About a month ago, I asked my Twitter followers to pick a Nintendo Virtual Console game I should play and write up for my blog. Blogger Pixel Bubble was the first to respond, and chose Kirby Super Star. You can read Pixel Bubble’s thoughts on the games and the games industry on the Pixel Bubble blog, Geek Force Network, United We Game, and Twitter.
Kirby Super Star is not so much a collection of minigames as it is a collection of mutations. Masahiro Sakurai, at once the most eccentric and restrained of Nintendo’s ’90s game designers, never strays far from his core idea of how a Kirby game should play. Sure, Super Star offers two (very tertiary) timing-based challenges, but the main package swaps out Kirby’s objective while keeping his controls stable and recognizable. Even in his furthest flights of fancy, Sakurai stays true to Kirby mechanically as well as spiritually, a unique decision when compared to other genre-hopping mascots of the time. When Mario wanted to race, he took to the track in a go-kart. Kirby races as he does all things: Walking on a 2D plane, inhaling obstacles and enemies, and chowing down on loads of pastel sweets.
Super Star‘s many “games” are so similar in how they play that one could easily categorize them as different levels in an overarching Kirby experience, but I think that view detracts from their purposeful division. Sakurai designs games around what he terms a “fun core,” a stripped-down idea of what makes a genre or mechanic entertaining that he can then repurpose in any number of settings or modes. Super Star is Sakurai’s attempt to insert Kirby’s fun core into several unique and complete experiences instead of elongating one of them to “full-length” with padding and gimmickry. The Kirby series does not have Mario‘s focus on precision platforming, or Zelda or Metroid‘s emphasis on exploration. The core Kirby experience — as represented in the first Super Star game, “Spring Breeze” — would not necessarily benefit from taking place over eight worlds instead of one, as it is more about finding the joy and inventiveness in Kirby’s abilities than difficulty or adventure. Sakurai is brave to admit his most famous creation is better suited for short stories when he could easily shoehorn him into a novel, especially since he could have made Super Star a direct sequel to his last full-length Kirby platformer, Kirby’s Adventure. (Many of the game’s abilities and assets do come from Adventure, but Super Star reconfigures them in more rewarding and kinetic ways.) Super Star rewards Sakurai for his self-discipline by revealing how flexible and fun Kirby is in small doses. I greatly admire Sakurai for making a game composed entirely of first worlds; say something once, why say it again?
Each game offers plenty of opportunities to enjoy the surprising depth of Sakurai’s globular brainchild. Kirby Super Star is not a difficult or particularly long game, but it is one with a surprisingly thought-out and easily personalized combat system. Kirby’s most famous ability is his gluttonous devouring of enemies and absorption of their attacks, but Super Star highlights the nuances of the formula. With the exception of a few puzzles, the player can choose to hold or swap an ability based entirely on his preferred playstyle: Ninja Kirby clings to walls and attacks quickly, Wheel Kirby crashes through long strings of enemies, Bomb Kirby cheaply but quickly lobs projectiles at a boss from afar, and so on. Some of the twenty-five abilities (including special one-timers and lemons like Sleepy Kirby who, um, sleeps) feel more unique than others, but the best ones change the pace of the game and the strategy one uses in combat. Additionally, Kirby can at any time transform his current ability back into the enemy it came from, rendering it a computer- or player-controlled ally. Playing the game alone as I did, this essentially grants Kirby a protector and a second power-up, so the player can mix and match different controlled powers with different NPC abilities to find a successful combination. However, Kirby’s helper has significantly less health than he does, adding another wrinkle to the equation: Is it worth splitting off a favorite ability into a helper, or is the player more adroit in combat alone? Power-swapping and companion-creating are such fun systems with which to experiment that as good as Super Star is, I do wish I could see them in a game with tougher opponents and tighter controls and levels.
