Most fans, even if they don’t agree with some of Masahiro Sakurai’s choices, acknowledge that he is a brilliant game designer. He has made many classic that have shaped Nintendo’s catalogue and any game he announces is often met with mass excitement. Sakurai is a very big part of Source Gaming as well but often for his work on Super Smash Bros. So today I instead wanted to look before Smash and talk about the game design in Sakurai’s first ever game that he directed: Kirby’s Dream Land for the Game Boy.
Kirby’s Dream Land is a very simple game and the debut of one of Nintendo’s biggest mascots Kirby. The game is a platforming title like its more popular cousin Super Mario Bros. In order to not get overshadowed, Sakurai made the clever decision to change up the way you play this platforming title so that it may be its own unique experience and not following in the Super Mario footsteps. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the first level of Kirby’s Dream Land and that is what I am going to show you today.
When the game starts up and you watch the opening cut-scene you are treated to this screen on the left. The beginning starts off like Super Mario Bros. No enemies will appear here and so there is no danger. The player is given freedom to experiment, allowing them to figure out what all the buttons do. When the player is ready they can move to the left.
The first object the players will encounter is the enemy: a Waddle Dee. However, these enemies come in pairs which is important. This is done to show a new player how the eating mechanic works. If you try and jump on the first Waddle Dee like in Mario you get hurt but he also dies. This shows the player that while Mario tactics work they are not the safest route. The other Waddle Dee is there to show the player the correct way of killing. When jumping does not work the player will press the other button on the game boy which will activate Kirby’s eating animation. The animation of Kirby makes it obvious what is happening as you can see bubbles of air going into Kirby’s mouth as well as hearing the sound of a vacuum. The second Waddle Dee will walk straight into Kirby’s mouth, teaching the player the correct way of defeating their obstacles.
The next part teaches the player how to jump.The player is safely given time to learn as the enemies do not run for you like in Mario but instead move in a pattern or on the spot. This gives the player time to learn the patterns while learning to jump safely. Notice the bird enemy, known as a Twizzy, that is flying above. This enemy is too high in the sky to hit you and just fly’s overhead. It seems pointless at first but it will become clearer in a second. This is the first sign players have seen a flying enemy. The small section that follows with a Waddle Dee and a grounded Twizzy enemy allows the player to practice the sucking and spitting mechanic once again. When they master that they head on to the next part.
At this point, the player has learnt both jumping and attacking and both are utilized here. While the new enemy, Bronto Burt, in this section is flying up and down, it does not go low enough to hurt Kirby. Kirby can eat him if he is low enough but this section can also teach players that they can both swallow enemies and spit them out while jumping. It also gives the new player a chance to hit a moving target.
With the enemies defeated we still have one problem: the wall. It is too high for players to jump over normally and is too far from the elevated ground before for Kirby to make a jump from. However, the Bronto Burt gave us a big hint as to what the player should do. Burt flies just high enough that he could theoretically make it over the wall and he is moving in a vertical fashion. If the player has not figured out what to do they could try pressing any of the buttons until they hit Up but to an observing player, Burt’s upward movement is a sign of what to do. And now the player knows they can fly.
And so, the player flies over the wall but, why should the player come down? There are enemies below and Kirby can just avoid them by flying, right? Well yes, he can avoid those enemies but not the ones in the air that are flying straight towards Kirby. If we remember the Twizzy from earlier then we realize that he was a warning. Kirby is not even safe in the air. At this point there are multiple options presented to the player: 1) land down quickly and safely on the ground near the mushroom enemy; 2) take the hit from the Bronto Burt; 3) pressing the attack button that has saved the player from the previous enemies. Doing the latter shows the player that they can attack while in the air but it will force them to stop flying and they will fall down to earth.
The mushroom enemies here, called Cappys, also present an interesting design element. They move very slowly towards Kirby making them easy to dodge but if the player decides to eat one, they discover that the enemy is not entirely dead. Kirby eats the hat off of the enemy and the enemy gets sent back. This enemy is the first example of what Kirby must do against the bosses and sub-bosses found later on. He cannot kill this enemy in one shot however he can kill it in two, using what he gained from the enemy the first time to attack back.
At this point, Kirby is in front of what is obviously a door. There is even a sign saying IN and when the player enters they are rewarded. Unlike Mario who dies in 1 hit without a mushroom, Kirby has a health bar. The health bar is important as many design aspects of this beginning part have shown the player being hurt, whether it was from killing an enemy by jumping on it or being hit by a flying enemy that they did not expect. With the abundance of enemies, if you died in one hit the game would be over very fast. This room, which offers the player two health items, not only fully heals the player and shows how much health one of these bottles fills up (2) but it also encourages players to go through any door they see as it may lead to secrets and rewards.
On an extra note, if the player killed any enemy before initially entering the door, returning through it shows that enemies re-spawn. This gives a warning to the player for future endeavours.
After this is a drop. Falling down is instant death but with the skills players have acquired it can be easily avoided by either jumping or flying over it. The rest of this area up until the warp star is used to test everything the player has learnt by using a variety of enemies both flying and not in order to make the player truly understand what to do. And then afterwards it is all put to the test with a mini-boss in the next area.
This tutorial section that makes up the first third of Green Greens is a great example of good game design. From the placement of enemies to the obstacles presented nothing in this section is too hard for any player to figure out. This early section can teach a new player how to play the game without the need for text bubbles and signs. This helps the player feel accomplished as they have not been hand-held through this new environment but instead figured everything out on their own. This helps prevent frustration and makes the player look forward for what is next.