Kirby's debut adventure has been around the block a couple of times now, having been remade and mechanically enhanced for both Kirby Super Star on SNES as well as the DS version of that release called Kirby Super Star Ultra. Stripped down and monochromatic in comparison, this original Game Boy version is now available on the 3DS Virtual Console and still stands as a wondrously charming little platformer in 2011, albeit very, very sparse.
First released in April of 1992 in Japan, jumping over to North America in August and into Europe in December of the same year, Kirby’s Dream Land stood out in the gaming world by bending contemporary platformer conventions. Instead of jumping on your baddies, HAL Laboratory has you inhale and violently puke them at each other. It’s a simple twist, but a clever and fun one all the same that manages to still captivate today.
The fairy tale story is simple: Dream Land is a happy place until King Dedede comes and steals all the food and Twinkle Stars, and it’s up to Kirby to go grab ‘em back. It’s all very Mushroom Kingdom-type stuff, but that’s to be expected from a light and simple platformer. It’s not a very long dream, nor particularly challenging: the four main stages are each a decent length but a total breeze, and the final stage’s boss revisits are a snap. Dream Land was designed to allow beginners to see the end of the game, which can easily be done in under an hour, and thanks to the Virtual Console's save state feature you no longer have to do it all in one consecutive session. Fortunately for more skilled players, a significantly harder Extra mode can be unlocked by hitting Up, Select and A at the title screen. It’ll take a bit more effort to conquer, but the abundance of health and the straightforward level designs take a bit of the sting out. Still, it’s a fun and welcome addition to infuse new life in the over-too-soon title.
The series’ signature power-absorption mechanic was not to be introduced until Kirby’s Adventure on the NES (also released in 1992). Here, Kirby can inhale victims and items and forcefully hurl them at others, and also fly indefinitely by holding Up, which also gives him a puff of air to blast. That’s about it. Sure, there are two power-ups that allow Kirby to shoot stuff without “loading” and there’s a nifty dive-bomb attack, but later games’ power absorption strategies are entirely absent. It’s a little-frills approach and, considering the turn almost every other Kirby platformer went down, feels much lighter. It’s as if Mario never discovered the wonders of gobbling wild mushrooms.
Despite missing the series’ now-trademark mechanic, there are still plenty of essentials that got their start here. Maxim tomatoes are out in full effect, as are the huge stars and, of course, King Dedede, one of the worst monarchs to grace the tiny screen. There are also some nice nods to other games of the era, like a boss battle against the titular character of Adventures of Lolo, another HAL game, and the wall masks from Super Mario Bros. 2. These nods fit in so well with the rest of the world's art direction that they could easily be mistaken for original enemies.
Speaking of which, the art style of the game is very charming and holds up quite well today; in fact, Kirby’s appearances are exactly the same 19 years later — albeit pink. The puffy character design was originally just placeholder sprites, but the designers grew attached and kept him in this form. A good choice, since Kirby’s large and simplistic design allowed him to be easily seen, unlike earlier tiny sprite work such as Super Mario Land, on the Game Boy’s oft-crap screen. The enemies are large and easy to distinguish, and the worlds stand out nicely from each other. Much like the rest of the game, the music is fittingly cheery and charming, and you can’t help but crack a smile upon clearing a level and watching Kirby’s little dance. Green Greens’ tune is the quintessential Kirby track and should be experienced in its original context at least once by any self-respecting Nintendo fan.
Kirby’s Dream Land was and remains an exceptionally charming platformer, but the pink puff’s debut adventure feels a bit too elementary now. Nineteen years of nostalgia shines bright upon Kirby, but dipping those rosy glasses reveals a walk-in-the-park title that has been outpaced by its descendants in virtually every way. Kirby’s genesis is strong, but he’s done better.