Kirby Planet Robobot and Empowerment

Kirby platformers are a long-running and beloved staple of Nintendo’s output yet remain strangely underappreciated as action games. Perhaps it’s because of the series’ relative lack of difficulty compared to more “hardcore” action contemporaries, or the “junk food” label that gets attached to the games due to their cutesy aesthetic and chill vibe. Make no mistake about it though, Kirby and his enemy sucking powers have always brought the goods in terms of great action fundamentals. Even Kirby’s Adventure on the NES is still a joy to play to this day because of how finely-tuned the movement and action is, and the series has only built on this over time by expanding Kirby’s pool of acquirable abilities to explore new routes to make attacking and platforming fun.

The early Mario, Zelda and Metroid games all had a focus on developing challenge to keep themselves interesting, Kirby on the other hand felt like a more toybox approach to finding fun in a platformer. You like hitting the enemies, the enemies are there to be hit, and the games revel in giving you new toys for hitting them. Kirby games are usually littered with health items, so with the added ability of flight it’s obvious the designers aren’t very interested in killing the player. Instead the tension comes from the fact that taking hits will rob Kirby of his current ability with only one small chance to reclaim it, and more often than not the enemy that gave you that ability in the first place won’t be around anymore. This complements the “toybox” approach wonderfully because everyone will have their own favourite abilities, so the urge to not lose them turns them into precious commodities and forces players to utilise their full potential to avoid that. At the same time all the toys are fun and appealing in their own right, so even with this asterisk Kirby games rarely feel frustrating or exclusionary.

Still, as legitimate as an approach to action design as Kirby is there’s some extra challenges that come with it if you want to maintain longevity. Kirby starts out stronger than most of the enemies he’ll face, even most bosses can be dealt with swiftly if you have the right ability, so the question is what can you do with Kirby to keep people interested after decades of sucking up cute plushies and spitting their remains back at their friends? How can you find new ways to surprise and empower the player when they’ve already seen and played with all the toys?

An obvious answer is simply to keep adding new abilities and toys to every game which most Kirbys do, but that’s more microwaving leftovers than cooking up a new meal. Reinvention is where Kirby has struggled in the past; in the decent but unremarkable Kirby’s Return to Dreamland (or Kirby’s Adventure Wii in PAL regions for some reason (it’s not a remake)) they added SUPER ABILITIES to the game, where Kirby would acquire a significantly more powerful version of one of the regular abilities for a limited time and attacks would be replaced with time-pausing screen-filling nonsense. Sometimes you need to hold onto this power up to discover a secret door, but otherwise there’s little challenge to these sections as the level design begins to contrive scenarios where you can solve everything by hitting one button. It’s “empowering” for sure but it feels hollow; the regular rules and structure of Kirby are pushed into the background so it’s like you’ve started playing a slightly different game with all the cheats turned on.

Nintendo found a much more elegant solution to this riddle in 2016’s excellent Kirby: Planet Robobot. Here Kirby is given a giant mech to drive around during parts of most of the levels, which on top of adding its own tricks to the game also features the same ability to absorb abilities from enemies. The powers the mech gains are broadly similar but they all come with a twist; the ability to turn into stone grants the robot giant rock fists and a ground pound attack, turning into a wheel will instead transform the robot into a full-fledged motorcycle and so on. Everything that has already been established is recontextualised and the toybox has even more to offer than ever before.

The robot doesn’t come off as cheap or as a silly gimmick for innovation’s sake because for all the changes it brings it’s still built out of the same verbs that playing as regular Kirby is. You still gain abilities from enemies, you can still lose them if you take damage so the tension still exists and you can still dash and move around as quickly as before. The one trade-off is that the robot can’t float around like Kirby can, but this only provides the robot with extra weight that is necessary for a power-up of this variety. Driving about in the mech is tight, fast, satisfying and it certainly makes you feel stronger than before, and the level design subtly compensates for losing the ability to float without you noticing or missing it. Planet Robobot enforces what sections you can and can’t drive the robot, but the subtle adjustments in level design are a lot more honest than Return to Dreamland. It’s still Kirby, only in a more narrow space that you control and because it still retains the same joy in movement it never feels claustrophobic.

Planet Robobot wasn’t the only game from 2016 that attempted to empower the player via giving them a giant mech; Titanfall 2 was well-received but a lot of people weren’t as excited about the giant robot parts. In many ways Titanfall 2 did everything you’re supposed to do; driving the mech empowered you by fundamentally changing your relationship with the space and enemies around you with you as the dominant force. People weren’t as into it because they enjoyed the parkour on foot too much so the trade-off wasn’t worth it.

Planet Robobot teaches us that empowerment in an action game should build on what we already enjoy about the game, not attempt to replace it entirely with something bigger and “better”.