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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Kirby’s creators on developing accessible games, and the darker horrors of the series

(Washington Post illustration; Nintendo)
19 min

Like a good friend, Kirby games are dependable. Every game would inevitably feature its adorable star, named after the late Washington, D.C.-based civil rights attorney who eventually worked for Nintendo. And each game, from his 1992 Game Boy debut to this week’s “Kirby and the Forgotten Land” for the Nintendo Switch, is consistently delightful, pleasant gameplay experiences meant to appeal to as wide of an audience as possible.

Underneath the sugary sweet surface, however, lie eldritch-like tones within its villains and lore, with a backstory as complicated and obtuse as a Dark Souls game. Kirby, after all, is essentially a sentient black hole that can absorb any matter, including dark matter.

‘Kirby and the Forgotten Land’ is more of the same in the best way

“Kirby and the Forgotten Land” leans into this with its post-apocalyptic setting, as well as the mildly horrifying “Mouthful Mode” feature which has our pink hero wrapping his being around different objects.

The Washington Post had an exclusive U.S. interview through email with the creators and developers of Kirby to talk about the legacy of the series and the latest game. The interview featured four key members of the Kirby team:

  • Kei Ninomiya of Nintendo’s Entertainment Planning and Development Department (EPD) Production Group Two
  • Shinya Kumazaki, general director at HAL Laboratory
  • Tatsuya Kamiyama, director at HAL Laboratory
  • Yuki Endo, level design director at HAL Laboratory

Q: “Kirby and the Forgotten Land” is a far more cinematic adventure than any game before. Gameplay segments feature cinematic and dynamic camera angles, but can you tell us a bit about how these were created?

Ninomiya: The dynamic camera angles were realized thanks to HAL Laboratory’s attention to detail. Since the player would see Kirby’s back a lot when playing a 3D game, Nintendo consulted with HAL about creating scenes that show Kirby’s face.

For example, we added places where you can see Kirby's lively expressions when he is riding a Warp Star at the beginning of a stage and when rescuing a Waddle Dee. The result is a mix of camera angles that show the expansive world and close-ups of Kirby and his expressions, which makes the scenes more dynamic.

Kumazaki: One challenge is balancing the ability to provide surprises to the Kirby series while maximizing the unique characteristics of each installment. For example, with the “Kirby: Triple Deluxe” game on the Nintendo 3DS system, we chose to create visuals that emphasize the space between the background and foreground of a map with different overlapping layers, utilizing the stereoscopic 3D as a characteristic of the game, despite it being a side-scrolling title.

Since the “Kirby and the Forgotten Land” game is the first fully 3D installment, we were able to create dramatic visuals that span the full 360 degrees more than any previous title. In addition, we always maintain a camera angle most appropriate to the action and gameplay. We configured each camera based on its role in the applicable scene and used more dramatic angles in situations where the player does not need precise controls, such as event scenes, entrances to new areas or the path leading up to a boss.

Endo: As Mr. Kumazaki mentioned, our fundamental principle for level design during development was to create levels that are easy to play through but also include many dynamic scenes. For example, the camera that shows landmarks at the starting location allows you to look at memorable scenery while maintaining a level design where it is easy to see where you should be going. In other cases, setting the camera to look boldly downward when you are traversing a narrow path in a high place creates a level design where you can easily see the shape of the path, while also conveying the thrill of a location where you could slip and fall at any moment.

Q: What is the core design principle behind Kirby games?

Kumazaki: From the perspective of the team at HAL Laboratory, the basic concept of the series is that it should be approachable yet deep. “Approachable” means that we aim to make an exciting series that inspires anyone to play at first glance and that people can easily feel familiar with. This refers to both the design and the gameplay. This is because we want as many users as possible to arrive at the starting line of the game.

“Deep” represents the satisfying stages and rich world-building that you’ll find if you dig into the game. We prepared a surprising climax and exciting boss designs so that players can feel a difference from their impressions at the beginning of the game.

To make these surprises even more appealing, Kirby's design is always cute, and the first stage is always a bit fairy tale-like. Kirby may have a special place among the wide variety of games available due to the gap between the initial cute appearance and stage designs and other elements that appear at the climax of the game.

