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A deep dive into one of the more unique game releases on the SNES. Kirby Super Star managed to redefine what it means to be a Kirby game.

Tristan Jung, Blogger

January 10, 2020

29 Min Read

March of 1996. It was a turbulent time for Nintendo. After a huge rift in partnership, Sony had released its PlayStation six months prior. With the advent of new hardware, 3D polygon games had taken the world by storm. To catch up, Nintendo was ramping up to release its new 64-bit console in June of that year. Major game developers were preparing as well, opting to build games for the bigger, better Nintendo 64 over the now-aging Super Famicom.

It was already way past the golden age of 16-bit gaming, and the 3D era was knocking at the door:

Above: This is what Kirby Super Star was going up against. All of the listed dates are the initial Japanese launch dates for the games/hardware.

Knowing this, a young game designer at HAL Laboratory, decided to release a Super Famicom game named Kirby Super Star. And as if it were some miracle, amidst all the turbulence, uncertainty and increasing pressure, he managed to create one of the best Super Famicom games ever made. [1] [2]

Bounded Creativity

Kirby. Super Smash Bros.

What do these two video game series have in common? Other than being household names within the Nintendo-brand, they also happen to be the brainchild of game designer Masahiro Sakurai.

Having joined HAL Laboratory as a game designer straight out of high school, Sakurai’s first project was directing Kirby’s Dreamland for the Game Boy, released in 1992. Intended to be a placeholder character, Kirby ended up being loved by the designers to the point where they decided to keep him in the final version. On top of the unusual design, the game boasted a new style of gameplay not seen in the past, and it became an instant classic and was HAL’s most successful game at the time. Sakurai followed up with Kirby’s Adventure for the Famicom in 1993 [3], and it was met with even greater acclaim. Only in his 20s, he was already working with other industry greats such as Shigeru Miyamoto and the late Satoru Iwata.

But even at an early part of his career, he felt shackled by previous successes and the looming pressure of creating sequels over trying out original ideas. Quoting a translated interview with him from Nintendo Dream in 2003:

“It was tough for me to see that every time I made a new game, people automatically assumed that a sequel was coming. Even if it’s a sequel, lots of people have to give their all to make a game, but some people think the sequel process happens naturally.”

Although the quote was from long after the release of Kirby Super Star, you could have guessed his frustrations starting after the release of Kirby’s Adventure: many games in the Kirby series were beginning to be distributed among HAL Laboratory. While he was working on Kirby’s Pinball Land (1993) and Kirby’s Block Ball (1995)Sakurai was completely hands-off with Kirby’s Dream Course (1994), Kirby’s Avalanche (1995)and Kirby’s Dreamland 2 (1995). Even with a reduced workload, he still had no creative outlet to try something else.

Even before Kirby turned five years old, he had an impressive seven games under his name. I believe that Sakurai was getting sick of directing Kirby games at this point, and intended Kirby Super Star to be his swan song from the series [4]. And oh, what a swan song it was.

Back to the Basics

The Kirby series had already been turned into an experimental ground for HAL [5], with the pink puff-ball exploring a diverse genre of games: PinballGolfPuyo-Puyo, and Breakout. But with his (presumed) finale for the series, Sakurai wanted to bring the game back to its roots: a charming, eccentric platformer.

Sakurai has mentioned the importance of a “fun core” in games [6]:

“There are all kinds of game genres, like fighting games and puzzle games, and each one has its own ‘fun core.’ First, I try taking away everything unnecessary around that core. Then, it’s like I place the fun core somewhere else and build around it again.”

And by taking the reins back for his creation, he was able to accomplish what he set out to do.

Above: Box arts for North America, Japan, and Europe, respectively. Kirby has always had a tradition of having distinct artwork between regions [7]

Kirby Super Star (renamed as Kirby’s Fun Pak in Europe) released on March 21, 1996, in Japan to once again, a critical success. In North America and Europe, the box art had a large banner boasting the cartridge contained “8 games in one!”. Although it is debatable whether or not all the games could be classified as “games,” it brought something that we haven’t seen before along with its “Sakurai-feel” that we all know and love today.

