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Kirby 64 was the first attempt to bring Kirby to life with 3D graphics, but the gameplay is still 2D. You move from left to right, you jump and fly, and the camera tilts all kinds of ways to show off depth.
This seems like it would be a good idea, but so much of the world around Kirby extends well into the distance or into the foreground, and sometimes things you need are visible in the distance but can't be reached because you're not on the correct 2D plane. Considering Kirby can fly, or heck, even walk, why can't he just get over there? It gets more ridiculous when something like a pillar is blocking Kirby's path, and realistically, he should be able to simply walk around it. The 3D depth just raises all sorts of logic questions.
Kirby is most known for being able to eat enemies and gain their powers/characteristics. Here, this takes the form of his actual body mutating. Kirby can change into a lightbulb, have a Swiss army knife's worth of things stick out of him, have the top of his head become a volcano, and more. There's 7 individual powers, but Kirby can combine two powers together to get 28 additional "combo" powers, which result in the stranger ones, like Ice + Electricity, which turns him into a refrigerator that shoots out food.
Each power is super limited in what it can do. Kirby gets one attack, or if he's lucky, two, from a power. The primary use for powers and power combos is to solve puzzles.
The puzzles come in two forms. The most common form is stupidly simple, and doesn't deserve to be even called a "puzzle". Essentially, you'll encounter a barrier of some sort in many of the levels. The barrier is often colored the same as one or two powers. You need that one power, or specific two-power combo, to destroy the barrier. Congrats.
On the polar end, the other puzzles are very obtuse. Use lightbulb power (Electricity + Bomb) to light up dark drawings so you can see them, then go into the next room and step on the appropriate switches. Or, look at a painting, then try to carve the blocks in the next room to resemble the painting's basic shape.
It wouldn't be until 2011's Kirby's Return to Dreamland that they'd do Kirby with 3D graphics and 2D gameplay again, and get it right. But chalk Kirby 64 up to an odd experiment.
Or should I say crystal?
Kirby 64 was the first Kirby game I ever owned and still remains one of my favorites. So there might be a bit of nostalgia bias here, but in my opinion, it still very much holds up today as one of the best games of the series. And yet, I find it frequently overlooked in favor of Adventure or Superstar or even Return to Dreamland, which I personally find a great, but much less fulfilling 3D adventure.
This seems to be a result of its core mechanics, which are certainly unique from other games in the series. First off, there's its side-scrolling 3D environments, which remains the single best use of "2.5D" I have ever seen. In addition, each and every level is a unique environment, which makes the worlds you explore much more varied and memorable than other Kirby games.
Next, is the powers. Unlike other games, you only have a small amount of core powers, but can combine them together into numerous other ones. These vary greatly in usefulness, but most of the fun comes from simply experimenting and seeing what pops out. Over the years, there have been many unique mechanics added to Kirby games, but I have yet to see any that comes close to being as fun or interesting as the combo powers. I can only hope they will one day be brought back, especially with the much greater variety of powers in the modern era. Just think of the possibilities!
Lastly, the crystal shards themselves. Like other games, these are the main collectible required to unlock the true ending. For the most part, collecting them isn't much of a challenge. Many shards are just slightly out of the way or hidden behind color-coded barriers that blatantly tell you what power or combo power is needed to break it. A select few of them however, can be very tricky. One in particular pretty much requires you to be familiar with Kirby's Dreamland 3 and its animal buddies in order to get. Thankfully, once you've collected a shard, you can exit the level and keep it with no hassle.
I've been waiting a long time for this classic to get an HD remake, but in the meantime, you can now play it as part of the Kirby's Dream Collection. And you should, as it's one of the most enjoyable Kirby experiences out there.
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