Thursday, June 19, 2014

Ten Years of Kirby ~Reverie 7~ Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards

NOTICE: Due to the jaw-dropping amount of shitty emulator/watermarked/black bordered/pixellated screenshots provided for this particular game, quality between the images presented in this article will vary. Until I purchase a viable screencapturing device of my own, please bear with this minor issue for now.


The new millennium, 2000. As opposed to the Pokemon-propped Game Boy, the Nintendo 64 was in no shortage of troubles: its game release schedule still remained barren outside of Nintendo's own releases,  customers continued flocking to the Sony Playstation and pre-ordered its upcoming successor in droves, and the Nintendo 64 Disk Drive peripheral was cancelled as quickly as it arrived in Japan. Preparations were well underway for shifting to the Nintendo Gamecube, as eventually evidenced by the N64's paltry 2001 lineup (a distressing transition that would send off every Nintendo console henceforth), and so the media ate up the console's final heavy-hitters: Rare's Perfect Dark and Banjo Tooie, as well as the Zelda installment Majora's Mask.

No one seemed to have the time for the latest Kirby game's debut on the system, least of all creator Masahiro Sakurai himself. Having recently completed a little all-star crossover called Super Smash Bros., Sakurai seemed to show meager interest in his puffball's debut in 3D (despite his inclusion in the aforementioned fighting game) and, aside from a minor voice credit as King Dedede, had absolutely no involvement in Kirby 64's development. It would be hasty to state he had lost all interest in the world of Dream Land, as he'd go on to two develop two more Kirby games and created guidelines for the creative staff involved in the Kirby of the Stars anime adaption (his abnormally long dialogue for the character's page on the Japanese Super Smash Bros. Melee Dojo website, of which was being updated as the show was about to air in Japan, evidences his then-nostalgic reflection on the series). Rumors, however, not only persisted he never laid eyes upon the N64 installment until its release, but his dissatisfaction of the troubled development history for Kirby Air Ride. His citation of tired sequelization following his eventual resignation from HAL Laboratory remains the only proof regarding his series fatigue, and with six Kirby titles under his belt, perhaps the man felt his creativity was being stifled. 


Despite the indifferent shrugs from the gaming media and the series' own creator, HAL Laboratory continued to truck on with the game. Details on Kirby 64's development remains sparse; aside from apparent plans to launch the game on the ill-fated N64DD add-on and screenshots that initially indicated playable roles from Waddle Dee, King Dedede, and the painter girl Adeline, only one particular design choice remains evident even within its beta screenshots: the decision to retain the linear 2D gameplay of old. We perhaps have our answer to the muted reception from, at the very least, the world of gaming: with every other classic gaming icon jumping into free-roaming 3D, why didn't Kirby make the same jump? A look into Nintendo's list of cancelled N64 projects holds a likely answer, with longtime franchises such as Metroid and Fire Emblem struggling to properly gestate into the polygonal realm. In particular, HAL Laboratory faced a troubling transition to 3D development, as numerous projects--including Kirby Air Ride and Mother 3--were being cancelled left and right. Only Super Smash Bros.--of which featured 3D graphics but was confined to 2D space--was released without a hitch, and perhaps Kirby 64 followed its example to avoid any similar issues that doomed its HAL brothers.

Did it pay off? Criticism from the gaming media did not bear much love for Kirby 64; it was considered adequate, yes, but was rated as only a trivial venture in the grand scheme of ambitious cartoony platformers. Much like Kirby's Dream Land 3, the game was welcomed by the Kirby fanbase with a division; some loved it for its new spin on the Copy Ability formula, some hated it for the slower gameplay. From a personal perspective, this split was lost upon my na├»ve 2nd Grade graduate self, as I too busy anticipating the season finale of Digimon and regularly munching on CatDog Cheese Nips. Regardless, the impending release of Kirby 64 did catch my eye: I was only familiar with the titular character's appearance in Super Smash Bros., and was eager to finally try out his source material for myself. It wasn't the game that kickstarted my fascination with the series (that would be Kirby's Adventure), but I still hold it dear for introducing me to another avenue of the company that was taking over my childhood life.

As a young adult diving into the Dream Collection anniversary pack, however, a familiar figure potentially stood in the way of my revisiting the game: the director, Shinichi Shimomura. While he still had some good games under his belt (Kirby's Dream Land 2/Kirby's Dream Land 3), it was these very games that possessed level design flaws so severe that I was nearly turned off them altogether. Dream Land 2's introductory mishaps were still fresh in my memory, and with Dream Land 3 falling into similar traps, I feared Shimomura's final attempt in the director's chair would only mirror his past mistakes.


