Kirby’s Fun Core: A Delicate Balance of Experimentation

A study on the history of Kirby game design

Kirby’s Fun Core: A Delicate Balance of Experimentation
Source: Nintendo.

Kirby, the puffball that hails from Planet Popstar, has gone through decades of adventures in various genres: platforming, golf, puyo-puyo, pinball, and even racing. Nintendo has taken a liberal approach when developing games in the series, with entries jumping back and forth wildly between bold experimentation and conservative adherence to roots.

Which of the entries resonated with its players, and which floundered? Are there patterns across the series' design that will tell us why?

As we look at the various entries, we will be keeping the wise words of the series creator, Masahiro Sakurai, on how he views game design as our main principle:

"There are all kinds of game genres, like fighting games and puzzle games, and each one has its own 'fun core.' So first, I try taking away everything unnecessary around that core. Then, I place the fun core somewhere else and build around it again."

We will use the "fun core" as our baseline as we journey through the series. So let's begin by finding and defining what this is.


Source: Nintendo.

Kirby's Adventure - 1993 - NES
Does it possess the fun core?
GameRankings Score: 84/100

You play as the eponymous Kirby on a quest to save Dream Land.

This is technically the second game (Kirby's Dream Land on the Game Boy, released in 1992, was the first), but this is the first game where a lot of the series staples were introduced. The game has Kirby platforming across multiple worlds, where the key feature is that you can copy the abilities of your enemies to fight back by inhaling your foes. With 24 different copy abilities ranging from Backdrop to Fire or from Needle to Tornado, it provided a lot of versatility compared to other games at that time.

The different abilities allowed the game to present challenges where the player would need to bring the power along to light a fuse, blow up blocks, or cut ropes to access collectibles. This led to replayability and added another layer of challenge on top of the basic platforming.

With the above, we can flesh out the fun core of Kirby games as we journey through the rest of the entries: "A challenging platformer where you can use your enemy powers against them." We will see how the series either strayed from the core or kept close to it, the new features, and how gamers perceived it.


Source: Kirby Wiki.

Kirby's Pinball Land - 1993 - Game Boy
Does it possess the fun core?
How does it experiment with the series? Pinball genre derivative.
GameRankings Score: 70/100

A complete change of genre (there won't be many of these after we leave the '90s), Kirby's Pinball Land is styled after a classic pinball game, where the player controls a pair of flippers as Kirby rolls around on the pinball table. There are three different tables (or "pinball lands" as they are referred to in the game) to play through, each with its unique boss, which will unlock the final encounter with King Dedede. Upon beating Dedede, the game will reset with the score intact, making the game a high score challenge above anything else. Unfortunately, there are no copy abilities nor collectibles.

Kirby's Pinball Land is genuinely one of the most experimental entries in the series, with none of the features getting close to the fun core. So instead, I would consider this a Kirby-skinned pinball game with a couple of mini games inspired by various enemies and bosses from the series.


Source: Kirby Wiki.

Kirby Super Star - 1996 - SNES
Does it possess the fun core?
How does it experiment with the series? Multiple sub-games, each with their unique twist: a non-linear treasure hunt, a race against time, and a mode where you must hunt for copy abilities.
GameRankings Score: 86/100

Kirby Super Star (and its eventual remake, Kirby Super Star Ultra) is a game that has so many details and innovations on the fun core that it would be a crime to gloss over it. You can read my comprehensive retrospective here, but I will try to summarize the unique features.

To start, yes, Kirby Super Star possesses the fun core. It is divided into five sub-games built around the fun core with a unique twist and addition to the core. To recap some of the more unique ones:

  • The Great Cave Offensive is a sub-game where you are dropped into a non-linear map where the objective is to collect as much treasure as possible before you get out. The treasures require the type of puzzle-solving as mentioned before, and many of them give the player one chance at the puzzle (and require a fresh run for another chance).
  • Revenge of Meta Knight introduces a time limit to each stage in the story and real-time storytelling through dialogue text during gameplay. Kirby is defeated if he runs out of time.
  • Milky Way Wishes restricts the acquisition of copy abilities by inhaling enemies; the player must instead find them scattered around the stages. Once acquired, Kirby can use any obtained copy ability at any time.

