Why I picked 'Kirby's Epic Yarn' as worst game of 2010 -- and why I may have been wrong

Kirbys-Epic-YarnKirby’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."]

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Comments (121 total) Add your comment
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  • Chuck

    The only thing worse than games for children are the children themselves. No, wait, one thing is even worse than children. Sanctimonious PARENTS of children who think the entire world revolves around them and their coddled moppets and who spend all their time taking potshots at reviews and reviewers like Jensen who have the temerity to argue that SOME of us would prefer not to spend our lives in a sickly-sweet bubble of pink, inoffensive, dumbed-down cutesiness.

    • tvchick

      Wow – tell us how you really feel!

      Heaven forbid, you just don’t buy the game.

      For the good of the world as a whole, I hope to God that you never breed.

    • Peter

      Worse than that are sanctimonious Chucks who think every game should be adult-friendly. If it’s really a game for children, maybe it shouldn’t be ranked with games for adults.

    • To Chuck

      Awesomely written. Thanks.

    • Anonymous

      A good review takes into account its target audience. Let’s say a video game marketed for children is called ‘Rampaging Kids: Parent Holocaust’. That would be a good consideration for ‘worst of the year’. Or a video game marketed for young male adults is called ‘Carpet Store Monopoly’. You get the idea. I only scanned this article, but at the end, the author admits he gave the game a negative review because it was highly rated by others. Thats not weighing the plus’s and minus’s. Thats just being contrary for the sake of being contrary.

      • Will

        Not gonna lie, “Rampaging Kids: Parent Holocaust” sounds like an awesome game.

      • steve

        I think you’re close. The author is being “contrary” because in doing so his article, his twitter page, the forums, and most importantly this site and the advertisers on these pages get tons of eyeballs.

      • Dave

        Steve is such a genius to have come up with this theory.

  • DW

    Thank you for this post, as I found it completely ridiculous that a critically acclaimed game with a Metacritic score of 88 was named worst of the year. Annoyingly cute? Sure. But worst? No way.

  • Josh

    It’s kind of like the time a few years ago when EW named Big & Rich’s “Coming to your City” as the worst album of the year, but what they really meant was most disappointing album of the year. As far as video games, there are games that come out each year that are insulting, offensive, or just plain broken to the point of being unplayable. But most of those games people might not have heard of, so it’s more attention grabbing to pick a popular, well reviewed game as the “worst”, merely because you were disappointed that it didn’t live up to its potential. But that’s a distinction that bothers a lot of people, because disappointment has a lot to do with expectations, which isn’t really the game’s fault. I understand what you were trying to do by saying it was the “worst”, but it was perhaps a bit disingenuous.

    • Josh

      I also realize that EW writers are not video game writers, and that their time is split between many different things, so the odds of reviewing a truly bad and broken game are slim to none. Instead of “worst” videogame, it should be “most disappointing videogame of the handful I actually had time to play this year”. I don’t want EW to become IGN, but maybe a bit of perspective about how many videogames are truly out there would be a good thing.

      • Chaz Winterbottom

        I was thinking the same thing. I’m guessing that Mr. Jensen hasn’t played Tony Hawk Shred. And who has? That thing only moved 3000 copies in it’s first week! Sure I can understand Kirby not being for everybody, (admittedly it’s not for me either), but to call it one of the worst of the years is a little like picking the movie, Million Dollar Baby as one of the worst of the year even though Halle Berry’s Catwoman came out the same year.

      • sarCC

        Yeah. All their list proves is that these guys obviously don’t play many videogames. They definitely should’ve named the list “most disappointing to people who only play a game or two a year.” The EW crew are truly encased in their own little cultural bubble.

      • Andy

        There are dozens of absolutely awful games that come out for consoles every year. Here are some of the worst according to metacritic: Power Gig, Saw II, Fling Smash, Deadliest Catch, Prison Break, Naughty Bear, Iron Man 2. If any of these are better than Kirby then I don’t want to play vieo games anymore.

