The year 1980 marked the founding of a game developer known as HAL Laboratories. Headquartered in Chiyoda, Tokyo, one of the first things the company created was a peripheral that allowed computers to display graphics when they were otherwise incapable of doing so. From there, they developed what a part-time worker named Satoru Iwata admitted at the time was slew of rip-off of Namco’s famous arcade games such as Rally X and Galaxian. As copyright laws surrounding software was not clear in that era, they did not ask for Namco’s permission, though they did eventually obtain a license from them. In 1982, Mr. Iwata graduated from college and joined the company as a full-time employee. Following that, the company developed original games for the MSX and Commodore VIC-20 before focusing their attention to Nintendo’s Famicom console.
As the 1980s drew to a close, Nintendo had just launched their Game Boy console and a young man by the name of Masahiro Sakurai joined HAL Laboratories. Nintendo’s portable console proved to be such a hit, that demand often exceeded supply and Mr. Sakurai was in the processes of developing a game for it. Naturally, in order to design a game, he needed to create a character for it. At the age of nineteen, he drew a blob-like character as a placeholder sprite until he could come up with a different model. However, as time went on, he preferred it over any of the other proposed designs he came up with.
During the development of this game, Mr. Sakurai’s team called the character Popopo before ultimately deciding on Kirby. In later years, Mr. Sakurai himself remained unsure as to how they decided on that name. Given that Mr. Sakurai gave Kirby the ability to inhale and spit out objects at enemies, fans speculate he may have been named after the Kirby Company, which famously manufactured vacuum cleaners. Another theory is he was named after John Kirby, the attorney from Latham & Watkins LLP who defended Nintendo against Universal Studios’ infamous copyright infringement lawsuit they filed in 1981. Universal alleged that Nintendo’s popular arcade game Donkey Kong was an unauthorized allusion to the classic film King Kong. Shigeru Miyamoto, the creator of Donkey Kong, has gone on record saying this is the reason why Kirby made a list of potential names for the character, though he wasn’t named after the attorney.
Whatever the case may be, Kirby’s debut game was released in 1992 for the Game Boy. The game was originally titled Twinkle Popopo, but Mr. Sakurai’s team changed it to Kirby of the Stars to reflect the character’s new name. For its Western release a few months later, the game’s title was changed to Kirby’s Dream Land. The game proved fairly popular, selling a little over one-million copies. Critics were fairly receptive to the game, believing it provided a unique take on the platformer genre. With Kirby going on to become the mascot of HAL Laboratories, how does his first adventure hold up?
Analyzing the Experience
On a distant, tiny planet far away from Earth, there exists a place called Dream Land. It’s filled with happy people who use their powers to soar among the heavens. However, the peace is soon threatened by the gluttonous King Dedede and his minions. One dark night, they steal all of the inhabitants’ food and their precious Sparkling Stars – their main source of magic. Without a means to obtain food, a young boy named Kirby promises to get that which King Dedede stole. Setting off for the treacherous Mt. Dedede, he begins on a perilous quest.
Despite his innocuous appearance, Kirby is quite a bit more durable than the average contemporary platforming protagonist, having six units of health. A unit is representative of the number of hits he can take, so you don’t have to worry about enemies being able to take off more than one at a time. As Kirby is on a quest to retrieve Dream Land’s food, he may stumble upon the edibles King Dedede and his cohorts have stolen. This is how you go about recovering health. Tomatoes with an “M” imprinted on them, which are known as Maxim Tomatoes, are especially valuable, for, true to their name, they can fully restore Kirby’s health.
By 1992, gaming enthusiasts knew what platformers entailed. They involved guiding their characters through a two-dimensional obstacle course, often making precarious jumps while fighting any enemy that crosses their path. The reason this is important to know is because Kirby’s Dream Land managed to turn basic platforming sensibilities on their head by giving Kirby the ability to fly. This is accomplished by pressing in an upward direction on the control pad. It’s important to note that unlike the mobility power-ups Mario could obtain such as the Super Leaf or the Cape Feather, which provided him with the ability to traverse the air to some extent, Kirby’s ability to fly is the genuine article. There is no limit to how long Kirby can remain airborne, and he remains fully maneuverable in this state.
