Ok, let’s start real broad here. Video games are cool. Good start, but let’s tighten that in a little bit. Video games are cool because they’re entertainment that the audience gets to interact with. Alright, alright, that’s looking nice. Let’s do one more. Video games are cool because they’re a form of entertainment that lets the audience express themselves while enjoying it. A video game is a personal experience. Two people playing the same game are almost guaranteed to have two different experiences. Sure, we see this play out a lot in narrative ways. Games with branching storylines that beg you not to play twice so you can have a playthrough that will forever be wholly your own. Games with moral systems that promise to shape the world depending on how you’re feeling at the moment. But I think there’s plenty of games that allow you to let your personality shine through actual gameplay too. After all, a Super Mario Bros speedrun sends a very different message than when I play and start having trouble around world 3. I think there’s no genre that showcases this better than character action.
Character action is a genre that gives you a character, gives that character a very long list of attacks, usually spread across a bunch of weapons and tells you to not just kill everything, but look good doing it. Tv Tropes calls it Stylish Action, and that certainly makes a lot more sense as a descriptor, but one of the most popular genre of games is defined entirely by how similar it is to Rogue, so genre names are just kind of in a weird place right now. It’s a genre that really took off with Capcom’s Devil May Cry series, but others may be more familiar with Platinum Games and their entries such as the Bayonetta series, the recent success Astral Chain, or Metal Gear Rising. If you spent too much time at Hot Topic in high school you may also be familiar with the genre from the Nightmare Before Christmas PS2 game which was made by Capcom and is in pretty much everything but name, Devil May Cry 2.5. A niche selection to be sure, but one that has cultivated a strong support from its fans.
Something I’ve noticed about these games is that they tend to be very demanding of the players. You’re expected to really know every little detail of your character and what they can do. You’re expected to know the difference in the feeling and the timing of the different weapons. And if you really want to excel you’re almost always expected to throw in a taunt every once in a while to really piss off whatever enemies you’re fighting. More than you’re already pissing them off by juggling them in the air with bullets and magic swords anyway. This is probably most well demonstrated by the style meter. A staple for most games in the genre, the style meter is responsible for really adding a sense of accomplishment to the whole thing. It turns your freestyle combos into an objective score based on criteria such as not using the same moves over and over and making sure you don’t get hit. And for the most part they work pretty well. You’d be hard pressed to find a situation where someone actually pulled off a more stylish combo and wasn’t rewarded for it in game. It just serves to really punctuate the raw charisma of it all. Sure I can uppercut a demon into the sky, jump up to it, wail on it with my sword, knock it to the ground, grab it, pull it back up, wail on it again, and piledrive it back down to the ground but it all just feels so much better when I can see the meter climb it’s way up from D to SSS. Actually in the context of DMC that’s a pretty basic combo. That would maybe get me up to a B. Again. Very demanding. But in a way that’s very freeing. I just rattled that combo off the top of my head, but hey, guess, what, I tried it, it’s possible. And I had a feeling it would be because these games are about expression. What the game is truly rewarding for you for, is your creativity.
But as much as I love these games, I can’t help but wonder if we can bring something new to the genre. Just about every character action game so far is a 3rd person game that takes inspiration from hectic beat em up or hack and slash games. The main exception probably being Vanquish which is pretty definitely a character action game, but is also a third person shooter. But let’s stretch it even further. I think much like the roguelike, this is really a genre so broad in what defines it that it could be mixed in with just about anything. What if we wanted, I don’t know, a character action side scroller? Well, it would have to be a side scroller with a focus on combat over platforming. The platforming would mainly serve to give you fun ways to go from fight to fight. And those fights would need to be fun too, of course. The character you’re playing as should have a wide variety of moves. They would most likely revolve around directional inputs a lot like the way that Smash Bros works. The levels in platformers generally require a little more variety to keep things interesting, and I think there’s a few ways to do that. Firstly, a lot of enemy variety. More things to beat up means more fun. Secondly the main character should be able to change weapons and moves on the fly. Maybe there can be unlockable characters to have more dedicated movesets for more challenging runs, but platformers are constantly adding new obstacles so our main character should be constantly changing his loadout. And we want to encourage fighting enemies above anything else, so maybe he gets these powers by defeating enemies… Oops, I made Kirby.
Kirby exists in kind of weird space as far as Nintendo’s franchises go. Nintendo has no shortage of sidescrolling platforming franchises. So in a world with Mario and Donkey Kong Country how does Kirby stand out? Yes, he has the whole swallowing enemies thing, but, I mean, so does Yoshi. What I’m really wanting to dig into is what purpose do Kirby games serve? What’s going to make someone prefer a Kirby game to something else made by the same company? Well, that’s the big secret that Kirby fans have somehow managed to keep from everyone else. Kirby games are about combat.
