Any programmer of a certain age likely has a horror story about some rinky-dink coding and workflow environment that forced them to hack together a working app under extreme hardware and software constraints. Still, we’re pretty sure none of those stories can beat the keyboard-free coding environment that Masahiro Sakurai apparently used to create the first Kirby’s Dream Land.
The tidbit comes from a talk Sakurai gave ahead of a Japanese orchestral performance celebrating the 25th anniversary of the original Game Boy release of Kirby’s Dream Land in 1992. As reported by Game Watch (and wonderfully translated by the Patreon-supported Source Gaming), Sakurai recalled how HAL Laboratory was using a Twin Famicom as a development kit at the time. Trying to program on the hardware, which combined a cartridge-based Famicom and the disk-based Famicom Disk System, was “like using a lunchbox to make lunch,” Sakurai said.
As if the limited power wasn’t bad enough, Sakurai revealed that the Twin Famicom testbed they were using “didn’t even have keyboard support, meaning values had to be input using a trackball and an on-screen keyboard.” Those kinds of visual programming languages may be fashionable now, but having a physical keyboard to type in values or edit instruction would have probably still been welcome back in the early ’90s.
Sakurai, who was 20 at the time, says he simply thought this keyboard-free programming environment was “the way it was done,” and he coded an entire functional test product using just the trackball. He even says the process led to some improvements managing the game’s “data processing load,” creating “a game that had a very smooth movement for a Game Boy game.”
The rest of Sakurai’s translated presentation is well worth a read to see how Sakurai squeezed his game onto just 512kb of space (less than a pixel’s worth of data in a game like Super Smash Bros. on Wii U), hard-coded enemy movement paths in hexadecimal, and even created a prototype of the Super NES game Kirby Super Star on the original Famicom. For those who want to recreate similar frustrations to those found in Sakurai’s old programming environment, may we suggest hacking together a binary keyboard?