Kirby’s Dream Land was one of HAL Laboratory’s greatest successes when it launched on the Game Boy in 1992. It proceeded to sell over one-million copies over the next few years. Despite this, the game drew a fair bit of criticism. Veteran gamers in particular were critical of its short length and lack of difficulty. Even gamers of a middling skill level could blaze through the experience in the course of an afternoon. Nonetheless, its stellar commercial performance all but ensured a sequel would be made. Series creator Masahiro Sakurai found himself in the director’s chair once more, and his team was determined to expand upon the gameplay established by his inaugural title.
In order to successfully implement the myriad ideas they had for this new game, HAL Laboratory turned their attention to Nintendo’s home console. However, despite the Super Famicom, or Super NES as it was known internationally, having been released two years prior to the debut of Kirby’s Dream Land, the team decided the next game would debut on its predecessor – the Famicom. The game was named Kirby of the Stars: The Story of the Fountain of Dreams and saw its domestic release in March of 1993. It then debuted internationally in North America and Europe later in the same year retitled Kirby’s Adventure. By 1993, the fourth console generation was in full swing. It was a period of console gaming defined by the fierce rivalry between Nintendo and Sega. This did not prevent Kirby’s Adventure from becoming a bestseller. Unlike Kirby’s Dream Land, the game was a hit with critics as well. Retrospectives have since deemed it the NES’s swansong. In the midst of a battle that placed a great emphasis on presentation and technical prowess, how, exactly, did Kirby’s Adventure win over its predecessor’s detractors?
Analyzing the Experience
The inhabitants of Dream Land lead peaceful, carefree lives. During the day, they eat, sleep and play. After eating lunch, it is tradition for them to have a nap. Upon awakening, they discuss their dreams, hoping each other’s wishes come true. One day, a Dream Lander named Kirby awoke from his nap with a feeling of dread, for he had not dreamt. He spoke with his friends only to learn they had the exact same problem.
All of them realized that something must have happened to the Dream Spring. True to its name, it is a magical well from which dreams flow out. They pour out into Dream Land, giving its citizens pleasant dreams. It is said that the Dream Spring was created by a powerful artifact known as the Star Rod. The star embedded upon the scepter is a fragment of an actual celestial body that had landed in Dream Land eons ago.
Upon arriving at the Dream Spring, Kirby is shocked and more than a little unimpressed to see the mischievous King Dedede swimming around in its waters. Having previously deprived Dream Land of its food, Kirby demands King Dedede to tell him what happened to the Star Rod. The king reveals that he broke the Star Rod into seven pieces, giving six of them to his friends. Realizing that the Dream Landers will continue to grow restless and weary without the ability to dream, Kirby immediately sets out on a new adventure to reassemble the Star Rod and restore the magical spring.
One of the biggest differences between Kirby’s Adventure and its direct predecessor can be observed as soon as you see the title character for the first time. Mr. Sakurai had always intended for Kirby to be pink, but it almost wasn’t so. Shigeru Miyamoto, the leader of Nintendo’s Entertainment Analysis and Development (EADS) division, envisioned the character being yellow. During this dispute, development of Kirby’s Dream Land had been finished and the final product was shipped to the United States. However, when it came time to conceive the box art, Nintendo of America hit a minor stumbling block. The Game Boy’s monochrome graphics made it unclear as to what color Kirby was supposed to be. Ultimately, they rendered him in white, basing his depiction on his character sprite. Unbeknownst to them, Mr. Sakurai eventually got his wish, and Kirby was correctly colored pink in Japanese promotional materials – including the instruction manual. With Kirby’s Adventure having been released on the NES, a console able to render colors, this simple character design choice stuck.
A short, amusing cutscene of Kirby interacting with the environment in some way marked the beginning of each stage in Kirby’s Dream Land. He was usually on the receiving end of a gag that wouldn’t have felt out of place in a Looney Tunes short. It would appear that Kirby’s Adventure begins in a similar fashion, but anyone who thought the original game was too short is in for a pleasant surprise.
