Masahiro Sakurai: The Creator of Kirby (Part 1)
Masahiro Sakurai was born on August 3, 1970 in Musashimurayama, Tokyo, Japan. Growing up, he loved playing video games. He was approximately five years old when he played his first ever video game – a game resembling Pong like many others at the time. He went on to be the creator of Kirby and Super Smash Bros., two highly regarded Nintendo franchises. Sakurai was an incredibly gifted child and as a young teenager, he studied electrical engineering at a specialist school. Sakurai believed that the school could teach him the practical skills that could benefit his future in the workforce. However as he sat in classes, he quickly realized that it was not the path he wanted to take; he wanted to create video games.
Sakurai re-enrolled at high school and had begun working a part-time job. With the money he earned, he bought as many games as he could and methodically played through each and everyone in order to work out what makes a game fun (something that Sakurai still does to this day).
Please understand that in determining your own path, you take responsibility for everything. No matter what other people think, your life is yours and yours alone!
– Masahiro Sakurai (translation by sourcegaming.info)
Shortly after graduating, Masahiro Sakurai began working at HAL Laboratory (a subsidiary development studio for Nintendo) at the age of nineteen. It wasn’t long after Sakurai joined HAL that the company was experiencing major financial struggles with a debt of 1.5 billion yen. HAL Laboratory appealed to Hiroshi Yamauchi (president of Nintendo at the time) and only agreed to assist under the condition that Satoru Iwata was to be made president of the company.
Satoru Iwata’s first act as president of HAL Laboratory was to talk to each employee of the company in order to find out what their currently assigned task was. At this time, Sakurai had heard that Nintendo were looking for developers to make easily accessible games.
I want to make a cute main character who everyone will love!
– Masahiro Sakurai (translation by shmuplations.com)
Despite being a skilled gamer himself, Sakurai wanted to make games for everyone. He wanted his games to be easy to pick up but difficult to master, offering something for everyone. Sakurai had this philosophy from the very beginning of his career and not only did he want his first game to be accessible, but the character to be easily recognisable. His first draft of the character resulted in Popopo who would feature in a game titled Twinkle Popo.
Satoru Iwata thought that this design was perfect as fans could easily draw Popopo in their books.
Sakurai and his team immediately got to work on Popopo’s debut platforming title for the Game Boy. As they wanted the game to be easily accessible, Sakurai thought about what simple controls his new character could have. He initially wanted it so that the player would kick and headbutt enemies, just like one would do to a soccer ball, but the development team wanted to do more. They had many different ideas, but the one that was the most popular was the idea that Popopo could fly. Due to his shape, they figured that he could begin flying by inhaling air and puffing up like a balloon, to which they also suggested that he should be able to inhale his enemies and spit them out at others. Sakurai also wanted Popopo to fly so that he could avoid falling into pits. The team were in agreement and they got to work.
When the game was finished, Iwata was shocked to find out that only 26,000 copies had been ordered. When Shigeru Miyamoto had an opportunity to see the new game, he also had his doubts. He believed that the name Popopo wasn’t unique enough, and that he will be easily overlooked and forgotten. Miyamoto urged the team to rebrand the game, and Iwata had a difficult decision to make. Despite the team urging him not to, Iwata cancelled all 26,000 orders of the game.
Nintendo headquarters in Kyoto, Japan contacted Nintendo of America to get their opinion on what the new character should be called as Sakurai and his team wanted the game to have a worldwide appeal. They received many suggestions, including the name “Gasper”, however the team took a liking to the name, which is how Sakurai became the creator of Kirby.
We wanted a name that would sound like an American idol. But “Kirby” was actually the name of an important lawyer at Nintendo of America.
– Shigeru Miyamoto (translation by shmuplations.com)
Nintendo also decided to publish the game and on April 27, 1992, 星のカービィ (Kirby of the Stars) was released in Japan, only to be released in North America on August 1, 1992 as Kirby’s Dream land. The game went on to sell over five million copies (according to vgsales.wikia.com) and has since gone on to be a classic game for the Game Boy.
