Developer Interview, Volume 6

Super Mario World & Yoshi's Island developers

Kirby Super Star

Masahiro Sakurai
Akinori mii

Hello, everyone! I'm Akinori Sao, a writer in Kyoto. This is the final installment of a series of interviews commemorating the release of Super NES Classic Edition. My topic this time is Kirby Super Star.

For this final interview, I will be interviewing Masahiro Sakurai, who is well known as the developer of the Super Smash Bros. series. Sakurai-san is also the creator of the pink and cute Kirby. Kirby Super Star, which released three months before the launch of the Nintendo 64 system in Japan, was the third title in the series for him as director. I'd like to ask him about various things, such as his goals during development and what kind of problems he encountered.

And now for Sakurai-san!

Kirby Super Star Boxart

One of the Console's Last Titles

Congratulations on the 25th anniversary of Kirby's Dream Land.

Sakurai: Thank you.

How does it feel to welcome 25 years?

Sakurai: I feel like I've aged! (laughs)

You look young—not at all like you've aged.

Sakurai: When I was a kid, there was an anime called Dokonjo Gaeru.1 It had an extremely elderly teacher in it named Machida, and he always said, "I've been a teacher for 25 years…" Have I really reached that point? (laughs)

1. Dokonjo Gaeru: A manga series by Yasumi Yoshizawa that appeared in Weekly Shonen Jump for six years beginning in 1970. There was also a television anime series.

(laughs) Our topic this time is Kirby Super Star, which was your third title as director.

Sakurai: Yes, that's right.

I was a little surprised that the second game, Kirby's Adventure2, came out for NES and not Super NES.

Sakurai: Uh-huh.

2. Kirby's Adventure: An action game originally released in Japan for the Famicom system in March 1993.

Kirby's Adventure came out in 1993, which was three years after the release of Super Famicom in Japan.

Sakurai: The NES system was hardware with a long life. I believe I was directed to make that with the idea of transplanting the Game Boy game to NES. We had made the Game Boy game for beginners, and that decision was just fine, but I thought NES players late in the system's run would no longer be new to video games.

You didn't think you could just release an NES version of the first Kirby game, which was geared toward beginners.

Sakurai: Right. I abandoned the idea of simply porting the game and decided to add the Copy3 ability. By adding that, beginners would be able to enjoy simply inhaling and spitting out things, and advanced players would be able to use more hardcore abilities.

3. Copy: This ability allows Kirby to inhale enemies and thereby gain the use of their abilities.

In other words, you used the Game Boy game as a base and added the Copy ability.

Sakurai: To be honest, we didn't end up using it as much of a base. Even though we could use the same pixel art for Kirby, when it came to capacity and what was possible, all that expanded greatly with NES.

I see. The third game, Kirby Super Star, came out in 1996, just before the Nintendo 64 system.

Sakurai: That's right. Among the titles included in NES Classic Edition, Kirby's Adventure was one of the last ones released, and among the titles included in Super NES Classic Edition, Kirby Super Star was one of the last ones released. But for Super NES Classic Edition, there's Star Fox 24, so Kirby Super Star avoids being the very last. (laughs)

4. Star Fox 2: A "phantom game" initially planned for release for Super NES, but now included in Super NES Classic Edition. See the interview in this series regarding Star Fox and Star Fox 2.

Well, Star Fox 2 was never released, so you can't say it was last! (laughs)

Sakurai: I suppose not. (laughs) But for the NES game as well as the Super NES game, it isn't so much that development fell behind as that it started late.

In other words, due to circumstances in the company development schedule, release came late in the hardware's run.

Sakurai: Yes.

In any case, the titles line up nicely. The first game was for Game Boy, the second was for NES, and the third was for Super NES. I would guess not many developers around the world have had that experience, so as a video-game maker, wasn't it great to advance step-by-step like that?

Sakurai: Yeah! I was really fortunate!

Two-Player Cooperative Gameplay

Now let's talk about Kirby Super Star. At first, what did you have in mind?

