Once, some years ago on this very blog, I attempted a multi-chapter analysis on the NES classic Kirby's Adventure. The purpose of these posts, dubbed with the name of "Dreams," was to thoroughly examine every facet of the game in the form of Adventure's chronological world progress. A bit too ambitious for an NES title, but this was around when I was still feeling out my writing craft (in a sense, I suppose I still am) and I believed this to be the proper way to gush endlessly about my love for the game (or for any other title I deemed worthy enough for the model, for that matter). It was, for all intents and purposes, complete shit. Okay, maybe that's a little harsh, as I still have a bit of a soft spot for what I was trying to do with the Grape Garden entry, but the overall end product came across as a pointless visual walkthrough for the game rather than a worthwhile piece of nostalgic commentary. Even reviewing it as its own entity reveals an embarrassing mess, as an obvious rushed quality pervades the entire thing. 2010 may have been the blog's most active year, but not one I'm particularly fond of in a retrospective context.
But enough about my past failures, as here we are three years later with more flexible and anti-sanity taxing models of writing. Why not try again? For the game that permanently etched Kirby into my heart, it deserves no less.
Kirby's Adventure arrived at a peculiar time on the NES, in which the system was beginning to be all but abandoned in 1993. While the platform was still selling, the Super Nintendo successor (as well as the Sega Genesis) had been gradually taking over the market, and Nintendo saw little point in continuing to develop 8-bit console software. Third-parties still dabbled in the system (most notably Capcom, who milked the Mega Man brand up until the very end), but the NES was just about all but abandoned by its creator. With this in mind, why Kirby's Adventure ended up on the NES is, at least for an English-speaking audience, a complete mystery. Maybe Nintendo felt the still-new Kirby brand wasn't worth the effort to develop for their new console. Maybe Sakurai wasn't confident enough to helm a Super Nintendo--well, technically, a Super Famicom--project, or was still attached to the 8-bit graphical model shared with the Game Boy (on which Kirby's Dream Land made its debut). No one knows for sure, but no one really asks. Ask any retro gamer with a list ranking the top NES games, and while Super Mario Bros. 3 would probably nag number one, it would not be an uncommon sight to find Kirby's Adventure within.
Me? Not only would I place it at the top, but I could not imagine the game being produced on any other console. Regardless of the reasons why it was put on the platform, Sakurai found himself in a rather beneficial situation. The SNES was still burgeoning, becoming more advanced and groundbreaking with each and every major piece of software (not the least of which was Star Fox and its polygon-generating Super FX Chip). With everyone else so focused on SNES, perhaps Sakurai felt it necessary to send off its dying, forgotten brother with a proper swan song; of course, such an effort would have to push the NES to its very limits, both graphically and mechanically. The result was the birth of not just the ambition packed in his future projects, but his first fully-fledged video game. The limitations set on Kirby's Dream Land, while perfect for young players, rendered it all but a quick appetizer to veteran gamers. To bridge this gap, Sakurai and his team concocted a wonderful blend, one in which Adventure's easy difficulty was eclipsed with absurdly malleable gameplay. No matter how young or experienced the player was, anyone could play Adventure and have a blast.
Above all else, it was a game that wanted to be your friend.
One day, the peaceful life of Dream Land was shattered by a mysterious crisis! The inhabitants didn't dream!
On the edge of Dream Land, dreams and hopes once gushed forth from the Dream Spring, fueled by the Star Rod.
Investigating the Dream Spring, Kirby found naughty King Dedede swimming in it's magical waters!
Dedede has broken the Star Rod and given the pieces to his friends, who are now hiding in Dream Land!
