Feature: Let's Celebrate Kirby's Spin-Offs

Kirby's had a busy 20 years

Earlier this month, at his apocryphal 20th birthday celebration, we're sure Kirby was able to blow out his candles with trademark gale-force and reflect on what has been, even for a Nintendo character, an astoundingly diverse career. While keeping his day job of walking from left to right and inhaling enemies, Nintendo's vacuum-packed pink puff has added his effervescent charm to all sorts, from pinball to kart racing to puzzle-platforming, and nearly everything in between. In fact, if you picked a random Kirby game out of a hat, you'd have about a 50-50 chance of getting either a mainline game or one of his many spin-offs, and that variety is part of Kirby's immense and enduring appeal.

When Nintendo announces a new Kirby game, you can expect lighthearted fun, cheery music, a Dream Land theme, and a whole heap of cute — but the actual gameplay is as often as not a surprise. With that in mind, and in the spirit of celebrating over 20 years of Kirby, let's take a look back at a few of the pink puff's most notable side projects to date.

Kirby's first spin-off came only a year after his original debut in Kirby's Dream Land, and it was probably a question of when, not if we would see him bouncing around a pinball table from the outset; HAL Laboratory had already developed two pinball games, and Kirby's ball shape makes this combination a no-brainer. Kirby is much more than just a ball, however – he's got personality, and the resulting game is pinball with a personality to match. Pinball Land features three tables, each themed after a boss from Kirby's first adventure, and each made up of three vertically-arranged screens. Players use the flippers to send Kirby careening into bumpers, enemies, switches and spinners for points, climbing ever upwards to the top of the third screen where a Warp Star waits to whisk Kirby to the table boss.

This title takes its music and many of its sprites directly from our hero's first Game Boy outing, but the influence goes beyond the Dream Land coat of paint, and there are Kirby touches abound in the gameplay. The boss battles are fun (if simple) fusions of hop-and-bop and pinball mechanics, and a final showdown with King Dedede awaits after all three tables are cleared. Instead of immediately losing a life when Kirby rolls between the bottommost flippers, you get an under-the-table view of a helpfully placed springboard and the chance to throw him back into play with a well-timed press of the A button. Each table also has a unique mini-game to play within it, including a Kirby soccer shootout and a brick-breaking game that nicely foreshadowed the release Kirby's Block Ball a few years later. It may divide fans and critics, but its a popular spin-off nevertheless.

Kirby's second spin-off saw him taking a swing at mini-golf and, like pinball, it's a natural fit for the spherical star. And even though Dream Course didn't start life as a Kirby game (like the recent Wii hit Kirby's Epic Yarn), the end result is unmistakably Kirby. Players putt the pink puff through eight Dream Land themed courses of eight holes each, but there's a twist: on his journey from tee to hole, Kirby first has to smash through familiar baddies until only one remains, at which point it turns into the goal. This means that a hole-in-one requires not just getting there in one shot, but taking out every enemy on the green in one fell swoop! Luckily, the task is made easier and much more fun by the presence of Kirby's trademark copy abilities, which add a ton of variety and make this game of golf a distinctly hands-on affair. The powers can be activated with a button press once Kirby's in motion, and range from Tornado Kirby and UFO Kirby, allowing you to steer Kirby directly for a limited time, to Stone Kirby, which lets you dive-bomb straight down from a chipped shot or stop on the spot.

The enemies, stage hazards and copy abilities turn Dream Course into a puzzle game as much as a mini-golf game, and a two-player mode (a first for the series) lets a pink Kirby and a yellow Kirby putt it out over four courses.

Before motion controls arrived in full force on Wii, Kirby bravely paved the way by tilting 'n' tumbling on the Game Boy Color. Packing an accelerometer inside its transparent pink casing, this game charges players with guiding Kirby safely through Dream Land by tilting the system to control his movement, with a quick upwards flick sending him into the air. Tilt 'n' Tumble plays like an earlier Super Monkey Ball with added platforming elements and spectacular boss battles, and a bit of pinball is thrown in for kicks. Time limits and star collecting keep things moving, and bumpers, moving platforms, spikes, familiar enemies and all sorts of environmental hazards mean that a great deal of finesse is required to get Kirby to the Warp Star at the end of each level in one piece.