Sakurai: I had three pillars in mind. One was two-player cooperative gameplay and another was including actions similar to those in fighting games. The third was an omnibus format. May I explain all three?

Yes, please.

Sakurai: The first one, two-player cooperative gameplay, was a request from (Shigeru) Miyamoto-san. That was really about the only request he made.

That was in an Iwata Asks interview.5 Miyamoto-san said he wanted a Kirby game with two-player cooperative gameplay. Did that request come partway through development of Kirby Super Star?

5. Iwata Asks: See the interview regarding Super Mario Galaxy.

Sakurai: No, that was there at the start. If the request had come later, we wouldn't have been able to implement it.

When you say at the start, do you mean it was in the proposal?

Sakurai: No, even before that. Making a Kirby game for Super NES would, of course, mean making the characters bigger and the graphics better, but when it came to what the core of the game would be like and other essential aspects, I wanted to think about that after hearing from Miyamoto-san.

And that's why you went to Kyoto with (Satoru) Iwata-san.6

6. Satoru Iwata (1959-2015): Nintendo's late president. During his time as the president of HAL Laboratory, he participated as a programmer in the development of EarthBound.

Sakurai: Yes. And Miyamoto-san said he definitely wanted us to achieve two-player cooperative gameplay, which was one task that lay ahead for side-scrolling platform games.

For Super Mario, that was achieved on the Wii7 system, but Miyamoto-san had been dreaming of two-player cooperative gameplay for many years.

7. The first Super Mario game with simultaneous multiplayer gameplay was New Super Mario Bros. Wii, released in North America for the Wii console in November 2009.

Sakurai: That's right. It would be impossible with Mario because he's so fast, but it should be possible somehow for Kirby, who's a little slower. At least, that's how it was put to me at the time.

That's how it was put to you, but…

Sakurai: It's a misconception that Kirby is slow. He actually displays an incredibly wide range of speeds. For example, in Kirby's Adventure, we gave him the Wheel ability. (laughs)

As Wheel Kirby, you can shoot through at blazing speeds. (laughs)

Sakurai: The Copy ability assumes a wide variety of gameplay, so I had dug my own grave! (laughs)

When Miyamoto-san asked you to pull off two-player cooperative gameplay, you must have held your head in dismay.

Sakurai: Well, I decided to give it some thought.

You decided to be positive about it.

Sakurai: Yes, of course. After all, Kirby is different from Mario. And the idea I came up with was a system dividing the two players into a main player and an assisting player. The camera follows Kirby, while the assisting character roams around.

So it would be two-player, but one player would be the main player while the other assisted.

Sakurai: That's right. But in order to make it fit with Kirby, what would the second character be like? I brainstormed that and thought of simply using the Copy ability.

The assisting character would take the form of a copied enemy.

Sakurai: Right. And that became the Helper system, by which enemies become allies. What I liked about dividing the characters that way was how seasoned players and inexperienced players could play together.

I see.

Sakurai: In this game, the playable characters have a fairly strong guard against enemy attacks. You don't just protect yourself. Relatively speaking, you can withstand various types of attacks. You can say, "Just hang tight and I'll handle this!"

Advanced players can encourage beginners.

Sakurai: Yes. I thought that made it a game open to people who couldn't enjoy Kirby before.

In other words, it's a good thing you responded to Miyamoto-san's request.

Sakurai: That's right.

Fighting-Game Actions and an Omnibus Format

What about your second pillar of including actions like those in fighting games?

Sakurai: Until then, when Kirby used the Cutter ability, he threw blades. And when he used the Fire ability, he breathed fire, and that would defeat weaker enemies with one hit. But in Kirby Super Star, we gave durability to even weaker enemies, so you have to hit them more than once to defeat them.

Why did you do that?

Sakurai: Because when I played the game in two-player cooperative gameplay mode, I thought it lacked something. The main player would simply hurl blades and lay waste to opponents while the Helper just watched.

The Helper didn't have anything to do.

Sakurai: Right. Another reason was that I thought it would be better for broadening the possibilities with the Copy ability if players could perform multiple actions. In some fighting games, the moves rapidly change just by hammering the same button—punch, punch, hook, uppercut.

