Friday, November 1, 2013

Ten Years of Kirby ~Reverie 4~ Kirby's Dream Land 2

Notice: while this is part of my Ten Years of Kirby retrospective, this review does not meet my current quality standards and will be superseded in the future. A link to the new version will be provided whenever it arrives.

Following the incredible success of 1993's Kirby's Adventure, our favorite pink puffball was making quite the name for himself. Immediately after the game's launch, Masahiro Sakurai got to work on a Game Boy spin-off by the name of Kirby's Pinball Land, a quirky pinball title that perfectly emulated the frantic nature of its platforming cousins. Released late within the same year, Pinball Land had no trouble riding the cash flow and established itself firmly into the gold-adorned "Player's Choice" label, granted to Nintendo titles that sold over a million copies. In the blink of an eye, a new star had rose in Nintendo's pantheon of heroes.

Having crafted three Kirby games in such quick succession, Sakurai seemed content to briefly lend the reigns to other members of HAL Laboratory while pursuing plans for an SNES title. The ensuing period from 1994-1998 introduced a deluge of spin-offs, beginning with the fan-favorite Kirby's Dream Course. Its eccentric golf-esque adventures aside, the game provided a valuable insight to HAL in that the Kirby brand was truly malleable thanks to the character's Copy Ability, and he could seamlessly ease himself into just about any genre of gaming. Dream Course proved to be particularly interesting considering that the game originally didn't feature Kirby at all, having initially been developed as a miniature golf game of sorts.

Collaborative efforts with other companies were also underway to further establish the new brand, albeit intended for a Western audience. Through some creative re-visioning by HAL and Compile, the SNES version of the cult classic puzzler Puyo Puyo was adapted into a Kirby title by the name of Kirby's Avalanche. The changes were completely cosmetic: the characters and settings were all culled from the series and rearranged songs from Kirby's Adventure supplied its soundtrack. Meanwhile, a little-known prequel named Kid Kirby was headed by DMA Design (which eventually began Rockstar North, creators of Grand Theft Auto) for the purpose of utilizing the SNES Mouse, but the project was quietly cancelled due to the peripheral's gradual irrelevance.

With Sakurai busy on his 16-bit adventure and endless spin-offs filling in the gap, HAL perhaps felt a new adventure was necessary to tide fans over. A new team was established for the creation of a Game Boy title, headed by the man responsible for the level design of Kirby's Adventure. Shinichi Shimomura was assigned his directorial debut for what was to be the sequel to the best-selling Kirby's Dream Land. Simply named Kirby's Dream Land 2, the game proved to replicate much of the original's success and even outsold the original's tales in native Japan. Mr. Shimomura would go on to direct two more games within the franchise, setting what fans dub the "Dark Matter Trilogy" (in reference to the evil black mass that serves as the antagonist for the three games). The games within this trilogy (Dream Land 2, Kirby's Dream Land 3, and Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards) are noted for being a tad slower than the typical hyperactivity found within Kirby, of which more than several fans could never quite adjust to despite the various gameplay quirks found within.

While I can't say I bear this ill will towards the latter two games of the trilogy, Kirby's Dream Land 2 remains the one title within the whole series I can never quite pin my feelings on, for it is the Kirby game I love with a broken heart.


Kirby's Dream Land 2 was something of a forbidden enigma from the very beginning of my Kirby fanhood; that is to say, I could never find the game anywhere. I found copies of Kirby's Adventure and Kirby Super Star in stores (R.I.P. Funcoland), and, er, "acquired" other Kirby games via the internet, but searches for Deram Land 2 proved fruitless. Yes, believe it or not, even scavenging through the endless, pirated troves of the web failed to produce even one functioning result, and I was forced to give up my search empty-handed.

It was rather frustrating too, as the game was hailed as something of a classic by Kirby fans. Dream Land 2 continually charted high on Top Kirby/Game Boy game lists, the bigger-than-life Kirby's Rainbow Resort fanpage gushed about it, and Kirby discussions on message boards mentioned how difficult it was for a Kirby title. The only dissenter? Some crazy lady on Gamefaqs who couldn't stop talking about hyenas. Somewhere within the jumbled mess that was her criticism was the bemoaning of how dumbed-down the gameplay was following Adventure, right down to the shrunken world hubs and lack of content. I was too distracted by the hyenas to listen.

