Kirby: Nightmare in Dream Land – 2002 Developer Interview
This Kirby: Nightmare in Dream Land interview was originally featured in Nintendo Dream in 11/2002 (a truncated version was also published online at NOM). The questions are lighthearted and fawning, but it's fun to see the team joke around as they explain the various design choices behind Kirby's first GBA outing.
Masahiro Sakurai - General Director
Eitaro Nakamura - Programmer
Teruhiko Suzuki - Designer
—What was the original development concept for Kirby: Nightmare in Dream Land?
Sakurai: To tell you the truth, I initially resisted the idea of a remake.
—There certainly are a lot of remakes on the GBA.
Sakurai: Since the GBA hardware can do most of what the Super Famicom can do, there was the option of just directly porting one of the SFC Kirby games as-is. That approach would have pleased a certain subset of the fanbase, but they're older games, and I wasn't sure their graphic style would fit players' expectations today. A straight port might provide some momentary satisfaction, but long-term I think it would be seen as somewhat stale… and when you look at the controls, the button layout of the SFC and GBA are different too.
Sakurai: That was why I felt hesitant about any remakes. I thought we might as well go ahead and try to make something new.
—And yet you ended up releasing a remake of the original Famicom game, Kirby's Adventure.
Sakurai: There were several reasons for that. When the Kirby anime started last year, at that time, there wasn't a single development line working on a Kirby game. After all the trouble of getting this anime put together, to not have a game to go with it… that was no good, so we wanted to release something relatively quickly. We considered a non-sidescrolling Kirby game, like Kirby Bowl, and there was also the option of making something brand new. In the end, someone floated the idea of remaking Kirby's Adventure. You know, I feel like games are too difficult today. When we were making the very first Kirby for the Game Boy, I deliberately lowered the difficulty, and because of memory limitations, the stages were fairly short, meaning it was an easy pick-up-and-play experience for beginners.
—And the Famicom Kirby that came next was also beginner-friendly, yet had depth for advanced players too.
Sakurai: That was our intention. I feel like the situation with video games today is similar to how it was when we made the first Kirby… for example, if you walked up to your random neighborhood auntie and asked her to play a newer release, I think she would find it very difficult. There's all these different buttons, and you have to memorize all this junk... I doubt she'd be able to do much at all. Kirby's Adventure struck a good balance: people with no experience at all could still manage it, but it also maintained a certain level of challenge and depth as an action game. The way you can copy enemy abilities and use the ones that fit your individual playstyle is also something that will resonate with players today, I think.
—Having played it, I definitely agree that it fits today's gaming tastes. It's also nice how easy it is to pick up and play, and just as easy to put down. Visually it's very different from the Famicom version, but what other changes did you make?
Sakurai: We changed his walking speed, and how strong he is, too. Actually, compared to the Famicom version, he's a bit powered-up here. We left the enemies at the same strength, however, so oveall it's a little easier than the original. It's been 9 years since Kirby's Adventure, so the way people think about games, and what they're used to, has totally changed. We made a lot of detailed adjustments too: for example, some of the bosses have bigger sprites, but their attacks against Kirby are smaller now.
—Nakamura and Suzuki, this is your third year at HAL. What did you find challenging about this development?
Nakamura: I handled the programming, but the biggest challenge was definitely the 4P link play. It was a brand new feature, and we had to work within the constraints of the original Famicom game, so it was very difficult. It was so hard getting the four linked GBAs to stay synced up. I don't think there's any other sidescrolling platformers out there with co-op link play, right?
—You're the first. Did you have to adjust the enemies to accomodate more players?
Nakamura: Yeah, we changed their position and placement depending on how many players there are.
—It sounds like a real "nightmare" to balance.
Nakamura: We had Sakurai do it. (laughs)
Sakurai: The biggest problem was not the balancing, as much as it was making sure the link play worked.
Nakamura: Even 1-2 months before release, it wasn't working properly. So one day we were having a meeting, and Sakurai asked us, "Guys… is this really going to work?" At the time the link play wasn't my responsibility, so I just casually chimed in, "Yeah, I'm wondering the same." Then about a week later, Sakurai told me, "Nakamura, you're doing it." (laughs)
—(laughs) Weren't you feeling pessimistic about it all though?
