Having barely survived from the effects of liquidation, video game developer HAL Laboratories was roped into exclusive development for Nintendo systems. While they enjoyed minor success in dipping across numerous platforms (their most notable franchise being the Adventures of Lolo puzzle series on the NES), the developer split from HAL Corporation following declining sales, and thus found itself unable to pay off taxes. Nintendo, which had previously invested in the company, stepped in with the offer to provide financial support with two conditions: that not only would all of their future games would be developed just for Nintendo consoles, but that up-and-coming programming prodigy Satoru Iwata be moved up the corporate ladder into a supervising role.
In charge of overseeing new programmers, one in particular caught Iwata's eye. This individual, Masahiro Sakurai, had been doodling plans for a new character since the age of 19, and was clearly eager to start his own project. Seeing potential in the youth's concept, Iwata allowed Sakurai to direct his first title for Nintendo's portable Game Boy. Initially titled Twinkle Popo, one of Sakurai's test designs for the game's character was used as a beta placeholder until a more elaborate design was ready. This "dummy" figure, named Popopo, was fabricated from the simplest of concepts: a short, rounded marshmallow-esque body with pudgy little arms and big, clown-like feet, whose facial features consisted of tiny, dotted eyes and the faintest of blushed cheeks.
Whether it was the character's beady eyes or his aforementioned clown feet, Sakurai's design team quickly grew to love the adorable dummy and trashed all plans for a more complicated character. However, they felt the Popopo name didn't quite stick.
Shigeru Miyamoto, creator of Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda, assisted with the naming process and ultimately helped the character find a final name. Some years earlier, lawyer John Kirby had helped Nintendo overcome a lawsuit from Universal Studios over the alleged infringement over the Donkey Kong name. By pure coincidence, the name "Kirby" had appeared on a list of suggested names, and Miyamoto thought it would be amusing if the two shared a connection; furthermore, he found it further humorous that the name produced a harsh sound in Japanese ("Kaabi"), as many cute characters in Japan are typically labelled with soft-sounding names.
The name was set. The game was renamed Hoshi no Kaabi ("Kirby of the Stars") and was eventually released in April 1992 for Japan, being eventually localized to the American market as Kirby's Dream Land later that summer.
"No matter how much fun the Super Mario Bros. games were, they were still too tough for normal people and kids. I could feel people drifting away from games, and it bothered me. In the midst of making Kirby, a lot of the team started wondering if we were maybe making it too simple. But I think it was necessary for us to consider people who hadn't played a game before, and I think doing that earned us fans that wouldn't have been around otherwise."
Sakurai ended up being right. For all its simplicity, the quirky concept of a walking blob innocently swallowing bad guys quickly caught on with gamers. Beginners, particularly young children, had discovered a niche crafted especially for them, and they reveled in in it with great glee. No longer did the deceptively affable likes of Super Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog bully them into pit-ridden level designs and dangerous traps, as there was now a funny little character who could fly around forever and ate candy and devoured the innocent. Even experienced gamers found themselves strangely charmed by this miniscule addition to the Nintendo universe, and a new profitable franchise was born.
With the game's immense success, there should be no doubt that it would be immortalized forever in the history of famous video games. After all, Dream Land gave birth to what would eventually become one of Nintendo's most well-known franchises. Sure, it's no Pokemon or Zelda, but Kirby's first outing reported to have sold five million copies; if true, it would be easily the best selling Kirby game by over three million. That's kind of a big jump, especially since the game reached the five million mark. While setting a million copy mark is usually regarded as a huge success for most anyone else, in terms of Nintendo games that's actually an ordinary number, and most Kirby games knock out one or two million copies. For Dream Land to have reached five times the former means it must be something special, right?
Well, get this: no one ever talks about it. Ever! Isn't that crazy? It is when you compare it to the first entries in the rest of Nintendo's famous catalogue. Everyone still loves Super Mario Bros. and Donkey Kong Country. The Pokemon Red and Blue versions are so beloved by the nostalgic 90's crowd to the point where they refuse to play the new games (looking at you, cousin Tommy). Even when the most ardent of Zelda and Metroid fans admit to struggling (even to point of being unimpressed!) with the NES originals, they are still often noted as some of the greatest games ever made. So why isn't Kirby's Dream Land's name spoken with the same awe and love?
