Once, ten years ago, maybe eleven, I was a dreamer.
I dreamed of the sunbaked Japanese countryside, unmarred by the absence of mankind. What was alien to a diminutive explorer revealed a natural beauty of wildlife and the unknown. Despite the imposing time limit placed upon me, the bliss I felt rendered it a minor triviality. Frivolous, adorable creatures of unfamiliar origin accompanied me into gorgeous forests and lakes, the dangers and horrors of survival peppered with languid pleasures (that is, drinking nectar) and the satisfaction of hard work. It was abnormality and love combined in a dreamy package.
I dreamed of the Amazon rainforest, resting majestically below the inter-dimensional battleground. I'd abandon the melee and dive into euphoria. Upon landfall, I'd sprint. Faster and faster, I'd keep going, feeling the adrenaline invading my senses and coursing through my veins. Everything I'd ever done was meant for this moment, this solitary marathon within the mysterious jungle. The faster I went, the more I witnessed and absorbed what was around me. Beautiful rivers and streams were scattered across the landscape, the twisting limbs of gigantic trees paved the roads, and there I was perched on the cliff, overlooking it all.
I dreamed of a world that wasn't quite mine, but was made just for me. I was instantly crafted into a young hero, chosen to save the world from an alien threat. I also had psychic powers. And fought evil hippies. The police force thought that kicked ass so they challenged me to a fight. Can you also believe Mr. T was in there? I also bought the world's greatest ruler. There's an evil, sentient piece of barf that grants life to zombies. That fat bully living next door suddenly became an antagonist. My traveling party consisted of my girlfriend, some nerd who used bazookas, and The Karate Kid. It was simultaneously hysterical and awesome at the same time. It was so natural to me, and that's why I was the boy in the red cap.
It was beautiful too, though. The musty scent of yesteryear fills every corner. People on online message boards chuckle and shake their heads at the numerous Beatles references and wistfully sigh about how wonderful it is to wear that red cap. You're in forth grade and everyone else your age is totally absorbed into Xbox and sports and trashy live-action TV, yet here you are engaging in something well beyond your years. You're comprehending nostalgia at such a young age. It's there when you're visiting the preschool talking to your girlfriend's mother, and the music's trumpeting as she's joyfully discussing how wonderful her daughter is. It's there when the nerd wakes up in the middle of the night as his boarding school, walking past a clique of fellow students discussing the fabled lake monster much like those guys online. It's there when you're riding the bicycle, it's there when you come across the tiny house south of the second town. It's there when you visit home and your mom feeds you cookies, the slightest of choirs playing as you scoot up to bed. I was still the boy in the red cap, but I was an observer, too.
What about you? What did you dream of? What were you doing ten years ago, maybe eleven? Were you young, or were you getting up in your years? What was happening in your life? Was life hardened by the realities of the adult world, or was it easy and carefree? Whatever the circumstances, did you dream? What did you dream of?
What was your definition of dreaming? What do you define it as now?
One can be quick to point out that such a question has absolutely nothing to do with video games, and they'd probably be right. But for me, it meant everything. Unbeknownst to everyone who knew me, I became a romantic at the age of ten. This secret had been fostered under my curious watch into something that resembled obsession, and it rapidly began to engulf my heart with a warm, intoxicating bliss.
Fun is something that you experience, something that pervades your brain with giddiness and swells up in your cheekbones. You're screaming and you're laughing, having a wild time. This feeling was different. I still remember the way it feels. You're quiet and composed, absorbing the impossible transpiring in front of you. Your eyes glaze over as the feeling courses through your veins, relaxing your muscles. Your grip on the controller fades away as you're spirited away into your new favorite playground. It is always warm, yet always awes through the repeated surges of rapture assaulting your heart. It can take seconds. It can take minutes. It's never too long. Then you're there. The release of a blissful sigh signals your arrival. Where you end up, be it a lovely forest or endless oceans or the bluest of skies, doesn't matter. You're at paradise. Suddenly, gaming was tangible.
Maybe it didn't seem that way to those who watched me play games. It probably didn't. Maybe those who know me don't believe me. They're probably shouting at their monitors, "Anthony, what the hell? You're spouting bullshit and you know it! I remember you being a hyper, crazy-ass kid who raved about zombie men and there's no way this mystical mumbo jumbo happened to you" They're half-right; I was that kid too, after all. Maybe they didn't look close enough. They'd would've needed to look at my eyes. Half-lidded, cavernous in depth. Filled with adoration, induced into a hypnosis only applicable to small children.
