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After a lifetime of Mario, Kirby is pleasantly weird

Cleaver stuff.

Kirby and I, it seems, have grown up alongside each other, while remaining largely separate. I have been living my life, Kirby has been living his. A lot of what I've been doing in my life, though, is playing games that are almost, but never quite, Kirby. Over the last few years I have played a few Kirby spin-offs, but the main adventures I have left quite alone. Instead, I've been hanging out with Mario, Wonder Boy, the running man from Impossible Mission. (I love that guy.)

Now, though, I've met Kirby on his own territory, in the form of Kirby's Return to Dreamland Deluxe, for the Switch. This is a fancy version of a Kirby game for the Wii, I gather. It comes to the Switch with a handful of new things - most excitingly new abilities based on sand and mechas. Reading around I gather that Return to Dreamland was not Kirby at his very best. A lot of reviewers thought it was boring. But to me, separated from Kirby for so long, it is all new, in a manner of speaking. As such, I'm finding it quite a weird game to play.

What I mean is that it's similar enough in the basics to other platformers I have played to be constantly, jarringly different every few moments. And these sudden shockwaves of oddness are everywhere. Over the last few days they have become the things I have played for. Where is the next thing that will surprise me, that will feel wonderfully off?

Kirby's Return to Dreamland Deluxe.Watch on YouTube

Return to Dreamland is a 2D platformer, and for players coming from elsewhere in the Nintendo Kingdom, it's full of semi-familiar stuff. There's an invulnerability power-up straight out of Super Mario World, while the float move feels like an evolution of Yoshi's strained hovering in Yoshi's Island. When I reached the sand levels yesterday afternoon I found a boulder level that reminded me of the beautifully thrifty and choreographed platforming I once found in the New Super Mario Bros DS games. Even the rich suite of mini-challenges - of which, I gather, two are brand new - remind me of the stuff that came with Mario 64 when it landed on the DS.

But then something will happen that surprises me. Kirby swallows enemies and can take on their powers. I was prepared for this. But the super versions of the powers are surprisingly wild. At one point I spouted lava floes that could destroy massive chunks of the environment. At another, I attacked an enemy with - legit - a chef's cleaver, a giant, screen-filling chef's cleaver.

I'm surprised in general, I think, about what a sharp edge Kirby has when it comes to violence. What a stupid thing to type. But honestly, the sense of feedback to his attacks is absolutely bloodthirsty, really brilliantly delivered stuff. Kirby smacks enemies into other enemies, swipes and upper-cuts and sends baddies rolling away, popping, crushing one another. Typing this out now I see that a lot of what surprises me about Return to Dreamland is to do with these moments of suddenly being wildly over-powered. I knew Kirby games were meant to be easy, but I now see that the way they're often easy is by making you into a cute, waddling killing machine.

I feel bad about all of this. Not the violence. I feel bad that I've played Return to Dreamland for three days now and failed to really meet Kirby on his own terms. A lot of reviews I read talk about how he's always doomed to be Nintendo's other platformer - or even it's other other platformer, as Chris Schilling once put it so beautifully. As such, it's so much easier to see him clearly only at the points at which he diverges from Mario and Yoshi and all that gang. Maybe I just need to keep playing.