2008, otherwise known as the absolute worst time to be a Nintendo fan. The honeymoon period with the Wii had long since evaporated, fans already grown tired of motion controls and not at all accepting of Nintendo's "casual" focus. Third-parties, shell-shocked by the Wii's overnight success, quickly pumped out low budget mini-game collections and Wii Sports knock-offs. Dozens upon dozens of these cash-ins overflowed Wii store shelves, and were soon granted the not-too-kind, but all-too-fitting name of "shovelware".
Consequently, 2008 brought with it insanely-high expectations. Nintendo's overall scheduling looked bleak, but the hype for Sakurai's latest, Super Smash Bros. Brawl, had reached stratospheric levels. For the majority of 2007, the former Kirby director maintained the Smash Bros. DOJO!!, a daily blog dedicated to trickling out tantalizing info about the upcoming sequel to the insanely popular Melee. It proved to be the one of the most successful marketing campaigns in gaming history, sparking massive discussion threads, in-depth analyses and character wishlists across message boards and gaming outlets everywhere. After two painful delays, the beloved Nintendo crossover was set to embrace us in euphoric, nostalgic bliss...
But it was not to be, as the arrival of Brawl brought about the biggest fandom split in Nintendo history. Competitive Smash players who participated in Melee tournaments bemoaned the absence of advanced mechanics, and proceeded to vilify the game (and, in many instances, those who played it) with a vengeance not seen since the cel-shaded unveil of Zelda: The Wind Waker. Those who only played Smash as a party game and were completely alien to concepts like wavedashing were torn: did they defend the game on its own non-competitive merits, or did they contribute to the noise by complaining about those very elements?
Super Smash Bros., once a franchise wholly synonymous with the words "party," "nostalgia," and "celebration" was now tarnished by bitter flame wars and toxic fandom factions. Masahiro Sakurai, a famous former Nintendo developer, was now reviled by many as not merely one who supposedly spat in the face of competitive Smash fans, but as a sellout who pandered entirely to Nintendo's new audience. Amid all the chaos, it was a burgeoning accusation that grew beyond Sakurai, for the absolute worst was yet to come.
guest-starring Ravi Drums!). The closest thing "core" gamers could latch onto was the latest Animal Crossing, which later proved to be nothing more than a mere port of the DS iteration.
Pandemonium erupted. Fans everywhere cried that Nintendo abandoned them in favor of soccer moms and retirees that ate up Wii Sports pack-ins and Wii Fit Balance Boards. Much as Nintendo denied this notion, the damage was already done. While the Wii continued to break sales records across the globe, the anti-core stigma would surround both the console and Nintendo for the rest of the generation. Some fans immediately forsook their Nintendo love, selling their Wiis and moving on to greener Xbox/PlayStation pastures. Others simply gritted their teeth at Nintendo's newfound love for the casual audience, waiting not-so-patiently for the next Mario and Zelda. So occupied fans were with this "Wii has no games" stigma that many hadn't noticed third-parties finally figured out how to make good Wii games, but hardly a soul was around to purchase them (excluding the occasional outliers like Boom Blox and de Blob).
As fans cried helplessly at the advent of an empty Christmas season, a familiar figure stopped by crisp September morning and said "Hey, you guys wanna come back and dream with me for a while?" At the sound of his voice, fans remembered: a year ago, a remake of one of the greatest Nintendo sidescrollers ever made was announced for the DS. As they rose to follow, the clouds outside their window echoed a time long-since obscured by cynicism. The sky was even the same shade of blue.
Could the nostalgic euphoria they've been searching for finally be found in Kirby Super Star Ultra? Maybe some hadn't noticed, but a close look at the game's box art revealed something: it was the first time Kirby smiled on American shelves in over seven years.
When revisiting Kirby Super Star Ultra last year, I shocked to realize my experience with the game matched exactly that of Nightmare in Dream Land. Both games weren't perfect, but any flaws were immediately obscured (let alone noticed) by the euphoria of "ohmygodohmygodohmygod THEY REMADE THE BEST KIRBY GAME AND IT'S SOOOO GOOOOD". But when the hype wears off, the remakes and the originals constantly strive for supremacy -- just when the remake trumps it's predecessor in one area, it drops the ball on something else in mere seconds.
It's absolutely eerie how Super Star Ultra mirrors Nightmare in Dream Land in certain aspects of this, but there's one big difference between the two remakes; namely, while Sakurai helmed the Kirby's Adventure remake, he had absolutely no involvement with this particular title. Indeed, he's not even listed in the credits.
A cause for concern, perhaps. We know little of Sakurai's design process for Super Star, but as mentioned long ago, it's the debuting title for his famous design philosophy: a cohesive, filled-to-the-brim presentation chock-full of options, knick-knacks and absurd, yet wonderfully addictive gameplay concepts. It's a model he continued to follow all the way up through his last HAL title (Kirby Air Ride), and even today one can turn to the latest Smash games and Kid Icarus: Uprising for delectably recent examples.