It's important to note that these unique factors build on top of the fun core; they are additions that enhance the gameplay. It's a herculean feat that Sakurai was able to try out so many different systems in this entry, with all of them being unique yet fun experiences for the player. It all goes back to the fact that the subgames have the fun core to fall back on; even if the new systems don't work, the fundamental Kirby experience is still there.

How do the additions enhance the game? It forces the player to change how they play. The different restrictions and systems mean that they cannot play through the sub-games with the same ability or tactics.


Source: Kirby Wiki.

Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards - 2000 - N64
Does it possess the fun core?
How does it experiment with the series? Kirby can combine abilities.
Metacritic Score: 77/100

Combined with his first 2.5D outing, Kirby 64 introduced Power Combos, which is the ability to mix powers. The eight base abilities could be combined in various pairs, which results in 36 unique abilities in the game.

How does the addition enhance the game? Bringing the right ability combo to the right place is more complicated (or tedious in many reviewers' cases). The player often traversed across multiple levels to build the right combination before going back to the collectible (and collecting all of them was required for the true ending). As the game progresses, many of the barriers require multiple abilities to be used consecutively, which introduces a problem-solving element to the platformer.


Source: Nintendo

Kirby Air Ride - 2004 - Gamecube
Does it possess the fun core?
How does it experiment with the series? One-button racing game.
Metacritic Score: 61/100

A combination of three different modes, Kirby Air Ride is one of the most unique racing games ever made. You play as Kirby controlling one of the various vehicles in the game, such as the Warpstar. Each vehicle has a unique trait. The controls are straightforward: the vehicle will accelerate automatically, and the A-button does everything else: braking, charging up a boost, sucking in nearby enemies, and using your abilities.

The only part of this game's fun core is the copy abilities. Due to the fact that most of the abilities are close-range, and players will rarely be close to each other during the race, it's not something that is prominently used as part of the gameplay. City Trial, where you race to upgrade your vehicle before facing off in a random minigame, does not rely on any parts of the fun core, even though it was the most praised part of the game.

(This was also Sakurai's last time directing a game in the Kirby series).


Source: Kirby Wiki.

Kirby: Canvas Curse - 2005 - Nintendo DS
Does it possess the fun core?
How does it experiment with the series? Movement is controlled with the stylus, and you can draw paths for Kirby to move along.
Metacritic Score: 86/100

The first outing on the Nintendo DS, Kirby: Canvas Curse plays around with the movement aspect of the series by removing direct controls from the player. Instead, they must draw paths using the stylus for Kirby to roll along. Copy abilities are still in the game, with 11 different choices.

How does the addition enhance the game? The movement system presents an exciting constraint as players have a limited amount of ink that they can use to draw paths. This means that they must plan where they want to move on top of the puzzle-solving and combat present in the series. In addition, it adds another vector for the developers to utilize when designing levels.


Source: Kirby Wiki.

Kirby: Squeak Squad - 2006 - Nintendo DS
Does it possess the fun core?
How does it experiment with the series? Adds in the "Copy Palette" system and upgrading abilities.
Metacritic Score: 71/100

A foreshadowing of what's to come, Kirby: Squeak Squad allows players to upgrade the base abilities in the game by finding ability scrolls hidden away in various treasure chests in the levels. It also played around with the system of the "Copy Palette," where Kirby can store up to 5 items in his stomach for use later on.

How does the addition enhance the game? Upgraded abilities mean that the developer can introduce more types of solutions to puzzles. However, similar to the feedback in Kirby 64, this tended to add more annoyance for players rather than innovation in terms of level and puzzle design.


Source: IGN

Kirby's Epic Yarn - 2010 - Nintendo Wii
Does it possess the fun core?
How does it experiment with the series? First, inhaling (and copy abilities) is replaced with the yarn whip.
Metacritic Score: 86/100

In what is probably the most visually stunning entry in the series, Kirby's Epic Yarn takes one of the pieces of the fun core and removes it completely. Inhaling and copy abilities is wholly removed and are instead replaced with the yarn whip. This is a tool that allows you to defeat enemies and manipulate and alter the environment. Even if abilities are not present, transformations still exist that allow you to play as various objects, such as a car, submarine, or even a dolphin, but are for a specific level area.

