Kirby, the pink ball with a smile created by now Nintendo legend, Masahiro Sakurai, lends himself well to all kinds of cross-over potential. The hyper-simplistic design and plucky spirit that embodies the character make him (them for outside of North America) a perfect candidate to lead the way outside of platformers into all kinds of other genres, including pinball.
Kirby’s Pinball Land, developed by HAL laboratories and published by Nintendo in 1993, is exactly what it sounds like. Kirby, already spherical in nature, must venture to defeat King Dedede and the three bosses who guard the Pinball Lands. That’s all the story that is provided, and honestly, that’s all that’s needed. Pinball Land is the first spin-off game for the pink puff, and only the third to be released in the franchise. Perhaps Nintendo knew that they already had a hit with Kirby, and wanted to capitalize on the success of the two previous platformers: Kirby’s Dream Land for Game Boy, and Kirby’s Adventure for the NES. In fact, the later November release date seems to signal this as well.
Regardless of its potential cash-grab nature, Kirby seems like a natural fit for the genre. Both Mario and Samus have dabbled in pinball, but Kirby did it first, and perhaps more successfully than his other pixelated cohorts. Mario’s pinball outing on GBA contained poor gameplay and an uncomfortable mechanic of literally mashing citizens of the mushroom kingdom into ball forms. Samus’ outing for DS was much more solid as a game and has been able to form herself into a ball since her NES debut. Still, the darker and dangerous tones of Metroid don’t scream ‘pinball,’ like the friendly and breezy world of Kirby.
And so we’re right back where we started with Kirby’s Pinball Land. Rather than trying to emulate its real-world counterpart, Kirby’s Pinball Land takes on a more ‘video game’ approach. Our barebones narrative establishes that Kirby as the protagonist who must score is way into defeating King Dedede and the three other bosses. What luck then that each boss should occupy its own uniquely themed ‘board’ for Kirby to conquer. And perhaps the term ‘board’ is more apt than table. In an evolutionary step from Hal’s previous Gameboy effort, Revenge of the Gator, the player travels upwards with Kirby. And while Revenge of the Gator only has one level split into different sections, each section of Pinball World feels almost like a micro-level unto itself.
While traveling upwards through each level, there’s a certain kind of ‘Kirby-ness’ to the whole experience. Bonus items, enemies acting as barriers, sounds, and themes are all drawn from the previous two Kirby games. Even the bosses, while still designed around an ‘aim at the target and shoot’ kind of challenge, rely heavily on their character and aesthetic from past games. While the physics of the game aren’t exactly or quite as refined in other arcade-style takes like the FX games, it’s incredibly consistent, meaning that it only takes a few minutes to understand Kirby’s inertia and how to move forward. This leads to a pinball game that doesn’t just feel like trying to fit a square peg into the money-shaped hole. It’s bright, fun, easy to play, and charming: Everything we associate with Kirby today.
The game is even playable on original hardware. While the original brick was certainly known for a screen that was hard to see at the best of times and extreme ghosting, the use of simple sprites and generous mechanics make it easy enough to follow. While certainly puzzlers and RPGs are the handheld’s strong suit, clever developers were able to find ways to work around the Gameboy’s shortcomings. The game features a battery-backed save feature, a selection of easy to enter cheat codes to let players go to any boss fight, and enough blank space on each screen to identify Kirby against each backdrop.
Kirby’s Pinball Land is a game that I see pretty frequently at retro game stores for a good price. It’s the kind of game every Game Boy collector should have in their collection but also serves as a good demonstration of how early 90s consoles could do pinball right.
D’Arcy is an educator and gamer from BC, Canada. He’s been gaming his entire life and enjoys both new and retro games. His consoles of choice are Game Boy, PS3, and Switch.You can follow his gaming online @darcyska_gaming