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Kirby's Return to Dream Land is a 2.5D side-scrolling platform game, controlled by holding the Wii Remote sideways. The main objective is to assist the alien Magolor, whose spaceship, the Lor Starcutter, has crash-landed on Pop Star. The player is tasked with collecting the scattered pieces of the spaceship, which are dispersed and hidden within the game's levels, each of which take place in various areas of the planet.

Kirby, the main protagonist, retains his signature ability to inhale indefinitely, allowing him to suck in nearby objects and enemies. The inhaled objects can either be propelled back out as projectiles or swallowed. Certain enemies, when swallowed, allow Kirby to extract their special qualities, giving Kirby access to a wide variety of different powers, called "copy abilities." Copy abilities are used to defeat stronger enemies and clear special environmental obstacles, though Kirby can only possess one copy ability at a time. Similar to Kirby Super Star, each copy ability has multiple forms of attack that are summoned depending on the player's button-presses. The game introduces more powerful, though temporary copy abilities called "Super Abilities," which are able to destroy multiple enemies at once as well as parts of the environment. Whip, water, and leaf abilities are also obtainable. In Return to Dream Land, Kirby also retains the ability to inhale multiple objects and enemies simultaneously to create a massive energy star to expel.

The game features a drop-in cooperative multiplayer system, which allows up to three additional players to be added or removed at any time. The three other playable characters, each possessing his own set of abilities, are Meta Knight, King Dedede, and Waddle Dee, but multiple Kirby characters are also allowed. The players are able to ride on each other, and Kirby is the only character able to inhale the other characters and fire them at enemies. Unlike New Super Mario Bros. Wii however, all players will share extra lives instead of each have their own lives.