Version tested: Wii
HAL Laboratory has shown some balls with its most famous creation, which is appropriate given that he looks like one. In recent years, the career of Masahiro Sakurai's pink blob has taken an experimental detour, with Epic Yarn, Power Paintbrush and Mass Attack all proving the malleability of the rose-tinted hero.
So it's a surprise in some ways to see him revert to old form. Kirby's Return to Dream Land (as the more accurate US title would have it) is a retrograde platformer where you consume enemies to obtain their powers. His fans would argue that's what Kirby's best at, but this is so disappointingly generic that most will miss his more esoteric side. Here, HAL has appropriated Kirby's Copy ability: ingesting past glories, then regurgitating them for our pleasure.
Originally planned for release on the GameCube, Kirby's Adventure Wii is a game that exists solely to fill a hole in a release schedule. With no unique hook, it's simply happy to retread old ground.
Most environments and enemies are recognisable from previous Kirby games, and stages follow all-too-familiar themes: forest, desert, water and - surely not! - ice worlds all feature. It will surprise precisely no one to learn that the first boss is Whispy Bleeding Woods. The motion control elements are the most token of additions, restricted to mini-game asides and the occasional bit of physical exertion where Kirby must inhale a larger object to get by, as you shake the remote to suck as much as the idea does.
A threadbare plot tells the tale of a friendly (or is he?) extraterrestrial visitor, with Kirby and chums gathering the parts of his crashed spaceship so he can return home. At least it has the decency to remain unobtrusive - every cut-scene is thankfully skippable - but the half-hearted storytelling is symptomatic of the apparent lack of effort put into making the game.
At least the menagerie of enemies has been expanded a little, meaning that Kirby has more abilities to pilfer. Yet the transformations are barely more than a series of different hats. Some have unique abilities, but many are identical bar the cosmetics - the differences between Water, Spark and Needle Kirby in particular are negligible. A few abilities have greater range than the others, and most will likely stick with these after the novelty of changing form has worn off. You'll need specific types to reach certain secrets and collectables, but there's always an enemy in the vicinity with the ability you require.
There are occasional moments of inspiration. Stone Kirby sees him transform in turn into a boulder, a statue, a star block and a stone sculpture of himself, and there are some silly, throwaway abilities like the useless but amusing Sleep Kirby. Special enemies yield rewards which temporarily turn the 1 button into a win button: a gigantic sword cuts a swathe through anything in its path; a dragon flame burns through obstacles and enemies; a massive snowball smashes through giant tiki torches and sandcastles. The buzz of rumble feedback, the slight hit-pauses and crunchy sound effects really nail the appeal of destruction.
These are the most fun moments in the game, even if they achieve little bar making it even easier for a minute or two. One particularly neat touch has the sword change into different weapons for every swipe, from a curved scimitar to a meat cleaver. My five-year-old son, co-op partner for this review, thought this was the best thing since sliced Skylanders and giddily jumped and hooted with delight.
Indeed, it's not a bad game for parents to play with their kids. You can carry them past tricky bits (though 'tricky bits' is relative - this is, after all, a Kirby game) and tag them to boost their energy meter if you snaffle a health-giving piece of fruit, as well as sharing the occasional invincibility power-up. Nor will little ones need to worry too much about keeping up. Though a much tighter view than New Super Mario Bros. Wii's dynamic camera means it's easy to fall behind, any players that disappear from view will warp to where the leader is with no penalty. Judicious use of this can help less skilled players get past tougher obstacles.
Co-operative play is elegantly handled, with friends and family able to jump in and dip out at the touch and hold of a button respectively. Player one is always Kirby, but everyone else gets the choice of Meta Knight, King Dedede and Waddle Dee, each of whom has a skill analogous to one of Kirby's as well as the ability to float, thus making platforming a doddle. But all feel slightly lacking compared to our hero, whose Copy ability ensures he gets the lion's share of the fun.
This apparent imbalance is mitigated by moments where someone gets to carry an auto-firing cannon, say, or an umbrella to protect the others - though these occasions are as frequent as they are inventive, which is to say, not very. Sure, the umbrella might actually be a French horn parping out a protective rainbow, but same difference.
Fortunately, everyone can choose a Kirby of a different hue, and while lives are shared, restarts are instant unless player one buys the farm. Though the difficulty is supposed to scale as the number of participants increases, it's hard to spot the difference: one side effect of having a full complement is that every boss battle becomes ludicrously easy.
Elsewhere, there are monochrome 'void' levels where you have to outrun a slow-moving wave of colour. On the first level this encroaches on the left side of the screen; the next occasion sees it approach from the right. Then - surprise! - it descends from above. This is Kirby's Adventure Wii's idea of variety.
Meanwhile, collectable orbs that are about as well-hidden as Snake in rainbow camo can be used to unlock challenge rooms, which, despite the low difficulty level elsewhere, are genuinely worthy of the name. There are two further multiplayer asides, one which has you swing the remote to throw ninja stars at targets, and a basic shooting game where players compete to destroy an armoured boss. Both are fleetingly entertaining, but compared with Kirby Mass Attack's extensive selection of mini-games, it's a fairly anaemic offering.
In recent weeks, Nintendo has reminded us that there's no-one finer at making games for young and old alike, with two copper-bottomed classics and, possibly, a third just around the corner. So when it releases something as wishy-washy as this, it stands out all the more.
Kirby's Adventure Wii isn't bad, but set next to last year's Donkey Kong Country Returns, or even Ubisoft's zesty Rayman Origins, this winter's other other platformer feels very vanilla by comparison.
6 / 10