Uh-huh.

Sakurai: We made Kirby Super Star so that you can pull off various moves with the same ability. Thus, one guiding concept was the inclusion of versatility.

And that makes it like a fighting game.

Sakurai: Yes.

The third pillar you mentioned was an omnibus format. You're referring to how you can enjoy multiple stories within one game, right?

Sakurai: Yes. On Super NES, games went on for a long time before reaching a conclusion. And that was also true of the great games for NES.

Players might play for a long time but never reach the end.

Sakurai: Back then, players were paying high prices for games, so we boasted things like long play time and big maps. Basically, bulk had become one standard of value.

And you made Kirby Super Star as the antithesis to that trend.

Sakurai: Yes. I thought about having resolutions come more quickly and that led to the omnibus format. I wanted to give each section its own plot in addition to providing different types of gameplay.

The result was seven main games and two subgames.

Sakurai: The main plots are really only in six games, though. The Arena is a bonus, so it's actually six games plus one.

Oh, I see. The first one you play is Spring Breeze. That title is perfect. It comes from the game for Game Boy, doesn't it?

Sakurai: Yes. The game manual for Kirby's Dream Land described Kirby as a youth who came with the spring breeze, and this game was based on that game, so I gave it that title. It's also the first game in the software, so I wanted to suggest that the going was still easy at that point.

That title does make it sound easy.

Sakurai: In Spring Breeze, you can use the Copy ability, but that wasn't the original plan.

Why weren't you going to include it?

Sakurai: At first, I thought about just following the original game to show complete beginners how to play.

"Chest!"

In addition to Spring Breeze, I also like Kachiwari Megaton Punch (Megaton Punch) and Setsuna no Mikiri (Samurai Kirby). I thought your titles were quite distinctive and really hit the nail on the head.

Sakurai: Thank you. By the way, I was the one who did the title logo calligraphy for Setsuna no Mikiri.

Oh, really?

Sakurai: First, I did it with a brush pen, and then I imported that into the computer and turned it into pixels.

Come to think of it, your voice is also in the game.

Sakurai: That's right! (laughs) As Mike Kirby, I say "Chesto8!"

8. "Chesto!": a Japanese battle cry when one swings a sword, similar to "hi-yah!" in English. The phrase originated from a dialect in southern Japan.

Uh-huh.

Sakurai: I went into the music room to record that. The window was open just a little, and when I cried out "Chest!" as hard as I could, people far away turned around.

Toward you, huh? (laughs) Because the people in the company wondered what had gotten into you?

Sakurai: No, they were complete strangers. People working in the fields.

(laughs) You could see farming fields outside the company windows.

Sakurai: Yeah. (laughs)

How long did development of Kirby Super Star last?

Sakurai: I think it was about three years.

Three years… Isn't that long for a Super NES game?

Sakurai: Yeah. There are various reasons that development dragged on, but one was the influence of Donkey Kong Country.9

9. Donkey Kong Country: A platform game included in Super NES Classic Edition. Originally released in November 1994.

That came up during my interview for Super NES Classic Edition covering Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island.10 Donkey Kong Country's graphics amazed the developers. Did they have an influence on you, too?

10. Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island: A platform game included in Super NES Classic Edition. Originally released in Japan in August 1995.

Sakurai: Yes. Midway through development, it was decided that we should incorporate computer graphics, so we threw out the art we had made up to that point.

Oh, is that so?

Sakurai: Of course, I could have refused to do it, but I was certain myself that there would be merits to using CG, so I don't feel it was forced on me. Rather, I feel like it happened at just the right time.

Oh, uh-huh.

Sakurai: Also, while I said earlier that there were six main games plus one, there were actually seven plus one in the proposal.

What?! What kind of game was it?

Sakurai: It was called Kagero Mansion. It was like a horror game and was completely different from the usual Kirby game. Kirby finds himself in a mansion and under a curse sealing his mouth shut.

So he can't use Copy?

