer out there — we’ve got a couple more of those to discuss in the coming months — but it’s easily the top of the mountain among the modern 2.5D entries. It takes the best of the more straightforward Kirby elements the series is known for, and throws a bunch of new ideas on top that still play well nearly a decade later, ideas that created a mix the series has yet to stop in that subsequent decade. The “Extra Mode” might be just that and typical in some fashion or another in Kirby games, but for my money, it’s never been more rewarding than in this particular one.

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