Yeah, it's another wretched video game writeup. But I can write other things, honest!
Kirby games are anomalies. How did this frilly pillowcase get to be a major franchise star? How did he get his own anime series? Tell me it's because he's cute, pink and looks good stuffed and placed on a dresser and I'll hit you.... Is this further proof that the only thing needed to make something popular is a massive advertising budget?
While Big-K is certainly cute, and Kirby games are almost by definition meant to be played by little kids, there's something else here besides. How much it is visible depends on which incarnation of Kirby you investigate, because there's two schools of Kirby games, the "Slow and Cute" games, and the "Ass-Kicking" ones. (Actually there is a third school, the "Kirby Gaiden" games, a funky name for all those many spinoffs which make Kirby into a pinball, Breakout ball, miniature golf ball or Tetris cursor. Some of those, like Kirby's Dream Course, are much fun, but in this article I treat them as if they don't exist. Sorry.)
Ass-Kicking Kirby Games
Kirby's Dream Land (Gameboy)
Kirby's Adventure (NES)
Kirby Super Star (SNES)
Kirby: Nightmare in Dreamland (Gameboy Advance)
Slow and Cute
Kirby's Dream Land 2 (Gameboy)
Kirby's Dream Land 3 (SNES)
Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards (Nintendo 64)
Both categories have certain things in common. They are all platform games that get around the central problem of 2-D platform games, that they are all basically the same game, by giving the player's character a radical new ability: infinite (usually), on-demand flight. It makes the traditional platformer source of danger, falling into the Great Abyss, almost irrelevant. They all feature the trademark Kirby behaviors that have been around since his first game, the original Gameboy Kirby's Dream Land. (Kirby was actually gray at first, and didn't get his pink coloration until is debut on a system capable of supporting color.) These behaviors are walk (press to the side on the control pad), jump (press A), inhale (press B), shoot (press B while an enemy is in Kirby's mouth), swallow (press down when enemy is in Kirby's mouth), duck (down on the pad), enter doors (up when in front of one) and fly (up anywhere else). Flying requires a huge uptake of air, ballooning Kirby's size, making him an easier target for the many enemies in a Kirby level and robbing him of his inhale ability while aloft. Flying is also rather slow, while an earthbound Kirby, at least in the ass-kicking games, is quite nimble. Many bosses get their challenge by forcing a player used to flying everywhere to learn how to jump. While flying, Kirby can exhale the air he uses for flight. It comes out as a little puff, which can kill weak enemies, but causes him to fall. A few games add some or all of the following controls: dash (double-tap to the side), slide (down and A) and even block (in Kirby Super Star, press L).
This is so much that a game could be built around just these things, and it was all he had at first. Starting with Kirby's Adventure for the NES, still arguably the best game in the series and the first one to shamelessly display his utter pinkness, Kirby gained the ability to absorb the powers of enemies he inhales, which somehow makes up, yes, even for the pink. Inhaled enemies, if swallowed (don't laugh!), often grant Kirby the trademark power of the enemy consumed. The game referred to this ability as "copy," but we all knew what was really going on. Kirby was taking the devoured, devoured I say!, foe's genetic code and incorporating it into his own, like something out of Alien! This is one of the ways adults can rationalize liking Kirby: he looks cute, but he can steal your soul!
The copied powers tend to come out as either various weapons (don't ask where they come from, as the obvious answer is... unpleasant) or completely new control schemes for Kirby, each of which is almost like a new game in its own right. Many of the enemies grant some different power, and they can be carried from level to level. Furthermore, there are spots on most levels where only certain powers, or even just one power, can be used to proceed. These spots typically seal off secret passages, and searching for these now becomes a central Kirby play objective.
Both classes of Kirby game have at least one major, extra challenge to overcome once the game is finished at 100%. Kirby's Dream Land had the super hard Extra Game (which was the normal game, just much harder), Kirby's Adventure had an Extra Game plus Vs. Boss (which was a gauntlet of all the bosses on one life meter), and all the other games have some variation of Vs. Boss. Kirby's Super Star had the best Vs. Boss variation, an incredible mini-game called "The Arena," which was simply every damn boss in that game, of over thirty, in random order, with random powerups and up to five energy refills between fights, and all on one life. (Super Smash Bros. Melee's All Star mode came from this, and the "between stages" area of that mode even resembles the one in The Arena.) All the Kirby games have some variation upon the theme of Extra Game or Vs. Boss, and despite whatever difficulty level the main game is pitched at, these are always difficult.
The ass-kicking Kirby games are fast-action contests that, while maybe able to be finished, eventually, by little kids, they may have to age a couple of years first. They all rely heavily on sharp reflexes and complete mastery of the various moves available to Kirby. Some of them have incredibly devious secret passages (look out for several invisible doors in each game). Each, except for Dream Land, has a large number of copyable enemy abilities, some of which being quite rare.
Kirby's Dream Land, the only Kirby game without the Copy ability, was also one of the hardest games of the series. Extra lives were very limited and some of the bosses (especially Kracko) relied heavily on split-second reactions and pattern memorization. While Wispy Woods, who has been a boss in every Kirby game, makes his first appearance here, it is Kracko and King Dedede who most exemplify the trademark Kirby boss fight style: an enemy who randomly selects from a number of fast-paced, powerful attacks, each of which allowing only one or two ways to avoid taking damage, and some of which producing as a side effect something an unpowered Kirby can inhale and shoot back. That's right, if you've ever scratched your head at that video game boss who, in attacking your player, gives him exactly the weapon he needs to prevail, then get ready to really wear down that scalp of yours, because every boss in every Kirby game does exactly that.