As I engrossed myself into Kirby's galaxy-trotting adventure, I let out a sigh of relief when I reached the teardrop-shaped Aqua Star, realizing I nothing to fear. He finally got it right.

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Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards is an unusual Kirby game. I say this while knowing Kirby games are an oddity in themselves: almost all of them are designed for anyone (mainly children) to complete, and they typically center around the objective of eating cherubic critters. However, I cannot help but notice its many incongruities: the roaming camera angles that circle the levels evidence an ambitious undertaking from HAL's part, yet the game is still confined to two-dimensional space. Many Nintendo 64 games ignored the controller's directional pad, yet Kirby 64 functions primarily on its input. It even does away with traditional series canon: it is the only Kirby game where the titular character cannot float indefinitely (barring some of his more experimental titles), it is the sole Kirby where mini-bosses are just larger versions of regular enemies--providing for rather uninspired sequences--and the only one with an exclusive theme for obtaining the Invincibility Candy item.

It's different, perhaps too different. I imagine most who were turned off by Dream Land 3 echoed the same complaints here, as it wouldn't be a stretch to say Kirby 64 is within the same vein as the SNES title. Aside from sharing the same director and in-game antagonist (Dark Matter, the cluster of sentient, evil smog spawned by the fallen angel-inspired Zero/02), both of the games are among the slowest of the Kirby pantheon and rely heavily on gimmicky applications of the Copy Ability as opposed to branching out on Kirby Super Star's in-depth extensions for Kirby's entire arsenal.


And yet, it works. Kirby 64 genuinely works. It's not perfect by any stretch of the imagination; at the very least, I'd never dream of placing it on the same pedestal as Kirby Super Star or Kirby's Adventure, as it's host to a numerable amount of flaws. But I hold Kirby 64 in high regard for what it means, in that I can finally play through the entirety of a Shimomura-directed game without being bogged down by shitty level design. I can play through Kirby 64 and not be induced into boredom. I am constantly intrigued every time by how I can shift through its unique take the Copy Ability on a dime. Like Dream Land 3, I am drawn to Kirby 64 in how it represents an abnormality, only this time it is successful across the board.


For this game, Shimomura and the gang ditch the animal partners--a charming mechanic on its own, but not substantial enough to provide fully compelling gameplay---for something completely new: combining Copy Abilities. While Kirby can get by with his normal array of powers (including Fire, Cutter, Spark, Stone, Bomb, Ice, and Needle), why bother when you can mix-and-match to craft exciting combinations? These aren't just souped-up versions of his old powers, either: there are genuinely creative inventions from these mergers, ranging from wonderfully badass (the GIGANTIC FLAMING SWORD resulting from Fire+Cutter) to hilarious (probably the most cited examples is where Spark and Ice turns Kirby into a food-spawning refrigerator).


Critics of this system write it off as a collection of one-trick ponies, as they lack the depth found in earlier titles. To be fair, this is a reasonable criticism: nothing really tops the beat-em-'up action of Super Star, as its success can be attributed to being featured in 65-70% of all Kirby games following 2004's Kirby and the Amazing Mirror. I am also quick to secede that it's the superior system, as the quick succession of inputs not only feels more intuitive but grants a greater sense of control and power to the player. While the shallowness of the animal partner mechanic was a partial detriment to my experiences with Dream Land 2 and 3, I don't mind its spiritual successor here.

Kirby 64 works not because of constantly engaging level design or fast movement; in fact, it suffers from the same problems as Shimomura's previous works. This isn't to say there aren't moments of creativity found in the areas Kirby traverses--I'm quite fond of how it tackles stage hazards--but his molasses-like movement is quite a downgrade from Super Star's sugar-rush. It's instantly a turn-off for anyone who desires to master speed and precision in their 2D action/platformer games, and while I can certainly respect, it's certainly a shame since they'll be missing out on a creative gameplay element.


Kirby 64 works because the player genuinely wants to see what they'll create out of this exciting system. It'd be one thing if the Copy Ability combinations were actually half-baked, but they're not. With such combo highlights including the GIGANTIC FLAMING SWORD and exploding shuriken and successive strings of fireworks being available in the very first level, the player is instantly driven to find out what other kooky ideas the game is ready to toss at them. Any disappointment regarding the low number of singular, unique Copy Abilities is quickly ebbed away by the growing fascination of perpetually combining them. What will happen if I combine Ice and Bomb? Stone and Fire? Favorites are quickly found as the system becomes ingrained within the player and are actively sought out.


