HAL Laboratory

From now until the start of the new year we're going to be republishing some of what we feel are our best features of 2015. Hopefully this will offer the chance for newer readers to catch up on content they might have missed and allow long-time fans to reacquaint themselves with features they enjoyed the first time around. First up, we've got a celebration of HAL Laboratory - the studio where the late Satoru Iwata made his name - originally published back in February, before the Nintendo president sadly passed away.

Over the past weekend, on 21st February, HAL Laboratory turned 35 years old. Its rather cute / peculiar logo should be familiar to plenty of Nintendo fans, though due to Nintendo branding being predominant it's easy to overlook just how important the developer has been in not only establishing some of Nintendo's most iconic brands, but also in developing key figures that are vital to the company's success. Still its own independent business, it's also stayed away from many of the pressures of the modern gaming industry - it simply produces charming, lovely games.

Founded in 1980, the company's earliest projects were on pre-Nintendo hardware, as would be expected. When Nintendo entered the home console scene with the hugely successful Famicom, then NES worldwide, it's hardly surprising that the Tokyo-based HAL was keen to be heavily involved. Aside from obvious releases on NES, which we'll come to, it produced three Adventures of Lolo games, Joust and plenty more besides; it also worked with Ape on Mother and - skipping ahead a little - EarthBound. Its early trajectory reminds us a little of Rare, which began life with lots of diverse games before striking a hit, teaming up with Nintendo and going on to have a substantial impact.

The key breakthrough, of course, was Kirby's Dream Land on Game Boy, which is famous for many reasons - one of these is the involvement of Masahiro Sakurai in the creation of the character and as Director of that game. Its follow-up on NES, Kirby's Adventure, is a project packed with big-hitting names, with Satoru Iwata and Shigeru Miyamoto also listed as Producers. The take-off with the Kirby franchise secured a bond between HAL and Nintendo that lasts to this day, and current big N President Satoru Iwata cut his teeth as a programmer at HAL before rising to the top job at the company in 1993. Iwata-san's leadership of the company no doubt gave him valuable experience before moving to Nintendo in 2000, taking his current role leading the big N in 2002.

Smash Melee

Already we've dropped names like Kirby, EarthBound, Satoru Iwata and Masahiro Sakurai, giving some sense of the importance of HAL to the world of Nintendo. It was also the founding point for the Super Smash Bros. franchise, through Sakurai-san, though ceased to be the primary developer after Melee, as Sakurai-san departed to escape the relentless sequelization of his work - a pattern he's yet to escape. It still plays a role in these projects through the Kirby brand and the experience it can offer, though Bandai Namco did much of the heavy-lifting in the most recent entries.

Right up until the Nintendo 64 era HAL was busy in multiple areas - going into another massive franchise in developing Pokémon Snap and the Stadium games - but has become more focused in recent times, no doubt due to the realities of modern development challenges. In the Wii-era its focus was on fairly conventional Kirby releases - Kirby's Return to Dream Land and Kirby's Dream Collection: Special Collection - while its DS entries were a little more experimental; examples included Picross 3D, Kirby Mass Attack and Kirby: Canvas Curse. It's not been responsible for all Kirby titles, though, with the lovely Kirby's Epic Yarn being the work of Good Feel, for example.

Kirby Wii U

In the current generation HAL continues to produce light-hearted titles of various types, most recently Kirby and the Rainbow Curse on Wii U. Once again in the portable space it's producing a mix of the safe and experimental / silly - Kirby: Triple Deluxe is the former, but pack-in game Face Raiders is a bizarre AR experience. Its most recent release perhaps epitomises what we mean in our headline, however - Box Boy is out now on the 3DS eShop in Japan and, we'd bet, will make its way to the West soon.

Scrolling through HAL Laboratory's track record is a fascinating reminder that, in a world of 'mature' gaming, excessive free-to-play, monetisation and more besides, HAL keeps it simple. Fun, quirky experiences that don't demand too much from the player aside from a bit of puzzle solving, it specialises in irreverence. Those characteristics, shared history and famous alumni also explain the close ties to Nintendo, with HAL being long devoted to the big N's hardware. Perhaps that's because Kirby games, as an example, wouldn't be so well received on other platforms.

We're re-assured by odd-ball recent examples like Face Raiders and Box Boy, too, as it shows HAL can still stretch itself to different ideas. It's certainly possible - and fair - to be critical of that obsession with sequels that drove Masahiro Sakurai away; yet we find it hard to blame them, as in a challenging industry it still has over 140 employees and a little above $2 million in solid capital, according to its most recent figures. From Nintendo's perspective HAL offers another talented and reliable ally, joining a broad range that includes Monolith Soft, Next Level Games, Retro Studios, AlphaDream and many more besides. Not all of these studios are officially subsidiaries of Nintendo - some are - but they remain loyal to the company and its hardware, bringing us first-party games to enjoy.

Nintendo without HAL Laboratories, both in the past and present day, simply would not be the same. Whether you're a fan of Kirby and the studio's other games or not, we're pretty sure that a Nintendo world without HAL would be a less colourful, irreverent, silly and fun place.

Main image credit: Yakov-Lavan