Sakurai: Right. He can't suck in or spit out, so he can't Copy. He would go around the mansion and, for example, get the Copy ability of Fire from a candle. I was planning a horror-action game with puzzle elements.

What happened to that game?

Sakurai: Unfortunately, we never even got started making it. We had our hands full just making the other games.

Rich in Content

You spent a long time making Kirby Super Star, but was the title easy to decide?

Sakurai: At first, the development name was Kirby of the Stars: Active.

Active?

Sakurai: That's what we tentatively called it, to suggest that the game was more proactive and had more active gameplay. When it was time to decide the official title, Shigesato Itoi-san11 became involved.

He made EarthBound.12

11. Shigesato Itoi: In addition to being a copywriter and essayist, he has participated in development of video games such as the EarthBound series and Itoi Shigesato no Bass Tsuri No. 1. Currently, he is CEO of Hobonichi.

12. EarthBound: A role-playing game originally released in Japan for the Super Famicom system in August 1994 under the name Mother 2.

Sakurai: We decided to directly convey how rich it is in content and settled on the Japanese title Kirby of the Stars: Super Deluxe. Even the package design…

It looked like a paulownia box with a seal burnt into it. It really stood out in stores.

Sakurai: Yes, it really did.

What was the concept behind that design?

Sakurai: High-priced sake and dishware often comes in paulownia boxes. Luxury items often come in minimal external packaging, and we wanted to portray that richness, so the design turned out like that.

Was that Itoi-san's idea?

Sakurai: I'm pretty sure it started with an idea from him, but I'm not sure if he came up with exactly that by himself. In any case, it was eventually decided through many people in discussion.

Iwata-san and Itoi-san had made EarthBound together and were quite close, so I suppose they provided pertinent advice.

Sakurai: Yes, of course.

Do you have any particular memories of Iwata-san from development of Kirby Super Star?

Sakurai: Actually, I didn't have much contact with him during development. For the most part, he left things in my hands.

Do you suppose he was busy with EarthBound at that time?

Sakurai: EarthBound was completed first, but I think he was busy with his main responsibilities as president of HAL Laboratory. Instead of saying "Do this!" and "Do that!" during development, he completely left actual development to us, so I think he trusted us.

Freedom Above All

While you are someone who makes video games, you have also played many games in many genres. When it comes to the 21 games included in Super NES Classic Edition…

Sakurai: I think I've beaten most of them.

I'm not surprised! (laughs) All except for Star Fox 2.

Sakurai: Oh, and I haven't beaten Super Soccer13, of course.

13. Super Soccer: A sports game originally released in Japan by Human Entertainment in December 1991. This game is included only in the Japanese version of Super NES Classic Edition.

One of those 21 games is Kirby Super Star. How do you want people to play it?

Sakurai: I can only say that I want them to play however they want. I mean, there's no need to force them to play it.

(laughs)

Sakurai: The appeal of the hardware is that you can play whichever games you want from the many games included, so I don't want to push them to play it just because I made it.

Ah, I see.

Sakurai: For example, when you play Kirby Super Star, there's a cork board where you can choose which game to play, and the two subgames are there.

Megaton Punch and Samurai Kirby.

Sakurai: You can enjoy those subgames in a short time, and playing just those two a little bit is enough. One of the development concepts of Kirby Super Star is that all kinds of people can play all kinds of different ways, playing what they like however they like. So I think letting people do what they want is best.

You leave it up to the player.

Sakurai: Yeah. Another thing to mention is that if you leave Kirby Super Star idle, demos for the various games begin playing. I'm the one who's playing those.

So we can witness your gameplay when you were 25! (laughs)

Sakurai: Yeah! (laughs)

Did you enjoy these six interviews commemorating the release of Super NES Classic Edition?

Super NES Classic Edition includes 21 titles, and I was able to hear behind-the-scenes anecdotes for 8 of them. As someone who has been involved with Nintendo for over 20 years, this has been incredibly fun for me. I heard many things for the first time.

The Super NES Classic Edition is available now. As Sakurai-san recommends, enjoy playing it many ways, however you please! Bye!

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