Month of Kirby: A Series With Rewarding Game Design

The Great Cave Offensive, anyone?

It’s been 22 years since Kirby made his debut in the 1992 Game Boy confection Kirby’s Dream Land. In that time, players have seen the lovable pink puffball grow to become one of Nintendo’s biggest stars, scoring it big in hit after hit on both consoles and portables. Those not quite in the know about Nintendo’s irresistible charm may find themselves confused by the appeal of a pink blob running his way through colourful environments named after food — but what’s deceptive about Kirby is that sophisticated game design follows him wherever he goes. Both Satoru Iwata and Masahiro Sakurai, who helped bring Kirby to the screen back in their days at HAL Laboratory, were gamers before they were game designers, and this is definitely reflected in the final product.

Platformers have been seen as a dying breed in recent years; with first-person shooters on the rise and an increasing demand for mature "hardcore" titles, it seems hard for a cuddly series like Kirby to hold its own in today’s market. But as Nintendo of America President Reggie Fils-Aime once said of players, “They know Kirby’s got game.” Indeed we do: anyone who’s grown up with Kirby games will be sure to gush about their favourite experiences through the years exploring Dream Land. What makes all that possible is the fantastic level design, a feature consistent with just about every game in the series. Just like many games featuring Masahiro Sakurai’s direct involvement, the Kirby titles invite players to wander off the beaten path in search of treasures and secrets, rewarding them for their knowledge of the character's abilities and the worlds he explores.

The main gimmick of Kirby (beginning with the NES classic Kirby’s Adventure) is, of course, the ability for our hero to inhale the enemies around him and swallow them, thereby copying their powers for himself. Because there are so many copy abilities located within any individual level, knowing which ability to steal and where to use it is essential to uncovering all the secrets a Kirby game has to offer. Need to pound a stake in to send the barrier around an item tumbling away? You’re looking for the Hammer ability. Need to light a fuse to send Kirby flying from a cannon? You’re looking for the Fire — or Fireball — abilities. Kirby is certainly not the first platformer to utilize power-ups in this way, but the level design accommodates a player's instinct to make use of abilities in unconventional ways that might net them a reward. This has been taken to new heights over the long history of the pink puff, with games like Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards and Kirby: Squeak Squad even allowing players to combine abilities — an invitation for player creativity that really expands the potential for experimenting.

Of course, looking for treasures and secrets is a wonderful goal all its own — but one of the interesting things about Kirby is that his titles have been some of the first to offer visual encouragement for not just completing a game, but utterly conquering it. Kirby's Adventure not only brought the famous copy abilities to the forefront, but also was the first in the series to dangle the 100% carrot in front of players' faces. In this particular iteration, players could unlock an Extra Game (essentially a hard mode) if they sought out each of the secret switches hidden within certain levels. This extra incentive was one many players at the time undertook as a personal challenge, but to have the game itself present a reward for finding everything it has to offer was an absolute delight. Many of the following games have also provided such an incentive, hitting a peak with fan-favourite Kirby Super Star's The Great Cave Offensive. This Metroidvania-style treasure hunt is one of the most popular Kirby adventures to date, even as it remains just one part of the much larger overall Super Star title. More than any other, this Kirby makes the most of players' desire to explore and their knowledge of the character's abilities to find every one of the 60 treasures hidden within the titular cave as fast as possible.

What makes Kirby's adventures so consistently enjoyable is the constant commitment to satisfying the basic instincts of gamers. The talented team behind the pink puff seem to pride themselves on knowing what most people want from a video game — tons of content, new ways to challenge one's skill, and design that rewards knowledge of the mechanics. When you play a Kirby game, you need not fear a lack of pay-off — what the games may lack in conventional "hardcore" appeal they more than make up for with gratifying game design that takes us, as players, seriously. Ultimately, what more can we ask for from our hobby? Sure, Kirby may look like a "kiddy" game, and perhaps the initial challenge level isn't as high as some others we enjoy, but beyond the adorable exterior lies a game designed by players, for players. Sakurai-san must be so proud.