Although many critics criticized the lack of difficulty (simple stages, can't die), the new dimension of being able to interact with the stages and environment was sufficient to be a solid entry in the series.


Source: IGN

Kirby Mass Attack - 2011 - Nintendo DS
Does it possess the fun core?
How does it experiment with the series? You control up to ten Kirbys instead of one via the stylus.
Metacritic Score: 83/100

Almost a Pikmin derivative, Kirby Mass Attack has the player controlling a mass of Kirbys (up to 10) to solve puzzles and mob enemies to take them down. Hovering, inhaling, and copy abilities are entirely removed, and movement is done via tapping an area that the player wants the Kirby to go to. However, it remains a platformer at heart, with the game taking over five levels containing many stages.

The concept of group management is a fundamental part of the game, with level rankings focusing on how many Kirbys took damage or were knocked out through run. The game presents its challenge through planning and execution rather than real-time combat in entries with a fun core.


Source: Kirby Wiki.

Kirby's Return to Dreamland - 2011 - Nintendo Wii
Does it possess the fun core?
How does it experiment with the series? 4-player co-op, super abilities.
Metacritic Score: 77/100

A return to consoles after 11 years, Kirby's Return to Dreamland is the first entry on a home console since Kirby 64. For the first time, it allows four players to play cooperatively (this was when New Super Mario Bros. Wii was very popular), and introduces super abilities. Similar to transformations in Kirby's Epic Yarn, super abilities are temporary abilities that are usually combined with an environmental puzzle.

How does the addition enhance the game? Because the game was designed for single-player and multiplayer situations, many of the puzzles were watered down to the point where they must be easily solvable. This meant a lot of the game was pretty simple and very easy, which was the bulk of complaints from reviewers and critics. In addition, it doesn't provide much freedom in the level design as it must account for the single-player situation.


Source: Nintendo.

Kirby: Triple Deluxe - 2014 - Nintendo 3DS
Does it possess the fun core?
How does it experiment with the series? Playing on two different layers: foreground and background.
Metacritic Score: 80/100

Kirby: Triple Deluxe takes the pink puffball back to the handheld, being the first entry on the Nintendo 3DS. Although the gameplay is mostly 2D, it introduces 3D warp stars that allow Kirby to jump back and forth between the foreground and background, which means there are two layers of gameplay.

How does the addition enhance the game? Similar to other additions, the introduction of layers provides an additional dimension of complexity in level design. In addition, enemies, attacks, and puzzles can now span across the foreground and the background, which is a new addition to the series.


Source: Nintendo.

Kirby: Planet Robobot - 2016 - Nintendo 3DS
Does it possess the fun core?
How does it experiment with the series? Robobot Armor.
Metacritic Score: 81/100

This entry adds the use of the Robobot Armor, which Kirby can pilot. It appears at various points of the stages and allows for interaction and destruction of the environment. The armor can also absorb different copy abilities, enabling the player to use armor-specific powers.

How does the addition enhance the game? New abilities and permutations of those abilities mean more opportunities for the game design and puzzles to be expanded. Unlike Kirby 64, where more abilities meant tedious backtracking, similar to how it was approached in Kirby's Epic Yarn, the limited nature of the Robobot Armor meant that the levels were tightly designed with all the solutions available within easy reach. Padded game time is not a problem here.


Source: Nintendo.

Kirby and the Forgotten Land - 2022 - Nintendo Switch
Does it possess the fun core?
How does it experiment with the series? A full 3D Kirby game and mouthful mode.
Metacritic Score: 85/100

After 30 years, we are finally at the latest entry with Kirby and the Forgotten Land. The most significant change with this entry is that this is the first game in a 3D environment rather than a side-scrolling 2D space. Mouthful Mode is a similar concept as the Robobot Armor, Super Abilities, or Transformations that grant Kirby access to unique abilities for various points in stages.

