You Are What You Eat
Kirby, The Paranormal Somniatic Phantasm
A look at the innovations and history of the Kirby series.
Of the various iconic video game characters, few can hold a candle to Kirby in the cuteness department. The pink puffball named after a vacuum cleaner is perhaps the purest distillation of, “hook ’em when they’re young and you’ve hooked ’em for life” in video games. The Kirby series, as a whole, is lower in difficulty than something like Mario or Sonic, making them an excellent entry point for younger gamers who might not have the wherewithal to play a title with more complex or challenging gameplay.
Birth of Kirby
Part of the reason for this can be traced to the series’ origins. Masahiro Sakurai, Kirby’s creator, was tasked with developing a Game Boy game for beginners. He created a blob-like character that would serve as a placeholder until the “real” character could be developed and placed into the game. Time passed, and the development team grew attached to the placeholder, then called “Popopo.” Eventually, that blob became Kirby, and the first game, Kirby’s Dream Land, was released on the Game Boy in 1992. Interestingly, owing to his monochromatic origins, the U.S. box art for Kirby’s Dream Land depicts him as white, whereas the Japanese version shows him being pink [ 1 ].
This first Kirby game is a simple affair. Kirby walks, jumps, flies, sucks, and spits (really—Kirby’s main mechanic is inhaling his enemies, then spitting them out at other enemies) his way through five levels. Along the way, he’ll fight Wispy Woods (a giant tree with a face), Kracko (an eyeball in a cloud), and his chief foe and antagonist, King Dedede. Dedede stole all of Dream Land’s food, and Kirby goes to get it back so Dream Land doesn’t go hungry.
Besides being simple in terms of both mechanics and difficulty, Kirby’s Dream Land is a short game. There are no continues, but even given that, a first-time player will likely not need more than 30 minutes to an hour to finish the game. For more advanced players, there’s an Extra Mode that increases the difficulty; you get the code for this by beating the game (or looking it up on the internet in the modern era).
Kirby’s aesthetic in the early ’90s is a sign that Nintendo would do its own thing, regardless of market trends. The ’90s can be best summed up as “the darker and edgier decade” for most media—American comic-book artist Rob Liefeld, legendary for all the wrong reasons, exemplifies the life and times with his iconic edgy drafting style as an embodiment of the worst of the decade (ridiculously exaggerated proportions and emphasis on guns, pouches, guns in pouches, pouches in other pouches, and probably even pouches in guns were popularized by Liefeld) [ 2 ].
The cuteness of both Kirby and the world of Popstar at large is, if not a conscious reaction to the dark-and-edgy movement (which, arguably, wasn’t yet in full swing in 1992), a signal that Nintendo would not mindlessly follow trends in the industry. This would manifest itself later with Nintendo’s approach to online gaming with the Wii—while some criticize Nintendo for being behind-the-times with its treatment, it’s hard to fault the company when you juxtapose the family-friendly image Nintendo goes for with the reputation XBox Live, and various online gaming communities such as those for MOBAs, have.
While Kirby’s Dream Land was a short, simple game, it was also a huge success, eventually going on to sell over 5 million copies. It was the next Kirby game, though, that would cement what “A Kirby game” would feel and play like in the future.
Released for the NES in its dying days, Kirby’s Adventure follows Kirby through seven areas of Dream Land as he tries to recover the Star Rod from King Dedede. Without the Star Rod, the inhabitants of Dream Land won’t have dreams.
The core of the gameplay remains the same as Kirby’s Dream Land, with one important exception. After Kirby sucks up an enemy, you can swallow them, and many of them will bestow powers upon Kirby, ranging from firing a beam, to turning into a wheel, to becoming a UFO. This was designed to allow players of all skill levels to enjoy the game—beginners could play it much like Kirby’s Dream Land, while more advanced players would have a variety of power-up options [ 1 ].
Of course, the power-ups tend to make it easier many times rather than just being something done for flavor. They’re also necessary to unlock all the game’s nooks and crannies. Super Mario World’s influence shows through here—you can go back and forth between worlds; finding secrets in levels will unlock additional locations within them (typically mini-games where you can score additional lives, but also places to easily obtain certain power-ups). The power-up mechanic is crucial, as it would be carried over to most of the rest of the “main” Kirby series. Available for the first time in the series is the ability to save your game. Finally, there are bonuses available to those who get 100 percent of the secrets in the game.
