During my exploration of Kirby and the Rainbow Paintbrush, I mentioned that I wasn’t sure what to expect from a Kirby game other than, well, the unexpected.
I was expecting at least some of the games in the series to be relatively conventional platform games — and I know they’re there somewhere! — but the next one I happened to alight upon, courtesy of the SNES Mini’s built-in lineup of games, was Kirby’s Dream Course.
I had no set expectations for what Kirby’s Dream Course was going to be before firing it up for the first time. But I can tell you I didn’t expect it to be a thoroughly charming minigolf game!
Yes, for those who have not had the pleasure, Kirby’s Dream Course is another Kirby game that errs on the… unconventional side, removing direct control of the character from the player in favour of some means of influencing what he does. Unfolding from an isometric perspective, it’s your job to guide Kirby through a series of increasingly perilous levels in order to defeat enemies and drop down a hole leading to his next challenge.
As you progress, you’ll start to come across more and more hazards and awkward enemy placement and you’ll need to familiarise yourself with a variety of techniques to succeed.
That’s pretty much the entire formula, and the simplistic structure really benefits Kirby’s Dream Course, because it allows the game to focus on interesting, often fiendish course design rather than overcomplicating the mechanics. By completely removing the necessity for any sort of “realism” from the game, the team were able to come up with the sort of minigolf courses that would be impossible (or at least extremely dangerous) in reality, and seeing the silliness this leads to in the later levels is part of the joy of the experience.
At the same time, though, the actual “golf” side of things here is surprisingly solid. You can adjust your shot between three different types — a straight shot forwards, a shorter shot forwards, or a shot that flies up in the air and bounces — as well as curl your shot around corners. The game eschews the usual “three click” golf game technique in favour of a simple power meter, though if you choose an aerial shot you can press the button a second time to determine the amount of topspin or backspin that is applied, with Kirby’s trajectory and amount of rolling upon landing being altered accordingly.
Oh yes, did I not mention? Kirby himself is the ball, and this game essentially sees you repeatedly smacking him really hard in the ass to make him roll and bounce around eight eight-hole courses in environments that would make Marble Madness-era Mark Cerny proud. We’ve got hills. We’ve got undulations. We’ve got cliffs to fall off, perilous walkways with no barriers and static hazards that require careful timing to get past. Don’t let the cutesy aesthetic fool you; this game is surprisingly challenging! Even clearing the first of the game’s “worlds” is an achievement, and it only gets tougher from there.
The game is presented really nicely. The isometric perspective works really well and mostly makes things very clear and easy to understand. There’s the odd occasion where the perspective can make it look like a wall is a gap or vice-versa, but once you encounter this situation for the first time — and figure out how to deal with it — it becomes a real pleasure to figure out optimal routes through the levels.
The game incorporates a firm but fair means of pushing the player forwards without demanding a perfect performance. Each “shot” you take with Kirby costs him a tomato from his health bar, but these are replenished by successfully defeating enemies. (Further tomatoes can also be lost by colliding with dangerous obstacles, however!) Run out of tomatoes and Kirby loses a life. Run out of lives and you have to start your current course again. This system generally works in such a way that you don’t feel like you’re being punished for being “over par” (not that each stage has an explicit “par”, but one can be implied from the number of enemies) while providing the potential to improve your performance over time.
Further interest is added to the mechanics through special abilities that Kirby is able to absorb from the enemies he defeats throughout the stages. These are primarily movement-based, and allow him to do things like float down from a great height using an umbrella, quickly accelerate to high speed or stop suddenly. Some of the power-ups even allow you to temporarily take direct control of Kirby rather than having to rely on your golf skills.
There’s replayability here, too; the “hole” for the stage doesn’t appear until you’ve defeated all but one of the enemies you’re facing, so tackling your foes in a different order can lead to either easier or more challenging routes to success. There’s also a high-score system (where you can record your “name” by drawing a little piece of monochromatic pixel art… or a knob), medals to unlock and a competitive two-player mode with four of its own unique courses to explore.
I really like this game! Minigolf titles are a bit of a lost art form these days; they still exist, but they tend to be on mobile platforms, which in turn often means that they’re riddled with obnoxious advertising and/or monetisation. Checking out Kirby’s Dream Course for the first time has been a pleasant reminder of a simpler time in gaming; a time when a game about twatting a pink marshmallow around a series of abstract checkerboard environments could be released as a full-price packaged product and no-one would bat an eyelid.
I miss those days… but at least we can still enjoy Kirby’s Dream Course today — and if you, like me, have never really explored the Kirby series as a whole, it can be a brand new experience for you too!
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Thanks for reading; I hope you enjoyed this article. I’ve been writing about games in one form or another since the days of the old Atari computers, with work published in Page 6/New Atari User, PC Zone, the UK Official Nintendo Magazine, GamePro, IGN, USgamer, Glixel and more over the years, and I love what I do.
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