Welcome back to Franchise Festival, where we explore and discuss noteworthy franchises from the last several decades of gaming history. Older entries can be found here.
This week we’ll be gobbling up all there is to know about Kirby. Major sources include Nintendo Life‘s “A Kirby Retrospective: From Game Boy to Nintendo Switch” and Giant Bomb’s history of HAL Laboratory, Inc. Retronauts also did an excellent retrospective on HAL, which you can access on USGamer here or through your favorite podcast app.
All years refer to North American releases unless otherwise noted; readers can generally assume that the Japanese release date is earlier.
HAL Laboratory was formed in 1980 by a handful of college programming buddies. They had recently graduated and set up shop in an unassuming apartment within Tokyo’s illustrious Akihabara district, but would quickly ascend the ranks of Japanese video game studios. Much of their early success would later be attributed to bringing a young programming whiz named Satoru Iwata into their ranks.
Their later dominance was not apparent in the studio’s earliest efforts, however. Intellectual property ownership was not a well-established concept in 1980s video game development, and much of HAL’s earliest output consists of re-skinned clone software. Jupiter Lander (1982) was functionally identical to Atari’s 1979 arcade classic, Lunar Lander, while Taxman (1981) was an unlicensed clone of Namco’s Pac-Man (1980); both of these, like the rest of HAL’s early software output, were published for the MSX home computer system. While this piece of hardware would never be popular in the United States, it was a fixture of the Japanese video game market throughout the 1980s.
1985’s Eggerland Mystery represents the first instance of HAL demonstrating its unique approach to accessibility and strong yet simple art direction. Published on the MSX, Eggerland Mystery would form the foundation of HAL’s debut IP, Adventures of Lolo. Nine more entries in the series would be published across the MSX, Nintendo Entertainment System, Game Boy and Windows PC over the following fifteen years.
By the early 1990s, HAL had formed a strong working partnership with Nintendo. This was initially rooted in HAL’s ability to salvage a Nintendo game thought lost – the NES’ Pinball (1985) – though after this fortuitous moment, the Japanese software juggernaut began to contract HAL for numerous projects on its hardware. In 1992, a young HAL recruit named Masahiro Sakurai was tasked with developing one such project: a beginner’s platformer on the Game Boy handheld device. He initially worked up a build using a simple placeholder image used to test the game’s early mechanics, but the cute design quickly became beloved by the development team. From these rather accidental origins, Kirby was born.
Kirby’s Dream Land (1992)
Originally named Twinkle Popo, and starring the bouncy little blob known during development as Popopo, Kirby’s Dream Land was an immediate hit when it premiered on the Game Boy in 1992. It was a short game, but one entirely designed to ease young Game Boy owners into the ubiquitous platformer genre. To that end, it featured cute sprites, appealing music, and significantly less punishing mechanics than competitors’ games.
Players take on the role of Kirby, renamed during development in honor of John Kirby, an American lawyer who had helped Nintendo out of a 1980s battle with Universal Studios over the rights to the name Kong. The spherical title character can jump endlessly in mid-air, walk along the ground, and suck up objects or enemies before expelling them as projectiles. Navigation is largely left-to-right, though some stages eschew this in favor of vertical progression.
The presence of only four levels ensure that the game can be completed in a single sitting. Still, each area features memorable boss characters who would go on to become series staples. The first boss, Whispy Woods, is a tree that uses fruit dropped from its branches to injure Kirby. Lololo and Lalala make cameo appearances from HAL’s Adventures of Lolo series, functioning as Dream Land‘s second boss encounter. A sentient, mean-spirited cloud named Kracko is the boss of the fourth stage. The final area consists only of a series of battles with previous stage bosses and a final duel with King Dedede, marking the debut appearance of Kirby’s gluttonous rival.
Kirby’s Dream Land suffered from some rather odd localization quirks in its move West from Japan. The cover art erroneously depicts Kirby as white, due to the monochromatic color palette of the game itself, rather than the pink hue intended by Sakurai; Kirby’s appearance was actually a matter of debate between Nintendo and HAL during development, as Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto believed the character should be yellow. Aside from box art color discrepancy, the game’s items were renamed in a rather peculiar fashion: the curry was renamed spicy food, the yam was renamed mint leaf, and the maxim tomato was renamed “bag of magic food.” The last one is my personal favorite.
Selling over a million copies by 1995, Kirby’s Dream Land would be re-released several times over the following twenty-five years. Its first reappearance was a fully remade version playable within the Super Nintendo Entertainment System’s Kirby Super Star (1996); this version features a fully colorized world, letting fans see what Kirby’s debut adventure looked like without the Game Boy’s monochrome display limitations. The title would eventually be re-released in its original form on a 2012 Wii compilation published to coincide with the series’ twentieth anniversary, and can currently be accessed through the 3DS’ Virtual Console legacy content marketplace.
