25 years ago this week, the pink puff ball made his Japanese debuted in Kirby’s Dream Land for the Game Boy. But the game’s titular character was originally just a placeholder. One of Nintendo’s most iconic characters almost didn’t get created, at least not in the form we’ve come to know and love.
Kirby started as Masahiro Sakurai’s baby. Working at HAL Laboratory, the young designer was tasked with creating a game that anyone could pick up and enjoy. Flight was an obvious choice for an ability because it would let the player navigate obstacles with relative ease, unlike Super Mario Bros. where physics thwarted players’ progress at every turn. Sakurai later added the ability to absorb enemy powers to Kirby’s arsenal as a way of encouraging players to interact with the intricacies of each level instead of simply flying past them. With those two corner stones of the series were put in place, the formula was complete.
But before Kirby could go on to be a mainstay in the Smash Bros. series or star in his own cartoon, he needed an identity. The character from the original game could have been almost anything really. There’s a generic quality to the character that’s stuck with him to this day. He absorbs powers and has undergone slight transformations, being rendered in clay and yarn, and even with his shoes off, but his underlying essence is simple, consistent, and almost characterless: a pink ball with a penchant for puffing up his cheeks. The rest of the character’s defining aspects—his color, shape, and name—were after thoughts.
So it’s maybe unsurprising that Sakurai managed to develop most of the game without ever giving a whole lot of thought to the character beyond its simple animations and monochromatic appearance. “I needed a dummy character to represent what the real character would be doing in the game,” he said in an interview once. “I just put a Kirby-shaped blob in my presentation as a place-holder, but everyone liked it so much we decided to keep it in the game without any major changes.”
Even after the game came out, a simplistic sort of Nintendo b-side for its fledgling handheld, one of Kirby’s defining characteristics still wasn’t pinned down. Was he white, like the game’s original North American box art? Or yellow, like Shigeru Miyamoto, a producer on the game and the creator of Mario, had always imagined him to be? Of course, Sakurai had always imagined he would be pink, but that too might not have happened if the rest of the development team had objected.
And then there’s Kirby’s name. Originally the first game was titled Twinkle Popo, with Kirby named Popopo, but Nintendo eventually decided they wanted something that would appeal more to a Western audience. A lot of names were bandied about, including “Gasper,” a not so subtle allusion to the friendly ghost Kirby looked somewhat similar to, but eventually the company decided to name one of their future stars after a lawyer. After all, this is Nintendo we’re talking about. Strange and quixotic does not even begin to cover it.
John Kirby was the name of the lawyer who represented the company when it was sued by Universal who alleged that Donkey Kong was a copyright infringement on King Kong. It was the early 80s, and Nintendo was not the gaming giant we now think of it as. Many appeals and millions of dollars later, Nintendo eventually won the case, and thanked Kirby in part by gifting him a sailboat named after the character he’d spent so many years defending in court. A decade after Universal first sued, Nintendo went even further and named their new character after him.
It’s almost like nobody knew at the time that the smiling pink circle would someday go on to headline 26 games and make a number of cameos in other series along the way.