Nakamura: (painfully) Yeah, the truth is, I wanted to abandon the idea.
Nakamura: But there'd never been a 4P co-op action game like this before, and I thought it would be really fun if we pulled it off, so I persevered.
Sakurai: If this game had been planned from the start with 4P in mind, we probably could have done a lot more, but we had to work within the bounds of the original Kirby's Adventure. Next time, if we have the time, I've got a lot of other ideas in mind.
—Suzuki, you were the designer. Compared with the Famicom, I think Kirby looks a lot more soft and fluffy here.
Suzuki: Thank you.
—What challenges did you face?
Suzuki: I used the sprite data from Kirby Super Star (SFC) as a reference for the movement and animation. But the animation frames in that data were so clean and efficient, and honestly… I felt like at my level of skill, I couldn't hope to match it. So I just drew tons of animation frames instead. (laughs)
—Quantity over quality. (laughs)
Suzuki: Indeed, they got mad at me.
—Who did? (laughs)
Suzuki: (looks over in Sakurai's direction) The general director, mostly.
Sakurai: We'll talk more about the general director's work a little later. The problem with having too many frames, is it makes the animation looks sluggish. It can have an impact on the controls too, which end up feeling unnatural. These things are hard to know unless you've been making games for a long time though. So I often tell the designers, "Don't worry if the animation doesn't look as smooth as you think it should, the players don't care about that. We've got to make the movement better."
—I see. Nakamura, what did you find fun about this development?
Sakurai: Say "everything"!
Nakamura: Well, I guess knowing that, since this is a Kirby game, it will get played by a lot of people.
—What about you, Suzuki?
Suzuki: I didn't mess around with Kirby's basic actions, but it was a ton of fun adding all those animation frames to each of Kirby's copy abilities. (laughs) The sword ability, for instance, on the Famicom it was drawn with 3 frames, but I aimed to double it for this game, and so I drew, drew, drew like crazy.
Sakurai: And I got mad at him again. (laughs)
Suzuki: I think I worked pretty quickly though.
Sakurai: That's true, Suzuki does work pretty fast. On top of that, he never gets discouraged no matter what you say to him. (laughs)
—When did the Kirby: Nightmare in Dream Land development begin?
Suzuki: Last summer. We started by deciding how big Kirby's sprite should be, basic things like that. Should we make him larger? Or should he have the same size as the Famicom? We did some prototyping to figure it out.
Sakurai: As I mentioned before about feeling a resistance to doing a remake, I wasn't sure about the graphics, including the backgrounds, and I wanted to improve them a bit so today's gamers wouldn't find them embarassing. We re-did all the backgrounds from zero, in CG. And Kirby's sprite looks just as good as something you'd see in a modern game, I think.
—Kirby's movements are a lot cuter now!
Sakurai: To be honest with you, one option before us was to change very little of the original Famicom version, which would have allowed us to get the game out more quickly. But I didn't want to do that.
—It's almost like a brand new game.
Sakurai: Yeah. And we had planned to add new abilities, but we ran out of memory and time so we had to axe them. In terms of memory we really stuffed this game to the gills. We owe that partly to Suzuki's efforts.
—Suzuki, please take a bow. (laughs)
Suzuki: And still, there was about 500k worth of data assets that we couldn't fit in, even though we'd gone to the trouble of creating them…
Sakurai: I don't think the reader will know what "500k" means here.
Suzuki: No, they won't. (laughs) Well, we had created dances for each of Kirby's copy abilities.
Suzuki: There was other stuff too, like a mini-game I had gone ahead and created on my own. We had to cut that too.
Sakurai: When you compare it to the "failure rate" of ideas in a new game, though, it was comparatively lower. It reaffirmed to me how remakes are easier, at least in that respect.
—When I played Kirby: Nightmare in Dream Land, I felt like it contains the roots of Super Smash Bros Melee.
Sakurai: Oh yeah, I can see that.
—Miyamoto is sometimes called "Miyamoto, the Father of Jumping"1... I wonder, what should we call you Sakurai? (laughs)
Sakurai: Wasn't it Miyamoto who called himself that…? (laughs)
—Well, yes, that's true. (laughs) But what do you think the commonality is between Kirby: Nightmare in Dream Land and SSBM?
