Lessons From An Intergalactic Puffball [Part 1]
I recently purchased Kirby Mass Attack (Nintendo DS) and Kirby's Return To Dreamland (Wii) so I've been doing some good old fashioned platforming lately. Still working on Mass Attack (translation: it's really hard) but I got to 100% completion on Return to Dreamland--both are excellent games. They reminded me of why I like the Kirby series as a whole and what I think it has done right over the years. There are a quite a few things though, so I think it's best to divide this into separate parts. For now I'm going to talk about something I like to call...
I'm certain there's a less ridiculous term I could have used, but basically I've grown to appreciate the Kirby series for not only having a unique platforming formula, but also knowing the importance of when to experiment with said formula.
For anyone unfamiliar with the series, the main Kirby games are much like others in the platforming genre--you control the protagonist as you run, jump, collect, and trounce enemies through stages up to the final boss. The hook with Kirby games is his ability to copy enemy powers by inhaling them into his mouth-body and swallowing them. So if he eats a snowman enemy he can skate/breathe ice, or if he inhales a UFO he can float around in one and shoot lasers. Kirby's Return To Dreamland and most of the other platformers in the main storyline play out in this format. This is pretty much the essence of Kirby games, and what I think is an incredibly smart recipe for what might otherwise have been an ordinary platforming series.
The copy ability mechanic is a simple but effective way to add new value to successive installments--after all, if you're trying to convince players to buy a sequel, you need new value in some form. With more games came more copy abilities, each unique (well... mostly) and offering new experiences for the player. Today we can easily look back and see that Kirby is a successful series. But I'm glad that HAL Laboratories is still trying new ways to keep the series relevant.
"And Now For Something Completely Different!"
I think part of Kirby's success is owed to knowing when to step away from the almighty copy ability formula. Games like Kirby's Epic Yarn and Kirby Mass Attack come to mind. In Epic Yarn, there are no copy abilities! It's still a platformer in every sense--Kirby runs, collects, and battles enemies as usual. Except instead of eating them he whips them with an extendable thread of yarn.
So the game plays a bit differently. The enemies are essentially reduced to fodder since they no longer taste like superpowers. But then again I guess most other platformers have enemies like that.
Mass Attack is similar, there are no Copy Abilities. Instead you control a group of up to 10 Kirbies at once to pummel enemies and solve puzzles as a unit. It's almost like a strategy platformer. Almost.
Both are excellent additions to the Kirby franchise in their own right. But they also present a slight contradiction.
Kirby Games - Copy Abilities = ?
As I mentioned before, the copy ability system is pretty much what makes the Kirby series unique. So what do we get when Kirby stars in a platformer without his trademark mechanic? Something I ask myself when playing such games is "Did this really need to be a Kirby title?"
It's a tough question to answer. But I think at the center of it all we've grown to like Kirby the franchise for more than just one gameplay mechanic--we appreciate the charm of his universe and ultimately the fun from controlling a childish pink ball to save the world. It's those things and more combined with his trademark copying that makes the series, not just one or another. In that sense, it's entirely possible for a franchise to leave its gameplay roots temporarily and veer in another direction, while still appealing to the people who loved it for its original standout feature.
Of course, there are limits. I don't think Halo Puzzle Party would necessarily be a huge hit but we can learn to appreciate when long standing franchises experiment, and do more to keep the series appealing than "Now with 5 new powers!" Basically, games like Epic Yarn and Mass Attack prove that Kirby is worth our time (and money) no matter what he's doing. Personally, I'm easily amused and would have no problem with new Kirby games adding a few new powers and changing the villain--even after this many years I still find the simple copy ability platforming experience unlike any other. But I'm really looking forward to seeing HAL come up with more unique directions for the series.
This is something that smaller teams of indie developers/artists probably don't have to worry about right at first since we're just starting to make our mark on the gaming industry. But when we do make that game that sells big, it's important to consider how to continue the series without letting it go stale too quickly.