After the massive success of Kirby’s first adventure on Game Boy, the team immediately got to work on a console iteration.
Trivia: Due to the Game Boy’s monochrome color-pallet, Kirby was depicted as being white and was even shown to be white on the North American box art. However, Masahiro Sakurai always thought of Kirby as being pink. So when they needed to design him in color for the NES, the team was shocked as they all thought that he was either white or yellow.
The team at HAL received a lot of feedback from Kirby’s first adventure on the Game Boy. The most common complaint was that the game was too short and very easy to complete. Despite the creator of Kirby wanting to maintain the accessibility that made his new character appeal to a wide audience, he couldn’t ignore the criticisms. So the team got to work on how they could spice up the gameplay without taking away what made Kirby special. That was when Sakurai had the idea of being able to copy enemy abilities.
… by taking the Parasol ability you could enjoy the game in a whole new way. Each different ability would allow the player to approach the level differently. We wanted something players would enjoy experimenting with.
– Hiroaki Suga (translation by shmuplations.com)
The team began brainstorming and ultimately came up with more than 40 different abilities for Kirby to copy, to which they brought that number back down to 25. Some abilities that got cut were the Animal ability which would allow you to scratch and bite enemies, an ability where Kirby could create blocks, another where Kirby could shrink down and lastly one where Kirby could ride a rocket. These abilities all sound unique and could have added to the gameplay, however hardware limitations and combat balancing seem to have been the issue for their exclusions.
Trivia: Due to Kirby’s simple design, each team member found it difficult to draw Kirby just right. So they use to call each drawing “(name) Twinkle” (e.g. Miyamoto Twinkle), aside from Sakurai who was the only one that could draw Kirby just right, to which they would call his drawings “Sakurai Kirby”.
(Image Credits: Japanese Kirby’s Adventure Strategy Guide)
Kirby’s Adventure was a very late game to come out on the Famicom’s/Nintendo Entertainment System’s (NES) lifespan, releasing March 23, 1993 in Japan, May 1, 1993 in North America and December 1, 1993 in Europe.
Kirby’s Adventure is infamous for transforming Kirby into the ability-copying mascot that fans know and love today. This iteration has also seen many releases, including earning a spot on the Nintendo Classic Mini: NES.
The third game that Masahiro Sakurai is credited for as Director is Kirby Super Star for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES). In Japan, Kirby Super Star released on March 21, 1996 (three months before the launch of the Nintendo 64) and on September 20, 1996 in North America (only nine days before the launch of the Nintendo 64). The game was a commercial success and was later featured on the Nintendo Classic Mini: SNES.
At this time, Satoru Iwata became increasingly busy with presidential duties at HAL Laboratory. Iwata was also busy helping Shigesato Itoi on Mother 2 (known as Earthbound outside of Japan) and Satoshi Tajiri with the localisation of the Pokémon franchise. Therefore due to his busy schedule, he trusted Masahiro Sakurai and his team to work unaided.
Kirby Super Star took three years to develop, which was exceedingly long for a SNES game. This was due to the release of Donkey Kong Country (developed by UK-based company Rare) part way through Kirby Super Star’s development. The computer graphics (CG) shocked and amazed developers around the world, including the creator of Kirby himself. Just over one year into production, the creator of Kirby Masahiro Sakurai and his team scrapped all of the artwork that had been done for the game, and started fresh with CG.
Kirby Super Star was the first Kirby title to feature a two-player cooperative mode, a feature requested by Shigeru Miyamoto from the very beginning of the game’s development. Miyamoto had always looked to stretch the limits of simultaneous two-player modes and he thought that the Kirby games moved at a slower pace, the perfect pace for this mode. Sakurai was initially hesitant as he believed that Kirby games being slower paced was a common misconception. Due to the many abilities that Kirby could consume, many of them had their own set pace and physics. Despite his hesitance, the creator of Kirby gave the idea some thought and chose to approach the challenge with a positive, can-do attitude. Sakurai chose to put his own spin on the concept and decided that Player-One would play as Kirby (to which the camera would follow him) whilst Player-Two would partake in the Helper system, taking the form of copied enemies and turning them into allies. Sakurai ultimately felt good about this concept as it embodied his original idea for Kirby to be accessible to everyone. By having a Helper system, an experienced player could play alongside a beginner and help guide them through the stages.