To bring back the lost dreams, Kirby sought the Star Rod!----------
Let it be known to those looking for a deep experience that Kirby's Adventure does not possess the dual-layer gameplay of, say, Super Mario Bros. Think back to what likely characterized your seven-year-old experience with Mario's famous NES adventure: sloppy movement, an inability to direct precise jumps and landings, and mistimed uses of the run button that would often send you crashing into a Hammer Bro. Yet as you grow older and more experienced, the expert intricacy of the game's level design becomes clear. You set specific routes to take throughout the game's many levels, whether it be a carefully executed series of hops onto various levitating bricks or utilizing memorized locations of coin troves and 1-ups. You're able to instantly calculate the trajectory of your jumps, whether it be hopping across falling platforms or over perilous pits. A mistimed jump or two isn't rare, but your playthroughs steadily become routine through not just practice, but taking advantage of the game's shortcuts and secrets.
In contrast, Adventure doesn't aim for this level of complexity, and its host of levels don't even match the chaotic mazes of Dream Land's Castle Lololo. The stages are straight-forward, with most of the obstacles rendered in the form of Adventure's colorful collection of baddies. While stage gimmicks are to be expected, muscle memory is not required in bypassing dangerous jumps or other hazards. It's only objective is engaging the player in an unabashed sugar rush, blazing through levels with Kirby's repertoire of transformations. In other words, Adventure's direction sacrificed challenging level design in favor of maximizing the player's enjoyment. But how is such a thing possible?
While satisfied with how well-received Dream Land was, Sakurai was obviously aware that if he were to continue making Kirby games, they would not evolve if they remained trapped within the Game Boy title's bubble. But he foresaw a problem: while Sakurai was also a big fan of the Super Mario Bros. games, he was well-aware of how their great difficulty frustrated many fledgeling gamers. If he were to take Kirby further, how could he craft a balance to appease to expert gamers without alienating the new fanbase born from Dream Land? The answer lied in tinkering with the core concept of the titular hero; the introduction of the Copy Ability. While the idea of a pink marshmallow eating his foes turned out to be strangely adorable, it lacked a certain spark that didn't grant it the same magic as other 2-D affairs such as the aforementioned Mario and sci-fi adventure Metroid. Kirby's voracious appetite needed a purpose to properly appeal to numerous gaming audiences, or else the series would die in the forgotten mists of irrelevancy.
And what fun these powers are! From fire-breathing to swordplay to the fabled UFO transformation, the vast majority of Kirby's powers are overwhelmingly satisfying to pull off and never grow tiresome thanks to the game continually shuffling through its selection (that is, the mass abundance of baddies who carry potential abilities for Kirby). And what variety, too! A strong first impression is made with its debut of twenty-five roster strong of superpowers. While not all totally different in execution (some can be placed in certain categories, such as equippable weapons or powers that render Kirby stationary), it's next to impossible not to love flashily obliterating everything in sight, whether it be freezing hapless enemies into ice cubes or causing everything to explode via screaming into a three-use microphone.
In my case, the abilities that allow Kirby to wield weapons (Sword, Hammer, and Parasol) have always been my favorite. Adventure clearly has a preference for these abiltiies as well, as they are the very few that have one than more attack function such as mid-air slices and swings, leading to insanely fun acrobatics through enemy swarms. Me? I prefer taking the scenic route with Kirby's trusty Parasol. Adorable in design and deadly in combat, there's nothing quite like transition from gently swaying in the breeze to batting away ruffians. In this case, the parasol is indeed mightier than the sword, yes.
The reason why Adventure doesn't aim for the disguised complexity of Super Mario Bros. is because it's not all that concerned with building levels around the player's skill; rather, it presented levels upon the copy abilities. Stages are constructed with the introduction of new abilities in mind, and said introduction is particularly reserved for the more dynamic powers. Take, for example, the very first time Kirby nabs the Wheel ability on Ice Cream Island. Immediately afterwards, the level shifts to a series of ramps and hills for the player to dash through in wheel form. Obvious highlights throughout the level design only heighten the excitement over more unique powers, such as the Laser ricocheting off walls and the Hammer that crushes posts to reveal hidden switches and Maximum Tomatos. Proper balance of the overly cheap powers (UFO, Mike, Crash, etc.) is properly balanced through rarity and being erased the moment the player clears the stage.
