Why I picked 'Kirby's Epic Yarn' as worst game of 2010 -- and why I may have been wrong
Kirby’s Epic Yarn is a videogame — the latest in a very popular series — made exclusively for the Wii and suitable for gamers of any age. You play as Kirby, who on most days is a spunky pink blob with big anime eyes. But in this newest adventure, an evil wizard zaps Kirby into a ball-of-yarn version of himself and sends him into Patch Land, a whimsical world made of fabric, a Willy Wonka wonderland filled with thread monsters, denim terrain, polyester backgrounds, and of course, cotton ball clouds. The gameplay involves swinging, jumping, and whipping through many madcap levels (you can collect beads along the way if you want, but it’s not mandatory), advancing through a storyline about helping a petulant royal ruler named Fluff save his torn-asunder textile kingdom, as well Kirby’s native world, known as Dream Land. The game is well produced. In fact, Kirby’s Epic Yarn is one of the best-reviewed games of 2010, with a Metacritic score of 89.
And yet, I named it the worst videogame of the year in the new issue of EW. This is what I wrote:
“There’s a fine line between cute and grating, delightfully busy and irritatingly overwhelming — and for me, this hyperactively adorable side-scrolling puzzler crosses it.”
I knew my choice for “worst” — one of three games on EW’s worst list — would be provocative. (My colleagues Adam B. Vary and Darren Franich picked the other two.) It certainly did not go over well with Kirby fans. @Jerkstore81 tweeted: “If you think Kirby’s Epic Yarn is the worst game of the year, then stop playing videogames.” @fetterdave asked, rhetorically: “So, you saw the near-universal praise for Kirby and thought ‘But I didn’t like it, so that makes it worst game of the year’?”
Others were rather clever — and more prone to use language that might make Kirby rouge from blushing. @MitchyD imagined me as a movie critic: “Worst film of the year: All the ones that make your children happy.” @justinmcelroy wrote a series of Tweets, beginning with “Hey Entertainment Weekly? F—you”, and then: “@EWDocJensen: Worst people of the year? ‘Adorable babies.’” And then: “Says @EWDocJensen, ‘I hate the way they gurgle and how they represent the promise of a better tomorrow for all if humanity.’” What a comedian! But I appreciate how he tempered his tone after another Tweeter piggybacked one of his potshots to take aim at … my mother. Seriously. (Mom and I would have been more offended if we actually understood the crack.) “I don’t want @EWDocJensen to think I hate him,” tweeted @justinmcelroy. “I’m just disappointed.” I’m glad he clarified that; the whole “F— you” thing was a little ambiguous.
Readers were also irked — and confused — by the fact that just a couple months earlier, our own Adam B. Vary reviewed Kirby’s Epic Yarn and gave it a B+. Adam wrote: “A pink globe gets plopped into a world constructed of colorful twine and craftsy cloth, and the result is likely the most adorable game ever. Yes, it’s kinda easy, but you’ll never stop smiling.” Wrote CatholicPat in the message board attached to Adam’s review: “Either stick to an opinion about something or don’t even bother with it. Rating a game B+ but then giving it your “Worst Game of The Year” award gets my ‘Worst People To Be In Charge Of A Gaming Editorial Because They Don’t Have A Clue About What It Is They Are Talking About’ award.” It’s always nice to win an award, so thank you CatholicPat! (For the record: Certain sections of EW have multiple critics; our opinions may differ. I guess you could say our broad-minded, wide-ranging, open-to-many perspectives magazine culture is kinda… well, catholic that way.)
Cleary, Kirby is well loved — even in my own house. When I told my 9-year-old son that I “Worsted” his latest Favorite Thing In The World, he flashed me a look of disappointment that I had not seen since I told him what grown-ups really thought about Jar Jar Binks. “Ah, you just don’t get it,” he said. “If you were a kid, you’d like it.”
Oof. And to some degree, I deserve it. Kirby’s Epic Yarn is rated “E” for “Everyone,” so my experience should be valid, as I do rank among the “Everyone.” There is no caveat that says 40-year-old grumps aren’t eligible to purchase, play, and opine. But fine: the game is for kids, and it rocks for at least two of them. (My 7-year-old daughter is also a fan.) Children of America, I feel badly for raining on your pink plaything parade in pursuit of my totally justifiable intellectual agenda.
Separately, I should have been more clear in my write-up that I was using my “worst” choice to make a point about the relevancy of “cuteness” as a criteria in game criticism (a point which was not well expressed in my 22 word take-down) instead of micro-profiling/skewering a game that was thoroughly awful. A better write-up may have begun: “The worst game of year? No. But this game squanders whatever potential its contrived conceit could have produced by settling for being ‘cute.’” But does Kirby’s Epic Yarn possess the worst gameplay of the year? No. Does it possess the word graphics of the year? No. Worst characters, story or moral content? No.
So … what’s so wrong with Kirby?