Masahiro Sakurai was very pleased with the implementation of the two-player coop mode, however he realized that it presented an issue: the game was too easy. With twice the amount of damage coming from the players, the enemies went down too easily. So creator of Kirby looked for inspiration and found it in the fighting game genre. The development team gave enemies durability in order to withstand more attacks. Not only that, but they gave Kirby and the Helper the option to perform more moves and simple combos in order to deal varying degrees of damage. This gave a lot more versatility to the series, and may have been the inspiration for something even bigger in Masahiro Sakurai’s career (but more on that later).
During this period, Sakurai was beginning to grow displeased with the idea that a game had to be long in order for it to be good. He didn’t like how players could be playing a single game for an extended period of time and not even reach a conclusion; and that’s where he had the idea of implementing a collection of short games onto the cartridge rather than one long experience. Each game contained its own plot, providing open and close short stories. A lot of games also featured their own unique style of gameplay, providing a wide scope for the player to enjoy.
Kirby Super Star was a late release on the SNES lifespan (just as Kirby’s Adventure was for the NES). But with the Nintendo 64 pushing the limits of game development, as well as all Sakurai having learnt more about fighting-game mechanics, he wanted to try making something different…
Dragon King: The Fighting Game
After years of establishing the Kirby franchise, Sakurai looked towards developing something new. Iwata always encouraged developers to work on projects that they were passionate about, and Sakurai’s project was one that sparked fire in his eyes.
Sakurai had approached Iwata privately about his new idea. It didn’t take long for Iwata to approve, but as HAL Laboratory couldn’t afford to simply take employees away from their assigned tasks, it was up to Sakurai to be in charge of the game’s planning, specifications, designing, modeling and physics. Whilst busy with various other projects, Iwata would come in to work and program on weekends as he knew that they were on the cusp of something special.
Sakurai’s aim was to create a 2D 4-player fighting game that was unique in comparison to the rest of the fighting games that were being so commonly released at the time. With the Nintendo 64 controller’s joystick, the possibility for more precise movement and deeper gameplay became a reality.
In the early stages of development, Sakurai’s project was yet to have a codename. As he primarily worked on the game himself, a lot of the finer details had to be ironed out before they could consider the context. Initially, the game featured faceless humanoid characters, all of the same size and design. Each character was distinguishable by color, and used the same basic moveset. As Sakurai was trying to think of what he could use for a background, he took his camera to the HAL Laboratory in Yamanashi Prefecture and took a scenery shot of the Ryuoh-cho landscape. And so, the title’s initial codename was ‘Ryuoh’.
As Sakurai continued to work on the prototype, shaping character movement and the basic rules for the game, he had decided on a name: Kakuto-Geemu Ryuoh (Dragon King: The Fighting Game). However despite having a name, Sakurai still felt that the game lacked personality, and that a console fighting game required main characters that would explain the context of the worlds that they inhabit.
With a game for the arcade, it’s okay for character development to take a backseat since players are content with the fighting. With a fighting game for the home console, however, you have to set up the general image or the atmosphere of the gaming world right from the start or else the game suffers.
– Masahiro Sakurai
Sakurai’s answer to this was to use Nintendo’s characters. As well as being instantly recognisable, these characters also had in depth lore that could be utilized in order to make stages, items and unique fighting mechanics. However, Sakurai was apprehensive about approaching Nintendo with his initial product. He felt that the game in its state as Kakuto-Geemu Ryouh wasn’t strong enough to convince Nintendo. Sakurai then got to work on building a prototype that was well-balanced, and used Nintendo’s own characters Mario, Donkey Kong, Fox and Samus without their permission. Luckily for Sakurai, Nintendo approved the concept and the game was changed to a much more familiar title…
Super Smash Bros.
