When parents ask me to recommend a good video game to start playing with their children, I send them to Nintendo's Kirby games straight away. I do this not only because I know the games will be fun for the youngest players, but because I know that the parents will have fun with them too.
In fact, with the Kirby franchise — which is celebrating its 20th anniversary — Nintendo has done with video games what Pixar has done with movies: Made them accessible and enjoyable for both young players and older players alike.
And that is no easy task.
As both a gamer and parent I have, in recent years, come to realize something: There are a lot of really awful video games aimed at young kids. By awful, I don't mean bad in a violent kind of way. I mean, they're just, well, terrible. As in, the developers who made them figured they could cut corners and slap something together because the kiddies wouldn't know any better.
But kids do know better. And parents ... we know better. We know when a game isn't any good because we don't look forward to playing it with our children. And that is a terrible way to feel, because playing games with your child is one of life's great joys.
But the Kirby games stand in stark contrast to this trend.
In case you don't know who Kirby is ... well ... he is a giant pink ball who has starred in more than 20 games for various Nintendo systems over the past two decades — starting in 1992 with "Kirby's Dream Land" for the Game Boy on through last year's "Kirby's Return to Dream Land" for the Wii. He can fly but is best known for having the power to swallow his enemies and, in doing so, absorb their abilities.
And while that may sound ridiculously silly to some adult gamers, Kirby games are, generally speaking, so smartly designed and delightfully whimsical that even the most serious-minded grown-up can appreciate the gameplay and artistry involved. That is, Kirby games walk that line between cute and compelling — between being challenging yet also welcoming — ever-so-carefully. Beneath their bright candy coating, they contain gaming you can really chew on. (Pick up "Kirby's Epic Yarn" and tell me you don't love it. Go on. I dare you.)
This week Nintendo will launch "Kirby's Dream Collection" to celebrate the character's 20th anniversary. It is a collection of six Kirby games from the last 20 years packaged with a fantastic set of bonus videos, music and historical material that I highly recommend to anyone with a new gamer in the house ... or to anyone who has ever loved Nintendo's adorable pink blob. (For a sneak peek, check out the trailer below.)
With that on the horizon, I recently had a chance to talk to Nintendo President Satoru Iwata about Kirby. He was part of the team that brought the famed puff ball to life at HAL Laboratory — the Nintendo subsidiary where Iwata himself got his start — and he had some interesting insight into how they managed to make a game franchise that both new and veteran gamers alike could fall in love with.
"At the time when we were developing Kirby, it had been seven or eight years since video games had become a worldwide phenomenon and become known to a lot of people," Iwata told me via an interpreter. "The video game developers at that time were really creating games just for those folks who had been playing games and not worrying about people who weren’t experienced players. Basically, fundamentally, video game designers want to play games that they want to play."
He said it had gotten to the point where, even with the notoriously kid-friendly Mario games, people would play them, but unless they were experienced gamers, they couldn't play all the way to the end. And so, he said, the question became: How do we create a game that everyone, regardless of their skill level, would be able to pick up and play from beginning to end?
Of course, the problem with that is, if you make a game that anyone can finish, then where's the challenge? Won't veteran players find it too simple and boring?
Iwata said that famed game designer Masahiro Sakurai — who worked with him at HAL Laboratory — set about tackling the problem. "He is a very experienced and very good gamer but he was interested in the process by which very inexperienced gamers or new gamers would pick up a game and learn and become passionate about games," he said.
And what Sakurai and the Kirby team settled on was giving players a choice in how they played.
"The solution that Mr. Sakurai came up with was not merely to lower the difficulty level of the game but allow the gamers themselves to set that level through the way in which they approached the game," Iwata said. "They would be able to either float Kirby through the air and just stay away from all enemies, or they could take on every single opponent — and not only take them on but try to take them on in the most colorful and exciting ways that they could."
What they found was that, when new and younger players started playing a Kirby game, they always floated up into the air to escape. At least at first.
"But while they were doing that, they were actually starting to learn how to control the character," Iwata explained. And with that practice, soon, that new player grew more and more brave. "Then, at some point, they would change their feeling and say, 'You know what, I’m going to float down to the surface and I’m go to go ahead and fight that enemy'."
Indeed, when I play "Kirby's Return to Dream Land" with my own 5-year-old, that is exactly what he does. When the going gets tough, he pops that pink ball up into the air while I continue the battle below, digging into the meat of the levels as well as the hidden and unlockable treats that make the game more challenging. My son can then rejoin the fight (and by "fight" I mean that in the gentlest sense of the word) when he feels ready to do so.
And he escapes to the air less and less often these days. Thanks to "Kirby's Return to Dream Land," "Kirby's Epic Yarn" and with us now working our way through "Kirby's Dream Collection," my son has grown more and more skilled with the controller and more and more confident with his gaming abilities. Kirby has, in the truest sense of the word, been his gaming teacher.
And because of this smart, gentle gaming guide, my son and I have counted many incredibly fun evenings playing together. He's happy. I'm happy. It's the kind of stuff good memories are made of. And for that , I say, thank you Kirby.
Winda Benedetti writes about video games for NBC News. You can follow her tweets about games and other things on Twitter here @WindaBenedetti, and you can follow her on Google+. Meanwhile, be sure to check out the IN-GAME FACEBOOK PAGE to discuss the day's gaming news and reviews.