Kirby and the Curved Difficulty

I’ve been thinking lately about difficulty curves.

Not all games are about creating flow. Games are about creating all kinds of experiences. But for the ones that are about flow, a gradually-increasing difficulty curve is a natural approach. As the player gains more practice and experience with the game’s mechanics, they will find its challenges to be easier. The game must therefore become objectively harder in order to provide the same subjective level of difficulty and keep the player engaged.

This is well-known and sounds simple, but is actually quite complicated and full of traps–some of which are also well-known. The same level of challenge will vary in difficulty to different players, which can be mitigated with easy modes and the ability to skip challenges. Players may put a game down unfinished for any number of reasons and then come back with their skills rusty and find the game isn’t reapproachable due to the elevated difficulty of mid- or late-game challenges, which can be mitigated via always-accessible tutorial/training/practice modes or level selects.

(Note that things get even thornier when you talk about difficulty across installments in a series or genre, given that you want to challenge veterans but still be approachable for newbies. But that’s not what I want to talk about today.)

One of the more insidious traps comes from the fact that there are a lot of elements of difficulty, and thus a lot of ways to make a game harder–and different players will react differently to these different ways, even if the overall level of difficulty increase appears similar.

For example: Super Meat Boy was always intended to be a tough precision platformer, but the creators explicitly said that its difficulty should come from challenge rather than punishment, and a key part of this was keeping the levels small. But as the game progresses, not only do the challenges require more skill, but the levels get longer too. This is a difficulty increase in that the player is required to exhibit more endurance and consistency, but it’s a punishment increase too, because every failure means more replaying before you can try that specific challenge again.

Super Meat Boy was well-regarded, so clearly this didn’t sink the game for everyone. (I am particularly amused by this post applauding a late-game level for giving the player the ability to practice the end-level challenge at the beginning of the level, which mitigates the punishment that only exists because the level is a lengthy gauntlet.) But different players respond differently to punishment and this did ruin the game for me.

Separately, it’s also common for games to increase their drama alongside their difficulty to make the endgame feel properly climactic. Narrative stakes increase. Aesthetics become more threatening (when I played Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart, Allie was able to tell I was closing in on the endgame based on how the lighting had changed). Levels/areas/puzzles/etc. become larger or more complex in a way that seems designed to make the experience feel more epic, separate from increases in mechanical difficulty.

But for players like me with terrible navigation skills, that can mean the game is getting harder twice as fast and in uninteresting ways. Unlike punishment, this sort of thing isn’t well-known as an element of difficulty, and it doesn’t get tuned with nearly as much care. I’ve had to put down a disheartening number of games that started out as exactly what I wanted, but then in an attempt to go bigger and better scaled up in the wrong ways and became unplayable.

I’m going to take a quick tangent here to tell you that the above was very frustrating to write for reasons that have nothing to do with its content.

I keep notes on topics I’d like to write about eventually, adding more thoughts periodically until it’s time to actually turn them into a post. Normally I’m pretty good about including enough detail to reconstruct ideas and saving relevant links, but for this topic all I wrote was the following:

games get harder, more complex - spyro/mario comparison - interesting difficulty - zarf

I think this was because I expected to turn this one into a post pretty quickly while it was still fresh in my mind, but then a year and a half went by and now I have no idea what the “spyro/mario comparison” was about and I can’t find the zarf update that I’d wanted to quote. Which is a shame, because I remember it being very well-said and perfectly capturing the thing that I wanted to gesture at.

Oh well.

Anyway, this post is actually about Kirby.

Kirby’s Adventure back on the NES is one of my all-time favorite games. It’s probably the first action game I actually finished and is almost certainly my most-replayed game.

I haven’t really been able to get into the newer Kirby games. The design philosophy clearly changed significantly over the years and while Dream Land and Dream Land 2 were okay, I bounced off of every Kirby game I tried that was published after 1995.

Until Forgotten Land.

I don’t think the game is completely without flaws, but it’s really good and very much what I’m looking for right now. These days, I almost exclusively play games to relax and so I am uninterested in overcoming difficult challenges and easily put off by failure and punishment. By virtue of being kid-targeted and having Nintendo levels of polish, Kirby and the Forgotten Land fits this profile near-perfectly. Most challenges are relatively easy and there are ways to make the hard ones easier.

(Structural and aesthetic spoilers follow, including for the endgame.)

