Kirby is arguably the cutest video game character of all time. He’s pink and squishy, more like a cuddly pillow than the brave hero of a massive franchise. But his world isn’t as adorable as it first appears. Sometimes, the sickly-sweet exterior of the Kirby universe gives way to something just bone-chilling, an eldritch core that sits in direct contrast to the eponymous protagonist’s cheerful persona.
Super Smash Bros. Ultimate’s World of Light — the game’s single-player story mode — gives us a glimpse of the same darkness. In the mode’s intro, monsters lead by the unknown villain Galeem descend upon Nintendo’s most notable characters, vaporizing everyone in a comically extended sequence — except Kirby. Was this because Masahiro Sakurai, Kirby’s creator and longtime Super Smash Bros. director, has a soft spot in his heart for the pink puffball, or did Kirby’s experiences with his universe’s elder gods given him a sort of survival instinct against their powers?
Kirby was first introduced — albeit without his signature power-stealing abilities — in 1992 with Kirby’s Dream Land. This first game was more simplistic than the installments that followed, and while the creepiest facets of the Kirby world still lurked over the horizon, they were teased through a regular enemy known as a Scarfy. This floating, cat-like creature puts on a cute face, right up until Kirby attacks. As soon as Kirby unleashes his vacuum attack, Scarfy transforms horrifically into an exploding, one-eyed demon.
Dream Land’s primary antagonist, a penguin known as King Dedede, returned in the 1993 follow-up Kirby’s Adventure. Dedede lifts a magical artifact known as the Star Rod and breaks it into several pieces, essentially robbing Dream Land of its dreams. This doesn’t sit right with Kirby, who sets off to gather the fragments of the Star Rod and make things right.
It’s only natural that Kirby (and, by extension, the player) assumes King Dedede is simply trying to be a jerk, but his intentions are revealed after he’s defeated by the pink puffball. As Kirby returns the repaired Star Rod to its rightful place in the Fountain of Dreams, Dedede desperately pleads with him to stop, only to be rebuffed. Dedede watches in horror as Kirby accidentally releases an entity known as Nightmare, whom Dedede had attempted to trap by destroying the Star Rod. Kirby defeats Nightmare because that’s what heroes do, but the potential terror Nightmare could have inflicted on Dream Land paints the game’s story in a completely different light.
Dream Land is portrayed as a serene and peaceful region, the inhabitants of which have a meaningful connection to their dreams. Nightmare’s goal of “caus[ing] pain to the people” through their dreams is a direct attack on not only the physical bodies of those who call Dream Land home, but also the intangible reality that exists outside of the waking world. Much like Freddy Krueger, the demonic slasher of The Nightmare on Elm Street films, Nightmare could conceivably visit unimaginable horror on Dream Land with the subconscious fears of its citizens, a rather dark premise for a child-like protagonist like Kirby.
The threats facing Dream Land only get worse from there.
Kirby’s Dream Land 2, released on Game Boy in 1995, includes two separate endings. The first, seen if the player fails to find a series of special collectibles, shows Kirby and his new animal friends heading home in the rain, before hinting at an unknown evil lurking in the sky. The extended finale features an additional boss fight against a new antagonist, Dark Matter, the evil force behind the game’s story, who had possessed King Dedede. Dark Matter would, in future appearances, introduce body horror into the mix by transforming Dedede’s stomach into a fanged mouth or an eyeball that shoots lasers.
Dark Matter is launched into space after it is defeated, where it transforms into a inky-black orb with a single eye that looks like something out of H.P. Lovecraft’s famed Cthulhu Mythos. Kirby defeats this monstrosity, as expected, but not before facing Dark Matter in a life-or-death battle to thwart its goals of conquering Dream Land and casting the peaceful world into darkness.
Dark Matter serves as an antagonist in 1997’s Kirby’s Dream Land 3 as well, but plays second fiddle to a far more monstrous creature named Zero. Kirby developers crafted a truly horrifying boss battle for the Dream Land 3 finale, making full use of the Super Nintendo’s upgraded visual fidelity, and it surpassed everything the franchise had previously thrown at players.
Little about Zero is explained story-wise, but it’s able to produce and command several Dark Matter-like creatures during the fight against Kirby, implying that it may be some sort of evil puppet master. Zero opens gaping wounds on its body from which bloody projectiles emerge and, once the player deals enough damage, the eye rips free of the larger body (cue more blood) and continues to attack until it’s defeated.
Although Zero already looked like something ripped from Neon Genesis Evangelion, HAL Laboratory kicked things up another notch for Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards.
Released for the Nintendo 64 in 2000, The Crystal Shards was Kirby’s first 3D game. Both Dark Matter and Zero were resurrected as Miracle Matter and Zero2, respectively. After being defeated in Dream Land 3, these eldritch abominations returned in notably different, more angelic forms for The Crystal Shards; Miracle Matter sports a new polygonal shape fitted with eyes on every side, while Zero2 has gained a halo and fibrous wings in the time between the two games.
The practice of depicting celestial beings as beautiful, terrifying creatures isn’t new in the world of video games; Shin Megami Tensei and Bayonetta draw inspiration from the Jewish angelic hierarchy for their enemy designs. But Kirby’s flirtatious relationship with religious iconography is much stranger due to its reputation as a series for children and not a post-apocalyptic RPG or titillating action-adventure. Kirby games are adorable, yes, but it’s become clear over the last two decades that something alien creeps at the edge of its universe, seemingly angelic yet leering at Popstar and its inhabitants with a sinister hunger.
The aforementioned H.P. Lovecraft based many of his stories around a fear of the unknown (now interpreted as an extension of the author’s own racism). Protagonists in these stories often come up against celestial forces they simply can’t comprehend with their limited knowledge of the world around them. Some of these ancient beings are so outside the realm of human understanding that simply gazing upon them can drive someone insane.
On the surface, the Kirby franchise seems like the furthest one could get from these sensibilities, but many games have proven that even his own small corner of the world isn’t safe from existential threats. Perhaps it’s his intimate knowledge of the unknown cosmos that allowed Kirby to escape in Ultimate, while the rest of the cast disintegrated in its all-consuming light.