Funny I mention "small children", since these reveries kept me captive. When you mature, things change. The reveries grow more rusty, refuse to be conjured up as easily. You feel something slipping, sense something's crumbling around you, but you can't grasp it. Then you slip.You're suddenly thrusted from an idyllic world into one where all the world's horrors make themselves known to you, having been previously been masked by the joys of childhood. As these repeatedly batter your heart, you're gradually hardened into the mold of an adult, the core essence of childhood pleasures gone forever as you're expected to conform to the never-ending work chain of the adult world.
Maybe this didn't happen to you. Some people don't go through this process at all, transitioning into their teenage years as they shrug off their past self without a hitch. Not me. I perceived nearly every form of "joining the crowd", so to speak, as a violation of what I had once held sacred. I didn't want to grow up and conform; I wanted to be me. I wanted to satisfy my own goals, what actually interested me. I saw no point in chasing after girls who babbled on endlessly in the hallways, and I did not see the appeal of abusing substances that the D.A.R.E officers warned me a hundred times over not to use. I did not want to be the thick-headed jock, not concerned with his grades and only focused on what I perceived to be a mindless sport. I did not want to be the tattooed bearded chain-smoker out with his girlfriend, parked god knows where in his trashy car while whispering cheap sweet nothings into her ear.
Maybe I'm just stereotyping. Yet whenever I attempted to mingle, my ten-year old consciousness would yank me back, saying "This isn't your place." Maybe he was right. By the time high school rolled around, I'd completely lost any sense of proper social interaction and pretty much did/said whatever I wanted. Acting upon my insecurities, I took the only fraction of my personality accepted by my peers--that is, my buffoonish sense of humor--and watched as it bled into my psyche. With my reputation ruined by everyone dismissing me as an autistic goofball, I slinked back in my bubble and tried, in vain, to put the pieces back together.
Being a teenager was hell, but I'm not completely fucking stupid anymore and I'm no longer under the impression that I'm some hotshot who's too good for anyone either. If anything, I'm still that little kid. I'm twenty-one years old now, and I'm still that same person. I'm an incredibly picky eater. I'm not interested in politics. Religion is hard for me to grasp. Dating both confuses and scares me. Talking to people is difficult. I value being alone. I'm as far removed from reality as you can get. Well, maybe not, but by social standards, I'm kinda a failure. And yet here's the kicker: despite all that, people still love me. People think I'm funny, that I'm a terrific writer and I possess insight well beyond my years. People like me.
Does that mean it's okay to be like this? I dunno, clearly there's more important things for a young adult to do then play Nintendo and read Japanese comic books, but what can I do? I'm solitary, but I'm still bubbly and full of life. I don't have too many friends, but they're all people I trust and people who respect me. I can't achieve the full level of reverie as I did when I was a boy, but I can still grasp some of it. And for a world-weary college student who feels like he's lived forever, I'm okay with that.
I was taught by a jubilant, slightly overweight plumber to endure the hardships of life with laughter and joy in every step. I followed the example of pre-teen boys setting out on adventures to collect monsters to cherish what I have around me. I learned from young boys and men garbed in green to face my fears. And I was reminded from children wielding psychic powers that it's okay to be different. Maybe in the grand scheme of things video games don't accomplish anything, but they've taught me how to live. A slightly warped sense of living, mind you, but one where I can properly distinguish from good and bad, make responsible choices on my own, and how to properly appreciate life.
It should be no surprise, then, that a pink puffball with a hungry appetite taught me how to dream.
In the snowy euphoria of December 2001, I came across Kirby's Adventure during an age of Nickelodeon, Super Smash Bros. Melee and online sprite comics. It was love at first sight. The NES title crafted a perfect balance for young children; levels were quick and breezy, but imposing bosses stood in the way with erratic attack patterns. The presence of Kirby's Copy Ability, in which he swallows enemies whole and steals their powers, introduced a huge variety of abilities to fool around with and were immensely fun to pull off. Whole levels were constructed entirely around his arsenal of powers. The flexible soundtrack was often presented in that jolly, bouncy tone Kirby would never be caught dead without, yet occasionally dipped into the dreamy hypnosis I had grown to adore.
What was truly amazing about my then-newfound love for the series was that I never once struggled with the possibility that maybe I was too old for it. The Gamecube launch was where the condescending "Nintendo is kiddie" label was at its most venomous, and it was a concept I struggled comprehending as I scanned various online message boards. Upon retrospect, I never saw Kirby cited as a reason for Nintendo's downfall into the preschool crowd, which is amazing considering that the series' cast, which includes gumballs and hamsters and penguins, spend their time prancing around in what's essentially the video game version of the Candy Land board game.