One of the things I really like about it is that the boss fights are their own separate levels. This was true all the way back in Kirby’s Adventure too, so I kind of assume it’s standard for the series. Back when the games had limited lives, this separation neatly avoided what I think of as “the Mega Man problem” (though it is not unique to that franchise) of forcing you to replay a level because you failed a boss. The separation also means that if you miss a secret or optional challenge in a level, you can go replay the level and get what you missed (or just… farm collectibles, or revisit fun levels) without having to cap that off by repeating a boss fight. Doing so doesn’t automatically come with a difficulty/tension spike, though you can also go replay those boss fights if you want. The player has control over the nature of their experience.

I also really like how colorful and inviting the world is. The game looks great, and the environments are fun or cozy places like a theme park or a winter cityscape. Even the enemies are cuddly. It’s just a great place to inhabit for a while when I’m looking to wind down after work.

Both of these things change as the game ramps up the drama toward the end. First, the environments - the set of levels leading up to the (apparent) final boss are on a volcano and feature lava and flaming rocks that fall from the sky. They’re still fun, but they feel a bit more dangerous and claustrophobic. It’s more dramatic, but it removes part of why I’m playing this game in the first place. Once you get to the (apparent) final boss, things get much more dramatic and far less cuddly.

I’m pretty sure this is also standard for Kirby games? Arguably even Kirby’s Adventure did it to a degree. But it seems odd to me. If you are choosing to play Kirby instead of other games, presumably it’s for the things that Kirby gives you that other franchises don’t. So why does it suddenly turn into a different game at the end? Especially when that isn’t even surprising anymore?

After the (apparent) final boss and credits roll, the post-game levels are unlocked. These are remixed versions of previous areas, condensing each one into its own level. For example - the game’s first area is the “Natural Plains”, home to a tutorial level, four normal levels, and a boss level. The post-game’s first level is “Forgo Plains”, which has snippets from all of those levels with new enemies/challenges/collectibles, ending in a more difficult version of the boss fight. (The level is also presented with a color filter and more tense music so you know you aren’t supposed to find it a relaxing place to be.)

I mostly liked the remixed levels. I enjoyed the way the areas were recontextualized by new enemy/obstacle placement and new collectibles to find (some of which were cleverly hidden or required interesting maneuvers to reach). But the problem for me is that all of these levels end in a boss fight and thus the advantages I outlined above are all missing. Forgotten Land doesn’t have limited lives, so it does at least still avoid the Mega Man problem, but it does make me not want to replay these levels. As fun as they are to navigate, doing so is much less appealing when it means also taking on a boss at the end. And most of the levels use interesting tricks that make it nearly impossible to get all the collectibles your first time through - when I missed something in a normal level, it didn’t bother me to replay the level, but when I missed something in a post-game level, I was irritated to realize it meant I’d have to fight the boss again too.

Now, the fact is that even these harder versions of the boss fights… aren’t really that hard. At least not for a healthy, experienced, able-bodied player like me. I think I died once in my entire playthrough (and I think it was because I’d gotten careless with environmental damage, not because I was outfoxed by a boss fight). It’s not that I couldn’t handle these fights… it’s that I didn’t want to. They weren’t why I was playing the game. They don’t seem to be the natural, obvious appeal of the Kirby franchise - if you want tough battles, there are plenty of other games to play. I’m playing Kirby to relaxedly explore cozy worlds and experiment with copy abilities.

So it’s weird to me that the post-game, in addition to increasing general difficulty, changed its structure in a way that increased both punishment and the mechanical focus on combat. Heck, once you finish the post-game levels, the last challenge for 100% completion is an extra-hard combat gauntlet in the Colosseum that is twelve battles long including two new bosses, one of which is perhaps the hardest fight in the game and which only appears at the end of the gauntlet and which uses types of attacks no other boss has used so if you die figuring out how to read this boss’s telegraphs and how to avoid their brand-new attacks, have fun going through eleven boss fights again before you can get another shot!

I understand the appeal of providing content for multiple different sub-audiences, but it’s always strange to me when they are presented serially instead of as alternatives.

Anyway, though, Kirby and the Forgotten Land is damn good. This is a trivial nitpick and the vast majority of my time with the game was an utter joy. I am likely to replay the non-post-game levels to relax and I will jump on any DLC or sequels that come out.