When you take a look back at the first game of a video game series, you don’t exactly expect the mechanics to be fully formed yet, but usually you can expect the main character’s definitive trait to be present since day 1. Sonic the Hedgehog has always been running quickly, Mega Man was collecting new weapons from the Robot Masters… but Kirby had a bit of a different start. Rather than coming right out of the gate with his ability to eat enemies and copy their powers, he only came with half of that, the puffball’s main skills in his first outing being to inflate to fly through levels and attack enemies by sucking them in and either swallowing them or spitting them back out.
Kirby’s Dream Land is designed around this simple skill of course, even if inhaling can be seen as a bit of a reskin of just grabbing and throwing foes. Swallowing a foe will make them disappear, but sucking in enemies and objects and spitting them back out is really the main method of facing foes and dealing with obstacles in a timely manner. It’s simple enough to understand and most things in the game tie into it, although the game has some deliberate exceptions to make you more careful how you move in this platforming game. Spiky Gordos can’t be killed by Kirby at all, meaning you have to move around them rather than defeat them, and if you try to suck up the seemingly cute Scarfy enemies, they’ll twist into terrifying monsters that try to fly into Kirby to bite him and then blow up. Kirby can deal with some foes he’s not able to suck in with a quirk about his inflation based flight though, as when he releases the air he sucks in to fly, it comes out as an air bullet that can damage regular enemies. Not many enemies in Kirby’s Dream Land seem particularly malicious though, often just lingering around in an area or walking about with bodies that are dangerous to touch. Shotzo cannons and the cyclops Waddle Doos will try and shoot at you, but the player can choose to just float by many of them without taking them down if they please. The screens are small to try and make it harder to ignore them and wiser to deal with them, but some areas Kirby can just fly through to skip some of the level design.
Part of the opposition’s lack of directed aggression does come from the game’s desire to be a fun and accessible platforming game for children. The characters in Kirby’s Dream Land are cute, with plenty of soft, rounded designs cropping up for enemies and the environment. The music is energetic and while there is a life system, continuing after a Game Over is barely a bother, especially since the entire game is very short. There are five levels total that aren’t really all that long themselves, the game wrapping up in less than an hour if you don’t struggle with it. This makes it achievable for even really young players, but it doesn’t hold back quite so much that it’s a given that a player wins. It’s six hits until you die and falling down a pit is an instant death, so playing carelessly is not without risks. If a player is searching for something more challenging though, there is an Extra Game mode where the short game is made harder, although this mostly takes the form of regular enemies becoming more aggressive by either jumping around in odd ways or charging at you. Kirby’s Dream Land still feels simple after this minor enhancement, but it’s so short that simplicity doesn’t really have the time to wear out its welcome.
What difficulty is found in Kirby’s Dream Land mostly comes in the form of its bosses. The story goes that Dream Land’s penguin-like king Dedede stole the people’s food as well as their Sparkling Stars, magical objects that the Dream Landers used in both work in play. Handing them out to some trusted henchmen, the people of Dream Land are both without food and without the means to gather more of it, so Kirby rises to the task of taking it all back from the greedy king. To fight bosses in Kirby’s Dream Land requires avoiding their attacks and sucking up some of their attacks to shoot back at them. For example, a tree named Whispy Woods will spit wind at you and drop Gordos from his branches, but when apples fall, you can suck them in and shoot it out at his face to deal the damage necessary to bring down his health bar. The bosses gradually get better at putting up a fight, and there are minibosses to be found in stages that are simpler but require the same skills of foe avoidance and sucking in their attacks at the right moment to turn them back on them. While healing and extra lives can be earned in regular levels to mitigate the moments where you might bump into an enemy, bosses and minibosses won’t let you leave until they’re defeated, so damage can add up if you get sloppy. Like most things in the game, it shouldn’t challenge experienced players too much, but it is a welcome increase in complexity to what the game asks of you.
While most action in Kirby’s Dream Land is about eating and spitting out objects, there are a few moments that shift things up. By swallowing and spitting out a microphone or a special bomb, Kirby’s exhaled attack gains special properties to make them more damaging. Kirby can also find some spicy curry that, for a time, will replace his enemy inhalation with fire breath, Kirby able to blast away blocks and baddies with ease as he fires out hot blasts. A cooler item Kirby can consume for some special powers comes in the form of the mint leaf, an item that will inflate Kirby for a period of time and allow him to continuously fire air bullets as he flies. Flying usually requires a bit of an awkward press of up on the directional pad to go from jumping to a full float, but here Kirby stays in his puffed up shape and can attack as if he was a spaceship in a sidescrolling shooter. None of these see too much use since they are in a game with little room in general and they are essentially more powerful items for a character who already could handle the simple game easily enough, but some variety outside of spitting enemies at each other doesn’t hurt.
THE VERDICT: Kirby’s Dream Land is designed so that any kind of player can enjoy it, and that ethos is mostly to its benefit. It’s a charming and friendly title visually, musically, and in design, making it easier for experienced players to breeze through it because of its low difficulty level that was designed to bring in inexperienced gamers. Sucking up and spitting out enemies and objects works well even if it’s incredibly straightforward, but the simplicity of the affair is offset by its short length. It’s hard to hold its basic design against it too much when it can be beat in less than an hour without anything to really bother you along the way. Minimal complexity means it casts a wide net to catch many types of players, appealing to many even though its gameplay isn’t really fleshed out or challenging.
And so, I give Kirby’s Dream Land for the Game Boy…
An OKAY rating. The Kirby brand is a strong one and the main reason most people will revisit this classic title, but before Kirby started adventuring with copy abilities and new gimmicks, his first adventure was pretty rudimentary. The presentation has pretty good polish for a Game Boy title, making it somewhat easy to miss that the gameplay isn’t really asking much of the player. It does manage to avoid being boring despite it’s low skill ceiling though, a fact attributed mostly to its brisk pace that quickly carries you into new places and up against the mildly challenging bosses.
A fan of the friendly and fun Kirby series will find a visit to the first title easy enough, but at its inception, Kirby is essentially platforming with a little twist to it. Accessibility kept it from engaging in more daring designs for mechanics or opposition, but Kirby needed to find his feet somewhere, and Kirby’s Dream Land is inoffensive since it’s quick to clear and pushes back just enough to keep it from growing dull.