When you think of Kirby, the first thing that comes to mind is his iconic ability to suck up enemies and take their power. It’s a simple yet effective gameplay mechanic that has held strong for over 25 years. But it’s evolution wasn’t necessarily linear. When taking a closer look through Kirby’s long history, it reveals far more experimentation than you might expect. A back and forth battle between keeping thing simple, combining abilities and expanding move lists. Which of the early Kirby games would go on to inform the rest of the series? Let’s find out as we go through 5 years of Kirby history.
The debut of our adorable pink, err, white hero! Kirby’s Dreamland was released for the Nintendo Game Boy back in 1992. As the first game in the series, Kirby had yet to find talent of copying others. Hey, he was far less impressionable back then. Even without his signature copy abilities, Kirby’s Dreamland is still of the most unique platforming experiences found on the Game Boy.
Just how many games let you use enemies as projectiles and casually float across the screen? Though it’s not without problems. Kirby is simply far too powerful for the game he’s in. Later games have the luxury of balancing difficulty with short-range and projectile-based abilities. But when all you have to fall back on are projectiles, there’s never a need to come into close contact with enemies, lowering the chances of taking a hit. For a series notorious for its easy difficulty, Dream Land is easy.
Kirby’s next outing would see him jump from portables to home consoles with the release of Kirby’s Adventure in 1993, for the Nintendo Entertainment System. As a late release of the NES, Adventure was a technical marvel, showcasing some of the most advanced graphical feats found on the system. With 7 massive worlds to explore, mini-games to play, and the freshly added copy ability, Kirby’s Adventure is an accumulation of over 8 years of programming knowledge and design.
This is when we see Kirby truly come into his own, with the introduction of copy abilities. When an enemy is inhaled, they can either spit out and used as a projectile or swallowed to gain one of 24 unique ability. Each ability comes with their own quirks. Cutter gave Kirby access to a high-speed projectile attack, Sword let you cut down your foes and Wheel lets you unleash your inner speed demon.
Each ability is limited to a single attack, making some far abilities far more useful than others. Powers like Wheel and Laser, often only appear when the level design facilitate their use. The result is a more limited pool of abilities accessible at any given time. Given how situational certain abilities are then, It’s not uncommon to find yourself falling back on one or two specific powers, such as Sword and Cutter.
Kirby’s trend of appearing late into a consoles life can be to due to how difficult it is to program the copy ability system. During an Iwata asks for Return to Dreamland, the late Iwata recalled his time working with the lead programmer Hiroaki Suga, on Kirby’s Adventure. When consulting Suga about the system, he said” Are we… really going to do this?” Iwata interpreted this as Suga saying “I think he meant that the amount of work involved would equal that of several games, and those difficulties in programming have continued to this day as a kind of Kirby tradition.
Kirby would return to the Gameboy with Dreamland 2 in 1995. New to the series is the addition of animal friends Kirby can hitch a ride with. Rick the Hamster, Coo the Owl, and Kine the Ocean Sunfish, all join Kirby on his portable adventure.
We see a slash in the total number of unique abilities from the 24 introduced in Adventure, down to 8. However, each animal friend offers a unique attack depending on what ability Kirby currently has, bring up the total number of unique attacks back to 24.Due to each buddies unique style of movement, you’re going to watch to choose each friend wisely. Kine might be great in water, but having to constantly bounce on land isn’t my idea of fun. Coo, on the other hand, is often game breaking, with his ability to attack while in constant flight. Thankfully, each buddy is trickled out through the experience, matching their move set to an appropriate level.
With Kirby’s jump into the 16-bit generation in 1996, comes one of the most extensive games to ever hit the generation, Kirby’s Super Star. Included are 5 cooperative campaigns, a racing mode, a boss rush, and 2 multiplayer sub-games. Each of the five campaigns offers a unique take on the Kirby formula, from the simple remake of Kirby’s Dreamland with Spring Breeze to the Metroidvania inspired Great Cave Offensive. 12 new abilities are introduced in Super Star, for a total of 25 copy abilities.
Super Star introduces a plethora of new ideas and features for the series. Hats give each ability a distinct and appealing look. Helpers can be summoned in exchange for your current ability, controlled either by an AI partner or by a second player, for one of the best cooperative experiences you’ll ever find. What other game lets you regurgitate food to heal your friend? All of these features would become mainstays of the Kirby franchise.
Super Star is the first in the series to introduce an expanded move set for copy abilities. One of the biggest issues surrounding copy abilities were that they each only had one specific attack, greatly limiting their usefulness.
The depth of each ability opens up the gameplay immensely, allowing you to better judge how to tackle certain enemy types. For example, the beam ability’s default attack is a weak, limited range, shock. However, you can hold down the Y button to charge your beam and unleashed a powerful projectile. Or if you dash towards an enemy and press Y just as you approach them, you’ll grab them and send them flying with a jolt of electricity.
One noticeable difference between the single attack system of Adventure and Super Star is that enemies now have a larger pool of health. You could get away with spamming the Spark ability in Adventure and destroying 99% of enemies simply by rushing them. Super Star demands more from its players, with each attack having clearly defined damage. It’s a thoroughly more complex system than anything we’ve seen yet in the Kirby series.
Kirby’s Dreamland 3 was an admirable attempt in bringing over the Dreamland series to the 16-bit generation. Arriving one year after the release of the N64, It brought with it a whimsy childlike art style; an evolution of what we’ve seen in Yoshi’s Island. Yet it could not compete with the wealth of content of its predecessor, Super Star, and left many disappointed.
This marks the final return of animal friends as a central gameplay element in the Kirby series. Rick, Coo, and Kine return, alongside newcomers Chuchu the Octopus, Pitch the Bird, and Nago the Cat. As with Dreamland 2, we are back to 8 abilities. Thankfully, the greater number of animal buddies raises the total count of unique attacks to 48. Dreamland 3 introduces one new power, Broom, which remains exclusive to this late Super Nintendo release. It was clear that the Dreamland model of copy abilities simply couldn’t sustain itself. Having a larger move set in Super Star gave each individual ability personality. When you strip copy abilities down to a single accessible attack, they become impractical. A roll of the dice to see if your combination is going to be useful.
Dreamland 3 suffers immensely from having the wrong buddy at the wrong time, often finding yourself stuck with powers that are just not all that fun to use. Kine is still useless outside of water, Chuchu demonstrates how versatile octopuses can be, and Nago is just straight up adorable. It truly is a hit-or-miss system that might often put you at a disadvantage, but dammit if you don’t want to discover every single unique attack.
In spite of these issues, the Animal Buddy system was a creative way of adding a twist to familiar powers. Sure, you don’t get as much mileage out of any single ability as you would in Super Star. Yet, these combinations led to some interesting results to mess around with. Crystal Shards was a step in the right direction, eliminating animal buddies and giving players the option of directly combining powers, but the series has since long foregone this mechanic in favor of Super Stars multi attack model.