The Pink Reaper. The Beast That Feeds. The Ultraviolent Icon. Yes, Kirby is known by many names, but his M.O. remains the same no matter what: consume, destroy, sleep, repeat. Aside from Metroid, the Kirby franchise is quite possibly my favorite Nintendo creation, and one of the aspects I enjoyed the most about it was that each iteration added a new layer to Kirby’s abilities. Kirby’s Dream Land introduced his unquenchable urge to eat enemies whole. Kirby’s Adventure added the concept of taking powers from enemies after eating them. Kirby Super Star gave us the concept of helper characters that could be created to assist you. But for a new millennium, Kirby needed to evolve yet again, so what would he do now that he was completing the Grand Slam and getting an N64 appearance?
Well, Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards takes Kirby’s ability to take the powers of his enemies and ramps it up by allowing you to combine two powers together. Y’see, after swallowing an enemy and taking his power, you can push the R button to turn that power into a star, which you can toss at a second enemy, creating a combination star that you can gobble down. For example, mixing Fire with Cutter gives Kirby a flaming sword with a pretty nice range that can also be hucked at enemies. Combining Stone with Fire turns Kirby into a volcano that vomits magma and rocks at enemies. Pairing Ice with Spark allows Kirby to turn into a refrigerator that spits out food items that damage enemies as well as refill Kirby’s health, not to mention that it’s freaking adorable. You can also double up on a single power, which gives you an enhanced version of that attack; collecting two Bombs change your attack from tossing out black cherry bombs to launching homing missiles from your mouth, and two Fires make your fireball attack cover a lot more ground.
The downside, though, is that there are a lot fewer powers to select from here. As opposed to Super Star, that gave you a selection of roughly 20 abilities, here, there’s only about a half dozen, and even worse, a rather substantial chunk of the possible combinations are clunky or awkward to the point they’re not worth anything outside of the novelty value. Fire and Ice together allow you to turn into an ice cube that melts itself, which does damage enemies, but the range is less than Kirby’s inhale attack, so it’s not terribly useful. Stone and Cutter together turn you into a sculpture that may or may not be able to move around, which isn’t very practical, either. Even some of the better mixups, like the above-mentioned fire sword, have their drawbacks, as Kirby can’t fly while he’s holding it and has to throw it before he can take off, which is mildly annoying at times. In fact, the less useful powers and mashups far outweigh the good ones, and seeing as certain levels have specific themes, it can make cobbling together the two powers you need to craft one of the helpful ones together kind of a pain; you’re probably not going to find a lot of Fire enemies in an ice level, for example, so if you happen upon a useful pairing, like I did with the team of Bomb and Cutter giving you exploding ninja shurikens, you’re going to play extremely cautiously to avoid dying and having to cough it up again.
In fact, the biggest issue I had with this game is that the controls generally feel a bit sluggish and don’t have the same sharpness as Super Star or Adventure. You don’t really feel like you can change directions or actions smoothly. Even at full sprint, Kirby runs pretty slowly. You’re EXTREMELY slow in the water, which isn’t fun when there’s an entire level dedicated to water levels. Your speed and momentum also comes to a grinding halt when you take flight, and even worse, Kirby cannot fly indefinitely in this go-round, you can and will run out of steam and fall back to earth after a while. Even if you could fly forever, it’d still be faster for you to stick to jumping between platforms instead of sailing over them, which I understand, I suppose, being able to fly over bottomless pits takes all the challenge out of them, but at the same time, I wasn’t exactly demanding precision jumping spots in my Kirby games. Now, granted, the controls aren’t unworkable, and once you get used to them, they’re perfectly functional, but if you’ve played previous games in the series, you’re going to be a little disappointed.
Now, despite being a game made late in the N64’s lifespan, this is not a true 3D adventure. Instead, it’s a 2D affair with some cool effects with rotating the camera and giving the sense of changing direction to give a 3D illusion, which actually works pretty well. There are six levels here, each featuring four normal stages and a boss fight at the end. Aside from just reaching the end of each level, you have the objective of collecting three crystal shards in each level, if you’re looking for the best ending and 100% completion. Some of the shards are in plain sight, or are scooped up after defeating mini-bosses in certain stages. Some, however, are tucked away behind barriers that can only be broken down with specific powers or combinations, and are marked with the colors that represent each ability.
If you don’t have them at the time, that’s quite alright, you can go back to any stage after completing it the first time to finish retrieving the shards, and if you’re not interested altogether, you’ll be happy to know you can finish the game without them, but the game will feel considerably shorter. After each stage, you play a minigame of sorts where Kirby can jump to different items like 1-ups or health-refilling Maximum Tomatoes laid out on a picnic blanket. Between levels, there are cute little cutscenes, without text or speech, but the message still gets across, and let’s face it, Kirby is such a great character that he transcends languages.
As I said, there’s only thirty stages here, which can make for a short game, but there are a few things that extend the replay value. Aside from the hunt to collect all the crystal shards, and the joy of learning the various possible combinations, there’s a trio of minigames available that are surprisingly enjoyable: 100-Yard Hop, where you hop, skip, and jump over obstacles like puddles and slippery frogs, Bumper Crop Bump, where you compete with others trying to collect fruit falling out of the trees, and help your cause by nudging the competition out of the way at the last second, and Checker Board Chase, which plays kinda like Bomberman; you topple rows of floor squares and try to make your opponents fall off, with a board getting progressively smaller as you eliminate foes. There’s also a Enemy Info board, kinda like a Pokedex of sorts, that you fill out by collecting cards during the end-of-stage bonus game, which is a nice little touch.
As you would expect from a Kirby game, everything looks and sounds fantastic. The backgrounds are extremely detailed and well-rendered, the animations are very smooth, and the animations for Kirby’s various and sundry abilities are wonderful, with even minute features like Kirby closing his eyes during his speed waddle run cycle or the look of panic on Kirby and Waddle Dee’s faces as they ride a runaway mine cart or toboggan. Even King DeDeDe beckoning Kirby to hop on his back while he smashes a path with his giant hammer can make even a total curmudgeon crack a smile (and yes, for once, King DeDeDe is not a bad guy, even though he’s still kind of a douche at times). The music and sound effects are also top notch, with a solid mix of the classic Kirby themes like the frantic tones that play when Kirby picks up an invincibility lollipop and starts plowing through anyone and everything with impunity, and new songs that fit the Kirby motif perfectly.
I enjoyed Kirby 64 for the most part, though it wasn’t the benchmark of excellence that Kirby Super Star was. The concept of being able to combine the various abilities is cool, but bogs down considerably because not very many of the combos are terribly useful, and there aren’t very many ingredients to choose from in the first place. The controls are a bit of a hassle, but again, that’s probably more to do with me being used to the silky smooth handling of Kirby 64’s predecessors. It’s also not the longest game by any stretch, but there’s enough extras to inject some replay value, and Kirby games are known for being light breezy fun instead of heavy duty gaming, and in that sense, Kirby 64 definitely comes through just fine. I’d recommend Kirby 64, but I would say it’s not the strongest title in the lineup, and if you’re inclined to give it a play, do try to make sure to combine Cutter and Bomb at every opportunity.
Excellent new concept with combining enemy powers, every bit as sunny and adorable as you’d expect from a Kirby game.
Muddy controls at times, not a lot of mixups to create, and features precision jumping bits when you really never asked for them.