    • Rich

      Actually, if EW named Big & Rich “Worst Album” some years back, they are truly prescient. It’s rare you get to see “The Future Of Country Music” turn into bargain bin hacks thanks to one release.

  • Jonathan

    This article just further proves the point at why some people shouldn’t review games, and further proves the lack off intelligence that ew magazine has, well doesn’t have.

    • picklepancakes

      I actually think Doc is quite intelligent, but I think a post about why he chose this as his worst game was unnecessary. So he hated it, who cares? I kind of don’t understand why you read the magazine, or visit this site if it’s so far below your intellectual capacity.

    • tcc

      Totally agree, Doc is not somebody who plays enough games to have a valid opinion. I would agree that it may have been the “worst game that he played” but he must not know the magnitude of crappy/unplayable games released each year.

  • Rebecca

    I think the bigger outrage to this whole thing is that you didn’t pick Super Mario Galaxy 2 as one of the best games of the year. Seriously, what’s wrong with you?! As for Kirby, I understand it’s not for everyone but I completely disagree with you on the game being the worst of the year. I’m 23, grew up with Kirby games and found it to be one of the most enjoyable. The visuals are fantastic, the music is wonderful and while it’s rather easy to beat, you’re still challenged. Try getting a gold rating beating Yin Yarn the first time or finding all the treasure the first go-around. Are you limited sometimes? Yeah, but who cares (aside from you)? I think next year the Best and Worst of 2010 should be a collective list, not compiled by just one person.

  • n

    You’re entitled to your opinion, and if you believe it’s the worst game of the year, then I respect that. Personally, though, I disagree on the overall statement (although I do agree with many of your points). I loved it. It reminded me of my childhood when my mom would read storybooks to me (even after I was old enough to read them myself). An “interactive storybook” is probably a more fair title, but a lot of things are called video games these days (and are also rated E), and they’re not all about being the most strategically inclined or the best sniper (Harvest Moon, for example).

    You’re correct–Kirby’s Epic Yarn isn’t difficult. Not even a little bit. But it is kind of fun to see how many beads you can retain and what kind of new levels you’ll open up if you manage to surpass the patch point on the bead string.

    I thought it was nice to play through this as a break from the more difficult, much more irritating Final Fantasy XIII (been playing since it came out in March). Sure, the graphics in FFXIII are amazing, but I hate all of the characters. I can’t stand their personalities, from whiny to self-important to cold. I would choose this game as my worst of the year, and I’m a FF fan (I even loved the hated X-2).

    I’m sure most people will disagree with me, as some will disagree with you, but I still think you have the right to hate Kirby’s Epic Yarn and to call it the year’s worst—after all, you’re the EW critic, and you never claimed it was any kind of scientific poll.

    • n

      Whoa. TL;DR territory.

      • you are n idiot

        Really? It’s like 300 words long, tops.

  • picklepancakes

    Wow Doc. A simple post about why you hated a game became nearly as long-winded as your Lost analyses.

  • Joseph

    There is a small problem with your argument Doc. You start out by saying that your main issue with the game is the lack of plot, and you also claim that Super Mario and Donkey Kong were two of your favorite games of of the year. You cannot tell me you think that those games have original and well developed plots. Nintendo is notorious for using its staple characters and throwing them into familiar situations with a twist. That’s why people love them. people like knowing that when they pick up a Nintendo game they know exactly what kind of game play they are getting into. I agree the quality of a game should not be determined by its cutest, but with Kirby, that’s what people are expecting.

    • Mole

      I think it’s easier to forgive plot contrivances when you have Galaxy-level gameplay. Also, there’s a difference between “simple plot” and “threadbare, inconsistent” plot.

