Sports and video games have a closely intertwined history, for good reason. In the early days of video games, a game like golf must have seemed particularly appealing to developers. Only one person plays at a time, there’s only one major element moving (the ball), the physics are relatively straightforward, and the courses are mostly just different shades of green.
Combined with the golf craze that struck Japan in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, it’s not too surprising that that era was hit with a glut of golf games. Most of these games are not very good— a fact parodied in a classic Simpsons episode where Bart wants a fighting game but is stuck with Lee Carvallo’s Putting Challenge, which was based on a real game.
But not all the games were finicky, bland, and aimed at punishing players. One of them was Kirby’s Dream Course, a charming combination of character and game.
If you’re a paid Nintendo Switch online subscriber, you can play Kirby’s Dream Course right now by downloading the Super Nintendo Entertainment System app.
Kirby is both simplistic and transitive as a character. Little more than a pink ball, Kirby really gets special when he devours enemies and gains their power. To play as Kirby is to be in a constant state of flux to begin with, which lent itself nicely to Nintendo’s desire to have its stars branch out from the platformers that made them famous.
Initially, Kirby’s Dream Course wasn’t a Kirby game at all. It was a game called Special Tee Shot, which was ambitious in its own right. The developers of the game, at the closely linked HAL Laboratory and Nintendo, wanted to do away with the traditional approach of golf on clean, green tees, and start embracing the “video game” part of “sports video game.” In a video game, golf could take place anywhere and feature anything.
Special Tee Shot wasn’t the first game to think outside the putting green, but it wanted to push the envelope. The game completely removed golf from its traditional setting, instead setting a course on a black-and-white board. Taking a cue from isometric games like Marble Madness, Special Tee Shot took a shortened version of golf and loaded it with enemies, moving challenges, and odd angles that Phil Mickelson could never expect.
Around the same time as Special Tee Shot’s development, Kirby’s first non-platforming game came out: Kirby’s Pinball Land, which naturally saw the little ball turn into a little ball. A huge hit, it signalled to the financially struggling HAL Labs that if they were going to create a weird golf game, it should be one themed with one of their biggest hits.
As documented recently by SNESCentral, which found a prototype of Special Tee Shot in a Canadian pawn shop, of all places, the game was given a new Kirby theme. As far as corporate decision making goes, the Kirby theme makes a lot of sense in Dream Course. The game’s manual supplies a backstory where King Dedede has stolen all the stars out of Dream Land’s sky and quickly jumps into gameplay.
Although players can choose their spin angle and shot power, there are no golf clubs in Dream Course. Rather, the game offers variety in Kirby’s powers. If there are Whispy Woods blocking a path, Kirby can fire off an electric bolt at exactly the right moment to destroy it. If there’s a large gap between the player and the goal, a parasol can help Kirby glide towards the destination.
Holes don’t make themselves automatically visible in Dream Course. They only show themselves after a certain number of course enemies have been knocked out, allowing for a little more strategy.
It’s worth reviewing the controls of Kirby’s Dream Course before playing, the game can be a little confusing on its own. But once you parse it’s shot guides, master the hi-jump ball hit, and maybe lose a few rounds, the game opens up the possibilities of the often-stuffy game of golf.