Because the accelerometer was designed to work with the top-loading Game Boy Color, Tilt 'n' Tumble has the distinction of being the only GBC game not fully compatible with the bottom-loading GBA SP, as the controls are reversed when played on that handheld. Intriguingly, there was a GameCube sequel to Tilt 'n' Tumble planned, which used a connected Game Boy Advance with an accelerometer-enabled cartridge to control the movement on screen. It was shown briefly at Space World 2001 but unfortunately never saw the light of day. (As a truly impractical approximation, it's actually possible to play Kirby Tilt 'n' Tumble through the GameCube's Game Boy Player by tilting the GameCube itself – as they say, “Don't try this at home”!)

For his only game on the GameCube, Kirby makes a heck of an appearance with Air Ride. While it could be called a kart racer, the Kirbyness of it all turns it into a truly original experience. For starters, there are three distinct gameplay modes. Air Ride is the standard kart racing mode, with Kirby trappings like enemies and copy abilities, Top Ride is a frenzied race around single-screen tracks viewed from a top-down perspective, and City Trial is a completely unique racing/platforming/mini-game hybrid. In this last mode, players start with a basic vehicle and are given three to seven minutes to explore a city, looking for new vehicles, power-ups, and stat upgrades that all carry over into the challenge which follows. The challenge can be anything from a simple race to a destruction derby, a ski-jump-style long glide contest, or even a battle against a room full of enemies.

All three gameplay modes have their own Checklist, an achievement-based treasure hunt foreshadowing the system later used in Kid Icarus: Uprising. Completing goals like “Inhale 20 enemies and come in first” or “Fall off a cliff 3 times in one game” will reward players with new items, music, characters, and vehicles. These vehicles are markedly different from one another as well, not just in their stats but in the basic ways in which they control; one particularly eccentric kart can only be turned while stopped, and then set speeding on in a straight line again until the next adjustment!

Air Ride notably takes a "less-is-more” approach to controls and requires only the stick and the A button. Kirby and friends accelerate automatically, and the single button is used for breaking, drifting, activating boost pads, inhaling enemies and attacking with copy abilities or power-ups, all depending on context. It sounds chaotic, and it is, but it works amazingly well and makes for a game that anyone can hop into and enjoy. That's important because Air Ride really excels as a multiplayer title — this was a game developed by HAL during the Super Smash Bros. era, and it shows. Rules can be tweaked and customized extensively, and the one-button controls and especially the simplified Top Ride mode mean everyone can have a good time competing, including inexperienced gamers. There's even support for linking up to four GameCubes together via LAN for a massive Air Ride party!

In this early outing for DS, Kirby loses his limbs and rolls into an entirely new type of platformer that takes full advantage of the touch-screen capabilities of Nintendo's innovative handheld. Instead of controlling Kirby directly, players use the stylus (referred to in-game as the Magical or Power Paintbrush) to draw rainbow-coloured paths for Kirby to follow, egg him on with a speed-boost, or stun enemies with a tap, leaving them vulnerable to Kirby's adorable steamrolling. The main gameplay mechanic is similar to Yoshi Touch & Go, but Canvas Curse expands the stylus-based action from an arcade-like score attack into a puzzle-platforming game on a grand scale, providing proof that touch-screen gaming could be much more than mini-games. It's also proof that there is such a thing as a difficult Kirby game – towards the end of its eight worlds, Canvas Curse gets hard. The later stages will have you multitasking all over the touch screen, drawing rainbow arcs, stunning upcoming enemies, boosting Kirby out of danger, and generally swiping away like a person possessed.

The copy abilities make a return here as well, but with a welcome twist: many of these familiar powers are used just as much for puzzle-solving and reaching hidden areas as they are for smashing enemies. It fits in perfectly with the feel of the game and makes the system feel fresh; after years of using Needle Kirby to send up a spiky shield, it's a treat to be able to use it here to cling to walls and ceilings, discovering otherwise inaccessible areas and out of the way medals.

This is far from an exhaustive survey of Kirby's spin-off adventures; we haven't touched on the puzzle action of Kirby's Star Stacker and Kirby's Avalanche, the arcade throwback of Kirby's Block Ball, the endless charm of Kirby's Epic Yarn or the Pikmin-like swarms of Kirby Mass Attack — not to mention the huge assortment of mini-games within Kirby's various adventures; fans of vertical shoot-'em-ups should check out Kirby Mass Attack for that reason alone. But even this small selection shows that Kirby is an amazingly versatile little blob, and the fact that he feels just as at home in any of these games as he does side-scrolling through Dream Land is a huge part of why we love him. Enjoy your twenties, Kirby, and here's to many more adventures of every kind.

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