Review: Kirby’s Adventure (*** stars)

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Kirby’s Adventure places itself in a strange middle ground between two fabulous Game Boy games. I already sung the praises of Kirby’s Dream Land, a simplistic platformer that didn’t redefine the rules of the genre but certainly polished them to a wonderful (and delightfully cute) sheen. Dream Land 2 further enhances the formula with animal pets and razor-sharp controls that continue to refine the blueprint. But Kirby’s Adventure? Frankly, I never found myself that enamored with it. Sure, as a late generation NES game it looks wonderful and takes full advantage of Nintendo’s increasing knowledge of their own system, but frankly Kirby’s Adventure falters in some areas that I cannot forgive. For me, I always felt a sense of longing for its sequels rather than this game in itself.

Unlike the original game’s linear path, Kirby’s Adventure takes Super Mario Bros. 3’s overworld map (in this case, a 2D platforming map with doors) that provides a sense of progress and context to your action. Beat one stage, open up another stage; rinse and repeat this process through seven different worlds, each with its own theme. Again copied from SMB3, there’s plenty of mini-games to obtain extra lives, museums (basically the equivalent of the SMB3 Mushroom House, except the abilities are set for each one), and arenas (Like a broken record, I’ll note that SMB3’s Hammer Bros. events do the exact same thing). In each case, it copies a great game and takes the randomness out of the reward – as per Kirby’s aim towards a “beginner” market, I’ve no problem with blatant plagiarism for sale and/or good game design without a lot of thought. But Kirby’s Adventure takes these genre tropes and fails to mix them well with its new and innovative mechanics.

How long, O Lord? Will You forget me forever?
How long will You hide Your face from me?
2 How long shall I take counsel in my soul,
Having sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long will my enemy be exalted over me?

Frankly, my problem lies more in the actual playing of the game itself. Kirby’s Adventure introduces the concept of “copy powers”, something that’s stuck with the series as a defining element even today. Suck in and swallow an enemy with a special ability (experiment!) and you retain their ability while losing your normal attack. Usually, they end up being super helpful or hilariously dumb, but there’s plenty of places to use all of them. So, they’re fun and all that, but having been spoiled by Dream Land 2 and (especially) Kirby Super Star, it’s hard to get excited for this truncated version. Relative to its time and place, it’s an definite improvement, but they didn’t work out all the kinks.

When you get hit – and you WILL get hit – a star pops out of you that retains the ability. For whatever reason, Kirby’s “sucking” radius is extremely small relative to where you need it to work; it also has a slight delay from when you press the button to when it actually functions. Unfortunately, this means catching up with said ability is often an exercise in futility until it disappears and you took tons of damage trying to get it. Honestly, it’s strange and frustrating that the star’s so small and travels so fast. If the developers want to punish mistakes, fine by me, but since when did people complain about Kirby games being “difficult”? It’s a strange design decision to punish the player for taking a single hit, forcing them to rely on an entirely different attack set due to one mistake. By comparison, the screen size of Kirby’s Dream Land 2 limits how far the star will bounce AND they move at a much slower rate than in Kirby’s Adventure. Same goes for Kirby Superstar, so it’s obviously something they fixed. The punishment’s too severe for the minor mistake. Frustrating, to say the least. I am fine if a game is easy, but not when it become inconsistently difficult for no good reason.

The copy abilities, for their part, show a definite range of “incredibly useful” to “nigh worthless”. Everyone loves Sword and Cutter, of course, but there’s a reason Tornado’s uncontrollable fury and Spike’s strange wall grabs and Ball’s lack of control never returned for more mainstream titles in the series (though, of course, they do appear in remakes of this particular game). To put it more bluntly: Ball will get you killed more than it will help you. Have fun rolling into bottomless pits! Yay! See, here’s where you examine the iterative nature of the copy idea. The concept itself begs for some brilliant implementation, but not every element will work out fine. Lazer nearly breaks the game by making it so easy to kill everything, for that note. The lack of balance in the weapon set does hurt the game, especially when you only find useless abilities in any particular area. It is not interesting for a game with unlimited jumping abilities to kill you by forcing the use of Ball. Plus, you’ll fall to your death even without copy abilities due to the delay between Kirby’s normal attack when falling and the flying button. Darnit, frustrating!

Consider and answer me, O Lord my God;
Enlighten my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death,
4 And my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,”
And my adversaries will rejoice when I am shaken.

Furthermore, the jumping physics feel quite strange for the same reason: it’s an NES game. I do not present a problem just because it’s on Nintendo’s original flagship platform, but the screen size appears like a stretched-out Game Boy game. Add to that a strange selection of colors (the developers sure like brown – it looks like a sunset but kills my eyes) and the graphics make certain parts of the game more frustrating than it should otherwise be. I realize these complaints won’t apply to the vast majority of people, but they’re there, same as Ridge Racer’s sunset stages make my color-blind eyes go batty sometimes.

Still, I can’t ACTUALLY give it a bad rating. Fundamentally, the game plays like an expanded version of Kirby’s Dream Land, more than quintupling the original game’s size. It display a variety of boss fights you can approach in a variety of ways, thanks to the copy system, and even introduces everyone’s favorite broken character Meta Knight. The stage design, as usual, teaches the player how to navigate and use different abilities (even Ball, somehow) to traverse various obstacles. Plus, variety in the stages here never hurt anyone!

Regardless of all this, though, Kirby’s Adventure feels decidedly mediocre even without the various sequels and other elements impinging upon the experience. It is, in a word, developmental; it crafts lots of new ideas, from Kirby emerging into the world of color to eking out the last bit of graphical prowess on the NES to the copy system. None of them, though, feel full and complete. Kirby’s Dream Land, by truncating the experience and focusing purely on the one mechanics, perfectly exemplified its core concept, while Kirby’s Adventure flails all over the place. Its myriad influences and new ideas don’t coalesce into anything great. There’s an inkling, a hint, that it may find its fruition later, but the experience on display here fails to reach up to snuff. Its sequels might hurt it, but the magic of Kirby’s first venture fails to materialize here. I realize this might solely lay within me, but I fail to see what makes this one a classic.

Rather, as I said earlier, it engenders a sense that things will get better. What’s here is excellent, just unrefined. It could end up as one of the better platforming series of all time. And so it would, in the future. But, as a bit of a historian for game knowledge, I needed to play through this just to see the series’ roots, and in that sense it reveals the necessity of perspective. Without that knowledge in hand, how do you make an evaluative judgment at all? All you can do is complain about something in an unjustified manner. Perhaps this explains my dislike of traditional review sites: they just throw the product to any old editor who wants it, not an expert or even someone familiar with like titles in the genre/series. How does that aid me in either buying or understanding said game? There’s times to be a generalist, but game reviews do not constitute a proper environment for that.

Learning’s a great tool, and I’m sad that more people don’t look for the greater context, in either people or in video games. At least, that’s what the Psalmist meant when he said this, even after railing against God and His supposed lack of help:

But I have trusted in Your lovingkindness;
My heart shall rejoice in Your salvation.
6 I will sing to the Lord,
Because He has dealt bountifully with me.

Psalm 13

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.