Sakurai: It's probably the fact that both are easily accessible for a wide audience.
—When you were making Nightmare, was there anything about the original you noticed, that made you feel a special pride, like "wow, look at what I was doing 9 years ago"...?
Sakurai: Yeah. When I was replaying the original there were numerous places where I felt, "nice, this was well done." But there were definitely places where I thought "If it was me, I'd do this differently... wait" (laughs)
—You have mentioned before, when you play other people's games, how you're always thinking about what you'd do differently.
Sakurai: That's true. Of course, I also note the parts that were well done, and I think having that critical mindset while you play is great training. Those experiences shaped the person I am today, I think.
—Right, and you said before that you've played over 2000 games. By the way, the text in Kirby: Nightmare in Dream Land is very colorful, especially the copy ability descriptions. Did you write them?
Sakurai: Yeah, I wrote all the text.
—I knew it. The way the copy abilities in the Museum say "Free!" for the player, that was definitely a Sakurai touch. (laughs)
Sakurai: The design work was done by the designers, of course. It's funny though, and a little mysterious, how much praise we've received about the text. Who would have thought pausing the game and reading the text there would be such a selling point. (laughs) Many people told us how much they loved it.
—It's not just your plain old, run-of-the-mill descriptions though.
Sakurai: I mean, it would have been perfectly fine just to use the vanilla Famicom description as-is, but when I considered the tastes of modern audiences, that didn't seem appropriate. Kirby was never meant as a "kid's game", you see, so I wrote the text with a bit more color. It was kind of challenging though, because the main priority was that it be easy to understand, so I couldn't use any complicated kanji—but at the same time they needed to be fun to read… every time you get a new copy ability, I wanted players to feel excited to read the descriptions.
—Weren't they fun to write?
Sakurai: Nah, I only spent an hour writing them.
—Wow, that's fast. You want a job at Nintendo Dream? (laughs) I've always loved the title too, "yume no izumi" (Fountain of Dreams)
Sakurai: Thank you.
—I mean, it has "Dream" right there in it. (laughs)
Sakurai: Oh damn, you're right. (laughs)
—I can tell you have a thing for wordplay from titles like "Setsuna no Mikiri". 2
Sakurai: Yeah, it makes you do a doubletake, right? "huh...…?" (laughs) When I write I'm really conscious of the notion of text-as-fashion. For example, foreigners like to wear t-shirts with Japanese characters on them… they have no idea what it means but they still think it's cool. I like that vibe.
—Yeah, if you showed up to E3 with a t-shirt with "setsuna no mikiri" written on it, that would definitely look cool. (laughs)
Sakurai: That's why I think, just because something is dumbed down for kids to understand, it doesn't mean kids will like it, you know? In the old days every kid knew enough English to understand what "Push Start Button" meant, and even if you didn't, it wasn't going to get in the way of playing the game. And if developers were to change that to some kid-friendly Japanese like "スタートボタンをおしてね！" ("start button wo oshite ne!") it would put off the older users.
As hardware evolves, new forms of expression become possible, but you lose things as well. With Nightmare, I felt that most keenly with the voice acting. Did you know, there's actual real voice acting in Nightmare? We even went down to see Makiko Ohmoto to record her.
—Wow, really, I didn't know that.
Sakurai: The clips we actually used in the game are few-and-far between, though. Kirby speaks when he takes damage, but otherwise the voicework is all kept to the subliminal level. As you can imagine, when pixelixed sprite characters like Kirby start speaking clearly it feels really unnatural. That's not the only reason either. I also think that by having a voice, it will end up typecasting Kirby as a certain type of character. So for those reasons we only used his voice in 5 places… three for the Mic copy ability, and two instances for when he takes damage.
—You took the hassle of going all the way out to Ohmoto's place for so few lines...!
Sakurai: Well, I wouldn't call it a hassle. (laughs) But there's more and more games with voices now, and it's getting kind of tiresome, don't you think?
—I think it's fine if it fits the character. But there's certainly times where it's unnecessary, or just plain obnoxious.