Some feel Kirby games are too shallow, too skewed towards the younger audience. There's no heart-stopping precision of jumps as found in Mario, or the gradual absorption of the fictional world that snares Zelda fans. The games are not about you becoming a badass, as is the objective in Metroid. No meticulous raising of monsters or troops like Pokemon or Fire Emblem.
What is the appeal, then? It can all be answered with a simple question: Do you like sweets?
Of course you do, don't try to hide it. The greatest strength of Kirby lies in its unabashed identity as a full-blown sugar rush. Upon being assaulted with rainbows of colors and cheery music, the player is immediately forced, often with the barest of introductions, into bare-bone levels with one sole objective: To eat everything in sight. You see, Kirby doles out his method of justice through his voracious appetite, and all agents of evil must be swallowed to quell his hunger. The first game, Kirby's Dream Land for the Game Boy, presents this odd mechanic in its most basic form. The majority of the game is spent simply swallowing bad guys and spitting projectiles, occasionally with random helpings of superspicy curry and ear-splitting microphones.
It goes without saying the games know how addictive this is, and rightfully structure their levels as to appeal to his hunger, serving as testing grounds for his new toys. It's a far cry from the fast-paced adventures of Super Mario and Donkey Kong Country, which both forcefully grab the player's full attention through well-timed jumps, time limits, and devious enemy placements. Kirby wants to get to know the player. He wants to introduce himself to the young child who's never once picked up the controller, the hardened teenage gaming veteran who desires a challenge, and the father who's willing to humor his son by playing his silly video games. He wants you to take your time. Or maybe, I dunno, blaze through the whole thing. Whatever's good for you is good enough for him.
Kirby games are fun to play. This much is obvious, but what's wonderful about the games is that they recall us to a much simpler time. In an industry full of ambitious graphical engines, fabricated worlds of sprawling size, and interactive motion control, we still have room for something that just wants to be our friend. I'll never forget that moment when I was playing through 2011's Return to Dream Land and realized that, holy shit, I'm essentially playing a game made in 1996. And it still kicks ass! I'm a grown man about to reach his 20s and I'm still being charmed by an adorable pink puff and some fat penguin and a stubby masked guy who is a badass despite being nearly all head. To me, a Kirby game is that one time of the year where I can just kick any responsibilities to the curb and just be a kid again.
Then there was the euphoria.
I still remember. I remember the starry luminous skies of the Rainbow Resort in Kirby's Adventure eliciting memories of when I was very young, strapped in the car's backseat as I stared in silent wonder at the luminous neon lights passing by. I remember watching the credits from Kirby Super Star, envisioning myself as a young boy who completed the game upon it's release back in 1996. The powerful music was embracing him in a dreamy reverie as he observed the blue sky outside his window, becoming lost in those roaming clouds. I remember the soundtrack to Kirby: Nightmare in Dream Land, sighing in bliss as I drowned out the outside world and stepped into the dream world made just for me. I remember being in amazement at the crayon-drawn realm of Kirby's Dream Land 3. The Tolkein-inspired fantasies of Kirby Air Ride. The rainbow constellations in the night skies of Kirby Super Star. All of it made me sigh.
Kirby was something special for me as a child. I always point to Smash Bros. Melee and Earthbound as being the ultimate gaming cornerstones of my youth, but this was different. I wasn't playing Kirby games just have to have fun with them: I was playing them to feel. Actually, on second thought, Earthbound was kinda the same thing, but Kirby represented the heart of my newfound reveries. What exactly was it, though? I could point to many ideas such as a premature awakening, but I don't want to come off as pretentious; in fact, it was constructed of a rather innocent fabric. Often I imagined adventures within the reveries that featured the source's characters, of whom typically spent their time engaging in Spongebob/Dragon Ball-esque antics. Nonetheless, they were rendered beautiful by that tinge of wistful airiness that I had dubbed "nostalgia."
This nostalgia took on many forms, but always remain centered on that feeling. Yet how does a child induce it? Play a video game that focuses on the fantastic, the impossible. It doesn't matter whether the landscape is presented with 8-bit graphics or 3D technology; as long as it produces a dreamy, abstract sense of place, or illustrates a silent, isolated quality, and even if it produces the slightest scent of yesteryear, you're there.I f the music is of an orchestral celebration or a reflective lullaby, you'll have icing on the cake. It can be maintained for as long as you want, though it's incredibly easy to be absorbed for hours. And depending on how far you're willing to take your imagination, those are all only the tip of the iceberg.