That the vast majority of these powers work so well for their first introduction is to be commended, although one could argue there are a few that don't produce explosive results. The "stationary" powers that focus on absolute defense (Stone, Spark, and Needle) are unlikely to top the list of anyone's favorite Adventure abilities, as they enforce a screeching halt to the game's focus on constant, hyper movement. Perhaps the only truly sterile Copy Ability is the Cutter, where Kirby tosses a blade that boomerangs at an absurdly short length (along with being executed in a forced stature that's woefully awkward to use for more mobile players). While thankfully the ability carves out its own acceptable niche in later games, Cutter's shittiness is made all the more apparent with its undeserved placement in a flashy host of shapeshifting superpowers and weapon acquisitions favored for their flexibility, as its sole method of attacking comes across as merely ordinary in comparison. Maybe this could've worked better in Metroid, I dunno, but it lacks any form of life here.
Through this direction, levels are instantly rendered memorable. Kirby games guilty of the previous example of level design (in particular, Squeak Squad and Dream Land 2) have difficulty embedding themselves to memory, as sets of levels constructed around similar themes tend to blur together. With Adventure's transitions from waterfall-spewing valleys to ships on the high seas, this problem is non-existent. Favorites are easily picked among the bunch, and the true value of the hubs begin to shine as you can go back and traverse through them again and again. With nearly forty levels under Adventure's belt, it's easy for players to immerse themselves throughout the game's colorful world.
Which brings me to another point you've no doubt noticed via the screenshots: Color! Bright, beautiful color! Pink all around! Green in spades! Blue in abundance! Kirby's Adventure explodes in color from the moment the title screen materializes on the player's television, and continues to deluge their eyes with its never-ending supply of pigments. It wasn't quite uncommon for NES games to embrace dull splotches of brown and black (combined with being host to hideously scribbled sprites), but developers that stuck with the system during the SNES years had mastered its graphical processes within the system's twilight years, and no one would argue that Adventure represents the pinnacle of this period.
While the simplistic character designs aren't quite as immaculately detailed such as, say, the gritty Ninja Gaiden, one would be hard-pressed to find backgrounds in an NES game overly saturated with color and detail as Adventure. Of course, the star attraction of Adventure's technical achievement lies within the Butter Building segment, where Kirby is randomly plopped onto an outdoor platform that spins along in accordance to his movement. Through a fancy programming technique known as parallax scrolling (where certain elements of a game's background can be adjusted to move slower than the foreground a character walks upon), the tower produces a psuedo-3D rotation effect that is completely unlike anything else on the system.
Nor as inspired! Though Adventure is often hailed as the technical marvel of the NES, but what sticks with me more is that the bright, cheery aesthetic lends itself to a veritable example of enchanting childhood fantasy. Immediately springing to mind are the Vanilla Wafer-esque landmarks of Vegetable Valley (a series staple!), the various checker-boarded hills and slopes, and the balance of sky terraces and fauna-filled rooms within the towering Butter Building. While not as overly alluring as later games, Rainbow Resort remains my favorite atmosphere: an arctic carnival shrouded in a eternal night, with auroral sky patterns composed of crayon pastel and luminous attractions looming in the distance. It's an eerily beautiful design that has a vague whiff of Pinnochio's Pleasure Island (albeit not as nightmare fuel-inducing), and the first hint of what's to come in the series' future backgrounds. Overall, the 8-bit graphical design produces a charming blend of simplistic beauty and iconic charm.
It's for this reason that the simplified, beady-eyed character sprites feel right at home. Frantic and alive, the inhabitants of Dream Land bobble around with an animated vigor not typically associated with NES characters. Beam-spewing Waddle Doos dash violently at Kirby, pausing to fidget in the midst of their energy conjuration. Meta Knight's gang of armored thugs consist of collective personalities: some patiently pace around baiting the player; meanwhile, the rowdy mace-ball wielding knights charge at Kirby without pause. Even the sleepy Noddys are fun to watch, strolling non-nonchalantly throughout the stage before suddenly, well, nodding off. I almost feel bad for swallowing them.
