You can’t enjoy art or books in a hurry.
-E.A. Bucchianeri, Brushstrokes of a Gadfly
You creatives reading this will know that inspiration can come from anywhere. We may typically think of verdant vistas, soaring symphony, or fantastic film to get our inventive juices flowing, but the touch of the muse can come in the form of something as mundane as a walk or a weird looking stick, or in this case… a trip to a crafts store?
It is at this point that I’d like to retell the dramatic story where one of the developers of this eventual game was walking down an aisle of skeins of all colorations, when a shaft of fluorescent light split the air in front of him and the effulgence alit upon a partially unwound ball of pink yarn lying on the white tile in the vague but unmistakable shape of Nintendo’s Kirby. Epiphany! Rapturous euphoria! His neurons convulsed within him: the electric fire of inspiration. He felt his blood turn to pure adrenaline in his veins, boiling, and as he reached down to pick up that holy thread and set it back on the shelf so that no one would trip on it, he made history.
Great story, but it isn’t true. Fun to tell, though! What actually happened, according to Producer Etsunobu Ebisu, was the Planning Section Manager at Good-Feel, one Madoka Yamauchi, just came up with the idea all of a sudden. That’s not as exciting but at least it made for a distinctive concept.
This was Good-Feel’s third game after Wario Land: Shake It! and Looksley’s Line Up, so I’d call this one their breakout hit. Kirby’s Epic Yarn plucks the familiar pink puffball out of Dream Land to a new microcosm made wholly of craft materials. Find your fave fabric! Denim! Flannel! Corduroy! Charmeuse! Tweed! Whatever. I hope you don’t think it’s lamé.
But let’s not get a thread of ourselves.
The story begins in felt board fashion with Kirby strolling through a meadow on the search for something to sate his bottomless pit of a stomach, completely oblivious to rumors that a caped sorcerer has been going around accosting citizens by transforming them into yarn. Kirby suddenly encounters the wizard of wool, Yin-Yarn, and is turned into yarn himself. Aghast with existential horror, Kirby discovers that he cannot inhale or use his copy ability anymore! Still, it’s not as bad as it seams…. Kirby quickly adapts to this new form when his heroic virtues are called upon.
Instead of copying enemy attacks, Yarn Kirby can lash a thread out from his arm to interact with buttons, loose stitches, and zippers to affect his environments to his advantage. He can also wind enemies up into a ball and throw them. On top of that, his new body can shapeshift into all sorts of forms. If anything, his morphing powers have been enhanced.
How would Kirby know what pants are?
Epic Yarn doesn’t look like a Kirby game at all but that’s because it didn’t start out in development as a Kirby game. The developers knew something was missing and so Kirby was eventually brought into the project. Originally, Epic Yarn starred a character named Fluff as the lead.
Fluff of course appears as Prince Fluff of Patch Land, a supporting character and one which a second player can join in as. It was Kirby and the motifs of his games however which ended up carrying the game’s development to completion, filling in the gaps where the developers struggled with a game that was at first too easy and then later too hard. Kirby (more importantly the philosophy of his games’ structural design) made it just right.
Alongside Prince Fluff, Kirby enters Patch Land, a realm laced with magic, to defeat the evil sorcerer Yin-Yarn and stitch Patch Land back together. Beyond even the wizard’s silken soldiers, Kirby and Fluff must face down old enemies in King Dedede and Meta Knight who have also been transformed into yarn. Who knew that playing with plush could be so perilous?
What’s remarkable to me about Kirby’s Epic Yarn beyond its fabric-based appearance is how relaxing it is. This takes several things into consideration: the balance and refinement that the developers achieved, but also the pace of the game. While there are of course the handful of boss fights to overcome, and some latter challenges are quite difficult, most of the game feels like a leisurely stroll. Given, Kirby has never been as athletic a character as Super Mario, for instance, and that’s been plain since his inception when he could sail through the air like a dandelion seed.
Nintendo doesn’t seem to even want to shed the “kiddie” accusation from their detractors. Epic Yarn would say “quilty as charged”.
This is a game which plays as gently as its presentation suggests. As such, it’s one of the few games which comes instantly to my mind as utterly relaxing, therapeutic almost. A lot of people use video games to unwind and playing Kirby’s Epic Yarn is a great choice for that.
The 8-bit Review
The idea of building a game around the realities of yarn, stiches, crafts, and fabrics meant that Epic Yarn has a keen eye for in-game physics design. The fabric floors actually indent under Kirby and Fluff’s weight; the backgrounds wrinkle and fold whenever they pull at threads or buttons; the sensation of objects and materials being tangible is an optical illusion that Epic Yarn pulls off splendidly.
