Sakurai, Part 3: Designing Games with Variety

Hanakirby Watercolor

Eight games in one!

That was the tagline for Kirby Super Star, Sakurai’s third game, and the first one to include smaller games with widely different styles. This has become a staple of his design philosophy ever since. Opening up a game and seeing a sprawling menu has become his calling card.

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Sakurai flirted around with adding variety in Kirby’s Adventure on the NES. He sprinkled minigames throughout the adventure where the player can earn extra lives, including a miniboss arena, a crane game, and an… egg-eating challenge?

But it wasn’t until Kirby Super Star that he finally blurred the line between minigame and full game, and it’s something he has done ever since. Spring Breeze, Dynablade, and Revenge of Meta Knight were short, traditional Kirby platformers. The Gourmet Race pushed your knowledge of Kirby’s moveset in a food-grabbing race against King Dedede (can this exist in real life, please?). The Great Cave Offensive even bled over into Metroidvania territory, presenting an interconnected world with various treasures to find.

The first Super Smash Bros. on the N64 was a little bare bones, but it set the stage for the variety to come. Outside of mulitplayer, Sakurai included Classic Mode, Training Mode, and some minigames: Break the Targets, Board the Platforms, and Race to the Finish. The minigames were actually a highlight of Smash 64 as they challenged the player on each character’s unique movesets while also breaking up the standard fighting gameplay.

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In Melee, Sakurai added an Adventure Mode, basically a crossover campaign where each level used a mechanic from a Nintendo game. This mode felt like a panoramic vista of all of Nintendo’s history. From the escape from Zebes (Super Metroid) to the racing / avoiding vehicle challenge (F-Zero), I couldn’t think of a better homage for Nintendo fans. Other newcomers included All-Star Mode, Event Matches, and the Stadium minigames (everyone’s favorite being Home Run Contest).

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In Brawl Sakurai replaced the Adventure Mode with the famous Subspace Emissary story mode. This was the most ambitious project Sakurai had undertaken at the time, full of cutscenes, platforming levels, bossfights, and 2nd player co-op. His stage editor mode is also a noteworthy addition in this entry.

But if Brawl was ambitious, then Ultimate was formidably more so. Having left out a story mode in Smash for 3DS and Wii U, Sakurai brought it back in Ultimate with the World of Light. This time, though, he opted for less story in favor of a lengthier gameplay campaign. Then there’s the Spirit Board, offering various Spirit fights cycled through on a timer, a “spiritual” successor (yes I went there) to the Event Matches. Finally, Ultimate has over 70 fighters and over 100 stages, and each stage can now be modified into different forms. I recently introduced a new friend to Smash, and when he saw that Sonic the Hedgehog could fight Solid Snake in a Pokemon Stadium, he nearly fell out of his seat. There’s a special kind of magic to that amount of endless variety.

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However, there’s also a risk when making that much variety. The game may end up fractured and inconsistent, some parts feeling better than others, or not adding up to a complete whole. Sakurai aims to offer a buffet of gameplay modes; but as with all buffets, it’s likely some modes will get ignored or everything will feel bland overall. For example, the Break the Targets minigame excelled in Smash 64 because each fighter had a challenge designed around to his or her moveset; however, its Classic Mode was the same boring path every time. In Ultimate, the opposite happened. Classic Mode became a tailor-made journey for each fighter, but the Race Minigame was only one repetitive stage.

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Most of the time, however, Sakurai deserves credit for avoiding these pitfalls and creating overall quality experiences. Of all the Smash games, I feel like Melee and Ultimate are the best examples of his work. The smorgasbord of gameplay options allow the player to sample around, pick a mode they like, and then switch whenever they want a change of pace. In Ultimate I made a routine of completing a few fights in Spirit Mode, doing a run in Classic Mode, practicing in Training Mode, and finishing with some Smash online.

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And of course we wouldn’t want to forget his black sheep games, starting with Kirby Air Ride. I thoroughly enjoyed each of the 3 gameplay modes: Air Ride was the standard racing, Top Ride was similar to slot car racing, and City Trial featured a large, explorable sandbox filled with powerups, vehicles, and randomized events, all ending in a minigame challenge. My biggest complaint with Kirby Air Ride is that each gameplay mode was so short. You could play through almost all of the initial content in an afternoon. However, this variety still had its strengths by catering to many types of players. If a player wanted a linear experience, they could play Air Ride; if they wanted more exploration, they could play City Trial.

Kid Icarus Uprising incorporated its variety a little differently. Sakurai designed each level in Uprising to start out as an on-rails shooter in the air, then transition to a 3rd-Person shooter on the ground. This back-and-forth between the sky and ground helped maintain a brisk pace, keeping each style from wearing out.

Sakurai also included a multiplayer mode in Uprising, offering the choice of a 3 vs. 3 team fight or a free-for-all shootout. There’s still a community of fans that regularly play the multiplayer online, and I was able to get into matches within seconds. Not bad for a 7-year-old 3DS game!

His sheer volume and variety of content is certainly one of the most impressive things Sakurai does. And while not every game mode is a home run [contest] (…I’m sorry I couldn’t help myself), I’m certainly impressed that the quality is as consistent as it is.

Next week we will be looking at how his games are made for longevity, like how Melee players are still loving and playing a game that’s almost… 20 years old.

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