Kirby’s Adventure (1993)
After a successful small-screen premiere, the Kirby series was tapped to move up to Nintendo’s home console market. Rather than being produced for the current-generation SNES console, Kirby’s Adventure began a tradition of Kirby titles being published at the end of a console’s life cycle. The Nintendo Entertainment System, which had been on the market in North America since 1985, became the home of the second game in HAL’s flagship franchise.
Fans are greeted immediately by the series’ leap to full-color graphics. Developers had had years to get used to the NES’ hardware quirks, and Kirby’s Adventure stands out as one of the console’s most beautiful titles. Even the cover and instruction manual are full of the lush art direction that characterizes HAL’s output. The narrative is not over-emphasized, but does represent the first instance of King Dedede functioning as an ally against some new antagonist.
More significantly, Kirby gains a new ability in its second outing. Intended to encourage players to engage with foes rather than flying over them, the title character is now able to inhale an enemy and take on their ability if the player taps down on the control pad once the target is in Kirby’s mouth. This leads to a host of opportunities for environmental progression gated behind the use of an enemy skill; in one instance, Kirby requires an ability absorbed from the flame enemy (name: Burning Leo) to light the fuse of a cannon. The opportunity to copy and deploy enemy skills would come to be a defining feature of the series, appearing in virtually every entry after this one.
At the same time, HAL wanted to expand the scope of the series and offer more satisfying scenarios for experienced players without compromising its identity as an accessible entry-point for younger fans. To accomplish this, a larger world was introduced using an interesting world map between navigable stages. Bonus areas and items could frequently be found by more experienced or adventurous players, and minigames enhanced still further the sense of gameplay variety. These minigames, in fact, would go on to inform another key element of later Kirby titles: alternative methods of play that augment the core sidescrolling mechanics.
Like Kirby’s Dream Land, Kirby’s Adventure would be packaged alongside several other series entries in a 2012 Wii compilation. As with its predecessor, it was also remade for a later console. In this case, Kirby’s Adventure was fully remade with enhanced sprites on the Game Boy Advance as Kirby: Nightmare in Dream Land (2002).
Kirby’s Dream Land 2 (1995)
The third core platformer in the Kirby saga was a direct numbered sequel to the first, though it lacked any connective narrative thread. Narrative, of course, is not what the series was about. Still, it did introduce a number of new characters who would go on to appear in later entries.
Kine the Sunfish, Coo the Owl, and Rick the Hamster make up the most significant new addition to the series’ character roster. Each can be discovered in designated stages throughout the adventure and can be ridden by Kirby. Kine permits easy underwater navigation, Coo lets the already airborne Kirby make its way through strong winds, and Rick keeps his footing even on icy platforms. The animal friends are all adorable, moreover, and enhance the opportunities for increasingly inventive level design.
In a sign of things to come, Kirby’s powers also get altered when he joins Kine, Coo, or Rick. Each has distinct ways to make use of abilities acquired from enemies, forcing the player to puzzle through the best way to make use of skills. A number of levels feature sections entirely inaccessible without the right combination of animal and copy abilities, improving the game’s replayability and appeal to more advanced players.
Kirby’s Dream Land 2 is the first title in the series to lack a later remake, though it would receive a direct sequel later in the decade. Playing it on the SNES’ Super Game Boy peripheral does come with the bonus of a unique color palette, helping to fill in its natively monochromatic Game Boy aesthetic. Like its predecessors, it would later appear on the 20th anniversary Wii compilation in 2012.
Kirby Super Star (1996)
As with Kirby’s Adventure on the NES, Kirby Super Star and the series next entry represent games released on a console at the end of its life cycle. Released in North America only months before the Nintendo 64 made its debut, fans could be forgiven for having skipped this outing while distracted by new hardware on the horizon.
Happily, though, this did not occur. Kirby Super Star was a critical and commercial success, selling especially well in Japan and being heavily promoted by contemporary reviewers; the game was successful in European territories as well, despite being saddled with the rather peculiar title Kirby Fun Pak. It was rather easy, as Kirby games tended to be, but this accessibility was offset by a genuinely avant-garde approach to game design.
