Amnesia Lane: HAL can do it

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My original plans this week are on hold because of the passing of Satoru Iwata. I thought it would be more prudent to blog about a subject better related to this news.

When Iwata became president of Nintendo, he was eligible for Executive Producer credits on every game under the company’s sun. Before that, his list of credits was more focused. Now I’ve already talked at length about Super Smash Bros., Earthbound and Pokemon, but there is still one major Nintendo IP Iwata was deeply involved in that has mostly escaped my musings on Damage Control.

By all accounts, Kirby’s Dream Land for the Game Boy was a short game. That certainly worked for me at the time, seeing as it was one of my friends who had the game (and the Game Boy). Incidentally, this is the same friend who introduced me to Pokemon Blue.

The game was difficult to describe in any terms but its own. Kirby was a new entity without any lore or inspiration. Everything about his world was new and therefore unknown and unexplained. I could walk on the ground, or I could float. Sometimes gameplay transitioned from a screen with a door, at other times a start that would trigger a cutscene that only served to mix things up.

I would fight a larger version of a common enemy that learned how to throw bombs, and follow that up by throwing a tree’s apples back at it. What did any of this have to do with each other? Nothing.

But it didn’t need to make sense beyond the controls operating as expected and being able to associate dangerous objects from benign or beneficial ones, things the game did effortlessly.

The short length benefitted the game well. While the boss encounters and occasional powerups (only one of which was ever seen again) added variety to the gameplay (ESPECIALLY the boss fights), the core gameplay was simplistic and relied very heavily on the level design to keep it interesting. The game didn’t just rearrange its obstacles to accomplish this, though. Despite the limitations of the game Boy’s low resolution and few colors, each level was given a starkly different setting from the others and a carefully planned appearance to match it.

Enough of everything was there to make Kirby’s Dream Land an enjoyable, if weird, package well suited to picking up and playing every now and then. My experience with the game lead me to purchase Kirby’s Adventure for my NES, which overcame its predecessor’s limits so much, it was of the console’s finest games.

In many ways, the entire Kirby series is laid on the foundation of Kirby’s Adventure rather than Kirby’s Dream Land, despite the former game (and later, Kirby Superstar) wholesale homaging the latter. The NES entry brought forth the copy ability, vastly expanding the gameplay. It added minigames, unlockable hidden levels, Meta Knight and a nightmare-fuel “true” final boss. Adventure also doubled down of the series’s sense of humor brought forth by sprite animations, cutscenes and even some of the enemy placements.

My middle school self played the everloving hell out of Kirby’s Adventure. Despite becoming as Hero of Lore by 100%ing an Extra Game in a single sitting and perfecting all the minigames on all their difficulties, one of the game’s secrets forever eluded me: the hidden UFO room in the very first level.

At one point, I wanted to make a tarot deck out of all the card-like graphics depicting Kirby’s copy abilities.

When I later came into a Game Boy of my own, the very first game I bought (not counting pack-in F1 Race) was Kirby’s Dream Land 2.

Kirby’s Dream Land 2 was a great game that, perhaps, tried too hard to top Kirby’s Adventure. The game tried to bring the copy ability in a new direction by having fewer abilities, but allowing each to be modified in one of three ways depending on which of Kirby’s new mounts you were using. For example, the fire copy ability with just Kirby is Adventure’s fireball, but behaves like the classic fire ability when also using Rick the hamster.

While the levels were easily as numerous as its NES predecessor, its puzzles were often more devious. The worst part of the game would be one of its last levels, in which all sorts of secrets were buried behind barriers that could only be destroyed by a particular enemy ability in room after room after room, making it a tedious slog of replaying until you found the only secret that mattered: one more hidden level.

While the game was still good, it ultimately suffered from trying to squeeze Adventure-sized gameplay (which in my opinion was TOO spacy) onto the Game Boy’s playable space. The result was not as awful as the Game Boy Mega Man games, thankfully. More modern games, such as Return to Dreamland and Triple Deluxe, use polygons to their advantages by having exactly the right scale to the action freed from pixel counting.

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Kirby was also known for having a long series of spin-off games. While I was still in my high school days, I managed to track down a copy of Kirby’s Pinball Land after a limited run re-release and scooped up Kirby’s Block Ball when it first hit the shelves.

However, Iwata had not a thing to do (as far as we know) with either of those games, but he was the “chief producer” of Kirby Star Stacker. So now it’s time to talk about Star Stacker, right? You might think that, I couldn’t possibly comment. I never played that game.

So those are my thoughts at the beginning entries of a key Nintendo franchise that doesn’t often get mentioned in the same breath as Mario and Zelda, and the even more elusive Metroid. If you’d like to read about newer games in the franchise, check out my review of Kirby: triple Deluxe, and my impression of Kirby Mass Attack that was part of Damage Control’s DS retrospective.

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