Nintendo isn’t afraid to goof around with its mascot characters, throwing them around from genre to genre and seeing what sticks. Mario is best described by the titles he hasn’t held; he’s been a Doctor, a referee, a golfer, a tennis player, and a teacher (my keyboard skills certainly improved). As Nintendo has said, it’s a way for the company to experiment, while still keeping that wide appeal its creations have. The formula works, and we’ve received many great games from this dabbling.
But I’d argue that none adhere to these changes as well as Kirby. While Mario appears to be a jack of all trades, I don’t feel his forays into golf, tennis and the party scene are intrinsically ‘Mario’. They’re quality games, for sure, but a proper Mario adventure isn’t just about Chain-Chomps and Super Mushrooms. Throwing a warp pipe on a golf course doesn’t nail what makes Mario special.
Why Kirby succeeds is his versatility is built right in. While his original Game Boy outing lacked his transformative abilities, this important facet found its way into the titles that followed it. Kirby is intrinsically a jack of all trades; with one big gulp he becomes whatever he wishes. His ability to adapt is what has kept him alive through all these years. He’s more than a mellow Mario, he’s whatever we need him to be.
It’s funny to think that my favourite Kirby games are those that stray far from his Game Boy roots. But that is Kirby’s magic in effect, he’s the perfect subject for experimentation. His body can turn into anything, and in turn, can do just as much.
Canvas Curse for the DS is a fantastic example of this, one I love to cite as it’s the Kirby game I love the butt out of. Here Kirby becomes a ball, pushed along a roller coaster-like world with a tap on the touch screen. A drastic departure from his slower paced hop and boppers, but still a Kirby game through and through. I just feel so happy as I play this game, watching Kirby bump around the stages. Even in ball form our pink hero still manages to use the abilities of his enemies, which only increases the frantic feeling of Canvas Curse inspires. Not only are you flying through the stages, but a Waddle Dee’s beam is bursting out of Kirby as you steer him along.
Moving even furtheraway from the Kirby formula is Mass Attack. While still a platformer, it goes so far as to remove Copy Abilities altogether. This has occurred before (even the original Kirby game lacked this series ‘staple’), but you also weren’t tasked with guiding a plethora of Kirbys (Kirbies?) at once. In using the DS’s touch screen, players aid as many as ten Kirbys in an effort to squish them down into a single being once more. The mass of Kirbys move and attack where you tap, which means you play the role as an advisor. They’ll always obey your commands, but tricky situations arise when you need to take this blob’s maneuverability into account. Wrecking foes with a body slam of ten Kirbys is a blast, but the larger they come the harder they fall. A bigger group means a bigger target, and one best be careful, as each level requires a particular number of Kirbys in your party.
There’s a case to be made for experimentation in the Kirby series. In willing to take the series in weird directions, Nintendo has managed to have a pink circle with eyes outlive the majority of its competition. By assuming the identity of others, Kirby has made it through life without one of his own. Not the best role model, but it makes for one hell of a game.