My first gaming device was an original Game Boy and I initially had two games: Tetris and Metroid 2. I enjoyed Tetris as much as anyone does, but I didn’t quite understand Metroid 2. I didn’t have enough experience with problem solving in games to navigate Metroid’s complex, nonlinear world. In my years with the Game Boy I played a lot of games that I found to be well-suited for my low skill-level, but the one I remember more fondly than any other is Kirby’s Dream Land 2.
I was captivated by Kirby’s Dream Land 2 from the moment I saw the box art. I had already played and enjoyed the first Kirby’s Dream Land, but when I saw that Kirby was being joined by three animal friends this time around, I was overjoyed. At the time I really wanted a pet hamster, so the fact that Kirby was riding one on the cover was an instant selling point. Luckily the game’s credentials went beyond this, as the inclusion of a hamster is not typically a good basis to judge a game upon.
There are plenty of games that have a similarly soft and cute aesthetic that is perfect for captivating children who are new to video games, but Kirby’s Dream Land 2 went beyond this to offer me the unique opportunity to learn some of the navigation and puzzle-solving strategies inherent to gaming, without throwing me to the center of them. I was once intimidated by games like Metroid 2 and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, but Kirby’s Dream Land 2 allowed me to experiment with the strategies I would need to use reflexively in these more difficult games later in life.
There are several reasons I chose to focus on Kirby’s Dream Land 2 rather than its predecessor: it has a save system that shows a completion percentage for each file, the game’s worlds are explored in three different stages that can be revisited upon completion, and most importantly, it contains secrets that can be viewed during casual gameplay that require re-visitation of previous stages and certain copy ability/animal combinations to be acquired. Each of the copy abilities that Kirby can gain from swallowing enemies (ice, cutter, spark, parasol, etc.) are altered depending on which of the three animals Kirby is paired with at any given time.
I’ll give an example. When I was playing through the three initial stages that comprise the first world, I came upon a room with one of the game’s many secret Rainbow Drops. Unfortunately I was unable to access it with my current copy ability/animal combination (Ric the hamster with fire). I was disappointed by this, and knew that there must be some way that I could break through the overhead barrier to the Rainbow Drop, but I persisted. When I got to the next world, still riding Ric the hamster, I swallowed a parasol enemy. Here I noticed that this causes Ric to balance a parasol on his head with Kirby spinning on top – resulting in an upward attack. I had a moment of realization in which I wondered if this attack would allow me access to the Rainbow Drop I had been unable to reach earlier. Soon thereafter I was hit by an enemy, causing me to die and restart the level. I had lost Ric, as well as my copy ability. Now I knew that if I were to acquire the Rainbow Drop, I would need to go through the following process:
- Acquire Ric
- Acquire the parasol copy ability
- Reach the Rainbow Drop in this state
This may seem trivial to the experienced gamer, but it is processes such as this that allowed me to approach games like Metroid and Castlevania later in life; it gave me the confidence to move past unattainable power-ups under the assumption that I would be able to reach them later. This advancement in gaming skills becomes even more rewarding in these games because the power-ups aren’t temporary like they are in Kirby. I cite Metroid and Castlevania as examples because they have a similar style of 2D exploration, but the skills needed to play almost every game I have owned over the years can be traced back to Kirby. Even now, as I am making my way through Amnesia: The Dark Descent, I feel that I am applying those same navigation and problem solving skills that I started building during my time with Kirby’s Dream Land 2.
I think that game developers who are looking to target children can learn a lot from a game like Kirby’s Dream Land 2. Many games that are marketed toward younger players are built to captivate the player but do nothing to advance their developing play skills that will serve them throughout their gaming career. Because Kirby games were able to do this for me, I continued to play them long after I had surpassed their level of difficulty, because I knew that there would still be challenges on the periphery of the relatively easy core gameplay.