Maybe it's not that far-fetched of a situation. I believe that while there's no overt reason for the game's obscurity, there are multiple, more subtle factors that perhaps sullied its reputation. For example, Dream Land can be justly compared to F-Zero and Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light in that while they aren't bad games, the deeper mechanics and flashy splendor of the later titles render them less attractive. In the case of Dream Land, however, this is more of a severe problem. While Shadow Dragon and F-Zero are outclassed--both graphically and mechanically--by the likes of, say, Blazing Sword and F-Zero GX, there's more than enough meat to chew on in their NES/SNES predecessors should the curious Nintendo fanatic be willing to take a chance.
In comparison, Dream Land offers no such meat; rather, it's the lightest of impulsive snacks. In case you were wondering, I really wasn't kidding earlier when I mentioned that the game is beatable within a half-hour's time. It consists of four complete levels--of which contain a minimum of three screens and maybe six or seven at most--and a climax stage involving a retread with the previous four bosses and a showdown with the gluttonous penguin King Dedede.
Of course, this shouldn't just be exclusive to those who haven't played Dream Land. After all, I did witness my first-year college roommate play through the game via a ROM while I was busy being impaled in Skyrim, and he had shared memories of it too. But that was a rare exception, and I think it only further proves my point. People have played it, yeah, there's just not much to say about it. Why talk about a short-lived platformer when one could elaborate at length about the meaty wonders of Kirby's Adventure or Kirby Super Star, or the bombastic mix-'em-up style of Kirby 64, or pretty much anything in Canvas Curse and Return to Dream Land?
The other reason is more personal in that, alas, I also have contributed to this issue. It all boils to down to the existence of 1996's Kirby Super Star, and while I can hardly be found at fault to play through a gaming masterpiece, it is the very reason why I was indifferent to playing Dream Land. You see, Super Star is composed of a compilation of sub-games, the very first of which happens to be an abridged remake of Dream Land by the name of "Spring Breeze". What was once a total of five stages is now four, as the Castle Lololo stage is merged with Float Islands (with the Kaboola airship boss axed from the game). The final stage zips straight to the King Dedede fight instead of revisiting bosses. The term "abridged" even extends to Dream Land's unique features, as Kirby can no longer utilize the items strewn about the levels.
But why should he when he now has access to the Copy Ability? As Super Star emerged in an era where it was the staple feature of Kirby games, this slight retcon to Kirby's first adventure was no doubt much appreciated by the fanbase. With each new console adventure/spin-off--as well as a Game Boy sequel--it became clear that a gradual focus of attention was lavished on the flexible Copy Ability; in contrast, the original Dream Land quickly become antiquated, and Dream Land's Spring Breeze instantly rendered it obsolete. Yes, they did cut a bit of content here and there, but what is there to miss in a half-hour adventure when you have the
From my ten year old perspective (the dawn of 2002), it was a bit different. I perceived Spring Breeze as the story of how Kirby came to control his transformative prowess and saved Dream Land for the first time. For what was such a short-lived sub-game, I imagined numerous scenarios that revolved around said prowess, such as how Kirby honed his powers under the guidance of a mysterious voice, or how the Whispy Woods tree boss wasn't actually a boss at all, but was instead an innocent friend of Kirby's imprisoned by an evil doppelganger that was slain by Kirby's Fire ability. As fueling a young imagination was once a high priority, there wasn't really a need for me to seek out a version that wasn't really compatible with that. Yes, my little Nintendo scholar-minded self still recognized Dream Land as Kirby's introduction, but that was really all I viewed it as: an introduction, and I'm sure many other fans recognize it only as such.