    • cheese

      Exactly! Mario is always saving Peach. Link is always saving Zelda. Donkey Kong is always trying to get his banana horde back. Star Fox is always saving the galaxy. Samus Aran is also always trying to save the galaxy. What is it that he is expecting?

    • sarCC

      I for one found this a better game than New Super Mario Bros and I’m sure it’s less frustrating than Donkey Kong Country Returns. Instead of being a disappointing racing game or the like, Epic Yarn was pretty creative and innovative. I didn’t find the lack of plot a problem. You play games to finish them and along the way Epic Yarn made the journey fun and, most importantly, relaxing.

      I’ve played many games that helped me vent frustration and anger, but only Epic Yarn, in recent memory, soothed and relaxed me in a significant way. It’s the perfect way to just zone out with something not too hard and entertaining enough to emit the warmest grins from the most hardened cynic.

  • Mole

    I expect more from Nintendo and Kirby than a watered-down clone of Little Big Planet.

    • Andy

      How is it a clone to little big planet? The only similarities I see are that the main characters are made of fabric and its a side scroller. Play both games before you write down your thoughts.

      • Jacob

        No kidding. Little Big Planet also didn’t invent the fabric-based aesthetic. See Yoshi’s Story, circa 1998.

  • Tye-Grr

    “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?”

    Then play a different game.

    Your argument still isn’t working for me. It’s like you watched ‘Finding Nemo’ and got pissed off that it was a G-rated animated movie complete with a happy ending. What were you expecting from it? Kirby packing heat ala ‘Call of Duty’? Picking up hookers like in ‘Grand Theft Auto’? Sometimes your expectations should be adjusted by the material you’re getting into. I’m not going to go into ‘The Fighter’ later today expecting it to be ‘Inception’, but I’m still looking for it to entertain me for what it’s worth. I can’t stress the last 4 words in my previous sentence enough when it comes to your argument.

    • Katja

      Why on earth do you think “challenging gameplay” means having guns and picking up hookers? He gave a very specific example of a situation in the game that he thought could have been made more of a challenge (the robot head thing) and that, to him, would have been more fun. I get that. I like a game with a little bit of challenge – otherwise, where’s the sense of accomplishment that kind of makes up for me wasting hours of my life playing a video game instead of doing something real? I mean, I love video games. But I want to feel like I accomplished something when I do them, or it just feels sad that I spent hours playing a game that provided nothing for me to overcome and brag about. I understand why people disagree with Jensen’s review of the game in some ways, though personally the game seems both annoying and pointless to me, but your logic strikes me as being a bit off. Maybe I misunderstood you….?

      • Tye-Grr

        You misunderstood me.

        I’m not saying challenge means guns and profanity, I’m saying that not every game needs to be challenging period, regardless of content. It’s clearly aimed more for children, and it succeeds at being exactly what it is. You can’t be mad at “Looney Tunes” because it doesn’t stimulate your brain intellectually. Do you get me now?

  • Aseem N. Garg

    Dear Doc Jensen,

    I love your writing, and truly appreciate that you wrote nearly 2,000 words on a video game centered on Kirby. That being said: could you maybe skip this next time and write 2,000 words for your long-anticipated final column on Lost? Thanks!

    -Aseem

    • JV

      Agreed!

      Doc – Please, please, please release your final Lost column!! I need to know you are finished with it to have closure. (I know, I know…co-dependent, but there you go.)

  • racefan111

    So he doesn’t like the game…so what? Not everyone has to like the same stuff – get over it.

  • Neil

    The entire list of ‘worst games’ was horrible, anyway. You can’t make a list of the worst games of the year and include games like Kirby and Metroid, that were genuinely fun, well-reviewed, and took a lot of time to make. You include unplayable shovelware (which is easily found on consoles). Eh.

  • Temp

    How come I never see any videogame reviews on this site? Where do you hide them all! I had no idea there were game reviews here, crazy.

  • Chaos

    So it isn’t the worst game of the year, but it is the worst game of the year? lolwut?

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