How does the addition enhance the game? The addition of a third dimension is usually tied with a significant change in the game system (Ex: Mario, Legend of Zelda), and Kirby and the Forgotten Land follow suit. Moving in 3D space means that the move set is greatly expanded (Kirby can now dodge, slide, and guard in any direction), and even the most basic copy abilities benefit from a more extensive move set.

From a level design standpoint, it exponentially increases the number of challenges it can provide to the player. Hidden perspectives for collectibles, varied environments for combat, and spatial puzzle solving are all different ways that the design could be improved.

(Mouthful mode doesn't add anything significant that is different from what other transformations do, but it sure is fun to take a look at all the different things you can inhale).


TL;DR - what can we conclude?

Thirteen games later, what are the takeaways? Again, let's start with the fun core: "A challenging platformer where you can use your enemy powers against them." But, before we conclude, let's spend a little more time breaking this down.

"A challenging platformer where you can use your enemy powers against them."

This part describes how the player interacts with Kirby and the movement options within the world. Walking, running, and floating across platforms represent the series's movement and the agency that the players have in terms of the controls.

"A challenging platformer where you can use your enemy powers against them."

The latter describes the types of challenges that the player will face and how they will overcome them. Copy abilities are the primary tools for solving combat, puzzle, and general problem-solving situations in the games.

With the core and explanation in place, we can see that each game has decided to take one of four actions:

  • Group 1: Keep the core, and experiment with a system on top of it that expands how the game design adds options to the movement or problem-solving,
  • Group 2: Keep the core, and experiment with a system that does not expand the movement or problem-solving. There's a bit of nuance here: purely adding abilities does not accomplish this if not done correctly; it adds busy work.
  • Group 3: Remove the problem-solving part of the fun core, and experiment with a system on top of it.
  • Group 4: Remove the movement part of the fun core, and experiment with a system on top of it.

Let's categorize the games that we have studied and get the Metacritic/GameRankings average score of the groups:

Group 1

Keep the core, and experiment with a system on top of it that expands how the game design adds options to the movement or problem-solving.

Title Score
Kirby's Return to Dream Land 77
Kirby: Triple Deluxe 80
Kirby: Planet Robobot 81
Kirby's Adventure 84
Kirby and the Forgotten Land 85
Kirby Super Star 86
Kirby: Canvas Curse 86

Average score: 83/100

Group 2

Keep the core, and experiment with a system that does not expand the movement or problem-solving.

Title Score
Kirby: Squeak Squad 71
Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards 77

Average score: 74/100

Group 3

Remove the problem-solving part of the fun core, and experiment with a system on top of it.

Title Score
Kirby’s Mass Attack 83
Kirby’s Epic Yarn 86

Average score: 85/100

Group 4

Remove the movement part of the fun core, and experiment with a system on top of it.

Title Score
Kirby Air Ride 61
Kirby’s Pinball Land 70

Average score: 66/100


To recap, the best to worst performing groups are:

  • Group 3: Remove the problem-solving part of the fun core, and experiment with a system on top of it.
  • Group 1: Keep the core, and experiment with a system on top of it that expands how the game design adds options to the movement or problem-solving.
  • Group 2: Keep the core, and experiment with a system that does not expand the movement or problem-solving.
  • Group 4: Remove the movement part of the fun core, and experiment with a system on top of it.

Cherry-picking and low sample number aside, this makes intuitive sense. The fundamental part of the fun core is how the player interacts with Kirby (i.e. the movement), which allows the game design to experiment with new angles in terms of how the player will face adversity. Ripping that out means that the game is a new genre and will have to reinvent the fun core from scratch (which is not easy to do).

There you have it: we've journeyed through 30 years of Kirby games to dissect what makes a Kirby game fun, and the game design of the entries has experimented with parts or all of the fun core that the series revolves around. When the next entry in the series is eventually announced, try to use the groups above as a litmus test to see how fun the game will be.


Tristan Jung is an engineering manager during the day and plays too many video games at night. You can follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/3_stan

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