One of the most anticipated releases of 2018, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is a fun, but undeniably compromised gaming experience. Ultimate pulls out all the stops to give fans the biggest, most finely tuned Smash Bros. experience to date. It’s a tight, balanced, action-packed brawler filled out with over 70 of your favorite Nintendo characters and dozens of classic stages from the series’ history. However, this dedication to representing the entire Nintendo universe ends up sinking the game due to the completely unforgivable inclusion of Kirby, who is one of the most offensive and harmful stereotypes in the history of popular entertainment.
This is 2018, and grotesque caricatures like Kirby have no place in video games. Some will certainly quibble with this complaint; they will say that this is just a game and no place for politics, but witnessing depictions like Kirby detracts from the entire gaming experience. What should be an absorbing, accessible party game for players of all ages and skill levels turns into a disrespectful and disgusting mockery the second we see Kirby suck Mario into his puffy pink cheeks and absorb his powers. It renders an otherwise well-crafted product nearly unplayable.
The inclusion of Kirby is such a shame because there are moments of real enjoyment here. Smash Bros. Ultimate maintains the frenetic, zany fighting antics that are the staple of the franchise, with the plethora of characters offering a wide variety of combat styles and strategies. The deep rule customization and the borderline overwhelming number of levels guarantee you will be able to find a rich variety of play that satisfies almost everyone. Yet this commitment to an inclusive experience falls apart the second Kirby lands on screen, riding a star and waving his little marshmallow arms like he’s emerged directly from a bigoted 1930s cartoon. It’s not just insulting, it’s lazy. Including Kirby shows Nintendo simply isn’t interested in doing the work to bring real characters to their games.
What we see in our entertainment matters. Kirby does so much harm because these kinds of depictions influence the way someone is treated and seen. Creators, including game developers, have a responsibility to consider the impact they are having on society, which is why the inclusion of an outdated and cruel stereotype like Kirby is a disgrace, plain and simple. Seeing images like this holds society back and limits opportunity—people internalize the image of Kirby putting on a chef’s hat and stirring all his enemies into a giant, bubbling cauldron, even if they are consumed in a silly entertainment context.
Just look at this clip of Kirby in action.
How a backwards, demeaning image like this made it into a game in 2018 is beyond me. It just goes to show that developers come from a privileged and insulated world.
Even worse, Kirby has been made the poster boy for the Smash Bros.’ new “World of Light” mode. In it, you traverse a game board, gradually unlocking other characters by winning battles, often with unique challenges, and freeing spirits which can be used to grant power-ups to the player. It’s a great addition to the franchise and really fleshes out the single-player component of the game, but in starting the adventure, the first and only playable character is Kirby, meaning anyone who wants to experience the main portion of the single-player game is forced to contend with this monstrous display of ignorance and hateful clichés. Surely, Nintendo will put out some statement saying they value representation, and that Kirby was meant to be depicted as the hero, but putting him front-and-center in “World of Light” is the worst kind of tokenism.
This isn’t some small blind spot: Kirby has been seen as the poster boy of intolerant characterization for years. This squishy, big-eyed sphere of a character, floating through the air and crushing people after turning into a stone was a despicable product of a bygone era. For him to be featured without any changes in a modern game is a travesty. The damage he has done is beyond measure. We are supposed to be better than Kirby now, but clearly some of us haven’t gotten the message. How did this go through multiple levels of approval? Surely, one person at Nintendo must have pointed out how appalling Kirby is.
Some people will say that Kirby is just meant to be a fun and goofy character. Others will say we’ve made so much progress and we should celebrate that instead of focusing on one small mistake, but the wounds inflicted by this stereotype are very real and very deep. Images of Kirby still pervade our culture, pushing the idea of a simple-minded blob inhaling everything in its path, notions that have a long history of being used to demean and dismiss, causing so much violence and suffering. And, of course, some people don’t even see anything wrong with showing a pink fluff-ball pulling out a mallet and knocking someone across a screen. Those people are probably too far gone to reach.
If games are going to be taken seriously as an art form, they have to be held to the same standards as movies and television, where something like Kirby would have been dismissed as a laughably outdated stereotype decades ago. We can’t just focus on a game’s graphics or replay value while Kirby pile-drives turtles and inhales princesses like it’s the 19th century. We worked for years to move beyond Kirby. If we let publishers get away with these reprehensible images, then what were all the marches for? What did previous generations fight for if not to put an end to this? We as a gaming community need to speak out. We need to show Nintendo that we won’t stand for it and will not buy their games if they continue to include Kirby.
I occasionally had fun with Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, but I could never lose myself in the game with Kirby sitting there like a smiling, pink encapsulation of human hate and bigotry. It ruined what should have been a lighthearted and enjoyable experience. We need to do better than Kirby, and until game studios realize that, I cannot in good conscience support what they publish.