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Sakurai talks about “Kirbyisms” and the origins of Smash 64 on the Tokyo Game Lounge podcast
Tetsuya Mizuguchi and Hisakazu Hirabayashi’s Tokyo Game Lounge, Ep. 3
On July 17th, 2002, Sakurai was invited onto a gaming podcast called the Tokyo Game Lounge, hosted by Hisakazu Hirabayashi, a gaming journalist/consultant and Tetsuya Mizuguchi, the Japanese game director had created Rez. Mizuguchi would later go on to collaborate with Sakurai on the game Meteos, which was released in 2005.
Translator Note: As this was a podcast, the tone was very conversational, and is fairly different from how Sakurai writes his columns. I’ve translated the podcast in a way that I hope is more suitable to reading, removing all filler words, etc. I’ve also removed some lines where his hosts interrupted but didn’t add anything substantial, for example when they asked questions about something Sakurai was going to explain in the first place, for the sake of brevity.
On the subject of “what makes Kirby, Kirby?”
Sakurai: When I look back on my current job– right now my title is “general director”– well, not that titles mean anything– and essentially I fulfill the producer role, stepping into development on a variety of Kirby games. And of the ones I’m working on, the one that’s been announced, for the GameBoy Advance, “Fountain of Dreams DX ,” is what it seems like it’s going to be called, a remake of the NES game “Fountain of Dreams.” This has already been announced so I think it’s probably okay to talk about. I’m in the middle of making this game.
Of course I have my hands full with a bunch of things. Well, the point is, until now I was involved in projects one at a time in a director role, from now on it’s less like that and more me being involved on a bunch of different projects.
And so, from that perspective. There’s these things I’ve been calling “Kirbyisms.” I’ve been fervently asking the people here, or other game directors I meet, “what about these games makes them Kirby games? ” And this relates to Smash as well. Don’t you think that games these days, people tend to get bored with them? Like, “I wouldn’t play this game that much.” I don’t know if it’s some sort of strategy to combat used game sales or something, but mechanics like being forced to play an exorbitant amount to progress in the game, or not being able to get certain items until you do.
Host: Or, after you finish, being able to get a better ending by replaying the game…
Sakurai: Right, and I think those games are designed to appeal to the players at the top of the pyramid. But I think it’s more important to aim for, within the population of people who play video games, the people who are at the bottom– well, it’s rude to say it that way, but the players at the base, where it’s wider, people who on a basic level don’t really care about games. That audience, you would probably call them the family audience, having something that appeals to them so that they can play is vital, I think.
And normally, you just lower the difficulty and do nothing else, that’s the most common result, common solution. For example, there’s Kirby’s Copy ability. The reason why I implemented that is so that experienced players and new players alike could choose their own abilities and enjoy it in their own way. So in the Kirby’s Adventure, the one for the NES, that was the game where Kirby first got the Copy ability. I designed that game so that you could clear the game just by inhaling and exhaling. Kirby’s basic actions. Actions you could perform just by pushing the B button. But the more experienced you become at the game, you want more. And so we have the more hardcore abilities, like Backdrop, the ability where you grab enemies and throw them. Using that to skillfully defeat bosses, for example, being able to do that, is an example of the varied ways in which people can play the game in the way they want to. My goal with Kirby was to create a game that could be played differently by any person, the way they would want to. And I think that’s actually very different from “Nintendo-isms.”
Host: And what are those?
Sakurai: Well, for example, don’t Nintendo games, like Zelda and Mario– tend to have a very advertised quality to them? And, the placement of obstacles and the way you clear them, for example having the player character have set abilities at any given time and using them to overcome a hurdle, and then moving forward. And then there’s another obstacle. In Zelda’s case, you find items, in Mario’s case, they’re physical skills, such as walljumping, you learn to master these techniques and then you can advance, and so on. You feel catharsis by overcoming these set obstacles. I think this is very admirable for a game. I think you end up thinking it’s really fun .
Host: There’s a problem, you solve, and then you progress.
Sakurai: Yes. But I thought it was important to look at users who can’t clear those hurdles, or won’t even try to, and so I made the obstacles in Kirby the way they are– easy to solve, but you can still move to the right or the left. Keeping these sorts of things in mind and considering them important is what I call “Kirbyisms.”
Sakurai gets cut off and the hosts change the subject, going on a tangent. Several minutes later the subject returns to Smash.
Host: Can you describe the process of creating Smash?
Sakurai: Well, there’s a lot of things. I’ll start off with some of the details, then. We needed several design ideas for the Nintendo 64, and at first I created a game that was like “ohajiki .”The ohajiki had an arm, and if you hit it and hit another one, the enemy would go flying. But, well, that itself wasn’t really enough to make a game. Moreover, it didn’t have any selling points. From a business perspective, it just made no sense. So first I added characters. At that time I wasn’t talking about characters like Mario, but actually just a character model that looked like Pepsiman. And the current president of Nintendo, Mr. Iwata, wrote the code and we produced something called “Ryuoh: The Fighting Game.”
At that time we already had the percentage damage system, double jumps, all those sorts of systems unique to Smash, working on the Nintendo 64. And so we had to think, how do we get this to sell? We were thinking from the business side of things. We knew that fighting games had fared miserably in the consumer market from playing lots of games and surveys and such. I think it’s because they have so many protagonists. You don’t know which character to focus on. In Zelda, you have the character Link, and he’s the axis around which you can introduce everything else, but with fighting games you could immediately have 16 protagonists, you don’t know what or who to buy into. You can’t spend 100 yen just to test out a character either, you know. So we figured the way this would sell best would be to use Nintendo characters– a pretty bold strategy.
Often, the direction of a product that you want to sell, and the methods or adjustments made to sell the product don’t mesh perfectly, because there wasn’t a unified plan or design. In the end, I don’t think it’s good for either one to be lacking. Well, when you think about it, it’s a point that seems very simple and obvious…
The rest of the podcast discusses how characters fit into Smash, Mizuguchi and Sakurai potentially working together in the future, how Sakurai got into game development through a Sega contest, a bunch of games Sakurai played recently, Final Fantasy XI, a Smash Brothers orchestra concert, the Melee website, Sakurai’s dating status (at the time, single), and then a closing statement from Sakurai about playing games that you like and suit you and not hating on games that don’t appeal to you.
1. In America, this would be “Kirby: Nightmare in Dreamland.” It is a remake of “Kirby’s Adventure.”
2. In his words, he says “カービィらしさ,” which more directly translates to the word “Kirby-esque” if it had a noun form (so, “Kirby-esque things”). He’s asking “where are the Kirby-esque things/what are the Kirby-esque parts of these games?” I think that the translation gets that across sufficiently and more succinctly, but I want to note that it’s not about things that are “like Kirby,” it’s more like things that are the “essence” of Kirby, things that are intrinsic to Kirby and Kirby games.
3. I just want to be clear that this isn’t a typo or error, he says “I think you end up thinking” (思ってしまうと思う).
4. Ohajiki are small, flat cylinders (think flattened marbles), and also refers to the name of a game played with these discs. There are various rules and ways to play. You can play by flicking your ohajiki at your opponents, and if you hit one, then that ohajiki becomes “yours,” and you compete by trying to collect as many ohajiki as possible. Other playstyles include trying to flick an ohajiki to hit another ohajiki into a designated area, like soccer, or to hit ohajiki out of a designated area, like sumo.
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