Without Sakurai, it was perfectly natural to be concerned if HAL could recapture the magic of the most beloved Kirby title, especially when considering their output by 2008. Yes, Canvas Curse was a near-masterpiece that captured even non-Kirby fans, but only because it was an oddball deviant from the standard formula. Squeak Squad and The Amazing Mirror were outsourced to ex-Capcom devs, and even under HAL's supervision they were greeted with a less-than-stellar reception. This isn't even mentioning how HAL's attempt to forge a Kirby Super Star successor--that is, the game that would eventually become Kirby's Return to Dream Land--was currently languishing in the depths of development hell.
As we've long since known, there's no cause for concern, since this remake is the best Kirby game since the original Super Star itself. That it's freakin' Super Star grants it an unfair advantage perhaps, but that it holds the title at all confirms the soul of the SNES original is alive and well on the DS. And that's no small feat: to successfully retrain what made the original--beloved by many as the single greatest Kirby game--all the while respectfully building upon where Sakurai left off speaks volumes about HAL's success.
So with that in mind, where DO we start? Reviewing the classic subgames' transition? The new games built upon those old games, gleefully expanding a product that advertised itself as being multiple games in one? How the orchestra-styled music sounds now? What the new music sounds like? How the wireless local multiplayer holds up?
Whether or not it still makes me dream?
The graphics it is, then. Whereas Adventure's 8-bit aesthetic had to be reinterpreted for the Game Boy Advance, Super Star's plush, delectable sprites provide a perfect base for this remake to build itself upon. While the conversion's not perfect, we're given a great first impression through three steps. Remember: the top shot's the original, while the remake's the bottom one.
The opening that stole our hearts back in 1996--a gorgeous combination of pre-rendered models and the Mode 7 graphics--has now been reimagined into a fully 3D-animated sequence. In fact, all the sprite-based cutscenes from the original are now portrayed in 3D thanks to the ActImagine Video Codec. While a tad grainy, Ultra's initial display wows us with a far more picturesque display, complete with landmarks and scenery ripped straight from Super Star's backgrounds. Accompanied by the familiar bombastic opening score, we're already mired deep in nostalgia.
Kirby no longer dons his festive Beam hat for the title screen logo, but he's still smiling, so that's okay. The CGI title hasn't aged gracefully, so we're given a much more lush version via spritework. Note the new file select: Japanese fans and Kirby fanatics like me are treated to buttons made of Paulownia wood, which was the motif for Kirby Super Star's Japanese box art (as anyone who's read the Kirby's Dream Collection booklet knows, Japan uses Paulownia wood to store valuables). The portraits still echo the last sub-game you played, but Kirby's neutral, faded expressions portray a stunning nostalgic contrast to his leftward expressive countenances. When accompanied by the ever-soothing Save Hut music, its sentimental essence is multiplied twicefold.
The beloved cork board selection screen returns! It's not completely identical; namely, Kirby's antics aren't plastered all over the titles anymore, as HAL had to make room for all the new games. Whether it's better or not is up to preference, but that they chose to retain the cork board aesthetic is a great sign that HAL understood the project. Besides, I find the yellow border a much better complement than the original: an overly crassy green reminiscent of 90's Nickelodeon slime. A nostalgic slime, but still slime nonetheless.
So the stage is set for a perfect remake, right? Well, not so fast. Let's observe the actual game through comparison:
Like Nightmare in Dream Land before it, Super Star Ultra makes a wonderful first impression in its first level. The background has been completely renovated, echoing the original scenery with familiar stars and stripes of all sorts. Meanwhile, the foreground has been spruced up with such lavish detail that the original looks quite bare by comparison. Finally, the sprites aren't quite as plush as they were on the SNES; rather, they're upgrades from the Nightmare in Dream Land sprites used over the game's respective decade. For instance, a comparison between Kirby himself from both remakes reveals that he still has the same beady, heart-melting look.
Also note the wonderful use of the HUD. While practically gutted and squashed in Nightmare in Dream Land for the tiny GBA screen, the DS's two screens know not the meaning of "limits", for HAL took the liberty to decorate the HUD for every substantial sub-game. All are wonderfully detailed, and quite a few of these expertly utilize the touchscreen (namely Milky Way Wishes, which provides instant access to all Copy Abilities).
Gosh, I could just talk all day about how beautiful Spring Breeze is now. Just look at Float Islands' transformation: stars are now all the rage in the tropics, with large, multi-colored stars decorating everything from the sea, shells, and even the islands themselves. This is how you reimagine a level: by breathing new life with a visual motif common to the series, we already feel right at home. I wonder if they glow in the dark.