Staff actually purchased and took pictures of real craft materials and their textures so that they could be used in the game. They also experimented with how yarn felt and moved. The result is a fantasy concept that’s grounded in reality. In Satoru Iwata’s own words, the game had “visual impact”.
Replaying it now on the Wii means going back to a time right before the inclusion and in some cases infatuation with HD graphics, at least in the context of Nintendo. We all know they’re dyed-in-the-wool, set in their ways. However, the lack of crisp definition in retrospect adds to the soft pastels, the smooth motions, and the fuzzy textures of the characters and environments in the game. From a technical standpoint, it’s blurry and it looks its age. On the other hand, any complaint that this distinctive title on the Wii didn’t stand out from tons of its peers because of its unique aesthetics is a complaint that’s entirely made out of whole cloth.
Nearly a decade after its release, I still consider this soundtrack special. Because a lot of its music was written when it was still in development as a game about Fluff, the music stands out in the Kirby series. For one, it’s much slower and easy-going. Many platformers encourage pace through the structure of their soundtracks by keeping the tempo up, yet rarely is that the case here.
Composer Tomoya Tomita commented on the soundtrack’s approach in an interview:
“…Madoka Yamauchi explained to me she wanted to create a game that little kids could play with their mothers, so rather than compose for a game, I envisioned writing music for a picture book. The first idea that came to mind was centering my compositions around a single acoustic instrument, like a guitar or a piano.
Ultimately, I decided on the piano because of the variety afforded by its impressive range of tones and dynamics.”
This centering around acoustic instruments explains all of the tenderness, the tangibility of this soundtrack. Since I like to tickle the ivories myself, I was delighted to hear the “realness” of this music. Rather than the synthetic, fast-paced tones of previous Kirby games, Epic Yarn adopts a gentle, peaceful and corporeal sound.
My wife loved this song and always said it sounded like Disneyland. “Rainbow Falls” is unrelentingly cheerful, bright, and happy-go-lucky without a sense of ignorance, willful or not. It’s as if it looks at all of life with an optimism that cannot be quashed. Music like this makes the experience of playing the game a joy and so much of this soundtrack is like that. Even though the project didn’t begin with Kirby, Epic Yarn’s music crystallizes the bliss and the innocence of the character, at least to my mind.
When the traditional Kirby throwbacks appear for obligatory nostalgia, they too have been revamped in the dearest tones. These revisions preserve the tempo of the original songs while reinterpreting them with acoustic instruments. “Green Greens” and “Butter Building” will both sound unmistakable if you’ve played classics like Kirby’s Adventure, but the new instrumentation makes those faded, sepia-toned memories palpable.
Here, the actions of the player characters are informed by the mechanisms of Patch Land, so Kirby’s signature abilities, specifically the copy ability and flight, were cut. Without flight, the game instantly becomes wholly other than the typical Kirby title. This game is much more like a typical platformer where positioning of the character(s) becomes meaningful.
The pink powderpuff can no longer suck up enemies like a big vacuum and then absorb their powers to use as his own, which is made clear in one of the earliest cutscenes when he attempts to inhale after being transformed into yarn and the air moves right through his body. Instead of copying enemy abilities, Kirby can morph into different shapes. When dashing, he turns into a car. When drifting down from a great height, he turns into a parachute. Underwater he becomes a dolphin. Confronted with a conflagration he becomes a fire engine. He can even be rolled up into a ball and turned into a projectile.
This all speaks to the versatility of the character but in a totally new way, and it allowed the developers the chance to play around with the digital yarn, a fun-loving sense of experimentation which bled down into the gameplay and into the players themselves. Every time someone starts playing Epic Yarn, at least from what I’ve seen, the first thing they want to do is try to shape Kirby into different forms by making him perform different movements. Curiosity about the world drives the game forward and I remember that while this game has many stages with many secrets to find, I kept wanting to see what else I could do.
Tugging at strings and lassoing buttons leads to interesting and occasionally unpredictable results. Pulling back the background like a curtain for the first time is indeed charming, yet the game wisely moves beyond the novelty of its fabric fantasy, lest that be the only draw and players quickly grow bored of it. Each “land” has several stages, and each stage has a group of stickers to collect. These stickers are actually pieces of furniture which Kirby can use to decorate his apartment in Patch Land. That’s at least some incentive to find everything, though I could’ve wished there was an easier way on the Wii to show off your collection with a “share” feature. However, the in-game value of decorating your apartment is in how it attracts new neighbors to move in next to you, NPCs who offer bonus content.
There are also “beads”, which I’ll address here in a moment.
