One of Nintendo’s most iconic characters was never really meant for the screen. Kirby, who has appeared in over 30 games, was initially just used to hold space until developers created a more detailed character. The game’s developers, HAL Laboratory, planned on replacing him, but quickly became attached to the little blob. He wasn’t even named Kirby at first. He was initially named Popopo and his debut game was to be titled Twinkle Popo.
So, how did he go from Popopo to Kirby? Well, at the time of the game’s development Nintendo had a lawyer named John Kirby. That’s right: one of Nintendo’s most whimsical and light hearted characters might be named after…a lawyer. At least, that’s been theorized. It’s never been officially stated that John Kirby was the inspiration.
It’s odd to think how different Kirby might have been. Developers initially couldn’t decide on what color to make him. The debate was between yellow and pink (the color ultimately chosen). Further complicating the picture, he was depicted as white on the cover of Kirby’s Dream Land, the first title in the Kirby series. Why? Well, despite the developers eventually settling on pink, the first game was released for Game Boy, which did not have color graphics. So, the artists rendered him as white on the game cover.
Fans of the Kirby series know that his primary means of attack is inhaling objects and enemies. However, this was also not an original part of the plan. Masahiro Sakurai, the game’s creator, initially envisioned Kirby kicking and headbutting enemies. The idea to have Kirby inhale enemies came about as a result of a special power given to Kirby: the ability to suck up air and float.
Kirby’s Dream Land was released for the Nintendo Game Boy in 1992. It was a side scrolling platformer, and featured you as Kirby. The game’s premise was laid out in the instructional booklet that accompanied it:
“On a tiny star somewhere far, far away from earth, there is a very special place known as Dream Land. The Dream Landers are very happy people who use their magical Sparkling Stars to play and work among the heavens. That is until one dark night when the gluttonous King Dedede and his rotten band of thieves swooped down from neighboring Mt. Dedede for a midnight snack in Dream Land. Not only did they steal all their food, but they stole the Dream Lander’s treasured Sparkling Stars as well. Because the Dream Landers didn’t have the Sparkling Stars to gather food anymore, they began to get very hungry. Suddenly a spry little boy named Kirby happened along and said, “Don’t worry, I’ll get your food and your Sparkling Stars back!”. With these words, Kirby set off on his quest toward the dreaded Mt. Dedede. We wish him luck!”
There were five total levels: Green Greens, Castle Lololo, Float Islands, Bubbly Clouds, and Mt. Dedede. Each level ended with a boss fight. Enemies could be defeated by inhaling them. Kirby could then either swallow the enemy or launch them out of his mouth as a projectile weapon (the latter option transformed them into stars). In future games, he could gain special powers by consuming an enemy, but this feature is absent in Kirby’s Dream Land. Instead, Kirby could eat a spicy curry which would allow him to breathe fire, or a mint leaf that would allow him to increase the speed of his “air bullets,” an attack Kirby used while puffed up with air. As an added curiosity, the Japanese version of Kirby’s Dream Land did not have a mint leaf. Instead, Kirby would consume a sweet potato leaf, which made him burp.
The game’s cute, whimsical style and entertaining gameplay made it popular. A sequel, Kirby’s Adventure, appeared less than a year later and dozens of other titles followed. Almost 30 years after its initial release, Kirby’s Dream Land continues to charm and delight.