Then Dynablade happens, and, well...see for yourself.
Yes, the distant lakes of of Peanut Plains has been nonsensically wiped in favor of a neverending blue, adorned with tacky spirals and amateur CGI ovals. Oh, wait, those are supposed to be clouds? Sorry, I was too distracted by how aesthetically dissonant this particular background is from the rest of the game. Quite possibly the worst background, it pops infrequently throughout the level and is just a nasty affront to my eyes.
It improves with just the next screen over, yet another incongruity arises. That awesome star cloud balloon is exactly what I'm looking for, yet the scenery just below is obscured by the level's foreground, presenting a jarring confliction. While I do so enjoy learning about Dream Land's breathtaking weather patterns, its beautiful landmarks are not to be neglected, either. For shame, HAL!
Of course, being a back-and-forth battle, it's home to some beautiful stuff as well. Do look at how the renovated the save hut interiors: construction only stopped halfway through, yet we're given a stunning panoramic view of the velvet jungle. Super Star's providing of a window gave us a peek into the forbidden, yet here we're invited to sit on the precipice and absorb the surrounding. I still wonder which one I like more.
And it's not like Dynablade doesn't do this, either. I mean, was anyone else compelled to bounce on those striped growths decorating the outside of Marshmallow Castle? The funnest of Kirby backgrounds lend themselves to deepest lore, which in this case involves Dream Landers bouncing about on said growths instead of attending mandated castle balls. If there's any reason to be jealous of Dream Land's idyllic lifestyle, let it be that.
In the end, however, the tug-of-war between the two games' backgrounds is rather...disappointing. Nightmare in Dream Land's dive into realistic fantasy was an experiment so fascinating that any flubs were mostly forgiven, yet I struggle to do the same here. Perhaps it's because Super Star Ultra's overall aesthetic hues closer to the source material that I feel such discomfort, and it's a shame it struck some of the more memorable setpieces. I mean, the aforementioned stars of the minecart ride...you just...you just can't toss that!
And that's a shame, because Super Star Ultra nails the aesthetics for just everything else. For starters, the animation is GREAT. Not to diminish the quality of Super Star's spritework, but there's so many little touches that simply eclipse the original. Kirby himself is a standout -- there's many new flourishes to his Copy Abilities, like how Ice Kirby skates along wherever he goes, as seen above.
I could nitpick if I wanted to; for instance, the position Kirby's partners relax themselves on Warp Stars are woefully uninspired compared to their original efforts (Poppy Bros. Jr being the most unfortunate casualty), yet it's when things actually move that I'm able to forgive any slight transgressions. Above is another favorite: yes, Parasol Waddle Dee indeed gained weight for his reprisal. Just look at how flabby he is whenever he, er, waddles about.
Anyway, if the actual levels couldn't perfectly replicate/build upon Super Star's aesthetic, there's another area that does: the aforementioned CGI cutscenes. Whereas Super Star utilized spritework, Ultra's 3D animation brings the plushness of the original to life in a way not seen since Super Smash Bros. Melee's Green Greens stage. The familiar hills and landmarks are there! The grass is checkered! I want to squeeze everything in sight!
But we have tarried enough on graphics: onto how the game actually plays! Any background quirks aside, it's not hyperbole when I say the older sub-games function, more or less, exactly as you remember them. You might find a tweak here or there in the level design, but nothing to the level of Butter Building's reconstruction in Nightmare in Dream Land. Kirby's attack on Meta Knight's Halberd, for instance, is structurally identical in everything from his first assault, him playing catch-up on the islands, and discovering Mace Knight's hidden horde of Maxim Tomatos.
Needless to say, this is a good thing. A game of Kirby Super Star's length would've admittedly been too short by 2008's standards, but since this remake includes several new adventures, no overt changes to the sub-games were necessary. One could even say the pacing has improved: maybe the original ended too quickly, but here we have a thoroughly meaty package big enough to fill a month's play.
But that doesn't mean they don't throw surprises every now and then. New music pieces tend to accompany classic boss moments, such as Revenge of Meta Knight's Heavy Lobster. The rapid, repetitive percussion grants a new sense of urgency for the battle, undoubtedly a nod to the sub-game's ticking time limit. That it's a recurring boss fight means we can look forward to it again and again.
And here we have a self-reference within a self-reference. As evidenced by the title, this song is reserved for some of the game's bigger bosses (Dynablade and Wham Bam Rock), yet that it accompanies the former is what's interesting. Why, it's the arrangement of the Kirby Air Ride song when Dynablade wreaked havic in City Trial, which in itself was a remix of Kirby's Dream Land's Castle Lololo from the anime adaption! Needless to say, it works wonders both as a reference and by itself.
