Minigolf is, to borrow a phrase from a completely different sport, a funny old game.
Typically implied to be a rather silly, chaotic affair rather than something to be taken seriously, your average minigolf course nonetheless tends to include a variety of fiendish obstacles to negotiate, many of which will tax even the most skilled putters among us.
Kirby’s Dream Course, being a minigolf game that takes place entirely in a digitally rendered dreamworld, is free to do even more ridiculous things with its course design than would be possible in reality. And herein lies its main appeal.
I’ve always felt like a good golf game is as much a puzzle game as it is a sports game. In fact, there’s an argument to be made that a good golf game is more of a puzzle game than it is a typical sports game thanks to the fact that they tend to be more about planning, strategy and accuracy rather than lightning-fast reactions. Of course, you still need some reasonable reactions to be able to set your power level and accuracy appropriately — but your average puzzle game tends to require you to be pretty on-the-ball, too, particularly if it errs more towards the arcadey side of things.
The reason I bring this up is that the further you go in Kirby’s Dream Course, the less it feels like a typical golf game and the more it feels like a pure puzzle game. Sure, you’re still making use of the mechanics of golf to move Kirby around these isometric environments, but the increasing complexity of the individual levels coupled with the wider variety of enemies as you progress means that the overall experience has a very different “feel” after a little while.
Part of the reason for this is the fact that in Kirby’s Dream Course you’re not simply attempting to plot the shortest, most efficient, safest route to the hole. Rather, the presence of the enemies means that you’re effectively having to plot a route with several “waypoints” along the way, preferably being able to take in as many of those points using a single shot as possible.
In the case of the first course’s 8 holes, this is mostly fairly straightforward. Simply imagine a line extending from Kirby’s start position and attempt to ensure it passes through as many enemies as possible in one go. Clever use of the terrain features will allow you to be particularly efficient, and choosing a sensible order in which to tackle the enemies will likewise put the hole you finish in somewhere that isn’t too difficult to get to.
As you advance through the stages, we start to encounter more in the way of things to think about. Dangerous objects simply need to be avoided. Some objects — such as the harmless but impassable Whispy Woods — can be destroyed if Kirby acquires an appropriate ability, but this is dependent on actually defeating an enemy with that ability first. Likewise, more conventional golf hazards such as sand traps can also be dealt with using abilities Kirby is able to acquire — but again, this requires you to know which enemy provides which ability.
It’s these additional mechanics that gradually get layered atop the base experience that make Kirby’s Dream Course such an interesting game. And in true Nintendo tradition, each of them is introduced in such a way that you can experiment with them safely before being challenged to make use of them under increasingly perilous circumstances the further you go.
And it certainly is a challenge; Kirby’s Dream Course is much more unforgiving than your average conventional golf game. While, as we saw last time, the holes lack a conventional “par” system, the fact that you are effectively “losing” one of your stock of available shots unless you hit an enemy with every stroke puts a certain amount of pressure on you. Hitting Kirby out of bounds or otherwise off the edge of a level causes you to immediately lose a life, costing you up to four of your available shots. And running out of lives forces you back to the start of the course you’re on, regardless of how far through the eight holes you are.
This is a game that demands practice and a cool head, in other words. Its basic mechanics are extremely simple to understand and easy to make use of, even for those who haven’t really played much in the way of golf games before. But actually applying those mechanics becomes more and more of a challenge as the game continues, with the unforgiving progression forcing you to demonstrate your mastery before you can see any new content.
All this means that Kirby’s Dream Course isn’t a game that you can brute force or grind your way through. You’re not going to see those later courses and the hazards they force you to contend with until you demonstrate to the game that you’re good and ready — though in the meantime you’re free to replay any of the courses you’ve previously unlocked for practice or in an attempt to obtain a better score.
Playing this in 2019, I find myself wondering that if this was a brand new release, how long would a modern player stick with it before becoming frustrated and giving up? It’s an interesting question to ponder, since we live in an age where difficult games in the old-school mould are very much celebrated, but Nintendo’s cuddly cute colourfulness might seem somewhat at odds with the “git gud” mentality from today’s perspective.
But, well, “Nintendo Hard” is an established concept with good reason! Consider yourself warned if you ever find yourself fancying a nice bit of minigolf with everyone’s favourite pink puffball…
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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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