As soon as you booted up the game and got past the file selection screen, you were presented with a corkboard with an almost postcard-like selection of the games. Five of these were distinct platforming adventures, while the remaining three served as short mini-games that provided a break. A stark contrast to the games of that time that preferred narrative, theatrical experiences (look at the games that were released before on the timeline), Kirby Super Star presented itself through jam-packed, bite-sized sessions.

In typical Kirby fashion, the main menu is vibrant as ever.

The game isn’t without a story; each sub-game has an optional intro cutscene that provides the minimal backstory of how Kirby got himself into the situation. It’s not much, but enough to give it the Nintendo-vibe.

It should be noted that some of the games are locked, only becoming available once you beat previous games. Although this gives the impression that the player can play in any order they want, there is a free ordering that most players follow based on the difficulty of the games. On top of the difficulty ramp-ups, each game chains together to create a coherent “meta-story” for the collection itself.

The Original HD Remaster

It feels like we’re in an era where remasters/ports/re-releases of games are prevalent, but it’s interesting to note that this is not a new thing. Nintendo has been doing this since the Gameboy era, and the Kirby series, in particular, has seen many remasters in its lifetime. [8]

Above: All intro cut scenes were faithfully recreated.

The reason I bring this up is that of Spring Breeze, the easiest sub-game happens to be a complete remaster of Sakurai’s debut, Kirby’s Dreamland. [9] Now featuring full-color graphics and a revamped soundtrack, it also serves as an educational ground for some of the new gameplay features that were added in Kirby Super Star. [10]

The most significant change was the fact Kirby’s Dreamland didn’t have copy abilities (that was introduced in Kirby’s Adventure), and Spring Breeze did. This fundamentally changed the core game. Even graphically, this was the first time that Kirby looked different in-game depending on which ability he possessed (through the use of ability hats); in the past, there would only be a visual indication in the UI.

Above: The sprite set collection used for the UI in Kirby Super Star. These comprise of the abilities you can obtain along with the helper for each (explained below)… And King Dedede

There were other differences as well. Some of the changes served as quality-of-life tweaks: such as the jump button now allowing you to float instead of having to press up. The physics were tweaked a bit to make the controls feel tighter and less floaty.

Others were brand-new additions that enhanced the experience. For the first time, Kirby had a health bar instead of a set number of HP which allowed a variation in enemy strength, which allowed some to hit Kirby harder than others. The player had the choice to remove their current ability to spawn a helper (controlled by an AI or friend!) to assist on their journey. These friends had access to the particular power’s move set, along with their health bar. Typical to Sakurai, there was even a health sharing mechanic that made the feature deeper than just having a second player help out mindlessly. [11]

For the first time, each ability had move sets. This made the game have an almost Street Fighter feel, with each different move serving a potentially unique use in the game. In the following sub-games, some rooms were blocked off unless you had the correct ability and used a particular move.

Above: (Almost) Every one of the 25 abilities in the game had a distinct move set.

Not everything was rosy, though, the graphics that Sakurai decided to go were a weird 3D-2D hybrid; the background and environments were rendered in a Donkey Kong Country-like way, while the characters were the usual 2D sprite affair. I’m not sure what the exact cause is, but the game suffered heavily from frame drops in screens that were populated with many sprites. This was quite unusual [12] since there were other games during the same period (Sonic 3Yoshi’s Island) that either had much better graphics or had no performance issues.

All in all, many changes made it significantly different from the original. However, it was still a faithful game to its source material: a tight platformer with the unique Kirby charm. Though, it’s a relatively short game, composed only of four stages [13], where the last one is simply a boss. A typical playthrough should take ~20–30 minutes at most. Standing it against the rest of the collection, it feels more like a glorified tutorial than a full-fledged game.

Dialing It Up

Poor Dyna Blade. I’m not sure how many people share my sentiment, but I feel like this is the most forgettable sub-game of the bunch. Sure, it serves to show off a few more mechanics that will become important in the later adventures, but it sits in that awkward place in the difficulty spectrum where it’s just not challenging enough.

The story is simple enough: Dyna Blade, a rainbow-colored armored bird, is wreaking havoc in Dreamland by destroying all the crops. It’s up to Kirby to go and stop her. Not meant to create a theatrical experience, it provides some basic backdrop and motivation for the player.