While the title card specifies that you’re about to enter the first level, Vegetable Valley, it would be far more accurate to describe it in gaming terms as a world. Any lingering doubts will be removed when Kirby is deposited into an area containing only a door with the number “1” printed above it.
This development by itself showcases the single greatest improvement Kirby’s Adventure has over Kirby’s Dream Land. Even a relative newcomer would have little trouble clearing Kirby’s Dream Land in less than an hour. Although not technically offering less content than the average contemporary effort, its lack of difficulty made this aspect impossible to ignore. Kirby’s Adventure doesn’t have this problem. Although it was originally released on the NES, its overall design philosophy bares far more similarities to Nintendo’s Super NES efforts. Being consistent with what the backstory suggested, Kirby’s goal is to collect the seven pieces of the Star Rod being held by King Dedede and his cohorts. Each level has anywhere between four and six stages. Although some require Kirby to confront a miniboss, only upon clearing all of the stages in a given level will Kirby face off against the boss.
This means one could very well complete the entirety of Kirby’s Dream Land in the time it takes clear just one level in Kirby’s Adventure. The developers, realizing that such a game could not be reasonably completed in a single sitting, added the much-needed ability to save. The saving process is very nonintrusive, for the game automatically records one’s progress upon clearing a stage. There is no need to find a save point or even select the option from a menu.
When it comes to making any work of art, it is usually important to place an emphasis on quality over quantity. Although there are far more stages in Kirby’s Adventure than in Kirby’s Dream Land, it wouldn’t matter if the newer game lacked its predecessor’s intricacy. Fortunately, this is a field in which Mr. Sakurai and his team absolutely do not falter. It’s fitting that Kirby’s Adventure was released at the tail-end of the NES’s lifespan because, from a design standpoint, it shows how much growth gaming had undergone in the past ten years. While Super Mario Bros. enforced the classic ethos of platformers, which is to say “go right”, to the point of precluding any notion of backtracking, the stages in Kirby’s Adventure involve quite a bit of exploration. Just like in Kirby’s Dream Land, stages are somewhat mazelike with isolated rooms containing useful items. It’s still a primarily linear affair, but the leeway granted to you by the stage design allows for a more dynamic playthrough than what you would expect from most platformers at the time.
Although these subtle improvements by themselves make for a more ambitious experience overall, they pale in comparison to what one specific mechanic contributes. Before this development, Kirby only stood out by breaking normal platforming conventions courtesy of his ability to fly. Despite this, he was arguably less dynamic than Mario due to having only one true means of attack. Mr. Sakurai and his team then proceeded to address this problem in one fell swoop.
Savvy players may have taken note of the elaborate interface and noticed something a little unusual. It’s not the score counter, which serves no practical purpose in a game you can put down and come back to at a later time. Instead, that would be the window bearing a likeness of Kirby accompanied with the word “normal” underneath it. No, Mr. Sakurai did not take cues from the increasingly popular role-playing genre by adding standard status conditions to his game – for the most part, anyway. Instead of worrying about whether or not certain enemies can poison Kirby, “normal” is merely the young hero’s default state.
As you go through the first stage, you will encounter a group of Waddle Dees, which are this game’s equivalent to Goombas from the Mario franchise. He can resort to his usual methods of dispatching enemies – by inhaling them and swallowing them whole. Alternatively, he can spit enemies out at other ones. Shortly thereafter, you will come across a creature that looks very similar to a Waddle Dee known as a Waddle Doo. This one-eyed cousin of Waddle Dee has the curious ability to swing a beam of energy downwards. Kirby could elect to simply swallow and spit out the enemy as usual, but if he swallows it, something else will happen.
