I've always been a passive fan of the Kirby franchise. Sure, I've played most of the games in the franchise, and in fact, even have gone out of the way to play some of the one-off entries (Kirby's Avalanche, Kirby's Tilt N' Tumble, you get the idea.) Hell, one of my bigger purchases at Nintendo World in New York was a plush samurai Kirby. Yet I never adamantly declare myself to be a lover of the series, as it tends to slip my mind when holding to other personal Ninty favorites, like Donkey Kong or Zelda. Sure, I like the series, but I don't love it.
That stance doesn't apply to Kirby: Nightmare in Dream Land, as this blast from the past may be a bit on the short side, but is nevertheless one of my new favorite portable games, not to mention platformers in general. Read on to find out why.
So the basic plot of Nightmare in Dream Land goes something like this: there's this bad guy named Nightmare, who has invaded Dream Land and stolen the dreams of everybody. Kirby has to regain the Star Rod from King Dedede's clutches and use it to defeat Nightmare, sending him back to... wherever he came from, and save the dreams of everybody. That's pretty much it. I mean, if you're playing a Kirby game for narrative depth, then you're barking up the wrong tree. We're talking about a series where you play as pink puffball who sucks things into his body and wears cute little hats when he absorbs their powers.
But then, with a game this joyful and entertaining, you don't really need a complex, intricate narrative. What this franchise does best, historically, is bright, colorful platforming, and Nightmare delivers this in spades. Sure, other handheld Kirby games are fun, but a good portion of them are kind of gimmicky. Amazing Mirror gets downright confusing, Canvas Curse is controlled only with the stylus, and Mass Attack is straight-up chaotic. While I love these games (although admittedly, I haven't played too much of Canvas,) there's something to be said for an old-school platformer in the vein of the original Dream Land trilogy. And yes, while this is a remake of an earlier NES title, it makes enough changes for me to pretty much consider it a different game altogether.
Beyond the platforming itself, which is incredibly tight and varied, scrolling up, down, left, right, and even diagonally, two things about this entry stand out the most, and make this hold up today: the bosses and the powers. The boss stages easily rank among the best in the series, offering some stiff challenge in comparison to prior (and future) games. One of the more creative ones that comes to mind is a drill machine that keeps tunneling its way up and down on a horizontal plane, and Kirby has to follow it, lest he fall down a chasm or get caught on the scenery; the only way to kill it is to jump up, swallow the occasional missile it drops and fire it right back at it. It's more difficult that one would normally expect from a series that created with the intention of being "casual," and it's a welcome shift.
As far as powers go, players will have their hands full juggling the multitude of abilities Kirby has at his/her/its disposal. Sure, you can cruise through the game, ignoring the wealth of secrets, but that wouldn't be nearly as fun or challenging as sucking up enemies in an attempt to figure out how to light fuses, or break different types of blocks. The fun of the abilities go beyond figuring out how to get bonus points or extra lives, though; shredding enemies with a laser, whipping them around as a tornado, or essentially turning Kirby into a living nuke that bombs the whole area are just a few of the little joys present in Nightmare. This is a game that encourages experimentation with the mechanics in order to get the most out of it.
Today, you can net this 2002 title for under 20 bucks, and to me, it's well worth it. You're getting a fun, portable burst of creative energy that can be played more than once and still enjoyed, on top of the unlockable extra modes. While it might not have the length of any GBA Mario games, or the depth of cult gems like Ninja Five-O or Astro Boy: Omega Factor, Kirby: Nightmare in Dream Land is a great game in its own right, and one well worth owning for any GBA or DS/DS Lite owner.