The Nintendo Issue
The Perfect Puffball

Tim Latshaw | 19 Apr 2011 13:48
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The majority of Nintendo's flagship crew is easily describable: The plumbers. The ape. The elven hero. Then there's the cheerful pink ball (blob? puff?) with red shoes, rosy cheeks, and an inexplicable ability to inhale the universe. His games, just like him, are cute and uncomplicated by design, including friends/enemies like "Another Ball with a Mask and Sword" and "That Has to be a Penguin." Yet among a group of established characters known for a deeper intensity or legacy, Kirby has carved out his own, uniquely adorable place in gaming history.

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People have been trying to figure Kirby out for years. Since his Game Boy debut in 1992's Kirby's Dream Land, there has been many a discussion about just what the heck he is and what happens to the enemies that enter his cosmic gullet. Yet there has also been a more serious question, one not often directly asked by critics, but consistently implied: Just how is it that such a blatantly easy, anti-hardcore series can not only maintain life through nearly two decades, but keep the dedication and respect of those growing up within an increasingly gritty gaming landscape?

Entertainment Weekly's Jeff Jensen explored this territory in late 2010 after he wrote one sentence declaring Kirby's Epic Yarn his worst game of the year. The backlash, from fanatics and non-players alike, was so great he wrote a nearly 2,000-word follow-up explaining himself, saying he believed the game uses its adorable nature as a crutch and doesn't provide a satisfying level of challenge.

"So yes, I have a small pang of regret for calling Kirby's Epic Yarn 'the worst game of the year,' but only a small pang, especially since it's barely a game," Jensen wrote. "But if you asked me for my top-10 list of interactive storybooks for children, it would be pretty close to No. 1. After all: It is really, really cute."

For some gamers, the terms "cute" and "easy" are enough to raise the hairs on the backs of their hands. Hardcore players might tolerate a game that utilizes one of these aspects - Castle Crashers, for example, has a cartoonish bent yet provides a decent challenge - but put the two together and you're risking a backlash of gaming machismo.

The Kirby franchise itself has always trumpeted its low difficulty and aesthetic choices. Creator Masahiro Sakurai chose the simplistic style of his character - who actually first served as a placeholder in early designs and insisted on its signature pink color. Japan embraced Kirby's aesthetic, with commercials featuring happy songs and bright colors. Kirby's portrayal on the other side of the world, however, certainly implies a fear of those "cute" and "easy" specters. The ways in which North America has advertised Kirby through his history are masculinizing and arguably overcompensating.

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