Saturday, September 21, 2013

Video Game Review: Kirby's Dream Land (Kirby's Dream Collection: Special Edition) (Nintendo Wii)

Regrettably, I never really played any of the older Kirby video games. They passed under my radar as a kid (I was much more of a Mario and Sonic guy), despite his puffy, pink face being painted all over the floor of the Toys "R" Us game aisle. Oh, good times, when things weren't so homogenized... anyways, I was first brought into the Kirby fold with his appearance in the original Super Smash Bros. To be honest, I owe this franchise for introducing me to the majority of my favorite titles. If it weren't for Super Smash Bros., I'd have never touched Fire Emblem, Kirby, Metroid (beyond the original), or any Legend of Zelda games that weren't on the N64. The legion of one-shot wonders under Nintendo's belt would have completely escaped my notice, and what the hell is a Solid Snake? Aren't all snakes solid?

Well, I was a little embarrassed of Kirby at first. I mean, here I was eight or nine years old, a boy who had to do his darnest to impress the other boys (oh, and my hyper-masculine father!), and there was this fucking happy-ass Jigglypuff waving at me and singing in a baby voice. It was like the sun from Teletubbies descended into the hard-boiled world of video games. What was this nonsense?

Fortunately one of my friends rented Kirby 64, making it fair game for purchase once we all discovered what a beautiful thing it was.

Despite my love for this title, I never really felt motivated to try the rest of the games. I learned that you couldn't merge copy powers in all of them, and that was that. I wanted combined powers, damn it! At some point I got to my senses and picked up Kirby Super Star Ultra for the Nintendo DS, and it was pretty good. Not the phenomenal work of art most enthusiasts laud it to be, but pretty good. I also borrowed Kirby: Nightmare in Dream Land, which I loved left, right, up, and down (Hey, Big Guy). That really was the extent of my Kirby exposure. I mean, I watched the abominable anime Kirby: Right Back at Ya! every Saturday morning, and I knew (as I often do) the series' lore in almost all of its entirety, but it never made my "Must Have" list, and by the time I was down to second-tier wants, they were out of manufacture and boosted to re-hee-diculous prices at GameStop. Sorry, I don't pay forty bucks for a used game with no manual and a ratty insert and... pudding on the contacts?

Lately I've been interested in older games, and I'm finding that a lot of the stuff from my youth really isn't as dated as I thought it would be, and lots of games from those same eras (and even the ones prior) are actually quality titles. In particular, I've noticed a profound satisfaction from the original Game Boy era's library of titles, which is exciting to me because they're so dirt cheap and there's lots of ways to play them. Right now I've got my handy-dandy Game Boy Advance SP, but I'd eventually like to get my hands on the Game Boy Player and to reclaim the old Super Game Boy (which has different color palettes, I just learned).

Kirby's Dream Land, however, I won't be playing on any of those things, because I've got this big boy (and most of its brethren) on the Kirby Dream Collection, baby! Right away that limits how I can play it, as I'll never know if it had any colors beyond grayscale, but them's the breaks. I don't mind the grayscale at all, really, and I think it's put to good use in most titles. What I does bother me is the distracting border put around the game to make it fit the proper aspect ratio. I appreciate the aspect ratio, because things are always better when they're experienced with the proper dimensions (or multiples thereof), but the bright border is just distracting.

Fortunately, somebody at Nintendo thought the same thing, because the border can be shut off by holding two buttons (I think it's plus and minus), changing the poky pink to beautiful black. I doubt the pink border will bother most people, however. I just have excessive OCD with things in my line of sight while viewing screens. Seriously, if a human being is at all visible between the screen and myself, I will not have a good time.

The graphics are superb. Despite such a limited color palette, each object has depth and the world comes across as complete and alive. Paths are not merely obstacle course for Kirby to vault through, but real paths which are utilized by the denizens of Dream Land on a regular basis. Sure, you still get the bizarre architectural decision to build floating staircases, but that makes more sense in a world where nearly everybody can jump six feet up and fly (as opposed to the Mushroom Kingdom, where Mario actually has a superhero moniker [Jumpman] and is famous for being a better jumper than everyone else). Unlike a lot of games which feature such extensive detail, Kirby's Dream Land never gets lost in itself. The path and interactive objects are always clearly distinguished from the background, and that's key with game design.

Sounds are cheerful and fitting. They have a certain quality which is very similar to the early Pok√©mon titles, though I'm positive that has a lot to do with the games being designed with the same hardware limitations. Music is both simple and memorable. Modern gamers are bound to hear a couple of familiar songs, and I can promise that King Dedede's theme is just as solid here as it is in any rendition since. Naturally, the music melts into the scenery instead of opposing it, which helps the game craft a distinct atmosphere.

I didn't notice any issues with the hardware handling the game. No slowdown that comes to mind, no graphical or audio anomalies. Everything seemed to work and handle exactly as it was supposed to, which is a double-good considering this experience is technically an emulated one. Even the best emulators seem to muck something up a bit, but I guess having developed the original system, it's a bit easier for Nintendo to make it work flawlessly. There is one drawback to the handling, though, and it's unfortunately by design. Kirby's classic flutter ability debuted with the puffball in this game, and it's actually more or less the focus of the game's design. Unlike future games, Kirby can fly forever here, with the game being adequately designed to challenge this style of play (although it did make some portions much easier than they should have been). Thing is, Kirby doesn't float by tapping the "A" button while already in the air. Not initially, anyway. Instead you have to tap "Up" on the D-Pad to enter puff-mode. From there you can tap "A" or "Up" to float as needed, but that really makes it more of a hassle than it ought to be, and there were a few challenges where this limitation caused me to slip up and take a hit or miss a platform.

Enemies are varied, with some making me question why they exist as there are other foes which serve the same purpose. I guess it's okay in situations where certain enemy characters exist only in specific environments, because that goes a long way towards world-building. There are a handful of attack types which can prove to be either harmless or extremely annoying, but on the whole everything is fair. I never once felt like an obstacle or enemy was too difficult or unfairly designed, which can be a real problem for some games. Honestly, I feel there is a good pace in terms of difficulty where the enemies and challenges are concerned.

There are four world bosses and several mini-bosses, all of which are brilliantly designed, deceptively challenging, and brimming with character. Modern gamers will find a few familiar faces in the forms of Whispy Woods, Kracko and King Dedede while veterans and historians will be interested in the surprise cameo of Lolo and Lala at the end of world two (and the unanswered implications of their opposing Kirby). World three ends with not so much a distinct character, but an enhanced version of a common obstacle: a Blatzy tied to a large, blimp-like balloon which battles Kirby in an aerial dogfight reminiscent of the scrolling shooter genre, which was popular at the time. The best part is that, unlike most games which incorporate this style of fight contrary to the rest of the game (such as Super Mario Land), the mechanics for this confrontation are the familiar floating mechanics, forcing players to master all modes of locomotion.

Kirby's Dream Land has swiftly become my favorite game in the series (although we'll see how I feel about it after a reintroduction to Crystal Shards), and it certainly deserves a chance by any folks who fancy themselves gamers. Poor decision in controls and an inability to play the game at the size of the original Game Boy screen (which results in objects appearing a little pixelated) are the only things holding it back from a perfect score. That doesn't mean it won't get an "A", though. Mr. Sakurai's younger self was right on the money with this mean eating machine, and I'm letting him walk away holding a nine out of ten with no regrets.