The Nintendo Switch has been defined by a lineup of what I like to call “Video Game Olympic Athletes.” For example: Zelda went open world, Mario perfected its sandbox roots, and Animal Crossing implemented a completely customizable town. All of these games went above and beyond expectations, achieving World Records for their respective series. The most disappointing games on the Switch aren’t necessarily the games that performed badly, they just didn’t win 5 Gold Medals. 2018’s Kirby Star Allies is one of these games. It’s fun, but it doesn’t take any risks and leaves most of its ideas underdeveloped.
Kirby and the Forgotten Land, however, is the big exciting shakeup that myself and many others have been waiting for. The smart level design and use of its collectibles make it one of the best 3D Platformers I’ve played in a while. With this game, Kirby has earned its Nintendo Switch Gold Medal and can stand proudly among the rest of the All-Star Athletes.
Kirby’s adventure begins when a wormhole opens over Kirby’s home on Planet Popstar, transporting all of the planet’s denizens to a strange, post-apocalyptic world. The locals, an army of feral yet adorable beasts, begin capturing Waddle Dees, the Kirby equivalent of Mario’s Toads. And so Kirby embarks on a quest to save the Waddle Dees and figure out who is behind the wormhole opening in the first place. It’s a classic Platformer story that’s more window dressing than anything else. It’s a different kind of window dressing than you usually see in a Platformer, though, and it’s very welcome. The atmosphere is felt in every level — road signs are covered in rust and moss, buildings crumble apart, and electronics barely work. It brings a refreshing twist to the archetypal desert, beach, and grassland-themed levels that I always see. Combined with the bright pastel colors, starry special effects, and strange landscapes, this is one of the best-looking games on the Switch. HAL Laboratory created a novel theme, tied it into the level design, and still made it work within Kirby’s whimsical aesthetic. That’s no small feat.
Speaking of level design, let’s talk about this game’s most important change: Kirby is finally in 3D! After decades of experimentation and scrapped projects, Kirby has finally transitioned into a 3D Platformer, and the transition is flawless. You’d never know that this was HAL’s first fully-featured 3D game — it looks like they’ve been doing it for decades. But before you get too excited, no, this game isn’t an open world. Kirby and the Forgotten Land uses the linear level approach of Super Mario 3D World. It’s more restricted than Super Mario 64, but more open-ended than Crash Bandicoot. There’s still plenty of room to explore and find secrets, with a bit of direction to nudge you forward. I appreciate this approach — it allows player-driven exploration without dragging down the pacing.
Kirby is famous for its easy difficulty. It’s an ideal game to hand a young child for their first taste of both Platforming and action-based combat. Here’s the trick, though: it’s only easy if you stick to the main path. If you wander off and try to find the collectibles, you’ll often find yourself in tricky puzzles and challenging encounters. With this game, it’s no different. Every level in Kirby and the Forgotten Land is brimming with secrets, and most of these will help you either earn money or find more Waddle Dees. I loved poking around with a new ability and finding a hidden door. I know that these developers deliberately put these secrets in there, but finding them makes me giggle mischievously, like I discovered something I’m not supposed to.
After you finish a level, the game will give you a hint about other Waddle Dees that you may have missed, encouraging you to play that level again. I’ve done this sort of collectible-hunting in past Kirby games, and while it’s intrinsically fun to go back find all of them, you don’t usually earn much besides the occasional bonus level. In this game, though, you have a hubworld called Waddle Dee Town, and finding more Waddle Dees lets you unlock more buildings in the town. I love seeing this place grow larger and larger; it’s a fantastic reward for your efforts.
Past Kirby games also put several different minigames up on the main menu, but in Forgotten Land these minigames appear as locations in the main town. Most of these I enjoyed, like the adorable fishing minigame, while others I could do without, like the gyro maze that pays homage to the GameBoy Color game Kirby Tilt N’ Tumble. It’s the typical mixed bag of minigames that I’ve come to expect from the series, but the fact that they’re a part of the main hub is the perfect subtle touch.
By far the best thing to do in Waddle Dee Town is upgrade your copy abilities. For a small fee of star coins and rare stones, you can increase the power and speed of any individual ability. This is the first time a mainline Kirby game has ever allowed you to improve your abilities, and while it does make Kirby veer slightly into the Action RPG territory, I think it’s a perfect addition. It provides another reason to search around every corner of every level, as well as replay levels.
That’s not even all of the new features! Every so often you’ll come across some large discarded item that Kirby can attempt to swallow, though it often ends up with him comically (or grotesquely) failing to consume it. Welcome to Mouthful Mode, ladies and gentlemen. The resulting predicament provides Kirby some new abilities, from breaking large blocks to soaring through the air. It’s a gimmick, sure, but it’s adds a welcome if not inoffensive change and keeps the pacing running smoothly.
While the main levels themselves unfurl a steady stream of new ideas and fun uses for your copy abilities, the gameplay shines the brightest during optional challenges called Treasure Roads. Each Treasure Road revolves around a specific copy ability or Mouthful Mode. The design of these challenges makes you learn every bit of what your abilities can do, and even though I’m a veteran of the Kirby series, I actually learned new tricks thanks to these Treasure Roads. Kirby’s combat may seem simple, but underneath is a wellspring of depth, as these challenges well demonstrate.
Speaking of looks being deceiving, if this is your first Kirby game, be ready for a sudden tonal shift near the end of the main campaign. It’s a series staple to have some large unsettling creature be pulling the strings the entire time. And after the main campaign, you have an entire new world and set of levels to explore at your leisure. Kirby and the Forgotten Land has thankfully beefed up its content from the previous game, giving you plenty more to metaphorically dive and swim in.
Overall, Kirby and the Forgotten Land is one of the best 3D Platformers on the Nintendo Switch. I have nothing but glowing praise for it. This is an easy recommendation for those both new and familiar with Action Platformers.