When I finally got the chance to play it some five years later, I couldn't believe she was actually right. What made it hurt even worse was that I actually requested it as a gift following a major foot reconstruction surgery, and nothing about Dream Land 2 sparked a tinge of excitement in me. And for all my disappointment, I couldn't pin down as to why the game sucked. It played like Kirby, it sounded like Kirby, it was the first Kirby to introduce the beloved animal partner system (more on that in a bit),  I didn't chalk it up to a change in tastes, either; Kirby's Adventure came out on the Virtual Console around the same time and I still had a blast. I went back and gave Dream Land 2 more than enough chances to redeem itself, as the years went by with remakes and yarn adventures. I walked away every time crestfallen, drugged with boredom. And the worst part of it was that I couldn't come up with a discernable answer as to why I couldn't enjoy it.

It was only last year when the Dream Collection arrived that I finally forced myself to chug all the way through the damn thing, and you know something? I jumped the gun a little. Kirby's Dream Land 2 is a good game. It's a genuine game. It's a fun game! But I struggle in deeming it a great one, and I cannot lie to the rest of the internet crowd and say it ranks among Kirby's best, for it all boils down to why the game turned me off initially.

No, it's not the lesser scale following Kirby's Adventure. With the Game Boy being a much weaker system than the NES, I have no choice but to be lenient on that front. And besides, it's not like I can complain when it brings back the hub worlds from Adventure. Despite starting off with three levels per world, it quickly ramps up the number to about six or seven; in other words, a perfectly healthy amount for the Game Boy.

Nor do I mind the halved amount of Copy Abilities. Only a fraction of Kirby's powers return from Adventure (Fire, Spark, Cutter, Needle, Stone, Ice, and Parasol), but what's here is actually improved from their original forms. No longer does Spark cause immense slowdown, and Stone has the cool side-effect of rolling down sloped hills! And hey, I can't be completely disinterested when they brought back my beloved Parasol. And, and, and the animal partners!

Yeah, those guys are pretty rad. Marking the first appearance of Rick the Hamster, Coo the Owl, and Kine the Fish, these three friends of Kirby serve as a unique conduit for the hero's powers when caught for a ride. For example, using Spark while clutched by Coo's talons lets the duo conjure thunderbolts onto the hapless baddies below, soaring through the air all the while. Meanwhile, Rick wrecks havoc on the ground when transformed into a rolling Stone, forcing Kirby to perform a balancing act as they crush everything in their way.

And as for Kine's take on the Parasol? He just kinda, uh, sticks it out of his mouth. Whatever, he gets points for effort.

Obviously the selling point of the game, the animal partners offer the perfect compromise for the lack of Copy Abilities. Yes, the more unique stuff like Laser and Ball are missed, but who cares when you're riding a fire-breathing hamster? Much like the introduction of Yoshi in Super Mario World, the animal partners channel an alternative sense of power into the player through their optional status. Do you have to use them? Well, no, but considering how they morph Kirby's Copy Abilities into such exciting superpowers, why wouldn't you?

This begs the question: how can I go wrong with this? If the core concept of Kirby gameplay is handled relatively well, why should I have a problem with it? If I can accept limitations, then what's the big deal? Hell, if I get to ride on a hamster, why so much apprehension in naming it a great Kirby, then?

The big problem with Dream Land 2 is this: the level design composing the first third of the game is utter shit.

I say this knowing full well that stage design has never been Kirby's forte, but I have yet to encounter any other 2D action-adventure title within Nintendo's legacy with early levels so banal, so devoid of life that deriving any form of entertainment from them is near impossible. Save for an occasional widened level scope, nothing within the first two worlds showcase even a speck of intelligence behind its obstacle placement, simply choosing to sparsely decorate landscapes with trademark tiered hills and the steep slope here and there.  

This is where the unfortunate downgrades following Adventure begin to negatively impact the game; in particular, the lack of a dash input for Kirby is the spring-point for Dream Land 2's initially sluggish nature. While Dream Land had the same control issue, it was an acceptable compromise for the exchange of chaotic level design and frantic enemy mobs. Strip away those factors, and we're left with nothing but a dreadfully slow bore. Enemies crawl along at a snail's pace and the brain-dead level design erases any caution pitfalls present.

