Like many of Nintendo's properties during the transition from the SNES to the N64, Kirby underwent a shift from a flat 2D sprite to a fully rendered polygon rendition of himself. Rather than taking Kirby down the route of Mario and Link, however, the pink mascot stuck closer to his origins — mechanically, Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards controls extremely similarly to Kirby's past appearances, only in 2.5D.
The move over to on-rails 3D doesn't come without its issues, though, as Kirby feels sluggish compared to his strictly 2D iterations. That's not to say that the experience really suffers as a result, or makes the platforming an issue, but for anyone who has played their fair share of 2D Kirby platformers it takes a few minutes to acclimatise to the difference, minimal though it may be.
While this keeps the main framework very familiar, with Kirby making his way from one side of the course to the next in typical fashion, the variations in camera angle and added depth gives Kirby a freshness that works surprisingly well. While the pink puff may not have undergone a metamorphosis as drastic as some of his Nintendo counterparts, that by no means takes away from the quality of this 2000 title, with Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards arguably being up there with Kirby's more impressive showings.
The 2.5D visuals also result in Dream Land feeling like a much more fleshed-out environment here, something that the past chapters of the Kirby series didn't convey in the same way. Much like the awe that struck you upon first entering Peach's Castle in Super Mario 64, Kirby 64 gives a similar sense of grandeur; while you're not given the same sense of freedom, Dream Land never felt so alive.
While it may have failed to be as innovative on its new 64-bit home as the likes of Mario and Zelda, new features such as the ability to combine power-ups were welcome additions to the series' familiar gameplay. This allows Kirby to not only consume any one of the seven available copy abilities, but to absorb and combine two, creating a number of hybrid power-ups and stretching the total number of copy abilities (both singular and paired) to an impressive 35. The ability to combine the reappeared in Kirby Squeak Squad some six years later, making Kirby 64 both a rather unique entry in the series and a minor trendsetter.
Visuals can be one of the trickier subjects to fairly “critique" for early polygonal games. Let's be honest, some Nintendo 64 visuals don't hold up exceedingly well, with early 3D models tending to age far worse than 2D sprites. Characters and objects can appear cube-like and rigid, textures are often rudimentary to say the least, and scenery can lack the detail and artistic flair you may have gotten used to in the past two decades.
That is why it's so pleasantly surprising to see how well Kirby 64 has held up, and the title remains one of the best looking that the N64 ever produced. Much of this can be credited to the stylistic approach the designers took — the extremely stark, colourful visuals complemented the N64's graphical limitations perfectly. Kirby 64 often borrows the "crayon" style visuals seen in titles like Yoshi's Island and Yoshi's Story to wonderful effect, giving trees and skies a glorious scrap-booked effect. The cutscenes in particular have stood the test of time, with Dedede's toy-like 64-bit guise being arguably far cuter and charming than his more recent appearance. Not to mention, making Kirby look so perfectly spherical is an impressive coup for the N64.
Unfortunately, Kirby 64 suffers from the all-too-familiar tendency of being disappointingly short. Comprised of six worlds — each with four stages and a boss — you could complete Kirby 64 in a matter of hours. Thankfully, as is usually the case, Kirby 64 makes up for its simplicity and minor downfalls with a kaleidoscopic aesthetic and its charmingly pleasant framework. The platforming is tight and as responsive as ever, and although the main campaign is guilty of being far too succinct, the developers sweetened the deal (in true Kirby fashion) by including three minigames. While not likely to keep you coming back time and time again, their addition is a welcome one and serves as a nice breather between playing the main stages and providing some pleasant filler that rounds out the package as a whole.
In Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards, HAL Laboratory managed to keep the core structure of what many know and love from the Kirby series while polishing it up with a shiny, new 64-bit coat of paint for the new console generation. While the likes of Mario and Zelda have gone on to feature in numerous fully 3D adventures, Kirby and the Forgotten Land on Switch was his first 'proper' 3D outing. This first brush with the 3D visuals still stands as one of the more unique entries in the series, then, and it's as infectiously appealing as ever. Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards isn't without its drawbacks, but is still impressively pleasurable to play to this day.