Version tested: GameBoy Advance
Perhaps leaving Kirby sitting on the pause screen while I pen this review wasn't such a good idea. Playing it mostly on my Cube using the GB Player peripheral, I'm currently being bombarded on all sides by a sickly sweet theme tune at which even the Teletubbies would probably recoil.
It's funny though, because I've never noticed that before - how much I hate the music. I've never actually stopped long enough to consider how painfully mundane and repetitive it is. Perhaps because the gameplay is so engrossing? Nah, it seems more likely that I just haven't had cause to stop. It's sped by so fast, and my 98 per cent complete save game (curses) has been so fluently compiled, that I can barely recall a piece of music dragging on for more than a minute or so.
It doesn't take long to finish a Kirby game. It never has. It's never too difficult to kill enemies, puzzles are never more than basic, abilities are never hard to pick up, and new levels are never tiresome. But as a newcomer, after a couple of levels you might well wonder what all the fuss is about. Kirby is just like any other platform hero in many ways - he's on a quest to retrieve the scattered pieces of Something Important, he can run, jump, duck, slide, use projectile power-ups, and even gets to try and maximise his end of level score with a timing-based jumping game.
In fact on the surface of it, the only major difference is that Kirby can't bop enemies on the head. Instead, he can gobble them up (B) and then either spit them out as projectiles (B again) or swallow them (down on D-pad). However the requisite "clever bit" is that by swallowing certain enemies, Kirby inherits their abilities. Up to 24 of which are available throughout the game. Aha. Oh, and he can also float around indefinitely by holding his breath and puffing out his cheeks. He can't strike enemies like this (except with a feeble short-range exhalation), but this is certainly one game where you won't run have to worry about frustrating pixel-perfect jumps.
Fans of Kirby's previous adventures will immediately notice that this is not a "new" game. It may boast a retooled graphics engine, a few new mini-games and a link-up mode for co-operative play, but it's still an unmistakable revamp of one of the pink blob's earliest outings - Kirby's Adventure on the NES. Nevertheless it's a good starting point for Kirby virgins, and an interesting way to revisit an old classic. Issues of pricing aside (for now), it's a forgivable port, and it's nice to have something break up the constant stream of Mario rehashes.
Fluff and nonsense
But it's still too short. Even if you stop to take in the occasional mini-game, you'll still probably wake from the Nightmare with roughly two hours on the old stopwatch. Early on it's actually harder to get killed than not, with an abundance of easily sucked up enemies and only a few with troublesome movement patterns or attacks. Throw in some forgiving collision detection, plenty of opportunities to gather extra lives and lots of abilities to steal and you could probably clock the first world in under five minutes. And there are only eight.
The good news for those who like exploring though is that each world is a treasure trove of hidden exits, bonus levels and mini-games - like a coliseum where Kirby can practice his various attacks on a few bosses - and that it'll take quite a lot of patience and exploration to uncover 100 per cent's worth of secrets.
It also still feels really well designed, thanks in no small part to HAL's work on restoring the game's visuals. Kirby looks absolutely great, with richly detailed animation, some beautifully drawn backgrounds and some of the fluffiest environments this side of a padded cell - even if the rejigged visuals mean some of the secrets are easier to spot. The level design is also ingenious, varying in pace and direction like a drunken unicyclist, lurching from a level where laser beams need to be fired at angled surfaces to hit blocks above to levels where multiple doors seem to go nowhere and ability-laden enemies need to be tapped for inspiration.
It's this mixture of abilities (and you'll be discovering new ones from start to finish) that stops the game getting old. While Mario has to be content with a new Yoshi every now and then or a level without his water jetpack to break up proceedings, Kirby can just swallow a new adversary and start turning enemies into ice blocks, or slash at them with a sword. They're not all aggressive either, with a few defensive abilities - like "stone", which lets the pink blob morph into a rock to avoid being hit - put to good use as well.
Adding to the existing diversity, HAL has thrown in a new co-operative mode, which allows up to four players (if everyone buys the game) to crowd into one player's adventure and swamp the screen with different abilities. Although we had to limit ourselves to two-player (funnily enough, Nintendo weren't keen on sending us four copies of the game - shame), even at that it's a nice inclusion, perhaps extending the game's lifespan a bit. Or perhaps not, since it's a good way of digesting particularly troublesome bosses.
Our preferred multiplayer activity though has to be those mini-games. They're hardly going to worry Wario Ware, but Air Grind is an instant classic. All you have to know is that Kirby can grind along rails by holding A, but can't grind across black areas and will be penalised if he tries to. So, what you get is Kirby and up to three differently coloured adversaries racing from left to right along lines that duck and weave amongst one another, as each player frantically grips the A button till the last possible moment, sliding agonisingly over the naughty black bits and then picking it up again. Although Quick Draw (first to hit A when an exclamation mark appears) and Bomb Rally (a timing-based game of bomb tennis, or hot potato) are fun in their own way, Air Grind is the clear winner.
Unfortunately though we can't really see Kirby's latest adventure lasting anybody for particularly long, multiplayer games and secret hunting notwithstanding. It's lovely to look at and play, but we really need more than this if we're going to shell out the best part of £30, and ultimately it is just a revamp of an old NES game to boot. So as much as we love Kirby, that means Nightmare in Dream Land is a tough game to recommend. If you've never played a Kirby game then perhaps you should shop around until you can find it cheap. Just don't bother with the headphones, eh? The music's evil!
7 / 10