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Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Criminally Overlooked Games: Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards

Kirby has always gotten a bum rap. The best Kirby game, Kirby's Adventure, came out at the very end of the NES' life cycle when no one was playing it anymore. Kirby Super Star came out at the very end of the SNES' life cycle, a week before Super Mario 64 launched. Finally, Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards came out right at the end of the Nintendo 64's life cycle, only a scant few months before the launch of the PS2. It didn't stand a chance.

Kirby 64 wasn't very well received at the time, either. Famitsu rated it a 32/40. Gamespot gave it a 6.9 out of 10. IGN gave it a 7.9 out of 10. A lot of reviewers didn't like it because of what it wasn't: It wasn't a great leap forward in Kirby game technology. It was still a side-scroller with 3-D backgrounds. It was staunchly old-school in a time when people were itching to leave the old school behind.

Now, of course, with side-scrollers making a pretty major resurgence, the decision to make Kirby 64 a very nice looking side-scroller isn't a bad one in retrospect. Sure, it's a little simplistic, but making Kirby an open-world 3-D game would be a massive failure. He's not a Zelda or Mario or GTA that can make the transition seamlessly. He's just not built for it, but as the modern market has proved, you can get a lot of mileage out of good looking side-scrollers.

In a sense, Kirby 64 was a game simultaneously behind the times and ahead of its time. It was behind the times because they weren't making that type of game anymore, but ahead of its time since developers and gamers have gone back to side-scrollers in droves with games like Braid, New Super Mario Bros., the Metroidvania games, Shadow Complex, Trine, and many more. Once again, Kirby 64 was the victim of bad timing.

It's a shame, too, since Kirby 64 has a lot going for it. It still looks fantastic, with clean lines and very little pixelation inherent in a lot of 64-bit era games. The 3-D backgrounds, while not necessarily adding anything to the gameplay, all look outstanding almost ten years later. The levels are entertaining, with Kirby traversing the standard ice worlds, rock worlds, fire worlds and so on while using all manner of special powers. It's not horribly challenging to beat the first time through, as can be expected of Kirby games. However, in order to get 100% and see the "true" ending you may find yourself resorting to various FAQs. The solutions are always deviously clever or look far simpler than they actually are.

There are other twists to the Kirby formula as well. For instance, in the early going, you help three of your friends who have come under the influence of the titular crystals including erstwhile baddie King DeDeDe. After you help them out, they join you on your quest by opening up pathways or, in the case of King DeDeDe, letting you ride them and use their powers. I loved the portions where you were able to use the King, since his hammer powers are really fun to use.

The best twist is that you're able to combine powers. By way of example, if you have the ice power, you can take it out and combine it with electricity to transform into a refrigerator that flings food at enemies that can be eaten by Kirby to regain health. If you combine the needle and electric powers, you can become a lightning rod that destroys nearby enemies. If you combine stone with stone, you can become a giant, walking Kirby golem. And, best of all, the cutter power with electricity gives you a double-sided lightsaber. Seriously.

Kirby 64 is kind of short, but you can get it on the Virtual Console for $10. For $10 it's not bad at all, and getting 100% will take you a while. Even if you like Kirby games just a little bit, you'll find something to love in Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards. A game that's great, was released without fanfare and died a quick death? I'd call that game Criminally Overlooked.