An alien threat has risen from beyond the abyss… This horror fights neither for power nor territory, but rather to feed a hunger so insatiable that it will eventually devour the entire galaxy.
– Inquisitor Lord Kryptman, Codex: Tyranids (5th Edition)
This game sucks! See? I missed my calling. Could’ve been a 90’s video game commercial copywriter.
Kirby’s Dream Land marks the very first appearance of the iconic pink consumer of worlds, and that immediately explains the rest of this review and why the game is rudimentary in every way, right down to the white (not pink) protagonist floating like a ghost on the North American cover art. As the story goes, the heads at Nintendo and HAL Laboratory argued over the exact coloration for the character: Pink! Yellow! Pink! Yellow! So it was, all the way up until the game came to be localized for the West. Nintendo of America didn’t know what to do with the dispute, so they put the game out with Kirby colored like an in-game screenshot: white.
At least he didn’t end up olive green!
Where Kirby did end up is at the center of the Nintendo canon of characters, as timeless as the best of them, and most recently centered in the World of Light in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. It all began here with Dream Land, the start of the Dream Land Saga and a series that includes over thirty games and numerous crossovers, and one man: Masahiro Sakurai.
(left to right: Sakurai, Iwata, Miyamoto)
When Nintendo wanted a game that “anyone could enjoy”, Sakurai, aged 19 and newly employed by HAL, responded with excitement. He would serve as director, designer, and planner (alongside the late, great Satoru Iwata as programmer) to craft a game with simplicity in mind. The nexus of this thought, creating an experience that could be enjoyed by anybody, is one that I find interesting, especially in light of retrospective criticism of retro games from this era as being designed to be deliberately difficult to extend their playtime.
Lots of ideas shifted during development but simplicity remained at its core; actually, simplicity has remained at the core of the series ever since. What began initially as a stand-in character, this round blob with basic arms and legs and a dopey face, ended up becoming the hero of the story, and Twinkle Popopo was born. The name ‘Popopo’ was later changed to ‘Kirby’ (thank goodness!) and the game became known in Japan as Kirby of the Stars. As it turned out, that little blob-person was just right for a game that was meant to be friendly and easy.
Kirby’s ability to suck in air and fly indefinitely not only gave developers a new perspective on level design, with stages that scrolled in multiple directions including multiple doors and rooms, but it also allowed the player to play how they liked, avoiding enemies and confronting them by blasting gusts of air at them or sucking them up to swallow them or spit them back out.
Notably missing is Kirby’s famous Copy Ability, which might just be the most interesting thing about him. The Copy Ability wouldn’t make an appearance until the year after Dream Land, when the far superior sequel Kirby’s Adventure hit the NES. Adventure took everything that Dream Land included and blew it up bigger than ever: vertical as well as horizontal areas with plenty of secrets and rooms became not just the staple for level design but also for the world map hub between levels; Kirby’s flight was taken into consideration with more interesting infrastructures in place intended to foil or welcome flying; even bosses from Dream Land returned, more whimsically menacing than ever, including Whispy Woods and King Dedede. However, the greatest thing about Adventure is its invention of Kirby’s Copy Ability. What would the pink puffball be without it?
Well, without it, he’d just be that ghostly white Kirby from the primordial Dream Land. Fortunately, Dream Land isn’t that long. It is a Game Boy game, after all. There aren’t many instances where a copy ability seemed absolutely necessary for progression, considering how short the game is and how easy it is to beat…
…until you reach hard mode! Press Up, A, and Select on the title screen to unlock the “Extra Game” and feel like you’re suddenly wholly inadequate for Kirby.
In olden times, the entire plot of a game could be laid out on the back cover!
I know what you’re thinking. Maybe. Possibly. Okay, so actually I don’t. But I’m going to guess that there are some reading this that might have been K.O.’d by a 7/10 score for a Game Boy game.
“It’s black and white!”, “Look at it!”, “What’s wrong with you?”
Yes, it is, I am, and ask my psychiatrist.
The important thing to note here is that I treat grading visuals within correct historical context, bearing in mind the limitations of the hardware and the developers’ skill working within those constraints. Just as you wouldn’t criticize an illustration for using charcoal instead of oils, so too the canvas and tools which form the foundation for any game’s visual experience have to be critiqued within the context of history and hardware, which helps guard against all kinds of things from score degradation over time to recency bias to elevating visuals above other features.
Now that that’s been said, my 7/10 represents to my mind the animated personality that Dream Land manages to represent not just with 8-bit graphics, not just in monochrome, but on such a tiny screen. There’s a sense of Disney-esque elasticity in the animation here, such as triumphs even over the animations in NES games in the immediate years preceding. In many ways, Dream Land resembles a high end NES game, just in black and white.
Dedede’s end screen tantrum, the grimacing and ogling of random enemies, Whispy Woods’ ugly cry face, Kirby’s dance sequences, the miniature cutscenes that play before each stage… all of these give the inhabitants of the game a sense of tangibility, that they can be squished and stretched and retake their original shapes. I didn’t encounter much sprite flicker, and only a little slow-down, so all in all, Dream Land looks better than many Game Boy games, by comparison.