Q: How has the team evolved in implementing more challenges into the games while keeping the core tenet of being a game playable by anyone?

Ninomiya: We incorporated multiple elements that can be enjoyed by both beginners and experienced players. One example is the introduction of a difficulty setting: Spring-Breeze Mode is adjusted so that Kirby has enough health to defeat enemies even when being hit by their attacks, and it makes it easy for beginners to clear the game. Wild Mode, on the other hand, is balanced to require the player to skillfully hit the enemies while dodging their attacks.

Another example is, while the missions set for each stage can be ignored by beginners, they provide a catalyst to challenge experienced players that allows them to choose their own difficulty.

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Kamiyama: We’ve implemented measures to support players who find 3D action games difficult to make sure the game can easily be enjoyed by anyone.

The typical difficulty people have with 3D action games is getting the correct sense of distance. It can be difficult to grasp the distance from the location of the camera to the foreground or background. There are cases where Kirby’s attack overlaps with an enemy on the game screen and it looks like the attack hit, but it did not actually connect with the enemy because they were too far away.

To deal with this phenomenon, we've incorporated a feature that automatically optimizes the range of Kirby's attacks based on the relative locations of Kirby and the camera when it looks like an attack should hit on-screen. This makes it possible to play the game with the same feel as a 2D action game, even for players who find 3D action games difficult.

(Editor’s note: The viral tweet below demonstrates this design decision in action. The team also discusses this feature on Nintendo’s Japanese website.)

With this foundation, we believe players can have fun with the difficulty settings, which they can change at any time, and enjoy fighting the strong enemies that appear late in the game.

Endo: When focusing on developing a 3D game that would be easy to play, there were times when we would make it easier to avoid enemies and puzzles. While we implemented beginner-friendly level designs in previous titles where you could progress while avoiding enemies to a certain extent, we had many discussions with Nintendo staff about whether this would make it trivial to avoid enemies and therefore not fun for many players.

To overcome that problem, we incorporated level designs that purposely increase enemy and puzzle density while retaining the friendly and easy-to-play aspects. The idea is that when you defeat an enemy or solve a puzzle, you'll see the next enemy or puzzle you need to deal with and encounter stronger enemies and surprising developments at a brisk pace. Additionally, we adjust each enemy so that they precisely target Kirby with their attacks to increase the challenge of combat.

I think we were able to work out how to make a 3D Kirby title that anyone can play and reach the finish line, while also making it so experienced players will feel a great sense of challenge.

Q: The stories of every Kirby game are deceptively deep, with lots of fantasy elements. What are some of the inspirations behind some of the darker elements of the Kirby story?

Kumazaki: I think that “cute” is a major part of people’s image of Kirby. However, our direction for the story in Kirby and the Forgotten Land was to demonstrate that Kirby games can also have a lot more depth than people might expect.

In the Kirby's Adventure era, people thought King Dedede was the final boss, but then it turned out there was an even scarier mastermind named Nightmare trying to take over Dream Land with the power of nightmares. Since then, we have always had this kind of game structure where there is a surface story and a hidden truth that is revealed later on.

For the Kirby series, with its cute appearance and gameplay, we write the game story with the goal of surprising children with shocking developments when they reach the climax, while drawing in more experienced players with exciting challenges to exceed their expectations. Even within the same game, character, location and song names actually become darker or more serious as you progress, gradually leading up to the climax.

However, no matter how serious the story, Kirby is always at the center and will always remain the cute and mysterious hero who loves to eat. For the current Kirby series, we focus on providing new surprises while avoiding the establishment of immutable facts and settings that would constrain Kirby.

Q: Would you say there is a narrative thread that ties all the Kirby games together, similar in the way the “Zelda timeline” has become a concept over the years at Nintendo?

Kumazaki: There is no clear timeline for the game stories. This is to avoid being constrained by past settings, and so that we can easily take on new challenges and prioritize the optimal gameplay experience for each installment — even in a series with a long history.