Yet it’s that very looseness that allows Super Star to reach its highest heights. Sakurai and his team design levels around Kirby’s floatiness and his plethora of abilities, so secrets and passages are often placed in surprising and unconventional places. The two most fulfilling games in the package — “The Great Cave Offensive” and “Milky Way Wishes” — feature levels that circle back around on themselves, and their recursive natures exemplify the multiple approaches possible within each title. “The Great Cave Offensive” is perhaps the most intriguing and the most indicative of Sakurai’s ability to highlight a game style’s entertainment value. Nintendo largely popularized and streamlined the idea of video game secrets and collectibles, turning the esoteric hidden puzzles in, say, the arcade game Tower of Duraga into Mario‘s warp zones and Zelda‘s bomb-able cave entrances. “The Great Cave Offensive,” which also borrows much from Metroid‘s larger, interconnected sprawl, casts Kirby as a treasure-hunter, focusing the game entirely around uncovering those patented Nintendo secrets. (Many of them actually are famous Nintendo treasures, like the Triforce.) Yet the game is hardly a collect-a-thon, and the combination of exploration, puzzle-solving, and combat makes the scavenger hunt component feel earned. And like every game in Super Star, it’s just long enough; a second round would have forced Sakurai to up the difficulty or place treasures in even more obscure spots.
Perhaps the true hat trick of Super Star is that the same mechanics used in a leisurely treasure hunt like “The Great Cave Offensive” are the same ones at the player’s disposal in a race-the-clock speedrun like “Revenge of Meta-Knight.” Unlike, say, the Sonic Adventure games, in which different characters perform different tasks with wildly varying results (specifically, look at how poorly integrated that series’ random, limited-time treasure hunts are with the larger game compared to “Cave Offensive” within Super Star), Sakurai trusts his chosen control scheme and the malleability of the power-up combos to do the heavy lifting across titles and goals. Something like “Gourmet Race,” a foot race between Kirby and his enemy King Dedede to devour as much food as possible, is less successful than some of the more developed games (racing and floaty, pudgy Kirby just don’t naturally gel), but it’s still largely successful because it sticks by what’s fun about controlling Kirby and interacting with the world he inhabits. “Milky Way Wishes,” the final game in the package, offers something of a master class in Kirby-dom. Instead of absorbing enemies as they come, the player has a bank of collected power-ups he can employ at any time, allowing him to truly experiment with every ability Sakurai and company brought to the table. And, perhaps just to show off, Sakurai’s team ends “Milky Way Wishes” with one of the game’s only true breaks from the Kirby formula, a surprisingly spiffy space shooter that leaves a much stronger impression than one might expect.
Surprise characterized much of my Super Star playthrough. I had vague memories of playing it as a kid and enjoying it, the perfect way to kill an afternoon or two in those agonizing weeks leading up to the Nintendo 64’s release. Lacking the dexterity for tougher platformers at the time, I enjoyed its get-throughability and maintained a fondness for it because of that. Replaying it as an adult, though, I was surprised just how charismatic and thought-out the package was as a whole. Every game at once lionizes and subverts the Kirby formula, and it has a jarring, absurdist sense of humor, probably the funniest game of the era after Super Mario RPG. A sly meta-ness runs just below the candy-coated surface of Dreamland, from Kirby’s HUD avatar reacting in pain when he’s hit to a maniacal computer virus relinquishing completely meaningless experience points after a battle. (Kirby riding off into the sunset on an anthropomorphic wheel is an image that will probably always get a smile out of me.) Super Star has a handful of problems that hold it back from the absolute top-tier of Nintendo’s platinum titles. It reuses some of its most bland boss fights, its enemies regenerate at an obnoxious clip, and some of its more maze-like levels flirt with pure aggravation. Yet its charm and willingness to constantly reexamine itself create something more than the sum of its parts, and it’s almost certainly the definitive Kirby and Sakurai game. Sakurai is both experimental and ruthlessly formal in his design, a schizophrenic who somehow learned to be a ruthless self-editor. He works for Nintendo in a fairly tertiary fashion now, making more Smash Bros. and reviving Kid Icarus in, from what I’ve heard, an excellent fashion. Kirby Super Star made me wonder what he could do with a Mario sidescroller or a top-down Zelda title, what he would identify as the “fun core” of those experiences and where he’d take it from there. If Super Star, the best and most daring of his games that I’ve played, is any indication, it would be somewhere as unexpected as it was natural.