Kirby’s Dream Land
(JP April 27, 1992; NA August 1, 1992)
HAL’s adorable and enduring mascot, Kirby, made their (Kirby is, canonically, gender-neutral, and that means they/them pronouns) debut on the Game Boy via this timeless classic. Released early enough in the Game Boy’s lifespan to catch some serious attention, but late enough to see HAL’s craft reach excellent refinement, this title helped ensure a long lifespan for its eponymous character and cement it into a long-lasting, much adored series.
While Kirby’s Adventure for the NES/Famicom is often remembered as the birth of the series and the better game, Kirby’s Dream Land came first and started building things from the ground up. Without the success of Dream Land, we wouldn’t have seen them push things even further with Adventure, and it hardly ends up making the original obsolete despite its many advancements.
Unlike many platformers at the time that sought to capitalize in success on following in the more skill-intensive footsteps set by Super Mario Brothers, Kirby’s Dream Land instead went for a far more accessible approach. Mario games of the time could have their levels described as being akin to marathons – meant to be challenging affairs that rewarded those with the determination to see them through. Kirby’s Dream Land, on the other hand, was designed more like a playground, requiring far less endurance and focusing more on the simple joys of play than the challenges that could be derived from them.
This shift in design ethos is something that could easily go wrong, as platformers up until now had largely been built around rewarding the player for overcoming challenge. Without that, the care put into designing the game had to be shifted elsewhere. HAL took to this with gusto, looking to create a game so bursting with a variety of enemies and environments that one might stop to think about what it was that they so loved about games beyond just the satisfaction of beating them.
What they created has since been remembered as one of the most delightful Game Boy games of all time, and one that sought to expand the horizons of who video games were trying to appeal to far beyond those only craving difficulty. While the game is rather easy to clear in under a nearly stress-free half of an hour, what makes it a success is no stroke of luck, but rather clever design and hard work.
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Featuring some of the most intensely pleasant visuals to grace the platform, Kirby’s Dream Land is a relentlessly gorgeous looking game that is something to behold on each and every screen. The use of contrast is expertly considered and each of the 4 shades available on the Game Boy were used in clever ways as to fully accentuate the variety of environments Kirby will be exploring.
Dream Land is a place that is hard to not want to visit with how inviting and detailed every location appears. Despite featuring a surprisingly limited 5 levels, there is no punch pulled in trying to make your adventure as illustrated as possible, and the variety in visual design is without question among the highest tier of quality available on the Game Boy. It’s games like these that we consider “too easy,” today, that were what originally lured many of us into a lifelong appreciation of this genre. I strongly believe we undercut the sheer importance of how beautiful and inviting the worlds we visited were in planting those seeds.
Beyond just the levels being gorgeous, the quality put into the enemy designs and their animation is easily just as apparent. Many of the Kirby series most memorable enemies saw their debut here, such as Waddle Dee, the Poppy Bros., Scarfy, and many more. Many of them feature intensely memorable, yet simple designs, all executed with the experience of a developer who already had some great Game Boy titles like Trax under their belt.
Each world also featured a unique boss character, with three of those five having returned in some capacity in almost every Kirby title, since. Who could forget Whispy Woods, the animate apple tree who seemed almost reluctant to fight you, or King DeDeDe, the greedy, rotund ruler of Dream Land? If you’ve played and forgotten any of the specifics of Kirby’s Dream Land, chances are you’ve been reminded of them whether or not you realized it, as HAL’s pride in their heritage often shows with many Kirby sequels borrowing this or that from the original.
Visual work is not all that we’ve seen repeated in Kirby games, even up to modern day – the compositions for the original music in Dream Land are frequently covered or tributed by its successors. Tunes that have since proven themselves to be timelessly pleasant fill your ears as you play. With a varied assortment of tracks, any Kirby fan who picked the series up in later years (of which there are many) will hear the birth of many of their favorite tunes and begin to understand just how important this title was to kickstarting one of their favorite series. It’s hard to overstate exactly how important the music was, as the cheerfully upbeat soundtrack is a big part of what attracted such a wide audience.
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Wrapping the aesthetically delightful package together, of course, are the game’s mechanics. Kirby controls nearly identically to how they do today, and the simple, intuitive nature of their movement is just as appealing now as it was then. While certain abilities like the dash and slide had yet to be implemented, and the signature “copy” mechanic wasn’t thought up, yet, it’s a delight to navigate them through the game’s obstacles and experience their unique ability to combat enemies through inhaling and exhaling.
The game’s difficulty is very low, but it does offer a hidden challenge mode for those who were looking for something a little bit meatier out of the game. Rather than just pump the damage output of enemies up, they also included a very wide variety (well over a dozen) of new enemies with behaviors similar to those you’d see in the regular game. While this doesn’t exactly make it play like a new game, the added difficulty isn’t anything to scoff at.
All-in-all, even as someone who is a seasoned veteran of a variety of action games, I still prefer to play Kirby’s Dream Land on its original settings. Why? That’s where its design sensibilites were balanced. Kirby doesn’t benefit well from being thrown into challenging situations because they’re just not really meant for it. It’s not to say the game can’t benefit from a degree of challenge when it’s carefully placed in certain segments, but Kirby’s exaggerated movements are much more delightful to experience when they’re not demanding reflex-intensive timing out of the player.
This doesn’t mean I think that every platformer should be more like Kirby – I love variety, and that would just stifle it – but I do think that there’s much to learn from it in making your game appeal to a broader spectrum. Kirby nails simple appeal in a way that many modern games fail to. We often think of extensive, hand-holding tutorials or patronizingly simple mechanics when it comes to modern games attempting accessibility, but there’s something to behold in how Kirby does “accessible” so succinctly.
Beneath its incredible simplicity is something the designers carefully toiled over to not waste your time or insult your intelligence with. This is the true markings of excellent game design, where what’s done is something subtle enough to not draw attention to itself, but powerful enough to have an influential effect. This allows experienced players to not feel the game is beneath them, and for newer players to not feel as if they have to be talked down to like simpletons to jump in and enjoy themselves. The joy of this game is nearly effortless for the player to experience, but it’s worth realizing that the designers’ precise execution and careful restraint were anything but accidental.
Kirby’s Dream Land really is, when all is said and done, a fantastic game that is well worth revisiting. I genuinely believe it to be as delightful today as it was when it came out, and it’s so nice to have a game I can get a complete experience out of in the time it takes me to wait for a meal at a restaurant.