The box art for Kirby's Dream Land

One Giant Leap, 1992: Kirby’s Dream Land

In One Giant Leap, Dramus18 charts the evolution of the platformer genre, one year at a time. This month: Kirby’s Dream Land provides a friendlier vision for what a platformer can be.

Last month, I talked about Sonic The Hedgehog, and mentioned how, among other things, I found the game’s punishing lives system to be a real drag. And that was far from the first time I’ve complained about difficulty in this series; video games have undergone a pretty big paradigm shift from the industry’s early days when it comes to difficulty, with expectations shifting from “we expect the average player to lose in less than a minute, so that we might claim another quarter from them” to “we expect the average player to beat our game” over the decades. Home console games from the mid-80s through roughly the 00s1 weren’t trying to extract quarters, of course, but they still tended to operate with the assumption that difficulty was what made games interesting, and it wasn’t inherently bad if many or even most players didn’t reach the end. Probably the biggest driver of this shift was the increasing prominence of narrative in games,2 but even mechanics-focused titles have shifted over the years.

In that respect, Kirby’s Dream Land is an incredibly forward-thinking game. The central conceit is this: what if a platformer let you jump forever? In Dream Land, you have infinite double-jumps, meaning you can effectively fly. This completely reframes the standard platformer, since now pits are super low-tension obstacles. Instead, enemies become the main threat, but even there Kirby remains a very easy game. Your infinite jumps give you great maneuverability, and you also have a very generous six hit points (it was just two months ago I was praising Super Mario World for having ~3!). There are technically lives (5, to be exact) but there are also infinite continues, so a Game Over isn’t especially punishing. I would expect pretty much anyone even gamer-adjacent, even children, to be able to beat this game, which isn’t something I can say about many games from 1992.

But while being easy may hold some novelty value, the difficulty was there in other games for a reason. While the pitfall for difficult games is that the difficulty will cross the line from engaging to frustrating, easy games can have the opposite problem, becoming trivial and boring. So how does Kirby’s Dream Land hold up here? Right off the bat, anyone playing today will notice that Kirby’s iconic copy ability isn’t in this game; that wouldn’t be introduced until next year’s Kirby’s Adventure.3 The copy ability is a great way to add interest to an easy game, since there’s an inherent fun and novelty to seeing all the unique abilities Kirby can learn. And knowing what’s to come, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that Kirby’s Dream Land is merely a rough draft.

But still, it doesn’t come off too badly. This game is pretty short, like most Game Boy titles, so there really isn’t enough time for the basic interaction of sucking up enemies and shooting them out as stars to get old. It can hold your interest, even without being especially challenging, at least for the few hours it’ll take to beat. But then, Kirby’s Dream Land does something incredible. After you beat the game once, you unlock4 extra mode5. And not only is it very difficult, I think it inadvertently invents the masocore genre years ahead of schedule?

For those who don’t know, masocore is a sub-genre of platformers most closely associated with modern indie games, featuring incredibly difficult single-screen challenges. Think Super Meat Boy or Celeste. But just as important to the best masocore games is how the accommodate their insane difficulty. A good masocore doesn’t have lives, and respawns you a second after each death. It’s a frictionless experience of iteration, of getting a little bit better each time in order to pass a small, discrete challenge before reaching the next one. The core philosophy of the genre is that there is a difference between fun or “true” difficulty and bullshit, and by minimizing the latter you make more room for the former.

Plenty of games in this era were super hard; indeed it was the default. But most of them also wasted your time in service of that difficulty, often through the dreaded lives system. Extra mode isn’t like that. It still has the infinite jumps, the generous hp (comparatively less generous now, since most enemies deal double damage, but still a far cry from the still-common one and two-hit systems in other games), and the continues are still unlimited. So you will die, a lot, but also feel like you’re learning, like you can keep trying, that all your deaths are in service to a greater goal. It’s not perfect; the gaps between checkpoints are bigger than they should be, and in later levels that can be a problem. But still, it works shockingly well.

And part of the reason that it’s shocking is because Kirby games just don’t have the mindshare of most of the other series we’ve talked about here. Sure, plenty of gamers know who Kirby is, but honestly that’s probably more due to Smash Bros. than his actual games. I think a lot of people take their easiness at face value and write them off as simple games for children, which is a shame. Kirby’s Dream Land is doing a lot of neat things, both in the field of super hard games but also in general, and I think it deserves more recognition. Plus, won’t it be nice to play a 30-year-old game without getting mad for once?

Stray Observations:

  • As you can see in the box art, Kirby was originally considered to be colored white, just like he technically is through the Game Boy’s rudimentary graphics. Thankfully cooler heads prevailed and pink Kirby became canon.
  • Speaking of Smash Bros., the music from stage 3 (“Float Islands”) gets quoted by the rest area theme from Super Smash Bros. Melee, which is a fun callback.

Other 1992 platformers of note:

Since Sonic The Hedgehog was such a smash hit, Sega immediately got to work making a million sequels and spin-offs. One of them was Sonic The Hedgehog 2, which is probably more responsible for what people imagine when they think of Genesis-era Sonic than the original. It adds the iconic spin-dash, and introduces Miles “Tails” Prower as an AI companion/player 2. Of course, the camera stuck with Sonic, and it moved fast, so actually playing as Tails was more theoretical than practical. It also cut down from 3 acts per zone to 26 which made room for more zones overall.

Also water’s back. Yay.

1992 also saw the release of Mega Man 5, still on the NES. It was perfectly fine; 8 more robot masters, 8 more weapons, strong graphics and sound design for the console, yadda yadda yadda. It’s all getting stale. They’ve made this game before. I want to see something more. What does Mega Man look like when you take it to the next level? A Mega Man for the future, on the cutting-edge Super Nintendo Entertainment System. Now that’s something I’d like to see!

Next Time: A Mega Man for the future, on the cutting-edge Super Nintendo Entertainment System: Mega Man X