Even better is how these mixtures aren't as stiff as detractors would have you think. Yes, a fair number of them are restricted to a singular action, but who cares when they possess such visual, destructive impact? Take the dual-Needle ability for example: in the manner of a swiss army knife, an artillery of random sharp objects--from a pencil to a cactus to a bee stinger--violently protrude from Kirby in a circular formation. The collection of buzzing sharp objects is dazzling enough, but that's not even getting into its actual execution: due to its arc-like movement, any enemies swept up in the maelstrom are swung around for its duration, dying in a satisfying pop as the attack ends. The satisfaction of pulling this off against a swarm of enemies goes without saying (the same goes for a similar mechanic involving the dual-Ice ability, where Kirby rolls up into a giant snowball and mows over anyone in his path. Fun explosion times await!). The gradual realization that this is the only game in the world where--thanks to Spark+Cutter--you can have an underwater lightsaber duel with a killer whale is just icing on the cake.

 So, yes, the Copy Abilities here are mainly designed to blaze through crowds of enemies as opposed to quick-fire versatility. In this way, it's akin to Kirby's Adventure in that some abilities can safely accommodate for any situation (the aforementioned dual-Needle ability, for instance), whereas others can be a tad unwieldy for certain situations (typically anything slow/stationary when dashing away from screen-scrolling hazards). It is a slower game than Adventure, but the Copy Ability mixtures here remain involved and compelling due to both the player's intrigue and their interaction with the environment; in particular, their role in unearthing the titular Crystal Shards (some of which end up being real headscratchers to locate).



I could go on about other gameplay features---Waddle Dee's fun vehicular rides and the mounted King Dedede escapades, for starters--but I'd like to move on to what I suspect differentiates Kirby 64 from the rest of its brethren: the camera. Consider how previous Kirby titles (or any ol' 2D sidescroller, really) were constructed with a camera fixed solely on the movement of the player avatar. Wherever Kirby hops around, it'll always follows him from the side, regardless of whether he's heading backwards, upwards, or straight on. Here, the camera fluctuates depending on the level's own progression--it'll still operate from the side to properly follow Kirby's movement, but the angle will always slowly shift to present the next big obstacle coming his way. It'll gradually loom behind him, for instance, whenever he's about to enter a gigantic structure, or scroll around him when he's ascending an oversized staircase.


Despite remaining confined within sidescrolling gameplay, Kirby 64 is still clearly a product of its time. Unlike the fixed-camera movement of Kirby's Epic Yarn and Kirby's Return to Dream Land, this dynamic focus is a telltale sign of Kirby 64's intent to impress with it's pseudo-transition into 3D. Does it work? By itself, there's certainly some effective moments--in particular, being swallowed up by the massive drawbridge/entrance of King Dedede's castle. However, it's another one of the game's innate quirks that I imagine will require some adjusting to; it is, after all, the only Kirby game that does anything like this, and it can occasionally serve to only highlight Kirby's slow movement. I mean, I don't particularly mind it since you can actually run unlike Dream Land 2 (that, and I've found traversing with powers such as the Light bulb bomb, and, of course, charging straight ahead with a GIGANTIC FLAMING SWORD eases the tedium of movement); yet, I again imagine my opinion isn't shared across the fanbase, and there are undoubtedly times where the camera takes forever to pan around Kirby's movement as he's about to enter a grand abandoned mall or something. It functions well enough, but the age is telling.


Speaking of age, there's the matter of discussing graphics. If Kirby 64 accomplishes one thing here, it's being bright. Poppy. The game is adorned with an abundance of solid primary colors that could make even Yoshi's Story blush. Okay, maybe not, but there's no denying how undeniably bright the game is. As opposed to many sidescrolling platformers of the time, Kirby 64 makes no use of prerendered graphics and instead guns for full-on polygons. As a later N64 title, any presentational issues with with low-poly models are skirted around in favor of surprisingly smooth characters (Waddle Dee!). Regardless, HAL's awkward transition into 3D is still visibly apparent in ways that go beyond the camera.

Take a gander at the game's Whispy Woods boss battle. The "checkerboard" aesthetic pattern that constantly populate Kirby are at full effect here. It's everywhere from the trees to the stumps to the grass texture to even Whispy Woods himself, which all combines to form a weird "quilted" motif that's offset by the blinding colors. Despite the creativity taken with the traditional Whispy Woods sequence, it's a bit too much for the eyes to process.