The main differentiating mechanic of the sub-game is its overworld map that separates the different levels inspired by Super Mario Bros. 3. It also borrows some other features from the Mario series as well, such as secret exits [14] for levels, and roaming enemies on the map.

Above: Not pictured: a big letter E that roams the map.

Other than the changes noted above, the core gameplay remains the same; it’s the same platforming affair as Spring Breeze, with difficulty ramped up ever so slightly. The grand battle against Dyna Blade herself at the summit of Candy Mountain provides closure for both the story and the sub-game. After the ending scene, you’re quickly whisked back to the selection screen.

The sub-game has many parallels to Spring Breeze, in both story (King Dedede is the one that steals the food) and gameplay (four-level structure) and definitely can be seen to serve as the “Extra Mode” that the first game needed. Overall, I would even say that the entire sub-game was rushed; I wish they made it longer by a few more levels or added some unique elements to make it stand out just a bit more.

A Brief Intermission

Before we get to the real meat of the game, now’s the best time to take a look at the mini-games that are included in Kirby Super Star. These are short affairs that last at most a few minutes and provide a quick break from the longer adventures that lie ahead.

Gourmet Race, although still a platformer at its core, does not share the same objective as its bigger siblings. It instead has you running across a set number of levels against King Dedede while trying to collect as many food items as possible. Although the developers tried hard to maximize replayability by adding a time attack mode, I found that the mini-game gets pretty stale after the initial few runs. The one saving grace is the fantastic music that accompanies the race; it’s one of the more prominent Kirby tunes and an exciting, adrenaline-filled tune that has been rearranged and remixed in many future games.

The remaining two games, Megaton Punch and Samurai Kirby, serves to change up the multiplayer aspect of the game by creating a competitive objective rather than a cooperative one. Even if you don’t have a second player around, the three difficulty settings the game has provides a good mix of challenges. These mini-games are legitimately fun to play and could be used in a party-type environment if you want something casual going on in the background. These types of mini-games have become a staple in many Kirby games that came after this one, and I’m sure people wouldn’t have minded if Kirby Super Star had a couple more additions. [15]

Now that we’ve had our breather, it’s time to jump back into the main events.

The Pursuit of Riches

Even without narrative and cutscenes [16]The Great Cave Offensive manages to tell a story of its own. A departure from the previous, level-based progression system, The Great Cave Offensive features a single level that sprawls across four distinct areas.

Another difference is that the story for once does not revolve around saving Dream Land, or fighting back against an evil force; for once you’re able to take a leisurely pace through the caves to find an exit. Through exploration, you can feel the Indiana Jones inspiration for the game as you’re looking for secret rooms, dodging traps, and discovering treasures.

A secondary goal that this sub-game brings is the collection of 60 distinct treasures littered across the world. An extra status screen kept track of the ones you found, and each treasure contributed a different monetary value that was tallied for your final score.

Above: This game was known for its many references to other Nintendo games, as seen here: Captain Falcon’s helmet, the Triforce, Koopa Shell, etc

The level difficulty is ramped up significantly to impede your progress as well; as many more rooms are locked behind specific power barriers, hidden way out of sight, or require some extra platforming finesse to reach. This adds another level of replayability to the sub-game, as some rooms are only able to be challenged once until it’s closed off from you unless you start a brand new game. Although frustrating at first, the feeling of satisfaction you get once you master all the layouts is indescribable.

But the biggest awe factor that I experienced when I first played this game was the fact that the map was in a non-linear design. This ultimately flips the core design of Kirby up until this point. You can visit any of the areas in any order you want, with one of them being entirely optional! This completely blew my mind when I was younger; this amount of freedom was not something that was common back in the day. Looking at some of the other platformers that came out in that era: Super Mario WorldSonic 1/2/3; none of these offered the level of non-linear exploration that The Great Cave Offensive did. I would say the Megaman (X) series is the only one that was remotely similar through its level select system, and even then, the levels themselves were straightforward in design.

To offset the immense size of the map, additional features had to be added to the sub-game: shortcuts between areas and save lodges are scattered infrequently offer players the chance to take a much-deserved break between long spelunking sessions.

