Kirby’s Dream Land, A Thirty Year Reunion
One thing that makes Nintendo games sell is the Parthenon of recognizable and celebrated characters that live exclusively in Ninty’s walled garden. It’s the biggest reason why Super Smash Bros is so incredible, as a vast majority of the characters are Nintendo’s own family members, cautiously but fully welcoming in visitors from other islands. Yet Samus, Donkey Kong, and even Waluigi can only be enjoyed nowadays due to the steps that’ve been made over the years. Mario was Jump Man before he was a plumber, and try comparing Mario Bros. to Super Mario Odyssey and see a gulf that is large enough to separate the two games completely. Time is a funny thing, and now we approach the anniversary of one of my favorite mascots of all time: Kirby.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of Kirby’s Dream Land, the very first game to showcase Kirby in all his majestic, pink glory. Of course, since the first game premiered on the original incarnation of the Game Boy, Kirby wasn’t pink. According to the box art, Kirby was more of a fluffy white color, like if a marshmallow decided it was tired of being eaten and wanted to turn the tables.
Also, since this was early Game Boy, that means Kirby was also a sickly green color, like he’d been exposed to some curious chemicals down in the halls of HAL Laboratory. Someday we should take a look at all HAL Laboratory has done in the world of gaming, but that’s not where this article is headed today. Instead, we’re taking this time to reflect on the 30th anniversary of Kirby’s first game, and what it meant, what’s changed, and how it holds up in modern times.
The plotline is old as anything, as Kirby is on a singular quest to stop King Dedede because famine is a serious crime on any planet. That’s actually the plot of Kirby’s Dream Land: everything was cool until Dedede came down with his gang, stole all the food, and also stole the Sparkling Stars, which are used by the Dream Landers to gather food. Honestly, I miss these old school Nintendo titles where the plotline is absolutely nonsensical in terms of what is acceptable as long as you don’t put it on the screen.
Coming from the Game Boy era, there wasn’t any buildup cutscenes that explained any of this or any form of dialogue/on screen prompting, so you could only learn about the apocalypse that’s impacting everyone from reading the gaming manual. It’s not nearly as complex as later games (Kirby and the Forgotten Land is practically a novel), but it’s still almost Biblical and frankly a lot to take in for what happens next.
This is where the core mechanics of Kirby were born, and you can see the wireframe for what comes in subsequent installations. There are no hats, no animal friends, no assistants or any sort of help whatsoever. Kirby has three moves: suck, swallow, and spit. If that sounded pornographic then you’ve probably grown up with the Kirby games and made all the same jokes that I’ll be skipping over here.
Kirby can inhale enemies and then decide if he’ll digest them (to absolutely no change in his stats whatsoever) or spew it back at other enemies as a weapon. From the very drop, you figure out that this isn’t a Mario title, and landing on enemies is just a world of hurt. So, you have to get good at the simple ideas and being able to properly gauge vacuum distance and then lining up the shot to regurgitate a projectile at someone else.
The design for Kirby’s Dream Land was genius in terms of taking into account the processor and display of the Game Boy. Though many things would be improved upon with the NES re-release (titled Kirby’s Adventure), the initial game utilized the slower draw speed of the handheld to help justify how Kirby moved. We were still years away from control sticks becoming standard on controllers, and the lag of the directional pad was a real thing that we’d been trying to examine and rectify for close to a decade. Kirby, who’s distinctly rotund and puffy, had an entire air about him of float that only got cemented with his flying attack/transportation.
There were certainly games that let you fly (Super Mario Bros. 3 and The Wizard were only two years earlier), but it was in a limited, timed capacity. When you saw that Kirby could inhale air and fly infinitely, it was this perceived game-changer, especially in the first screen that was all linear. Being able to simply float to the top of the screen and pass through as much as possible was like a Game Genie cheat code, and it still holds true with a replay. Since Kirby’s flying has been nerfed in subsequent games, this early incarnation has such a smug air of ease to it that I almost felt like I was cheating.
