Kirby’s debut on the Wii last year seemed to more than make up for the pink puffball’s seven-year hiatus from home consoles. Kirby’s Epic Yarn impressed critics and players with its pleasant platforming and amazing arts-and-crafts aesthetic. With the franchise once again in the limelight, Nintendo revealed that HAL Laboratory’s long-dormant Kirby game for the GameCube is finally coming out on the Wii later this year.
But once videos starting coming out, some commenters had a curious reaction. They were glad that HAL, the studio that created Kirby, was going in a more traditional direction and that Epic Yarn, which apparently, despite its quality, was too much of a departure from a “real” Kirby game. That begs the question: What is a “real” Kirby game, anyway?
This looks good, but who's to say yarn wouldn't make it better?
The criticism that Epic Yarn is not a “real” Kirby experience is partially valid. The developers at Good-Feel have stated that they inserted Kirby into a preexisting game called Fluff’s Yarn at Nintendo’s request. Kirby now whipped goons instead of inhaling their powers and parachuted downward instead of puffing upward. At times the game felt less like Kirby’s Dream Land and more like a pseudo-sequel to Wario Land: Shake It!, another beautiful 2D Wii platformer developed by Good-Feel.
But one could also see this small retroactive backlash as a broader problem afflicting Nintendo’s other franchises. Fans get mad when minor, specific elements consistent between games get changed, even when the developers carry over the core tropes that make the franchise great. In order to argue that Epic Yarn maintains Kirby's most important elements, I first had to figure out what they were.
The platforming in early Kirby games was never as demanding as a Super Mario Bros. or Donkey Kong Country. What the series lacked in tight level design it made up for in sheer cuteness and surprising combat-centric gameplay. HAL based so much of the Kirby series on acquiring enemy powers.
But the games rarely asked you to use specific powers in specific situations — like in, say, Metroid. Instead, the transformations were about making the gameplay varied and interesting, and the main focus was fighting enemies while lazily floating and strolling through candy-colored backdrops. It’s no wonder that Kirby’s creator, Masahiro Sakurai, ended up creating Nintendo’s mega-crossover fighter, Super Smash Bros.
Also, as cynical as it sounds, Kirby’s position as a "B tier" Nintendo character also means that the developers have more room to play around than with a franchise like Mario. In terms of series' core releases (sorry, Paper Mario!), Nintendo risks less with a less important brand.
Even the character’s vague blob shape suggests malleability. Remember how weird that Game Boy Advance pinball game felt? That's not the case with Kirby. Kirby's origins as placeholder art make sense. He's kind of undefined.
Kirby games should be as weird as the developers want as long as he is cute, he turns into stuff, and at some point Meta Knight and King Dedede show up. Both Epic Yarn and another of Kirby’s modern classics, Kirby: Canvas Curse, achieved great success by boiling the franchise down to those elements and spinning them into something wonderfully unique and creative. Epic Yarn had plenty of gameplay-altering transformations, but what’s cuter than a pink ball of yarn?
OK, maybe not this crazy. But you get the idea.
When a series has a less specific formula it has to follow, it gives developers much more freedom to turn a familiar experience into a fresh one. Compare Twilight Princess to Super Mario Galaxy. Both are amazing, but Mario Galaxy was more revolutionary because its formula is much less rigid than Zelda’s.
The new Wii Kirby will probably be really fun. But it does appear to be following the original “Kirby formula,” and while that worked initially — and would be just fine now — we should celebrate experimentation. Luckily, that mysterious new DS game that lets you control ten Kirbys at once looks like it's doing just that. Weird is good (except when it’s Kirby Air Ride). Sure, Kirby Super Star had minigames and partners, but Epic Yarn had apartment decorating and the ability to throw friend-controlled buddies into spikes. Kirby needs fewer Squeak Squads and more Epic Yarns.