Kirby’s Adventure is a game that pushes the NES to its limit, as shown by the fact that the game slows down frequently. The NES ceased production in 1994 (in Japan, meanwhile, the Famicom held on until 2003 [ 3 ]), which meant Kirby’s next main series game would return to its portable roots.
Before that, though, Kirby would take a sooner-than-typical trip into spinoff land—or, more accurately, Pinball Land. Kirby’s Pinball Land combined Kirby and, well, pinball: there are three tables, each one themed for a classic Kirby boss or miniboss (Wispy Woods, Kracko, and Poppy Bros. Sr.). The object is to get to the top level of each table, then take a Warp Star to the boss. Defeating all three bosses nets you a final battle with King Dedede; when you beat him, you can replay the game to try and improve your score.
Outside of the boss battles, the “earn points or lives at the end of a level by jumping off a springboard at the proper time” mechanic is carried over here as a “last chance to save your ball” when you fall off the bottom level of a table. It’s an interesting Kirby-flavored spin on pinball, although Kirby’s influence spreads to the graphics and sound more so than putting the pinball gameplay through a Kirby blender.
After this detour, it was time for Kirby to get back to his running and sucking core. Kirby’s Dream Land 2 was released in 1995, and features Kirby trying to get back seven Rainbow Drops from King Dedede so that the Rainbow Bridges connecting the Rainbow Islands can be rebuilt [ 4 ]. Once again, Kirby will use his powers to collect the Rainbow Drops, but he won’t do so alone. Kirby has three companions: Rick the Hamster, Coo the Owl, and Kine the Ocean Sunfish.
Each alter Kirby’s powers and help him navigate their chosen realm better. Similar to Kirby’s Adventure, you’ll need specific powers and animal friends to find everything in the game, though within-level secrets don’t unlock things on the world map this time around. The concept of the animal helpers would return in numerous other Kirby games, and Kirby attaching himself directly to them relieves the game of the more annoying aspects of “Escort Missions.” The game itself is about the same length as Kirby’s Adventure, meaning that you can probably get through it in half a day or so if you’ve never played it before.
For a series that’s generally pretty easy, we need to talk about… THE 100TH PERCENT in Kirby’s Dream Land 2. So getting the “true ending” and unlocking all of the secret exits in the game will get you a total of 99 percent. Where’s the last percent? It’s so obscure and un-intuitive that I had to look it up and couldn’t even be mad when I did because it’s so absurd. If you would rescue an animal you already have, you’ll instead rescue Gooey, a black blob who restores your life. Very rarely, completely at random, and not mentioned anywhere in the manual, you’ll get a white “Female Gooey” instead. Collecting the Female Gooey gives you 1 percent, likely your 100th percent. It’s so silly, and so against the series ethos that I can’t help but love it.
Kirby Goes to the SNES
Kirby would next make a trip to the Super Nintendo in one of the best-regarded games in the series. With Kirby Super Star, Nintendo decided that if one Kirby game was good, putting a bunch of Kirby games in one cartridge would be even better. To that end, Kirby Super Star features nine games, seven “full” games and two mini-games. Some of the games are: Spring Breeze (essentially a remake of Kirby’s Dream Land), The Great Cave Offensive (in which Kirby is trying to find 60 treasures and the exit), and the Arena (basically a boss rush).
Besides an array of new power-ups, including Jet and Plasma, Kirby Super Star combines powers and allies. When you have a power, in most of the games, you can press Select to turn your power into a power-themed companion. This also opens up, for the first time in the Kirby series, a rudimentary form of two-player co-op. Similar to that feature in Sonic 2, this variety in the gameplay has caused Kirby Super Star to be one of the best-regarded titles in the series. A DS remake, Kirby Super Star Ultra, was released many years later, in 2008. This release includes a number of new games, including a more difficult version of Spring Breeze, and the True Arena, which features the bosses from the new games in KSS Ultra.
As Kirby’s Adventure came out in the dying days of the NES, the next Kirby game would be Nintendo’s development swan song for the SNES. This one would be a “classic” styled Kirby game, rather than a collection. Kirby’s Dream Land 3 kicks off with Kirby and his pal Gooey on a fishing trip. All of the sudden, the planet’s rings are shattered by the evil Dark Matter, who possesses King Dedede amongst others. Kirby, Gooey, and the rest of his animal friends set out to save Popstar once again.
