Kirby's Epic Yarn
If you were trying to get someone into gaming, which game would best serve as an induction? Maybe you'd start at the top with a classic like Pong to help colour in gaming's history. You could go with a more formative oldie like Super Mario Bros or Ocarina of Time. Or maybe you want to show how artistic gaming has become with the more modern likes of Braid and Shadow of the Colossus?
There's no right answer to such a question, but if there was there's a good chance it would be Kirby's Epic Yarn, especially if the budding gamer is batting at single figures for age.
There's a real feel of 'My First Game' to the pink blob's latest adventure, a feeling that cannot be reduced to simple controls, vivid art direction, and accessible platforming play. From start to finish, Kirby's Epic Yarn is a symphony that strikes chord after chord of whimsy, magic, and marvel, all weaved by the baton of a veteran developer. The ensuing sound is both refined and majestic.
This is not to demean the art direction, the aspect that first got me interested in the game. The game's craftwork world of Patch Land is full of rich, charming designs like a stitched pattern of clouds and beach composed of stencils and stickers. Even the simple act of defeating a monster enchants each time. Kirby throws a whip-like thread around his enemy before tugging back, and the result is the monster's yarn body unravelling into a firework of brightly coloured cords, a gaudy but delightfully graceful pinwheel.
The little touches run through Kirby's Epic Yarn, even in terms of its UK localization. Each new world unlocked is rewarded with a storybook-like cut scene featuring Kirby and his new friend Prince Fluff. The American version of the game is narrated by American voice actor Dave White, but a little surprisingly the English version has its very own English narrator. Based on the credits I suspect him to be Paul Vaughan, oddly but aptly the narrator of 1984 shock mockumentary Threads.
The addition of his dry English accent to the vibrantly animated cut scenes takes me back to coming home from school and sitting entranced in front of the TV watching classic English cartoons like Postman Pat and Roobarb and Custard. Whether or not this effect is deliberate is certainly dubious, but there's no debate over how it warms a heart nostalgic for TV predating the Crazy Frog.
The game doesn't settle for plain in any of its endeavours. In most games the reveal of a new level on a world screen would be a repeated animation, but in Kirby's Epic Yarn it's a unique miniature performance. An early level completed sees Kirby rewarded with a butterfly patch. Back on the world screen, pressing 2 makes Kirby fling the patch into a nearby flower's stamen. A butterfly emerges out of the flower and pryingly circles around it. As she does the flower blooms into life, all of which finally unlocks the door to the new level. Kirby cheers and hops on the spot in appreciation.
These actions and their delightful rewards are echoed by the play within levels. Kirby's adventure is filled with buttons to tug at with his thread-whip, and doing so reveals new layers of the world and sometimes even changes it dramatically. Some buttons allow Kirby to tug the whole level towards him, with parts of the level folding over what was previously there.
One sticker pulled at in a gloomy-looking level reveals a sun, and suddenly the world is filled with colour, sunshine and cheery, bouncy music. Again, Kirby cheers, and you can't help smiling with him.
Talking of music, the game's soundtrack is right on the money. Composer Tomoya Tomita succeeds in bringing a yarn-like softness with an unassuming yet utterly lovely collection of piano pieces. The music for the Lava Landing level oscillates wonderfully between deep and noble and lullaby gentle.
Music features as a factor in the play too. In one level Kirby has to jump across a world made up of cymbals, drums, and a keyboard. Each of his landings is rewarded with an audible note and a physical one for Kirby to collect a gem from. The highlight sees the pink hero navigating a line of sheet music as if he were Frogger, jumping up and down and left and right in search of gem notes.
Kirby's Epic Yarn does riff a lot on other games and genres using Kirby's transformative powers. Although Kirby in his yarn form cannot suck in baddies to take up their form, the little blob still shape-changes at certain halfway points of levels. He becomes a spaceship with a pretty three-way star beam, and the game itself transforms into a shmup as he scrolls to his goal shooting through enemies. When he becomes a biker, the game pits you against seven other bikers in a race; you get more gems for coming in first. Even the dolphin transform echoes a certain classic game. The only criticism is that sometimes Epic Yarn rehashes transformations without expanding upon them, and one or two levels in the penultimate two worlds feel a little slapdash and tired as a result.
Nonetheless, the game is like an education, something which extends to how early levels hold your hand through learning Kirby's powers like swinging, slamming through the ground and so on, before gradually taking you through to the tougher platforming sequences of later on. Also, Kirby cannot die; the immortal pink blob only loses gems when hurt by an enemy or the environment. Even if he falls into a chasm, a helper blob brings him back to safety, Prince of Persia style.
And if a younger player's struggling, an older player can always hop in with co-op to help them, although it's unlikely anyone will need an excuse to pick up the second Wiimote and play as Prince Fluff. The ability to pick up a fellow player and hold him or her, trapped in your grasp, seems callous at first until the realisation that it helps ensure the player in need can be carried or flung into safety. The co-op really adds no more than a second player, but this is an experience designed to be shared.
The game is a little short at around six hours to get to the end, although there are plenty of goodies and gems to go back hunting for and use to unlock further distractions. A good story, especially a first story, should not be too long anyway. Kirby's Epic Yarn has a wonderful, charming tale to tell with a friend, a boyfriend or girlfriend, or a son or daughter. Whether it's your first game or your hundredth, there'll be something in its world of patterned yarn to plant a big silly smile on your face.