Kirby Star Allies is not very good. The pink puff ball’s debut on the Switch is a boring and safe experience that brings few new ideas to a franchise that really could use them. But I still love Kirby. And while Star Allies is a disappointment, it has me thinking about my favorite game in the series: Kirby Super Star, which came out for the Super Nintendo in 1996.
Kirby Super Star doesn’t get the same amount of love as other Nintendo heavy-hitters for the SNES, like Super Metroid, Super Mario World, and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. But it’s one of my favorite games for the system. At a time when Kirby was still a young series (Kirby’s Dream Land debuted just a few years earlier for the Game Boy in 1992), Super Star refined the core gameplay while taking creative chances with level design and presentation.
Kirby Super Star branded itself as eight games in one package. Six of these are campaigns that feature typical Kirby gameplay, which focuses on sucking up enemies to copy their abilities. But each campaign plays with this in different ways. It’s almost like some experiment. What are six different ways you could tackle a Kirby game?
Spring Breeze is the most basic, acting a kind-of remake of the original Kirby’s Dream Land. Dyna Blade is also rather simple, but it has new levels that aren’t based on an existing Kirby game. The Great Cave Offensive, meanwhile, is ambitious. It takes place in one large, non-linear level. It focuses on hunting for treasures instead of simply clearing levels. It’s like Kirby meets Metroid.
Revenge of Meta Knight is Kirby kicked up to 11. It features more of a plot than other Kirby experiences, with Meta Knight and his crew commenting on Kirby’s reign of destruction as you’re rampaging your way through a flying warship. It also has a time limit for each stage, making for a faster-paced and more frantic experience. It’s an epic game with memorable boss fights and an exciting escape at the end.
Milky Way Wishes is the largest of the campaigns. It gets rid of Kirby’s traditional copy ability. Instead, you collect items that give you permanent access to enemy abilities and you can switch between them at will. It’s a fun, alternative take that gives you more freedom. Gourmet Race, meanwhile, is … well, a race. It has you competing against King Dedede as you dash across levels and collect food. It also has the best Kirby song ever.
All of these experiences stand on their own, but they become more than the sum or their parts in the total package. The subgames compliment and build on each other to create a complete experience.
Kirby Super Star is also the first game in the series with co-op multiplayer. While Star Allies’ four-player co-op feels crowded and underutilized, I always had a blast going through Super Star with friends. The screen is zoomed out far enough to make room for both players, and Super Star doesn’t depend on gimmicks to force lame cooperative puzzles.
Kirby games have a reputation for being too easy. This is especially true of Star Allies. But while I wouldn’t call Super Star a hard game, it’s not a total snooze. Its levels can challenge and surprise you, and some bosses actually (gasp) might take more than a single attempt to defeat.
Thanks to the SNES Classic Edition, I have easy access to Kirby Super Star. Playing Star Allies on the Switch, it’s strange seeing how little the franchise has evolved. Sure, Nintendo enjoys experimenting with Kirby’s spinoff games, like Kirby’s Canvas Curse and Kirby Mass Attack. But the main series has grown so little that a game from over 20 years ago can be mechanically and creatively superior to its latest entry.
Star Allies is similar to Super Star in many ways. The basic controls are the same, it has multiplayer, and of course you’re still copying enemy abilities. But Star Allies lacks Super Star’s creativity and variety. If Nintendo can’t make an experience that can compete with All Stars, than it needs to do something to reinvent the Kirby franchise.
Like, you know, maybe finally trying to make a 3D Kirby platformer. Heck, Super Mario Odyssey kind of is a 3D Kirby game. Mario’s capture ability in that game is pretty much the same thing as Kirby’s copy mechanic. I’d love to see Nintendo get ambitious and give Kirby the same treatment it does for its top franchises, like Mario and Zelda.
Either that, or just give the pink puff a break.
The RetroBeat is a weekly column that looks at gaming’s past, diving into classics, new retro titles, or looking at how old favorites — and their design techniques — inspire today’s market and experiences. If you have any retro-themed projects or scoops you’d like to send my way, please contact me.