Ranking the top 101 Nintendo games: No. 40, Kirby's Epic Yarn
Games don't need to be difficult to be a source of joy.
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.
Kirby games, generally speaking, are not difficult. Sure, initially completing many of the platformers in the series opens up new difficulty levels, and as was discussed with something like the Wii’s Return to Dream Land, that can certainly improve the experience. The lack of difficulty has never been much of a problem for myself (and plenty of others — they just keep on making Kirby games at an astounding rate, you know), which is good, because Kirby’s Epic Yarn is flat-out easy.
Epic Yarn, originally released on the Wii in 2010, is easy, yes, but it’s also the best argument Kirby has ever put forth that challenge is not the only route to joy. This game exudes joy, and it’s infectious, too: you and the game are just sitting there smiling back at each other throughout the experience. I hope it also means something coming from me, a person obsessed with shmups who is about to take this list in the direction of some of the most difficult to master Nintendo games they’ve ever had their name on, when I say that the lack of serious challenge does not detract from the experience one bit. Epic Yarn is calmly inviting you on an adventure, one where it is guaranteed you will not die because there are no deaths here, and being along for the relaxing ride is the reward. This lets you relax, explore to your heart’s content, backtrack without (much) fear of reprisal… not every game needs to step on your neck while you play, and Epic Yarn promises not to.
Kirby has always been adorable, but Epic Yarn takes that cuteness to previously uncharted territory. Kirby is just made out of a small piece of yarn, and interacts with a world crafted together primarily with the same material. The animation is what makes it all truly work: the style is eye-catching, especially in motion, and this kind of attention to detail in animation is not new for Good-Feel, the developers behind Epic Yarn. While an independent developer started by former Konami programmer Etsunobu Ebisu, the bulk of Good-Feel’s output has been on Nintendo platforms, and published by Nintendo: the first such game was Wii platformer Wario Land: Shake It!, which, while not quite enthralling enough to make it onto these rankings, was a visual stunner. Like with Epic Yarn, it’s when the game is in motion that it truly sings. The two-dimensional, hand-drawn Wario is gorgeously rendered at all times, is loaded with the appropriate cartoonish mannerisms you expect from Wario and the world he searches for treasure in, and is simply a joy to watch in his interactions with that world.
Epic Yarn is no different. I don’t think compressed YouTube videos really do the style or animation justice, either, but you work with what you’ve got.
This is a Kirby game without copying powers and without inhaling, which does not make it unique — another game on this list, Mass Attack, doesn’t have copying, either — but it is easily the best of that particular style of Kirby platformers. The copying isn’t necessary: Kirby grabs hold of many enemies by shaping some of his yarn into a lasso, and then he yanks back, unraveling his foes and turning them into a pile of loose yarn and collectible bits. He can also bring these enemies or other bits of yarn back to him as a ball, which can then be thrown at objects, enemies, whatever is necessary. You’ll interact with the world primarily through this yarn whip/lasso/rope thingy. Copying also isn’t necessary because the Kirby universe is just the setting for the game: rather than have Kirby take his powers to a new place, like with Canvas Curse, Kirby is completely changed by his arrival in a new world, and must play by its rules instead of the ones he’s used to. Watch as he adjusts to his new environment:
Kirby does still have some abilities that resemble his copy powers, though: he can shape himself into a heavy (?) yarn-based object and slam into enemies, he can slowly float through the air with a yarn parachute, and so on. So the gameplay should not be completely foreign to you: there just isn’t the same level of be-whatever-you-want freedom that exists in the copy-based Kirby games.
Those collectibles I mentioned are where the challenge element of Epic Yarn resides. The beads you find strewn throughout levels and among the remains of your fallen foes contribute to the the medal rank you receive at the end of each stage. So someone who just walks through the level, not doing much at all, isn’t going to be given the same kind of rank as someone who seeks out and takes down every enemy, finds all of the hidden beads and collectibles, and so on. If you want to dedicate yourself to unearthing all there is to Epic Yarn, then do so. If you just want to stroll through a world made of yarn at your leisure and giggle when Kirby turns into a firetruck to put out flames made of yarn with his water made of yarn, then you can do that, too.
