Games

Kirby, Devourer of Worlds

One of the best game avatars ever created is Kirby.

One of the interesting points that Scott McCloud raises in his seminal text Understanding Comics is on the nature of abstraction and how people psychologically project onto graphic images. The simpler and less detailed the image, the more a person fills in the gaps themselves and can relate to the character. In video games, those gaps aren’t just visual, it can be something like the avatar never talking or never letting the player see their face. (L.B. Jeffries, "Applying Scott McCloud’s 'Understanding Comics’", PopMatters, 1 Sept. 2009) Spotting features like that raise the question of what makes a good, psychologically pliant video game avatar. One of the best game avatars ever created is Kirby. A fantastic balance of empowering game design and art, Kirby embodies all of the elements that make for a game avatar which can easily fit into any person’s psyche.

From a visual perspective, Kirby is a McCloud abstraction. As the original NES game explains in the opening section: to depict Kirby you just draw a circle, some nubs for arms, shoes for feet, and then add a face. You can project anything you want into that because the face could be anybody’s. It’s interesting that the original game and several others have stressed and even encouraged people to draw Kirby. It taps into other aspects of people’s imagination because they can recreate Kirby however they like outside of the game. A quick doodle of Kirby looks just as much like the little pink ball as an expert rendition, there is no skill barrier to drawing him. Contrast that to something like Mario or Link, which people still love to draw, but can potentially be disappointed when their work doesn’t look like the original. Being able to draw Kirby easily removes a barrier to the avatar so that people can feel a greater sense of authority and control over it. I don’t mean to imply that every video game avatar ought to be easy to draw, just that it’s a potent feature in Kirby’s appeal.

Kirby’s appearance usually changes based on what enemy you absorb, and although not every game relies on this idea, in my opinion games like The Crystal Shards suffer for the lack. In Kirby Super Star, when you absorb an enemy Kirby takes on their powers and changes to reflect that enemy, usually in the form of a hat or changing color. It’s engaging because of how your appearance affects the game and how you play. Having authority over my character’s appearance is important but it’s equally important that this change have some kind of meaning in the game design.

The design complements this sense of authority because Kirby is the most powerful being in Dreamland. You can fly for long bursts just by making yourself into a balloon, suck any enemy into your stomach, slide tackle, and absorb almost any creature’s abilities. The games are designed for a younger audience by being a tad easy, but they are often good about catering to older gamers by hiding lots of secrets throughout each level. The Kirby games will also usually ramp up in difficulty later on so that the last few levels tend to offer a challenge, if only because you’ve probably gotten lazy by that point. No boss is ever really much of a challenge and the main reason that I die in a Kirby game is because my stomach is full when I fall off a cliff. That degree of power means that the design is never enforcing an image of you being weak or forcing a particular behavior from the player. You can fly over the entire level and co-exist benignly with the creatures of Dreamland, or you can send every last one into the abyss of your stomach. There are a lot of different ways to play as Kirby and that creates agency in the abstraction.

The choice to make Kirby consistently pink is also interesting because this was not always the case. Some of his earlier appearances depicted him as white but this was eventually phased out. As a color, pink is noted for its calming effect on people, even being used in drunk tanks to calm prisoners (Kendra Cherry, "Color Psychology - Pink", About.com). A post aggregating various reader responses to Cherry’s post shows how deeply people respond to the color by the huge variety of reactions from the readers. Commenter Linda says that it reminds her of her mother, Calinda says that it reminds her of rejection, Nathan says that it makes him feel powerful, Niall claims that it makes her aroused, and Vivien writes that it makes her feel young and silly. The inconsistency of the emotional responses is not really important; it’s the fact that they exist at all. By using a simple color that all human beings naturally have an emotional connection with, it allows Kirby to tap into that same connection and become more memorable because of it. Controlling what that connection is isn’t really needed, people are going to project whatever they want into Kirby, but the color pink helps that process.

Other small elements of Kirby’s abstract nature are worth noting. Kirby’s emotional outlook has varied from game to game as well. Early titles focused on being cute to the point of excess, such as Dreamland 3’s crayon art and never ending array of fuzzy animal friends. After the success of Smash Brothers a new audience took interest, and Kirby took on a much more aggressive appearance. The majority of portable Kirby games all feature a more aggressive, scowling Kirby who is waving a sword or shooting fireballs on the cover. All you have to do to make Kirby appeal to a different audience is put a scowl on his face or hand him a sword. The character otherwise doesn’t need much changed.

The release of Kirby Superstar Ultra adopts a more neutral tone by having Kirby simply smile and wave on the cover. The games also deserve credit for steering clear of what I consider to be a flaw in every Mario and Zelda game since the SNES. Kirby does not make any noise. There’s a customary jump sound or impact noise but nothing else. Ever since they landed on the N64 and beyond, Mario and Link cannot seem to shut up when I’m playing those games. There is nothing like a long chain of "HIIII-YAAAA’s" or "Yaaahooeeey's" to completely break any projection into a character.

It wouldn’t be right to end this post without talking about my own way of engaging with Kirby. I usually only play these games when I’m in a vile mood. I think of Kirby as an unholy pink demon who the citizens of Dreamland have displeased in some trivial way. Maybe King Dede stole one of my cupcakes or Meta Knight thinks it’s a good idea to mess with my hamster friend. Whatever the case, they will pay. I will devour every last thing in Dreamland and spit out only their burning remains. They will see me consume their friends and wear their own faces into battle. When I play as Kirby, I am the Devourer of Worlds, and they shall fear my pink visage.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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