Kirby’s Dream Land is not a difficult game. It’s not supposed to be. It is a basic platformer that uses the Game Boy’s limited output to its best abilities to teach the basics to gamers unfamiliar with gaming, handheld or otherwise. Your one weapon: the ability to suck up enemies and blow them back out. You must use two buttons, a d-pad, and reflexes to cross a surrealistic trip to save food from an anthropomorphic penguin king. It’s silly, but it’s fun.
Later titles in the series add onto the core mechanics (most notably in allowing Kirby to copy an enemy’s powers) but keep the same flavor of intro-gaming. Like all of Nintendo’s franchises, Kirby has his purpose. Mario is all-ages. Link is for more experienced gamers. The little pink puffball (or white, in the original) is kid-friendly.
Nintendo has become a powerhouse for this very reason. Whereas Microsoft and Sony have to compete for the same hardcore dollar, Nintendo grows their audience. This natural replenishing cycle is aided by innovation, which naturally lends to the convivial atmosphere: new gaming mechanisms are equally unique or (hopefully) exciting to every gamer.
That’s not to say that Kirby and its parent publisher are perfect. Any number of criticisms could be leveled at them. That’s not the point, though. The point is that the pair work perfectly together because they recognize their strengths and weaknesses. Kirby isn’t trying to sway uber-gamers, after all. As for Nintendo, well, their output may be sporadic and their third-party support may be weak, but everybody is welcome to the fun at Chez Mario.
Niche mediums require this replenishing cycle in order to survive. They usually require expense—here, consoles and software—necessitating parental involvement (and choice). Retail specialty shops can be intimidating with in-the-know clerks acting as gatekeepers of art. Finally, snobbery by fandom can establish a tone that is not conducive to youth-skewed pieces. Whereas music, film, and television are so ubiquitous as to naturally produce kid-friendly content, platforms like video games still require a strong desire on both consumer and creator to produce a bridge.
That bridge naturally decays if not repaired; just look at comic books. In the early 90’s, the average top-ten title sold a million or more copies. A crash due to speculation sent publishers into a tailspin, from which they tried to pull themselves by fighting for the same (but now smaller) market. Gimmicks and a harder tone gave bumps to sales temporarily but ultimately alienated more and more fans, particularly young ones who found fewer titles that spoke to them. The industry was getting too edgy, too hardcore to survive. By the time people realized what had happened, an entire generation of young fans had left comic books, never to return. The average top five or so titles now sell around a hundred thousand copies. Almost everything else is lucky to get five figures.
Of course, it’s hard to compare the two media directly. Kirby’s Dream Land has sold over a million copies, priced at less than $40, on a multitude of platforms that also required purchase, while a comic book is typically around $2-$3. KDL has a game time of about 45 minutes if played straight through, doubled if playing the much harder “extra game” bonus; a comic book is between a ten and twenty minute read. Even considering replayability/re-readability or the format of graphic novels, people who purchase either of these forms of art obviously have specific desires when they do so.
… but that’s just it. Children exist outside the spectrum of typical desires. They don’t function like adults, and adults don’t function like them. This is not a good/bad dichotomy, of course. Kids simply have their own needs that are reliant on a larger world’s understanding of them to fulfill it. It’s a lot harder to nail down a winning formula for children’s entertainment than adult entertainment because the former is so ethereal and magical, while the latter is usually much more mundane or base.
In addition, an industry also has needs and desires. Makers and consumers of video games wish for the medium to be seen as respectable. “Childish” and “child-like” have a whole different connotation when an industry has been plagued as a “just for kids” diversion. There are older people who play Kirby’s Dream Land and its sequels, of course, but they’re typically not the people who purchase Modern Warfare, Madden, et al. Those consumers also don’t tend to proudly proclaim their allegiance to Kirby-like titles, either.
The core of this is the tug of war between art and profit. If producing a game like Kirby’s Dream Land wasn’t profitable, fewer games like it would be made. Making art for one’s younger self becomes a lot less important than making art for one’s current self for the simple fact that most people forget about what it was like to be a kid; why is vacuuming up one’s enemies such a pleasing, simple concept compared to gunning down dragons from the sky? When tens of millions of dollars are at stake, this is not a flippant question.
Children, however, fall outside of this spectrum. Concepts like “art” and “commerce” are largely above their head. Kids play what they play and read what they read and watch what they watch because it is gratifying. They may understand the concepts of media and profit in very basic levels, but in terms of price-points or “for art’s own sake”? Hell, studies have shown that children can’t always tell the difference between advertisements and content.
When all of this is combined, it makes for a problematic approach for a medium. Children’s franchises tend to be profitable, of course, but much more hit-or-miss. The industry as a whole needs to grow and nurture this segment of the population if they are to become the grown-up consumers of tomorrow, but creators themselves are much less beholden to children and much more skittish about creating content for them. Like a cartoon, problems are exacerbated in simplified media for the simple fact that there are fewer mechanics (or lines) to see. A bug in the mechanics of a 100+ hour game is nothing. A bug in the mechanics of a thirty-minute game is ruinous.
And yet… games like Kirby’s Dream Land do get made. Creators do try to make things for kids, do reap the rewards (both creatively and financially), do expand their market. Games like Kirby’s Dream Land are simple, yes, but they do more than perform a service. They actively engage a child’s imagination. That is a lot more powerful and long-lasting than appealing to base desires or acting with pretension. Anybody can do that. To successfully create a children’s game that stands the test of time is one of the hardest acts any artist can do.
The point, in a roundabout way, is that some gamers and elements of the industry really do need to grow up, but not in the sense that they’re feeling. They need to grow up to realize that there are enough seats around the table for all kinds of content. Merely rubbing elbows with younger content doesn’t “infect” them with kiddie-fication. There’s a cautionary tale embedded in there, of course, when an art form refuses to do so, but at least some developers/creators have given up on the child/adult paradigm of lesser/greater art. Tip of the hat, Hal Labs; you made a great game.
But man, is it weird…