Kirby's Adventure, which by the way was the very last Nintendo-produced game for the NES, had the Copy function, more levels, entertaining minigames, and the beginning of King Dedede's long, slow reformation. (Here's something of a spoiler: Dedede hasn't really been the bad guy in a Kirby game since the first one.) It also began the search-for-secrets mechanic mentioned above, and it has some real tough ones locked away. Finding them is actually good for very little in pure game-play terms: each one found fills your energy meter and opens a mini-game, but there are only a few such games and many secrets. They all must be found to unlock the Extra Game. Kirby: Nightmare in Dream Land, is a portable, graphical update of Kirby's Adventure.
Kirby Super Star is a rather strange entry in the series. It's not one game but several, of varying difficulties and most with different styles of play. Of them all, Spring Breeze and Dynablade are very easy. Revenge of Meta Knight isn't really too difficult, but is timed. Great Gourmet Race is very short, but kind of fun, being just a race against Dedede through a few different settings. The Great Cave Offensive is probably the best, and longest, game on the cart, consisting entirely of a good number of large areas to explore and devious secret passages in a search for a number of arbitrary collectables, and has some tough bosses. The ostensible main attraction, Milky Way Wishes is actually a bit of a departure, being a collection of selectable worlds Kirby must defeat, Mega Man style, one by one. Enemies cannot be copied in this game, instead, the various powers much be found hidden in each stage. They're all simple to find except one, the until-now useless enemy-granted "Copy" ability, which is in an unmarked location on the stage select screen. Milky Way Wishes finishes up with a shooter level and Marx, a final boss with a lot of personality. Finishing them all unlocks The Arena, which I've mentioned before. There are a couple of other insubstantial mini-games included for no discernable reason, and one's a samurai remake of the gunfighter game from Kirby's Adventure. That's cool.
The best thing about Kirby Super Star, however, is the two-player mode. At any time, Kirby can decide to give up his currently-held power in exchange for a computer-controlled helper. These helpers all look like the monster the power comes from, and many are maybe a little too powerful. Better yet, at any time anyone can pick up the second controller and just start playing. Some bosses are much easier with two players, and since the game always follows Kirby there are few places where having a helper will mess you up.
Slow and Cute
The other Kirby games are good, but seem to be aimed at a younger audience and don't really compare to the fast games. Most of them use a slightly different, larger character design for Kirby, and the enemies are cuter as well. These games tend to be much easier, and none of them have as many powers as the fast Kirby games. Instead of having a very large number of abilities that can be absorbed, almost a different one for each enemy, they tend to have only six or seven, which are typically Kirby staples such as Cutter, Parasol and Sword. They get around the more limited play by either letting Kirby carry two at once (Kirby 64) or by giving him ridable animal companions (Kirby's Dream Land 2 and 3). Each combination of ability and ability, or ability and animal, produces a unique effect. Some are absurdly useful, some absolutely useless, and a few, such as the fish-based Flashbulb ability, are only useful in only one or two places. Most of them are entertaining, but in practice discovering all the various combinations is more of a chore than it's worth. Unfortunately, you still need certain powers to access certain secrets, and it's not always obvious which one you need. A few are unfairly obscure. Your reward for finding all of them is usually access to the "real" boss and ending, which strikes me as kind of cheap. Kirby 64 in particular, I didn't really enjoy until I got to "Boss Butch" mode, Vs. Boss by another name. Oh, and Kirby 64 is also the only Kirby game that doesn't have infinite flight. Instead, Kirby's "flap" move gets weaker the more times it's used without touching the ground, exactly like his Smash Bros. kin.
While there is some good gameplay in the Slow and Cute Kirby games, in most cases the fast games are much more interesting (and much more hip) for adult gamers.
Inhaling two enemies at once is worth extra points in Dream Land, and in all games produces a much stronger attack when spit out.
In the "Kick-Ass" Kirby games, inhaling two enemies at once that have different powers grants Kirby the special one-use "Mix" power (with hilarious, Kirby-as-bartender portrait on the status bar), which gives Kirby a random ability from all those in the game, including the rare, powerful smart-bomb weapons such as Crash, Paint and (uh-oh) Mike. In both Kirby's Adventure and Kirby Super Star, there exist secrets that require abilities that are so obscure that it's actually easier to get them by lucking out with Mix than backtracking and finding the power the normal way, then working back without losing it.
Always, always be on the lookout for invisible doors. They're just like normal doors (press up to enter), it's just that you can't see them. Even Kirby's Dream Land has them. Most of them will have some subtle clue as to their existence and location. If you ever find a long passage that leads to what appears to be a dead-end, be sure not to take it at face value. Also, devote extra attention to unusual background features. Especially (hint, hint!) moons.
Kirby games tend to have unusually ingenious bosses that, as I've said before, always give you exactly the weapons you need to defeat them. But that doesn't mean that entering the fight with a specific particular certain power might not make the fight laughably easy. They're just around in case you reach the boss with no power, or lose the one you have while fighting.