Or, perhaps not. I've always had a fondness for the Sleep ability icon.
Anyway, it's interesting I note the frantic nature of the enemies, as the game's difficulty curve (nor its sugar-rush nature) wouldn't be possible without it. While all Kirby games can be cleared in a matter of hours, Adventure is one of the few that steadies a balanced challenge. On its own, it's not too cumbersome for an experienced gamer, but the enemies are literally spazzing out all over the courses. With the player boisterously dashing thanks merry selection of Copy Abilities, an inevitable collision with said baddies will be enough to put a damper on anyone's day. There also a couple of nasty shocks waiting for those aiming at a 100% score; in particular, don't be surprised to find enemies homing in on poor Kirby while on the hunt for the minigame-unlocking switches, and the methods for obtaining some of the secret 1-Ups are nothing to sneeze at. An Extra Mode, while not quite as arduous as the one found in Dream Land, is also available for players looking for a deeper challenge (unfortunately, it doesn't have a save feature, contributing to one of the game's few nitpicks).
While I'm on the subject of enemies, I may as well add that this game features one of my most hated game enemies of all time: Sir Slippy the frog. I don't know if it's a coincidence or not that his name is borrowed from the froggy Slippy Toad of Star Fox (which also came out around the same time), but that doesn't matter. What is important is that god dammit, he is out for blood. Out of all the erratic enemy types, he is by far the worst. Since you automatically lose your Copy Ability whenever Kirby is hit underwater, Sir Slippy takes great delight in making life hell for you. He will plunge in directly at you whenever you least fucking expect it. He hops around randomly with the precision of a crazed, yet silent leprechaun who's movements are impossible to read. You can never breathe. Just about every time I've played through Kirby's Adventure, he gets me. Avoidance is simply not an option with him. He will fucking murder you.
The bosses, in particular, are a unique double-edged sword. Excluding the traditional stationary Whispy Woods fight, most of the fights are imbued with creativity in attack patterns (Paint Roller's living drawings, pretty much everything about Mr. Shine and Mr. Bright) or in forcing the player to constantly move forward (Kracko and Heavy Mole); yet, their typically large sizes render them a pushover for anyone with experienced knowledge of 2-D sidescrollers. On the flipside, their imposing sizes and attacks are a threat to younger gamers, as even the mini-bosses prove to be a tough obstacle with their erratic attack patterns or, in certain cases, will unleash killer piledrive attacks on Kirby upon instant contact (the likes of Bonkers, Rolling Turtle, and the Fire Lion stick out in my memory as being particularly troublesome).
Oh, and the music. Jun Ishikawa returns from Dream Land to compose the NES entry, but the sound direction is helmed by Hirokazu Ando (another eventual series mainstay). The tinny, exuberant tunes on the Game Boy find a welcome home on the NES, and Adventure's soundtrack is yet another golden representative of the series.Where Dream Land's music aims for an overly peppy style, Adventure hits a sweet spot in which both the sounds of animated vigor and hypnotic rapture are allowed to mingle. Take this contrast between two of the game's best songs: the themes for Butter Building and Rainbow Resort. The former is part of the more lively portion of the soundtrack (although it doesn't quite match the same fervor of Vegetable Valley or Yogurt Yard), being a boppy ditty that's a perfect accompaniment to the tower it represents: a jolly introduction to an awe-inspiring structure that segues into the rising progress within the tower's levels.
Fun Fact: As evidenced by numerous fan remixes and even the Super Smash Bros. Brawl arrangement, the song also has a strange affinity for guitars.
Then we come to the best song in the entire game. I already said enough about how much I loved the art direction for this world, but didn't do the same for this aural masterpiece. A perfect counterpart to an illuminated world of wonder, the song's gentleness is easily compared to a dreamy lullaby, the kind barely hinging on the furthest recesses of one's mind. You remember the one your mother used to sing to you when you were young? You remember dozing off in the middle of a nightly car ride, staring off into the beyond of the night sky before sleep overcame you? That's the muted nostalgia the song soothingly emits in its entire duration, lightly easing the player into a euphoric state as it combs through your memories, allowing these forgotten moments to surface for a fleeting instant before sinking back into the depths of subconsciousness. While not the definitive version of the song, its emotional resonance alone ranks Rainbow Resort in the top pantheon of Kirby music.
