You wouldn’t guess it from his child-like appearance, but gaming’s much-loved spherical hero turned 30 this year. Kicking off his first adventure in 1992, Kirby has grown into a juggernaut in the game industry, starring in dozens of titles and making appearances in countless others. The long-running franchise is among video games’ best-selling. One of its most successful titles, Kirby and the Forgotten Land, released in March 2022. It’s not only breaking series records but also sucked in a whole new generation of fans. To celebrate the formidable gumball’s third decade in the industry, we’re looking back at the franchise, from how it started to where it’s floating now.
Kirby Creator Connections
“Even when our customers played the games we developed, I think they played them thinking, ‘This game was developed by Nintendo.’ And, well, that wasn’t good.”
This is how Masayoshi Tanimura, current chairman of the board of Kirby-developer HAL Laboratory, explains the company’s unique logo – a dog nestled around three eggs in a nest – on the company’s website. The problem of mistaken developer identity has followed the studio throughout the years. Asking who developed the powerful puffball’s latest title inevitably leads to a few still guessing Nintendo, while others might suppose his origins lie with the Super Smash Bros. series. While these are off the mark, there is good reason players make the associations, as HAL Laboratory – and Kirby – are intimately linked to both.
The image above comes from an official strategy guide for the pink powerhouse’s second title, Kirby’s Adventure. It shows three crucial figures in the game’s creation attempting to draw the protagonist by hand. Look closely. If you recognize them, you may begin to understand how Kirby connects some of gaming’s giants.
On the left is Masahiro Sakurai. Some fans might recognize Sakurai as the face behind the Super Smash Bros. series, featured in numerous presentations for Ultimate’s various character reveals. However, nearly ten years before the original Super Smash Bros. launched on the Nintendo 64, the former HAL Laboratory game director and designer created Kirby.
The figures in the middle and right are Nintendo legends Shigeru Miyamoto and Satoru Iwata, respectively. Miyamoto, famously the designer behind Mario, Zelda, and more, is now one of Nintendo’s most familiar faces and directors, but he also played a role in Kirby’s development. Speaking to Game Informer in 2011, Miyamoto discussed the character’s early years, confirming Kirby’s name was partially a nod to John Kirby, a lawyer who represented Nintendo.
Satoru Iwata served as Nintendo president before his death in 2015. But before he ascended to that lofty rank, Iwata was a programmer (and later president) at HAL Laboratory working on the formative Kirby titles, among other projects. He had many talents, but free-hand drawing was not among them, judging from the above picture.
Beginning The Dream
Kirby did not have his now-iconic copy powers when he first flew onto the 8-bit scene, but the character nonetheless spent the early games transforming. When Sakurai began work on what would eventually become Kirby’s Dream Land, he created a quick, spherical model for the main character. It was meant as a placeholder until the team could mock up a more intricate design. Fans will never know what that more sophisticated character might have looked like because the developers grew attached to the simplistic and cute figure. With a few tweaks, Kirby’s round form was born.
The name of the protagonist, as well as the game, was in flux throughout development. Kirby was originally dubbed Popopo, and thus the various titles the studio entertained for the game included this nomenclature. The continuous alterations led to the franchise’s first title getting a few interesting marketing variations. For example, it’s possible to find published references to Twinkle Popo, an early game title, and Kirby’s Dream Land’s official North American cover art famously features a pale protagonist rather than the pink one Sakurai envisioned.
Throughout the ’90s, the franchise’s lore grew along with Kirby’s powers. The initial title introduced his home – Dream Land on Planet Popstar – series antagonist King Dedede, and Kirby’s all-consuming talents. The next installment debuted the pastel puffball’s unique gift of taking on the abilities and appearance of those he gobbled up. The success was almost immediate, encouraging the creators to make direct follow-ups to the mainline titles and branch out into spinoffs. Kirby invaded pinball machines, took up golf, and tried his hand at puzzles. However, with a new generation of Nintendo hardware on the horizon, Sakurai’s creation was about to step into the next level.
The franchise’s first game starring Kirby in all his puffy, 3D glory was Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards. Despite the new frontier, the gameplay didn’t alter radically. This title was, at heart, a 2D side-scroller with a cool, new look. While this was the first Kirby game with 3D graphics, it certainly wasn’t the first time the character had been in a HAL Laboratory game flirting with 3D.
The year before Kirby 64 was released, Sakurai debuted a Nintendo-centric fighting game pitting the publisher’s biggest icons against each other, called Super Smash Bros. Kirby earned a place on the initial roster, attracting a new audience. Sakurai became increasingly less involved with the development of Kirby’s 3D titles and soon after left HAL Laboratory. Despite the creator’s absence, the franchise continued floating along into the new era with a mostly warm reception from fans and critics alike.
Looking Back, Moving Forward
Throughout the later 2000s, the franchise’s major titles stayed firmly rooted in the past. Even more than a decade after Kirby leaped into 3D, games like Kirby’s Return to Dreamland stuck to the signature side-scrolling formula. In 2012, HAL Laboratory marked the character’s 20th anniversary with a Wii collection that included six early entries.
Though Kirby made his way onto a dozen different platforms with steady game releases over many years, his most recent adventure proved the pink hero can still pull out some surprises. Kirby and the Forgotten Land was the franchise’s first foray into an open-world-like structure, and the new direction is paying off.
According to a report by GamesIndustry.biz, the title broke the series’ launch records in the U.K., outselling the previous first-week record-holder nearly three times over. Interestingly, its predecessor was fellow Switch title Kirby Star Allies. It seems the mascot is gaining momentum on the latest-gen Nintendo console, and fans are more excited than ever to see where Kirby goes next.