Kirby may seem at first glance to be an odd choice for this kind of article. Kirby is hardly an unknown property, easily being Nintendo’s 2nd or 3rd most successful franchise only behind Mario and Zelda. Kirby’s aesthetics have gone on to influence a great deal of media outside games, in particular comics and animation such as Steven Universe, Help Us Brave Warrior, and Cucumber Quest. The Kirby games are also defined by their simplicity, meaning that very few people probably feel any “intimidation” when trying to pick up a Kirby game for the first time. On the other hand, Kirby is also defined by mystery and adaptability. There are over 20 games starring Kirby, which range across multiple genres and themes. Kirby’s position at Nintendo as the default “experimental character” means that a lot of Kirby games are very unique experiences. Even among the primary Kirby platformer entries, there is a range of themes and mechanics under the unifying tone and characters. There is a complexity and variety underneath that simplicity, and while everyone knows Kirby, can everyone definitely say what makes a Kirby game a KIRBY game?
Even Kirby’s origins showcase both the character’s simplicity and mystery. Kirby’s sprite was simply a placeholder during the production of the first gameboy game. It was meant to be replaced once an actual main character had been concieved and designed. Kirby is simply a round blob with a face because that was a simple thing to make and animate quickly. However, the designers grew very fond of simple Kirby, and elected to keep using the dummy character. Kirby’s Dreamland was a smash hit for Nintendo and HAL Laboratory, and ensured the continued role both Masahiro Sakurai and Satoru Iwata would play at Nintendo. Both Iwata and Sakurai were interested in creating a very simple game that anyone could pick up and play, even if unfamiliar with platforming games. The gameboy was a perfect vehicle for this, a portable machine that was still finding its “voice” within a library full of shoddy NES ports and fun shallow experiments. Kirby’s Dreamland kept things simple, with an adventure that a practiced player could complete quickly, but with several options for the player to increase the challenge as desired. What the game lacks in scope, it made up for in charm, with environments that managed to be cheerful and bright despite being monochromatic. While many early gameboy games ran into the problem of the limited screen size forcing designers to trade detail for gameplay (and vice versa), Kirby and his enemies were simple and small enough to give the player plenty of room to play, but also enough cartoony detail to convey appealing expressions and movement. Kirby’s elastic body squashes and stretches across the screen while he moves, and while it seems a small thing now at the time it made him pop out among the sea of more robotic-moving gameboy sprites (including those of Nintendo’s other franchises that made it to the gameboy like Mario and Metroid). The first Kirby game set the template for all great gameboy games to come, making dealing within the machine’s limitations look effortless, but it would be the second Kirby game that really established the “Kirby aesthetic” that we recognize today.
Kirby’s Adventure came at the end of the NES’ life, and was one of those special games that manages to both push the limits of a dying console while also tantalizingly showing how much could still have been done. Kirby’s Adventure built on everything Kirby’s Dreamland put forth, with a focus on simple controls, appealing characters, and bite-sized chunks of play, but added a level of polish that hadn’t been possible on the simpler gameboy. Kirby’s Dreamland featured a few secrets to uncover, mostly little hidden rooms that provided extra lives and interesting visuals, but this was greatly expanded in Kirby’s Adventure. The short levels rewarded exploration and replay, with plenty of secrets to uncover and rewards beyond just additional lives or points. Kirby’s iconic ability to copy his opponents first appeared here, with a wide range of simple powers allowing players to tackle the same problems in new ways. But perhaps the most important change Kirby’s Adventure brought to the new franchise was in its style and lore.
Kirby’s Adventure is, without any hyperbole, one of if not the most beautiful games to come out on the NES. Many lesser NES games tried to fight against the limited palette options of the console, creating garish mish-mashes of primary colors or puke-colored attempts at evoking realism. With the arrival of the Sega Genesis and SNES most developers were off enjoying the seemingly endless new color options available to them, and not even attempting to learn how to make use of subtle, specific palettes. Kirby’s Adventure manages to make the NES’ limited colors look like a deliberate choice rather than a limitation, with thoughtful color choices in place to evoke particular moods or tones for each level. Kirby’s Adventure seems to draw more from classical art history in its color choices than from previous NES games. A generation of players growing up with Kirby’s soft and thoughtful purples, pinks, blues and oranges would go on incorporate them in their own work, showing the game’s fingerprints all over contemporary animation and illustration. Its not just apparent from subtext, as these creators are not shy about making this direct influence on their work known. This game left an impression on people, but the reason that impression was so much stronger than other lovely games was in how it built its relationship between the player and its lore.