Super Smash Bros. was initially intended to be a Japanese exclusive game as Nintendo wasn’t sure how fans would react to the idea of their lovable characters duking it out. Nintendo were also focussing on creating low budget titles in order to shorten development times (Super Smash Bros. being one of them), so they were unsure whether it would be worth localizing it for the western market.
However due to incredibly high sales in Japan, Nintendo could not ignore the potential of Masahiro Sakurai’s personal project and went ahead with the localization. Due to having such low development costs, it took just over three months to release it for the North American market on April 26, 1999, and ten months to release it for Europe on November 19, 1999.
During the late 90s and early 2000s, Nintendo took a shift in direction when it came to their marketing department. With the cutting edge style from Sega in the early 90s, and Sony following suit later that decade in the late 90s, Nintendo attempted to match their competitors with some advertising that you may not have expected from them at the time. To advertise Super Smash Bros., the commercial had Mario, Yoshi, Donkey Kong and Pikachu ruthlessly fighting in a field of daisies to the song Happy Together by The Turtles, finishing with the slogan “Get N or Get Out”.
After production had wrapped up for Super Smash Bros., Sakurai did the voice acting for King Dedede in Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards and was credited as ‘Special Thanks’ in the Game Boy Color title Kirby Tilt ‘n’ Tumble.
Not long after the release of the original Super Smash Bros. title, Masahiro Sakurai (along with a bigger team and more financial backing) soon began working on Super Smash Bros. Melee for the Nintendo GameCube. In one of Sakurai’s Famitsu articles, he stated that the development process was a gruelling one. Sakurai completed the game in a mere 13 months, and he made sure to take no holidays, work incredibly strenuous hours and very short weekends. It got so bad that Sakurai had once fainted and had to be hooked up to an IV drip in order for him to regain his strength.
Sakurai’s dedication to the project stemmed from wanting to make the game show off the capabilities of the Nintendo GameCube. At E3 2001, Nintendo revealed Super Smash Bros. Melee to the public. Nintendo decided to show off the game’s opening cutscene, which was met with overwhelming praise by screaming fans. This opening full motion video cutscene was not an easily accomplished feat as they wanted to have it ready to show it off at E3. In order to do this, HAL Laboratory outsourced this task to three Tokyo-based computer graphic houses, as well as it featuring fully orchestrated arrangements.
Super Smash Bros. Melee was released on November 21, 2001 in Japan, December 3, 2001 in North America and May, 2002 in Europe and Australia. The game was met with critical acclaim and currently has a metascore of 92 on metacritic.
Super Smash Bros. Melee was targeted towards a more hardcore audience, with subtle gameplay mechanics that are often used in the competitive scene. To this day, Melee is still being played at events, including the annual fighting game tournament EVO.
After the release of Super Smash Bros. Melee, Masahiro Sakurai felt the pressure to return to the Kirby franchise. He directed Kirby: Nightmare in Dreamland, a remake of the original Kirby’s Adventure, for the Game Boy Advance that saw a 2002 release, and then later directed Kirby Air Ride for the GameCube that saw a 2003 release. However, it was not long after the release of Kirby Air Ride that Masahiro Sakurai resigned from Hal Laboratory on August 5, 2003. In an interview with Nintendo Dream on August 26, 2003, Masahiro Sakurai was questioned about his departure from the company that he had worked at for over 14 years, to which he responded:
It was tough for me to see that every time I made a new game, people automatically assumed that a sequel was coming. Even if it’s a sequel, lots of people have to give their all to make a game, but some people think the sequel process happens naturally.
– Masahiro Sakurai
Part 1 focussed around the creator of Kirby and Sakurai’s approach to Super Smash Bros., but it wasn’t until 2005 that Sakurai made his next game, which is covered in Part 2. So click here for Part 2 to keep reading.
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