Specifically, Kirby will gain the ability to swing a beam of energy himself. All you must do to activate the ability is press the “B” button. Although the idea of taking enemy abilities for yourself had been done before – most famously in Mega Man, Kirby’s Adventure provides an entirely different take on the concept. Obviously, you don’t have to defeat a boss in order to gain a power – simply swallowing an enemy with a special ability will do. Another major difference is that you don’t have to worry about depleting energy from using most of these powers. As long as Kirby has a given power, he can use it indefinitely. However, as something of a trade-off, these powers are much easier to lose. Simply getting hit with an attack will cause Kirby to lose whatever ability he has. If he is struck in this state, a star emerges from him. You can retrieve the power by swallowing the star, but if it bounces around for too long, it will disappear. It’s also possible to discard the ability manually by pressing the “SELECT” button. This is useful because Kirby can only have a single ability at a time, so if you need a different power, you don’t need to intentionally take damage to get rid of it.
What is truly impressive about the ability to copy enemy powers is its sheer diversity. There are a total of twenty-five distinct abilities to be found in this game. The standard fantasy trio of fire, lightning, and ice are represented in this game in addition to some more unorthodox ones. Depending on the circumstances, Kirby can encase himself in sharp needles, transform into a UFO, and drop down upon enemies as a heavy stone. The game even introduces abilities that draw upon the same element for inspiration, yet gives them different uses. For example, by swallowing a fire-breathing Hot Head, Kirby gains the same ability. However, another enemy that uses fire as its main method of attack, a Flamer, does so by charging at Kirby head-on. By swallowing this enemy, Kirby gains the similar, yet distinct Fireball ability. True to its name, this causes Kirby’s body to become engulfed in flames as he flies straight forward for a few seconds.
As you will soon learn, Kirby’s copy ability serves a much deeper purpose than just giving him a means with which to defend himself. One ability allows him to wield a parasol, greatly slowing his descent when jumping. Another allows him to perform a particularly high jump. Although these sound redundant when you take into account Kirby’s ability to fly without needing to rest, there are a few situations in which they come in handy. Parasols can be used as both a weapon and means to fall safely, making them ideal to use whenever you’re going into a situation blind. Meanwhile, high jumps are much faster than flying, which is very handy for one particular boss encounter. There’s even one power that serves no other purpose than light up a dark room.
The takeaway is that Mr. Sakurai and his team provided a remarkably sophisticated take on this simple concept by giving these abilities a utility outside of defeating enemies. While this is especially obvious when you take into account abilities such as High Jump, Parasol, and Light, certain offense-oriented ones can have a secondary usage as well. Throughout the game, you will encounter cannons attached to a lengthy fuse. As one would expect, you can light the fuse using the Fire or Fireball abilities. These cannons are empty, so setting them off usually accomplishes nothing. In order to get the most out of them, you must load it with a specific variety of ammunition: Kirby himself. To do this, he must light the fuse and quickly enter the cannon before it goes off. As a reward for his recklessness, these cannons shoot Kirby to an area that cannot be accessed by any other means. In certain cases, there will only be an extra life in the area, but in many cases, he may find something even more useful.
It is from this development that one could say Kirby’s Adventure took cues from Super Mario World, which had been released two years prior. This is because the game provides players with tangible rewards for exploring. The stages of each level are hidden behind a wall. Whenever you clear a stage, more of the level is revealed. Usually, only the next stage is revealed, but you can potentially unlock bonus areas as you clear the backgrounds.
There are no extra stages to be found this way; the bonus areas instead allow players to partake in a minigame. Otherwise, they provide them with a helpful service. The minigames, which consist of a crane machine, a quick draw contest, and an egg catching competition, give the player opportunity to earn extra lives.
Two additional services you can access are a museum and an arena. As strange as it may sound, they provide very similar benefits. The museum contains one or two enemies that can be consumed by Kirby, giving him an easy way to access their power. Meanwhile, the arena pits him against a miniboss he would encounter halfway through a regular stage. Kirby cannot usually inhale minibosses; only after depleting their life bar can they be consumed. Because there are quite a few minibosses that grant unique or otherwise rare powers upon defeat, it’s worth unlocking the ability to refight them in the arena. Again, it gives you an easy, if slightly more time consuming method of accessing a specific power when you need it. One final service you can unlock is a Warp Star Station. Its purpose is straightforward enough; it allows you to easily warp to any stage you’ve unlocked. The first three are revealed automatically, but the remaining four require you to explore a stage extensively.
