|Release Date||February 24, 2023|
We’re all familiar with the bevy of “deluxe” Nintendo Switch ports we’ve been graced with the past few years. New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe, Pikmin 3 Deluxe, Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury, and Mario Kart 8 Deluxe are just a few examples of titles that Nintendo has resurrected to sell on the handheld heavy-hitter. But one game I was not expecting to get a deluxe version was a game from not one, but two generations ago: Kirby’s Return to Dreamland. So…is this a simple nostalgic cash grab, or is there a good reason to return to Dreamland again after 12 years?
Scary Imagery: While there is no content that will be a problem for older players, very young gamers may find some of the later boss designs a bit scary.
I remember spending a lot of time playing the original Return to Dreamland on the Wii with my siblings. One of the game’s main features was four-player co-op for the entire story mode, something that hadn’t been done up until that point. But besides that, I remember the game being fairly bland. Not bad, per se, but nothing mind-blowing. So when Nintendo announced a deluxe port of the game at the last Nintendo Direct, I was…well, to be honest, I was a little confused. It seemed like an arbitrary game to choose for a port. But maybe I missed something all those years ago.
The game opens, like many do, with Kirby and his friends enjoying their day on Planet Popstar. Suddenly, a portal opens in the skies above the idyllic landscape, and a strange ship comes crashing out of it. As it lands, pieces of the ship scatter across the planet. Kirby and co. move forward to investigate, and discover Magolor, an inter-dimensional traveler, is the pilot of the ship, which is called the Lor Starcutter. Magolor enlists the help of the pink puff, along with King Dedede, Meta Knight, and Bandanna Waddle Dee, to collect the parts of the Lor and help him get back to his home planet.
All right, so here’s the question of the hour: was 15-year-old Wes right? Is this the same song and dance we’ve seen before, but just with four players and an extra .5 dimensions? Well, in a way, yes it is. Kirby’s Return to Dreamland doesn’t do a whole lot to differentiate itself from past entries in the series. However, it does wisely borrow some of the best elements from the series history, like Copy Abilities with full Super Smash Brothers-style movesets, and adds a few new elements of its own as well.
The first thing Return to Dreamland does different is Super Abilities. Some levels end with sequences filled with enemies and destructible obstacles that can only be taken out by ultra-powerful abilities. Once Kirby swallows a special enemy, he’ll gain access to an ability that absolutely wrecks everything on the screen. From the Ultra Sword to the Grand Hammer, these powerhouses will take out anything and everything that stands in your way.
Some of these sections even incorporate some light puzzle solving to shake things up. It’s never too crazy, but it does make you think about how you’re going to use the Super Ability. And if you solve a puzzle, you might find a portal to a mysterious other dimension. These sub-levels are always a mad dash to the end away from an encroaching wall of dark matter, and they make for a nice change of pace from the main game’s slower-paced platforming. I do wish they’d done a bit more to differentiate these alternate dimension levels as the game goes on, however. They’re a fun diversion near the beginning, but since they all share the same art style, they really start to blend together near the end of the game.
The game also includes segments in the main game that are designed around a particular item. These items have to be carried over Kirby’s head, removing his ability to swallow or use his current Copy Ability. Instead, you’ll have to navigate these portions as an old-fashioned platformer, usually with the item’s gimmick to help you out. You’ll be wrecking enemies with an auto-firing cannon, dodging obstacles carrying a key, or making precarious jumps in a giant shoe. These segments are a much better example of changing up the gameplay than the alternate dimension levels, simply because they’re designed so well. It’s clear exactly what you’re supposed to do, but it still takes some clever thinking to actually make it through well. And sure, you can just tank your way through, but you’ll miss out on some special collectibles near the end. It’s a good way to encourage players to master the core platforming while still giving less-skilled players an out if they just want to finish the game.
The Challenge Rooms are also one of my favorite parts of the game. They’re all themed around a particular ability, and task you with completing an obstacle course, collecting coins along the way, in a limited amount of time. And that time limit is strict. You will absolutely have to master every ability they throw at you, and that’s no easy task. Even the simplest abilities have a couple pages of moves to learn. This is basically speedrunning as a side game, and while it can absolutely be infuriating, I think it’s a really engaging way to encourage experimentation with different abilities.
You might notice that I haven’t said a whole lot about the main platforming mechanics. And that’s because, quite frankly, I didn’t think they’re much to write home about. They’re not bad, don’t get me wrong, but the level designs felt very flat to me. It was far too easy to just breeze through levels and even bosses without really trying too hard. I even beat most levels on the first try with all collectibles, so I rarely had to replay a level. It really is those extra additions that add spice to the otherwise rather bland base, and those are what caught my attention the most.
I will give credit to the world themes, however. There’s a really nice progression from breezy grass stages to more mechanical and foreboding locales later in the game. The only issue here, again, is the lack of variety within those worlds. Instead of each level in the world taking on a different aspect of its theme, such as in Kirby and the Forgotten Land, every level is a mishmash of themes from the overall world. This means that no level really feels distinct from any other in each world, and it feels more like one long level rather than 5 shorter but distinct ones.
