Recently I came to the realization that I wouldn’t be the person I am today without video games. So, when asked what my very first video game was, there is no better answer.
I am the person I’ve become in small part because of this one game.
World One: Unidentified Flying Puffball
The year, 1996. On a small farm in rural Southwest Georgia, miles away from a town of any reasonable size, in a modest house was a Nintendo Entertainment System connected to a small TV. This farm and small house belonged to my grandparents.
An NES here was an odd find, really, considering the inhabitants in many ways exemplified the conservative, rural south, farming lifestyle. Video games seemed out of place among the wind chimes, rocking chairs, and farming equipment. Not to mention an NES console at the time was probably pricier than a PS4 is today.
Accompanied was a small but surprisingly superb collection of games.
- Super Mario Bros. / Duck Hunt
- The Legend of Zelda
- Dr. Mario
- TENGEN Baseball (for some reason)
- Kirby’s Adventure
The Legend of Zelda would go on to be my favorite series, I’d eventually fall in love with Mario, and I’d become an expert Tetris player. But Kirby was my game.
World Two: Background Information
Let me tell you a little bit about Kirby, as I’m fully aware that the pink puffball is not exactly a household name in America like Mario, Zelda, Skyrim, or Call of Duty.
These days Kirby is Nintendo’s unofficial third mascot after Mario and Link (from The Legend of Zelda). I’m not including Pikachu from Pokemon because that’s not actually a first-party Nintendo property. Of course, technically Kirby is developed by HAL Labs and… Okay, look, copyright is complicated. This retrospective isn’t about that.
The point is Kirby has experienced a massive popularity boost of late because his reputation for quality. There is no such thing as a bad Kirby game. Go ahead, use The Google to try to find one. I’ll wait.
Kirby games as a standard are fairly basic 2D platformers with a unique hook. The pink puffball can literally eat almost all of the enemies in the game, many of which allow you to copy their power and use it as your own. Sounds a bit violent, I know, but most Kirby games are cute, colorful, and have stupidly good music. Seriously, Kirby music is pure quality, right up there with Sonic the Hedgehog and Chrono Trigger.
Want to get into the games? Well, if you’ve got a Switch, Kirby Star Allies comes out two weeks after this posting. Early press looks overwhelmingly positive. I’d also pick up these masterpieces which are pretty easy to find:
- Kirby’s Return to Dreamland (Wii)
- Kirby Planet Robobot (3DS)
- Kirby’s Epic Yarn (Wii)
World Three: A Light in My Life
I have lots of memories from my childhood, some of them great, some of them not-so-good. But if there is one thing they all had in common, it was this: I was mostly alone. Severe introversion defined me until I was about 14 years old, and that was at a time when social isolation didn’t raise as many red flags for parents as it does now. Combine this with the fact that I was an only child with overprotective parents, and I didn’t have a whole lot of options to turn to. I love my parents, please don’t think otherwise, but video games and books became my own form of self expression.
I didn’t exactly grow up on my grandparent’s farm. Far from it, in fact. My parents lived two and a half hours away and in another state. When my they periodically planned to send me to my grandparents for a week, as horrible as it sounds, I think I looked more forward to playing Kirby than seeing my grandparents.
When you’re a kid in the single digits, beating even a game like Kirby’s Adventure is very much an accomplishment. I know Kirby games are supposed to be easy, but I dare any of you to play the title now and not lose a few lives. I probably spent three years trying to beat it, until one day when I was eight or nine I finally managed to land the final hit on Nightmare, the game’s final boss. As if being stuck by lightning, I remember standing up and shrieking with glee, a departure from normally deadpan emotional expressions I usually display. I watched the ending and jammed out to the closing credits theme with glee.
World Four: Moving On
Finishing the game unlocked an extra mode with half the vitality, but by that point I was so good with the game I breezed through it. I also was able to memorize the locations of the hidden switches and 100% the game in one playthrough.
Afterwards, I still played it as much as I could, challenging myself to finish it with a single ability or to speed-run the whole game in one session. I even figured out how to glitch up the game to give you an infinite microphone ability, a power that lets you eliminate all enemies from the screen. But, like a kid abandoning his teddy bear, eventually my focus shifted to other games, particularly the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise.
A couple of years later I was given a Game Boy Advance, and the first game I picked up – ironically my grandparents bought it for me – was the remake, Kirby: Nightmare in Dreamland. It is a highly competent reinterpretation for sure, but that’s not what we’re here to talk about. The NES was left mostly untouched, relegated to a closet somewhere, as I grew up and people moved on. My aunt, who played it with me on rare occasions, had joined the military, and I found that middle and high school held increasing responsibilities.
Eventually I was gifted that NES, but I just never went about hooking it up. That was the era of the Wii Virtual Console, so I could play Kirby’s Adventure and all my other favorite NES games anytime I wanted to. It never quite had the same thrill as playing on the NES on a tiny screen at my grandparents. So, what was the fate of the NES and my beloved Kirby’s Adventure cartridge? Well, it burned in a fire. Life sure is funny that way.