“How do you go about unlocking these secrets?” you may ask. The answer to that question is simple. Unlike Super Mario World, which requires you to find secret exits in order to open hidden paths, Kirby’s Adventure merely settles for making players hit a large switch with a star imprinted upon it. Sensibly, these buttons tend to be well-hidden. The stages feature no shortage of cannons, hidden passageways, and other secret areas that house these switches. Once pressed, the portion of the level’s wall hiding a bonus area is erased. This act also restores Kirby’s health as an added bonus, giving players otherwise uninterested in achieving one-hundred percent completion a motivation to find them.
Just like in Super Mario World with its red and yellow course markers, there is an easy way to determine whether or not a stage contains one of these buttons. If the stage doesn’t contain a button, the door leading to it will turn white upon completion. Should the door remain its initial tan color, however, it means there is a secret you have missed. The process of finding these hidden areas can be a little frustrating because it requires holding up on the control pad whenever you think there may be a secret door nearby, but it’s not too demanding.
Moreover, Mr. Sakurai and his team saw fit to expand Kirby’s standard repertoire in subtle ways. It’s highly appropriate that Kirby’s copying of enemy powers feels inspired by Mega Man because this installment adds another ability similar to one Capcom’s famous character had: sliding along the ground. Although Mega Man needed it to navigate areas with low ceilings, Kirby, already being a decidedly small character, can use it to attack enemies. Because he cannot use his normal spit attack when in possession of a power, sliding works well in the event you’re attempting to preserve a power for a specific part of a stage.
On top of that, Kirby can inhale two objects or enemies at once. This was a feature the developers intended to implement in Kirby’s Dream Land, but couldn’t due to technical limitations. When Kirby spits out a star after having inhaled two objects at once, it is far more powerful than a normal projectile. It cuts through normal enemies and inflicts more damage against boss battles. Should Kirby attempt to swallow more than one enemy with an ability that can be copied simultaneously, he will be granted one at random – determined by a slot machine of sorts.
Although Kirby’s Adventure isn’t a story-heavy game by any stretch of the imagination, it does have a few interesting story beats that make it stand out from contemporaries. For the series’ second installment, Mr. Sakurai introduced a character known as Meta Knight. Every antagonist needs a reliable right-hand man, and this is the role Meta Knight fulfills. While King Dedede is content to wait for Kirby in front of the Fountain of Dreams, Meta Knight ensures the hero of Dream Land doesn’t succeed in his mission. Though he doesn’t directly fight Kirby, he does, on occasion, send his underlings after him.
Taking into his account Meta Knight’s design along with him doing a majority of the heavy lifting in King Dedede’s operations, it’s easy to conclude that he merely is Mr. Sakurai’s take on the classical Black Knight architype. However, things aren’t quite as they seem. Although Meta Knight does impede Kirby’s progress throughout the game, he is also seen handing out invincibly candy and other helpful items to Dream Land’s hero. Without any dialogue at all, Mr. Sakurai lends an interesting dimension to Meta Knight’s character – that perhaps he is secretly training Kirby to handle any dangers he may face on his journey.
When Kirby does finally face off against him at the end of the sixth level, Meta Knight lends him a sword to use. This battle is frequently considered one of the best the game has to offer due to it coming down to pure skill. You can’t bring in an ability from a previous stage to circumvent the fight’s difficulty; you need to engage him in battle on even footing. Interestingly, when Kirby does emerge triumphant, Meta Knight’s mask cracks. For the brief moment before he disappears, you can see the imposing figure bears more than a passing resemblance to Kirby himself – only with a darker color scheme.