There's even a touch of duality in the insanely addictive Forest Theme, a song that to this day I still haven't been able to figure out. It's a bit peppy, yes, but it doesn't dare nab the cusp of hyperactivity like Yogurt Yard. It's more quiet, definitely, but it doesn't seduce the player into dreamland like Grape Garden or Rainbow Resort. An abnormal mixture of subdued bounciness, the song was by far and away my favorite Adventure track when I was younger, as I'd always break out in a huge smile whenever it'd come on and hum along.
But why did I really play the game?
But could a modern game properly showcase what it would to be there? While we wouldn't get our answer until much later*, it's not as if Melee set out to emulate the likes of Super Mario World or Zelda II (although one could argue for its vague Kirby Super Star origins). And yet in the end, it was the online fan reaction to Melee that truly mystified me. Long-time Nintendo fans on message boards were delighted to experience various callbacks from Super Mario Bros. 2 to Earthbound contained within one source, and they all discussed said delight with such yearning and fondness that just beneath my reach. I felt a sort of identification with their nostalgia when mixed with my reverie, and I wanted to experience it for myself.
While not the first "old" video game I'd played, Kirby's Adventure was my first such venture into the realm of research. The impact of webcomics utilizing NES/SNES character sprites and the wistful forum discussions left a strong impression on me, and I wanted to mine this nostalgia from its source. The decision to go after Kirby's Adventure felt natural: Sakurai had hit the nail on the head for the old Super Mario games being too tough for younger games (i.e. me), and the titular character and his settings had grown on me immensely in Melee.
The game instantly clicked with me with an odd sense of camaraderie. Kirby's Adventure is lovely in that it knows exactly what it's constructed for: a younger audience that loves to play games, but can't play them well. Anyone can breeze through the game's levels. Its dialogue, whether in the opening demo or the pause screen instructions, is purposely elementary and speaks on the same level with a touch of reserved excitement. Oh, and, of course, over twenty-something superpowers. Everyone loves those; especially kids, so I hear.
Much like Kirby's Dream Land, a child can easily discern that Adventure was created just for them, but the latter's greater scale is what allows it to be treasured and fully embraced. Where Super Mario and Mega Man may have failed one young gamer with their brutal difficulty and daunting, apparent larger-than-life size, Kirby's Adventure unashamedly plays favorites for the sole purpose of making the kid feel powerful. Despite the challenges I mentioned earlier, there's no denying the game's still, overall, pretty dang easy. And that's okay. There's no forcible hand-holding, no blatant overkill with food items or 1-ups. The kid is in control.
But Adventure doesn't settle for sitting in the backseat, no. It doesn't hold the player's hand, but it's still there at the forefront. It's the basis of the player's frenzy, feeding it through constantly introducing new abilities and never letting up with the eye-popping color. Kirby's enthusiastic dances matches the upbeat satisfaction of felling a boss or completing a tough level. But why is it so excited? Remember what I compared the game to, earlier? Adventure identifies with the child because the game itself is a child. It is just as excited as the young player, frantically wanting to show its new friend all the sights and festivities it has to offer.
Even as a kid who considered himself decently well-versed within the world of gaming, I found it a wonderful experience to play through a My First Video Game not for the sake of learning how to play games, but how to play and understand 2D games. I largely favored the wide, comfortable three-dimensonal expanses of the Nintendo 64 over the challenging, precision-based Super Nintendo, and Kirby's Adventure gradually succeeded in melting the barrier between the two worlds. It's a game that celebrates your progress with you, purposefully cramming as much of its infectious upbeat nature as it can so you can keep trying and playing again and again.
And then, it suddenly flips the teatable, resulting in one of my all-time favorite moments in gaming.