Frick, I'll admit it: I still struggle with this. For those old enough, you know how Pluto isn't considered a planet anymore but your mind instantly rebels to that fact? It's the same deal here. I've played so much of Kirby Super Star that the Spring Breeze introduction is, for better or worse, stubbornly solidified for me as Kirby's initial adventure. Yes, I'm aware it lasts all for ten minutes.Yes, the length is woefully short even when juxtaposed to a Game Boy title. Yes, yes, I know, they cut out an entire level along with a boss. I get it. It could, and should, be considered inferior, and given how harsh I typically am with Nintendo remakes I would normally bash the shit out of Spring Breeze for committing these crimes. And I'm not! I'm biased!
If I'm conveying the impression that Dream Land should be dismissed, don't fall for it. It doesn't deserve such a fate. It's a good game. It's a quality game. It's just one that's, sadly, been outclassed by many of its successors. That, and I'm biased and am therefore unqualified to review the game all because I can't wrap my head around the fact that my own little perception of what falls under Kirby canon has absolutely no bearing and would not hold any sort of water in any form of Kirby-related debates. And this is all because my ten year old self had nothing better do and decided to mercilessly pound it into his skull to the point where it became a matter I take more seriously than raging politics and whatever the hell's going on in the Middle East, that bastard.
...but woe is to biased writer who had resigned himself to reviewing every Kirby title for the year, so I suppose I must make do with what I have. That, and I guess the whole canon thing doesn't really matter since I think the "official" Zelda timeline unveiled a year or two back is complete shit (Link dies? Really?), so screw what Nintendo thinks. Onward!
So, what exactly propels Kirby's first adventure? Well, it just so happens that King Dedede, the self-proclaimed ruler and resident douchebag of Dream Land, spontaneously decides to dabble into the latter one night and initiates a heist of the highest proportions: robbing the entire food supply of his home country with the help of his goons. And because he enjoys being such an asshat, he decides to make matters worse by stealing the Sparkling Stars--of which guides the Dream Landers in finding food--and divides them among his buddies (Whispy Woods the tree, globular siblings Lololo and Lalala, female blimp Kaboola, and Kracko the stormcloud). Consequently, the citizens wake up hungry and severely dehydrated, ready to croak until a puffball named Kirby eagerly vows to get the food/stars and sets off to score some copies of Shaq Fu and troll My Little Pony fanboys at conventions.
PG-13 embellishments/obscure references aside, while video games were at the cusp of incorporating half-decent storytelling, no one bothered to attempt doing so on the Game Boy, and Kirby's Dream Land was no exception. Of course, that a game is light on story-telling elements isn't really a big deal; in fact, should such a game enchant players, it's not uncommon to an abundance of fan theories and re-interpretations of events via fan fiction/message board musings.
...that, and let it be known that Spring Breeze's brainwashing made absolutely no mention of Sparkling Stars. Even though they were still there and made Kirby into a giant balloon at the end. NONE!
But, yes, the gameplay! That Kirby lacks the Copy Ability is unfortunate, but one must remember to enjoy it purely within its own, however short-lived, context. When isolated, the abnormal concept of swallowing bad guys is still innovative enough to make for an enjoyable platformer. While the pacing is noticeably different from the frantic acrobatics of Super Mario (more on that later), in regards to the pantheon of Kirby games I would actually argue that Dream Land's action sequences comfortably sit within the middle tier of Kirby level design despite its compact nature. Dream Land 2 simplified things a little too much (particularly early on), Amazing Mirror's Metroid influences were a tad too distracting for my tastes, and the less said about Squeak Squad, the happier I'll be. That this was the only Kirby to feature devastating items for Kirby to utilize until 2011's Return to Dream Land lends it a quality all on its own, but like the best Kirby games, the levels quickly transition from scenery to scenery without pause, and numerous scenarios are instant classics From traversing a tree's inside within Green Greens to the shooting star hallway in Bubbly Clouds right down to the freaky Kirby doppelgangers found in King Dedede's castle, the chaotic visuals pepper Dream Land with a sort of insanity not commonly found in the series.
