Monday, May 9, 2011

Kirby's Adventure: Design and Color

(Originally posted on November 2nd, 2010, at my personal blog.)

[FYI, this article was written before Kirby's Epic Yarn was released. Also, big thanks to Kirby's Rainbow Resort for having such an amazing selection of Kirby's Adventure screenshots, and to Mobygames for a couple others.]

I spent an evening playing Kirby's Adventure on Virtual Console recently. I grew up with the game on an NES cartridge; I'd played Kirby's Dream Land first and wasn't too enthralled, but Kirby's Adventure was one of the games that dominated my childhood. I didn't realize it at the time, but this game's design sticks out like a black sheep from the rest of the series: not only does it have a sophisticated and evocative color palette different from anything else on the NES, but many of the level motifs (such as the many buildings and castles) are surprisingly detailed and concrete--not exactly what you expect from a series that is now defined by marshmallowy, candy-colored vistas.


Kirby's Adventure on the left, Kirby Super Star on the right.

At the same time, though, these very detailed, concrete structures create an effect that feels dreamlike. Compare it to its successor, Kirby Super Star. KSS's castle looks pretty unremarkable nowadays--it's very simplistic and doesn't have much character, aside from being pink. The shading is flat and the shadows are grey, which means nothing very interesting is being done with lighting, either. In Adventure's Bubbly Clouds area, the structures are classical-looking temples that are white with soft lavender and pink shades, sitting in the background or poking through the clouds. At certain points, Super Star both feels less detailed and, oddly enough, less dreamlike: the most memorable dream landscapes are always very specific.

(I do love a lot of Super Star's art, though. I'll probably do a followup post with some of my favorite screens from it.)

This in particular is a beautiful screenshot. Kirby goes through a castle and falls down into this room, where he battles a miniboss named Mr. Tick Tock. It's not entirely clear where this area is: is it underneath the castle, near some kind of moat? It's clear that the light blue field in the middle ground is water, but what's in the back? You can discern some delicately rendered, lacy white gates, but the columns of color and silhouette can be perceived as waterfalls, islands rising out of the ocean, or the view of a field of grass. The columns in back are a stark black and green against the lighter shades, and it evokes sunset or the late afternoon without using any typical sunset colors. This type of color subversion is very common in the game: just look at the entire concept of Orange Ocean!

Ambiguity is one of the strong points of Adventure's graphics. On the left, Kirby walks through a landscape that looks like a mix of Super Mario World and a discotheque. (Mario World actually came out three years before Kirby's Adventure did, which may explain the resemblance.) The shape at the top of the picture does look like a disco ball, but the other spheres resemble moons or bubbles, and it's difficult to tell what the landscape is like. The black shapes with purple lighting (coming from the land, not the sky) makes it look both exciting and slightly eerie. It reminds me a lot of Earthbound's uncanny neon-lit parallel world, Moonside.

On the right is a screenshot that shows off Kirby Adventure's sense of pop-art design. The very circular design of the clouds would be completely at home in an Illustrator-made poster nowadays, for one thing, and the tiny "cloud bubbles" around the edge are a nice touch. It's also just really nice to see how engaging and pretty the color choices in this game are. Everything works, and there aren't a whole lot of colors in the game that are too saturated or try to burn your eyes out. That's a matter of taste, though; I'm using a lot of purple-heavy screenshots because, frankly, I really like purple.

Blue and orange/yellow is a classic complementary color combination, and Kirby's Adventure works it. Not only does the Butter Building look great against that perfect shade of blue in the background, but the tower has a neat 3D effect where it appears to rotate as Kirby jogs (or flies) around it. In the desert area, the cacti are shaded with a yellow that blends into the sand dunes behind it, making it fit into the backdrop a little more. It also provides a nice sense of rough texture--you can see where the prickles pick up the light. (In this screenshot, the hints of blue at the top save the environment from being very one-note.)

Sometimes it goes too far, though. This is an example of Kirby's Adventure getting way too busy: there are too many conflicting patterns in here (the ladder, the brick, the background, the column tops and bottoms), and the gradated blues, while cool-looking, don't play well with that really deep plum color. It kind of hurts to look at, but at least it's ambitious.

Kirby's Adventure on the left, Kirby: Nightmare in Dreamland (the GBA remake) on the right.
(Thanks to Tenukii for the Kirby's Adventure screenshot!)

Since Kirby's Adventure takes place in a dream world, it makes sense that the final boss should be the embodiment of a nightmare. In the NES version he's comparatively small and wispy. Being a dream creature, he blends into the dark, and a very nice, subtle transparency effect delineates his cape. His intimidation comes from the fact that he looks totally unlike any other creature experienced in the game thus far: he's human-like, for one thing, and he actually looks like he has malicious intent. Even King Dedede's villainy comes off as goofy rather than mean.

In the GBA version, the designers have effectively inverted Nightmare's design: instead of being small and wispy, he's huge and physically intimidating instead. This is problematic, because Nightmare does a lot of swooping and flying, and it's very difficult to do that when you're taking up literally a third of the screen. Although the jewels and helmet were always in the original artwork, the designers wisely decided not to include them in Nightmare's NES sprite. It would have distracted (color-wise, especially) from his expression, posture and animation. It's a case of less being more.

Kirby's Adventure benefited from being one of the last games released for the NES. In 1993, there were already games being made for the Super NES. It wouldn't be a surprise if Kirby's Adventure looked "modern, for the time," but the astonishing thing is that the game looks modern even for our time, fifteen years later. It has one of the most beautiful and evocative color palettes on the NES, and possibly one of the best on any platform, ever. It's not just a strong sense of color design, but how those colors are used that really sets Kirby's Adventure apart.

A couple last notes, some more personal than others:
  • Kirby's Adventure is the second game in the Kirby series, taking place after Dream Land. I have the feeling that it might be this that gives the game so much personality: Adventure seems like a kind of testing ground for Kirby and his games, to determine the directions it could go in later on. Some environments, like those Greek temples, bring to mind other Nintendo games like Kid Icarus more than post-Adventure Kirby games.
  • I should have compared more Kirby games in this, but in the interest of full disclosure, I'm not a fan of the Dream Land games or 64. I've tried to get into them multiple times and I just can't. From what I've played and seen of it, though, 64 seems to follow the Super Star approach to design, although I'm very fond of the unused background concepts.
  • This game's combination of black skies, cream-colored moons and rich purples are like nostalgia heroin for me. I always enjoyed that combination and I wasn't sure where I'd gotten it from until I watched a video of the final battle.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting post! I've recently become a bit obsessed with Kirby's Adventure, and I agree with pretty much everything you've said here. The game looks amazing while also being an absolute joy to play. What more can you ask of a game?

    I have to admit, BTW, that screenshots of Super Star make the game seem much less appealing to someone like me who has yet to play it. The much simpler and subtler sprites used in Adventure are much more attractive, IMO.

    Finally, I just played through a bit of the GBA remake of Adventure (Nightmare in Dream Land) and although I like a number of things about it -- Kirby himself looks very nice and I love the enhanced nature of his abilities -- I still prefer the Famicom/NES original. I'm guessing you feel the same way?