So, remember when I mentioned the sub-games strewn across the hub worlds? There's one in particular I'd like to a bit in-depth about: the Arena Matches, where Kirby is pitted against one of the many mini-bosses found throughout the game, such as the walrus Mr. Frosty or the flying beetle Bugzzy. The reward? A Maximum Tomato and whatever Copy Ability the fallen foe provides.
What I love about this isn't the free health pick-ups or abilities. It's not for the thrill of battle. It's not for the concept of a mode solely designed to fight the game's fun mini-bosses. It's what happens the moment you win. Upon Kirby's triumph, everything falls silent. There may be a garbled cheer from the crowd when the enemy explodes or is swallowed, but that's all. The music stops playing. The dotted members of the audience just flicker.
When I first saw this, I was spellbound. Without knowing it, I was there. I was the seven year old who routinely played Kirby's Adventure when it was released in 1993. It was the early hours of the morning, within one of the lower quarters of the household. The boy's parents were asleep. The sun had only barely risen, its rays dimly lighting the room. The boy has just triumphed in an arena match, but he only sits there, absorbing the sudden silence. He's just as stupefied as I am, staring off into the sea of shifting pixellated heads.
But was the child entranced for the same reasons as I? For me, it was the revelation of the bare form of ancient hardware: just for the purpose of a quick cheer that sometimes never manifests, the boss music has to stop playing. Kirby's Adventure celebrates noise just as much it oozes color, never letting up its frenzied/soothing soundtrack or lively sound effects except for the briefest of intervals. It flashes a well-earned 1-up in the Crane Game or quietly builds the tension in Quick Draw, then pops right back to making noise. Yet within one small pocket, ambiance is allowed to reign within Kirby's Adventure. It's something so incredibly insignificant that I highly doubt there's any symbolic meaning behind it, but I remain badgered by how I'm allowed to just stand there and watch the crowd. Aren't I supposed to keep moving? It's a moment that continues to elude me.
And what about the child? The NES was already aged back in 1993, but for him, it may as well be new. Was he mentally filling in the blanks of the crowd? Were they people he knew, or imaginary friends from his sessions of playing pretend? The reasons for our captivation maybe different, but our interest is one and the same: a silence that defies everything we thought we knew about Adventure, a game that's composed of perky movement and boisterous sound.
I recall another very vague memory regarding sound. In the Grape Garden hub world, the background song was something that implied a moment's rest, maybe a faint reflection. I stopped moving here, too, but that was because I sighed at what the music meant for me. That's what I did whenever I encountered the perfect mixture of nostalgia and reverie: a remote memory of an experience I never had, yet was still rendered beautiful by the idea that, nearly ten years ago, there was a young player who properly produced that memory. I just sighed, staring off into the clouds outside my window and wondered, was there a kid out there feeling the same way I was just now?
Does it mean I'm too old to be playing this game anymore? But then why do I still have fun? Because it's a game that represented nostalgia to me at a young age that, ironically, became a source of my own nostalgia as I grew older? Not really. Adventure's sugary, sweet essence is something that's never really gone away, but a game can't last on nostalgia forever. For a game to possess unique character all the while providing engaging gameplay that can weather through the advances of the industry is the true key for it to last forever, and is a sign of fine craftsmanship.
I still own the NES cartridge I picked up ten years ago. I've bought it on the Wii and the Wii U's Virtual Console service. I downloaded the 3D version on the 3DS. While it's a shame the virtual copies suffer from the ubiquitous muted graphical filter of the Virtual Console (aside from the 3DS version), I still feel great delight in knowing that any kid out there can have the same solitary experience of playing a game created just for them. Is it the very best Kirby title? No, but I don't know if anything could topple it off its rightful place as number two (although 2011's Return to Dream Land came close). This is one of the greatest games to be published under Nintendo's name.
*Eventually, it was proven that modern video games could provide the community with brand new memories of the NES. The Nintendo DS was graced with Retro Game Challenge eight years later, capturing the hearts of all the twelve people who bought it.