HAL's inexperience with 3D is also evident in certain areas, most notably clumsy "stitching" of the foreground planes. If you check out this video link, note how the seams of the sand texture rapidly fluctuate between the texture mapping and immensely detracting black space spawning from the skybox. While brief and fortunately not that common, it's an obvious visual detriment whenever it pops up and  renders the game's graphical age more awkwardly than it should.

It would be all too easy to dock points off in visuals, but there's also points in its favor. For one thing, the animation and design of Kirby himself is spectacular. Of course, he'd have to look great given the ambitious undertaking of mixing copy abilities and the imagination required for the payoff,  but it must be commended regardless. Some of his facial animations alone heighten the fun of his new abilities--the obvious highlight being his dreamy-like rave when performing the dual-spark ability, closing his eyes as enemies are singed by his three-ringed electric shield. This was probably already the case, but if there was any evidence Kirby did not give a shit about slaughtering innocents, it is found in this very move.



There's also this rare display of surprise--usually reserved for the story cutscenes--that has me laughing my ass off everytime I see it. The above is just CGI artwork of the Waddle Dee boat ride sequence, but trust me, it's funny**. Actually, as I was fruitlessly looking for screenshots, I happened to come across pictures of a very rare Japanese keychain depicting the above artwork.



I must claim it for my own. It's calling to me...


Anyway, inexperience and blinding poppiness aside, Kirby 64 does look good overall. Much of the game's backgrounds take inspiration from the simple pastel of Dream Land 3, albeit in more of the aforementioned quilted/paper cutout style (considering how boxed/cubed game environments tended to look in those days, the latter fits in quite well). This, however, varies: this look is typically reserved for areas such as the above forest level, where a pinch of parallax scrolling helps the sprite-based 2D backgrounds appear more immersive. It being the first 3D Kirby game, however, paves the way for fully-polygonal backgrounds, as seen below.


I generally find myself more drawn to these sorts of backgrounds. While the aforementioned paper cut-out backgrounds do a good job of masking any boxed corners and whatnot, they make the same mistake as Dream Land 3 in gunning for uninspired designs. HAL clearly put their imaginative priorities into these fully rendered backgrounds, regardless of whether or not it fits the franchise. Backgrounds such as the floating cubes inside the desert spaceship are perfectly serviceable elements of a children's fantasy, while the factory level is a serious case of nightmare fuel. This isn't to say the 2D backgrounds are bad in themselves, but one can only wonder if HAL put in equal effort into both styles.

Regardless, any minor disappointments regarding visuals are quickly forgotten in the face of the game's biggest accomplishment: the soundtrack. Jun Ishikawa and Hirokazu Ando return to score possibly one of the greatest soundtracks to grace the Kirby series, and this is saying a lot given the weak instrumentation of the Nintendo 64's sound processor. Kirby 64 avoids the relatively tinny sounds of Star Fox 64 and Ocarina of Time, free from any weak percussion or trumpets that would no doubt hamper any great composition. It already impresses straight from the beginning, with the above file select theme inducing a mysterious air of nostalgia through an alluring repetition of chimes. The music of Kirby often impresses with its variances into other musical territories, yet this one track alone promises a grand feast of genres.

 

This is quickly proven by the segue into the above larger-than-life theme for the world (galaxy?) map. It's every bit as grand as the actual expanses of space, yet gentle as the twinkling stars of a child's fantasy. While not nearly as haunting as the deafening roar of Dream Land 3's Pop Star map, the way this songs prods at wonder and discovery trumps it in my mind. It's great for soothing the nerves.


Much of the level themes are successful in their own right, an early highlight being the Quiet Forest theme that accompanies the aforementioned woodland area. It is the perfect representation of fall season, with bell chimes of melancholy and nostalgia permeating the entire song. Much like how Adventure's Rainbow Resort recalls childhood memories of starry skies and sleepy nighttime car rides, this song summons the isolated memory of a family walk into the woods, leaves crunching beneath tiny shoes as you sit beside the creek. It is the among the top of Kirby's more softer tracks, crafting a cozy blend of atmosphere and moodiness into a beautiful piece of reflection.

 

Another highlight is the Factory Inspection theme, which has served as a recurring theme since its inception. Harsh clanks throughout the dark piece are eventually silenced by the unsettling mashing of piano keys, a chill-inducing accompaniment to the sights and sounds of the factory level. Seriously, what's up with those test tubes? They're too cute to be nightmare-inducing, but they're still unsettling regardless.