The bosses at the end of each zone had something unique to offer. Fatty Whale had you fighting against a boss that moved in three dimensions. [17] The Computer Virus was a hilarious take on the turn-based RPG genres where you and the boss took turns attacking each other. Chameleo Arm is a puzzling fight to deal with since he’s invisible until you figure out a way to see him. Finally, Wham Bam Rock is the start of Sakurai’s obsession with dismembered hands (more on this later) but still serves as a different fight. Although they are reused in the harder sub-games that follow The Great Cave Offensive, it is here where you’ll first sit in awe looking at the sheer creativity that the fights bring to the series as a whole.

Above: I miss the good old days where games freely poked fun at other genres and rivals.

By the time you get to the end, there was one last realization [18]: the exit to the cave you were looking for the entire time was the hole you entered. The fact that you ride up the same shaft like the one you fell adds the slightest comedic touch after you’ve finished exploring the grueling caves.

Personally, this is my favorite sub-game of the bunch (and I hope others share this opinion); it brings something truly unique that we unfortunately never get to see again in the rest of the series.

The Thirst for Blood

The Great Cave Offensive offered the exploratory, mystery-filled experience akin to adventure movies of the past. Revenge of Metaknight, on the other hand, takes huge inspiration from adrenaline-filled action movies from the 80s such as Die HardThe Terminator, or Mad Max.

The leisurely pace that the previous sub-game is wholly scrapped, with an anxiety-inducing timer that takes the main stage on the UI. The now prominent story adds to the pressure as well: Metaknight is en route to taking over Dream Land with his airship, the Halberd. [19] The timer presents a simple premise: the time left until there’s no stopping him and his crew.

A unique aspect of the sub-game is that the story is not told via cutscenes, but through dialogue prompts that show up while you’re playing through the levels, similar to Star Fox. It serves very well to show more perspective on how desperate the bad guys want to kill you, instead of the usual silent affair that you’ve been used to. It ramps up slowly, with shooting Kirby out of the air with patience and precision until it becomes an all-out war with the crew deploying tank-like weapons at the cost of destroying the ship themselves (which 100% happens).

The dialogue does serve a gameplay purpose as well. A lot of the sections and bosses the player will encounter are incredibly unique to the sub-game and could potentially create confusion for the player. The way Sakurai gets around this is providing tutorials through the dialogue itself (through subtle means, not blatantly telling you). It’s interesting how he was able to utilize the story element to enhance multiple parts of the game.

Above: After you get knocked off the Halberd the first time, you can see it in the background while you’re chasing after it.

Another part that is handled very well is the overall consistency and coherence, especially for Kirby game. All the events that take place chain together nicely and make sense with respect to the other adventures you’ve gone through in the past. You get knocked off the ship, only to climb Candy Mountain, and do you remember who was at the summit? Dyna Blade, of course! [20] She assists in flying you back to the ship. It’s moments like these that provide a cinema-like experience even without drawn out cutscenes or exposition.

I can’t end the section without talking about the gameplay. The intensity is turned up ten notches, as you’ll be consistently shot off the airship, and hordes of the crew will be sent after you to get you off the ship. Eventually, you can reach the control deck of the airship, where an epic duel against Meta Knight himself awaits. Even the final sequence, when is Halberd is falling towards to ocean is handled very well, with a timed escape riding on a wheelie while you’re being chased down by Meta Knight. The only complaint I have is the technical performance. I’m not sure if it’s due to the sprites or how the levels are set up, but massive slowdowns plague most your time on the Halberd.

Once the credits and roll call finishes, one could only wonder if Sakurai can top such a great experience…

The Quest to Save the Galaxy

… And of course he can.

The fact that Milky Way Wishes exists proves that Sakurai is a never-ending fountain of creativity and deserves to be at the forefront of video game design. He can take everything that the player has learned so far, mash them into a singular fun experience, and ultimately turn the game on its head.

The story is simple enough: the sun and the moon are fighting, and it’s up to Kirby to venture into space to talk to Nova, a comet that grants wishes, to stop the fight. To do this, Kirby must journey across the planets in the galaxy, gathering enough star power from each of them to confront Nova.

