When the time came to upgrade Nintendo’s 2D characters into three dimensions for the Nintendo 64, the company set the bar extremely high. Mario 64 successfully brought everyone’s favorite plumber into a bright-lit Mushroom Kingdom full of jumping. Link soon joined him, with Ocarina of Time expanding the Hyrule into a large, blocky, world. Kirby, however, went in a very different route.
The little pink ball entered into a new era in 2.5 dimensions, giving a three-dimensional feel to the characters within Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards while the gameplay itself. If that feels like a cop-out, or not why somebody would buy a system, the trade-off is one of the system’s most beautiful games. If you want to see what that looks like, it’s available right now if you’ve subscribed to Nintendo Switch Online + Expansion Pack.
There are a few disclaimers for playing Kirby 64. It’s a short game and a very easy one to boot. I would call it a kid’s game, but today’s Fortnite-primed youth would probably be confused by the game’s slow speed. Kirby moves on the D-Pad, floats lazily in the sky, and easily knocks his opponents out with a few attacks. With some exceptions, only a very young child will find this game challenging, although most would probably find it delightful.
But with that understanding of the game, Kirby has lots of charm.
Unlike other early 3D games, HAL Laboratory understood that stylized art goes a great deal further than simply trying to create something approaching realism. The backgrounds are lovely, filled with vivid flowers and sharply angled shrubs. Kirby looks great, and it’s always a nice treat to watch him swallow annoying enemies.
The best part of the game is the best part of any Kirby game, watching Kirby get cool new powers after he has had a tasty snack. All the classics are here, like Needle and Cutter. But where Kirby 64 gets the most credit is being the first game in the series to develop Power Combos. Kirby has two slots for new abilities, and if he is able to grab a second one, they develop and get a new, third power.
Power Combos create fascinating results. I was charmed for a moment turning Kirby into a rolling stone, and making him shoot electricity was nice, but Stone + Spark was fantastic. Kirby was suddenly shooting out electrified boulders that bounced around the screen like a maniacal yo-yo. Ice + Bomb turns Kirby into an explosive snowman. Burn + Cutter gives him a flaming sword.
These combos are a blast to play with and honestly compose the trickiest part of the game. This is the one exception to how easy Kirby 64 is. Trying to get two abilities is surprisingly difficult, considering a player must throw out their first one to acquire a second. A Power Combos-only run could provide a tricky challenge on a little-appreciated game.
Takashi Saito, Kirby 64’s project manager, said in an official interview with Nintendo.com that the game’s development was “a never-ending procedure.” The game, which first started development in 1997, had elementary school students act as testers, which is why the game so relies on the D-pad. It’s made for kids and has a few optional challenges for anyone coming to a Kirby game looking for something hard. It’s not the greatest game on the N64, but the team accomplished what they set out to do, and that’s not nothing.