In the third world of Kirby’s Return to Dream Land Deluxe, a coral-filled ocean with crystal-clear water, I noticed an animation I hadn’t seen before. When I pressed B, Kirby exhaled a bubble that could break blocks or hit enemies. It was cute, almost as cute as the little life preserver Kirby wears when floating on top of the water. But eventually I realized that what seemed like a new action was actually just a tweak to underwater combat, which had previously made me feel vulnerable, to align with how Kirby acted on land. Though it at first appeared to be an evolution, it was just a rearrangement of the set dressing.
Both functionally and aesthetically, this bubble is a good metaphor for the time I spent with Return to Dream Land Deluxe: charming, even delightful, but ultimately a bit unsubstantial.
Return to Dream Land Deluxe is a Nintendo Switch remaster of the 2011 Return to Dream Land for Wii, with several new features, including a harder endgame mode and a theme park with a large collection of minigames. After agreeing to help an interdimensional traveler who’s crash-landed on your planet, you guide Kirby through side-scrolling levels and absorb enemies to copy their abilities: Sword and Beam have become ubiquitous in the series, but there are also two new ones, Sand and Mecha (the latter turns you into a hovering robot complete with orange safety goggles). Deluxe also emphasizes multiplayer, allowing four friends to jump across Planet Popstar together.
The Kirby series tends to vacillate between classic and experimental. Kirby’s Epic Yarn, the crafts-themed Wii game that came out just a year before the original Return to Dream Land, is an example of the latter. Perhaps it’s inevitable that I mentally compared Deluxe to last year’s Kirby and the Forgotten Land, the main franchise’s first fully 3D entry, which is another firm example of the series pushing things forward. I was fascinated by that game, particularly its preference for humanmade settings like malls and carnivals, its deservingly hyped Mouthful Mode, and its bountiful collectibles, some purely aesthetic (like the gacha machine for minis) and others tied to progression in the story.
By contrast, Deluxe is traditional — as remasters are wont to be — but it’s also, in many aspects, dated. It has end-of-stage minigames, world hubs, and a recurring portal (in about a third of the levels) that leads to the same boss with minor differences. It has collectibles, but they don’t gate anything in the story, instead unlocking challenge levels and rooms in which to play around with copy abilities. Though stages are very straightforward, it seems as if the designers are worried that players will get lost: After beating a boss, a giant blinking arrow pops up to point to the end of the level, as if the one available exit would leave any doubt.
Kirby games have always been marketed toward children and families. Complaining about their difficulty is a little like sitting at the kids’ table and wondering why the chairs are so small. Unlike Nintendo’s other major franchises, which teach you their intricacies through repeated mistakes, Kirby is always like playing with pillow armor on, and Deluxe is no different: There are systems upon systems to ease the difficulty down, from multiplayer with more skilled friends or family to a “Helper Magolor” who gives you health potions and carries you across pits (something I would have appreciated when I was learning how to jump in platformers for the first time). These systems are all great, and none of them take away from the experience of learning how to navigate Kirby through the world.
Young people appreciate novelty and creativity, though, and other games in the series have provided that abundantly. There’s a distinction between being easy — something every Kirby game that’s ever released has been, to some degree — and being repetitive. And more often than not, Return to Dream Land Deluxe rests on what’s worked in the past rather than trying something new.
The moments I most enjoyed in Deluxe were the ones where I experienced some friction, usually when the game tossed a new mechanic at me and I had to readjust. Holding a candle to progress through dark rooms, or having to navigate downward instead of sideways to escape a gelatinous wall-of-death scroller, felt less difficult than fresh, like I had to stretch my understanding of what the game expected from me. These moments were rare, but they really stuck out.
I expected to feel the same way about the most notable addition in Deluxe, the Magolor Epilogue, in which you take control of the titular character to maneuver through new areas. The premise is great — your character starts depleted of power and you have to build up their stats by collecting energy spheres in an RPG-like progression that’s unlike anything found in Kirby’s mode. But while Magolor initially has a different play style than Kirby, restoring his powers gradually brings his moves more in line with the pink puffball’s levitation and copy powers. No, Magolor can’t use copy abilities, and yes, they shoot an orb instead of a star. But the differences really end there. Magalor eventually becomes derivative of Kirby while navigating stages that, while different from Kirby’s levels, share assets and challenges with them, and overall, have less detail and charm. While it was refreshing as a change from the main game, its thinness became apparent quickly. As the main selling point for this remaster, the Magalor Epilogue lacks longevity.
Return to Dream Land Deluxe is a remaster with a fresh coat of paint but few meaningful changes. It’s certainly polished; the only thing that actively impeded my experience was a sprint input that is really hard to trigger, leaving you waddling slowly away from things like the aforementioned scrolling wall. But I remain disappointed by its conventionality — its contentedness to not only avoid pushing the ideas of the 2011 original forward (a criticism that may be less important to those who prefer a more traditional Kirby) but to also abstain from experimenting more with its brand-new material.
The best way to play this game seems to be in multiplayer, perhaps with a younger person on the team who can appreciate the novelty of the decor and combat without getting stuck. While the subgames and epilogue mode do provide more content, they don’t actually add much substance. For those who missed the game on Wii and want to try out the co-op, it provides a variety of ways to do so. But if you’ve experienced the original, Deluxe is just a larger version of the same — a little flashier, a little longer, but nothing unmissable.
Kirby’s Return to Dream Land Deluxe will be released Feb. 24 on Nintendo Switch. The game was reviewed using a pre-release download code provided by Nintendo. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.