All right, so much for the original game. Here’s the real question: is this really worth the “deluxe” subtitle? In a word, yes. In fact, I would go so far as to say that this is only the second “deluxe” port we’ve seen that actually deserves that title, second to Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. While Pikmin 3 Deluxe added little more than a subpar extra mission mode and the Piklopedia, Return to Dreamland Deluxe builds on a game that already had a decent amount of content with two completely new modes.
The first addition is Merry Magoland. Here you’ll find a collection of minigames, some taken from previous entries in the series, and others completely new for this release. It’s definitely meant to complement Return to Dreamland’s focus on multiplayer, and I think it’s a great addition to play with friends. You’re able to hop into Magoland from any point in the main story, so if you’re getting a little tired of the main levels, you’re never more than a button push away from some surprisingly engaging minigames. They strike a perfect balance of simplicity and depth, as they’re generally controlled only with one stick and a button. But there’s a lot more when you really dig in, especially with the addition of a mission system. Every game has a set of 5 to 6 missions to complete as you play each minigame. These missions contribute to a stamp rally, which will net you special items to use in the main mode, as well as dress-up masks that include a ton of references to past Kirby games. Some of them even change Kirby’s sound effects to match those of the character he’s cosplaying. It’s mainly cosmetic, and I played most of the game without them, but it’s a fun way to incentivize mastering these minigames without locking any important content behind a side mode.
The second addition is the Magolor Epilogue. Taking place immediately following the main game, this mode follows Magolor, the inter-dimensional traveler from the main game, as he navigates through that alternate dimension from the main game. This could have been an easy extension of the main game, but it actually plays entirely differently. Instead of Copy Abilities, Magolor utilizes a skill tree of sorts. Throughout your adventure, you’ll pick up magic points, which you can use to upgrade your abilities and unlock new ones. In addition, the mode includes a combo system that rewards smart usage of those moves with more magic points. Holding onto a solid combo is decently challenging given Magolor’s floatier controls, and it makes for a really engaging update to the overall game engine.
These two modes add an entire dimension to the game that blends seamlessly with the original game’s design. It hits on the focus on multiplayer, adds a fun incentive to what otherwise could have been a frivolous side mode, and includes a beefy epilogue that completely changes the game you just finished playing. It even includes some brand-new Copy Abilities that weren’t in the original game, like Mecha (my personal favorite,) and Sand (which…is definitely an ability.) And finally, the entire game has gotten a much-needed facelift, with bold outlines surrounding all enemies and characters to make the environments pop beautifully. All these make Return to Dreamland Deluxe one of the only Switch ports that I can confidently say is actually the definitive version of its titular game.
However, with all that out of the way, it’s time to address the Dedede in the room: this game was done an enormous disservice coming out so soon after Forgotten Land. I completely understand that this is a game from 2011, and I do not hold it responsible for being a product of its time. But its unfortunate placement as the next main Kirby release after what was one of the strongest entries in the series only highlights how desperately Kirby’s gameplay needed that update. After exploring 3D environments with a wonderfully intuitive mission system that encouraged exploration, 2D planes just feel limiting, no matter how well-designed they are. The Epilogue remedies this a little with its additional RPG mechanics, but it’s still hard to go back to a sidescroller after the freedom Forgotten Land offered. It’s nearly impossible to view Return to Dreamland Deluxe outside of that lens.
In addition, I felt that the main game was woefully short. The main story can be completed in less than 5 hours if you’re decently skilled. There is the Extra mode, but that’s simply replaying the main story with more enemies, harder bosses, less health, and a few more cosmetic changes. While that does add challenge to the game, I’m not exactly keen to go back and play the exact same levels I just finished, but just die a few more times. The Epilogue is the kind of post-game content that I really think fits this game, and I applaud the remake’s team for including it.
If you’re still considering picking up the game, the first thing to consider is whether or not you’re able to take advantage of the multiplayer. Merry Magoland really doesn’t hit its stride in single player, though the mission mode does go a long way to make it engaging on your own. However, multiplayer completely changes the mode, and the main game as well, and the design really is based around that. You can have a fun time on your own, but you’re missing out if that’s all you play. The other caveat really is whether you’re able to look past the gameplay downgrade from Forgotten Land. I’ll be honest: it’s hard for me to go back to this style, but if you’re a fan of the retro Kirby titles, then you will feel right at home here.
I wasn’t a huge fan of the original Return to Dreamland, but coming back with this port, I was pleasantly surprised by just how much depth is lurking under the surface. However, I still hold that it has some of the weaker level designs in the series, remedied only by its side content. The levels really do get samey after a while, and it’s an easy game to rush through without exploring. But I love the focus on multiplayer, and the additions this deluxe package brings helps to remedy those issues. I’d recommend it for people who were fans of the original game, as this is absolutely the definitive version, and for people who are looking for a solid game to play with friends. But if you’re a newcomer to the series, there are other games that do Kirby more justice than you’ll find here.
The Bottom Line
Though the original game doesn't quite reach the heights of the rest of the series, Kirby's Return to Dreamland Deluxe is a great example of what remakes should be, with plenty of extra content and additions to please returning fans.