Before I explain myself, let me first state that I love “E for Everyone” whimsy. I often enjoy them more than M-rated blockbusters like Call of Duty and Halo. Donkey Kong Country Returns was on my top-10 list. If I could have made a top-20 list, you would have seen Lego Harry Potter, Super Mario Galaxy 2, and ModNation Racers make the cut. So I do dig whimsy.
But Kirby rubbed me wrong. In fact, with all due respect to Mr. Vary, I disliked it for many of the reasons he loved it. For me, it’s not good enough to be “cute” and “adorable” — words that come up a lot in most rave reviews about the game. Yet all I saw were deficits in the areas that matter to me most: premise/story; character; and gameplay. Many critics have likened Kirby to “a storybook,” albeit one where “plot elements don’t matter one bit.” That strikes me as something of a problematic paradox. And if a game is really a storybook, then is it still a game? Regardless: Plot elements do matter to me. I found Kirby’s set-up contrived and inaccessibly idiosyncratic, and then cheapened by the fact that the story that flowed out of it was thin and familiar. The game’s big point of difference — a world made out of varied types of fabric — didn’t capture my imagination; instead, it frustrated my imagination. Turning pink, blobby Kirby to a pink bendy pipe cleaner, but at minimal cost to his abilities and capacities, didn’t strike me as particularly inspired or necessary. The varied textures of Patch Land only made sense to me when the materials “read” distinctively as fabric. Characters made out of thread should “read” as thread — not as a bunch of squiggly lines. Similarly, I was often confused by the stylized landscapes, particularly the ones colored with muted pastels; I think they were supposed to be made out of patches and swatches of cloth, but to me, they looked like blocks of frosting. Was this Patch Land or Candy Land? Also: Why is there water and lava in a world made out of cloth? My (overly-rational?) mind busted on that. Overall, despite the novel architecture and clever interactive components of several environments, the world of Kirby’s Epic Yarn just kinda laid there like a bolt of felt: flat, soft, and unremarkable. I was never fully immersed in the game because I was constantly distracted — or alienated by — by the gimmick, as well as the limitations of the gimmick.
And then there’s the gameplay. The consensus view is that the game is very easy. I agree. But I disagree with the consensus view that there isn’t anything wrong with this. Wrote one reviewer: “Kirby’s Epic Yarn makes a convincing case for the idea that we don’t have to be challenged every single time we play a video game. Occasionally, it’s enough to be happy.” What if you play videogames to, you know, play a game? What if that makes you happy? What if you want to be challenged when you play a videogame? Heck, what if you think videogames have an obligation to be challenging? To be clear, it’s not like Kirby’s Epic Yarn doesn’t possess any degree of difficulty. Some levels do require some puzzle-solving and nimble button-pushing. But there are no stakes. You can’t “die.” There is never the threat of a “game over” like Pac-Man or Donkey Kong. If you fall into a lava pit, a thread angel lifts you up and places you back into the filed of play. There’s rarely a time-based challenge. You can collect beads (“coins”), but you don’t need to. Ultimately, you’re just clearing levels to clear levels, in order to push through a threadbare story of negligible interest.
Not only was I not impressed by the ease of the game, I was disappointed by its unrealized potential. You should be able to play with a ball of yarn in a videogame the way you use a ball of yarn in real life. You should be able to make things with it. Whatever you want, however you want. The gameplay should allow for the player’s self-expression. But Kirby’s Epic Yarn doesn’t empower the player the way it should. Yes, you can morph into an anvil or parachute or submarine as circumstances require. When you want to move quickly, Kirby turns into a car. But the player is rarely given control over the mechanism. There is a moment on the game where Kirby is transformed into a giant robot head that fires missiles out of his mouth. You have to fire said mouth-missiles at these elevated platforms in order to bring the platforms down to ground level so Kirby can traverse the remainder of the terrain. Obstacles come in the form of flying balls of fabric, some of which are capable of firing missiles at you. Yet these so-called “obstacles” aren’t really obstacles. They can’t stop you. If they hit you, you only lose coins. Big whoop. What bothers me most is that the game never gives you the choice to try and solve the level without becoming a giant robot head. A better game would have made the player choose from a variety of yarn forms to solve the task, each with their own advantages and limitations — or allowed the player to not change shape at all. As it is, the only “fun” this segment has to offer the player is the visual of Kirby as a giant robot head made of yarn and mindless-missile blasting. I think the game thinks they’re doing the player a favor by periodically allowing them to take a break from being a boring pink booger. Eh.
Still, do I seriously think Kirby is the worst game of the year … or do I just strongly dislike it, think its wildly overrated, had some major aesthetic and philosophical objections to it, and hoped to use my “Worst” entry to provoke debate about cutesyness? I’d say more of the latter. So yes, I have a small pang of regret for calling Kirby’s Epic Yarn “the worst game of the year,” but only a small pang, especially since it’s barely a game. But if you asked me for my top-10 list of interactive storybooks for children, it would be pretty close to No. 1. After all: It is really, really cute.
[Note: This post was edited and updated on Wednesday to add the word “not” in the sentence: “To be clear, it’s not like Kirby’s Epic Yarn doesn’t possess any degree of difficulty.”]