Dammit, even the aesthetic settings pisses me off! Gone are the alliterative food inspired days of Adventure's Vegetable Valley and Orange Ocean, for Dream Land 2 plops us straight off into the offensively bland Grass Land. And you know, maybe I'd be able to forgive such an uninspired location if it was just limited to the first world, but I can't really do that. And why's that? Because the game won't let me, as its segue into the next world creates quite possibly the worst sense of level progression I have ever seen in a game. You know how most platforming games often start out with a grassland and then move on to a desert or a beach or something? Well, Dream Land 2 has its own perfect antithesis to this:

A forest. That's right. The first two worlds are entirely dedicated to a grass field and a forest. Are you fucking kidding me? That these are next-door biomes is bad enough, but you know what's even worse? It's that the game invests absolutely zero effort to distinguish them from each other. I'm not even kidding! Other than the occasional branch platform and, uh, blockades of Star Boxes, the Big Forest is little more than a mere palette swap of Grass Land. They both entirely take place outdoors instead of initiating any transitional scenery. Both worlds have only one screen where you move up instead of going right. Both are entirely ass.

When arriving at any such relative point in any other bad game, it is at this point that any player worth their salt in gaming knowledge has already accepted the bitter truth: there is no hope. If a game fails to present any form of appealing hook at its beginning, why continue? Dream Land 2 is a tad more of a dire case in this regard, for the first two worlds are so vapid in design, so lethargic in movement and tedious in its sense of progress that there is no incentive to discover what lies beyond. Not even the gimmicks of Rick the Hamster and Coo the Owl can suppress the boredom, as Dream Land 2 seems destined for failure.

And that is the miracle of Kirby's Dream Land 2.

It is in the the next world, the watery Ripple Fields, where it's as if the game designers suddenly had an epiphany regarding 2-D platforming design: if a game desires to present interesting levels, it requires level-oriented obstacles and to engage the player. Dream Land 2 is quick to take this lesson to heart, and begins to present obstructions in spades, whether it's stripped right from Adventure (spikes that litter the floor and exploding coconuts rain that down on Kirby) or through its own volition (turbulent currents gushing out of deep-sea pipes).

From this point on, Dream Land 2 ushers in a landslide of quality, and it's as if the game is figuring out one logical equation of successful level design after the other. For example, while keeping the player on their toes with deadly coconuts is all well and good, focusing entirely on a single environmental motif (grassland, desert, forest, etc.) within an entire world gets boring rather quickly. Dream Land 2's solution to its previous screw-ups? Pitch-black caves (of which are cleverly illuminated through Kine's Spark power) and exciting underwater sections in the depths of Red Mountain. And by "exciting", I mean holy shit you better have Kirby stuffed inside Kine's mouth because otherwise you'll be at the mercy of those aforementioned current-spewing pipes.

The game isn't afraid to ape Adventure through levels built around Copy Abilities, but the best parts are when Dream Land 2 goes on to establish new tropes for the series. The game isn't clever enough to entirely create original 2-D platforming tropes, but its early age is the key. Dream Land and Adventure could only cover so much within their brief sugar rushes, which leaves all the more room for Dream Land 2 to pick up the slack. Frustrating scrolling screens of death? Check. Collapsing platforms? Check. An entire world based on icy traction that's compounded upon by precision-based jumps and weather effects? Check. Cleverly hidden mystical trinkets that are required to fight an insanely difficult final boss? Yikes.

This is all a long way of saying: man, does this game get brutal! I mean, the bountiful harvest of 1-ups do a great job of not applying any pressure onto the player, but that doesn't make it any less frustrating to endure. You remember how Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels was fond of abnormally small platforms that stood erect within bottomless pits? Yeah, Dream Land 2 has some of those lying around. Don't even get me started on the enemy swarms; actually, no, the less said about the above flying bag with the split personality disorder, the happier I'll be. Better hold on to your animal buddies tight, because they have a nasty penchant for kidnapping them for reasons of pure evil that are never disclosed.

Yet for all its difficulty, for all of its struggles in learning level design, Dream Land 2 achieves what should be impossible for a game of its caliber. With such clear evidence of the developers learning the ropes of game design throughout the title's progress, there's no chance of of the game. And yet, it does. In preparation for the endgame, all the stops are pulled to produce one of the very best moments in all of Kirby: the Cloudy Park segment.

The best stages of 2-D platforming will always be the ones that surprise, challenge, and entrance the player, but how exactly do you define what's created from those three? The answers often lie in what are the simplest of solutions, yet are the easiest to flub up in design; for example, there could be a form of external pressure suddenly pushing against the player (such as gusts of wind or bursts of water), thus leading to creative scenarios such as navigating mazes or exposing weakspots within the terrain. But how can it be made so the player isn't frustrated through what they perceive to be cheap deaths and faulty controls? Cloudy Park is representative of this philosophy executed perfectly. Air currents of all kinds push Kirby through tight mazes of clouds and platforms, yet not once does the player lose control of the character. When they're introduced as tough segments of a level, they're constructed around the quick timing of the player to destroy or dodge obstacles in satisfying fashion. When presented as aesthetic forms of transition, they serve as dreamy visual pieces that embrace the player fully into its world. It's a perfect balance.

