One of the best-ever launch titles combined terrible parenting with dubious flying contraptions – and went against the trends set by its triple-A peers, says Matt Gardner.
A friend of mine just bought a Game Boy Advance. Not a 3DS or a bog-standard DS – she got a 16-year-old handheld that no-one’s really talked about since it was released. However, the GBA was the first brand-new handheld I’d ever owned – and looking back on my own experience, I’m glad she’s got one, because she can now enjoy a true classic in its natural habitat: a cult hit that isn’t half as well-known as it should be.
Kuru Kuru Kururin was the first of a short-lived, three-game puzzle franchise that enjoyed a slither of the limelight between 2001 and 2004. This inaugural release was its only outing in Europe; it didn’t even make it over to North America. An odd decision for sure, given it showcased a fistful of bankable Nintendo hallmarks: crisp controls, bright colours, universal appeal and a completely unique mechanic that made it incomparable to competitors in its genre.
Being smitten by an elaborate bird rescue simulation – on a console that desperately lacked backlighting and delivered a meagre 240×144 resolution – came as quite the surprise to me back then. I was a PlayStation kid, just as Sony was gleefully marching towards mature gaming to match the demands of its teen audience, myself included.
It was in the days when 15 or 18 age-rating stickers on games meant “completely fuck all”, instead of “kinda fuck all” like they do now. I had no issue getting hold of the gorier, more psychologically disturbing games of the era, undoubtedly growing me into the super-balanced pillar of society I am now. Young blockbuster franchises such as Resident Evil, Medal of Honor, Silent Hill and even Gran Turismo were forcing gamers like me into “grown-up” situations, heavy atmospheres and emotional rollercoasters that simply weren’t available in the early-to-mid-90s.
Game Boy Advance
But behind its cutesy graphics and paper-thin storyline, Kuru Kuru Kururin reminded me back why I got into gaming in the first place – real challenges, incredible replayability, and a feeling of achievement that all the PlayStation platinums or Xbox achievement points in the world couldn’t come close to rewarding. I think it’s one of the greatest launch titles going.
Failure to launch
Kuru Kuru Kururin was a welcome breath of fresh air at a time when Nintendo’s strategy for a strong GBA release was to remaster old classics. I know that doesn’t sound like a Nintendo thing to do ha ha ha ha ha ha but the only other GBA launch titles of note were Super Mario Advance – an inexplicable repackaging of Super Mario 2 – and F-Zero: Maximum Velocity, the only F-Zero game not to feature Captain Falcon and pals, immediately distancing itself from its loyal fans.
And given the long-awaited Mario Kart Super Circuit wasn’t being released for another three months, early GBA adopters had to make do with these aforementioned rehashes alongside other “memorable” titles like Ready 2 Rumble Boxing: Round 2, Army Men Advance, and Tweety and the Magic Jewel. Luckily, the hard-to-pronounce puzzle game – which I can’t slim down to an acronym for fear of being recruited to the Aryan Brotherhood – proved to be a saving grace while developers caught up.
To be passed a shiny new GBA by my best friend in the early stages of a road trip to Germany was exciting enough, but playing the first 20 minutes of Kuru Kuru Kururin in the back of a Mk6 Ford Escort, as it trundled out of a scorching-hot Teesside in the height of summer, is probably one of the most unforgettable introductions to a game in my life.
Irresponsible matriarchs: Our hero’s story
Kuru Kuru Kururin’s storyline is straight out of real life: you’re Kururin, a bird that’s chilling out in a field. Elsewhere, a mum of eleven birds – all by different fathers – walks to an undisclosed location with most of her kids in tow. Without saying a word, they all spontaneously walk or float in the opposite direction, leaving mother dearest on her own. As she turns round to realise her sons and daughters have just gone off camera – probably only 15-20 paces away, in real terms, so are clearly in her field of vision – she makes the executive decision to run in the complete opposite direction to find you.
She’s apparently your mum, too, but her reliance on referring to “my kids” and not “your brothers and sisters” doesn’t sell that too well. Regardless, she doubles down on both common sense and motherly love, begging for you to rescue them in a dubious flying contraption called a Helirin, a slowly-revolving pseudo-helicopter that has a clear lack of respect for gravity and is absolutely, 100% made of glass. From there, your job is to leave your homelands for the very first time and navigate a cavalcade of carnival-like chambers of carnage. You don’t even take a breath to question her, instead opting for a black power salute before hopping into the whirligig of doom.