Besides expanding the animal pals roster, KDL3 allows the player to call on Gooey, the blob you sometimes rescued from a sack in KDL2, at any time. Doing so costs life, and Gooey behaves similarly to the powered helpers from Kirby Super Star. This time around, there are five worlds to go through, and collecting the Heart Star in each world is necessary to unlock the final confrontation. You acquire the Heart Stars by participating in a sub-game in each world, and you can re-do the games to acquire 1-ups.
Kirby Joins the 64 Crowd
Not long after this, Kirby would make a trip to the Nintendo 64. Much like several other Nintendo franchises—and quite a few third-party games—this Kirby game would have a “64” in its title. Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards involves a visit from another world. The other planet is Ripple Star, a planet of fairies. Dark Matter conquers Ripple Star, but not before a fairy escapes with the great Crystal. Dark Matter gives chase and shatters the Crystal, and the fairy winds up on Popstar with one of the Crystal Shards. Kirby agrees to reunite the Crystal and defeat Dark Matter yet again.
Besides looking even more bright and colorful than previous games in the series, Kirby 64 is the first Kirby game in “2.5-D.” Showing how video games of different series influence one another, Kirby’s mobility is like that which he has in Super Smash Brothers-he’s lost his infinite flight in favor of a jump followed by several smaller “hover jumps,” a la his SSB recovery. The other new wrinkle is the ability to mix power-ups. Kirby’s Adventure had you play roulette for a bit, giving you a random power if you swallowed two different enemies at the same time. In Kirby 64, though, you can combine two powers to create a third power-up that incorporates characteristics of both. Additionally, you can augment a power-up and make it even stronger by acquiring a second power-up of the same type.
Kirby Goes Portable Again
Kirby had a strong presence on the Game Boy Advance. Nightmare in Dreamland is a remake of Kirby’s Adventure that features some new mini-games and a Metanightmare mode where you play as Metaknight, Kirby’s sword-wielding rival and scourge of Super Smash Bros. Brawl players. One original Kirby game that was released on the system was Kirby and the Amazing Mirror. This is the only Kirby game that King Dedede sits out, apparently having no use for mirrors, amazing or otherwise.
In it, there’s a Mirror World that grants wishes reflected in it. Sadly, one day it starts to copy only evil wishes, becoming a world of evil as a result. Metaknight is the first to attempt to save the Mirror World. Long story short, he fails, Kirby winds up broken in four copies of himself, and the Amazing Mirror is shattered into fragments. It’s up to Kirby to assemble the mirror and save Metaknight and the Mirror World.
In contrast to the linear style of many Kirby games, Kirby and the Amazing Mirror proceeds more like a Metroid-styled game, with Kirby able to go anywhere (except the final boss sequence) from the start providing he can acquire the right power-up to do so. The four copies of Kirby also lend a puzzle element to the game; the various Kirbies will need to work together to advance and can be called by an in-game cell phone to aid the “main” Kirby.
The Kirby series would later be used to experiment with visual styles and how these can affect gameplay. In the DS game Kirby: Canvas Curse (called Touch! Kirby in Japan and Kirby: Power Paintbrush in Europe), a new villain turns Kirby into a limbless ball, and Dream Land into a world of paint. Kirby rolls off, with your help, to try and turn Dream Land back to normal. Showing Nintendo’s willingness to experiment with its new technologies, Kirby: Canvas Curse has you using only the DS’s stylus to control Kirby. You can draw paths for Kirby to traverse with the stylus and make him do a brief dash by touching him with it. You can also stun enemies with the stylus. Your ability to draw paths is limited, but slowly replenishes over time.
Kirby Never Stops Evolving
Kirby would, years later, make his way to the Wii. Interestingly, the motion controls of the Wiimote aren’t used and neither are Kirby’s typical powers. In Kirby’s Epic Yarn, Kirby eats an evil sorcerer’s tomato and gets banished to a place called Patch Land, made entirely of yarn. Kirby himself is likewise transformed into yarn, rendering his flight and copy powers useless-instead, he can transform directly into various things. He rescues a boy named Prince Fluff, who explains that there are seven pieces of Magic Yarn needed to stitch Patch Land back together.