At the beginning of the issue, I mentioned that Sakurai cared deeply about the “fun core,” and up until now it had been consistent. The heart of all Kirby games is that you can steal the abilities of the enemies you beat and use these powers against them. What this sub-game does is the removal of that very core.

Of course, you probably won’t be playing the game without any abilities; the central mechanic revolves around searching the different planets along the way to Nova to build up your arsenal of powers. These are hidden in the style of The Great Cave Offensive, and the game is a bit more lenient as you’re allowed to revisit planets to continue the search if you think you missed something the first time around. As always, the game doesn’t lock you into any playstyle; you’re free to skip all abilities and fight the bosses without any weapons if you please.

Above: The pause screen now keeps track of which abilities you can access.

As always, all the levels are brand-new, with nothing being recycled from previous sub-games. There are some very cleverly designed stages, with a few that apparently inspired games of the future. [21] The bosses have been beefed up as well; they hit much harder, use new moves, and have a lot more health than the last time you’ve seen them.

The ending sequence culminates into a unique chain of events and gameplay, but I don’t want to spoil too much. The entire space epic should be something that all avid gamers play for themselves, even if the game is now reaching 25 years of age.

A New Challenger Approaches

The whole package wraps up nicely with a secret ninth game, which is essentially a boss rush mode. It incorporates a lot of game mechanics that Sakurai will use again and again, but there’s a dedicated section coming up, so stay tuned.

Once you manage to get through the gauntlet, you unlock…

Testing, Testing

Just kidding. [22] I’m tired of writing words too. [23] Let’s move on.

The Remaster Remake

Although Kirby Super Star got released on Virtual Console on Wii and Wii U, it also did get a remake for the Nintendo DS as well. The remake, aptly named Kirby Super Star Ultra, is about ten times better than the original. The development team did a fantastic job refining the visuals, cutscenes, controls while keeping the magic of the original intact.

Above: Kirby Super Star on the left, Kirby Super Star Ultra on the right.

On top of that, they added eight new games, doubling the length of the original. Readers should check it out if given a chance; as much as I want to gush on about this game as well, I don’t think we have the time to dissect the new modes that were added. I leave you with two pieces of media, though:

These are really fun to make.

A Lasting Legacy

I feel that Kirby Super Star marked the beginning of two eras.

First, it cemented what it means to make a good Kirby game. Many people feel that the series has gone a little too far on the spectrum of “unique, experimental gameplay” from time to time, which I can agree with. But whenever Nintendo can stick with Sakurai’s mantra of the “fun core,” Kirby games have shined the brightest (look at recent releases like Kirby: Planet Robobot or Kirby Triple Deluxe).

Why Nintendo is so experimental with the series is because what Sakurai was able to do with Kirby Super Star is nothing short of a miracle in game development. I alluded to this throughout the article, but along with showing up new ideas in each of the sub-games, he is also able to provide a meta-game narrative (almost following a dramatic structure) for the players when they progress through the game. Spring Breeze acts as the exposition, introducing players to the game. Each sub-game after that is part of the rising action and can build on top of each other with the different mechanics. Finally, Milky Way Wishes acts as both the climax and falling action; with its twist on the gameplay, and return to a stable state at the end. Although hard to notice at first, it’s fascinating once you see how it was all constructed so seamlessly.

Above: The Great Cave Offensive was a full-out level in Super Smash Bros. for Wii U

Second, it served as a foundation for most of the games that Sakurai developed. From what a lot of people can tell, he likes to recycle gameplay elements, sometimes blatantly copy-pasting his style from one game to another. One of the most prominent examples is the menu layout he uses in all of his games: [24]

Above: Going left to right, top to bottom: Kirby Super Star, Kirby Air Ride, Meteos, Super Smash Bros. Brawl, Kid Icarus: Uprising, Super Smash Bros. for 3DS. Taken from this NeoGAF thread: http://www.neogaf.com/forum/showthread.php?t=1055704&page=3

But that doesn’t mean he’s not creative. I suggest the complete opposite. Sakurai has a knack for being able to find and combine mechanics which at first seem a little out of place, but become something people appreciate. A lot of the elements in the Super Smash Bros. games take inspiration from Kirby Super Star, from levels, enemy designs, and gameplay elements. You probably won’t be able to get the feeling that you’re playing a Kirby game, but you’ll notice that you’re playing a Sakurai game.

