The music of Kirby's Dream Land 3

Say what you will about Kirby's Dream Land 3, but the soundtrack is a vital piece of the franchise's history.

This column is “The music of,” in which I’ll go into detail on the soundtrack or a piece of music from a video game. Previous entries in the series can be found through this link.

Kirby’s Dream Land 3 wasn’t a resounding success, critically or commercially, and it’s kind of easy to see why: it was never really given the chance to be. It was so very different from its Super Nintendo predecessor, Kirby Super Star, both visually and in gameplay, and considering just how good Super Star was and still is, it should not be hard to imagine the next game, even if it was a good one, being something of a letdown. Throw in that Kirby Super Star released in 1996, months before the arrival of the SNES’ successor, the Nintendo 64, and that Dream Land 3 released in November of 1997 — over a year into the life of the N64, at a time when 2D sidescrollers were being pushed aside both on consoles and in the minds of critics in favor of 3D platformers — and it’s pretty easy to see how few were impressed by Dream Land 3.

I’m not about to tell you that Kirby’s Dream Land 3 is a hidden gem, necessarily — I ranked five Kirby games in the Nintendo top 101, and Dream Land 3 was not one of them for a number of reasons — but it does have a worse reputation than it deserves. I had a tough time with it when I was younger, myself, since it was not Super Star, and all I wanted, at that point, was more Super Star. There’s a lot more here, though, than with, say, Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards, and much of that has to do with the system it was released on. Dream Land 3 was developed by a team that had fully mastered what the Super Nintendo was capable of, and they put that mastery on display.

It’s a beautiful game, artistically speaking, utilizing a graphical technique referred to as “pseudo high-resolution” in order to achieve its unique look. This technique, which the SNES hardware was capable of rendering, allowed for color blending between adjacent pixels, which in turn meant the soft, hand-drawn-with-colored-pencils look of Dream Land 3 could exist. The game also employed some impressive visual tricks, like clouds in the foreground obscuring your vision, and the highly expressive animation stands out even for Kirby. Look at the little guy doing his Naruto run in this game and then try to tell me he isn’t disarmingly and adorably animated.

The sound, though, is where HAL’s familiarity with the Super Nintendo’s hardware truly shined. Dream Land 3 was the third of four Kirby games on the Super Famicom/Super Nintendo — Kirby’s Super Star Stacker was a Super Famicom exclusive, since it released in 1998 — and the developer had also worked on a number of other SNES titles, like EarthBound, HAL’s Hole in One Golf, SimCity, HyperZone, Arcana, Alcahest, and, of course, Shigesato Itoi’s No. 1 Bass Fishing. By the time 1997 rolled around, HAL had already been making video games for this platform for six years: Dream Land 3 was title number 13 in that stretch. It was very obviously composed by someone who knew exactly what the sound hardware was capable of, which is how Dream Land 3 presented a wildly varied mix of instruments and genres, with whatever kind of pacing was deemed necessary for the moment.

The bass is the real standout, regardless of what kind of sound composer Jun Ishikawa was going for. While Ishikawa, who is still with HAL and still working on Kirby titles, rarely composes a Kirby game on his own — Hirokazu Ando has been there as a partner or as the lead himself on nearly every Kirby title since Kirby’s Adventure released on the NES in 1993 — Dream Land 3 was a rare occurrence where he went at it alone. Now, Ishikawa is responsible for what most people know of as the Kirby sound. He composed the original title, Dream Land, on the Game Boy in 1992. So, all those songs that have survived throughout the years, getting arrangement after arrangement or being incorporated into new songs for new games, are from Ishikawa. Mt. Dedede, of course, is used every time King Dedede shows up anywhere, but the original invincibility theme came from Dream Land and Ishikawa, too, as did the theme for Green Greens, which has to this point appeared in 25 other games in one form or another, and is the central focus of the Grand Opening track for the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra’s 25th anniversary concert celebrating the Kirby franchise.

It is, essentially, Kirby’s own theme, even if that wasn’t really the initial intent. Anyway! Ishikawa created the sound that would be and still is at the heart of Kirby’s soundtracks with Dream Land, but Dream Land 3 is where things began to take the turn toward more and more depth and musical variety. That’s not to say that the efforts before it were simple or anything — Super Star’s soundtrack is incredible and diverse, too, with the kind of bouncy tunes you expect from Kirby mixed in with some more epic tracks and an exploration of sound that even resulted in a spaghetti western theme — but the sheer volume of instrumentation in Dream Land 3 did a hell of a job showing us where HAL was going with not just Kirby’s sound, but even in games like Mother 3: Shogo Sakai composed the songs for that game (as well as the canceled N64 version of the title), and it took some obvious inspiration, stylistically, from Dream Land 3. This particular Kirby title itself took audio inspiration, to a degree, from another HAL-developed game and the predecessor to Mother 3, EarthBound. Dream Land 3 is something of a bridge, musically, for both those entries in the Mother series as well as between the Kirby of the 90s and the much more varied and busier musical stylings of Kirby yet to come.