However, we can't progress the story much if we have Kirby meet King Dedede for the first time in the opening of each game, so new installments inherit story elements that can be naturally accepted and easily understood by the players. For example, we use story elements that are effective at making each new game better, such as when the character Magolor repented his past actions and moved to Dream Land, or when Meta Knight got his revenge on Kirby.

I also pay attention to the details when writing the text for the story. This is because, if future installments are going to inherit these story elements, we need to first prepare detailed settings for each installment. However, the main focus of the Kirby series is action and gameplay, so we prepare the settings required to make these elements more appealing in each game.

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Q: Some of the “Mouthful Mode” transformations would be quite horrifying if they weren’t in the context of Kirby. How did the team decide which objects would contribute to this new mode?

Ninomiya: It was important to us to make it obvious what Kirby had inhaled just from looking at his transformation. We thought this would be a fun way to highlight how Kirby uses real-world objects in unexpected ways. For example, you can see part of the car peeking out in Car Mouth. In Stairs Mouth, you can’t see the stairs, but you can tell that Kirby inhaled a staircase based on the outline.

Kamiyama: We chose shapes that would be interesting, but we also considered the element of surprise, as well as the possibilities for what Kirby could do with a particular Mouthful Mode. We chose shapes like triangles and squares because they are simple yet drastically different from Kirby’s usual form.

In the Cone Mouth form, Kirby can pierce through cracks in the ground, but players wouldn't expect Kirby to be able to do this at the point Kirby inhales the traffic cone. Players should be able to deduce that Kirby can pierce through cracks by seeing how Kirby attacks when in Cone Mouth form.

You don't always know what Kirby can do immediately after inhaling the object, but I think this unexpected nature of Mouthful Mode makes this game even more interesting. There is also versatility in what Kirby can do. For example, Ring Mouth allows Kirby to blow away enemies by exhaling strong gusts of wind, but Kirby can also use the wind to accelerate a boat.

Endo: As Mr. Kamiyama noted, we based our ideas on shapes that will significantly change the appearance of Kirby and are simple for him to transform into, yet still easy to imagine what Kirby can do in that form. We also wanted it to mesh well with Kirby’s moves, so we considered ones that would work well in combination with existing enemies and copy abilities.

For example, Cone Mouth can pierce a hole in the ground, so you can avoid bullets fired by Shotzo and continue on your way.

With Stairs Mouth, if there are stairs blocking the path of a Fuse lit by Fire Kirby, you can inhale the stairs to move them out of the way so the spark doesn't get extinguished. You can also climb the stairs to reach a Fuse Canon located on a higher platform. (In other words, stairs positioned on top of a fuse would prevent the spark from traveling any further, so by inhaling the stairs, you cannot only move them out of the way, but also put them in a place that allows you to reach a cannon on a higher platform.)

As a result of choosing objects that work well in combination with existing enemies and copy abilities, we were able to enhance much of the existing gameplay.

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Q: What new opportunities does the new 3D perspective offer to the level design of this adventure?

Ninomiya: 3D certainly made it easier to depict different scenery, such as a shopping mall or an amusement park. By offering gameplay that fits the scenery, we created an experience that highlights the unique characteristics of each stage.

For example, in the shopping mall, there is a trick where you look at the storefront signs to decide what path to take, and in the amusement park, you can experience gameplay that involves a roller coaster or a rogue parade float.

Endo: We started by thinking of ways to leverage the 2D action gameplay we have cultivated over the years. As we developed the new gameplay, we thought about what enhancements would be possible by translating what we had into 3D.

As we worked on the level designs, we kept in mind what new moves would be possible. Inhaling and spitting out objects are Kirby's classic moves, but now Kirby can do things like inhale an object from the left/right and spit it out toward the back of the screen.

Even in the 2D action days, enemies could throw bombs from the background toward the foreground, but now Kirby has more freedom to move around in 3D space when using copy abilities to fight enemies. He can throw bombs toward the back or drop a bomb and have it roll down a hill. 3D gives you more ways to clear levels and enjoy the game.