The Castle Lololo stage--the one absent from Spring Breeze--is the notable representative of this disorder, and all it takes to realize that is taking a gander at the screenshot above. Upon entering, the player immediately stumbles across a microphone that, while can only be used once, produces a horrendous screech that explodes everyone in the vicinity. Shaped as a vertical hall, the room reveals several entrances that lead to unique pathways, of which lead to further doors and rooms within the castle. Lather, rinse, repeat. Yet the stage's chaos plays to its strength. Some doors simply lead to arduous hallways with armies of goons, while others lead to explosive weapons (none the least of which is the fiery Superspicy Curry, of which Smash Bros. fans will no doubt recognize) and tasty treats that recover vitality. The visuals also aid in creating an air of chaos, what with disturbing heads convulsing around the room and floating masks that stalk Kirby. Oh, and obvious nods to Super Mario World's ghost houses, that too.
To elaborate more on this front, a reminder must be set in that there is no denying that Kirby games are aimed at children, and an analysis of Dream Land benefits the most out of the whole series from this perspective. A young mind wouldn't be foolish enough to label the game an epic, but is intrigued enough by all the chaotic, cartoonish antics involving the spontaneous enemies, the shifting nature of the levels, and destructive curry to keep playing over and over.
I suppose that's part of what made the game appealing to both audiences. The game emphasizes replayability with its short length, and by that I don't just mean playing it over after completion, but through trial and error. I doubt every child breezed through the game as easily as others, as bosses such as Kracko and Kaboola bear erratic attack patterns that tend to frequently encompass the entire screen (no, really, Kaboola is one of the few Kirby bosses I still encounter struggles with. I am so glad she is radically underused). In the event of a game over, Dream Land's short length assures the young player will be back for more very soon, allowing them to frequently memorize enemy/boss movements until they've finally triumphed.
Moreover, Dream Land's focus on the child is successful in that instills a sense of empowerment. I still remember back when I was seven/eight and, being inspired by my brother's claim of having completed thirty games, strove to surpass that count and kept record of how many game completions I had under my belt. I imagine the short length of Dream Land would have appealed greatly to me in the purpose of being a easy pass, and I'm certain that rang true for many other children; that is, even if they didn't possess the same ambitions as I did or were even that good of a player.
Of course, Dream Land's "beginner" theme isn't restricted to its length or level design. Of particular interest is the lack of a run button, which while having the unfortunate side-effect of contributing to the game's archaic nature, makes sense from the developer's viewpoint. The compulsive nature of children means they just run around and scream everywhere, right? Translating such an attitude to electronic hand-eye coordination often results in sloppy movement that has a penchant for falling into bottomless pits; that, or dashing at breakneck speeds with no sense of control or planning, often with the same end result. I wouldn't be surprised if this was the basis for Sakurai's decision to make Kirby games function at a slower pace than Mario, and he went the extra mile into telling the child to slow down and take their time. This is the one great thing I believe is still relevant from Dream Land, although more so in that nearly every Kirby game since has followed its play model (while the ability to dash was brought back in Adventure--adding a touch of flavor to its sugar rush nature--no complex form of platforming were to be found).
But even then it's not just how it plays. So much of it, I think, has to do the game's atmosphere. The Hello Kitty meets Candy Land approach is something that should instantly turn off anyone over the age of six, and yet the aesthetics and characters of Dream Land, what with the cloudy kingdoms, parasol-wielding foes, and little blob witches sweeping the level grounds with brooms, are all so infectious that's tremendously easy to get wrapped up in it all. I guess it's because even though it's constructed with a cutesy-poo nature, it's not interested in being condescending like many forms of children's entertainment. It's just concerned with creating a comfortable experience, and anyone's invited to play.
...that, and the boss music. Kirby tends to dabble into some dark music now and then (see Kirby 64), yet I don't think I've ever heard anything so chillingly foreboding in the series. Very surprised this hasn't made a rearranged comeback.
Yet, advocating Dream Land's graphical charm and music is something one can gush about for any future game in the series, right? You have orchestrated tracks and crayon aesthetics and yarn-stitched worlds and techno and all that good stuff later on. No matter how many excuses I can come up with, it all boils down to that damn length! Just like I was, people are content with playing the little remake in Super Star and don't want to bother with an ancient Game Boy title. As much as the game leans on it, replayability can only get you so far, I suppose.
So, what is there then?
