I’m actually surprised it took as long as it did for Kirby to go the 3D platformer route. While Mario’s been exploring (and consistently reinventing) 3D adventures since the N64 days, and even Donkey Kong dabbled a bit with Donkey Kong 64, Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards was still a firmly 2D game, and barring some sporty excursions on the side, so has every game since. In that sense Kirby and the Forgotten Land has been a long time coming—but it’s been worth the wait.
It’s easy to look at Forgotten Land and see Kirby’s answer to Super Mario Odyssey, which isn’t entirely correct. They share a similar sort of mood and aesthetic in that bright, colourful Nintendo mascot style with a slightly surreal undertone in the use of real-world points of reference. They both put clever 3D twists on the staple mechanics of their 2D counterparts—something Mario has been doing for decades, but Odyssey arguably does best—and there’s even a vague similarity between Odyssey‘s Cappy and Forgotten Land‘s Mouthful Mode in the way they let you solve puzzles.
But there’s another point of reference, too: Crash Bandicoot—and I don’t just mean the way the opening level very deliberately pays homage to the iconic marsupial’s first outing. There’s a similar ethos in its level design, in the way it uses the 3D space within linear levels, and even in some of the set-piece sections. The strength of Forgotten Land lies mostly in the inherent charm of Kirby and the way that’s been adapted to 3D, but there’s also a part of it that feels like a modern form of classic, Naughty Dog-era Crash—more so even then a game set out to be exactly that.
In contrast to the open spaces, camera movement, and exploration-centric aspect of games like Spyro the Dragon and Super Mario 64, Crash Bandicoot‘s levels are like tunnels: linear, fixed camera (usually behind a forward-moving Crash), without a huge degree of verticality or much freedom, but instead with a variety of hazards, puzzles, and secrets that utilise the 3D space within the “tunnel” and the camera perspective to make getting from A to B interesting. It’s that vibe that Forgotten Land channels, and with the added layer of Kirby’s unique qualities, it does so brilliantly.
Copy abilities find new life in the 3D environment. Beyond just handy different attacks, the skills Kirby obtains by vacuuming up enemies often change the way he moves and interacts with the level. Spitting fire comes in useful when you want to light the fuse of a cannon; a musket means you can shoot distant switches; icy feet can carry you safely over pools of lava; and so on. Such has always been the case in Kirby, but a third dimension opens wonderful new possibilities for them in Forgotten Land.
There’s a new trick with copy abilities this time, though: they can be permanently upgraded. Blueprints tucked away in Forgotten Land‘s levels let you unlock new forms that are generally stronger and often pack additional quirks. The simple boomerang-like Cutter becomes a Chakram that can be thrown in arcing patterns, the better to simultaneously hit multiple targets, and then the Buzzsaw that can be thrown and held in place while it powers up. There’s nothing that dramatically changes the way copy abilities work, but it’s a nice, simple way of extending the defining feature of Kirby games, and the level design possibilities along with it.
But the most substantial—and most memed—new addition to Forgotten Land is “Mouthful Mode”. Typically, Kirby can only swallow enemies, but this time around, certain everyday objects can be gulped down as well: cars, road cones, vending machines, roller coaster cars, you name it. These aren’t regular copy abilities, where Kirby noms an enemy and then gains their powers; Mouthful Mode is literally just… Kirby unhinging his jaw like a snake to envelop whatever the target is. It’s bizarre, a little creepy, and oddly endearing.
But more to the point, Mouthful Mode lets you change the way Kirby interacts with the world around him: in Vending Mouth mode, Kirby shuffles along and can barely jump, but spits soda cans out of his mouth with enough force to shatter iron blocks and cracked walls; Car Mouth Kirby is a high-speed turbo machine that turns sections of the game into a sort of racing minigame; Ring Mouth Kirby is basically a giant sail, able to power a boat or blow gusts of wind to clear away piles of dirt.
The catch is they can’t be used freely, like copy abilities—they alter Kirby’s basic abilities so fundamentally that their use would be limited outside of their specific purpose, so Mouthful Mode sections become set-pieces within regular levels. As much as you might want to take Carby with you wherever you go, that narrow focus, without the need to be versatile enough for general use, is what makes these segments some of the most exciting in the game.
All those pieces are fun enough on their own, but it’s the fantastic level design that really ties the whole thing together. Every stage is full of life and colour, a wide array of obstacles to overcome that are rarely challenging but endlessly enjoyable, and plenty of hidden secrets to find. The way the use of 3D space, copy abilities, enemy designs, Mouthful Modes, and playful quirks of a game set in a decidedly Nintendo-esque vision of a post-apocalyptic world—there’s a whole chapter set within the most joyous take on an abandoned theme park—all come together is impressive, and makes Forgotten Land an utter delight to play.
And as always in a Kirby game, there are a handful of little minigames: a simple little fishing game, a frantic food stall game about serving a long queue of customers as quickly as you can, and a battle arena. They’re playful little distractions, rather than anything of any great depth, but they can be a whole lot of fun when you want a little break from the main game—the food stall one especially. On top of that, you’ve got challenge levels built around the unique traits of each copy ability and Mouthful Mode, an assortment of optional objectives within each level, a couple of hundred collectible in-game figures to collect, ensuring there’s plenty to do if you want to get that 100% completion.
At heart, Kirby and the Forgotten Land is classic Kirby, with the playful attitude and neat abilities that have long defined the series and a handful of new ideas thrown into the mix, with the transition to 3D adding a whole new world of possibilities that the level designers never fail to capture and explore to the fullest. It may have been a long time coming, but Kirby’s first real foray into three dimensions is an absolute delight.
Kirby and the Forgotten Land
Genre: 3D Platformer
Platforms: Nintendo Switch (reviewed)
Release date: 25 March 2022
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.