Hello Kitty Island Adventure was one of 2023’s big hits that virtually no-one saw coming. An original game developed exclusively for Apple Arcade, it was part of a powerful July lineup that introduced a number of legendary games to the subscription service, like Stardew Valley+, Slay the Spire+, and a remake of cult indie hit, Ridiculous Fishing.
But six months later, it’s Hello Kitty that still sits at the top of the Apple Arcade charts – the only wholly original game in the Top 3. It retains an unprecedented 4.8 star user rating, and has walked away with the Apple Arcade Game of the Year award for 2023.
It’s very easy to see why. Hello Kitty Island Adventure mixes elements from popular cozy games like Animal Crossing with a vast world, encouraging player-driven exploration and puzzle solving akin to a Legend of Zelda game.
Its mechanics are nicely streamlined for mobile devices, and perhaps most surprisingly, its characters – which range from Sanrio staples like Hello Kitty, My Melody, and Kuromi, to the exceptionally obscure crocodile Big Challenges – are written in a delightfully entertaining way.
According to Julian Farrior, CEO and founder of developer Sunblink, the existence of Hello Kitty Island Adventure was “one of those serendipitous things that just came together.”
Apple had been looking to develop a new and original game in the cozy life-simulation genre for Apple Arcade, and speaking to a number of IP holders in the process. This included Sanrio, which was reportedly eager to take more risks with its brands.
Apple approached Farrior, who had a long preexisting relationship with the company, both through Sunblink – the studio’s first game, Heroish, was a well-received Apple Arcade release – and his previous company, Backflip Studios (developers of early iOS games like Dragonvale and Paper Toss), co-founded with Hello Kitty Island Adventure game director Tom Blind.
Conveniently, Blind had already begun working on a prototype in the genre, which the team were able to quickly tailor to the Sanrio universe. “We had just launched [Heroish] and we had a team ready to go and anxious. It just all came together,” said Farrior.
“We pitched it to everybody, and everybody loved it. We got the budget we needed, the timeline we needed, and the freedom we needed to really bring this together.”
Bringing Back Big Challenges
That freedom, as it turned out, allowed Sunblink to do some unprecedented things with Sanrio’s properties. In addition to the amusingly bizarre tone and narrative ideas in the game (the game begins with the cast bailing from an out-of-control plane, for example), the studio was able to revive Big Challenges, a long-forgotten crocodile character created by Sanrio in 1978, and never used again.
Only a single piece of artwork for Big Challenges existed prior to Hello Kitty Island Adventure. In the game, he is revealed at the very end of the primary questline as a key narrative figure, before being made available to befriend.
“[Sanrio] are such great partners to work with honestly,” said Tom Blind, Game Director on Hello Kitty Island Adventure. “They were totally game when we brought [Big Challenges] up.”
“We were like, ‘Hey, we kinda want to use this character that you don’t even probably remember you have,’ and they had to chat about it internally a little bit. But the thing about Sanrio in general, is that even if something was debatable, they wanted to help us make the best game possible. They pushed internally to make things happen, and they were very much going to bat for us to make sure that we could make everything.”
Chelsea Howe, Chief Product Officer at Sunblink, recalls the process of fleshing out the character of Big Challenges on behalf of Sanrio, giving him a voice and personality for the very first time.
“We wrote it all (the dialogue) and then we sent it off. [Sanrio] Japan got back to us, and they’re like, ‘We have this idea: What if everything Big Challenges says is just “gaō“, which means “roar” in Japanese, and everything else you just put in parentheses.'”
“We were like, done.”
“Done. Absolutely. Sold.”
“They were like ‘it’s a little weird,’ and we were like, ‘Perfect.”
“Sanrio has been an extraordinary partner,” added Farrior. “I think once we checked off the boxes of all the main characters, they let us run with it. A lot of that was on the US Sanrio team getting quick approvals from Japan. They were empowered to make [Hello Kitty] a truly a global IP, and as a result, they were delusional enough to to let us do what we wanted to do.”
“I think they got a better product as a result,” he continued. “Craig Takiguchi [COO, Sanrio] in the US team is extraordinary, and it’s really been exciting to build this depth of narrative behind these characters and take risks both with Sanrio and with Apple.”
The extent of the game’s success was evident just days after its launch. Apple immediately recognised the trajectory and leveraged the game’s overwhelmingly positive user reception as it marketed both the service and the game’s first post-launch update, just weeks later. Farrior says Apple encouraged Sunblink to lean into the success. “We were more than willing,” he said.
“Everybody’s excited. Everybody loves a hit game.”
The support has allowed the team at Sunblink to pursue a more robust post-launch roadmap. “It suddenly enabled all the things that were just in dreamland for us originally,’ said Blind. “Let’s get all these wild ideas that we have lined up and make them a reality.”
In the six months since release, those ideas have included an expanded cooperative multiplayer mode, which incorporates the game’s core idea of kindness and gift-giving, more story quests, an expanded map, seasonal holiday events, and new characters from the Sanrio universe.
While the new characters have so far been the more-or-less expected relatives and friends of the core Sanrio cast, there’s every chance that things could get weirder.
“The deeper we got into this universe…. like there’s talking cheeseburgers!” Farrior jokes. “There’s talking pieces of salmon! I think it’s gonna get even crazier as the game goes on.
Howe pipes in – “The salmon’s theme song is ‘Please eat me.’ Great IP.”
“Like any game, there was so much we didn’t get in, so there was genuine excitement about being able to continue to invest in this,” Farrior enthused.
Even over a video conference call, you could feel the excitement of the Sunblink team as they talked about working with Sanrio, and the development of Hello Kitty Island Adventure. It’s clear that they continue to be energised by the game and its success, with a clear gratitude for the creative freedom afforded to them by the intrinsic benefits of developing for a subscription service like Apple Arcade.
Farrior reflected, “If not for a partner like this, on a platform like this… given the current game environment, this is a gift.”
Portions of this interview have been edited for clarity. GamesHub has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content. GamesHub may earn a small percentage of commission for products purchased via affiliate links.