Kirby’s Epic Yarn is perhaps less of a “proper” Kirby game than many other entries in the series as a result. Indeed, the game began development as an unrelated game featuring Prince Fluff as the main character [ 5 ]. The project also stalled in development, only finding a new lease on life when Nintendo suggested turning the game into a Kirby game [ 6 ].
The three Kirby’s Dream Lands, plus Adventure, Super Star, and 64, would see a Wii re-release on the Kirby’s Dream Collection, a special 20th anniversary compilation that also included some new challenges, plus a Kirby history lesson. A “Kirby’s Greatest Hits” CD was also included in the collection.
More so than any other of Nintendo’s franchises, Kirby’s multiple games best symbolize the Nintendo ethos of not catering to one specific market demographic. Instead, Nintendo has made it a point to explicitly aim for people of all ages, becoming a company that goes its own way and creates memorable gaming experiences for people of all ages. Meanwhile, beginning with Kirby’s Adventure, and continuing into the modern next-gen console era with Kirby’s Star Allies for the Switch, Nintendo chose to focus on games that are accessible to players of all skill levels as well. As far as Nintendo is concerned, the more people that enjoy their games, the better—and if that means having an adorable pink puffball with a huge appetite swallowing bad guys left and right, so be it.
- “Kirby’s Dreamland, the original NES phenomenon”. Screenshot Kirby’s Dreamland. NES. Nintendo Entertainment Systems, 23 Mar. 1993.
- “Kirby on the Switch. The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Screenshot. Kirby Star Allies Nintendo Switch. Nintendo, 16 Mar. 2018.
- “Ever tied to his powers of consuming and replicating his enemies, Kirby’s presence in Japan is so popular he’s even graced eateries and baked goods, as seen here in the Kirby Café at Soramachi Mall in Tokyo Skytree.” Kuremo. Shutterstock.com “tokyo, japan – september 21 2021: Large figurine of Kirby, the pink ball character of the Nintendo action-platform video games wearing a toque hat at the Kirby Cafe of Soramachi mall in Tokyo Skytree.” https://www.shutterstock.com/image-photo/tokyo-japan-september-21-2021-large-2069886722
- “Kirby’s become such a staple of Nintendo’s branding, their ensemble beat-em-up “Smash Bros.” wouldn’t be the same without him.” Screenshot, Smash Bros Brawl. Nintendo Wii. (Publication Details per citation)
Marc Dziezynski has lived a life furnished by art, from ages past to modern forms. He has leveraged this into a storied career in IT, as an Application Analyst for a Financial Technology firm. Some of the fields he has dabbled in include live-streaming, podcasting, blogging, music, art, writing, and game design. He’s also put in his time as a staffer in the local Connecticut convention scene, as well as traveling to others in the area. His professional blog can be found at http://emptyeye.com.
- “KindarSpirit.” Kirby’s Rainbow Resort, 18 Feb. 2003. http://web.archive.org/web/20090414061949/http:/kirby.classicgaming.gamespy.com/info/kirby101/index2.htm.
- Hanstock, Bill. “The 40 Worst Rob Liefeld Drawings.” Progressive Boink, 21 Apr. 2012. www.progressiveboink.com/2012/4/21/2960508/worst-rob-liefeld-drawings.
- Niizumi, Hirohiko. “Nintendo to End Famicom and Super Famicom Production.” GameSpot, Gamespot, 30 May 2003. https://www.gamespot.com/articles/nintendo-to-end-famicom-and-super-famicom-production/1100-6029220/.
- IGN. “Kirby’s Dream Land 2.” IGN. http://www.ign.com/games/kirbys-dream-land-2. Accessed 5 Mar., 2022.
- Various. “Iwata Asks: Kirby’s Epic Yarn: Using Real Yarn and Cloth.” Iwata Asks, Nintendo, https://iwataasks.nintendo.com/interviews/wii/kirbysepicyarn/0/0/. Accessed 5 Mar. 2022.
- Various. “Iwata Asks: Kirby’s Epic Yarn: ‘Why Not Make It Kirby?’” Iwata Asks, Nintendo, https://iwataasks.nintendo.com/interviews/wii/kirbysepicyarn/0/1/. Accessed 5 Mar. 2022.