Kirby's Dream Land Draws a Perfect Circle of Game Design

Watch Out Whispy Woods, Kirby Needs Paper

27 April 2022
by jack 3
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Kirby’s Dream Land is a perfect circle of a video game. What the heck do I mean by that? Prepare to earn your degree in Kirbology, friend. Maybe an art degree, too. I’m not a licensed educator, but I’ll sign something for you if you’d like.

Anyone can draw a circle, right? Well, if you’ve ever been artistically inclined, you’re likely aware of the trials and tribulations that come with truly drawing a circle. I’m not talking about simply drawing something round or round-esque. I’m talking about a genuine, honest-to-God circle. No misshapen curves or uneven symmetry. Pure, unfiltered roundness. Despite how simple it seems, drawing a truly circular circle takes some technique and a steady hand honed by practice.

Kirby games embody that principle, and not just because Kirby happens to be something of a circle himself. Kirby walks the line between being as accessible as drawing a circle while often burying greater challenges underneath the surface. That blueprint was clearly laid out as early as the very first game in the series.

Director Masahiro Sakurai aimed to make Kirby’s Dream Land a “game anyone could enjoy.” Mr. Sakurai and his team at HAL Laboratory tackled this challenge from multiple angles, starting with the player character himself. Kirby exists as an inherently accessible character - when drawing him you might as well be drawing the ever-elusive circle itself. His simple design easily sparks one’s creativity. A bevy of cute animations and expressions in-game sell the character in a universal way that just about everyone can enjoy.

Kirby’s charming simplicity matches the basic game design. True to the goal, I would describe Kirby’s Dream Land as a very relaxed platformer that anyone could enjoy. It certainly avoids taxing the player too much in the difficulty department, but difficulty does not define the game alone. Kirby’s Dream Land ensures its friendly nature by equipping the player with mechanics that diverge from its platformer contemporaries.

Dream Land does not emphasize going on the offensive or speeding through levels. In fact, the player has relatively little control over the pace of the game. Kirby waddles at an even speed - not too fast, but not too slow. Making Kirby suck up enemies stops him in his tracks. This mechanic turns the game into a process of constant stopping and starting.

Kirby’s relationship with enemies forms the basis of what I refer to as the Kinda Innovative and Reaction-Based Yeet (K.I.R.B.Y.) system. Essentially, enemies serve both as obstacles and resources. Rather than focus on simply killing them, what you really need to think about is the step that comes afterwards. Kirby stops upon bad guy consumption not to slow the game down arbitrarily, but to let you observe the screen for incoming enemies or hazards. Once your quarry has been neatly stored, you can then shoot the victim with your newly acquired ammo. Yeet is the technical term for that process, to clear up any confusion.

Efficient use of the K.I.R.B.Y. system defines the game, from navigating the stages by firing one Waddle Dee at the next to the boss battles. None of the bosses will allow Kirby to suck them up through, I assume, sheer force of willpower, so these fights best exemplify the reaction element of the game. The bosses freely unleash their attacks and Kirby has no choice but to dodge them until he identifies something to suck up, be it apples against the giant tree guy or boxes being pushed by Lolo and Lala.

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Someone needs to explain to me how that box thing works, by the way. The safest way to snag those boxes without taking damage seems to be sucking them up from behind Lolo or Lala while they are pushing it, so do they become intangible or is this the true first 3D Kirby game? More importantly, let’s say there actually is 3D space going on here and the limitations of the game are simply forcing us into a 2D perspective; why is pushing a box at Kirby a threat at all? Just sidestep it, dude.

Regardless, the way Kirby interacts with his enemies conditions the player to move forward at a relaxed pace by reacting to incoming threats rather than rushing into them. From there, the game further asks the player to slow down with its doors and alternate paths that lead to health, powerups, or lives. They often really do just slow you down, too. I mean let’s be real - items are nice and all but this is the kind of game where they’re largely unnecessary and it’s way faster just to ignore all the goodies.

Basically, if you hang out in Dream Land you’re there to chill out and take your time. Despite this, the game does not lack nuance.