It’s the brass, the wind instruments, the drums, the bass. It’s HAL blending the more Game Boy-aesthetic sounds of Kirby with the aforementioned bounciness that Super Star and the SNES hardware allowed for with these four sections that made something completely new, that was still very much Kirby: and would directly lead into the kind of massive, sprawling soundtracks that games like Return to Dream Land and Star Allies would bring to the table in Kirby’s distant future.

Take Grass Land 1, the first track you hear in an actual stage of the game:

Those drums are constant, and moving the song along with a pacing that moves so much faster than the sleepy-looking, hand-drawn Kirby might make you think you’re going to move at, and the horns are ever-present, too, feeding into the song’s energy and giving the sound so much more depth than its simplistic, chime-y intro suggests is coming.

Then there is an immediate shift in tone for Grass Land 2, which slows things down and emphasizes the horns in a far different way:

If the idea of Kirby sounding kind of like EarthBound and Mother 3 was confusing to you before, it probably is not after listening to that track. And it’ll be even less confusing after hearing Ripple Field 2, which sounds like someone crossed up preexisting Kirby music with Mother 3 tracks:

The combination of bass, synth, horns, and wind instruments on Ripple Field 3, though, might make for the best track in the entire game.

There is just so much going on here, and the beat throughout, even as the emphasis shifts from one instrument type to another, keeps you engaged in a way that actively makes platforming in Dream Land 3 feel even better than it actually is. That’s not to say the gameplay is bad, no, but without the visuals and the excellent composition here, Dream Land 3 is certainly lesser than what it ended up being.

There is not a unique track for every stage, no, but Dream Land 3 did not simply rest on repeating its music again and again. Many of the game’s areas do have their own tracks for each stage, as well as unique music to introduce you to each area, and while songs do repeat, Kirby’s Dream Land 3 soundtracks still have about 45-50 minutes of music on them, and that’s with each track on those playlists being limited to about one minute to 90 seconds of play time. There’s a lot of music here, especially for a platformer from 1997.

The game has its share of darker, moodier themes that still manage to retain the bouncy energy of Kirby music, as well. The Iceberg theme is one such song: there is a real emphasis on horns and ambiance, as well as electronic, computerized sounds, but even though it sounds so different from everything else in the game, it still fits.

If you manage to complete the hidden mission in every stage, you’ll be able to face the game’s actual final boss — the one controlling King Dedede, who, despite being considered Kirby’s adversary, really only comes into non-mind-controlled conflict with him on like, two occasions in 29 years. He’s muscular with a malleable mind, it’s not his fault! His theme is as good as it’s ever been here, as is the arrangement of Gourmet Race that has been deployed in Dream Land 3 as a theme in levels where a bit of haste is necessary on your part. Anyway, Dark Matter, who first appeared in Dream Land 2 and will appear once more in Crystal Shards, is the actual big bad of Dream Land 3, and those themes, too, are darker than most, as is the Kirby way of things with interdimensional/underworld/cosmic evils that are behind whatever ill is going on in Dream Land. They’re Hyper Zone 1 and 2, and given the pace of those songs, that was the correct way to name them. Especially Hyper Zone 2:

That’s not my favorite Kirby endgame boss theme by far, but it is an example of how much HAL’s composers are willing to change things up in these moments of conflict, while still ensuring that they all sound like they belong in Kirby, aka a game with a pink puffball and his adorable animal friends.

There are better Kirby soundtracks out there, but that’s mostly because Ishikawa and Ando have done such a tremendous job of injecting new life and sound into Kirby over 29 years while also maintaining a tremendous respect for the themes of the past. Dream Land 3 was a real turning point for the sound of Kirby, and though it would take a few more years for HAL to find the next major change to the Kirby formula that would bring Super Star levels of acclaim and success to the franchise, the changes in sound were already there thanks to this title. And the influence of them persists to this day, as well, as vital as Super Star’s own contributions to the shifting sound of Kirby.

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