Series creator Masahiro Sakurai had become unhappy with the increasing length of games on the SNES platform, and wanted to produce a work that would give players a meaty, satisfying experience without compromising its brevity. He hit upon the concept of a sort of video game variety show, wherein Kirby could take part in nine different games. Some of these would be more substantial than others, but all would offer a unique, tight experience for players. After all, Kirby’s Adventure had already introduced compelling minigames scattered throughout its core platforming gameplay.
The nine chapters which make up Kirby Super Star are a whirlwind tour of what the character could be. Spring Breeze is a remake of Kirby’s Dream Land, enhanced with updated visuals and Kirby’s copy ability. Dyna Blade is a straightforward series of sidescrolling stages in which Kirby is tasked with defeating a monstrous (yet colorful) bird named Dyna Blade. Gourmet Race is a competition between Kirby and King Dedede as they race one another through three stages seeking to eat the most food. Great Cave Offensive is a slower-paced game in which Kirby explores a sprawling cave in pursuit of treasures, many of which reference other Nintendo games. Revenge of Meta Knight is a plot-oriented mode that features Kirby inflitrating and sabotaging the Halberd, a ship belonging to Kirby’s mysterious nemesis Meta Knight; this character had debuted in Kirby’s Adventure as a miniboss. Milky Way Wishes involves a lengthier campaign across multiple planets and a new approach to the copy ability, as Kirby adds new skills to a permanently selectable set as he inhales enemies throughout the adventure. The Arena, unlocked by completing Milky Way Wishes, is a gauntlet in which Kirby squares off in duels against each of the game’s 26 bosses.
All of the preceding modes feature broadly identical 2D sidescrolling gameplay, but two additional timing-based arcade games are also included: Samurai Kirby, in which the player must tap a button at a precise moment to defeat an opponent in a sword duel, and Megaton Punch, which is similar but features a sequence of rapidly-input commands in the context of a brick-breaking competition.
Most of the modes feature multiplayer functionality. Kirby has the ability to inhale an opponent and, rather than copy their skill, clone them into an AI partner which bears the appearance and attacks of the original enemy. A second player can join in at this point, controlling the ally. This mechanic was an exciting way to reinvigorate the series’ formula, and would bear fruit two decades later in Kirby Star Allies.
Kirby Super Star sold over one million copies and is considered by many critics to be the series apex. In addition to its inventive gameplay, the visual design was among the best on the SNES. The sprites were lushly rendered, and were augmented by rudimentary CGI design following the success of Rare’s Donkey Kong Country (1994). A remake called Kirby Super Star Ultra was published on the DS in 2008 to great fanfare, ensuring that a new generation got to experience the character’s most ambitious 1990s outing.
Kirby’s Dream Land 3 (1997)
The third and final Dream Land game would also be the final game published by Nintendo for their aging SNES hardware. Not coincidentally, it is also one of the most visually impressive titles on the system. Eschewing Argonaut’s SuperFX chip in favor of a proprietary motherboard augmentation called the SA-1, the visual palette is enhanced by the ability to dither (or blend) two adjacent pixels. This technology had been used previously on Super Mario RPG and Kirby Super Star, but was much more effectively deployed by HAL’s programming veterans on Kirby’s Dream Land 3. The effect is used to render Dream Land and its residents as crayon and pastel drawings, setting in motion a trend that would be put to use in later series entries.
The gameplay is largely the same as Kirby’s Dream Land 2, and sees Kirby navigating a colorful 2D world with his animal allies. In addition to the three returning creatures, the protagonist is now joined by Nago the Cat, Pitch the Bird, and Chuchu the Octopus; each comes with a new spin on navigation or augmented copy abilities. Animal companions are enhanced with a new gameplay mechanic as well, as players are rewarded with a bonus star when they guide a stage’s ally all the way to its conclusion. Multiplayer makes a welcome return from Kirby Super Star, as a second player can take on the role of Kirby’s pal Gooey. This odd addition to the cast appears to the left of Kirby on the cover and bears more than a passing resemblance to Dragon Quest‘s iconic slimes.
Collecting stars is a significant secondary goal, further improving the series’ reputation among skilled players. An inexperienced fan can make his or her way through the game without going for these bonus goals, but an experienced player is treated to an alternative ending and boss battle if all are collected. The uncharacteristically disturbing secret boss, Zero, is a floating eye that wounds itself and sprays blood to attack Kirby. Creepy stuff.
Kirby’s Dreamland 3 would be the end of a prolific era for the series. Between spinoffs and core platforming titles, HAL had released four games for the SNES and five for the Game Boy in only five years. At no later point would HAL sustain this quantity of output.
Surprisingly, Kirby’s Dream Land 3 would not see a European release until its appearance on the Wii Virtual Console in 2009; technical issues were cited by the development team. The reception overall was positive, if reserved, as the game was a visual triumph and retained the popular multiplayer of Super Star while abandoning much of its SNES predecessor’s structural ambition.
Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards (2000)
The next game in the Kirby series would take three fitful years to produce. Originally intended for publication on the ill-fated Nintendo 64DD peripheral, development was eventually shifted to the standard 64-bit cartridge hardware. This is likely the source of pre-release screenshots suggesting fully 3D exploration and multiplayer components in sidescrolling sections.
In the end, Kirby 64 was a largely single-player experience in which a 3D Kirby navigates 2.5D fully polygonal levels; the player occasionally takes control of Dedede in a series’ first as well. It’s short by comparison to the character’s most recent adventures, but retains its predecessors’ emphasis on bonus objectives to access additional content. Minigames are included as well, allowing up to four players to take on the roles of Kirby, Waddle-Dee, King Dedede and semi-newcomer Adeleine.
These characters are at the source of the game’s narrative as well. Adeleine the painter, King Dedede and Waddle-Dee all get possessed at the game’s start by the same Dark Matter that had been Kirby’s antagonist in Dream Land 3. Kirby must defeat each of them to free them from the stellar being’s malign influence. This represents only the second time that a Kirby game narrative directly followed an earlier game; Dream Land 3 had itself directly followed Dream Land 2’s plot.
The most significant new feature of Kirby 64 is the ability to combine powers. HAL had experimented with a similar feature in Kirby’s Dream Land 2 and 3, as the animal companions permitted Kirby to adapt enemy abilities to new uses. This concept is expanded dramatically in Kirby 64, as any two enemy abilities can be combined to form a unique hybrid skill. Absorbing two of the same enemy, on the other hand, enhances the strength of the base ability. This relatively deep feature would never again form the foundation of a Kirby title, despite the presence of similar mechanics in Kirby Squeak Squad (2006) and Kirby Star Allies (2018).
Kirby & The Amazing Mirror (2004)
An even lengthier interval would separate Kirby 64 from the next core title in the franchise, though this gap would at least be punctuated by a handful of engaging spinoffs and a portable remake of Kirby’s first console outing. During this time, a fully explorable 3D Kirby platformer in the style of Super Mario 64 was also planned for the Nintendo GameCube; this would eventually be shown off in a modified 2.5D build at E3 2005 but would otherwise be stuck in development purgatory until 2011. Meanwhile, development on the Kirby series shifted to focus on handheld devices as it had in the series’ earliest days.
Kirby & The Amazing Mirror was published on the Game Boy Advance in 2004, featuring rich sprite-based visuals akin to those in Kirby Super Star. Rather than aping the linear level progression of all preceding games in the series, the newest release had more in common with the Metroidvania sub-genre of platformers. Kirby can absorb enemy abilities, as ever, but these abilities are now key to accessing new areas of the vast maze environment in which the game is set. This may have been inspired by the series’ earlier, less substantial brush with Metroidvania level design in Kirby Super Star‘s Great Cave Offensive mode.
The game’s second noteworthy feature may have been inspired by the same title as well! Kirby, a touch incongruously, has access to a cell phone and can call in clones to help complete puzzles or challenging battle sequences. These clones may be controlled by the AI, but up to three friends can join in if they have a GBA, their own copy of the game cartridge, and a link cable. In one final tie-in to earlier content, Kirby can also acquire an ability called Smash from an enemy that resembles the Super Smash Brothers series antagonist, Master Hand; Super Smash Brothers had been Kirby creator Masahiro Sakurai’s primary project since 1998, so the homage was apt.
In fact, Kirby & The Amazing Mirror would be the last Kirby game to which Sakurai contributed. He had been somewhat distant from the franchise since the conclusion of Kirby Super Star‘s development, but had served as director for the 2002 remake of Kirby’s Adventure on GBA and the spinoff racing title Kirby’s Air Ride (2003) on GameCube. Sakurai had grown disheartened with HAL’s emphasis on sequels, preferring to spread his creative wings and craft new properties; after departing the studio in 2003, he formed Sora Ltd. and began producing a diverse body of work that reflects his perfectionist tendencies. Rather than functioning as director, he was credited on 2004’s Kirby & The Amazing Mirror as Special Advisor.
Kirby: Squeak Squad (2006)
Squeak Squad is the second Kirby game developed for the Nintendo DS, but the first one was a spinoff that lacked traditional platformer elements; that game, Kirby and the Canvas Curse, will be covered below. Squeak Squad‘s sprite-based visual design is similar to Kirby Super Star, while its mechanics echo Kirby’s Adventure.
