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 - the mechanics of Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards control extremely similarly to Kirby's past appearances, only in 2.5D.
The move over to 2.5D doesn't come without its issues, though, as Kirby feels sluggish compared to his 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 platforming 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 the title, with Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards arguably being one of Kirby's more impressive showings.
The 2.5D visuals also result in Dream Land feeling like a much more fleshed out environment, something that the past chapters of the Kirby series were never really able to convey. 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 as a 3D title, Dream Land has 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 was a much welcome addition to the familiar Kirby 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 of copy abilities (both singular and paired) to an impressive 35. The ability to combine copy abilities only reappeared in Kirby Squeak Squad some 6 years later, making Kirby 64 both a rather unique entry in the series, and somewhat of a trendsetter.
When reviewing a Virtual Console re-release, visuals can be one of the trickier subjects to fairly “critique". Graphics must be assessed on how they stack up by today's standards while considering the graphical limitations of the time they were created. Let's be honest, Nintendo 64 graphics don't hold up exceedingly well, as early 3D models tend 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 that the PS1 often achieved through its pre-rendered backgrounds.
That is why it's so pleasantly surprising to see how well Kirby 64 has held up since its release fifteen years ago, and the title remains one of the best looking that the N64 ever produced. Much of this can be accredited to the stylistic approach the designers took - the extremely stark, colourful visuals utilised 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 N64 appearance being far cuter and charming than his photo-realistic Wii U appearance. Not to mention, making Kirby look so perfectly spherical is also an impressive coup for the N64 - a system renowned for its blocky visuals.
Unfortunately, Kirby 64 suffers from the all-too-familiar tendency to be disappointingly short. Comprised of 6 worlds - each with 4 stages and a boss - you could complete Kirby 64 in a matter of hours, especially when the title also suffers from being a little over-simplistic at times (a fate that affects many Kirby titles). Thankfully - as is usually the case, Kirby 64 makes up for its downfalls with its kaleidoscopic aesthetic and it's 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 mini-games. While not being outstanding or 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 provide extra filler - rounding out the package as a whole.
In Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards, developer HAL Laboratory managed to keep the core structure of what many known and love from Kirby series, while glossing 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's foray into the world of extra dimensions stands out as one of the more unique entries into the series, still feeling somewhat fresh in comparison to the multiple 2D Kirby platformers. Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards isn't without its draw-backs, but is still impressively pleasurable to this day.