"Kirby’s Dream Land may have been short and easy, but it was never boring, with levels often vertically oriented to take advantage of Kirby’s flight capabilities. Kirby can still fly here (though the ability is more limited), but most of these stages could be completed by any generic platformer star: Walk forward, defeat a few enemies, jump a few times, move on. And damn, is Kirby ever slow. You’ve got to double-tap a direction on the d-pad just to make him bolt at an adequate pace, and even then there’s the unwavering sense that he’s wading through invisible mashed potatoes."
For all of the things Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards does wrong, I’ll give the game one thing: It had a really cool idea.
When Kirby first sprang into action on Game Boy back in 1992, his combat performance was restricted. He could suck up items and enemies, and spit them out. Interesting mechanic, and Kirby’s Dream Land made the most of it. (About a half hour’s worth.) Later, a new option was added: When he swallowed certain enemies, he could copy their powers and use them for his own purposes. This became his trademark move, and made him arguably the coolest character in Super Smash Bros.
Kirby 64 took it a step further: Now Kirby could copy two abilities at once and combine them into a one single super-attack. There are seven basic abilities, most of them typical video game “elemental” stuff – fire, ice, stone, you know the drill. You can double up on these, which is merely a way of powering up what you already have – one needle morphs Kirby into a spiky ball, while two needles transforms him into a giant pair of mandibles that chomps down on anything unlucky enough to be within close proximity. But things become significantly more intriguing when you start mixing and matching abilities, and gape in awe over the perplexing powers you unearth as a result. Want to combine fire and stone? Kirby turns into a miniature volcano. Ice and spark? Kirby becomes a fridge that ejects delicious treats. There are a couple of instances where the team at HAL clearly ran out of ideas (mixing fire with ice turns Kirby into – get this – a flaming ice cube), but for the most part, experimenting with the many combinations is one of Kirby 64’s greatest joys.
In practice? Eh, not so much. Crystal shards are this game’s collectible doodad of choice, and they’re often hidden in places that require the use of your copycat abilities to get to. But very little imagination was used in the integration of this system. The abilities themselves are color-coded – fire is red, ice is blue, bomb is black, and so on – and you can usually rely on the color of any obstruction as a dead giveaway as to which combination you need. What if you come across a boulder that’s black and brown? Then mix stone with bomb, lay a stick of dynamite, and step back. What if you see a wall that’s brown-and-yellow striped? Then it’s time to put the old electrified rock to work. You can see how this pattern becomes predictable.
Granted, there are a couple of instances in which this two-ability mechanic is put to creative use, including one instance that’s so clever I couldn’t possibly give away its eventual solution. (Hint: It involves transforming into, of all things, a clay hamster.) A more toned down example would be when you run into your friend Adeleine, an artist whose paintings quite literally come to life. Except it’s too dark for her to see the canvas. Come to her rescue by mixing spark and bomb to turn Kirby into a light bulb, and she’ll paint you a couple of helpful items.
The reason you’re collecting these shards is because Kirby crosses paths with a fairy whose planet has been taken over by a giant black something-or-other called Dark Matter, and the only way to save her people is to restore the pieces of a big magical crystal, or something. (It’s such a simple plot that it unfolds with absolutely no dialog, written or spoken. Whether you consider this cute or infantile probably says a lot about your view on the game as a whole.) Oddly enough, the bit involving the retrieval of these crystal shards is placed into the background for most of the game, with your main objective simply being to get to the end of each level. Those players who persevere and collect ALL of the shards will go on to defeat the final boss and discover an extra ending with a final final boss, and I applaud HAL for going through such efforts to reward us completionists.
Whereas other Nintendo mascots like Mario, Link and Donkey Kong all took their transitions to the third dimension literally, Kirby remains true to his 2D side-scrolling roots, using the 3D visuals for cosmetic purposes only. HAL made the most of it, though, with Kirby 64’s levels rarely unfolding in a straight line, with the path often curving and even looping and giving the illusion that you’re playing a full-fledged 3D game, when in fact it never diverts from its two-dimensional movement (which is wisely restricted to the d-pad). Indeed, the colorful visuals and catchy tunes present very little to complain about, unless it’s too cute for you… and if “too cute” is pops into your head at all while you’re playing Kirby 64, I must question why you’re playing a Kirby game in the first place.
HAL went through great lengths to earn the "full package" moniker here, even going so far as to include a trio of multiplayer-centric mini-games. Two of them are such a non-entity here that I wouldn't have even bothered mentioning them, but one in particular – which has you knocking other players off of a checkerboard by deleting rows of tiles – made for some of the most fun I've had with other people on the system that also had Mario Kart 64 and Goldeneye.
It’s the level design that feel uninspired this time around – and it’s weird, because I’ve just stated that levels rarely unfold in a straight line, and that’s often exactly what if feels like. Kirby’s Dream Land may have been short and easy, but it was never boring, with levels often vertically oriented to take advantage of Kirby’s flight capabilities. Kirby can still fly here (though the ability is more limited), but most of these stages could be completed by any generic platformer star: Walk forward, defeat a few enemies, jump a few times, move on. And damn, is Kirby ever slow. You’ve got to double-tap a direction on the d-pad just to make him bolt at an adequate pace, and even then there’s the unwavering sense that he’s wading through invisible mashed potatoes.
Even the boss battles suffer from a general lack of creativity. How cool would it have been to use the game’s wealth of innovative powers in unique ways against the bosses? But no, most of them just rely on variations of Kirby’s old suck-and-spit mechanic, which has lost its flair by now anyway.
I understand that Kirby 64 was aimed at the younger set, and that HAL likely felt the need to keep things simple by toning down the puzzles and level design. But I challenge you to play some of Nintendo’s other titles and tell me that family friendly entertainment can’t be fun for adults, too. Heck, you can start with other Kirby games. What’s interesting is that, while Kirby is known first and foremost for being a platforming star, I’ve found that his more unconventional excursions – I’m talking Pinball Land, Tilt ‘n’ Tumble, Canvas Curse, etc. – are often his most memorable. And rightly so, if Kirby 64 has anything to say about it.
If you enjoyed this Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards review, you're encouraged to discuss it with the author and with other members of the site's community. If you don't already have an HonestGamers account, you can sign up for one in a snap. Thank you for reading!