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

Posted by Morgan Sleeper

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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User Comments (46)



Hokori said:

Man seeing air ride there makes me want it even more, hopefully I'll get it on VC once WiiU comes out



Chuie said:

i want a kirby air ride remake for the 20th anniversery on 3ds



FiveDigitLP said:

Great list! Dream Course was such a fun game to play growing up. We never owned it, but often borrowed it from our next door neighbor.
Kirby sure is multi-talented!



Emaan said:

I've played Canvas Curse, on my friend's DS and Air Ride at my friend's house. Those were some good times.



Tsukun said:

I really love these spin-offs, especially Air Ride and Canvas Curse.

This article reminded me though, a friend and I used to play Warioware: Twisted! using the GameBoy Player when we were younger. Good times.



mystman12 said:

I love kirby's Air Ride, mostly for the City Trial mode. I wish they would make a City Trial game for the eShop.



C-Olimar said:

I never really liked Kirby games, but I loved Power Paintbrush! Wii U sequel please!



Gridatttack said:

Kirby air ride is the one I remember most. I still play it from time to time. The city trial mode is a blast with your friends. I still play it form time to time.
Second game I remember is canvas course. Quite hard at some parts, but still awesome.



TheDreamingHawk said:

Happy that Epic yarn wasn't here. It wws way too easy an had no challenge to it (Besides the medals.) and Air ride was amazing



RR529 said:

My favorite Spinoff is "Kirby's Block Ball" on the GB.

As for main series game, my favorite would have to be "Kirby Super Star Ultra" on the DS (the original SNES game was fantastic as well, but the re-release has even more epicness).



Chrono_Cross said:

Great feature. One of the best.

Kirby Air Ride is one of the best games on the Cube and anyone who has yet to play it, is missing out badly. Canvas Curse is way too expensive for my budget. Which saddens me because I'm a diehard Kirby fan.



TheDreamingHawk said:

@Chrono_Cross I feel your pain. I almost got CC in a gamestop once, but before I bought it, this annoying 5 year old and his mom bought it instead (I was at the drinking fountain). Still haven't found a copy that isn't pirated yet... Anyone know where I can buy it without piracy?



RevolverLink said:

I love me some Kirby spin-offs, especially the portable ones. Canvas Curse, Mass Attack and Tilt 'n' Tumble rank right up there among my favorite games in the series



MrWalkieTalkie said:

Ive been playin Kirby games since I was a little one, starting with Air Ride, which I would play for hours! And almost every other Kirby game to release since. Unfortunately for the past few years Ive been slipping on the Kirby games, I have yet to get Epic Yarn, Mass Attack, and Return to Dreamland. But when the Dream Collection comes out, I may get those 3 missing games as well and go a crazy Kirby Marathon!



GazPlant said:

Ah Air Ride. Many long nights were spent at Uni playing City Trial mode, it's surprisingly addictive!



GeminiSaint said:

I hope Tilt 'n' Tumble gets released on the 3DS Virtual Console sometime. It's just a matter of Nintendo getting off their lazy posteriors and writing some extra code to emulate the gyro controls.



Contrary said:

Air Ride used to be my favorite.City Trial was something I did all day, everyday. My whole 3 checklists are completed too.



Pj1 said:

Is the collection disc coming to the UK? I don't want wanna talk about it other wise!



NImH said:

@FiveDigitLP That neighbor was me! You stole my Dream Course! Kidding... But my hermanos and I had the best time obsessing over the best score on every course. It was such a great game.



JJtheTexan said:

@zipmon, you were certainly kinder to Kirby's Pinball Land than Phillip Reed in his critique of the game's 3DS VC release a little while ago...



chewytapeworm said:

Mass Attack is class. Original, engaging and easy to pick up and play, difficult to put down. But then you can say that about almost any Kirby title. What a varied and successful 20 years the cute pink blob has had. Hats off Kirby, hats off!



marc_max said:

My less favourite is obviously Kirby's Pinball Land. I'm a pinball videogame fanatical, but Kirby's one has simply bad physics and no choices for beating bosses (just drop the ball and let's start again the level).

The best one is Power Paintbrush by far. An incredible beautiful and addictive game. It's hard, but it's fun to play and it's very long too!

I still have to buy and try Tilt 'n' tumble, I hope Nintendo releases it for VC using the 3DS motion sensor.




I don't remember much about tilt and tumble but the others are outstanding. Still have Canvas Curse/Power Paintbrush and I have Dream Course as a download on my Wii. Air Ride was brill back in my GC playing days. Oh and Mass Attack I still have which I lover and Epic Yarn was brilliant when I last had it in my collection. There hasn't been many (if any) Kirby Spin-offs that I've played that I haven't liked TBH



redclow said:

Kirby's Air Ride is the best Kirby game out there, I hope it gets re-made for Wii U!



Medicham said:

Ohhhh Kirby.... The anime for Kirby was a total joke but his games are suprisngly really good. They take skill to master.



StarDust4Ever said:

I played Kirby Tilt-and-Tumble on my GBA-SP using the GameBoy Color Action Replay; cheat cheats and I get to play it right-side up; yeah, it was bad-@$$...



WaveGhoul said:

Canvas Curse was a portable innovative ground breaking powerhouse that completely blew me away the first time i played it. Ahh when Stylus touch screen gameplay was completely new to the gaming world and wasn't taken for granted. But ya....Haven't played the others and most likely never will.

But I will be getting the Kirby Dream Collection for the Wii without a donatello dudeskie of a doubty'!



zipmon said:

It's so great to see all the love for Air Ride! =D I thought it flew a bit under the radar when it came out and I know some people dismissed it for the simple control scheme, but it's absolutely brilliant. Still some of the most fun you can have on a 'Cube/Wii with friends!

@tvnewsguy Definitely, I liked it a lot more than poor Phil! =)

@TheDreamingHawk The only reason Epic Yarn isn't here is because I don't think I could express the extent of the joy and wonder it brings to the world through words alone. =) (Interpretive dance coming soon!)



alLabouTandroiD said:

I loved Kirby's Pinball Land as a kid and i think i still would if i played it today.
Also loved Kirby's Star Stacker the few days i had it back then.
Got Kirby's Block Ball on the VC, while it didn't really click with me i still can appreciate their approach and the work they put into it where other games of the genre are often bland as hell.
Kirby's Epic Yarn was nice in co-op and Kirby Mass Attack, while not really perfect, was one of the few games that actually wowed me recently
I'll have to see for how much Air Ride goes on ebay, missed out on it.

I hope Tilt 'n' Tumble gets released on the 3DS and that the Kirby franchise will always be treated with the amount of creativity it always got. Maybe even give us some Kirby games that were only released in Japan so far?



TheDreamingHawk said:

@zipmon But.. But... You can't lose! I know WL2 won't let you die, but at least there is challenge in it too. It's not easy to the point it's bad (That would be PokePark Wii, which is the stupidest, easiest, shortest, game I've ever played)



Henmii said:

Epic Yarn and Canvas Curse where fantastic! One of the things I love sooo much from Canvas curse is that it's such a full package! And getting all the medals is really hard! I still haven't got all medals!

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