Haring around: Learning core mechanics
From a story perspective, things become even more convoluted when you receive your tutorial flights from Teacher Hare. This instructor, you later find, has set all the course records and is the most experienced Helirin pilot in the world, yet he’s comfortable that you – a bird that’s never left the fields around your house, despite being an actual bird with actual wings – will do the job instead.
As you manoeuvre through a series of chambers, passing places and arched paths during your missions, the Helirin rotates at the same slow speed (around one half-turn every three seconds); timing is absolutely everything. Keeping it simple are just two important controls: the D-pad to move, and holding either A or B to speed your movement.
Curiously, this acceleration is never explained in the tutorial, despite it being essential to success in time trials, but you soon figure it out – until you realise that pushing both A and B down makes you go even faster. I guarantee some fans of the game reading this may never have even known that was possible, because I didn’t. Meanwhile, the all-new shoulder buttons of the GBA are used to full effect with a few different types of, er, horn, depending on the combinations pressed in tandem with A or B.
Keeping your cavalier attitude in check is a three-heart life bar. Every time you hit a wall, you lose one, and incur a three-second penalty while you’re at it. Yeah, there are occasional heart zones to fix your craft, but the latter is arguably a greater punishment – you’ll soon find yourself racing through levels as a matter of pride. In fact, it’s this subtle emphasis on speed that makes the game what it is – and in a game where accuracy is sacrosanct, it’s a recipe for unrivalled frustration.
Prepare to Die Edition
You only need to look at a few screenshots to realise that Kuru Kuru Kururin is the spiritual predecessor to Dark Souls. Aside from the glaring visual similarities to the action RPG, Kuru Kuru Kururin also delights in savaging you for making a tiny mistake – you’ll get into a scuffle with a wall and before you know it, you’re back to the main menu and frantically hammering buttons to get back into the action. Luckily, each level averages 60-90 seconds in length on a faster run, so failure is anticipatorily regular.
Sure, you have three hearts per level, but more often than not, one mistake snowballs into three in quick succession, ending your run in milliseconds. As the Helirin is always spinning, save for a slight rebound effect (which in itself can make things worse), you’ll regularly steer yourself towards more damage in a desperate attempt to escape.
In the bottom left of the screen at the start of the level, Kururin is happy and content. Hit your first wall, and he looks unduly worried, considering he’s only lost a third of his craft’s structural integrity. One more hit and it’s chaos in the cockpit, feathers everywhere, and more static interference than the TV in Poltergeist. One more graze of a wall and before you know it, the Helirin smashes into a million pieces and you’ve got Kururin’s blood on your hands, as well as that of the family he set out to save – including their mum, as you can safely assume she’ll die from grief after digging just short of a dozen shallow graves.
And it’s all your fault
Yet the controls of Kuru Kuru Kururin are some of the tightest you’ll feel in the puzzle genre, putting the sole blame at your feet every time you mess up. Luckily, you have all the info to hand that you’ll need from the start. The minimap, as tiny as it is, makes you plan like a chess grandmaster: you learn to anticipate your route plenty of moves in advance. When you’ve often only got one chance to nail a succession of turns, springs or nooks and/or crannies, you need to have a sharp memory.
Sharp’s accurate on two levels, too. Despite the 240×144 resolution of the GBA, it delivers a sharper picture than 32-bit and 64-bit consoles of the age can on a 27″ television. A bold Nintendo statement indeed, but this genuine pixel perfection means you can regularly squeak through areas while your arse goes 50p-5p-50p-5p, and if you crash, it’s most certainly your fault.
This becomes ever more complicated when the increasing compulsion to set course records starts to take over. You develop quite the unhealthy hatred of Teacher Hare and his quick times as the game goes on, adding to his clear laziness in rescuing the family as well as his belligerent tone when he’s speaking to you. What’s more, he’s at the top of the leaderboard on every single level twice. Getting the second spot just isn’t enough, but the top scores are incredibly difficult to beat.
After being lured into a false sense of security by setting your own records with relative ease in the first couple of tutorials, you find yourself forgetting about rescuing your family or even completing the game – you just want to stick it to Hare every step of the way.