Maybe the best thing about Kirby’s Dream Land is its teeny score by sound designer Jun Ishikawa. Ishikawa can be credited with creating the auditory atmosphere of Kirby’s world, since he has continued to work on the franchise all the way up to Kirby Star Allies. This likely explains why Kirby’s soundscape is as occupied by recurring melodies as Mario and Zelda. You’ll be hard pressed to find Kirby games without Green Greens but you can hear the original version of that tune and more ancestors here in Dream Land.
As with the visuals, there’s a lot of personality present. Kirby’s music doesn’t sound random or meandering, but driving and focused around specific themes. The fast-paced tunes with their rhythmic percussion maintain the energy of what would otherwise be a relatively laid-back, peaceful, and potentially boring game. More than anything, the music kept me invested in playing, encouraging me to push onward toward that scoundrel Dedede.
Since there is no Copy Ability, the stages are inherently featureless; the changing scenery is virtually the only distinguishing feature, though Green Greens is more straightforward and the Castle has more rooms, and so on. Different enemies inhabiting different in-game regions with different abilities for you ends up being crucial for Kirby gameplay, especially when the games start getting longer. That adaptability and unpredictability keeps things interesting, forcing the player to think on their feet with an ever-changing arsenal of powers. Without it, the punctuation of each of the five stages is primarily with the eventful boss fights.
The developers anticipated the possible monotony Dream Land could represent, so they included some power-ups in the forms of items: a microphone which destroys all on-screen enemies (later converted to the Mike ability), spicy curry that lets Kirby breathe fire temporarily, and a mint leaf (sweet potato in Japan) which inexplicably converts the game into a shmup. One of the game’s bosses is actually fought in the form of a side-scrolling shmup-like battle. These items are all very much traditional for games at the time than an adaptive Copy Ability system would turn out to be, so thank God for Kirby’s Adventure.
Given the creative nucleus of Kirby, it should come as no surprise when I say that Dream Land is highly accessible. Navigating is easy. Learning the buttons is easy. Defeating enemies is easy. I could see a few of the very youngest getting lost here or there in some of the larger areas, but overall, this is a simple game with simplicity at its forefront.
The game is easy but the Extra Game, its hard mode, is quite hard. Enemies begin jumping or swooping down toward you, projectiles come more quickly, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed. It’s almost like a completely different game, though it’s still structured around a lives- and HP-based system. I figure that the core game is more like a 1/10 or 2/10 and the Extra Game is more like an 8/10-ish, so I balance it out right in the middle.
Did you know that Lolo from Adventures of Lolo on the NES makes an appearance as a boss and mini-boss in the Castle Lololo stage?
Kirby was just getting started, but I like what later entries in his series did to tackle difficulty. Adventure could get pretty tough toward the end but it was a long enough game to develop a curve, and you gained plenty of extra lives, beside. Epic Yarn dealt with the issue of difficulty elegantly by creating a currency-based, not lives-based, system wherein you’d lose the gems you collected if you got hit, resulting in a lower score upon completing the stage. Star Allies was the most recent Kirby game and in many ways it seemed to return to Dream Land’s bland and somewhat featureless sense of difficulty.
So if you want to play a really hard Kirby game, remember for Dream Land that it’s Up, A, and Select on the title screen. This bar graph represents Dream Land’s difficulty curve:
Only two modes of difficulty and not much to see beyond that. There isn’t a whole lot of replay value here in 2019 beyond nostalgia, historical research, or curiosity.
I tend to think of the Nintendo characters and their series as archetypes of ideas: Mario is cheerfulness, Metroid is loneliness, Zelda is the quest, Pokémon is about aspiration, and so on. What is Kirby about? Simplicity.
Simple can sometimes be used in a pejorative manner but simple is a word that originally carried a sense of unity, oneness of substance. I think of Kirby’s Dream Land as a game completely and unapologetically wed together under a single banner: make it so anyone can play it. Now, not everyone may want to play it, so it might not necessarily appeal to everyone, but it remains that it can be accessed by almost anyone, as many people as possible, unusually regardless of age and skill-level. Without being explicitly a “children’s game” with all of the educational baggage that comes with it, Kirby’s Dream Land is a game for the very young. Many of us who still love games today got our start around the time Dream Land came out, so aren’t we glad we had a game that gave us our start? Maybe for you it was Dream Land itself.
For what it’s worth, the Dedede battle can be tricky if you’re not sure what to do.
My Personal Grade: 3/10
I played Kirby’s Adventure first. That was Dream Land’s downfall: not the starvation of its peoples, not the theft of its twinkly stars, but the fact that a much better game came out a year later and many folks like me played the sequel before the first game. It’s tough to go back and appreciate this because it is such a gaunt experience by comparison. No Copy Ability means Dream Land is going to seem like the first half of a tutorial, or better yet, an appetizer.
As a game of historical significance, of course Dream Land is important; Kirby had to start somewhere, after all. However, revisiting this title again as an adult with a critical eye didn’t quite render the same experience as when I first booted it up on my own Game Boy all those years ago. And I even remember being vaguely disappointed then.
Still, Kirby’s Dream Land accomplishes what it was designed to do: it is truly a game that can be played by anyone. Sakurai achieved what Nintendo asked of him. In our modern world of community gatekeepers, fan wars, and skill-shaming, it’s good to know that there are games out there in the vast history of gaming that made inclusivity their beacon.
Aggregated Score: 5.6
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Categories: Game Review