But how well did they retain the original music? Quite well for the most part, although there is a change in the sound team: Jun Ishikawa returns for arrangement, but the elusive Dan Miyakawa was replaced by sereis mainstay Hirokazu Ando. On the simple side of the spectrum, Green Greens nearly perfects the SNES sound library here. Many similar songs within the remake receive the same treatment, so while you may be able to carefully discern an instrumental difference here and there, they sound largely the same.
On the more bombastic side, we can hear signs of struggle. The weaker instruments used for Marx's Theme are obvious, but that it still succeeds in sounding like a grand nightmare is commendable. Where Ultra really flounders are the more booming, orchestral songs found in The Great Cave Offensive and Revenge of Meta Knight, as seen below.
It's really evident in these two pieces in particular, and while I imagine they tried just as hard as Yasunori Mitsuda did in retaining Chrono Trigger's sound for its respective port, it's clear some compensation had to be made. Thankfully, such examples are few and far between. While some tracks lose their bombastic quality, the majority of it sounds, more or less, like it did on the SNES. Another largely successful feat.
Only one other alteration comes out as objectively better: the revamped translation. With a new localization team, any of the dry sentences or flat-out mistranslations that afflicted the original are nowhere to be seen. The sinister peanut gallery in Revenge of Meta Knight are more balanced in their respective qualities of campiness (namely Meta Knight, who's far more reserved), and no longer are the motives of a certain jester so poorly translated.
So with all these changes that'd only matter to eagle-eyed (and eared!) players like me, what's left is the main draw of the remake: the new modes. Reserved for the last stretch of the game, these sub-games have a lot to live up to. For one thing, they have to flow properly with the rest of the original material. The new level and boss design have to come across as though they were built by Sakurai's team, and the new music simply cannot be phoned in. Again, not easy.
HAL's solution is simpler than you expect: ape some classic moments of the original sub-games, build upon them, and then crank up the difficulty. Not nearly lazy as it sounds, what's amazing about these new sub-games is how despite having their roots within what the original game offered, they somehow manage bring their own originality to the fold. Take Revenge of the King: at it's core, it's basically, a tougher Spring Breeze. Dream Land's Extra Mode this isn't, but speak of the devil, all the forgotten foes that plagued you there make their terrifying comeback (along with the return of a certain boss, complete with gender confirmation!). With the level design fleshing itself out by retaining more of the source material, one could make the compelling argument that this is what the original Spring Breeze should've been like.
And that final level! Unleashing a boss gauntlet full of cameos and peppering dialogue between Dedede and his Waddle Dee cohort, Revenge of the King tops it off with what's easily the greatest fight against the penguin king. I'll dare not spoil the details here, but it's accompanied by an incredible battle track. Beginning with a touch of Melee's Fountain of Dreams, King Dedede's Theme has never been this deadly and frantic before.
But why stop at taking inspiration from Super Star when you could take a page from a fellow remake? Meta Knightmare Ultra once again has players in control of Meta Knight, yet what we have here is far more robust than Nightmare in Dream Land's respective mode. While Meta Knight must once again traverse the levels and sub-games Kirby already cleared, this time he's aided by a meter that accumulates points the more he slices up enemies. Fill up the meter, and options such as calling upon his knights or unleashing Mach Tornados become available. I'm still not quite sure why he decides to take down his own flying battleship, but it's best not to ponder on the context of Kirby games.
There is more I'd like to discuss. There's three new score-based minigames that blow the originals (Megaton Punch and Samurai Kirby) out of the water in replayability. There's two new Arena modes, not the least of which puts the helpers born from Kirby's Copy Abilities in the spotlight as playable characters. It's accompanied by what's probably the best new Kirby song of the '00s: a solemn arrangement of Kirby 64's Ripple Star map theme that now captures a sleepy autumn afternoon. Like Fountain of Dreams before it, it takes what was originally a fast-paced track (although in this case, not nearly as innocuous) and transforms it into something entirely, somberly new.
But once again, I dare not speak more. For the lows Ultra may occasionally have in restoring the games of old, the highs hit the same magical highs. All the proof you need is a new era of Kirby followed its template, right down to the plush aesthetics and multi-fledged Copy Abilities. Any flaws can be forgiven, for the heartbeat of Super Star successfully revived itself in the modern age, and so Kirby Super Star Ultra joins the ranks of Pokemon Soul Silver/Heart Gold and Super Mario All-Stars as the finest remakes Nintendo has under its repertoire.
Which reminds me: the first time I played it, I found a hidden path in Dynablade's Candy Mountain level, just under the waterfall. It was there in the original, but I never stopped to think about that peculiar arrow formation of food until that September evening. When replaying through for the blog, I discovered you can actually share food in mid-air. Both are minor details, but I never knew about them before. And I'll continue to discover more every time I sit down and play.
The magic is alive and well. I wonder how many kids over the past decade have looked out their window.