Transcends the Platformer.
When you first look at or play Epic Yarn assumptions begin to form about the type of game it is, especially if you're a long-time player. If you look at it, with its baby blue hues, diffuse pinks, and watery turquoise it appears to be made for very young children. If you play it, you understand that there are really no major obstacles in the game and you can't 'die'. At that point, you either decided that this game is not for you or you've dug a little deeper, perhaps out of appreciation for the fine art design, or maybe the nostalgia of the Kirby brand.
The truth of the matter is that Epic Yarn IS for babies. It's also incredibly complex and has many redeeming subtleties. Through the act of seeing and playing, it transforms even the most hardened and serious players into child-like spirits (Or to be more precise, it 'seeks' the child spirit from inside of you). You're transported into worlds of wonder; fields of flowers, dinosaur lands, arabian outposts, windy deserts, drizzly forests, toy lands, castles of cake, cities in the sky. Epic Yarn is able to get away with this due to its excellent art & music design, tight controls and the sheer variety of the gameplay. It doesn't patronize – it loves.
Now, you wouldn't think that a baby game (Well, child is a much better term to use) would be so complex. It is complex, but by no means deep. On paper it is a very standard platformer, having much in common with the Super Mario Bros. 3 design of multiple exotic worlds. Only, Epic Yarn lacks any real equivalent to key features in SMB3 such as the feather, allowing mario to fly. Kirby does have his own transformations as always, but they rarely transform the gameplay in a way that allows the player to explore.
Epic Yarn's complexity is partly in its art design, and partly in its level design.
The visuals are the best part of the game. Everything in the world is painstakingly weaved and sewed as part of a felt and wool tapestry. It looks like an exquisite children's collage made by adults. This visual design is also amazingly crisp and clear for the Wii (if you're playing in 480p at least), and a real achievement in designing from tight restrictions. It very much owes huge debts to Yoshi's Island on the SNES. It sometimes feels like playing Yoshi's Island remixed by Little Big Planet, using only wool and knitting needles.
The art design is not just for show though. The genius of it is that you can interact with it. Levels play out like pop-up story books, where you can unzip parts of the scene to reveal bonus hidden caves, or pull on loose threads to shrink and deform objects masquerading as platforms. There's a wonderfully crisp and fluid response from these interactions and the game knows it, composing your interactions at very particular or pretty moments in the game, eliciting child-like glee.
Levels are surprisingly meaty in Epic yarn. Each interaction or moment is rather simple, but the game has this way of piling on many interactions, that become quite exhausting. The way the game constantly changes and varies the gameplay (There aren't really many challenges – it's often just a series of enjoyable interactions) adds to this layered experience. Not only is each level very distinct in its design, but each world is genuinely new and rich in detail, and the music is bouncy and evocative – ranging from triumphant to downbeat, to mystical, but mostly an uncompromising level of happy.
In fact everything changes. It's not just about Kirby's transformations – it's about a whole world that magically transforms with Kirby. Double tap on the d-pad and Kirby transforms into a little car, a visual metaphor for speed. Double tap 'a' in the air and Kirby transforms into a little hot air balloon. Land on ice for a moment and Kirby will pirouette and become an ice skater. Double tap on the d-pad on long stretches of ice and the little pink blob will transform into a sled. Often at the end of many levels, a magic type of yarn will transform Kirby into a vehicle. Bouncy platforming gameplay transforms seamlessly into a sidescrolling race similar to excitebikes. At other times you transform into a spacecraft and the game transforms into a vertically scrolling shooter, as a triumphant piano and a glam rock/jazz number play you out. Each level combines something of another popular platformer of the past. It's got the elegant and playful base design of SMB3, the massive sprites of Bonk and a flavour of Air Zonk, most of the entirety of Yoshi's Island, some of the barrel blasting of Donkey Kong Country, spikes from Sonic the Hedgehog including the 'through-the-wall' sections of those games. It even has an Ecco the Dolphin level, and a very special (almost hidden) tribute level that I won't spoil.
Conceptually and physically, It's a game about transformation.
But what makes it EPIC? The game does have an epic feel, on a very small and charming scale. It has these transcendent moments that many levels build up to. This might be climbing up a tall beanstalk and reaching the tip in the clouds, or jumping on moving platforms as a little fire engine in a hot tomb, lava gushing up underneath. Finally you get to the top and a volcano erupts. Pull on the string to button up the volcano and hit the level goal. It's crescendos like these that make the game feel almost transcendent of the platformer. Epic Yarn is also a bit of an ironic jab at the current unreal/epic generation of grimy, murky, mass-produced shooters. But it's also a return to the days where games all had 'SUPER' at the front of them. Epic is the new Super.
At the beginning of the review I said Epic Yarn wasn't challenging, but there are particularly nasty levels that the game hides until you get top high scores. There aren't many of them but these levels are uncompromising, often auto-scrolling and full of baddies. The high score system is also very well implemented. The game revolves around the collection of gems. Collecting mechanics are generally looked down on by today's player, but epic yarn does it right. There are only two collectibles – gems, and special decoration objects. The gems count as a score at the end of the level. If you get hit you lose your gems (Like in Sonic the Hedgehog), and let me tell you – losing gems hurts! It's more than enough punishment on par with 'dying'. Collecting gems is strangely fun and you're rewarded for getting 'streaks' (not getting hit once in a level). Collect enough gems beyond the gold medal reward and you get special rewards such as extra levels and décor for your flat. It's not really a very deep addition, but it's nice all the same to have a space to decorate with your memories of the game, like in animal crossing (but not as detailed).
In conclusion, it's not on the same level as a Super Mario Galaxy, but if you only play one platformer this year, make it Kirby.
Epic yarn is traditional but modern, and a skilled piece of design by master craftsmen. This is the Wii.