If I already haven't made it clear/implied it enough, then I'm going to be honest in saying that the game's size doesn't really bother me. For what seems like a blasphemous length today or even back then, the idea of citing brevity as a detriment towards Dream Land is, strangely, just as equally blasphemous. Not that because doing so would counter my worship of Sakurai's approaches to gaming, but it seems unjust to rail against something geared towards newcomers. For what it's supposed to be, the game works well enough. The swallowing mechanic is fun, the level design is professional and full of character, and the replayability is wonderful should it suck the player in. Let it also be clear, however, that Dream Land being a game for newcomers does not exclude it from criticism, and I'm of the opinion that one could certainly criticize it on that front, but I can only detect maybe only one or two flaws. While I am fine without the addition of the run button, I can't say the same for the lack of a proper swimming function for Kirby. I'm not kidding, it's literally just the same walking animation, albeit slowed down a tad. While it's obviously due to the lack of water-traversing sequences, it is painfully awkward to control and not in any sense of the word "enjoyable."
If I am given another reason to defend length, I point to only one factor: the Extra Mode. Let it be known that I'm not particularly well-versed in the realm of hard mode, as I'm of the opinion that a game's default/"normal" difficulty represents the developer's vision. While I don't mind dipping in for a challenge after an initial playthrough (with the exception of my recent forays in Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep and Dream Drop Distance, having previously been burnt out on the franchise thanks to the series' second iteration and its braindead design choices), I've always perceived it as post-game content; in fact, that's what the Kirby games typically treat it as in the form of unlockables. While they're typically nothing more than minor nuisances difficulty-wise, they can cough up some cool bonuses.
This is different. The Extra Mode could not have been any more of a polar opposite to its regular counterpart, as it is relentlessly gleeful in its goal of screwing over the player. While perhaps not among the most fiendish of Hard Modes, it is a monster in the realm of Kirby. The chaos found in the normal mode is amplified to the point where swarms of enemies home divebombs on Kirby, or innocently fly past him only to instantly U-turn and ram into him. The coconuts of Float Islands were the only perceptible threat in the normal mode, and now the Shotzo cannons and spiky Gordos are waiting just outside the edge of the screen, waiting to launch themselves onto the player. And now for the perfect example: look up at that screenshot. Look at that tree. Look at that piece of shit. That is Whispy Woods. His main method is attacking is blowing gusts of air at you and making apples fall from his tree. He's defeated when you spit the apples back at him. He is the biggest wimp in all of Kirby. In Extra Mode, he is bloodthirsty. Kirby is left on his toes as wave after wave of the aforementioned Gordos drop from the leaves to puncture him. Hardly any time can be spent picking up apples. It took me over ten times to beat him when I first played this. Ten times to beat a tree. Ten times.
And that is just the first level. The rest is devilish and ruthlessly fast. The experienced gamer is suddenly thankful the game is so short. And what does one get for braving through this torture? Nothing. Oh, Sakurai.
But even then, what else? Are swimming controls all I can ding it for? Can I really not fault the game for being composed of such short length? Here's how I think of it: it's not that Dream Land's length is a flaw, it's just simply not a game applicable to today's generation. The title was developed as a response to what Sakurai perceived as an exodus from gaming due to the infamous high difficulty in games, a situation that has no bearing on the gaming world of today. Difficulty modes have become the norm, game introductions are slogged with forced tutorials, and that's not even bringing up Nintendo's "Super Guide" feature. With just about every game out there trying to ease the player into its experience, the need for a game like Kirby's Dream Land is simply irrelevant. It's not bad, there's not much to, y'know, talk about.
I like Kirby's Dream Land. Can I say I like it a lot? Maybe, if Spring Breeze suddenly ceased to exist. It's just a game I can't get excited about (despite the anomaly that is Extra Mode). And that's not a very bad thing to say at all, as I could point to numerous other games I feel the same way about. It's the perfect game to play for a half-hour break, and there's nothing wrong with that, either. It just has the unfortunate luck of being outdated, and I can't help but wonder that a game with Kirby's Copy Ability would serve as a better introduction. Luckily, I think Kirby's next title fits the bill.