Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Happy anniversary to Kirby Super Star, the best game ever made

Kirby (actual size)
Kirby (actual size)
Photo: Jonathan Leibson (Getty Images)

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This week marks the 25th anniversary of the Japanese release of Kirby Super Star, and in honor of that exciting occasion, I would like to make a bold claim: Kirby Super Star, developed by HAL Laboratory and released by Nintendo for the Super Nintendo in 1996, is the best video game ever made. There are games I like more (specifically, all games about cyborg ninjas with the word “revengeance” in the title), but no single game developer—Nintendo or otherwise—has ever released something as brilliantly designed as Kirby Super Star.

The reason for that is all about satisfying game design, so let’s talk about that first. Video games are generally built around teaching a player how to do something, asking them to use that skill to overcome a specific challenge, and then teaching a new skill on top of that to continue the loop. For example, in Super Mario Bros., the Goomba on the first screen will kill you if you don’t learn how to jump. Once you’ve figured that out, you have to use your jump skill to get on top of a tall pipe, and then you apply your jump in a different way by leaping over a small gap onto another pipe. Satisfying! Something like Portal is a more literal version of this, directly saying, “Learn this skill to progress,” but even more complicated games like Dark Souls or puzzle games like Tetris operate on a similar principle.

Kirby Super Star is billed as a compilation of multiple small Kirby games, but in reality they all build on each other and react to each other in ways that are, frankly, goddamn genius. The first one you play, Spring Breeze, is meant to be a barebones Kirby game (it is, in fact, an abridged remake of the original Kirby’s Dream Land). It’s easy, it teaches you how to use Kirby’s “copy” ability (he swallows enemies and steals their powers), and it all progresses linearly without you having to worry about missing anything.

The second game, Dyna Blade, adds a story (a massive bird is terrorizing Kirby’s home, but only because it lost its babies) and a world map, with the levels getting harder and enemies that were once bosses becoming more common. Then there’s The Great Cave Offensive, which is a Metroid-style game with interconnected areas where Kirby has to collect a bunch of treasures. Some treasures are hidden in locations that require you to know which of the copied powers will open the correct path, while others will test your ability to navigate certain kinds of levels—most of which you’ll have seen already in the previous two games.

The story continues with Revenge Of Meta Knight, which adds actual stakes and a relatively evil villain, while again leveling up the difficulty and asking you to take what you’ve learned so far and apply it to new kinds of environments (like Meta Knight’s personal flying battleship, the Halberd). Weird new abilities also come in to play, like one that turns Kirby into a wheel, or one that builds up static electricity while Kirby walks and charges it into a powerful laser.

Finally, it all culminates in Milky Way Wishes, a game so big that it could’ve been the only thing on the cartridge. It has a whole new open world with entirely new levels on their own distinct planets, and in the ultimate realization of Super Star’s gameplay loop, Kirby’s copy ability is replaced with permanent power-ups that you can swap out on the fly. At this point, the game has taught you what each power does and challenged you to know when and how to use them, so it takes off the training wheels and leaves you to figure out the best way to progress.

Some of the levels are complex mazes, some of the bosses return in new and upgraded forms, and it ends with a side-scrolling shooter sequence that throws everything else out the window and breaks the whole structure to give you one last wacky treat. Up until that point, everything has locked together to quietly create a perfect machine, and many players may not even pick up on the fact that they’ve been gently guided through an exercise in self-improvement (or at least self-improvement as it pertains to Kirby games).

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It’s been 25 years now, and no video game has ever been structured as elegantly as Kirby Super Star. But on top of that, it also has a story with fun twists; characters that are full of personality, even with very little dialogue; and a revolutionary cooperative multiplayer component that I don’t even have room to get into here (Kirby can kiss his friends to give them health!). It is the purest distillation of what makes a video game objectively good, and that makes it the best video game. Oh, also, this is the game that introduced Kirby getting a knock-off version of Link’s hat from The Legend Of Zelda when using the “sword” ability, which is really funny. You know, that actually might be the main reason I think it’s good… so this piece could’ve been a lot shorter.