Cut from the same cloth, Prince Fluff is there for player two to assist Kirby on his quilted quest. He has the same abilities and powers as Kirby so there’s no need for players to squabble over who’s their favorite, beyond such things like the whims of who likes pink and who likes blue.
Two player co-op that’s this accessible to two people at once, without taking turns, without having to worry about the skill of the other player so much to succeed, is wonderful. My wife, the White Out Mage, and I played through the entire game together and really enjoyed the experience. She also played through the game with the Green Screen Mage, so she had a double dipping! Wifey doesn’t play games too often but she’s been a fan of Kirby since childhood. The pace, the presentation, and the pitch of this game are all perfect for a couple to sit down and enjoy, “Kirby and chill”. Like the composer commented earlier: this is a game designed for two people, such as a mother and her child, to explore together.
Epic Yarn is easy to learn with all of the crucial information provided in its initial stage. During development, when the game was too easy, the developers worried that the fun atmosphere wouldn’t be enough to hold player interest and early tests confirmed that. Later, when the game was too hard, it didn’t seem to jive with the lighthearted and “foofy” (technical term) nature of a world made of yarn. After Kirby became a part of development, the developers came upon collecting beads as a core mechanic.
Instead of implementing health points or hits, or dying and returning to the start of the stage, the goal of the stages isn’t just to reach their end. It’s a given that you’ll clear a stage with enough patience. Instead, the goal became to “best” the stages by collecting all the beads, which are themselves a currency used to purchase a percentage of the game’s rewards (furniture and music). The beads are therefore crafty inclusions which have more collective value than gathering 100 of something to gain an extra life. There’s no need for extra lives in Epic Yarn but the energy to move onward is ever-present.
This thematically seems to me to fit with the tangibility of the craft materials which inspired the game’s aesthetics: they are physical objects and so objects became the thrust of the gameplay in Epic Yarn. The sense of achievement comes in completing stages without making the error of bumping into enemies and loosing some of your beads, in finding and keeping all the beads by the end of the stage. This becomes more challenging toward the end of the game and you’re awarded a different medal at the end of each stage to indicate whether you’ve mastered it or not depending on how many beads you held onto.
This follows the philosophy of Kirby games as easy and accessible with an emphasis on the player choosing how they want to play the game. In the original games, Kirby could suck in air and take to the skies, floating across entire stages from start to finish. This is there for beginner players and those who want to take it easy, while others . The best part about this philosophy is Kirby doesn’t turn this choice between ease and skill into a moral evaluation. Kirby never says through mechanism or design that you suck (heh) if you choose to fly past enemies and that you’d be a better person if you had the skill to take on every foe.
Kirby is the best response to the “git gud” mentality in some of the more… unappealing regions of the gaming community.
Skill and developing skill are great things and so is being able to play games at any skill level. Kirby bridges the gap between those seemingly mutually exclusive ideas. There are games out there that you should develop some skills at if you want to play them successfully or competitively, and at the same time there are games like Epic Yarn that you can play with anyone, regardless of whether they’re a “gamer” or not. The bosses may provide a bit of challenge while the gameplay as a whole eases you in.
Given everything there is to discover in the rather broad world of Patch Land, there is plenty of replay value in Epic Yarn. I have a save file which says 100% so I must’ve found everything at some point in the past. I didn’t have it in me to try for that again. However, no challenge should prove too intense and Epic Yarn provokes its players in the unique ways I’ve mentioned above.
Yoshi’s Woolly World came out 5 years after Epic Yarn, a clear case of Good-Feel borrowing from their own ideas. Why not, when you have an idea as great as this which tries to render the digital real? Somehow, though Epic Yarn was the 19th title in the Kirby series, the game made the character feel new and on an idea that could be summed up in a single sentence, one which could’ve very easily mean little more than a tiresome gimmick. How Good-Feel managed to turn a left-field concept into a full-fledged game with substantial content to it is a miracle, and this game benefits from that concept in terms of cohesion in a way Kirby with his weird blend of foodstuffs, dreamscapes, and space paraphernalia hadn’t before. Like the titular character who had been transformed, Epic Yarn transformed this arguably stuck-in-a-rut hero into a super star again.
My Personal Grade: 9/10
And sew… it is with great delight that I commend Kirby’s Epic Yarn to you. This sort of game is the kind which benefits from having a companion with you. Good company will make the experience. It’s my second favorite Kirby game behind Kirby’s Adventure and it’s likely to stay that way for a long time still. As far as Kirby game’s go, they’re fun and accessible but not always the most engaging or complex. Epic Yarn remains memorable for me.
Who knows. Maybe you’ll find it’s tailor made for you!
Aggregated Score: 8.5
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Categories: Game Review