From the moment you turn the game on, you are greeted with a tutorial not on how to play the game, but on how to draw Kirby. The message is clear: here is Kirby, he is simple to create, he is yours, play with him. The plot of the game is as simple as before (the bad guy did a bad thing, go fight him) but alongside that plot is a world of unexplained mysteries. First and foremost is the mysterious Meta Knight who shows up to confound you with monsters or aid you with power ups, only to then challenge you to a final duel of honor and reveal a tantalizing glimpse of his true self. Then of course is the surprise reveal that the greedy King Dedede was actually trying to save the world from a terrifying abstract star terror. There is even the fact that Kirby’s world is full of skybound ruins, airship fleets, ancient castles and underground mazes with no clear explanation for how they got there. The game is full of unexplained mysteries that the player is left to ponder. Later Kirby games would build on this to end up with an aesthetic akin to if you took Lovecraft, replaced the dark with pastels, replaced the racism and sexual frustration with the merchandise of a Japanese stationary shop, but kept the lurking horror in the background. Kirby’s world is filled with terrifying eldritch nightmares lurking between the edges of reality, always ready to reach out and twist the soft, cheerful world we play in. Leering eyeballs staring at you from between the stars, undead angels corrupting minds, living engines capable of breaking and rebuilding reality, adorable animals in clownish clothes having their bodies twisted into horrific forms, cursed knights raging against the galaxy in pursuit of endless combat, and even Kirby himself with the inexplicable void inside his mouth that has taken countless terrified and sentient beings and seemingly erased them from existence. Kirby’s world is the most charmingly appealing nightmare yet created.
The main line of Kirby platformer games would continue to make gradual improvements and variations on the Kirby’s Adventure theme. The most interesting development came in the form of Kirby’s Super Star for the SNES. As noted before, Masahiro Sakurai is a developer whose oeuvre can be defined by a focus on complexity within simplicity and on giving the player control of how to define the challenge and play style. With Kirby Super Star, Sakurai drew from an very unexpected source: fighting games. Fighting games are, to put it mildly, the exact opposite genre you would expect Sakurai to want to draw from. They are all too often esoteric monstrosities of complex controls, insular metagames and intimidating jargon, and in the 90s this problem with the genre was at its peak. Yet Sakurai found a way to take the best parts of this genre, the feeling of movement and mastery that comes from understanding those esoteric controls and special moves, and incorporate them into not only a completely different genre but a completely different philosophy. Kirby’s Super Star is a collection of short Kirby stories, each about the same length of one or two worlds from Kirby’s Adventure. The various abilities return, but while they were simple one-button affairs in Kirby’s Adventure, here they all come with an expanded arsenal of maneuvers. While a new player can still use Kirby’s abilities like before, only focusing on the simplest uses of each ability, more advanced players can use fighting game-style combos and special moves that expand each ability’s versatility. These advanced moves can be used to complete levels and bosses faster, or simply make it possible for a player to complete challenges using favorite abilities that before seemed poorly suited for the task. Not only are the new advanced moves optional, but in a platformer setting are much less stressful to learn and practice (and more importantly, just play with) than in a high stakes competitive fighting game. Kirby’s Super Star’s use of fighting game mechanics also foreshadows what Sakurai’s own actual fighting game series, Super Smash Bros, would look like, with the same focus on simplicity over esoteric button inputs and using the fighting game tropes in new environments.
But Kirby’s library of games includes a great deal more than just his platformer games. Kirby’s simple shape meant it was very easy to slip him into different kinds of games as a ball or puck, giving rise to spinoffs like Kirby’s Pinball Land and Kirby’s Block Ball. Kirby is often the go-to character Nintendo uses for new experiments, such as Kirby’s Canvas Curse and Kirby’s Tilt ‘n Tumble. Kirby’s origin as a dummy sprite would become ironic as Nintendo would use him as a replacement for new and prototype characters if they worried a new concept might not sell without an established IP on the box, giving us games like Kirby’s Dream Course and Kirby’s Epic Yarn. While Kirby is not the only Nintendo IP to absorb new games this way (such as the Star Fox series taking over Rare’s Dinosaur Planet), Kirby has probably managed to successfully “take over” more new IPs than any other franchise in Nintendo’s stable, largely because of how adaptable and simple his design is. Star Fox Adventures was largely panned for not feeling like it belonged with the other Star Fox games, while the fact that Epic Yarn was originally not a Kirby game is usually met with shock.
Kirby’s main series and spinoffs can, and often do, repeat themselves. Yet this repetition never seems to feel quite as stale as it can with other long-term video game franchises like Mario or Mega Man. Kirby’s central theme of complexity within simplicity helps even the stalest entries in the franchise find a way of connecting with its players by letting them define much of the experience for themselves.
Playlist:Below are 5 games that I feel sum up the entire Kirby aesthetic and philosophy best. These are the necessary games for anyone new to the franchise.
- Kirby’s Adventure (1993, NES/3DS/Virtual Console): As noted above, this is the gold standard of Kirby games.
- Kirby Super Star (1996, Super Nintendo/Nintendo DS/Virtual Console): A collection of “different” games, each taking the same core mechanics and presenting them slightly differently. There’s the fast-paced Revenge of Meta-Knight, the slower exploration-focused Great Cave Offense, the classic Kirby gameplay of Dyna Blade, and even simple racing and fighting games. Manages to feel both light and fully packed at the same time.
- Kirby’s Dream Course (1995, Super Nintendo/Virtual Console):: One of the earlier Kirby experiments, Dream Course combines minigolf and billiards. Not as simplistic as other Kirby experiments, Dream Course is a meaty puzzle game that would show just how adaptable Kirby and his universe could be beyond platformers.