Returning to the series’ roots, Kirby navigates linear stages in a predetermined order through six worlds in pursuit of the titular Squeaks, a cartel of rats who steal and make off with Kirby’s cake. Of course, the plot grows more epic when Meta Knight becomes the antagonist in a seventh world and the true, characteristically interstellar foe is revealed in a dramatic eighth world twist.
The new series entry is mechanically and aesthetically unambitious, reflecting earlier titles, but it does feature one significant new feature. Kirby is now able to store multiple copy abilities in its belly; this takes the form of a stylus-navigated inventory on the DS’ lower screen, leaving platformer action confined to the top screen. The player is able to combine a selection of copy abilities in Kirby’s belly, or combine found objects to create powerful new items. This was an inventive approach to leveraging the hardware’s distinct dual-screen technology, but would remain a unique one-off feature confined to Nintendo’s handheld device.
As in the preceding portable title, multiplayer is again possible for multiple users – in fact, the Nintendo DS’ Download Play mechanic permits multiple hardware owners to join together as long as one of them owns the Squeak Squad cartridge. Multiplayer is strictly limited to minigames, however. In spite of its strong fundamentals and a new spin on Kirby’s copy ability, critics felt that the game lacked a unique identity and believed it to be largely derivative of earlier series entries. It seemed that the Kirby series was in danger of resting on its laurels, though an inventive release schedule and a new approach to visual design would secure its reputation during the decade ahead.
Kirby’s Epic Yarn (2010)
2010 would mark ten years since Kirby’s last core platformer on a home console. Fans were overjoyed to discover that it would also mark the end of that ten year hiatus, with a new Kirby game being published on the extraordinarily popular Wii. Surprisingly, this entry was not originally intended to be a Kirby title at all; it was instead in development as a sidescroller starring a new character called Prince Fluff. At some point during the process, Kirby was deemed to be a more appropriate protagonist and Prince Fluff was relegated to a supporting role.
The resulting game is one of the series’ most visually distinctive chapters. The environments and characters are all crafted from knitted fabric, with the Wii’s hardware largely being leveraged to convey realistic yarn physics. This tactile aesthetic draws on an earlier series entry – Kirby’s Dream Land 3 – and points towards the future of HAL partner Nintendo’s “arts and crafts” visual design in the 2010s.
The hand-knit theme was not strictly cosmetic, however. Kirby is no longer able to inhale enemies, instead wrapping them in yarn and hurling them at other opponents. Similarly, many of Kirby’s mobility mechanics, including flight, are replaced with the ability to morph into alternative shapes by rearranging its yarn body. Among these shapes are a parachute (used to float) and a car (for dashing).
Kirby’s Epic Yarn was a triumphant return to the console world, and its commercial success would ensure that future games in the series would have a home on the television screen. Surprisingly, given the role of Epic Yarn in the franchise’s celebrated return to to home consoles, a September 2018 Nintendo Direct announcement would reveal that a re-release of the game was headed to the 3DS in 2019. As had occurred with the remake of Kirby’s Adventure in 2002 and the remake of Kirby Super Star on Nintendo DS, this would ensure another generation of fans encountered one of the series’ highlights with new eyes.
Kirby’s most visually ambitious game yet was not only important in the context of the series history – it had implications for co-developer Good Feel as well. Along with its work on Wario Land: Shake It (2008), Good Feel would use Kirby’s Epic Yarn as a springboard to evolve from a dedicated Japanese edutainment studio to one of Nintendo’s quirkiest second-party operations. Later credits include Yoshi’s Woolly World (2013), the over-sized boss battles in Mario & Luigi: Dream Team (2013), and several StreetPass minigames on 3DS (2013-2016).
Kirby’s Return to Dream Land (2011)
2011 saw the release of two Kirby games: another interesting experimental entry on the DS and a classic core platforming entry on the Wii. The former will be covered in more detail below, while Kirby: Return to Dreamland was a return to the aesthetics of Kirby 64. It featured 2.5D sidescrolling levels, and seemed to be the final nail in the coffin for a genuinely 3D Kirby experience.
Most 8-bit and 16-bit video game franchises had either disappeared or evolved in the late 1990s. Players wanted open, three-dimensional worlds to explore after Super Mario 64 and Crash Bandicoot blazed a trail in 1996. Link had moved on to sprawling interconnected worlds, Samus began to explore from a first-person perspective, and even Sonic managed to adapt his speedy platforming to three dimensions. Kirby, however, would be bound forever to a two-dimensional plane. HAL had experimented with more open environments while developing the game that would eventually become Return to Dreamland, but concluded that the series’ characteristic accessibility hinged on characters only being able to move along two axes.