A couple of familiar arrangements pop up here and there as well, including the above take on Adventure's Butter Building. While it retains the upbeat pop of the original, it's largely a feel-good rendition that perfectly compliments the sky area it accompanies. This is possibly my favorite level theme just for, well, the feel-good quality alone. It is the distillation of Kirby into aural form--a poppy, smile-inducing piece that reaches into the purity of your childhood memories--and I couldn't be happier listening to it.


I'd also like to grant kudos to the boss music. While the mini-boss theme is as uninspired as the battles it accompanies (a repetitive tune alongside regular versions of baddies), the regular theme is a heart-pumping piece frantic danger that is the perfect sort of boss music: one that's aimed at involving the player through its own animated vigor. Perhaps I am not normally invested in routine fights with Whispy Woods and a troublesome trio of beam-spewing diamonds, yet I find myself taking them seriously through the song's moxie. The wonders game music can perform!

 

Yet it is, however, but a prelude to the ultimate piece of the game: the final boss theme. It is every bit as nightmarish and dark as Marx's Theme before it; perhaps even more so, in fact. From the way it opens with an indescribable black hole of a noise to an ominous series of bells and wind chimes, it is powerfully haunting throughout and will no doubt leave a strong impression on anyone who completes the game. For a boss whose best-known trait is shedding a single tear of blood (well, in an illustration for the credits sequence, anyway), I can think of no better theme for--by Kirby standards--such a chilling figure.



So we have well-rounded gameplay, a beautiful well-rounded soundtrack, and a well-rounded sense of curiosity. But what about content? If there's one lesson Kirby 64 puts into practice from its Sakurai seniors, it's that offering players a wealth of content will keep them coming back again and again. The new Copy Ability system, the Crystal Shard hunt, and the collectible Enemy Info cards do a great job of prolonging the single-player mode, whether it be for the sake of 100% completion or for the sake of curiosity.

The game also comes with a four-player multiplayer mode involving three mini-games: 100-Yard Dash, a cute race-to-the-finish over puddles (complete with an arrangement of the Gourmet Race theme!); Bumper Crop Bump, where the gang violently scrambles for falling fruit, and Checker Board Chase, in where...you know what, let's just talk about that one.

I actually don't even know where to begin in describing Checker Board Chase. I want to say it's like checkers albeit with sentient pieces that fall victim to the Smash Bros. "ring-out" philosophy, but then I think of the color-coded beams the individual players decorate the board with and suddenly I'm at a loss. Just watch the video and it'll make sense. In any case, it's by far the most compelling of Kirby 64's multiplayer offerings, as it continuously wracks the mind as the board gradually shrinks and collapses with each fallen player.

This isn't to say I don't like the other two games. They're enjoyable and serve as fun timewasters, but I've always chugged through them as preludes to Checker Board Chase. There's a prevalent sense of cutthroat competition present that's not found in the other two, and that's why I'm drawn to it more. It's constantly involved, requires quick-thinking and precise precision, it's just great.

Is it enough, though? Some Kirby fans just aren't interested in that. The overall game is still too slow for some, still too deviant, too weird. And I respect that. But for me, the game succeeds on capturing the most vital element of Kirby: fulfilling childhood's sense of achievement while a) not pandering to babyish levels and b) feature enough flexible content to hook in experienced gamers. Dream Land 2 and 3 had issues with this, Kirby 64 doesn't. It's consistently satisfying to play throughout and its core gimmick doesn't grow old.


Still too slow, you say? Maybe, but I'm sure children won't mind, and I can prove it, too. Check out the above screenshot. Kirby has just inhaled an enemy, but the player can choose to not swallow it. The  player can dispose of any enemy he wishes through a toss, but what happens if Kirby leaps off a platform while carrying a Bronto Burt? Suddenly, the player lifts off from the ground, soaring off to the Burt's whims. If Kirby's carrying Sawyer, the circular saw's blades will cut through anything from above. If Kirby tosses away the stacking-ring shaped Cairn, the rock creature falls apart with the signature clumsy nature of a toddler.

I experimented with this endlessly back in the day, and I know that I'm not the only one. It's a whole hidden layer of the game hidden beneath the surface, and it tugs and pulls at the curious mind akin to that of combining abilities. It's not a Sakurai trademark in itself, yet his desire for beginners to further acqauint themselves into gaming's idiosyncrasies is plastered all over it. Even if the man never touched the game, Kirby 64 is infused with his spirit. Maybe not all of it, but some. And boy, am I ever thankful for that.


*Ha, I was just kidding! Stare at the glory of his expression to your leisure.

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So how about that there E3?!? I'll have my own impressions up soon!

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