The late 1990s were somewhat of an awkward time in video games. During the transition of 2D to 3D graphics, gaming was like a gangly adolescent child stuck in the throes of puberty with no idea of what to do or where to go. Some developers got it right and made gaming masterpieces that have gone down for the ages. Other games made during this time ended up becoming catastrophes and relics of a strange time, a result of inexperience with the new third dimension. One type of game was conspicuously absent from these revolutionary times in gaming, and that is the 2D platformer. Nintendo spent most of its time and effort crafting new three-dimensional games for Nintendo 64, and the genre that was once king of gaming laid dormant.
However, the folks at HAL Laboratory never stopped thinking in 2D. HAL created the famous Super Smash Bros. in 1999, which was among several games during this time that used a new style dubbed 2.5D, three-dimensional graphics on a two-dimensional plane. The very next year, 2000, saw the release of a new sidescroller for Nintendo 64 in the form of Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards.
Kirby 64 did not necessarily have to be a Nintendo 64 title. It could have worked on Super Nintendo before, or even Game Boy. But I suppose Nintendo and HAL did not want to see 2D platforming be totally stuck on retro consoles and handhelds. Two-dimensional gameplay is simple to grasp; it’s intuitive, it’s natural, it’s just… right. No amount of polygons or bloom effects are going to change that constant. It’s easier for the human mind to imagine a square than a cube, which is why 2D games are so pure. I see games like Kirby 64 and Yoshi’s Story as the realization that 2D and 3D can coexist, and this realization has led to some truly great games these past few years. Had Nintendo seen fit to only make 3D games, would we have ever gotten the likes of New Super Mario Bros. or Donkey Kong Country Returns?
Anyway, I first rented Kirby 64 very soon after its release. After playing Super Smash Bros., I wanted to see more of the pink puffball on Nintendo 64. At first, though, I was a little confused. Why did the game only work with the d-pad? Why did there seem to be so few copy abilities? Was it a 3D game or what? But as I got more into the adventure, everything made sense. Kirby 64 is a classic Kirby game with a new coat of paint. At least, so it appears on the surface. The environments and all objects are rendered in full 3D, yet all gameplay still sticks to the old faithful X and Y axis. I have always been enamored by the concept of having the path you walk on curve and twist along the three-dimensional background while still maintaining the 2D controls. Games did it before Kirby 64 and they certainly did it after, but it’s one of my favorite visual tricks.
Kirby had some interesting limitations given the fact that his new game had more graphical power than ever at the time. Kirby could no longer float indefinitely, and his pool of copy abilities was whittled down to a measly handful. The game was also rather simple in its presentation and progression. It was these limitations that made Kirby 64 an even better game. Kirby 64 had a very vibrant and simple visual style. It was a game that was not afraid to appear “kiddie” for the sake of marketability. While it’s true that Kirby is kid friendly and his games are easy to play, it does not mean they lack depth or maturity. I have always seen Kirby games as true games, ones that never lie to us about their intentions. Also, one look at the real final boss of Kirby 64 will make you wonder whether this game really is kid-friendly after all, as 0² is pretty freaking creepy.
And who could forget that copy ability system of Kirby 64? It was simply magnificent. Being able to mix and match any two abilities in the game was fun and incredibly interesting. I remember spending a lot of time just to hunt down particular powers to test what combinations I could create. Some of the best included the refrigerator (electric + ice), the drill (stone + needle), and the lightning rod (electric + needle). It was this one mechanic that really made Kirby 64 a true classic. It did not repeat its predecessors and stagnate the Kirby series. In fact, we have never seen another Kirby game since this one that had such a deep copy ability system. At the reveal of every new Kirby game, I always hope that it may bring back the combination abilities from Kirby 64, but it still hasn’t happened.
I still remember Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards simply because of how much fun it was. Kirby fans know that every game in the series has a certain flavor to it, and the flavor of Kirby 64 is incredibly distinct. Maybe it’s something like raspberry swirl? It’s endearing that Kirby 64, a 2D game from the Nintendo 64 era, still lives on while many 3D platformers from the era have been lost to obscurity. You can’t keep fun gameplay down. At the end of the day, Kirby will bring a smile to your face, no matter which of his games you play. Kirby 64 was the smile-bringer of its era, and there’s no reason you can’t pick it up right now and feel just as happy as you could with it over a decade ago.