With this in mind, Return to Dreamland could have been perceived as a disappointment. Kirby had failed to evolve, returning again to the well of 2D mechanics which defined earlier entries. In spite of this, the game was quite well-received and would establish the template for the series in its third decade. It also introduced the Super Inhale mechanic, which allows Kirby to inhale multiple enemies or move objects to solve environmental puzzles.
As in earlier entries, Kirby is set on a quest to recover a series of Macguffins from numerous side-scrolling stages across several worlds. This time, the objects being sought are pieces of a ship crash-landed by space pilot Magalor during the game’s opening sequence. In addition to five starship pieces, Kirby can seek out 120 energy spheres. The narrative has a few more twists and turns than earlier games, but is more or less a means to the end of encouraging player exploration.
Unlike any console entry so far, up to four players can take part in the main campaign. This had been a focus of the game over its eleven-year development cycle, but ended up being implemented in a pleasantly straightforward fashion – players two, three and four can take on the roles of perennial frenemies Waddle-Dee, Meta Knight and King Dedede as they aid the title character in its quest. Each additional character has its own limited set of skills, moving away from earlier multiplayer mechanics like cloned enemies (Kirby Super Star, 1996) or additional Kirbys (Kirby & The Amazing Mirror, 2004). The group can actually form a totem pole as well, foreshadowing Kirby Star Allies seven years early!
Otherwise, the game plays very similarly to 1990s entries in the franchise. Kirby cannot combine or power-up copy abilities, as had been possible in Kirby 64 and Kirby’s Squeak Squad. Instead, a basic set of moves and multiplayer cooperation must be relied upon to see the player through the lengthy adventure. Given the challenges in balancing a game that can have anywhere from one to four player characters, the difficulty level is overall quite low; this is a typical series characteristic, but came under criticism for being overly simplistic after fans had come to expect more wrinkles during the preceding decade. On balance, however, Kirby’s return to classic console mechanics was well-received by fans and critics alike.
Kirby: Triple Deluxe (2014)
The next core Kirby entry took three years to be published on the 3DS. Its visuals are inherently a touch fuzzier than those found in the preceding home console offering but it’s otherwise quite similar to the 2011 game. Sadly, though not unexpectedly, portable hardware keeps the campaign limited to a single player.
Triple Deluxe features an updated version of the Super Inhale mechanic that debuted in Return to Dreamland; unlike in that game, where players needed to shake the WiiMote to inhale oversized objects, Kirby now temporarily gains the ability by eating a Miracle Fruit. Aside from that, Triple Deluxe‘s chief innovation is its use of the 3DS’ depth effects. Landscapes extend into the background, and can introduce hazards extending from one plane to another. This is an innovative way to iterate on the 2.5D aesthetic present in the series since Kirby 64 (if particularly emphasized during the 2010s), and exploits the hardware’s core feature.
Minigames and alternative game modes return to prominence, offering challenges for players who find the storyline too simplistic. A rhythm game called Dedede’s Drum Dash and a multiplayer fighter mode called Kirby Fighters would be successful enough to merit expanded discrete re-releases on the 3DS eShop. Additionally, players can take on a harder version of the single-player campaign as Dedede once they have cleared it as Kirby.
Reception to Triple Deluxe was relatively cool overall. It was considered to be an overly safe entry, introducing no new mechanics to the series and scaling back on the multiplayer elements which had defined its immediate predecessor. The low level of difficulty again came under fire, though the presence of alternative game modes helped to mitigate the issue. It seems that Kirby needed to evolve again, though the result would be rather surprising.
Kirby: Planet Robobot (2016)
Since the mid-2000s, HAL had worked up a new way of developing entries in its flagship franchise. Standard 2D platformer releases alternated with experimental releases, like Kirby & The Canvas Curse (2005) or Kirby: Mass Attack (2011). This had the effect of offering exciting new approaches to the beloved character, but seems to have come at the expense of meaningful updates to the core series.
Happily, Kirby: Planet Robobot would make some overdue enhancements even as it remained steadfastly traditional. The most immediate new gameplay wrinkle is the addition of Robobot armor. These mech suits can be encountered and piloted by Kirby throughout the game, though landscape features limit their use to designated sections. As with Kirby’s animal allies in Dream Land 2 & 3, the armor can be combined with copy abilities to discover new skills and alter the environment. Kirby’s mechanical augmentation is tied into the narrative as well, as Planet Popstar is taken over by a villainous robotics corporation at the game’s start.