- Kirby’s Canvas Curse (2005, Nintendo DS): At a time when the gaming press and hardcore fans were still skeptical of the idea of a portable console with two screens and a touch stylus, Kirby’s Canvas Curse was the first game to come out and REALLY justify the DS’ existence beyond just tech demos and vague promises. Canvas Curse has all the classic Kirby hallmarks (exploration, simplicity, vague horror) but with an appealing and intuitive new way of playing
- Kirby Mass Attack (2011, Nintendo DS): Kirby was basically king of the DS, with a variety of both classic platformers and new experiments. Mass Attack did away with all the normal Kirby mechanics and instead created a new adventure based around taking care of an army of Kirbies. The game ends up combining a bunch of genres from Lemmings-esque puzzles to arcade action to real-time strategy, all without ever losing that distinct Kirby quality.
B-Sides and Experiments: These games include interesting attempts at tacking the same problem as the previous games in different ways, or flawed but interesting attempts at utilizing the character.
- Kirby’s Dreamland (1992, Gameboy/Virtual Console): Lacks the polish of Kirby’s Adventure, and honestly doesn’t do anything amazing on its own that its sequels don’t do better, but is an important look at the evolution of developers’ understanding of portable gaming’s potential, as well as an important look into the design philosophy of two of Nintendo’s most important developers.
- Kirby’s Epic Yarn (2010, Nintendo Wii): While originally intended for a new character, Kirby doesn’t feel shoehorned in. There is not a whole lot of substance or mystery to this game, but it does have amazingly relaxing music and gorgeous graphics. Feels a bit more like what people assume a Nintendo platformer is supposed to be like, rather than what most actually are, but still fun to play.
- Kirby and the Amazing Mirror (2004, Gameboy Advance): Honestly, not a very good game. It was an attempt to make a Metroid/Castlevania-like Kirby game where you could explore a single, interconnected map and use Kirby’s abilities to solve puzzles. In practice, it was mostly frustrating to have to track down specific abilities every time you reached one of those puzzles. Despite its problems, its worth remembering for its many interesting, but flawed, ideas such as three other computer-controlled Kirbys who would go off and play the game without you, collecting their own abilities, but could be summoned to the player’s location and help out in a pinch.
- Kirby’s Pinball Land (1993, Gameboy/Virtual Console): The first Kirby spin-off, and perhaps the most obvious one just based on Kirby’s appearance. A simple affair, but packed full of the same charm as Kirby’s first game. The three pinball boards all feature interesting secrets and engaging methods of advancing.
- Kirby 64 (2000, Nintendo 64): A solid Kirby platformer that features fun powers, a cute “road trip” aesthetic with Kirby’s friends tagging along without any purpose other than to cheer you up and pitch in, and perhaps the greatest examples of weird horror in the Kirbyverse. The generic “Ice World” is revealed to be, upon closer examination, our own planet Earth trapped in a frozen apocalypse due to man-made climate change. The final battle is among the best abstract horrors of the series.
Influences, Offspring and Siblings: Kirby was not the only game or series that attempted to develop a balance of complexity within simplicity, or of creeping horror within sweetness, it was just the most successful. Below are 5 games with a similar or parallel philosophy.
- Trip World (1992, Gameboy): Trip World stars a vaguely rabbit-like Kirby-creature and features a LOT in common with Kirby’s original adventure, but this is due to a rare case of convergent evolution rather than theft. The game rewards players who take time to investigate its weirdness. Many of the “enemies” are harmless and unique, often only appearing once and having some interesting behavior to observe. Insanely difficult to get a legitimate copy now unless you’re lucky enough to access the European or Japanese 3DS Virtual Console.
- Ristar (1995, Sega Genesis): In some ways, Ristar could have been Sega’s Kirby. A platformer starring what was originally a dummy sprite, built around exploration, defeating enemies by using and interacting with them beyond simple Mario jumping, a colorful world with mysteries and space horrors waiting to be examined, all found in a game at the end of a console’s lifespan pushing the limit’s of the hardware… but in the end it never took off and became just another failed Sega IP.
- Super Smash Bros Brawl (2008, Nintendo Wii): Sakurai’s other flagship series that drew a lot of inspiration from his work with Kirby. Why Brawl in particular? Its not as polished or beloved as the previous or later entries in the Smash Bros series, but its more experimental options, as well as the sprawling Subspace Emissary mode which transforms a fighting game into a bizarre platformer, are all pure Kirby.
- Avenging Spirit (1991, Arcade/Gameboy) : An arcade game where you play the ghost of a boy murdered by the mafia out to rescue his girlfriend. You can possess enemies to use their abilities. No direct relationship to Kirby, but a fun, faster-paced variation on the power-stealing gameplay.
- Klonoa (1997, Playstation/Nintendo Wii) : Klonoa’s world is full of the same combination of soft sweetness and creeping dread that made Kirby so popular. Klonoa’s gameplay is also built around finding the best way of using your enemies to your advantage. The big philosophical difference is that Klonoa’s levels are more linear, with specific puzzles or action sequences as opposed to Kirby’s challenges being open to whatever abilities the player chooses.