With the ability to fly, one wonders why the player would ever have Kirby walk on the ground. The reason for that is simple enough – you will encounter many situations in which flying is impractical. In a given Mario game, flying freely would utterly destroy any semblance of challenge the stages set outdoors may have presented. On the other hand, the level design of Kirby’s Dream Land was optimized in a way that accounted for Kirby’s ability to fly. While Kirby can reach any point that isn’t blocked with some kind of obstacle, he can never leave the screen. Even if it’s set outdoors, you can’t make an attempt to bypass the stage. Not only that, but he is significantly more vulnerable to enemy attacks while flying, being wholly incapable of defending himself when doing so
Whether it was by jumping on them like Mario or utilizing some kind of ranged weapon such as Wonder Boy’s hatchets, how combat, being a secondary mechanic, worked in a platforming game could be determined very easily. Meanwhile, Kirby’s means of combatting threats was decidedly unconventional. Attempting to jump on enemies would merely damage him. To ward off enemy threats, Kirby must instead make an attempt to inhale them, which is accomplished by holding down the “B” button. When an enemy is in Kirby’s mouth, he cannot fly and he is a significantly less mobile. By pressing the “B” button again, Kirby will spit the enemy out, damaging whatever it hits. You can also make Kirby swallow the enemy, though aside from disposing of it, the action accomplishes little else.
Because inhaling any given enemy and spitting them at other ones would make for an unchallenging experience, it doesn’t take long before you encounter foes capable of standing up to this ability. The most notable enemy immune to Kirby’s attacks are Gordos. They cannot be destroyed by any means. Even if you happen upon a piece of Invincibility Candy, which grants protection so potent it allows Kirby to fell other enemies, including minibosses, Gordos completely shrug it off. It is thus better to think of them as a mobile spike pit than an actual enemy, for all you can do is avoid running or flying into them.
Later on in the game, you encounter enemies that actively punish you for attempting to inhale them: the scarfies. These innocent looking enemies have a tendency to block corridors in a manner similar to Gordos, and they’re every bit as damaging should Kirby throw caution into the wind and collide with them. When they’re agitated, they reveal their true, malevolent visage, chasing down Dream Land’s hero with a fierce resolve and exploding after enough time has passed.
Finally, although there is quite a variety as to what enemies Kirby can inhale, the ability is given realistic limitations. Generally speaking, he cannot inhale an enemy larger than himself. As you near the halfway point of a given stage, you will be made to fight one such enemy that acts as a miniboss. Furthermore, every single stage in the game culminates in a true boss fight. To face these foes, you must be mindful of their attack patterns. Eventually, they will do something that causes smaller enemies to spawn or use a projectile weapon. In either case, Kirby can inhale the boss’s means of attack and use it against them. Because of this, fighting bosses in Kirby’s Dream Land is a matter of observing their patterns carefully and taking the opportunity to strike back when it presents itself.
Kirby’s Dream Land also stands out from contemporary efforts in that its level design is fairly intricate. Even as Mario games offered the occasional labyrinth stage for the sake of variety, the primary axiom for the genre, which is to say “go right”, was still largely applicable. Although remaining true to the axiom isn’t a terrible idea, Kirby’s Dream Land expects a little bit more out of players. The stages are linear, yet you will often find doorways and other branching paths along the way. Many of them lead to dead ends, though you will often be rewarded for your curiosity – whether it’s with an extra life or a food item.
The somewhat exploratory nature of the level design is the most obvious in the second stage: Castle Lololo. The bosses of this stage, Lololo and Lalala, are based off of the protagonists of Adventures of Lolo – another game developed by HAL Laboratories. Fittingly in light of the inspiration, the boss fights against the castle’s owners bring to mind a puzzle game in that you have to pay attention to where Lololo and Lalala are emerging so you can spit their boxes right back at them. It involves a bit of careful planning and foresight to avoid getting hit in the arena’s narrow corridors.
