Ranking the top 101 Nintendo games: No. 34, Kirby Super Star
Kirby Super Star has a weird design even for Kirby, but it paid off back on the SNES and even more so in its DS revision.
I’m ranking the top 101 Nintendo developed/published games of all-time, and you can read about the thought process behind game eligibility and list construction here. You can keep up with the rankings so far through this link.
Kirby games have always been about trying out different ways to play. There are roughly a zillion Kirby platformers out there, and many of them play differently from the others. Sometimes it’s a major change, like removing Kirby’s arms and legs and having him guided by a stylus, or creating 10 tiny Kirbys to be controlled like an adorable mob. Sometimes Kirby can ride animals, and those animals are the ones utilizing copy powers. Sometimes he’s yarn.
And sometimes, Kirby is the star of a collection of different games in one package. Kirby Super Star — which would later be released on the Nintendo DS in an even more expanded form, known as Kirby Super Star Ultra — was a late-life Super Nintendo game, that played a lot like HAL Laboratory was getting every last 2D idea they had out of their system before the arrival of the polygon-focused Nintendo 64 just nine days later.
You would be forgiven for thinking that Kirby Super Star, which contained seven games and two sub-games in its original form, was something of a B-sides collection, the leftovers of the SNES era that needed to be released or lost. That’s not how the game plays, though: it’s more of a deserving Kirby swan song for the SNES-era, and a much higher note to end on than Kirby’s Dream Land 3 would be a year later. Kirby’s Dream Land 3 did, uh, not make this list, let’s just put it that way. Meanwhile, Super Star comes in as the top Kirby game of them all, and part of the reason for that is that HAL got to do what they do best: bounce back and forth between Kirby ideas at will with no need for them to fit together, and even better, allow the individual games to only be as long as they should be to work their best.
The first game available to you is “Spring Breeze,” which is essentially an SNES remake of the Game Boy’s Kirby’s Dream Land (save the horizontal shoot-em-up level, the absence of which is my only complaint against Super Star). It’s Dream Land but in the color palette of the SNES, with that system’s ability for detail and backgrounds and sounds, and with Kirby’s copying abilities that didn’t yet exist when Dream Land introduced Kirby and his foe, King Dedede, to the world in 1992. Like with Dream Land, it will take you no time to finish this game. We’re talking minutes. From there, though, you’ve learned the basics of how copy powers work in this game — and the fact that you can either create a computer-controlled buddy from that power to help you, or play couch co-op with another person — and can move on.
From there, things are all of a piece, but each has some kind of twist to them. “Dyna Blade” is the most straightforward game, one that feels a lot like “Spring Breeze” in terms of length and difficulty, though, with some more “modern” touches that a remake of the original Game Boy game couldn’t have included. From there, though, there’s “The Great Cave Offensive,” which has Kirby trapped underground attempting to find his way out of a single, large, interconnected space… one that’s full of treasure. You don’t have to collect the treasures to complete the stage, but why would you not? Finding the treasures, solving the platforming puzzles to get them, exploring every inch of this massive underground cave, is the point.
There is “Revenge of Meta Knight,” which is a timed platformer: finish a stage before the clock runs out, or lose a life. Not very typical of Kirby’s normally relaxed environment. Kirby attacks Meta Knight’s ship, the Halberd, while it launches for its attack against Dream Land. He’s thrown off, and must make his way back to the ship by going through some Dream Land-style levels, but most of the game takes place on (and in) the Halberd, with Kirby slowly destroying its engines, weapon systems, and reactor, before fighting Meta Knight’s inner circle, Meta Knight himself, and then riding away on a wheelie while a wing-ed Meta Knight chases you with a sword from an exploding airship. It rules. The time mechanic makes this play as a fast-placed platformer, but you’ll be rewarded for keeping an eye out for secret rooms and paths, too, so don’t go too quickly through the ship.
The longest of the platform games is “Milky Way Wishes,” which changes up how copy powers work. Instead of being able to inhale an enemy and copy their power, Kirby must now find the powers out in the wild: only then can he use them, in a style that most closely resembles the systems of Mega Man. There is no limit to how much Kirby can use a particular power like in Mega Man, but he is collecting powers individually and switching between them as want and need dictate from that point forward. Some powers are obviously out in the open, some require a lot of digging, some quick reflexes or quick thinking. You’ll travel to a number of planets based around various environmental themes to seek out these powers, and once you’ve cleared all of the planets, Kirby will get to his chance to do his horizontal shoot-em-up thing, and also fight against the ultimate boss of Super Star: the magic-wielding jester, Marx.
