Kirby's Dream Land - First You Draw a Circle

Jake Spencer
27 April 2012

Going back to Kirby's Dream Land is tough. Don't get me wrong, it's still loads of fun to play. The controls are responsive, the levels are smartly designed, the characters are cute, and the audio/visual presentation is among the best ever seen on the Game Boy. It's short and easy, but that's always been true. It's nonthreatening by design.

Kirby's Dream Land's only problem is that its sequels are better. Released on the NES just one year later, Kirby's Adventure took every element of the original and improved upon it. Dream Land may have looked inviting enough in four shades of gray, but the comparatively rich palette of the NES let the artists run wild, and the increased resolution meant the designers could cram twice as much onto the screen. Dream Land had five levels total; Adventure matched that in its first world, as well as bonus minigames and well-hidden secrets.

More important, though, are the abilities of Kirby himself. In today's post-Kirby's Adventure world, the squishy superstar is known for his ability to eat enemies and take their powers. He routinely gets equipped with swords, shoots laser beams, erupts in flames, and transforms into a UFO, but Dream Land's Kirby is far less flexible. No weapons, no special forms. It's like going back to old Superman stories where he could only leap tall buildings instead of fly - still impressive, but weak by comparison.

Kirby's trademark Copy ability made his later games infinitely playful. A certain power might be required to access secret areas - setting fire to a cannon's fuse, for instance - but you can always reach the end credits using nothing more than Kirby's standard inhaling/blowing/flying trifecta. More than anything, augmenting Kirby with his foes' powers is just for kicks. How long can you hold onto the Ball ability? Can you beat King DeDeDe using Tackle? It doesn't really matter, but challenging yourself is half the series' appeal.

Without room for playful experimentation, Kirby's Dream Land feels more like a combination brawler/shooter. Kirby mostly fights with short-range attacks (sucking up baddies), but flying through the dangers that pack the Game Boy's cramped screen is like navigating a slow-paced level from R-Type. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say it's like the Balloon Trip mode from Balloon Fight, only with combat.

Or maybe it's such a unique configuration of so many influences that it's unlike any other game that had been released before it. Masahiro Sakurai and the rest of the Kirby team at HAL Laboratory didn't take long to trump their first creation, but Kirby's Dream Land is still charming and playable twenty years later.