When Kirby first showed up he actually didn’t have copy abilities at all. He just inhaled things and spit them back out. Not relevant but sorta interesting. Anyway, in Kirby’s second game, which did have copy abilities, they served mainly as solutions to puzzles. Cutter Kirby cut ropes, fire Kirby burns through ice, that sort of thing. The ability you have replaces the inhale you had before with a single attack. And there is still kind of a sub series of Kirby games that work that way. A few of the games are more puzzle focused and let you solve more puzzles by augmenting your single ability. Whether that be by combining it with another ability or riding a giant hamster. But the main focus of the series really started to shift with the introduction of Kirby Super Star on the SNES. Gone is the single basic attack. Now each copy ability had a full move list of attacks. Sword Kirby no longer has one simple swing. He can do combos. He can do jumping uppercuts. He can jump in the air and plunge his sword straight down into the ground. Copy abilities were essentially turning Kirby into full on fighting game characters. There was even fighter Kirby which just gave him all the powers of Ryu from Street Fighter complete with quarter circle motions for throwing fireballs. It’s a style of gameplay that you may be familiar with if you’ve played Smash Bros, especially Melee’s adventure mode or Brawl’s Subspace Emissary. Surprise, those two series were created by the same guy. In that shift, Kirby’s abilities also found sort of a new purpose. There were still plenty of puzzles that required certain abilities, sure. Any good game would want to take advantage of all the tools it gives you in creative ways. But puzzle solving wasn’t really the main point of these games anymore. Now it was an action game and the copy abilities were there so you could have the moves you wanted to fight with. Later games even recognize this and usually reward you for completing the game by giving you a level solely dedicated to giving you whatever ability you want, so you can truly play through the game in the way that best suits you. Copy abilities are now more about the expression of making Kirby your own.
Once Kirby returned to Dreamland in the very appropriately named Kirby’s Return to Dreamland, this style started to become the new normal. And the games slowly shifted their focus to suit this. When you have pages of unique moves how do you find a reason to use them in a series where most enemies die in one hit from even the most basic attacks? Well, you focus a lot on the bosses. More recent Kirby games have had a lot more bosses and mini bosses and will occasionally even just stop the camera and make you fight a gauntlet of normal enemies. They’ve even introduced a recurring mode known as The Arena that just has you fight all the bosses and mini bosses in a row with limited healing. It’s often seen as the final challenge of the game, usually with multiple upgraded or even entirely new bosses exclusive to the mode. It’s demanding for sure. It expects you to at this point be super familiar with Kirby and how he controls. You need to mix up your moves depending on the situation and even be ready to drop your ability altogether when a better one comes around…oops, they made a character action game.
Now do I really think that just because of this similarity that Kirby games should start including style meters? Yes, that’s exactly what I think. I genuinely think that’s a thing that should happen. I do acknowledge that it shouldn’t just be rolled into the main game. Kirby is still at the end of the day a family series that wants to be welcoming to children and newcomers. We don’t need to over complicate things for them. Let them just enjoy playing as a pink puffball who eats snowmen to get ice powers. But in addition to an arena most recent Kirby games add in one more extra mode. This mode varies a bit but it usually boils down to playing through the game again with a timer to encourage speed running. It’s almost always...fine, but I think there’s real potential to add something special. A speed run mode goes against this new Kirby anyway. You’re encouraged to jump over any enemies you don’t need to fight, and when you get to the boss just spam your strongest move over and over to kill it quickly. What if instead you played through the game with a style meter? What if you had to build up a combo by using all the moves on your current ability and if you really wanted to go for the platinum rank you had to switch to a new ability without breaking your flow. Now you’re rushing to enemies instead of avoiding them, and at every moment, you’re gauging whether this next enemy gets attacked or eaten for its power. It no longer feels excessive to charge your hammer for a massive flaming uppercut just to hit a bird in a hat because now you’re rewarded for being able to land that big slow attack with a huge boost to your score. Now there’s an actual purpose for suplex Kirby, who’s only attack is grabbing enemies, but once he’s holding an enemy has about 10 different wrestling moves he can do to them. I’m not a game designer, so it’s not a perfect idea. Obviously there would need to be some adjustments to the actual gameplay to accommodate a more fast paced flow, but I think it’s a step in the right direction. Kirby has evolved into a very weird series with such a unique DNA. I would love nothing more than to see them embrace the strengths of the series. Especially if it helps to bridge the gap to a genre that’s notoriously unwelcoming. Besides the final boss of the latest Kirby game is a god in the process of being reborn, so if they’re going to be that hardcore they might as well go all the way.