In Which the Pink Puffball is Up to Tee
One of the reasons Nintendo has been able to succeed for so long in the ever shifting industry called video games is a surprising amount of flexibility when it comes to franchises. Such a statement may seem odd in a purely general form, Nintendo is a small c conservative company that frequently bends into existing characters and iconography to draw people in. There extended history as a console and game producer gives them enormous wells of nostalgia to draw upon.
Such a reputation has garnered many comparisons to the leviathan of the movie industry, Disney. It’s a reasonable analogy in the broadest of strokes, aimed more at a younger audience, traffics in hugely famous characters, constantly remakes their own work. But Nintendo does something that Disney would never do, especially not now, and that’s be incredibly malleable with how their mascot characters are used in long ranging franchise. And no mascot is more up to change than Kirby, the delightful pink sphere.
Under the direction of Masahiro Sakurai, Kirby was a character created to be cute, soft, and appeal to children. His first outing, Kirby’s Dreamland, for the Gameboy ditched one of the central conceits of the platformer, falling. Kirby could fly over every gap before him. However, it was in the followup, Kirby’s Adventure, that introduced the defining aspect of the series: his ability to copy the powers of enemies. Such a move turned Kirby from a simple ball of fun to an infinite space of possibility. His form can change, so why can’t his games.
Kirby’s Dream Course, the 1995 SNES game, then is the perfect distillation of what Kirby could be, it’s not the first time he exited the realm of platformer (that would be Kirby’s Pinball Land), but it excitingly set the template for what was possible from this franchise. For as much as Dream Course is a rendition of miniature golf with recognizable assets, it pulls off one of my favorite things a game can do. Claim to be one genre while actually operating under a completely different umbrella.
To whit, Dream Course features plentiful hallmarks of the classic golfing experience. One can determine the power of the stroke, where to hit the ball (which is Kirby), how much spin to put on, and whether to chip or put. It features the usual power meters, ball tracers, and stroke counters. However when the player actually engages with the mechanics of Dream Course these elements feel a bit like sports drag, not inconsequential, but containing something more clever on the inside. For Dream Course has much more in common with a physics puzzler than the standard sports challenge.
The elements brought over from the Kirby franchise is what spices up the stew. You see the hole that you need to putt Kirby into doesn’t appear until all the other enemies on the board are cleared. Frequently the only way to reach said baddies is by scooping their powers to strengthen your game. So when Kirby runs into a high jump or wheel power-up the course of play is immediately altered. Your tools are always in flux for reaching the end in as little moves as possible.
This structure creates putting greens where the player must diligently plan each and every step beforehand. What powers will benefit at the right moment to nab an elusive hole-in-one? Can the physics be abused in a manner to get Kirby in just the right spot from the tee off? All these questions delight and almost put out of mind golf itself as the player plans a perfect ping-ponging putt to get our puffball under par.
Dream Course also benefits from having these mechanics cannily expanded upon in more difficult variations and a multiplayer mode. Both expertly demonstrating how far this single idea can be stretched to its breaking point.
Unfortunately there is a breaking point, even in the base game, while consistently clever things do feel like they get a tad undermined by some wonky control decisions and finicky physics. It’s odd that a player can’t cancel out of a stroke once the meters start going up and down (a problem alleviated by save states and rewinds), and the fact that you can’t change the ball tracer to see lower power hits feels like a missed opportunity. The biggest frustration point is when Kirby actually needs to get in the golf hole. Frequently strokes are a touch too powerful or soft to make the proper entrance, and it infuriates in what should be an easy finish to a round when things don’t play out properly.
However, these gripes are minor in the grand scheme of things. Dream Course is one of those delightful morsels of a game, successfully claiming the chocolate/peanut butter line by slamming the shape shifting fun of Kirby with the physical amusements of golf. It’s another example of Nintendo allowing its characters to exist in a variety of spaces not directly associated with their origins, and a template that would continues to even greater success down the line.
Is it Weird, Overlooked, or Wonderful?
100 percent on all three counts. It’s a game that is passed over frequently in the discourse of both SNES titles and entries in the long running Kirby franchise. It doesn’t play like anything else produced in the series while still feeling very much apart of it. And hay if you got a few hours its available as part of Switch Online.
Odds and Ends
- Even in the main platforming games Kirby is a series that has always been willing to completely change things up. Super Star has its multi-game format, Canvas Curse and Mass Attack both utilize DS specific inputs, and Epic Yarn completely throws out the structure of previous entries.
- I should shout out that this game’s isometric style is actually very charming to look at, and I do love the feels of Kirby bouncing around despite some physics qualms.
- I’ve covered far too many Nintendo specific games for this column, unfortunately their the only ones I have quick access to (either through my current consoles or emulation), so I’m open to some other recommendations for future considerations.
Next Week: we look at David Fincher’s most glossed over movie 2002’s Panic Room.