If you're anything like me, you probably took one look at Kirby and the Rainbow Curse and assumed that it stars a clay version of HAL Laboratory's pink puffball. Who wouldn't? Everything in the game is rendered to look like clay, after all. However, according to Kirby and the Rainbow Curse's creators, Kirby and the world that surrounds him aren't made of clay at all, they merely appear to be.
This admission came up during a discussion with seven key figures behind Rainbow Curse when I asked what role clay would play in the game, and I was surprised to find out that it's impact is merely superficial. Rainbow Curse's supervisor, Kazuhiro Yoshikawa, said: "We weren't really thinking about Kirby being made out of clay in his own worldview, but rather, we're just using clay to express his softness and his ability to transform. So, you wouldn't actually see him picking up clay from the environment, in the same way that you wouldn't see him dissolve if he happened to fall in water in this game world. This was a very important idea that was defining some of the boundaries for designing the gameplay."
Nintendo isn't a company that makes arbitrary decisions. If anything, one of its strengths is how calculated and refined its concepts are, so this disparity between Kirby's appearance and the game's mechanics seems odd. Considering Kirby's Epic Yarn for the Wii, where Kirby's stringy identity did dictate mechanics to a degree, it would make sense that the same relationship would exist in Rainbow Curse.
Art director Teruhiko Suzuki gets it, too, but to him, clay was a means of expression and not intended as a source of gameplay inspiration. "We just wanted to find a way to bring some of the expressiveness of that clay animation and that stop motion animation style, not necessarily referencing the actual material," Suzuki said. "So you won't, for that reason, find Kirby mixing with other bits of clay in the game for various gameplay mechanics."
The clay-like visuals are a great way to express imagination and playfulness, but how could it not spur creative minds to come up with suitable mechanics? Apparently it did, but according to director Kazushige Masuda, this inspiration only materialized in the form of vehicle transformations. "When we were thinking about how to use clay as an art style for this game, the way that we were connecting it to ideas for gameplay was from the direction of clay being soft and mutable, something that you could shape into a lot of different forms, and so we had these ideas for Kirby molding himself into the shape of a tank or a submarine, and that these kinds of animations would be easy for him because he's made out of clay."
"The corollary to that is we have to be careful to avoid things that made the game less fun because we had chosen clay as this expressive form," said Masuda. "For us, the driving principle was: clay is a visual style and we're trying to draw from it ideas that can make an action game with Kirby more fun."
What Masuda says makes sense, but hasn't Kirby always been mutable? His identifying trait is the ability to absorb powers from his enemies, which causes him to transform into a wide variety of forms depending on the game in question. By the sound of it, the idea they drew from clay is one that's existed in the series since its inception, but what happened to the copy ability at large in Rainbow Curse? If it plays to the strengths of Kirby's character, especially in clay form, why is it limited to only three transformations?
"I think you'll remember that in Kirby: Canvas Curse, Kirby did have the copy ability, and that made sense in certain types of side scrolling action games, but it's something that we really use only when we think that it's really necessary," said Hal Laboratory's Shinya Kumazaki. "As you may recall in Kirby: Canvas Curse, there were only 10 copy abilities, whereas by comparison, a lot of the traditional Kirby platformers will have as many as 20 copy abilities. This time, in Rainbow Curse, because Kirby is rolling faster and that's a little bit more the focus of the gameplay, we decided that it wasn't as good a fit, you have a different function for the gameplay here, so the demands for gameplay mechanics were different. I feel like, in the kind of game this has become, this was definitely the right decision."
Masuda pointed out that it's hard to compare this game to Canvas Curse in some ways due to the difference between the Wii U's GamePad screen, and that of the DS. "If you played the Nintendo DS game, Kirby: Canvas Curse, you'll notice this game where you flick using the stylus on the touch screen to move kirby through levels rather slowly. This time around, because the screen on the gamepad is larger than on the Nintendo DS of the time, the player can draw longer lines, and as a result of that, we can allow the character on screen to move faster, and we feel that really makes the gameplay feel a lot better. So this was something that was definitely on our minds as we designed gameplay and game worlds. You'll also see a lot faster stylus movement, and we also think this affected game design quite a bit."
While it's clear that Nintendo and HAL Laboratory had a vision for Kirby and the Rainbow Curse, the formula it went with is surprising. The team took the beloved Canvas Curse concept, put it on a larger screen, stripped away some of the transformations in the name of speed, and left inspirational opportunities on the table. The game still has moments that are interesting and creative, but it never really capitalizes on the concept of a world made of clay.