Shinya Kumazaki seems to have a fun job. He is the chief creator at HAL Laboratory and gets to dream up major Kirby games.
I interviewed him over email recently, trying to satisfy my growing fascination with a series that, at the clip of about two releases a year, somehow manages to be rich in both traditional and experimental games. Lately, almost all of them have been pretty good.
“For recent core Kirby titles, I come up with ideas at HAL Laboratory’s Yamanashi Development Center and we get started on small game experiments,” he said, referring to HAL’s offices in a Japanese prefecture at the foot of Mt. Fuji, a couple of hours’ train ride from the studio’s main Tokyo location.
Kumazaki has been working on the series since 2003’s Kirby Air Ride on GameCube, and he later became series director for 2009’s Kirby Super Star Ultra on the Nintendo DS. Now he gets to daydream Kirby’s future. For the past decade he’s brainstormed the half of the Kirby franchise that’s traditional, or what he calls the “core” games.
They’re sidescrollers that more or less feature Kirby walking and floating across 2D levels, inhaling his enemies, absorbing their abilities and cheerfully fighting his way toward a grand final battle. Traditional as they’ve been, they’ve still each had a twist.
“For Kirby’s Return to Dream Land, I was aiming for simple 4-person simultaneous play using Wii Remotes,” he said of the 2011 Wii game.
“With [2014’s] Triple Deluxe, I wanted to leverage the 3D capabilities of Nintendo 3DS by having two fields, one up front and one further back, and started devising a world of floating continents that would reflect that idea.
“In [2016’s] Planet Robobot, we started by expanding on a small idea of contrasting the gentle appearance of the sky and plants from the world of Triple Deluxe by making a world of machines, and introduced Robobot Armour as a good fit for that concept.”
From there, he said, it’s a group effort. “I may have made the initial proposal and was responsible for the overall direction of these titles, but the ideas and feedback, the technology and the style all come together from a variety of people to complete a single Kirby title.”
The Kirby series, which dates back to 1992, has long been split between traditional sidescrollers and a host of other kinds of experimental games, which include 2000’s motion-controlled Game Boy game Kirby Tilt ‘n’ Tumble and the stylus-driven Kirby’s Canvas Curse and Rainbow Curse in 2005 and 2015. Kumazaki isn’t as involved in the experimental games but appreciates the dynamic they play in the franchise.
“The core titles have an important role as the core of the series, but leave a separate role for the more unrestrained spin-off Kirby titles that are full of surprises you’d never expect to see in a Kirby game,” Kumazaki said.
“And then these slightly more unusual spin-off Kirby games drive anticipation for the core Kirby games, which helps us get enthusiastic about developing a title that meets those expectations. The series keeps getting bigger as we fill those roles and make it more diverse.”
Then there’s the mini-games. Kirby games are full of them, and some of them have even been expanded into bigger standalone releases. The simple 3D action game mechanics of the Kirby 3D Rumble mini-game in Kirby: Planet Robobot, for example, were later used in a beefier downloadable release called Kirby’s Blowout Blast. Kumazaki explained that, among other things, mini-games can serve as a training ground for young designers
“With each passing year, the development of Kirby games gets larger in scale and more complicated,” he said. “Completing smaller games like these is a good experience that gives the younger staff members at HAL Laboratory an opportunity to take up a more active role. Kirby’s Blowout Blast was originally a mini-game that came about because we wanted to try out 3D action. A younger director worked hard to develop both that title and Team Kirby Clash Deluxe.
With these experiments, we were able to create wonderful opportunities for users to experience new gameplay that make the most of the Kirby series.”
Not a single one of all these Kirby games — traditional, experimental, tiny, large — is very difficult to play, at least not at first. Kumazaki describes the games as “approachable yet deep,” intentionally made easy enough that anyone can play them but designed to become more dramatic and difficult as players proceed in them, and especially after the credits to the main part of the game roll.
“I think this quality of being approachable while culminating in a climax with some depth is one of the things that makes Kirby games unique,” he said. “You get drawn in by the cuteness, and find yourself playing until suddenly you and Kirby are ready to face the final battle with the fate of the world on the line. Then, after completing the game, you can take on a new mode that is surprisingly difficult.”
The most unusual turn of events here is that there are actually no announced Kirby games on the horizon. There has only been one Kirby game released this year, Kirby’s Extra Epic Yarn, and it was a 3DS port of a Wii game. In terms of Kirby, we’d call this a slow year, but there’s no doubt that Kumazaki is dreaming up more stuff.
“I feel like we’ve accomplished a lot at this point,” he said, “But in no way is our team at HAL Laboratory burnt out. There are still a lot of things I personally want to try, and I hope we can bring Kirby’s endeavours to even more people around the world.”
HAL’s next game, the non-Kirby game Box Boy + Box Girl, will be out for Nintendo Switch later this month.