While the K.I.R.B.Y. system remains integral to many sections of the game, Kirby doesn’t actually need to engage with it to fight enemies. Pressing up causes Kirby to inhale enough air to inflate (or at least I think that’s what happens? Maybe you actually trigger some kind of biological function. My degree is in Kirbology not Kirbiology). While floating, you can unleash the inhaled air as puff blasts that damage most enemies. Taking advantage of the puff blast allows you to avoid a lot of the lost momentum involved with proper execution of the K.I.R.B.Y. system. It is also mandatory for defeating those weird fake Kirby monsters that blow up if you try to inhale them.

If you’re a real speed demon, you may also opt to simply float past a lot of the enemies and obstacles, too. The float mechanic actually reveals an uncomfortable truth about Kirby’s Dream Land: despite being a platformer, it isn’t really much of a platformer. At least not in the traditionally expected sense.

An extremely lenient ability makes sense in such a low-stakes game, but obviously doesn’t make sense to completely eradicate platforming from the platformer. Given how this mechanic limits the level design, Dream Land only really challenges your ability to avoid falling in two ways: making the bottomless pit really wide or forcing you to move upwards.

I enjoy how these sections force you to re-think the mechanics. Normally upon seeing an enemy, your survival instinct kicks in and you’ll want to just fire off an air blast or suck it up, but that will cause Kirby to fall down. You need to balance your attacks with quick recoveries in order to stay in the air without falling too much, or else you’ll constantly be erasing your own progress. I can’t say if this really counts as platforming, but they found a way to make the floating interesting so I appreciate it nonetheless.

Of course, none of the enemies or vertical shafts truly hinder your journey through Dream Land. After you go through the five stages, it’s over and done within about twenty minutes. Job well done and time to move on, right? Wrong. I thought you were serious about earning your degree! Of course it isn’t over!

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That’s right, we’ve come full circle to talk about circles some more. Just like drawing a circle, pretty much anyone can complete Kirby’s Dream Land. Completing the Extra Game, however, is the real deal. If you want to perfect your circle, truly complete your degree in Kirbology, you must put everything you’ve learned to the test here.

Remember a little bit ago where I was talking some trash about how you don’t need to get the items because the game is so gosh-darned easy? Nevermind about that. The Extra Game takes no prisoners and you’ll need all the help you can get.

Extra Game buffs enemy damage as you might expect, but it also fully reworks the existing game, complete with new enemies. Many of these enemies attack on sight and will rush into you with little time to react. The tiny umbrellas that Waddle Dees float down the screen on are no longer cute details; they are trained killing machines that will home in on and murder you. If the K.I.R.B.Y. system didn’t train you to be cautious, the constant assaults of enemies in this mode will definitely make you think twice before scrolling the screen.

At times, this mode cleverly pushes the game to its limits and demands mastery in a plethora of scenarios. At other times, it feels like the developers are playing a practical joke on the player. One area in particular involves you flying up a vertical shaft when suddenly a coconut will just materialize out of thin air and conk you on the head. No way to react, just random damage. Better luck next time. By the time you reach stage four it becomes obvious that this mode was made by some bonafide sickos. I don’t care how great you think you are at these baby games, the cloud boss with the big eye will absolutely mess you up.

No one said the Extra Game would be easy of course: that’s the whole point. Kirby’s Dream Land, and Kirby as a series, may have garnered its reputation as a Spring Breeze, a walk in the park, or a piece of cake, but that’s just a front put on to get people in the door. The true, perfectly round Kirby demands perfection, time and effort. And just like a round of intense circle drawing practice, your hand may hurt a little by the time you’re done.

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About jack

jack

My background is in law, but I've been writing about games since long before that. I aim to capture a game's essence in (hopefully) new and interesting ways with my writing. Occasionally I will even make my articles fun to read. Results vary on that. Talk to me about Mega Man!

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Comments (3)

edisythe

7M ago

The first time I played it I was already and my 20's and had mainly played the SNES games and N64 one. It came of as too easy but, I can see how it laid the groundwork for many things to come. I really enjoy it to this day.


rawmeatcowboy

7M ago

I remember playing this when it originally came out (I was 10!) and wondering if this character would become a regular for Nintendo. After playing it, I really hoped we'd get another entry down the road. Can't believe Kirby's come so far since then!


zcomuto

7M ago

First game I remember playing, came out when I was like 4. Still love it fondly.