Gotta catch ‘em all
Each zone has three or four sub-levels, building up in each set to the final challenge, where you rescue one of your siblings and deliver the exact same opening line with the exact same vacant expression on the exact same field, only to be greeted with a piss-poor excuse for their abandonment. They then take a seat in a gradually assembling, uncomfortable-looking Formula 1 winner’s wreath until you’ve got each one.
The learning curve to each zone is gradual, with an occasional live grenade thrown in for good measure – Jungle 3, when you rescue your brother Guzurin, is the first true trial by fire. Meanwhile, the themes given to the levels have a relatively consistent, if not wonderfully stereotypical, lilt to them. Early levels like Grasslands and Ocean play to more common themes, while Jungle itself features kiddified racist tropes of tribesmen. How lovely! Then it’s Cake Land, but game makers must struggle for consistent ideas after three themes, right?
I’m not going to spoil the ending, because my fingers have started to bleed in an attempt to recomplete the game since starting this review, but simply finishing the game is not enough. The addition of standalone challenges outside of the story-saddled adventure mode is not enough. The customisation of colours and styles of Helirin is not enough – but it’s nice, at least. No, beating the records is enough. Good luck with that.
You know, if it wasn’t for my GBA-investing friend asking for game recommendations, I’d’ve probably forgotten about Kuru Kuru Kururin for a few more years, but that’s not the fault of Eighting and Nintendo creating passive memories. Since the franchise’s final release on the GameCube in 2004 – the Japan-only Kururin Squash! (くるりんスカッシュ!) – the only hat-tips that Kururin games have received are via trophies in the Super Smash Bros. series. Even then, they managed to spell “Helirin” as “Heririn”, presumably to rub salt into the franchise’s loyal fans’ wounds with a bit of accidental racism. Memories fade, especially given I’ve played upwards of six, maybe seven games in the 16 years since then.
Yet Kuru Kuru Kururin was, and still is, an excellent concept – you’re happy setting new records for courses you’ve already mastered, or you’re excited to pass the GBA over to your mate to see if they can do any better than you, or you’re just enamoured by the pretty colours that dance in front of your face, even/especially if you’ve just killed Kururin for the 17th time in a row.
But the series disappeared, and that was that. Nintendo has a habit of publishing surprise classics, such as Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem (GameCube), or Excite Truck (Wii), and then abandoning these franchises altogether despite rave reviews and fervent fan bases. It’ll occasionally surprise us by actually making something new on its own, like Splatoon, but these instances are as rare as rocking horse shit.
In 2017, Nintendo slated Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, Minecraft and Lego City Undercover to celebrate its individuality with its all-new Switch. Three games that are three years old, at least. What’s more, the Wii Sports of its generation – 1-2-Switch – was callously sold separately to the console. It would’ve received much better reviews if it was free, but milking a cow for £40 both literally and figuratively is taking the piss. The only true blockbuster title – Breath of the Wind – is available on Wii U anyway. Unless you really crave a 180p upgrade between the Wii U and its successor, why would you drop another £280 just to expand your console collection?
Fact is, there’s no Kuru Kuru Kururin-style game for the Switch, and this is why Nintendo’s dying on its arse. A game like KKK – okay, I finally said it, writing it in full was doing my head in – is perfect for the Switch, a portable console that encourages sharing and short periods of play. Yet there’s no desire from Shigsy to release something that’s a total surprise – a game that, however simple or stereotypical, actually makes you embrace a console without question, as I did with the GBA because of the world’s premier helicopter sibling rescue sim.
Sadly, the Virtual Console is the only place you’ll get Kuru Kuru Kururin in the modern era, alongside its GBA sequel, Kururin Paradise. Maybe it’ll be paradise found for gamers in a couple of years, if Nintendo finally realises that only releasing six truly brilliant games per console is not a winning formula, and traipsing through its long-forgotten back catalogue might help it fortify its drive for consistent excellence.
That’s if it decides to even bother after the Switch. Here’s hoping it pulls its finger out.
- True originality for a puzzle game
- Simple, dependable controls used to full potential
- Easy to dip in and out of – and share
- Music ranges from annoying to nightmarish
- Level themes were null and void
- A storyline that’s only charming to a point
Incredible simplicity and perfect controls worked together to kick-start a short-lived franchise that won’t see the light of day again – but it’s one that showcases everything you could ever want from a puzzle game. Nintendo and its rivals have a lot to learn from past masters like this.