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I still remember that day. 11-year-old me was sitting on my mother’s bed on a sunny afternoon, the glare of the sun interrupting the picture of the show I was watching (it might’ve been Flying Rhino Junior High, I don’t know). Then, as if the heavens forced this path upon me, a cloud covered the sun, clearing up the picture as my show cut to a commercial break, and that iconic “Super Tuff Pink Puff” advertisement flashed onto the screen. In my first conscious defeat to market consumerism, I pursued Kirby Super Star Ultra for months until I finally got my hands on it.
This past summer, in memory of my old Nintendo DS Lite, I tracked it down and played it once again, grinning with glee as I remembered the joy this game brought me, and how much more I could appreciate it now that I’m older.
What makes Kirby such a great series in the first place though? In my opinion, it’s the wild variation of power-ups that makes the series so appealing, and I would argue that not a single franchise as a whole uses this kind of variation as well as Kirby. Certainly not in the brilliant, innovative way that everyone’s favourite gumball impersonator made himself famous with.
What I mean by this is the following: power-ups are extremely common in video games. We’ve seen them in Mario, Legend of Zelda, even Pac-Man. In games like these, however, the game is supplemented by the power-ups without being wholly dependent on them.
This is not the case with Kirby. Kirby’s games, for the most part, are entirely based around power-ups; half the fun comes from exploring the game’s various Copy Abilities and figuring out how to use them. The games then take this a step further by adding multiple ways in which these abilities can be used. It varies from game to game, but most Copy Abilities will typically come with a variety of attacks that are activated by using the attack button in combination with the directional pad, making the abilities even more interesting to explore and giving you more to work with than just a singular attack.
Now that we’ve got the basics out of the way, let’s talk about the game itself.
Where do I begin? There’s so much to do here! After you find your feet in the Spring Breeze level, you can move onto missions like Dyna Blade, where your newfound skills will be rigorously tested by… a slightly more difficult version of the level you just played.
Jokes aside, where this game really shines is its plethora of game modes, which are actually a lot more unique than the previous paragraph may portray.
Personally, what grabbed my attention the earliest was The Great Cave Offensive. It didn’t change the gameplay much at all; you were still Kirby, you could still do all the fun Copy Ability shenanigans, but instead of playing through the levels and eventually facing final bosses such as King DeDeDe or Dyna Blade, The Great Cave Offensive tasked you with one, long, seamless game of trying to escape an extensive cavern and challenging you to collect all the treasure you came across. This tossed a wrench into the typical Kirby-Adventure formula of linear levels with boss fights, and instead dropped you in a world for you to explore and conquer. This really felt like an actual adventure; I could take detours and I could try and make the treasure my top priority instead of eventual escape, but what stuck out to me was that I could play this one sub-game for hours at a time looking for treasure, and I knew that once I escaped the cave there would be so many more adventures for me to go on!
These adventures would take the form of Revenge of Meta Knight, Milky Way Wishes, Revenge of the King, The Arena, Meta Knightmare Ultra, and Helper to Hero. The latter half of these are the ones that particularly fascinate me, but to summarize the former half, I offer the following: Revenge of Meta Knight is another long-play with a time-limit gimmick instead of a treasure hunting one, Milky Way Wishes gives you access to all the Copy Abilities at any one time, and Revenge of the King is just Spring Breeze seasoned with hard sauce and a much more extensive final level.
Now, onto the juicy stuff.
First is The Arena, which puts Kirby through a gauntlet of all the game’s bosses he’s faced thus far. On the surface, it’s not all that exciting or innovative, but The Arena’s true value lies in its secret mode: The True Arena.
The True Arena puts Kirby up against the game’s toughest bosses, all of which are not present in the original Kirby Super Star (whose game modes ended at Milky Way Wishes). But it’s still just a boss gauntlet, right?
Well, yes. The only difference is that it’s actually hard.
There’s no hiding from it, Kirby games are traditionally very easy, and Ultra is no exception. It’s a game series where you can typically be very careless and still end up getting through the levels with at least half your health.
The polar opposite is the case with The True Arena, I remember having to sit myself down in my room, completely focused on getting through the gauntlet, hoping the randomly-generated fight order would work in my favour, only to have my composure fall apart by the time I reached the last four bosses, one of which, Marx Soul, only appears in The True Arena.
For me, The True Arena added an element to Kirby games that is typically absent, and that’s a game mode you can boot up if you seriously want Kirby to challenge you. And in such a diverse game, there has to be space for a challenge like that.
Then there’s Meta Knightmare Ultra, which ups the variety factor tenfold. In this mode, you play through the original six sub-games in control of Meta Knight, and it feels amazing. You fly through the levels at blistering speed, slicing through enemies and utilizing your newfound Meta Knight abilities to help you along the way, including the devastating Mach Tornado attack.
With this one simple change, it felt like you were playing a whole new game. The slow, simplistic Kirby levels are transformed into areas that you just can’t help but try to blaze through as quickly as you can, now that the game has bestowed you with the mighty Galaxia (Meta Knight’s sword). It’s a wonderfully simplistic change of pace that’s more than welcome in a game that knows what to do with variety.
Finally, we have my personal favourite, Helper to Hero.
One thing I should mention before getting into this is Ultra’s Helper feature. In the game, when Kirby has a Copy Ability, the ability can be sacrificed to create a friendly version of the foe who gives Kirby the corresponding ability, and they follow you around and help you defeat enemies. It’s also possible for a second player to take control of the Helper, making for a very nicely done Co-Op aspect.
In Helper to Hero, you take direct control of a Helper and go through a 20-round boss gauntlet not unlike The Arena. Each Helper corresponds to a Copy Ability in the game. As such, each Helper can only use the controls given by that ability.
For me, this mode sets a perfect example of the balance between mind-numbing combat and strategic fighting. You see, as Kirby, you could change up your ability as you went along, and you always had access to his puff ability, speed, and star spit attack. By contrast, each Helper, along with their own unique set of attacks (which they are also restricted to), also have attributes such as how fast they can run, how high they can jump, how fast they fall, etc... Some Helpers like Plasma Wisp even have unique passive abilities like free-form movement. These attributes are unique to the Helpers, and therefore maximizes the diversity of the game’s roster.
These attributes in conjunction with the different attacks require you to change up your fighting style for each boss and for each Helper you use. For example, Bonkers, the Hammer ability Helper, can usually get away with a gung-ho, trigger happy approach due to his absurd damage output. Bio-Spark, the Ninja ability Helper, would not be able to do the same, and would be better off using his wide attack range and mobility to avoid damage while poking away at what he can. Some Helpers even completely counteract some bosses, like Simirror’s reflective shield totally nullifying the Computer Virus’s projectile-exclusive arsenal.
For me, it brought what I loved so much about video games in general. You had this one moveset to work with at any one time, and your success was determined based on how well you read and adapted to a situation and its patterns, and this is made even more fun in Helper to Hero by having to read the fight while also trying to not die, knowing that running away isn’t an option. I think it was a perfect conclusion to an already impressive cast of sub-games.
There’s plenty of good Kirby games out there. It’s a brilliantly made series that knows itself and knows how to deliver. If I had to pick one Kirby game out of them all, though, it would be Ultra. There’s something for everyone; a challenge, a casual quest, a grand adventure, even mini-games you can play with your friends. Take all of these game modes and colour them in with Kirby’s trademark variety of Copy Abilities and Helpers, and you’ve got yourself a masterpiece.