What’s very pink, very round, and eats literally everything? No, it’s not me, you rascals. It’s Kirby! While he’s never been as mainstream as Mario or as prolific as Pokemon, he’s featured in a large number of interesting and unusual Nintendo titles over the years. One of these titles, and perhaps the one that experimented with gameplay more radically than the others, was Kirby’s Dream Course, a part-golf, part-billiards adventure through a magical isometric world. What I like about Kirby’s Dream Course is that it’s still just as engaging, challenging, and addictive as it was on release day, back in 1994. As I return to older Super Nintendo titles it can be hard to stay engaged for longer periods of time, often due to simple gameplay and a lack of challenge. This isn’t the case here: Kirby’s Dream Course has a winning formula that keeps players of all ages - and time periods - on their toes.
We’ve all been there. Slogging through uninteresting, trivial gameplay mechanics, desperately seeking out glowing icons or magic vending machines or shiny recharge stations that we know (because the game has taken great pains to tell us) will give us powers that will make the game actually fun. This situation arises quite often, and it seems to happen when a developer has a ‘killer idea’ for a ‘super-cool ability’ that the ‘hip kids will love’. The developer uses their game as a vehicle for this idea, and often the consequence is that the rest of the experience gets neglected, with periods of undeveloped, generic gameplay bridging the gaps between the ‘cool and rad’ power-ups. Ultimately, we get a game that isn’t driven by an engaging world or the player’s desire to become more skilled, but instead by the collection of shiny icons that will break up the boredom by letting the player shoot shiny magic at the click of a button. It’s not a great precedent.
Power-ups aren’t inherently bad: it’s a matter of implementation. As with many games of the SNES-era, power-ups are a big part of Kirby’s Dream Course. What makes this particular title special, however, is that the base layer of gameplay on top of which these power-ups sit is extremely fun and challenging in its own right. There’s an underlying complexity and quality of play that keeps the stock experience engaging.
The game plays like a cross between golf and pool, having originally been developed as a non-Kirby title called ‘Special Tee Shot’ before being re-branded during development. Each level is played on a multi-storey isometric stage, full of diagonal ramps, ponds, and sand-traps. The aim is simple: defeat all of the enemies by rolling through them. All of the enemies but one; when a single enemy remains, it turns into the hole that Kirby has to drop through, golf-style, in order to finish the level.
But this isn’t an adventure-game with responsive, real-time controls. The golf and pool influences are apparent when it comes to moving Kirby around. The player points Kirby in a direction of their choice and presses ‘A’ to enter putting mode. A power-bar appears on the screen, the level increasing and decreasing rapidly. Players perform a quick reaction challenge, pressing ‘A’ to stop the power-bar at a particular spot in order to select their desired shot strength. Then Kirby is bumped forwards, rolling along and interacting in a pretty realistic manner with the slopes and walls and other features of the level, bouncing around uncontrolably until he stops and the next round begins.
Shots can be far more advanced than this, with players being given control over almost every aspect of the shot, manipulating the ball like they would with the balls in many real-world games. Players can perform jump-shots, where Kirby bounces up in the air, enabling him to clear obstacles and reach floating enemies. Shots can be spun, as in billiards, sideways in a masse shot, as well as forwards or backwards, enabling daring moves near the edge of the stage or the setting up of future shots.
The compelxity of these core game mechanics means that the game can be enjoyed by a wide range of players, from those who want a simple experience, to those who want to really explore and develop their skills with the more advanced jump and spin techniques. Mastery of these techniques takes a long time, and requires the development of an understanding of why Kirby acts the way he does when jumped or spun. The accuracy of the physics modelling shines here.
Importantly, in this game with power-ups, this core gameplay is designed to be incredibly challenging and engaging. The strength of the implementation of power-ups is that they’ve been designed with restraint, and with the understanding that they will complement the underlying gameplay rather than supplant it. Each power-up has a very specific, very limited effect, offering minor advantages and enabling variations in play without becoming overpowered.
The stone ability, for instance, turns Kirby into a rock, stopping him immediately. If he’s in the air, he’ll drop to the ground. That’s it. It’s a great utility power, useful if Kirby is heading towards danger and the player needs to put on the breaks, but it doesn’t overshadow the core gameplay. Nor do any of the others: the hi-jump ability gives Kirby an extra jump whenever activated, the freeze ability makes Kirby slide across the ground with reduced friction. The parasol lets Kirby perform a controlled glide to the ground.
The core benefit of this design decision for the player, and the defining feature of most great games, is that when players succeed it’s because their skills have genuinely improved. Through practice they have come to understand the game’s mechanics and develop the necessary ability to win. Too often in games that feature power-ups, whether in the form of character advancement or in-world collectibles, the balance swings the other way, and the strength of the player’s character is the deciding factor in victory. It’s more a matter of grinding to earn more powerful abilities than an active learning process where the player’s skills and understanding is honed. In these instances players get fewer opportunities to feel the sense of pride and satisfaction that accompanies personal up-skilling, and this feels like a big waste of the potential of a game.
Kirby’s Dream Course asks players to be good. It gives them a little character, a slew of isometric challenges, a well-modelled physics system, and says ‘go for it’. By not letting players rely too heavily on power-ups to improve their chances of victory, Nintendo and HAL Laboratory created one of the most engaging skill-driven titles for the SNES - and one that’s still just as fun today.