Sakurai, Part 1: Designing Accessible Games

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As we begin diving into Sakurai’s works, our first point of discussion is perhaps what he’s best known for: games that anyone can easily learn and enjoy. Sakurai labeled this design philosophy as Kirbyism.

His flagship series, Kirby and Super Smash Bros., are superb entry-level games not just for their respective genres, but for anyone new to gaming. He creates simplistic controls where buttons fulfill multiple roles. Think about the A button in Ocarina of Time. It can perform several actions – roll, talk, throw pots, all depending on the context. Sakurai uses a similar method, mapping each button to be an effective multi-tasker.

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Let’s take Kirby as our first example. In the first game Sakurai ever directed, Kirby’s Dream Land, you play almost the entire game using just the D-Pad and the B button: press B to inhale / spit out, and press Down to swallow. Press Up to jump / float. Pressing B in this balloon state causes Kirby to release a little projectile and fall. That’s 6 actions with only 3 buttons!

Placing food in the levels to heal Kirby is also a smart move to help beginners with the difficulty. They can learn from mistakes without the game being overly punishing.

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In Kirby’s Adventure the controls remained mostly the same, although Sakurai added the copy ability which, after swallowing, replaces the inhale as Kirby’s new B attack.

Kirby Super Star, a Super Nintendo game with access to several more buttons, only used a handful. X allowed you to “spend” your copy ability to make an ally, B was for jumping / floating, and Y was the main star for the inhaling / copy mechanics. The biggest new addition to Super Star was that Kirby’s attacks would change depending on what direction you pressed on the D-pad, something Sakurai found useful for another game…

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In Super Smash Bros., Sakurai would fully flesh out the controls he started with the Kirby series. While most fighting games relied on memorizing several button combos, Sakurai simplified it to just a few. Press A for a normal attack, B for a special attack, R to grab and Z to shield. However, using any of these buttons with the control stick created expansive and intuitive movesets. As the Smash games progressed, and each fighter got their own variations, Sakurai always stuck to the simple yet genius Button + Direction formula.

Outside of the controls, Sakurai added the other key feature to his games’ accessibility: a spectrum of difficulty settings. And I mean it when I say spectrum, not just options. Enemy Computer Players can be given a skill level anywhere from 1 to 9, and Classic mode has 5 basic difficulty levels. With his later games these settings would get even more detailed, allowing players to fine-tune the difficulty to match their skills without imposing on other players.

The percentage mechanic is another brilliant way to make the fighting genre accessible. Most other fighting games use an HP meter to determine the winner. But with the percentages, there’s an element of uncertainty to everything. The higher the percentage, the likelier they will go off the stage, but any player could make a recovery, allowing inexperienced fighters to stay in the game and competitive fighters to make amazing comebacks.

Additionally, Sakurai designed the more recognizable characters, (i.e., Mario, Kirby, and Pikachu) to have simpler movesets and fighting styles. A bonus benefit of Kirby’s copy move in Smash is that any new player can try out the Neutral B of all the fighters in the game. Kirby is literally an ideal beginner fighter. Thanks to this design, anyone with even a vague awareness of Nintendo games can find a familiar face and have a good time right away.

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Sakurai was so devoted to Kirbyism that once Smash Bros. got popular back in the Melee days, he actually pushed back against the competitive community. In his mind, he was afraid the pros would turn off newcomers and Smash would become another exclusive fighting game. He has since had a change of heart and is now on good terms with the Smash community as a whole.

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In fact, you could even say he Kirby-fied the competitive scene with Smash Ultimate, making it more accessible than ever by simplifying the advanced movement options and adding in a robust training mode. The grid background shows attack reach and hitboxes. You can slow everything down to learn perfect timing. And the enemy settings can help you learn how to deal with various attacks. I’ve used it a lot to learn how to parry, how to short hop, and how to tech. It feels great to pull off combos and counter attacks and to gain this sense of mastery, and I wouldn’t have bothered learning if it wasn’t for this training mode.

Let’s talk about two more games before we stop for today. Sakurai has applied his Kirbyism to other game genres as well, including a racing game, Kirby Air Ride, and a 3rd-Person Shooter, Kid Icarus Uprising.

Air Ride is, in my opinion, the best example of Sakurai’s philosophy at work. Air Ride is entirely controllable with just the A button and the analog stick. As you race, pressing A will allow you to drift and turn quickly, like in most racers. However, it also slows you down, acting as the break. And if you time it just right, releasing A will give you a boost. 3 functions rolled into 1 button. If you’re close to an enemy you can also press A to inhale it and copy the ability, similar to getting an item in Mario Kart.

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In Kid Icarus Uprising Sakurai made a valiant effort, but he didn’t quite hit the mark. In this control scheme, you move Pit with the circle pad, aim with the stylus, and shoot with L. Aiming with the stylus is actually quite intuitive (certainly better than aiming with two analog sticks). My biggest problem is the claw-like position my fingers take using the circle pad and L together. After about 20 minutes my left hand cramps up. One could argue that it’s more a flaw of the 3DS hardware than of Sakurai’s design, and Sakurai offers alternative controls, but they just aren’t as fluid as the default Circle Pad, Stylus, and L. I learned to play the game in bite-sized portions, which prevented cramps, but it’s still a band-aid to the larger problem.

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Cramps aside, Kid Icarus Uprising remains a fantastic entry-level shooter. Weapons and powerups are chosen before starting a mission, meaning the player isn’t fumbling through guns or loadout menus during the action. Any item that doesn’t use L can be easily accessed from the touch screen. Each mission begins with an on-rail section, serving as a good warm-up before switching to the 3rd-Person action. And the cauldron difficulty meter allows new gamers to avoid being overwhelmed. Anyone who can tap on a screen can quickly become an angelic sniper with this game.

Regardless of the genre, basic and easy-to-learn controls (with matching mechanics) and highly adjustable difficulty scales are what make Sakurai’s games accessible for anyone to pick up. In fact, at first glance, you would mistake his games for being too shallow and simplistic, but you would be sorely mistaken. Next time we will be talking about how that initial simplicity opens up to something far deeper than his games would suggest.

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