The visuals are drawn directly from Kirby: Triple Deluxe,which likely had an impact on the rapid development cycle. It was released only two years after its immediate predecessor, shrinking still further the interval between new franchise entries in the 2010s. Even so, many new visual elements reflect the increasing mechanization of Planet Popstar; a disturbing cyborg variant on Whispy Woods is among the most memorable.
Minigames are again a key feature of the post-game content. Team Kirby Clash is an action-RPG mode played using the standard game mechanics. Up to four players can connect their 3DS systems to participate. The player chooses one of several Kirby classes with distinct abilities and levels up by taking on boss enemies alone or with teammates.
The second new minigame is a fascinating window into what 3D Kirby games might have been if the series hadn’t rigidly adhered to 2D level design over the preceding decades. Kirby 3D Rumble features an isometric perspective as Kirby navigates a 3D environment and attempts to defeat waves of enemies with combo attacks. Like Team Kirby Clash, no copy abilities are present, and Kirby is instead limited to inhaling enemies and hurling them as projectiles in a manner reminiscent of the series inaugural entry. Expanded versions of both minigames would be released on the 3DS in celebration of the character’s 25th anniversary in 2017.
Kirby: Star Allies (2018)
With the Switch finally unifying Nintendo’s console and handheld ecosystems in 2017, there would no longer be a divide between console and handheld Kirby games. This wall had already been effectively broken during the Wii and 3DS eras, as the only difference between the games were screen resolution and multiplayer on a single device. These small remaining differences would be eliminated entirely with the new hardware generation.
Kirby: Star Allies was largely the game that Return to Dream Land was once intended to be. One of that title’s numerous early builds featured Kirby adding allies during a sidescrolling single-player campaign; after acquisition, these friends could be controlled by additional players. Much of that build made its way into Return to Dream Land, but the multiplayer implementation had been scrapped in favor of alternate avatars comprised of series stalwarts Waddle-Dee, Meta Knight and King Dedede.
Star Allies also returned at last to a mechanic last encountered in Kirby: Squeak Squad (2006). Players could once again opt to combine multiple copy abilities to form unique blends. This remains limited in comparison to Kirby 64, which had first introduced the concept in 2000. Generally, Star Allies only permits the blend of weapon abilities (like swords, boomerangs and the like) with elemental abilities (e.g. electricity, fire, etc.). Fans appreciated the return of a beloved mechanic, but lamented its lack of complexity.
A lack of complexity would be more broadly decried in the critical response to Kirby: Star Allies. Allies are acquired by tossing a heart icon onto a wandering enemy, and these allies then fight for Kirby either via AI control or through manipulation by additional players. If controlled by the AI or a skilled player, the allies erode what little platforming challenge exists in the campaign. At the same time, minigames and additional game modes play a smaller role than they had in recent series entries.
Still, there is much fun to be had in Star Allies. While it represents the simpler side of the Kirby franchise, it offers a similar charm to the New Super Mario Brothers series. Controls are straightforward and challenge is light, so it is easy to engage with the platformer in a social environment with players who have less experience with game mechanics. The visuals are characteristically lush as well, benefiting from the Switch’s horsepower; the only HD entry in the series up to this point had been the Wii U’s experimental Kirby & The Rainbow Curse (2015), so fans were thrilled to experience such a lovely take on the series’ traditional formula.
Defining spinoffs in the Kirby series is a challenging prospect. Some titles clearly qualify, as they are effectively distinct series with Kirby visuals grafted on. Others, however, seem to have been published as core entries with more avant-garde mechanics. HAL’s expressed intent of alternating between traditional and experimental titles in the series suggests that the creators regard both of these categories as core games.
Still, for simplicity’s sake I’ve decided to identify all of the non-traditional Kirby games here in the spinoffs section. These fall into three broad categories: (1) Kirby visuals applied to pre-existing games, (2) unique entries in other genres with Kirby as the main character, and (3) experimental control schemes that are distinct from any wider categorization in the medium.
The first category includes most of Kirby‘s 1990s spinoffs, and is reminiscent of HAL’s earliest days developing homages to other games. Kirby’s Pinball Land (1993) was a traditional pinball Game Boy title with Kirby characters populating the virtual tables; it iterated on HAL’s NES Pinball, the game which had won them an enduring partnership with Nintendo in the ’80s. Kirby’s Avalanche (1995) on SNES was a reskinned version of Japan’s popular Puyo Puyo (1991). Puyo Puyo had already been reskinned once in the West on the SEGA Genesis/Megadrive as Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine (1993), so a Nintendo version seemed natural.
