Nintendo’s omnipresent Kirby character almost always inhales his enemies. He did it in his first game, Kirby’s Dream Land. He did it in his Switch debut, Kirby Star Allies. He does it in Smash Bros. He just doesn’t do it in Kirby’s Epic Yarn, the 2010 Wii game remade and released today as Kirby’s Extra Epic Yarn for 3DS. Why? The game’s explanation is that Kirby has a yarn stomach, something the developers thought surprisingly deeply about.
Making Kirby out of yarn “means outlining the character with yarn, so the stomach would be hollow and enemies would just fall out after being inhaled,” Etsunobu Ebisu, the longtime producer on the Kirby yarn games, explained to me over email. That’s a logical answer, if an initially confusing one. Enemies would fall out of a hollow stomach? That matters in a medium in which a little video game man can double his size by eating a single, large mushroom?
Ebisu’s answer makes sense, though, if you think about Kirby’s Epic Yarn as a yarn game first and a Kirby game second. That’s technically what it was. The game was largely created by Good Feel, a studio founded in 2005 that initially planned to make a yarn game with an original character.
“When discussing designs for a new action game, we often start with the player’s abilities,” Ebisu said. “But for this project we took a different direction and started to discuss and pitch ideas from the structural and environmental perspective. From there, we figured out how the world would play by going over things like what the world would be like if it was made of yarn, how that would differ from a normal world, and whether there’s anything that can be done only because of the yarn.”
In a 2010 interview with the late Nintendo president Satoru Iwata, Ebisu and his colleagues at Good Feel talked about feeling stuck. Their yarn world was interesting to interact with, but the game they were making was boring.
In the summer of 2009, Ebisu recalled in that interview, Nintendo and its partners at longtime Kirby development studio HAL Laboratory suggested making the yarn game a Kirby game. Iwata admitted some guilt over that call.
“As the ones who made the suggestion, we thought that the game would be easier to make if you could borrow the already established world of Kirby, which we thought was compatible with a world made of yarn,” Iwata said in that 2010 interview. “We were, however, a little worried about trampling on the feelings of people who had wanted to create an entirely original game.”
As it turned out, the Good Feel developers liked the Kirby suggestion but just couldn’t appropriate Kirby’s signature move. The whole point of their game was to make it look like it was occurring in a world made of yarn. It just didn’t make sense to the developers to have Kirby, rendered as a circle of yarn, inhale his foes.
“In response, we created the basic ‘pulling’ ability for the yarn characters,” Ebisu told me. That pulling ability basically means Kirby sends out a lash of yarn that grabs an enemy and unravels them into loose strands that fall to the ground. “We thought that this would fit the game, so we consulted with HAL Laboratory about Kirby’s ability in this game being to pull, rather than inhaling. HAL Laboratory understood that the hollow stomach meant air would just leak out even if inhaled, and kindly accepted our proposal,” Ebisu said.
The idea that Kirby’s hollow stomach couldn’t even inhale air is referenced in Epic Yarn’s opening cutscene as the yarn-transformed pink protagonist tries to suck in an enemy only for the air to pass through his new body.
In the 3DS Extra Epic Yarn remake, Kirby can also find power-ups that give him abilities such as a sword strike, appropriating moves that he gains in other games by inhaling enemies. The remake also adds some new sidescrolling mini-games and a special “Devilish Mode” that makes all of the main adventure’s levels harder by essentially having an invincible enemy stalk you. The core of the game is still the same, though. It’s a great-looking sidescroller that dazzles with its yarn effects while it deviates from the Kirby canon, because in this one, at least, Kirby keeps his stomach empty. It wouldn’t look right, otherwise.