Kirby, being a lovable if slightly non-descript pink ball, can lend his hands — or flappy arms, whatever — to lots of things. Being shaped like a ball and all, he's indulged in pinball, for example, and when participating in his named spin-offs generally performs as the ball, rather than going all Mario and playing the sports himself. Best known for his iconic platformers, Kirby's Dream Course is an occasionally overlooked Super NES title, but certainly has something to offer for crazy golf enthusiasts — and those that can't get enough of Kirby's cheery ditties.
Adopting a top-down sort-of-3D isometric view, this takes the golf concept and applies a liberal dose of fantasy and Kirby goodness to the fray. Each hole is really a small area filled with traps and enemies, and rather than manoeuvring to a fixed point to the cup, you have to take out the various enemies in the area; the last enemy standing transforms into the hole. It's a clever approach in that it forces you to strategise to try and give yourself a good line for the last shot, or, if you're the next Rory McIlroy, you may even show off with a hole in one.
That dynamic of hitting all enemies on route to the end shakes up the format nicely, helping this to avoid a fate as a tame golf game with Kirby shoe-horned in. On the contrary, it's a rather clever design, and as you progress the levels become all the more fiendish. You have to learn and master your full play book of shot types; the main variations are to go along the ground or to loft your shot, but you also have to determine spin and swerve to manipulate the ball. A handy guideline pops up to help you, and there's the old-fashioned timed button tap to set the power of your shot, and even to gain a bit of extra bounce or speed once Kirby is on his way. Then, of course, Kirby absorbs special abilities that can be activated mid-shot, such as an umbrella to slow a descent or the option to become a rock to avoid sliding down a ramp of doom — all are vital to progress.
While his platformers can be considered low in difficulty, this certainly isn't, so you'll need to spend some time reading the in-game guide and, most likely, practising and failing. After an initial course that settles you in — there are eight in total — those that follow can be quite a challenge. You start off with three lives, each with four fruit to maintain in each, which is done by consistently hitting enemies or beating the hole. Naturally a fruit is lost for every shot when you don't hit an enemy, while going out of bounds deprives you of a life; the only way to boost your life count is with a hole-in-one. While that may sound generous, stretching these resources over eight tricky holes on a course is easier said than done, especially those where it's all too easy to get trapped in a tricky spot or mess up and fall out of bounds.
And that's a delightful and conversely frustrating aspect of this game. While many holes are designed with trickery and fairness — with conveyor belts, water traps and more out to get you — some can feel a little cheap. By strategically placing enemies up in the air and in awkward areas you're forced to really master your move-set and get the execution just right, nailing the correct level of power. It's slow-going and strategic fun, but by the middle stages less persistent players drawn in by the Kirby character or cute aesthetic will be handing in their score cards incomplete. From the other perspective, after mastering seven holes and becoming unstuck on the eighth, we couldn't help but compulsively try again — especially when provoked by gold medal show-offs on Miiverse.
And that's where the replay value is in this title — taking your mediocre efforts on a particular course and improving them in pursuit of gold medals, which become almost impossible to attain, or so it seemed to us. There's also a two player mode, in which each player takes turns trying to pick up stars, bash each other and finish off the hole for the greatest pay-off. This is a surprisingly strategic affair, as you can opt to go for enemies and stars ignored by your opponent or basically ruin their day by stealing their goods.
It's worth bearing in mind that setting up two players for the multiplayer is an awkward process. We were originally unable to get the game to function with two players despite multiple attempts, and the game's digital manual led us to believe that a clunky process of manually switching players on the GamePad was required. As it transpires, ensuring an alternative controller is synced with the game as it loads, and then setting the GamePad as player two in the Virtual Console settings, allows two separate controllers. Once setup, this is a fun mode that's worth trying out with a friend.
Kirby's Dream Course, perhaps unlike some of his platformers, provides a good old-school challenge that encourages you to take your time and engage your brain. The control mechanics are surprisingly deep, and battling through some of the courses can be a real test in skill. As a result it should appeal to those with the right mind-set, but should be avoided by anyone who thinks this is some kind of retro Wii Sports. It does deliver an engaging Kirby twist on crazy golf, and is fun for two players as well once the unintuitive Wii U Virtual Console setup is negotiated. Regardless of whether you opt for a solo challenge or multiplayer duels, it's well worth consideration.