With Meta Knight secretly attempting to help Kirby, it makes perfect sense when you eventually learn his boss, King Dedede, actually had a good reason for breaking the Star Rod. After facing off against King Dedede, Kirby walks to the fountain with the Star Rod in tow. Strangely, the king begs Kirby not to place it back atop the fountain. Ignoring him, Kirby proceeds to do exactly that. Unfortunately, it turns out that the Fountain of Dreams had produced an entity known as Nightmare. King Dedede had broken the Star Rod in order to prevent Nightmare from taking over the fountain. While he didn’t exactly help his case by swimming around in the Fountain of Dreams, he still didn’t mean to cause any true harm this time. Considering he was a one-dimensional antagonist in his original appearance, this twist managed to be quite innovative for its time.
It helps that the final encounter against Nightmare is very creative. In fact, it is through these boss fights one realizes that, while Mr. Sakurai may have taken inspiration from the Mario franchise, his games subscribe to a completely different ethos. The difficulty of Mario games tended to lie within the stage design. The designers would test Mario’s fairly limited skill set in a plethora of ways. As a possible result of this, the boss fights were a little on the easy side. At the very least, players wouldn’t have to adopt wildly different tactics in response to them – even if they were hardier than normal enemies, the basic stomp was usually still a viable strategy.
With Kirby’s Adventure, Mr. Sakurai presents an experience that accomplishes the opposite. By giving the main character the ability to fly, there is much more of an emphasis on exploration than on platforming. You usually only have to worry about taking damage from enemies; bottomless pits are only an issue if you’re especially careless. To make up for this, boss fights tend to be a bit more challenging. This is because they’re optimized in a fashion that accounts for Kirby’s flying ability. They tend to either move quickly or possess attacks capable of covering a majority of the screen. Because Kirby jumps and runs faster than he flies, it’s usually more practical to avoid enemy attacks by employing standard platforming techniques in lieu of hiding in a corner of the screen.
Otherwise, I feel the biggest difference between how these two series handle their boss fights lies in how the final encounters pan out. Even the most recent Mario installment to debut on consoles, Super Mario World, featured a final boss that made use of what you learned throughout the game. By contrast, the encounter against Nightmare in Kirby’s Adventure requires you to hone an entirely different skillset. Despite Kirby inadvertently releasing Nightmare by placing the Star Rod back on the fountain, the artifact turns out to be the key to victory.
King Dedede launches Kirby in the air and the latter must engage Nightmare’s first form during his descent. This is leads to a sudden shift in genres. For this boss encounter, Kirby’s Adventure goes from being an unorthodox platformer to a shoot ‘em up. As such, he is allowed free movement in any direction; there is no need to manually make him fly. Pressing the “B” button during this encounter causes Kirby to launch a star at Nightmare. The abomination’s first form is quite durable, and you must defeat it before Kirby crashes into the ground. The fight that follows, while not as challenging, is a perfect way to cap off the experience. After traveling a land that wouldn’t feel out of place in a saccharine 1980s kid’s show, the protagonist gets to battle against a cosmic horror and emerge victorious.
Drawing a Conclusion
Whenever a promising artist debuts with a weak effort, it is common for them to hit their stride after years of experimenting. This doesn’t apply to Mr. Sakurai, however. As soon as he got the basic gameplay down with Kirby’s Dream Land, he proceeded to hit a home run just one year later in the form of Kirby’s Adventure. Even in an era when games were small-scale projects developed by a handful of people, the sheer amount of growth he underwent in such a short time is truly remarkable. With the several new mechanics Kirby’s Adventure brings to the table, it’s a little difficult to believe the first two games are even part of the same series.
Kirby’s Adventure also stands out as a remarkable technical achievement, showcasing the full potential of the NES. The idea of placing their latest big-budget project on the aging platform was certainly an odd one, but Mr. Sakurai and his team managed to push it to its limits. To wit, one level prominently features a rotation building. While it was a rudimentary feature on the Super NES, that they managed to implement it on its predecessor is nothing short of amazing. When you consider that the earliest NES titles such as Pinball and Baseball weren’t far removed from what you would find on the Atari 2600 in terms of complexity, Kirby’s Adventure was the perfect work to with which to formally send the internationally successful console off.
Final Score: 7/10