The original grey Nintendo Game Boy was a huge success when it was released in 1988. Millions of kids (and adults) picked up the new portable game system and a number of games, such as Tetris and Super Mario Land, the latest in the Mario series. While Super Mario Land captured the fun of the original NES game, the game suffered from a serious hardware limitation. The LCD pixels on the Game Boy screen did not fade fast enough to provide very crisp animation, and when the entire scene moved quickly (which often occurred in side-scrolling games) the screen would become a wash of green and the player would suffer frustrating random deaths. To resolve this, Nintendo and HAL, a second party of Nintendo, created a game featuring a slow-moving character that was little more than a circle with feet and put him in a sidescroller, similar to Super Mario Bros. The result was Kirby's Dream Land.
It's been a long time since 1992, and meanwhile Kirby has starred in 11 games total, six of these having been platform adventure games. Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards marks Kirby's first starring role on the Nintendo 64 (not counting the ill-fated Kirby's Dream Ride). This is also the first time that Kirby's world has been rendered in 3D, although the game remains a 2D platformer like those earlier in the series.
The game is separated into six stars (worlds) -- each with around four levels and a boss level. Kirby must proceed through the levels, finding the crystals, fighting and avoiding enemies and dangerous obstacles. Kirby traverses levels by: waddling rather slowly, "running", jumping, and flying for short periods of time. The controls are simple and responsive, using the directional pad instead of the analog stick for control.
Fortunately for everyone involved, Kirby can use his patented power-absorbing abilities to help complete the levels. Kirby gains these abilities by inhaling specific enemies and then swallowing them. There are seven basic abilities available for consumption in Kirby 64: ice, fire, needle, cutter, spark, stone, and bomb. Each of these abilities has a specific attack: If Kirby gets the ice ability, he can exhale freezing breath, or if he gets the rock ability, he turns into a walking boulder. A new addition to the ability system for Kirby 64 is that Kirby can absorb two abilities at a time to create new powers. For example, if Kirby consumes a fire creature and a cutter creature at the same time, he will get a flaming sword. Mixing and matching the seven abilities to find the 28 combinations is one of the more enjoyable parts of the game. I had a great time playing with Fireworks Kirby, Kirby filling the screen with colorful explosions then falling to the ground charred and smoking. Refrigerator Kirby uses snack food as projectiles, knocking out enemies, and can use the leftovers to heal himself. Like most Kirby games, there are some abilities that are useful or funny and there are some abilities that you want to get rid of as soon as you get them.
Unfortunately, the large number of abilities available in Kirby 64 does little to hide that the abilities been dumbed-down considerably when compared to the best games of the series. Most of the powers in Kirby 64 only have one action -- activated with a simple button press. Few abilities require multiple button presses or a directional move before pressing a button. If you acquire a special ability and use it twice, you've practically mastered it. This is a pale shadow of the control scheme in Kirby's Super Star, and to a lesser extent Kirby's Adventure, which treated the abilities more as roles that Kirby could play. The parasol in Kirby's Adventure is an excellent example of how an ability can affect the play style. When Kirby absorbs the parasol ability, he wanders around with an umbrella over his shoulder and throws it out to attack. When Kirby jumps, the parasol operates as a parachute to slow Kirby's fall. These subtle touches make the player feel like they are actually carrying around a parasol. Super Star took another step forward by introducing Street Fighter-like special moves. This allowed players to learn abilities like characters in a fighting game. When compared Super Star and Adventure, it seems that the designers of Kirby 64 never took time to play the earlier games to understand what made the abilities so appealing.
There are two different (and largely separate) goals in the game. One is to complete each of the levels and progress to the final boss. The other is to collect the three crystal shards hidden in each level. Progressing through the levels is very easy and can be completed in less than a day by experienced players. Completing the game this way will only provide you with the partial ending; in order to get the true ending and fight the true final boss, the player must collect all the shards hidden in each level. Collecting the shards is intended for more experienced players and is designed to extend the gaming experience to around three days of solid playing. Collecting all the crystals looks good on paper, but the implementation kills any desire for completeness. When I played the game, I collected as many crystals as I could for each level, but if I got stuck, I would continue on with the next level. (I assume most other gamers would react similarly.) When I completed the first end boss, I had another 10 crystals to go. Much like before you receive any benefit. As a result, I had almost no motivation to get the other 10, and finishing the game was an exercise in boredom.
There has been some fanfare about Kirby 64 being in 2-1/2D, meaning that the game is in 3D and uses 3D models and scenes, but that Kirby can only navigate in 2D, like the original Super Mario Bros. Kirby leaps into 3D intact thanks to the wonderful character modeling system that HAL has been perfecting through the N64 Pokemon games -- Pokemon Snap and Pokemon Stadium. Kirby looks exactly how a soft, round, pink puffball should. Subtle lighting effects, like the red glow of the lava, enhance the feeling that Kirby is part of his environment. Unfortunately, the enemies that inhabit the levels did not survive the transition well. Many are very simple 3D shapes with flat coloring, and few textures. Theres nothing wrong with having simple enemies, but when the beautifully rendered Kirby stands next to a poorly textured and modeled frog, the clash is disruptive and it distracts the player from being immersed in the game world.
The levels of Kirby 64 are pulled out of the platform cliché handbook and thrown into 3D, including the grassy start world, the fire world, the ice world, and the jungle world. While there are a number of beautiful levels (along with the majority of bland ones), but the levels never really communicate danger, threat, or suspense. In good games, every level does a little to raise the tension of the game and ramp up to the climax. The levels in Kirby 64 could be shuffled and no one would probably notice.
Any dreams of interesting 3D interactions being introduced into the 2D game disappear gradually after completing each level. The use of 3D in the 2D world is so infrequent that you are startled when it occurs, even though Kirby is navigating through what appears to be a 3D world. Sadly, the game fails to do anything more interesting than falling pillars or bookshelves that smash you or flying enemies coming out of the background. This is more of a personal issue, because I respect HAL as a very innovative developer, and it is frustrating that they use 3D less than Yoshi's Island -- a Super NES game that used the FX chip to create far more compelling 2D/3D interactions five years ago.
Outside of the single player, HAL decided to throw in wonderful mini-games, accessible outside the main game. One-Hundred-Yard Hop, Bumper Crop Bump and Checkerboard Chase can all be enjoyed with only one player, but are best when you have three friends around. One-Hundred-Yard Hop is a very simple racing game in which you race against three other competitors to the end of a 100-hop course. The goal of Bumper Crop Bump is to collect the most fruit falling from the trees while trying to prevent your opponents from collecting any. Players can roll other players out of the way in order to grab the fruit themselves, making this a game of funny steals and misses. Checkerboard Chase is a fast-paced strategic game and is by far the deepest and most enjoyable of the mini-games. While these do little to help the single player game, they do round out the entire package quite well.
Even with all the new abilities and great mini-games, Kirby 64 is a disappointment. I found the single-player game to be an average side-scroller, a disappointment from developers as talented as HAL. The best things that Kirby's adventures are known for, such as interesting abilities and great boss fights, have been thoughtlessly removed. We are left with what looks and controls like a Kirby game, but lacks the attention to detail and fun that made the series classic. Once a player has seen all the abilities in the game there is little to do that is enjoyable. The included mini-games help increase the fun-factor for the product as a whole, but does nothing to extend the genre or make the rest of the proceedings any more bearable.