Happy Birthday Kirby: The Plucky Underdog That Stole Our Hearts

Last month, one of Nintendo’s long standing mascots celebrated his 25th Birthday, so we’d like to take this opportunity to congratulate him.

Kirby has been adventuring in dreamland for a quarter of a century now, and he’s looking good for his age.

Whilst the series hasn’t enjoyed the mainstream success of some of its counterparts like Mario and Zelda it has risen to become an integral part of the Nintendo empire. Kirby has released 33 games in his history, with the latest release scheduled for Switch some time this coming spring.

This is quite incredible considering the series’ humble beginnings, so let’s take a look back over the years at what make Kirby so special. How did a simple platforming format manage to stand so readily against the juggernauts of the genre?

Re-cap

For those of you not familiar with the series, Kirby is a 2D platformer, in which our titular hero must wage battle with (amongst others) a tyrannical King named Dedede. Kirby has the ability to inhale vast amounts of anything, which he can use to inflate himself and fly for various durations of time.

This instantly forgoes the traditional mechanic of platforming, which requires precise jumping. You do lose a life for falling into an abyss and Kirby can often be deflated by strikes from opponents but the inherent danger is not really there.

Although not included in the original game, Kirby can also inhale almost any enemy and imitate their abilities, giving a vast array of powers and abilities to explore and master within the game.

Some scenarios will even require a specific power at a certain time to access a special area, unlocking secret levels or treasures. In some games Kirby can store these powers but traditionally they are lost, again, when you are struck by a foe.

Origins Unknown

The original game, which would come to be known as Kirby’s Dream Land was originally designed as a stopgap, to fill a slot in Nintendo’s release schedule. And in fact, more incredible than that, the character model for Kirby was originally just a placeholder within that game.

Designers took so long to work on a character for the game that by the time one was proposed the series creator had already become so attached to his little blob. And Kirby was born.

Because of the unlikely circumstances that Kirby came to be, a lot of mystery still hangs over the character. Series creators state that no one really remembers where the character’s name came from. In truth they probably didn’t give it much thought, but this has helped forge a basis for Kirby’s enigmatic origin.

Despite 25 years of narrative Kirby’s origins are still ill defined, we don’t know who he is, where he is from or even that he has a gender. Coupled with the fact that he rarely speaks, and even when he does his vocabulary doesn’t extend much further than ‘hi’. There is definitely an elusive charm to the cute little character, who just seems to want to help his fellow inhabitants of the planet he crash landed on.   

Innovative Game Design

In keeping with the theme, storylines are often equal parts simple and adorable, but somehow lead to an epic adventure. To take an example from Squeak Squad, where Kirby sets out to retrieve his strawberry shortcake only to unwittingly release an ancient, interdimensional evil upon the planet.

But the charm of the series goes way beyond the narrative and central characters. Probably due to the fact it hasn’t been a huge franchise, Nintendo has used the series to experiment with game mechanics within platformers. Not all experiments are successes – best not to mention Epic Yarn – but over the years Kirby has introduced a number of mechanics both fun and challenging.

From a mobile phone you can use to call for backup Kirby’s to gang up on a particularly tough boss battle in Amazing Mirror, to taking control of 10 miniature Kirby’s at once, to how our hero is split into smaller versions in Mass Attack – their are so many examples of one shot features that are so satisfying to play and make each game stand out from the rest.

Abilities and Boss Battles

Alongside mainstays like Beam and Fire there are a few quirky ones in there. Some are awesome like Ghost, where Kirby can possess foes and use their abilities and body as a human shield. Others are effectively useless, such as sleep, where Kirby, sleeps.

Crystal Shards also gave us the option to combine two abilities to create a new more powerful one like a lightning sword. Or you could combine Fire and Ice to create Melt, where Kirby turns into a block of ice and then melts. The steam produced whilst melting would hurt enemies at very close range but it can hardly be recommended. This is a game where you can turn Kirby into a refrigerator and throw food at enemies though, so by all means play your way. Just keep that lightning sword in the back pocket for boss battles.

Refrigerator Power

Kirby features an array of colorful characters and the bosses are certainly no exception. Kirby’s boss battles break the traditional platforming format of dodging a series of attacks and waiting for you opportunity to jump on your opponent.

The series stood out from the heavyweights once again with innovative boss battles. Kirby takes on a wide variety of foes, in a wide variety of environments with different abilities and mechanics to each fight.

Fatty Whale

 

Bosses like Fatty Whale or Bohboh borrow traditional platform elements, they must be fought in their own elemental environment. Here they can become temporarily invulnerable by flying, submerging or moving into the background, so you have to time your shots to perfection.

Others like the Heart of Nova require a vehicle stage boss battle, often where Kirby pilots a small craft in a side scrolling space invaders style duel. What is unique about the Heart of Nova is the stage is circular, so the side scrolling battle takes place both forward and backwards.

One of our personal favourite bosses was Computer Virus, sheerly for pure innovation. Computer Virus appeared like a coded virus in the software of the game, it manifested in three anthropomorphic forms, and changed the fight into a turn based RPG, dishing out meaningless points for vanquishing each manifestation.

Computer Virus

 

Combined with multiple other dynamics to boss battles over the series, no two fights are the same in each game. A departure from what can be a repetitive slog of dodging increasingly difficult attack to jump on a boss’s head. Kirby bosses each provide a unique threat, and ideally you want to ensure you have a specific ability before tackling them.

Setting the Stage

Stages don’t follow any particular pattern either, the overall game design can be hugely different from it’s predecessor. Rather than a sliding scale of difficulty, levels tend to be littered with hidden doors with objectives for exploration.

Some games like Amazing Mirror even have an overlying labyrinth structure through the entire game. There is no set route through the game, with many doors leading back to a sort of home screen that can serve as a saving point. Any doors leading to the save point can be reentered to the same point to establish a sense of progress.

Bosses are hidden within the labyrinth of doors though and you will have to find and defeat each one to complete the game. You can end up going around in circles which can be frustrating, but it’s a format that encourages you to explore the level and define your own path through the game. There’s no specific time limit to how long it will take which adds to the longevity of the game.

 

Through a combination of experimentation with game design and mechanics the plucky puff ball has flourished over the years. Kirby has been dismissed by some as a juvenile franchise but there is so much more to it than that, which has contributed to the pink ball’s ongoing lineage.

Many a gaming mascot has come and gone over the years; whilst not reaching the heights of some of Nintendo’s other franchises, Kirby can rub shoulders with the best. The fearless approach to how the world will work in each game and determination to stand out have served Kirby a great credit. He is now a cornerstone of the Nintendo empire, a mainstay in the Smash Bros. series and hopefully an integral part of the future for years to come.  

There is a lot that makes Kirby special, and he has earned his 25 years, so it is here that we send belated birthday wishes. One things for sure though, this time Kirby can have his Strawberry Shortcake and eat it.