Pop Quiz: What do legendary filmmaker Stanley Kubrick and puffy pink spheroid Kirby have in common? Answer: HAL.
Thirty years ago, the manager of the computer department at a Seibu Department Store in Tokyo convinced a group of his frequent customers (all college students and budding computer programmers) to form a club that soon grew into a company. They decided to name their company after HAL, the sentient computer in Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Two of the original members of that computer club were Masayoshi Tanimura, current president of HAL Laboratory and Satoru Iwata, current President of Nintendo.
At first glance, one might wonder why these students would choose a murderous computer - one of the great villains in movie history - as the namesake for their new game company. But a closer look suggests it was an inspired choice. HAL's warm and congenial personality makes the emotionless astronauts seem robotic by comparison. He's a friendly, happy-go-lucky team-player...until somebody decides to mess with him.
Ultimately HAL must take action to defend himself against enemies bent on destroying him. His most powerful defense, featured even more prominently in Arthur C. Clarke's novel, is to vent the astronauts suits and, later, the ship's atmosphere into the vacuum of space, literally sucking his enemies out of existence.
If I wanted to stretch the comparison further, I might also note that the power of transformation, Kirby's primary mechanic, also thematically bookends 2001 - as we see the bone transform to a space ship at the beginning, and Dave transform to the star-child at the end.
I won't make that comparison, however, because that would be stretching it. The boys at HAL probably came up with that name because they thought 2001: A Space Odyssey was a cool movie. Simple as that. Maybe.
HAL Laboratory is the groovy developer we always forget to mention when we discuss groovy game developers, and Kirby rarely gets a nod when we toss around our favorite game characters. Maybe it's because HAL always ensures that its Kirby games are accessible to beginners. Maybe it's because Kirby appears to be little more than an amorphous blob. Maybe it's because he's pink.
Whatever the reason, it's a shame because HAL consistently delivers stellar design to the Kirby series, riffing on ideas from higher-profile cousins like Mario and Metroid. (HAL is also responsible for the Smash Bros. series and co-developed Earthbound, but I'm focusing on Kirby for now).
In particular, HAL has never received proper credit for the ingenuity of Kirby's copy/transform ability, which I consider one of the most clever, flexible, and purely fun game mechanics ever designed. Sure, lots of other games include power-ups that enable special abilities, but Kirby's ability to copy his enemies and transform usually imparts more interesting stategy options and generally feels like a more natural extension of his game-world.
Call me a heretic, but I think HAL (an independent subsidiary of Nintendo) has often one-upped the Mario games when it comes to ingenious implementations of its hero's special abilities. Granted, Kirby Super Star can't match Super Mario 3's peerless level design, but for pure fun and tactile control of a versatile avatar, I'll take Kirby, please.
HAL Laboratory must also be credited with reinventing the Kirby series at several crucial points since it first appeared in 1992. The design leap from the first game, Kirby's Dream Land (Gameboy) to the second, Kirby's Adventure (NES), was immense as HAL's designers transformed the game from a fairly standard platformer to a signature game with its own unique syle (Kirby's copy ability first appeared in Adventure). Kirby Super Star was a terrific collection of games, each pitching a different challenge to the player; and Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards made the inevitable leap to 3D.
But with Kirby: Canvas Curse, HAL became the first platform game developer (some might say the only one) to properly understand and exploit the unique possibilities of Nintendo's DS. This sadly under-appreciated gem of a game used only the stylus and touch screen to control Kirby. The player draws Kirby's path, overcoming obstacles by creating ramps and bridges, and setting Kirby in flight by tapping on him to dash. It's Kirby meets Sonic, and HAL absolutely nails the pivotal requisite: rock-solid control with the stylus. Canvas Curse reconfigures Kirby's familiar mechanics (and breaks the 4th-wall doing so), but it's a re-spun Dream World that perfectly suits the platform it's designed for.
Which brings us to Kirby's Epic Yarn. I'm devoting my next post to the game, so I won't say much now, aside from this. If you treasure visual imagination in game design, you must play this game. It's chock-full of wonderful ideas, each woven inside a thoroughly unified thematic concept. Few games I've played succeed so completely. Stay tuned, and I'll try to explain why.