At one point while I was playing Kirby's Epic Yarn, I felt an uncontrollable and thoroughly embarrassing urge to get up off my seat and stroke the TV. The game looks unbearably soft, like the screen has ceased to conform to its glass and plastic composition and morphed into a tangible patchwork of cotton, wool and felt. As Kirby trots along the level, the fabric platforms indent and deform under his feet, just like a sofa would if you were to walk along that. Epic Yarn is a cushion-y collage of soft pinks, pale yellows and baby blues, a game that a 22 year-old male should have no right falling so madly in love with. God damn you, Nintendo.
I've never paid much heed to Kirby as a character before - he was simply that annoying ball of pink I'd take great pleasure in beating the crap out of in Super Smash Bros. I was, of course, aware of his extensive video game history - the Kirby series boasts an impressive 20 titles - but I still saw him as little more than a little pink punching bag. Mere minutes into Epic Yarn, that perception of Kirby was pulled to pieces in a flurry of thread and fibre. Kirby, it seems, is one cool dude.
Much like New Super Mario Bros. Wii, Epic Yarn brings platforming back to its roots with traditional 2D gameplay and simple controls. Holding the Wii-mote horizontally, the d-pad is used for movement, the 1 button for jumping, and the 2 button to attack. It's not really an attack though; Kirby flings out a woollen limb, grabbing an enemy and rolling them up into a neat ball of fabric, at which point they can be hurled across the screen. It's undeniably simple but also incredibly refined, adding some very innovative little touches to the age-old formula. While children might appreciate the face value of the platforming, there are a lot of very adult design choices going on behind the scenes.
The levels are beautifully designed, both from an aesthetic and mechanical perspective. Kirby can grab hold of zips, pulling them across to reveal new areas of a level. Laces can be unfastened to reveal holes in the space time fabric, transporting Kirby to other parts of the level. Buildings can be entered, obscuring Kirby from view and replacing him with a little bulge under the material. Few games are able to weave their mechanics with the theme and graphical style of the game so successfully.
Sadly, Kirby is no longer able to inhale his enemies and steal their powers, but that's not to say he can't still take on other forms. Given his woolly constitution, Kirby is able to unthread himself and morph into other objects without the need for an enemy muse. If you press the jump button in mid air, he'll morph into a parachute, keeping him airborne that bit longer. Jump into the water, and he grows a propeller, navigating the water as a little pink submarine. Pressing the down button in mid air will turn Kirby into an anvil, while double tapping the forward button will see him take on the form of a racing car, allowing him to tear about the levels at twice his usual speed. Undoubtedly there'll be other exciting forms in the finished game, too.
On top of the all the platforming and puzzling, each level is peppered with a variety of different bead-based collectibles, with different sizes and colours representing different values. A score in the top left corner of the screen increases as your bead collection grows, with the most valuable beads found off the beaten path. Half the fun with co-op is seeing who can amass the most beads; it's a competition between friends - a little game within the game.
Co-op play is particularly good fun, allowing a second player to drop in whenever they fancy. Kirby's blue, crown-wearing chum (who's yet to be named, as far as I can tell) can be lifted up and hurled to otherwise unreachable places. One section of the current demo sees Kirby merge with his partner and transmogrify into a screen-filling tank - one player controls movement and aiming, while the other concentrates on unleashing an extendible boxing glove at the army of oncoming enemies. At the end of this section, the yarn forming the tank wraps itself around a pole as it passes by, unwinding the vehicle and reverting Kirby and his pal to their usual spherical selves. This one single moment was perhaps my favourite of the whole demonstration, one of the many flashes of brilliance for which Nintendo is so well known.
Like Madonna, Kirby is a character that is constantly reinventing himself. 2010 sees him adopt his most interesting style yet, an outfit bursting at the seams with innovation and creativity. He's a material boy in a material world. Nintendo has got a strong line-up of games marching onto the scene in the lead up to Christmas, and for me, Kirby's Epic Yarn is leading the charge.
Kirby's Epic Yarn will be released on Wii this autumn.