Kirby’s Block Ball (1995) and Kirby’s Star Stacker (1997), both released on the Game Boy, are the next illustrations of this rather peculiar design trend. The former is based on Breakout (1976), and features a Kirby-shaped ball bouncing between a paddle and a set of bricks. Later levels complicate this with the addition of Kirby-specific hazards and enemies. Star Stacker is simply a version of Tetris (1989) with blocks featuring Kirby characters and items.
The second type of Kirby spinoff is less derivative. These titles feature Kirby characters engaging in gameplay mechanics from other genres. The first of these is Kirby’s Dream Course, a 1994 miniature golf title in which the player punts Kirby around various locales in an attempt to guide it to a hole. Prior to the hole appearing, Kirby must be rolled into every enemy on the course. The game is played from an isometric perspective, arguably making it one of only four Kirby games featuring three-dimensional movement!*
Kirby’s Air Ride (2003) also falls into the second category of spinoff. Players take on the role of Kirby in various color schemes, including Shigeru Miyamoto’s preferred yellow version, as they compete with one another in races. Unlike standard kart racing games from which the gameplay is derived, players fly above the ground and have the opportunity to make use of Kirby’s signature copy abilities. A bonus mode called City Trial is another reminder of what might have been if the franchise had taken a different approach to level design in the early 2000s; it features players navigating an open-world 3D city, collecting power-ups to use in a race that occurs after a set period of time. Fans remain interested in this rare example of 3D Kirby gameplay in spite of its limited application.
The third category of Kirby spinoffs represents the second-largest grouping. These games utilize unique level designs and mechanics that have no obvious analog in pre-existing games or genres. The first is the least substantial: Kirby Tilt’n Tumble (2000) was an accelerometer-based title on the Game Boy Advance. That hardware lacked a gyroscope or accelerometer, so the cartridge itself contained the necessary components. Players are tasked with moving the portable console to impact Kirby’s navigation of stages in pursuit of scattered stars.
Kirby: Canvas Curse (2005) was released as Kirby: Power Paintbrush in Europe and as Touch! Kirby in Japan. The sprite-based DS game sees players drawing paths with the stylus for a circular Kirby to roll along. The directional pad and buttons can’t be used to move as they are in traditional entries, forcing players to think quickly as they navigate paths indirectly.
Kirby Mass Attack is a puzzle-platformer released on the DS in 2011. Screenshots suggest a straightforward platforming game in the style of traditional 2D Kirby titles, but the gameplay is actually more inspired by the strategy genre. Players can move up to ten Kirbys around an area using the DS touchscreen, and must coordinate the efforts of this team to accomplish their goals. Gameplay ends up feeling rather similar to Pikmin (2001), as multiple Kirbys can be assigned to the same task or enemy simultaneously, speeding up its respective completion or defeat.
Kirby & The Rainbow Curse (2014) was the character’s HD debut, though its Wii U release came with a unique visual quirk. Planet Popstar and its residents were rendered in a claymation style, an effect taken to its logical extreme when players collect clay character figurines and have the opportunity to closely inspect them in three dimensions through a bonus mode. Gameplay is roughly identical to Canvas Curse in spite of the aesthetic departure. Unfortunately, placement of the touch controls on the Gamepad’s 480p screen prevents attentive players from appreciating the lovely art design in its full resolution; the resulting action is a sumptuous experience for spectators watching the television screen, however!
Finally, the 3DS’ Kirby Battle Royale (2018) is the last major spinoff in the series so far. Played primarily from an isometric point of view, the game features players taking on the role of Kirby and typical friend characters as they take part in cooperative and competitive brawler minigames. Owing to Nintendo’s idiosyncratic release schedules, Battle Royale was published six months earlier in Europe than in North America. It’s a pleasant diversion, but offers little innovation on the series’ unique spinoffs.
With the most recent series entry being an extraordinarily traditional platformer, fans can anticipate that Kirby’s next outing will be another experimental spinoff. The Switch hardware includes gyroscopic controls, an infrared camera, and HD Rumble. HAL’s inventive programmers are undoubtedly poised to leverage these tools in pursuit of the next step in the pink puffball’s charming history.
What do you think about the Kirby franchise? Too many weird spinoffs or not enough? Do you prefer the traditional entries or the more experimental ones? Which is your favorite entry in the series? How about your favorite copy ability? Let’s discuss in the comments below!
Next week we’ll be revving up with Ridge Racer. Join the Franchise Festival conversation at 9:00 AM EST on September 21, 2018.
* Quasi-3D Kirby games include: Kirby’s Air Ride (2003), Kirby: Planet Robobot (2016), Kirby’s Battle Royale (2018)