Sakurai: There's games where, right at the opening screen, a child's voice yells out the title! When I hear that all I imagine is some little kid doing karate punches.
Sakurai: If this kind of thing continues, the games we've all been enjoying will end up appealing to a more and more narrow audience.
—There's a lot of games where the underlying gameplay is quite solid, but they try to appeal to kids with some childish movie.
Sakurai: If it makes sense for the specific game to have voice acting and movies, of course, I don't mind it.
—I also love the opening scene to Nightmare, with all the Kirbys flooding the screen.
Suzuki: That uses every Kirby sprite in the game. Nakamura programmed it for us… how many sprites was it, in total?
Nakamura: About 120, I think it was.
—Let's all try and count the exact number! (laughs) Where did the idea for that opening come from?
Sakurai: During development the title screen just appeared suddenly, and everyone thought that was pretty weak, in terms of grabbing people's attention. But it also didn't make much sense to do a traditional gameplay demo, like the kind you would make to attract customers at an arcade. GBA games aren't often displayed in storefronts either. But still, we wanted something with some impact, and something that wouldn't use much memory. Then the Kirby rush idea came up, and I passed it off to one of our devs.
—Was it your idea, then?
Sakurai: Yeah. Displaying tons of sprites at once is one of the GBA hardware's strengths, after all. (laughs)
—What other strengths do you think the GBA has?
Nakamura: Definitely the 4P link play capabilities, and the single-cartridge multiplayer. There's three minigames in Nightmare, but we made them with the goal that they'd be fun enough to justify a purchase on their own. So we want everyone to try them out with their friends.
Sakurai: Our concept and approach to the minigames hasn't changed at all since the Famicom days. I feel simpler games are a good thing. Or to put it another way, if games aren't simple, that means they lack a good hook for players to know what they're supposed to do. Even Kirby, with all the crazy different copy abilities that change his appearance, just that fact alone can make the game seem difficult to people, so the one-button minigames was our way to address that.
—What was your happiest moment in this development?
Suzuki: You mean, besides right now?
—Ok, your second-most-happy moment then.
Suzuki: For me, it was the last-minute work I did to complete the Freeze and Burning copy abilities. Originally they were part of Fire and Ice, and at the end—really, right at the end—Sakurai told me "we're not going to add Freeze and Burning separately." But I dug in and said, "Please, I'll work through the weekend to finish them!" And he replied, "Ok, if you're that determined, do it." That made me happy. To be honest, I hadn't been so insistent about any of the designs I'd drawn up to then, but for some reason I dug my heels in at the end, and I was so happy when they got added.
—Ah, that's a nice story. Nakamura, how about you?
Nakamura: On the day of release, I got a call from my Mom. "I bought it!", she said. That put a big smile on my face.
—Aww, another heartwarming one. (laughs)
Nakamura: My Mom doesn't play games very much. I wasn't sure she'd be able to handle it, but two or three days later she called back and told me "It's fun!", which was a relief to hear.
—How old is your Mom?
Nakamura: She's 45.
Sakurai: Wow, she's young.
—She's the same age as me... oof. Say hello to your Mom for me. (laughs) Well, finally, Sakurai, what has been your happiest moment with this development.
Sakurai: It's the moment we hear from players that they're enjoying it. No question there. For me, more than the creative process itself, it's hearing the voices of all the fans who love Kirby and bought the game, that's what brings me the most joy. For some reason they also liked the text, or so I've heard. (laughs) But yeah, when you create something, it's the moment you get a positive reaction from others that I love most.
Also, it was the 1 year anniversary of the Kirby anime the other day. We had a private in-house celebration here, with about 200 people involved in the production, including the animators and voice actors. That was another happy event for me. Meeting all those animators rekindled my own inspiration, to keep working as hard as we can on these games.
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The actual Japanese here is "Jump no Miyamoto", meaning he's the innovator or inventor of jumping in platformer videogames.↩
In the US, this minigame was translated as "Samurai Kirby". The kanji is actually an adulteration of 見切り (mikiri, to abandon), but using a more literary/poetic character, 斬り (kiri) for cut. It's not "meaningful" wordplay so much as silliness that can't really be translated into English, hence the simpler "Samurai Kirby".↩