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History Lesson: Kirby

By Matthew Castle on Sunday 4th Aug 2013 at 8:00 AM UTC

Had history taken its intended route Kirby would be nothing more than an adjective for describing pavement edging.

Rewind time to 1992 and we see how close Kirby came to non-existence, as a sprightly Masahiro Sakurai (he was only 19) set about developing a platformer for beginners. Feeling that the "market had reached its peak and no games for beginners were around", he began work on what would become Kirby's Dream Land on the Game Boy.

Missing a central character he doodled out a placeholder image of a round blob with a face, a character that so charmed his co-workers at HAL that they decided to continue using it, naming it Popopo. Of course, the name didn't stick, but why?

Some attribute Kirby to the vacuum cleaner brand. They both suck in air, so it's nice and logical. A more colourful anecdote suggests he was named after John Kirby, Nintendo's lawyer during their court battle with an angry Universal Studios.

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The movie makers claimed Donkey Kong stole from the King Kong licence, and Kirby not only got Nintendo off the hook, but secured them a tasty $56,689 in the process. Legend has it that as tribute to his legal finesse, Sakurai named the pink blob after him. Every lawyer's dream, surely?

The real story was confirmed by Shigeru Miyamoto in an interview a couple of years ago. "Yes, it is a fact that I met John Kirby and got to know him when he was defending us during the lawsuit against Universal," he told Game Informer. "And it is a fact that the Kirby name was partially chosen in connection to him, but it wasn't named after him.

"Instead, we had a list of names that we were looking at and Kirby was one of the names on the list. As we were going through the list and narrowing down the selections we saw that Kirby was there and we thought, 'John Kirby's name is Kirby', and started thinking that if those two had a connection that would be kind of funny.

"The other element to the naming is that the character is very cute. Kirby is this soft and fluffy character and he's very cute. In Japan, for cute characters they use very soft names with soft sounds in them. I thought the name Kirby had these harsh sounds to it, and I thought the juxtaposition of this cute character with this harsh-sounding name was very funny."

As a Game Boy title, Kirby's Dream Land was presented in greyscale, so there's no sense of Kirby's skin tone. Sakurai always envisioned a pink Kirby (he's pink in the Japanese box art) but Miyamoto pictured a yellow creature. In the American box art he appears white - attributed to US marketers afraid to mis-sell the game's greyscale star. Kirby's first NES outing, Kirby's Adventure, saw Sakurai finally get his way with a pink character.

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While a floater from day one, Kirby's skill absorbing powers didn't appear until Kirby's Adventure. In Dream Land he could suck in - both enemies and sales (one and a half million copies in Japan alone) - but trait nabbing was yet to come.

Ironically, just as Kirby learnt to absorb, he was absorbed into a Nintendo-exclusivity contract, when a cash-strapped HAL turned to Nintendo to bail it out (having gone and spent all its money on a ludicrously massive office complex).

Kirby's platforming heritage is relatively straightforward: many sequels powered by many sales. Of more interest though is Kirby's Dream Course. It was originally a mascot-free golf game that HAL was developing for the SNES, until it decided to add a bit of Kirby - as the ball, no less.

The Dream Course franchise was set to get bigger. In the original N64 line-up was Kirby Bowl 64, an update of Dream Course and the first four-player N64 title. The original game was eventually scrapped and heavily modified into Kirby Air Ride.

This much derided GameCube title - some claimed it was so simple it completed itself - was originally set for the N64, but technical struggles delayed it until the time of the GameCube. It really wasn't worth the wait.

So where was Sakurai during all this? By the time of Air Ride he was close to resigning from HAL - he left a month after the game's Japanese release - but he is said to have severed his ties with Kirby back on the N64. Just before his resignation he claimed he was growing annoyed that "every time I made a new game, people automatically assumed that a sequel was coming" - finally revealing why in the late '90s he had no involvement with The Crystal Shards. Not to worry though, he was only off developing Super Smash Bros.

That said, there's clearly a lot of love left in Sakurai towards his puffball protégé. He may not be making Kirby games anymore, but the prominence of the franchise in Super Smash Bros Brawl is a testament to his fondness for the residents of Popstar. Kirby, Meta-Knight and King Dedede (voiced in Brawl by Sakurai himself) are creations he couldn't let go, and in the Smash Bros format he found the perfect place to free them from their sequel shackles. Until Smash Bros 4, that is.

Round, round, get around, he gets around

Though he may be overshadowed by the Mario and Zelda franchises, Kirby has still managed to make cameo appearances in a number of different games and star in other mediums over the years.

Here's a selection of the oddest and most memorable Kirby moments.

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