Above: Super Smash ended up getting heavily influenced by Sakurai’s previous works.

Interestingly enough, Sakurai has been once again forced into the sequel hole he tried so hard to get out of when he was at HAL. He has directed every single Super Smash Bros. game so far, even after having said he wouldn’t do it again. And it’s not a fun job either; he’s had various health issues that were serious enough to delay the entire game. Perhaps Nintendo offers him contracts that are too good to refuse, but it’s most likely that he doesn’t want it to fall into someone else’s hands:

With both Melee and Brawl, I made those games with the thought that there wouldn’t be any more sequels. Thus, I really can’t deny the chance for another.

On what the game was able to accomplish, Kirby Super Star did its job in closing out the 2D platforming golden age. As mentioned at the beginning, the advent of 3D graphics was just around the corner, and Sakurai was able to push the limits of the genre and show it off to the world. Although it’s highly unlikely that he will return to direct another Kirby game ever again, there will always be fans waiting for something new that will allow them to relive the magical experience that was Kirby Super Star.

(Initially published on viewport. You can find me on Twitter.)

1 Interestingly, the in-game copyright year for the Japanese version of the game is 1995. This most likely means the game was completed by then, and the release was delayed until 1996. (Back to text)

2 A bit of personal bias in this statement ;) (Back to text)

3 Interestingly, Kirby’s Adventure was also a game very late into the Famicom’s life cycle. The Super Famicom had come out in 1990. (Back to text)

4 “Unluckily,” Sakurai had to direct Kirby’s Air Ride (which is another one of my favorites) in 2003, which he cites as the biggest reason was his departure. (Back to text)

5 Even more so than the present day… Kirby’s Epic Yarn broke my soul, to be honest. (Back to text)

6 As much as I would love to link the source for this, 1up.com is now dead, and there are no other saved versions of the interview. Here’s the site I took the excerpt from: Link(Back to text)

Kirby is always angry in North America (Back to text)

8 Spoilers, but Kirby’s Dreamland got remastered twice. More on that later, unless you read footnotes at the end, in which case you already know. (Back to text)

9 And surprisingly, this remake recreates most of the game that functions properly! I’m looking at you, Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 Remix. (Back to text)

10 It’s interesting to note that some things were dropped during the transition: the second level of the game (Named Castle Lololo) was removed entirely, and the bosses replaced the original boss of the third level. (Back to text)

11 The helper for the Wheel ability lets you ride him. It’s the coolest thing ever. (Back to text)

12 Especially for Sakurai, who’s notorious for being a perfectionist. See development stories around the Super Smash Bros. games. (Back to text)

13 As mentioned before, the original game had five stages. It also boasted an “Extra Mode” that ramped up the difficulty. If you finished that too, they ended up giving you full access to the health variables for Kirby and enemies to make the game as hard as you wanted. (Back to text)

14 The secret areas don’t provide too many rewards; they’re just filled with various copy abilities that you can go back to fetch at any time. (Back to text)

15 Perhaps at the cost of Dyna Blade? (Back to text)

16 Well, other than the intro cutscene… (Back to text)

17 Kind of? It’s very similar to the Bowser fight at the end of Super Mario World where he can move in the Z-axis. (Back to text)

18 I’m sorry I’m gushing on about this particular sub-game so much, I really like it if you couldn’t tell already. (Back to text)

19 I couldn’t find any concrete sources for this, but I’m pretty sure the name was heavily inspired by “HAL Laboratory.” (Back to text)

20 I hope I’m not the only one when I say the moment Dyna Blade showed up I almost crapped my pants because I thought I had to fight her again… (Back to text)

21 Floria is basically Click Clock Wood from Banjo-Kazooie (Back to text)

22 Well, you do unlock the sound test after you beat The Arena, so I’m not lying. (Back to text)

23 Don’t worry; we’re only 4400 words in. (Back to text)

24 Did you know that his wife is the designer for these menus? They met while working on Kirby Air Ride, and I believe she’s worked on the menu UI for all his games since. (Back to text)

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