World Five: A Profoundly Praiseworthy Experience
Want to know what made my little tiny child brain fall in love this game? Want to know what single element of any game sparked my love of video games? It’s this, right here.
Each time you copy an ability in the game, you get this neat little pixel art illustration of Kirby symbolizing each copy ability. It was the coolest thing ever! That’s it, that’s all it took to be in love.
Look at those graphics!
No, I’m serious, just look at them! Do you see the way the clouds are made using concentric circles, the edges of platforms tinged with a slightly different color? Do you see how the enemies are the same color as the hills and the black hole in the sky? When it comes to the technology, this game is nothing less than fine art.
On the NES, there are only an maximum of 13 colors that can be displayed on-screen at once, but most sources say that it’s hard to program for more than eight. How did the designers of this game accomplish such a vivid and varied art style? Kirby’s Adventure easily has the best graphics on the NES, and it’s one of the very few I think still looks beautiful to this day.
And did I mention that soundtrack? On a system with audio that was, with very few exceptions, just a series of beeps, Kirby’s Adventure has music with depth, tone, and range. This is the only NES game with tracks that have any kind of emotional resonance. I still tear up remembering the World 6 map theme. It’s easily the best NES soundtrack, hands down.
Equally impressive was the attention to detail in this game, something that classic game nerds like me eat up. For example, the first letter of each world spells ROY G BIV backwards, a guide for remembering the colors of the rainbow. Additionally, although there’s no complex story, each stage transitions from one moment to the next in impressive fashion. I particularly liked World 6’s transition from ocean to frozen mountain range.
World Six: Every Rose has its Thorn(s)
I know I’ve lopped tons of praise on this game, but it’s not my favorite game of all time by a long shot. It’s not even my favorite game on the NES, as I think Super Mario Bros. 3 and Mega Man 2 are better. This is due to just three issues, but I’ve got to say, they are gigantic, elephant sized, glaring ones. You’re more critical of what you love, right?
Well, as much as I love it, it’s got some gameplay issues, particularly one glaring control problem. You can only take flight by pressing and holding the up button on the d-pad. This could be considered a nitpick, sure, but it’s so frustrating because every other Kirby game in the franchise allows you to double-press the A button to jump. What’s more, the game lets you float by pressing A, it just won’t let you take flight doing it. It’s not at all intuitive. It’s such a strange oversight, and it makes it hard to come back to playing Adventure after playing the more modern ones. Kirby Super Star on the SNES has a related issue about dropping copy abilities, but that game is on the list so we’ll get there.
It’s actually really tough going back to this game, mostly because of gameplay issues. You can build a dazzling technical spectacle, but that can’t be all there is to a good game, and I have a feeling it’s why the pink puffball hasn’t gotten popular until now. Kirby’s Adventure has some critical slowdown issues, particularly when you need fine movement to take down a boss. I took so many hits that were the game’s fault. It makes expert level no-hit challenges of this game impossible.
Additionally, Kirby loses his ability every time he gets hit, and you have to go chasing a quickly disappearing ability star around to try to get it back. Basically, don’t get comfortable with your power because you won’t be keeping it long. It’s highly irritating.
In short, this was one of Nintendo’s few examples of trading quality of life gameplay for technical wizardry, and I must say I’m surprised.
World Seven: Concluding Remarks
I don’t want to end on a low note. Kirby’s Adventure was a fine game and an absolute joy to revisit. It defined my childhood and spurred my love of video games to this day. I’m thankful to have it my life and that it didn’t get lost to time like many other NES games. It deserves all the praise it receives as a standout on a classic game system.
Time for the pro/con list!
Rapid Fire Pros:
- So pretty! The best graphics above anything on the NES.
- Sick beats. The best soundtrack on the NES.
- The ability copying system was inspired, though it was unusual seeing Kirby without his signature hats.
- There is a high degree of attention to detail.
- Cute cutscenes are at the beginning of every level.
- The game features a delightfully innovative use of a world map.
- The mini-games are a good change of pace.
- Did I mention those adorable pixel art ability pictures at the bottom?
Rapid Fire Cons:
- The flight controls should have been tweaked.
- There is way too much slowdown at critical times, seriously affecting gameplay.
- Kirby loses his ability every time he gets hit, and the ability star is very hard to recover.
Obviously, this game is worth playing, and you’ve got options! The definitive version is the 3DS “3D Classics” version. It does some really neat stuff with the backgrounds when you turn on the 3D effect. But of all the performance issues the version addresses, they still didn’t fix that dreadful control issue.
The game is also available on the NES Classic, but good luck finding one of those. Kirby’s Adventure and its GBA remake is available on the Wii U Virtual Console. It’s also on the Wii Virtual Console, but you’ve got about six days left to buy that version before all Wii online services are finally shuttered.
Thank you for going on this nostalgic journey with me. This retrospective was in part a response to A Geeky Gal’s 30-Day Video Game Challenge, Day 1. If you’d like to participate, head over to her blog for instructions. Don’t forget to send pingbacks to our posts!
Now it’s your turn. What was the very first video game you ever played? Do you have fond memories with it, or did it turn you away from games forever? Let me know in the comments, or write a post of your own!