And the music. While unfortunately the game's soundtrack (composed by series regular Hirokazu Ando and newcomer Tadashi Ikegami) is largely uninteresting and bland, this sticks out along with Coo's Theme as being abnormal masterpieces. While every bit as nostalgic as the lullaby of Adventure's Rainbow Resort, Cloudy Park takes on a more elaborate note of easing the player into the world's majesty. It doesn't need the booming of an orchestra to produce the awe of approaching the title's finale, but simply a tad more activity and sentimentality to help the player reflect on just how far they've come. When I first heard this song last year, I found myself absorbed in a reverie not quite unlike those Super Star and Adventure/Nightmare in Dream Land had trapped me within so long ago. I was a kid again.
The game even ends in the vein of a classic. After slaying what may very be the most grueling final boss in all of Kirby, the tiny sprite of Kirby lets go of the Rainbow Sword and slowly closes his eyes, descending to Pop Star. Various stills of his animal friends are shown, patiently waiting his return. King Dedede gazes up towards the sky and smiles, having been freed of his nightmarish possession. The power of sprite animation has been proven time and time again, and this one scene alone depicts a gracefully silent side of Kirby we've never seen before, nor since. what just happened? What the fuck just happened? This is not normal. Games don't suddenly bounce up from the realm of shit just like that. I spent years thinking this game was an failure! Years! And it was all because the first two words had to present the most dismal, lifeless examples of level design I have ever seen in a 2D platforming game. I have to suffer through this shit every time I make a new file! Could I just go back and play my old one? Well, yeah, but do I really want to pretend I'm starting a new game at world three? What kind of sense does that make? I'm the kind of guy who loves replaying old games just for that heightened achievement of beating the shit out everything it has to offer, just to celebrate its whole as a complete, cohesive package. I'm fresh out of luck, don't you see?!? Fucked, that's what I am!

I'm sorry, excuse my outburst. I know all the crap I threw just now at Dream Land 2 isn't entirely justified to the game's entirety, but it just pisses me off just like how this summer's abhorrent Game & Wario did. See, as much as the likes of Zelda: Skyward Sword and Paper Mario: Sticker Star offended me, I consider Game & Wario a truly tragic piece of virtual entertainment because the presentation and humor involved proves the guys behind it still have it (check out this Kotaku article to see what I mean). The unlockable videos and trinkets are gold! The exaggerated artwork for each minigame is a hysterical throwback to the cover-art for NES games! Yet I can't enjoy this stuff for even a moment because they're shackled to an unbelievably shitty game devoid of any inspiration behind its gameplay ideas (save for the Gamer title, which only makes me wish for a return to the original WarioWare formula).

Kirby's Dream Land 2 is in the same boat. This article has proven the people behind the title have actual talent, yet why does the beginning of the game open with shit? Is this a joke? Are we supposed to believe the designers just suddenly learned how to make a game halfway through? Why couldn't they just go back and patch up the earlier levels, then? You know what? Maybe Dream Land 2 didn't really have a miracle at all. The first two worlds are complete shit on purpose; in other words, they were dumbed down just enough to ensure the brainless beginner can get past the first couple of worlds for a sense of accomplishment.

With the exception of Squeak Squad, just about every other Kirby game proves this mentality wrong. You don't have to remove any sense of danger and strip levels out of any unique design just to hook a beginner. It boggles the mind that Dream Land and Adventure would have zero problems with this, yet suddenly this game does? Yeah, Sakurai didn't work on this one, but you'd think the guy behind Adventure's levels would get the hint regardless. Or maybe it was just that it was his first time as director? Who knows. 

Look, I like this game, I really do. I dig that second half, and if the rest of the game followed its example, it could be one of my Kirby favorites. But being baited does not a great game make, and I don't wish to suffer through tedium just to get to the good parts. Kirby's Dream Land 2 is ultimately a worthwhile video game with some notable talent and ingenuity behind it, but it just misses that cusp of greatness.


Welp, over a month and a half! Much better than missing three straight months, no? I've recently gotten my procrastination under control, so I think you'll be seeing me much quicker next time around. I'll be back soon with a new review, new entry in this series, and FINALLY the beginning to the Top 25 Wii games! Seeya!