Kirby’s Dream Land draws a perfect circle of game design
Kirby’s Dream Land is a perfect circle of a video game. What do I mean by that? Prepare to graduate in Kirbology, my friend. Maybe an art degree, too. I’m not a certified educator, but I’ll sign something for you if you want.
Anyone can draw a circle, right? Well, if you’ve ever been drawn to art, you’re probably aware of the trials and tribulations that really come with drawing a circle. I’m not just talking about drawing something round or rounded. I’m talking about a circle that’s genuine and honest with God. No distorted curves or uneven symmetry. Pure and unfiltered roundness. Despite its simplicity, drawing a truly circular circle requires some technique and a steady hand honed through practice.
The Kirby games embody this principle, and not just because Kirby is himself a circle. Kirby walks the line between being as approachable as drawing a circle while often burying bigger challenges beneath the surface. This plan was clearly laid out from the very first game in the series.
Director Masahiro Sakurai aimed to make Kirby’s Dream Land a “game that anyone could enjoy”. Mr. Sakurai and his team at HAL Lab tackled this challenge from multiple angles, starting with the player character himself. Kirby exists as an inherently accessible character – when you draw him, you might as well draw the ever-elusive circle itself. Its simple design easily stimulates creativity. A slew of cute in-game animations and expressions sell the character in a universal way that almost anyone can appreciate.
Kirby’s charming simplicity matches the basic design of the game. True to purpose, I would describe Kirby’s Dream Land as a very relaxed platformer that anyone could enjoy. This certainly avoids taxing the player too much in terms of difficulty, but difficulty alone does not define the game. Kirby’s Dream Land ensures its friendly nature by equipping the player with mechanics that diverge from its platforming contemporaries.
Dream Land does not emphasize offense or speed through levels. In fact, the player has relatively little control over the pace of the game. Kirby waddles at a constant speed – not too fast, but not too slow. Making Kirby suck up enemies stops him in his tracks. This mechanism turns the game into a constant stopping and starting process.
Kirby’s relationship with enemies forms the basis of what I call the Kinda Innovative and Reaction-Based Yeet (KIRBY) system. Essentially, enemies serve as both obstacles and resources. Rather than just focusing on killing them, what you really need to think about is the next step. Kirby pauses on consuming baddies not to slow down the game arbitrarily, but to allow you to watch the screen for incoming enemies or dangers. Once your quarry has been neatly tidied up, you can then shoot the victim with your newly acquired ammo. Yeet is the technical term for this process, to clear up any confusion.
Effective use of the KIRBY system defines gameplay, from navigating stages to pulling a Waddle Dee alongside boss battles. None of the bosses will allow Kirby to suck them in through I guess sheer force of will, so these fights best exemplify the reaction element of the game. The bosses freely unleash their attacks and Kirby has no other choice but to dodge them until he identifies something to vacuum up, be it apples against the giant tree or boxes being pushed by Lolo and Lala.
Someone has to explain to me how this box works, by the way. The safest way to grab these boxes without taking damage seems to be to suck them up from behind Lolo or Lala as they push her, so do they become intangible or is this the real first Kirby 3D game? More importantly, let’s say there really is a 3D space here and the limitations of the game just force us to adopt a 2D perspective; Why is pushing a box at Kirby a threat? Dodge it, man.
Either way, the way Kirby interacts with his enemies conditions the player to move forward at a relaxed pace reacting to incoming threats rather than rushing at them. From here, the game further asks the player to slow down with its gates and alternate paths that lead to health, bonuses, or life. Often they just slow you down too. I mean, let’s be real – the items are cool and all, but this is the kind of game where they’re largely useless and it’s a lot faster to ignore all the goodies.
Basically, if you’re hanging out at Dream Land, you’re there to relax and take your time. Despite this, the game does not lack nuance.
Although the KIRBY system remains integrated into many sections of the game, Kirby doesn’t really need to engage with it to fight his enemies. Pressing up causes Kirby to inhale enough air to inflate (or at least I think that’s what? Maybe you’re actually triggering some sort of biological function. My degree is in Kirbology and not in Kirbiology). While floating, you can release inhaled air in puffs that damage most enemies. Taking advantage of the puff allows you to avoid much of the wasted momentum involved in performing the KIRBY system correctly. It’s also mandatory to defeat those weird fake Kirby monsters that explode if you try to inhale them.
If you’re a real speed demon, you can also choose to just float past lots of enemies and obstacles. The float mechanic actually reveals an uncomfortable truth about Kirby’s Dream Land: although it’s a platformer, it’s not really a platformer. At least not in the traditionally expected sense.
An extremely forgiving ability makes sense in such a low-stakes game, but obviously doesn’t make sense to completely eradicate platforming from platforming. Considering how this mechanic limits level design, Dream Land only really challenges your ability to avoid falling in two ways: making the bottomless pit very wide or forcing you to move upwards.
I appreciate how these sections force you to rethink the mechanics. Normally, upon seeing an enemy, your survival instinct kicks in and you’ll just want to shoot a blast of air or suck it in, but that will knock Kirby off. You need to balance your attacks with quick recoveries in order to stay in the air without falling too much, otherwise you will constantly erase your own progress. I can’t say if it really counts as a platformer, but they found a way to make floating interesting, so I’m enjoying it nonetheless.
Of course, none of the enemies or vertical shafts really hinder your journey through Dream Land. After going through the five steps, it’s over and done in about twenty minutes. Job well done and it’s time to move on, isn’t it? Bad. I thought you were serious about earning your degree! Of course, it’s not over!
That’s right, we’ve come full circle to talk a little more about circles. Much like drawing a circle, just about anyone can complete Kirby’s Dream Land. Completing the extra game, however, is the real deal. If you want to complete your circle, really complete your degree in Kirbology, you must put everything you have learned to the test here.
Remember a little while ago I was talking rubbish about how you don’t need to get the items because the game is so easy? Never mind that. The extra game takes no prisoners and you’ll need all the help you can get.
Extra Game improves enemy damage as you would expect, but it also completely reworks the existing game, with new enemies. Many of these enemies attack on sight and will rush at you with little time to react. The tiny umbrellas that Waddle Dees floats on screen are no longer cute details; they are trained killing machines that will attack and assassinate you. If the KIRBY system hasn’t trained you to be cautious, the constant onslaught of enemies in this mode will definitely make you think twice before scrolling.
Sometimes this mode cleverly pushes the game to its limits and requires mastery of a plethora of scenarios. At other times, it feels like the developers are playing a joke on the player. One area in particular involves you flying down a vertical shaft when suddenly a coconut materializes out of thin air and crushes your head. No way to react, just random damage. Better luck next time. By the time you reach the fourth stage, it becomes apparent that this mode was created by bona fide sufferers. I don’t care how good you think you are at these baby games, the cloud boss with the big eye is absolutely going to mess you up.
Nobody said that the Extra Game would be easy of course: that’s the whole point. Kirby’s Dream Land, and Kirby as a series, may have earned a reputation as a spring breeze, a walk in the park, or a piece of cake, but that’s just a front to bring people in. . The real, perfectly round Kirby requires perfection, time and effort. And just like a series of intense circle-drawing exercises, your hand may hurt a little by the time you’re done.