When the Wii brought in a resurgence of 2D sidescrollers, it was inevitable that Kirby would make his triumphant return to home consoles, after years of being relegated to handheld exclusivity and spinoffs. When Kirby did receive a proper adventure on the Wii, it was in the unconventional Kirby’s Epic Yarn, a title which did away with just about every one of the series’ established elements (sans it’s trademark charm, which had never been stronger). One year later, in 2011, Kirby would receive yet another outing on the Wii, Kirby’s Return to Dream Land, which preformed double duty in bringing a traditional Kirby title to a home console for the first time since Kirby 64, and making sure audiences wouldn’t have to wait another decade for a console entry as they did between 64 and Epic Yarn. In those regards, Return to Dream Land does its job just fine. Though if one were to compare it to one of Kirby’s stronger titles – or some of the other side-scrollers of the time – it does fall a bit short.
That’s not to say that Kirby’s Return to Dream Land does anything particularly wrong, it just doesn’t go that extra mile to deliver something spectacular. It serves as a fitting apology for the baffling lack of Kirby in the decade prior, but rests a little too comfortably at simply being traditional Kirby in a time when that in itself seemed novel.
The story here is that a visitor from another dimension has crashed his ship in Dream Land, and Kirby – being the kind-hearted hero he is – selflessly decides to help out, and uncover the visitor’s missing ship parts (which of course are protected by each world’s bosses). A Waddle Dee and Meta-Knight decide to help Kirby out on his adventure, as does an uncharacteristically generous King Dedede, despite having nothing to gain from the adventure (not that it matters, any excuse to play as King Dedede is a good one).
The core gameplay is what it usually is: the gloriously overpowered Kirby can steal copy abilities from enemies, which he can then use to his advantage. You make your way through 2D stages, fight bosses, and uncover hidden collectibles (Energy Spheres in this particular entry). It’s all straightforward and easy (with only some of the Energy Spheres being particularly difficult to find), but the Kirby formula is always fun.
As you may have guessed, the key difference here is that Return to Dream Land features four player co-op. One mode of co-op features first player as Kirby, with the other players taking control of Waddle Dee, Meta-Knight and the great King Dedede himself. Naturally, Kirby is the only one who can steal his opponents abilities (with Dedede using a hammer, Meta-Knight his sword, and Waddle Dee a spear). This makes Kirby the most versatile of the characters, but the other three do provide a nice change of pace. Another form of multiplayer sees all four players control different colored Kirbys. Both multiplayer modes have their advantages (in the all-Kirby mode everyone can copy powers, while in the mode with different characters, you get different play styles…and King Dedede).
Unfortunately, the ability to play with four players – though a welcome addition – is really the only big change to the series formula that Return to Dream Land makes. There are also the occasional “Super Abilities” – temporary copy abilities with devastating power – but otherwise, Return to Dream Land is possibly the safest entry in the series.
Again, that’s not a horrible thing, as the adventure is fun, the visuals are cute and charming, and the music is, in typical Kirby fashion, pretty darn great (making Return to Dream Land a far more aesthetically distinct adventure than Mario’s side-scrolling return to home consoles in New Super Mario Bros. Wii). And once the adventure is completed, a host of post-game modes are unlocked, and there are even some mini-games to serve as a nice detour for you and some friends.
There is a lot of fun to be had in Kirby’s Return to Dream Land, especially when you have four players at the ready. The only thing holding it back is that it’s an uncharacteristically complacent entry in an otherwise inventive series. We don’t even get the nice narrative level structure and dynamic camera angles of Kirby 64, and even the ‘Dream Land’ in the title feels misplaced, as this Wii adventure shares very little with the Dream Land trilogy (at least give us the animal friends if you’re going to put ‘Dream Land’ in the title).
Kirby’s Return to Dream Land is a solid title, and makes for some great, multiplayer fun. But whether it was simply trying to make up for lost time, or being released within a timeframe that also saw exceptional 2D platformers like Kirby’s Epic Yarn and the Donkey Kong Country revivals, Return to Dream Land seems satisfied with simply meeting the status quo for the series. On the plus side, it did open the doors for more stellar Kirby experiences such as Triple Deluxe, Planet Robobot, and Star Allies (the latter of which making for a more inventive realization of co-op Kirby). For that alone, I suppose we should be grateful.