You will also get more beads by avoiding taking damage. A “streak” builds up throughout stages as you acquire more and more beads and avoid taking any hits from enemies or traps. Kirby doesn’t have health, but the more damage he takes, the fewer beads he can end the level with. And you use the beads not just for earning better medals at the end of a stage, but also as currency to decorate apartments, which, when decorated, attract residents. When you have these residents, then additional content for the game, like time trials, are unlocked. So if you care about rankings and time trials and all of that, avoid damage and find the hidden bead caches and treasures! To do that, you have to fully interact with the world, and exploring this world brings you joy, and makes you want to experience more of it. It’s a very enjoyable loop to find yourself stuck in.
Even more enjoyable because Epic Yarn has arguably (arguably, I said, and might even do that arguing myself against myself) the best soundtrack for a Kirby game. Much of the game is scored with a piano, which means we live in a reality where the Halberd theme is played on a piano in an official capacity and not just because some enterprising fan of the series decided to post a video of them doing that very thing to YouTube:
It’s not just the piano work that stands out, though, as the Epic Yarn remix of Dedede’s theme, featuring horns, is also killer:
It’s all great, I’m just selecting some songs you know even if you haven’t played Epic Yarn, so you can get a feel for the quality of and vibe of the music in this game compared to other Kirby titles.
Speaking of, Epic Yarn wasn’t originally supposed to be a Kirby game. It was going to star “Prince Fluff,” in a world of yarn, but development eventually shifted so that it would primarily star Kirby, with Prince Fluff as a couch co-op fellow protagonist. Digital images of actual crafting materials were used in the development of the game, to give even this cartoonish, clearly animated game and style the most lifelike world it could work in without making it feel uncanny valley like. I get the sense no one is upset about this in the same way people were upset about Rareware converting Dinosaur Planet into an awkward Ocarina of Time-influenced Star Fox game, likely because 1. Good-Feel is not a Nintendo subsidiary like Rare was and 2. making Kirby do weird shit we’re not used to seeing him do is like, half the point of Kirby. This crafted world also meshed perfectly with Kirby, in a way Fox McCloud running around solving dungeon puzzles from someone else’s game was just never going to.
Now, if you’re not convinced that this is still fun even though the platforming itself presents little challenge, even for Kirby, there is an alternative option for you. Kirby’s Extra Epic Yarn released on the Nintendo 3DS in 2019, and it features a “Devilish” mode meant to make the game more difficult for you. Not only does Kirby have a limited life bar in this mode, as he’s only able to take five hits before you fail a stage, but one of three devil enemies shows up during the level and harasses you throughout. Getting to the end of the stage is now more difficult, but the game also expects perfection from you in this mode: the life pieces you get to the end of the level with are added to a chart tracking your progress, and you’ll unlock more furniture for those apartments through those life pieces, which in turn unlocks more of the game’s locked features.
That’s fun on its own (and a mode I wish had been in the original, as a post-game challenge sort of thing), but it’s also set up so you don’t have to play the entire game that way. You can just choose that mode before each stage. So if you wanted to play a level the normal way, then play it the devilish way while the layout is still fresh, you could do that. If you just want to mess with certain stages for the fun of it, you can also do that. Options: they’re good.
Kirby’s particular style of platforming isn’t for everyone (ironic, in a way, since the original idea for Kirby was a platformer that wouldn’t make you feel bad about yourself given how notoriously difficult the genre was at the time), and Epic Yarn’s particular brand even less so. You’re missing out if you skipped this, though, Kirby fan or no. It’s adorable in a heartwarming way, with beautiful animations, a wonderful soundtrack, and an aesthetic that both relaxes and brings joy. Good-Feel has tried to recapture these feelings with its pair of Yoshi games with a similar crafted feel to them, but as good as those are, neither is on this list. Epic Yarn, though, is the high point of their relationship with Nintendo to this point, and should be sought out, whether with an original Wii copy, digitally on the Wii U, or in its Extra Epic 3DS form.
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