Within a month after discovering his NES title, I was his biggest fan. Right then, all the pieces fell into place. An upcoming Kirby for the Game Boy Advance title slated for release that year ended up being a remake of Kirby's Adventure, an unannounced factor that I caught on to before most. The anime cartoon that had begun airing the year before was making its way to American shores, which was to be accompanied by an intense marketing blitz for the character that never came to fruition. Melee's representation of the franchise continued to serve as dream-come-true outlet thanks to its status as a Nintendo all-star crossover (AND DAT MUSIC). It was an age of Gamecube and Super Fudge and webcomics and games in the basement and everything else I took for granted. It was an age where even if I felt oppressed I could always count on the smile of a pink puffball to take me anywhere.
More than ten years after all that, he's still smiling for me. Last fall came with the arrival of Kirby's Dream Collection, a special Wii package meant to celebrate twenty years of Kirby. Six beloved classic Kirby games are included. A dreamy arrangement of the Bubbly Clouds stage theme plays in the main menu. There is an in-game timeline of his history. Challenge stages based on the ones in Return to Dream Land. A booklet full of development sketches and information for every Kirby game released.
Ten years later. It's too much of a coincidence to be true.
I don't really sigh so much anymore. As I grew older, it's faded with the loss of childhood. But I can still feel the nostalgia trumpeting ever so slightly within. Sometimes it's strong, other times it's weak. It never quite reaches the level it did back then, what with the loss of innocence and all. But I still enjoy things, and I can still laugh, and I appreciate what I have around me. So long as I have all that, I'm okay.
I still play Kirby games. No matter how much the meaning of his smile changes with time, I never feel too old. Throughout the fall and well into winter, I played through just about every main Kirby game. The reveries came and went, literal ghosts of their former selves that stopped by and said hi. They never stayed for too long, but that was alright, too. The fact that they came is proof enough for me that I went through wasn't a dream. It really happened.
I'd like to do something to commemorate all that.
Beginning this month, I'll be kicking off the Ten Years of Kirby column, where I will be discussing every mainline Kirby game at length, as well as the Kirby Air Ride racing Gamecube title and the Kirby of the Stars/Right Back at Ya! cartoon. Whether it be the enticing reveries now long gone, nostalgic qualities that still resonate, or how the games still hold up in sheer fun, it will all boil down to a comprehensive collection that will include the following:
-Youtube videos featuring the series' best music abound!
-A healthy mixture of embarrassing and touching memories abound.
-A 50/50 perspective on both the Japanese/American versions of the cartoon show.
-How much I fucking love that Nightmare in Dream Land commercial.
-How Kirby Air Ride, despite it's low marks by critics, is actually pretty much the greatest thing ever.
-Actually, on second thought, maybe Kirby Super Star is a little better. NEVER TO BE TOPPED.
-The one Kirby game that, until recently, I never actually liked much.
-...and the one that, upon replaying recently, was sorta a failure.
-And, of course, Angry Kirby.
For reference, this entirety of the column will include:
Kirby's Dream Land (Game Boy, 1992)
Kirby's Adventure (NES, 1993)
Kirby's Dream Land 2 (Game Boy, 1995)
Kirby Super Star (Super Nintendo, 1996. May or may not be delayed for dramatic effect)
Kirby's Dream Land 3 (Super Nintendo, 1997)
Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards (Nintendo 64, 2000)
Kirby: Nightmare in Dream Land (Game Boy Advance, 2002)
Kirby of the Stars/Right Back at Ya! (TV, 2001/2002)
Kirby Air Ride (Gamecube, 2003)
Kirby and the Amazing Mirror (Game Boy Advance, 2004)
Kirby: Canvas Curse (DS, 2005)
Kirby: Squeak Squad (DS, 2006)
Kirby Super Star Ultra (DS, 2008. May or may not also be delayed for dramatic effect)
Kirby's Epic Yarn (Wii, 2011)
Kirby Mass Attack (DS, 2011)
Kirby's Return to Dream Land (Wii, 2011)
My goodness, I'll be quite busy this year.
In any case: to any ten year olds out there that happen to be reading this: If I anything I said in this post identified with you, this whole thing dedicated to you. Yeah, you. I know who you are. Don't worry, you're not alone.
Yikes! Late again. Well, hey, five days is better than seven. I'm slowly getting there. Remember: baby steps.
See you soon!