All in all, Kirby’s Dream Land was a fairly fresh take on the platforming genre. That it managed to stand out in a then-saturated genre is commendable. Because of this, it’s a shame that the experience does not last. There are only five stages in Kirby’s Dream Land – the last of which remixes the previous four before putting Kirby against King Dedede. Although one might deduce based off of this information that the stages are rather time consuming, such is not the case. They’re roughly the length of the average Mario stage, and with only five of them, you can see why this would be a problem. Kirby’s Dream Land, for all of its innovation, offers an experience that wouldn’t even last an afternoon.
One could justify the short length of the game with the console itself. After all, without the ability to save, a Game Boy title would have to be short lest you expend your battery power before you saw things through to the end. However, it’s worth noting that even in 1992, many critics cited the game’s short length as its single greatest flaw. It doesn’t help that, in the same year as the Game Boy’s launch, Square released a role-playing title called Warrior of the Spirit World Tower: Sa·Ga – renamed The Final Fantasy Legend for its international debut in 1990. With one of the first games available for the platform offering an experience that would require multiple sessions to complete, Kirby’s Dream Land felt behind the curve.
This isn’t to say releasing a short game on the Game Boy was entirely without merit, for many classic arcade titles such as Pac-Man were ported to the system. The very idea of having such a beloved game in a portable format was highly appealing to enthusiasts back then. However, Kirby’s Dream Land is in the unfortunate position of offering the same amount of content as a typical arcade game without the sheer difficulty to justify it. Kirby’s Dream Land was conceived as “a game that anyone could enjoy”, and I feel Mr. Sakurai and his team succeeded a little too well. Although you may die frequently adjusting to the game’s controls, once you’ve figured them out, any notion of challenge is immediately lost. With six units of health, plenty of opportunities to regain it, and levels that, at their longest, only barely exceed the five-minute mark, newcomers would have little trouble completing it in less than an hour – even assuming their first try isn’t successful.
Clearing the game will reveal the existence of a hidden “Extra Mode”. This makes the game a little more challenging with simple enemies being replaced by more threatening ones and bosses that gain stronger attacks. However, even the added challenge cannot mask the lack of substance the game offers. The levels themselves remain unchanged, and it’s not as though completing the game on Extra Mode gives you a second ending or other new content to justify another playthrough. There is a fair amount of ambition to be found in the experience, but it’s difficult to appreciate considering its triumphs never have a chance to settle.
Drawing a Conclusion
One reoccurring criticism I have for many early Game Boy titles is that they come across as watered-down versions of contemporary console experiences. Super Mario Land attempted to bring Nintendo’s mascot to their portable console. To their credit, they did pitch many unique ideas, but between the strange physics engine and short length, it clearly didn’t have as much to offer as Super Mario Bros. 3, which was released one year prior. Similarly, Super Mario Land 2, while boasting more ambition than Super Mario Land, still came across as a lesser version of Super Mario World. Even Mega Man: Dr. Wily’s Revenge, which retained the overall style of the series’ NES installments, offered a highly compressed experience. It didn’t matter at the time because these games weren’t directly competing with their respective counterparts. This proposition fell apart the exact second all of these games could be obtained on portable consoles.
Why do I mention this? It’s because Kirby’s Dream Land suffers from a very similar problem despite being the first game in the series. It offers a unique take on the platforming genre and the pieces are certainly in place for greatness. It’s also very difficult to lend an intricate level design to a platforming game without making it needlessly obtuse – particularly when there is no map, so Mr. Sakurai and his team deserve credit for that as well. Unfortunately, as ambitious as the game is, it comes across as an elaborate technical demonstration. To make matters worse, with the 1995 release of Kirby’s Dream Land 2, it didn’t retain its sole advantage over its immediate console successor, Kirby’s Adventure, for long. In the end, Kirby’s Dream Land offers too little substance to recommend. Even if you’re specifically looking for a short game to play, there’s no getting around that even novices will blaze through it due to its distinct lack of challenge. Mr. Sakurai demonstrated his immense talent at a young age, but he would have to wait just a little bit longer before he fully cemented himself as one of the all-time greats.
Final Score: 3.5/10