Thirty years ago, a blob named Kirby made its debut in Kirby’s Dream Land for the Game Boy. He has now become an integral part of the gaming landscape; the character has become one of Nintendo’s most iconic mascots. That’s why it’s all the more surprising that Kirby actually started his life as a simple placeholder.
A common complaint among seasoned gamers is that games have become too easy in recent years compared to the past. Back in the day, when they thought everything was better. In a way they also have a point: many games used to be a lot more challenging. It was swim or drown; you were thrown in at the deep end without any help, barring a few sparse directions in the manual.
For years gaming was therefore mainly a hobby for seasoned gamers. Nintendo wanted to break that status quo. The company recognized that there was a group of gamers who would never, ever build the skills to play Metroid or even Super Mario Bros. to play out. Nintendo therefore wanted to make a game that really everyone could enjoy, even people without lightning fast reflexes, a strong perseverance or flawless concentration.
Masahiro Sakurai’s Blob
A young employee of HAL Laboratory named Masahiro Sakurai was allowed to come up with this game. Sakurai – who we now mainly know as the man behind Super Smash Bros. – went on to work on the Game Boy title Twinkle Popo. Because there was no artwork for the game yet, Sakurai decided to draw a simple, temporary character himself and then use it in his game. A round shape, a few hands and feet and he could continue developing. Twinkle Popo mainly had to put together gameplay technically well and easily; the actual appearance of the main character would come later though.
That the character in Twinkle Popo had to be able to fly was immediately clear to Sakurai. That way, players could more easily avoid obstacles and enemies. However, it was also not the intention that players would fly over everything. That’s why he added the ability to suck up enemies, which could then either be swallowed or shot away offensively. Those two simple cornerstones laid the foundation for the game.
Sakurai decided to present his game to the bosses of HAL Laboratory during development. The simple placeholder that temporarily served as a character was still there. “I needed a dummy to show what the real character would do in the game,” he said (via Eurogamer) back. “I just put a Kirby-shaped blob in my presentation as a placeholder.” Unexpectedly, Sakurai’s bosses turned out to love the blob, “Everyone loved it so much that we decided to keep it in the game without major changes.”
The Birth of Kirby
At that time, however, the adorable creature in Twinkle Popo did not yet have a name. The name Popopo was still being considered, but Nintendo feared that the name would not catch on in the West. It is not entirely clear who came up with the name Kirby in the end. Sakurai himself doesn’t seem to remember that well either.
We can also come up with theories until we weigh ourselves. Was the Kirby Company vacuum cleaner brand for inspiration? Was it the contrast between the rather harsh-sounding name and the soft, round character? Or was it Nintendo’s legal advisor, John Kirby, who was honored? Most people prefer the latter statement.
John Kirby was the attorney representing Nintendo when the company was sued by Universal. The latter company claimed that Donkey Kong was an infringement of King Kong’s copyright. It became a long, grueling business that Nintendo eventually managed to win. The company reportedly thanked Kirby by donating him a boat and naming a character after him a decade later.
Thirty years of Kirby
Whether the story is true or not, the end result remains the same: Popopo was replaced by Kirby. Of course, with the name change of the character, the title of the game also had to be overhauled. Twinkle Popo was renamed Hoshi no Kābī, which means Kirby of the Stars. Internationally, Kirby’s Dream Land was chosen as the title. It turned out to be a bull’s eye indeed: within a year, the game sold a million times worldwide.
Kirby is celebrating his thirtieth birthday this year. In the thirty years since the success of Kirby’s Dream Land, the character has become one of Nintendo’s mascots. Not bad for a character that originated as a temporary placeholder! Particularly impressive is that in those thirty years Kirby has always remained a character for the general public, with accessible games that young and old can enjoy. Let’s hope it stays that way.