Author: John Legendoffzelda
Early in the Game Grumps’ playthrough of Kirby Super Star, an elated JonTron observes, “This Kirby is, like, the Kirby that everybody knows”. He justifiably loves the game, certainly one of Kirby’s high points in his series, but there’s some hidden significance in this. It’s a telling oddity that Kirby’s defining introduction to gaming audiences was released four years into the franchise. Up to that point, Nintendo and Halken (the company otherwise known as HAL Laboratory) tried weirdly different ideas with Masahiro Sakurai’s minimalistic character, as some way of introducing and re-introducing him. It was like they thought Kirby’s round blankness would also work as a kind of genre versatility. They relegated his established platforming to the Game Boy, put him and his aesthetic all over their Puyo Pop console port, and they reworked an in-development golf game to get released as Kirby’s Dream Course. But here’s the limitation about Kirby: he’s an endlessly charming game character, but in no way is he versatile enough to be Mr. Video. Putting him in a sports game, let alone one that bares its concept so confusingly, is not a good idea.
Before anything else, I do concede that maybe this game will appeal to players who are good at golf games. That’s all this title is, anyway; it turns Dream Land into a collection of sloping, checkered areas where the player uses Kirby to play rounds of eighteen holes. It’s not even eighteen holes, at that: it’s several isolated parts with eight holes each. To try and personalize the proceedings, each area features a sparse amount of enemies, and Kirby must eliminate them to complete the course. He can defeat these baddies by simply colliding with them, and the last enemy remaining becomes the hole where the ball must traditionally go. Every motion is preceded with a group of on-screen diagrams, pointing out the direction Kirby will roll and the force applied to his rolling, and so forth. The player can adjust direction, and what the path’s shape will be, and whether Kirby will go in a line or an aerial parabola to get the little monsters floating above the ground. The fewer shots to push Kirby into the hole, the better, of course, but this game raises the stakes by needlessly giving him hit points and lives. One stroke costs one hit point, and Kirby can only get them back if he hits an enemy; losing all his hit points costs him a life. He can also lose a life if he falls off the course, and can only get them back when the player scores a hole-in-one.
Golf is already a good walk spoiled, so why introduce tacky video game rules to complicate things further? There’s no need to put added pressure on a player to hurry up and finish a course by implementing a damage system, especially not when moving Kirby around requires so much out of them already. By angling all of the courses in an isometric perspective, the game makes it difficult to exactly map out Kirby’s position or course of motion. Turning that directional arrow around can sometimes trigger that aerial arc when it isn’t called for, and trying to line up the arc with a flying enemy requires a lot of faith in the drop shadows both of them create. Even when the player knows where he’s going, it isn’t always clear how far he’ll get, and if he doesn’t push Kirby with the precise amount of force, his birdie will turn into a par, or worse. The courses have almost no outer boundaries but plenty of ramps, so the possibility of rolling right into the abyss is quite real. All the traditional golf obstacles appear to hamper progress when it’s going right; sand traps, water hazards, and trees. The courses also contribute additional hazards like spinning tiles and spots that affect the direction Kirby moves in, and maybe even an actively dangerous enemy or two – the kinds that take hit points when Kirby encounters them.
As a means of working around these obstacles, the developers add another Kirby gimmick where certain monsters grant extra powers he can activate to affect his performance. He can turn into a stone to stop immediately, or turn into a revving tire to skim across water and sand, or take out a parasol to slow his descent. Nice as they are to use at times, these abilities aren’t effective enough to override the fact that they’re more attachments pasted onto this game in order to do – what? It feels like the obvious motive behind this game was to make its sport more accessible for kids. But golf is a sport made entirely of calculation and guesswork, deliberately paced and crammed with nuances. Barring the instruction manual, learning how to even play this game involves going through a twenty-part tutorial covering every single stroke, on-screen indicator, power-up, and whatever else the player has to concern himself with.
Slicing properly, getting the right amount of top-spin so Kirby doesn’t fly off the course; none of it rings as very accessible, nor does it quiet the feeling that the game feels less like golf than it does a frustrating alteration of Marble Madness. All of these problems circle back to Kirby’s presence in this folly. What possible reason does he have being here, or any of the characters associated with him? Nothing about Kirby’s Dream Course accurately represents his world at all, and furthermore all of the thematic quirks included in the gameplay are presented without explanation. There’s nothing said about what Dream Land is (if the game really does take place there), or who Kirby is or what he’s doing interacting with whimsical creatures in environments colored like Easter candy. The game supplies the traits of an established franchise without demonstrating how that franchise was established; in place of a demonstration is a muddled high-concept lark undone by its lumpy, “wacky” sports tone.
Kirby’s Dream Course does offer fleeting moments of enjoyment, though, and its biggest fault is only misguided ambition. Nintendo is too great of a video game company to create turkeys (Virtual Boy aside), but sometimes their conceptual practices just don’t make any sense. This can usually result in an offbeat success, but when they try to experiment too much they just come up with something that’s off of the beat.
Three out of five stars.
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