Another appealing aspect of 3D is that you can explore more expansive spaces. It's fun to take a stroll around the different stages like the open grass field, desolate shopping mall, amusement park or even Waddle Dee Town. There are plenty of challenges to keep you busy. You can clear missions, discover a secret cave by transforming using Mouthful Mode and, like always, there are hidden doors to find too.

“Kirby and the Forgotten Land” is a game that both novice players and seasoned gamers can enjoy, so I hope everyone gives it a try.

Q: Does the team feel confident that this could be a permanent evolution of Kirby adventure games moving forward?

Ninomiya: We brought Kirby to the 3D action/platformer genre along with the series’ iconic elements, including the nonstop, feel-good action and excitement. We also incorporated elements that challenge advanced players while still maintaining playability. I feel that what we achieved in this game has opened up more possibilities for future Kirby titles.

We hope to continue this momentum and explore new genres and new ways to play in the future.

Kumazaki: While a full 3D game is certainly a fresh new look for the Kirby franchise, it doesn’t necessarily mean this will be the standard going forward.

Nintendo is on the same page as us, and this is something we talk about often. We hope to go beyond what is currently imaginable and challenge ourselves to create new and innovative Kirby games. This game was one of those challenges coming to fruition. We will continue to explore via trial and error and not just limit ourselves to 3D.

With that said, one thing I can say is that “Kirby and the Forgotten Land” came with such big changes that it could be considered an important “milestone” in the long history of the series.

Q: What lessons did the team learn from “Kirby Star Allies?” The game received robust post-launch support that almost resembled a live service. Could those features be added into “Forgotten Land” and future Kirby games?

Ninomiya: Heroes in Another Dimension, which was added to the “Kirby Star Allies” game in a post-release update, was well-received by players despite it being more challenging than your typical Kirby game. This was one of the reasons we decided to sprinkle in more elements throughout the game that advanced players would find challenging.

Kumazaki: Regarding updates, there is nothing we can share at this time.

To answer the other part of the question, we certainly learned a lot from “Kirby Star Allies.” Back then, we were aiming to create the ultimate side-scrolling Kirby game, so we incorporated many expansive features like four player co-op, Friend Abilities and Friends.

Furthermore, the world map and the final boss battle had areas with 3D controls, which were leveraged in the latest installment. The multiplayer action experience from “Kirby Star Allies” was also incorporated into the “Super Kirby Clash” and “Kirby Fighters 2” games, where multiple characters engage in battle.

Meanwhile, “Kirby Star Allies” was the first HD installment in the Kirby mainline games, and the graphic technology from this game was utilized in “Kirby and the Forgotten Land.” “Kirby Star Allies” was a compilation of elements, and many of those elements, along with the things we learned from them, helped shape the subsequent games.

We learned some valuable lessons from “Kirby and the Forgotten Land,” and I’m positive they will lead us to new experiences. Please look forward to the future of the Kirby series!

Q: How does the team choose which features in a Kirby game should continue to the next game?

Ninomiya: As we set forth to create a new game, we examine every element as much as possible, rather than assuming everything from the previous title will carry over. We want to take various things into account, like the current times and available technology, as well as how players have changed, so that we can offer a better experience.

With “Kirby and the Forgotten Land,” for example, we even debated whether to include copy abilities at one point. One existing feature we reevaluated is Kirby inhaling a copyable enemy, making the copy ability automatically activate and allowing you to press and hold a button to drop an ability.

Kumazaki: We start by thinking about what kind of game we want to create and whether it is something that would be appealing and innovative. We then think about what elements we can incorporate to further enhance the game experience rather than cherry-picking from a list of existing features.

The idea is first cultivated at HAL Laboratory. Once the plan starts taking shape, we share it with Nintendo and move onto the collaboration phase. Every game begins from one small idea and then expands in a way that is a good fit for the Kirby series. During this process, if there is an idea that matches the game design we have in mind, we adopt it regardless of whether it’s an existing or new element. We don’t automatically assume something will be part of the new game because it was there before. Classic Kirby elements are carried over to some extent, but even those are put to the test as we closely examine whether they are a good fit for the game we are working on. We want to make sure we keep challenging ourselves.