Another Take – Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards

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I remember when Kirby was white.

I have relatively limited experience with the Kirby series, having only played a handful including the original and Kirby’s Adventure on NES. I missed the SNES games, most of the spin-offs and even Return to Dreamland on Wii. One that I always wanted to play was Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards which released relatively late in the retail life of the Nintendo 64 and was the only Kirby title released on the system. What most distinguished Kirby 64 at the time was the major visual upgrade with fully 3D animation though still remaining a side-scrolling platformer.

The visual upgrade isn’t the only difference as new to the series at the time; Kirby could not only copy enemy abilities but combine them into ‘power combos’. The combinations work in a variety of different ways. Copying the same ability will make a more powerful version so using two of the burn abilities makes a bigger fireball. Where the fun comes in is mixing two different abilities which make for a wide variety of outcomes of varying utility. Some you will want to use regularly and some you will never want to use. Combining the cutter and spark lets Kirby wield a double light sabre which is very useful for dispatching enemies. Combining stone and bomb allows you to use dynamite which has such a wide area of effect that you’re better off not using it.

Making different combinations is fun but isn’t generally necessary to get through the game. The only times they are really needed is in certain courses when certain combinations are needed to break down barriers or access areas to collect crystal shards. Getting through to the end of the game isn’t all that difficult as with most entries in the Kirby series but getting all the shards adds some challenge and a lot of frustration.

Many shards are found hidden in the environment or earned after defeating bosses. The shards needing combo abilities are a lot more troublesome. Often the abilities you need are not available in the course required so you will need to backtrack and collect them before returning to the stage. You’ll then have to get to the point where you need to use the ability. The worst experience I had with this involved getting through one of the trickier stages with the dynamite ability. As mentioned, the area of effect is so large that it’s almost suicidal to use it so I needed to carefully traverse the course avoiding enemies and obstacles in order to use the power once to break a barrier. If I failed, I’d need to collect the ability again and go through the whole course again. There are several courses where this is necessary and the power combo necessary isn’t always obvious.

Collecting the shards is certainly an annoyance but a necessary one if you want to see the game to completion. Although I definitely didn’t enjoy this part, it’s not enough to hurt the game as a whole and the automatic saves and ease of going in and out of courses mitigates this quite a bit. Kirby 64 is still more fun than frustrating and when not on the lookout for shards, the courses are generally quite enjoyable. There are plenty of boss battles throughout the game. Unfortunately most are easily dispatched including some who barely even move. The bosses at the end of each world or “Star” are much better designed and present a relatively decent challenge.

Even today the visual design holds up very well and the short movies at the beginning and between worlds are particularly adorable. Despite the usual forest, tundra, volcano, factory platforming tropes many of the individual courses are actually quite thoughtfully designed and there is a lot of variety in levels. The colour palette is taken full advantage of and there are very few dreary looking courses. The musical compositions are also particularly well done with the thumping boss melody being a highlight.

I haven’t played enough games in the Kirby series to give a good indication where I would place it on in a ranking. Perhaps that’s not really necessary to consider though. Kirby 64’s major strength is also its major weakness. The ability to combine different powers makes for some entertaining experiments but these abilities are only implemented into the gameplay in a limited way. If you want to go from beginning to end you’ll have little use for most of the combos and many of the powers. The game also isn’t very long as is mostly extended by collecting shards and a few simple multiplayer mini-games. There is also no Kirby dance which bothered me a bit more than expected.

I’d certainly recommend Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards as it is widely available on virtual console. A physical copy however will be way out of most people’s price range unless you’re willing to settle for the Japanese version. I’d definitely only recommend that to the super fans but then, they probably already own it.

June, 2016

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