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(Beware: Spoilers below for Kirby and the Forgotten Land on Nintendo Switch.)
One of the more exciting video game releases this year promised the return of Kirby, the pink puffball that has a strong claim to the title of Nintendo’s cutest character. After some wan trial runs over the past five years, Kirby finally made a serious go of it with his newest Switch game: Kirby and the Forgotten Land. But nostalgic fans of the breezy adventure series will find something much, much, much darker under the cutesy veneer here: a dystopian sci-fi story unlike that of any Nintendo game in recent memory.
Forgotten Land actually hints at this turn with its title. The game drops Kirby into a world connected by multiple regions, each one overrun with monsters and dilapidated structures. Once Kirby makes it past the game’s opening areas—a forested area called “Natural Plains” and a picturesque coastal city—the landscapes he must traverse through turn bleak. Clear blue waters and trees with smiling faces give way to toxic oil spills, graffiti-laden abandoned theme parks, and wastelands where one false step can burn Kirby to a crisp.
Environmental threats are par for the course in video games, and Kirby games are no different. In fact, Kirby himself is one: His whole shtick is sucking up bad guys and spitting them out, if he doesn’t absorb their powers to become a killing machine himself first. Kirby’s gifts achieve new and hilarious heights in this game too; he can suck up and transform into cars, vending machines, and paragliders to grant him extra muscle. But what makes Forgotten Land more unsettling than the average Kirby game is that the path through these worn-and-torn areas leads the little guy to the world’s surprisingly dark underbelly.
The game fakes the player out with what seems like an obvious final battle: Kirby vs. his iconic frenemy King Dedede, who is possessed by some beastly spirit. After Kirby gives the penguin royal the ol’ what-for, the pair quickly make amends. Before they have time to shake hands, however, a mysterious elevator opens and a pack of monsters run toward them; King Dedede stays to ward off the beasts, allowing Kirby to escape.
First of all, watching a fan-favorite character like the King essentially sacrifice himself is … jarring. But weirder is what happens in that elevator: a voiceover plays, explaining that Kirby is entering a “science facility” that is home to “the ultimate life-form.” Hearing someone speak a human language in a game where the characters never say anything more than “Hi!” is weird enough. But the narrator explains that the ultimate life-form attempted to invade and destroy the entire world, before the lab managed to contain it. All well and good! Until things get incredibly dark: The super-powerful life-form actually … wasn’t alone? And the “sub-specimen” is still on the loose? And in the meantime, our sweet little Kirby is about to be face-to-face with these monstrosities?
Believe me when I tell you I said “WTF!” Kirby is supposed to be cute and sunny and primary-colored! The sorry state of the world he’s journeying through was depressing enough to me, as a life-long fan of the cute pink hero. To see him then trapped in a partially destroyed lab full of dangerous, unexamined beings was almost too much to bear. When those beings formed an oozing homunculus that chased Kirby down a long hallway, I gasped in horror and disgust. Truly: WTF, Nintendo?
All was well in the end, of course, because what are the developers gonna do? Kill off the little cutie? No! Instead, Kirby transforms into a huge delivery truck and drives into a meteor that is suddenly making its way toward the planet, destroying it into tiny pieces. His new (also very cute) elven friend then appears to sacrifice himself by throwing his body into another intergalactic threat heading toward his planet, and after the end credits play, we see that the horrible monster Kirby just spent all that time fighting may not be dead after all. But the good news is that everyone else made it out okay, too: The world is back to normal, Kirby’s pals are okay, and a cute little rock band has posted up in his hometown, even.
Kirby and the Forgotten Land, for all its darkness, is a fantastically fun, rewarding experience. The classic Kirby gameplay has rarely been better, the level design is varied and exciting, and there’s a serious level of challenge that previous entries in the series rarely offered. If you can put up with seeing Kirby in the most dire of states, it’s worth the trip—especially if you crave a cool, unexpected piece of science fiction.