The majority of Nintendo’s flagship crew is easily describable: The plumbers. The ape. The elven hero. Then there’s the cheerful pink ball (blob? puff?) with red shoes, rosy cheeks, and an inexplicable ability to inhale the universe. His games, just like him, are cute and uncomplicated by design, including friends/enemies like “Another Ball with a Mask and Sword” and “That Has to be a Penguin.” Yet among a group of established characters known for a deeper intensity or legacy, Kirby has carved out his own, uniquely adorable place in gaming history.
People have been trying to figure Kirby out for years. Since his Game Boy debut in 1992’s Kirby’s Dream Land, there has been many a discussion about just what the heck he is and what happens to the enemies that enter his cosmic gullet. Yet there has also been a more serious question, one not often directly asked by critics, but consistently implied: Just how is it that such a blatantly easy, anti-hardcore series can not only maintain life through nearly two decades, but keep the dedication and respect of those growing up within an increasingly gritty gaming landscape?
Entertainment Weekly‘s Jeff Jensen explored this territory in late 2010 after he wrote one sentence declaring Kirby’s Epic Yarn his worst game of the year. The backlash, from fanatics and non-players alike, was so great he wrote a nearly 2,000-word follow-up explaining himself, saying he believed the game uses its adorable nature as a crutch and doesn’t provide a satisfying level of challenge.
“So yes, I have a small pang of regret for calling Kirby’s Epic Yarn ‘the worst game of the year,’ but only a small pang, especially since it’s barely a game,” Jensen wrote. “But if you asked me for my top-10 list of interactive storybooks for children, it would be pretty close to No. 1. After all: It is really, really cute.”
For some gamers, the terms “cute” and “easy” are enough to raise the hairs on the backs of their hands. Hardcore players might tolerate a game that utilizes one of these aspects – Castle Crashers, for example, has a cartoonish bent yet provides a decent challenge – but put the two together and you’re risking a backlash of gaming machismo.
The Kirby franchise itself has always trumpeted its low difficulty and aesthetic choices. Creator Masahiro Sakurai chose the simplistic style of his character – who actually first served as a placeholder in early designs and insisted on its signature pink color. Japan embraced Kirby’s aesthetic, with commercials featuring happy songs and bright colors. Kirby’s portrayal on the other side of the world, however, certainly implies a fear of those “cute” and “easy” specters. The ways in which North America has advertised Kirby through his history are masculinizing and arguably overcompensating.
The “angry eyes” sometimes plastered on Kirby’s North American box art have become the stuff of memes, but the art for Kirby’s Dream Land went so far as to strip the puff of his signature pink, leaving him a neutral white. It was a monochrome title, so who back then would have known? The TV spot for Kirby’s Dream Land appears equally out of place in retrospect, showing Kirby inhaling a stereotypically buff ’90s cartoon hero and spitting him out as a half-digested mass . The commercial for Kirby’s Adventure on the NES describes him as a “physical powerhouse” and a “weapons expert.” And for Kirby’s Dream Land 2? He takes out a bar of real-life, leather-clad bikers with his badass new friends: Rick the Hamster, Coo the Owl, and Kine the Fish.
The ads score points for creative irony, but the bottom line – and the big risk – is that the commercials didn’t follow the themes present in their corresponding games. Remember that Kirby was not immediately well known, and someone buying a game to play “level by nightmarish level,” as one ad said, would instead end up knee-deep in Waddle Dees and little knights named “Sir Kibble.”
There could have been disappointment, followed by rejection and slumping sales, leaving Kirby a two- or three-game footnote on western shores. Yet that didn’t happen.
For all the supposed hand-wringing over proving Kirby to audiences as a viable character, the audiences picked up on his potential right off the bat. Flying under the highly popular and family-friendly banner of Nintendo at the time likely helped, but perhaps, once players cracked the shell of expectations around Kirby games, they discovered the games were very, very good for what they truly are.
Games intended for “beginners” are too often marred by weak design choices in an attempt to be too simple. On the other end of the spectrum, around the time of Kirby’s Dream Land, there was no shortage of platformers that tried to be too complex and ended up with clunky or confusing control schemes (hit B+A at the same time to super jump? Really?).
HAL Laboratory, however, stuck to a philosophy of simple controls and a gorgeously crafted backdrop on which to employ them, using the limited specs of the Game Boy to render a world of puffy clouds, blooming plants and shooting stars. The result was a game that, while not terribly challenging for advanced gamers, looked and felt good. That in itself placed Kirby’s Dream Land in esteemed company on the portable system. The next platformer capable of matching Kirby’s responsiveness and aesthetic charm would emerge later that year: Super Mario Land 2.
Kirby would become something of a lead mascot for Nintendo’s portable systems, which were ideal for making his games more accessible to younger gamers and those looking for quicker, pick-up-and-play experiences. It would be Kirby’s Adventure, however, that introduced the element that made a lasting icon. The ability to steal an enemy’s powers wasn’t introduced with Kirby – Mega Man was doing it years before. But whereas Mega Man’s powers had limited use and were more for strategic purposes, HAL gave the player full reign over nearly every ability. It’s a fun in-game element, but the true impact of this choice exists off the game screen.
Kirby games have often held hints of creative encouragement. Kirby’s Adventure starts up with a song on how to draw Kirby, bosses have appeared as artists whose creations come to life and the truly unique Kirby’s Canvas Curse for the DS had the player “painting” lines to navigate Kirby through a world turned to art. The puffball’s simple design begs to be drawn, and adding unlimited versatility through his copy ability means artists can make Kirby into anything.
Matthew Taranto, creator of the webcomic “Brawl in the Family,” started off doodling Kirby in the margins of course notes. That led to vignettes exploring the possibilities of Kirby’s copy ability, which evolved into full strips starring Kirby with many other Nintendo and outside characters.
“Most of Nintendo’s characters have an air of simplicity or mystery about them, and that makes it fun to sort of expound on their personalities in ways that still make sense to the character,” Taranto said. “Kirby has barely spoken in the games, though, so what we can ascertain from him is pretty much solely from his actions and animations in the titles he’s starred in.”
That low level of definition with Kirby makes it relatively easy to treat him like a blank pink slate without defiling his personality. A quick online search shows people taking this freedom in all directions, largely turning Kirby into a one-puff tribute to gaming’s best. He’s already aped Mega Man’s robot masters, and the number of adorable Sephiroth Kirbies out there borders on disturbing.
Kirby’s versatility and approachability mesh well with the whims of gamers, which is an important element in the way we want to approach newcomers and our definitions of a worthwhile game. Many gamers, myself included, grew up with a title like Kirby as one of our first experiences; a game that was fundamentally fun and led us to draw doodles on our homework, daydreaming about what else could be made from the character and the world.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with challenge and maturity, but dismissing an otherwise good game for lacking them is like claiming Goodnight Moon is unmerited trash because you’ve mastered War and Peace. Luckily, it seems Kirby will be sticking around for 20 years and beyond, providing the perfect gateway for beginners and a classic oasis for veterans.[byline]Tim Latshaw is certified master in 17 forms of Kirby dance. Follow him on Twitter @TLatshaw.[/byline]