Yes, I object to naming a boss in a video game “Marx,” but at least HAL wasn’t trying to Aldous Huxley their way into a point here by naming an annoying character after a communist. This is Kirby we’re talking about, after all. You know, the guy who attacks the nobility that hoards food and loves to relax.
There are also a couple of non-story games in Super Star, and they’re a lot of fun. “Gourmet Race” has Kirby racing against King Dedede on three courses, attempting to finish first and also collect the most food. The theme is easily the best part, but don’t sleep on the rest: it’s a fun little experience overall.
There is also “The Arena,” which should be familiar to anyone who has played a lot of Kirby over the years. At the time, though, this was a new concept: Kirby is tasked with defeating every single boss in the game on a single life. Whether you choose to do it with copy powers or without, with a partner or solo, is up to you. But it’s replayable for this reason, and oh so much fun to challenge yourself in once you’ve got the hang of it, too.
The two sub-games previously mentioned are “Megaton Punch” and “Samurai Kirby.” The first is a best-of-three contest to get the strongest punches through a series of timed button presses, the second is basically a samurai version of the western duel minigame from Kirby’s Adventure, where you want to be the first to press the button after the screen flashes that you’re now allowed to. It’s like the Jeopardy buzzer, but with swords.
Now, the SNES release of Super Star is great on its own, and would have made this list if it were the only version that exists. The enhanced DS version, released in 2008, is why this all ranks as highly as it does, though. It not only adds some new sub-games to the mix, but it includes multiple variants of the original main games that are so obviously enhancements to the experience it’s a wonder they weren’t there in the first place. “Revenge of the King” is basically the more difficult version of Kirby’s Dream Land found in the original game after completing it, except with “Spring Breeze” aesthetics. “Meta Knightmare Ultra” lets you play through Super Star’s games as Meta Knight, with his own set of powers that differ from Kirby’s. “Helper to Hero” is another endurance challenge, except you’re playing as a Helper instead of Kirby.
And last, there’s “The True Arena,” with all of The Arena’s bosses and more to boot, including a more difficult final four to deal, the last of which is an ultra-powered version of Marx exclusive to this specific challenge. Kirby games might be easy on the whole, but they do not lack for challenge if you’re the kind of person who will look for it after the credits first roll.
There is one other major change to the game worth discussing, and it’s the care with which HAL updated the graphics and sound without taking away from the original vision of Super Star. The DS is a more powerful system than the SNES was: the GBA was capable of putting together lovelier, more powerful pixels than the SNES was, and the DS goes beyond even that. While often used for portable polygonal experiences, the DS truly shined when it could put its considerable horsepower towards a two-dimensional space, and Kirby Super Star Ultra is evidence of that.
The game looks like it would have had Kirby Super Star originally been a DS release, one slated to be in 2D, or if the power of the DS could have been harnessed on the SNES back in 1996. It’s more detailed and better-animated than the SNES version ever could have been, but it stuck to the vision of that game, rather than move to 2.5D for a remake just because the possibility existed to do so. Say what you will about Squeak Squad being a mediocre Kirby game, but the engine that powered it gave us a super emotive, adorable, and detailed Kirby world, one that would in turn power the Super Star remake. So it’s got that going for it.
And the sound. The sound! Super Star (and Ultra) are both wonderfully scored: you might be amazed at how many of your favorite Kirby songs originated or were perfected here. There’s Gourmet Race, sure, but there’s also the Halberd theme, and the Halberd Deck theme, and… OK, every song in “Revenge of Meta Knight,” basically, including the extremely Samurai Western-inspired end theme. It’s a treat for your ears, not just your eyes.
All of this is why Kirby Super Star (Ultra) is tops among the many, many Kirby games out there. It is a joy, from start to finish, and while it might still only, all told, be about as long as a more standard Kirby game, do you need more than that? The pacing is excellent, the variety welcome. Modes like the various Arenas ensure you will keep coming back to test your skills, and the game becomes difficult to put down once you settle into the meat of it all.
HAL hasn’t surpassed Kirby Super Star in the 25 years since its release, which is not to say that there haven’t been any worthwhile Kirby games since: every Kirby title you’ve seen on this list already released after Super Star, and if these rankings had gone to 125 or 150, you would have seen even more of the post-Super Star Kirby-verse represented. HAL just nailed nearly everything that works about Kirby in one space, with some of the best pacing and progression the series has ever seen in its nearly three decades. And when they decided to spruce it up for the present, they did so by adding more, more, more, and preserving the lovely artistic vision of the original. No wonder I keep coming back to this game all this time later.
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