But the game doesn’t just give up and let you move through the entirety of this short adventure like a bastard balloon. The levels after the Green Greens are all more complex and ask more out of the player. Between navigating the Castle Lololo (which was amazing to see a previous NES protagonist become a villain in this game) and the tropical mayhem of Float Islands, there’s a shocking about of variety in both landscapes and approaches. The game asks you to move side to side, but also up and down, backtrack, choose different routes and basically be ready for everything and anything. Kirby’s power-ups create invincibility moments (the fabled candy!) that either give you serious stomping for several seconds or just let you piddle around and feel silly.
You have enemies with their own projectiles, enemies that cannot be inhaled and must be ignored, and enemies that want to end your adventure at any cost. It’s more than I see in a lot of side-scrolling “retro games” nowadays, and this was literally crafted in a time where games were becoming monstrous. Final Fantasy IV had already delivered massively on the SNES, arcades were losing their minds with Mortal Kombat, the first Shin Megami Tensei game was lighting up Japan, and here was HAL Laboratories, putting out a brand new IP for a game that could be beaten, easily, in under an hour.
The boss fights are the centerpiece of Kirby’s Dream Land, far and away. While many people think that the Whispy Woods is the tried and true “silly boss” of it all, it was just a good warmup for what was to come. Players needing to understand that bosses will provide the ammunition to take them down and then seeing how that changed.
Lololo and Lalala pushing blocks that you needed to inhale, reject, and then get the hell out of the way before you got mowed down. Kracko doing some swooping mayhem that you need to actually time with jumps to avoid being electrocuted. Plus King Dedede himself, who swung a giant hammer, jumped around, and tried to suck up Kirby himself, proving that a game had no problem demoralizing you even back in the 90s. In a title where the levels seemed to fly by in a second, there was real challenge and pain waiting for you during these boss fights.
There is so much that went down in Kirby’s Dream Land that you have to respect, even if the game itself hasn’t aged so well. The soundtrack, which gave birth to the titular Kirby theme, is magnificent, using the limited chip range of the Game Boy to great effect. You have a good range of upbeat, hopeful and poppy tunes mixed in with some menacing (but still lighthearted) doom ambience with the bosses.
The addition of an Extra Game Mode upon completion to give players more of a challenge and a new ending was surprising and delightful, particularly since it was just a button combination (Up, A and Select) that let you do it on anyone’s Game Boy, showing off your mad skillz. Plus, the limited time frame meant not needing to plan in something for a save mechanic or even a password mode, so players could drill down on successful runs and timing themselves, probably paving the way for speedrunners before it was really a thing.
Yet it was everything that came afterwards that made Kirby the memorable being that we know today. Kirby’s Adventure, the very next game in the series, brought the copy ability to life, spawning the crux of everything that Kirby does. Kirby’s Dream Land 2 had the animal ride friends, which combined with the quality of life improvements of Kirby’s Adventure and the spread of the Super Game Boy, made this title even more successful and well renown.
Every Kirby game has brought something new to the table, even if you didn’t like it (Star Allies was the first Kirby game you could finish while completely asleep). If someone asked me my favorite Kirby game, I would have to think long and hard, but I can tell you it wouldn’t be Kirby’s Dream Land. Still, if it weren’t for this game, we wouldn’t have Canvas Curse, Epic Yarn, AirRide or even Dream Buffet, and all those ridiculous ideas would be relegated to some other IP, or simply destroyed with nothing to bring them to fruition.
We can respect and acknowledge those that came before us: it’s just good manners and showcases that we know our history. I will always be appreciative of Kirby’s Dream Land, and I think that Kirby enthusiasts (as well as Game Boy fans) should go back and give it a try. Yes, it looks and plays better in almost every subsequent incarnation, but there’s heart here. There’s a lot of care and soul and amazing groundwork that led to even better things. And, most importantly, there’s Kirby.
Kirby’s Dream Land is available now on Game Boy, Nintendo 3DS, and Nintendo Switch.