Version tested: DS
When I was little I once made Kirby marshmallows with little chocolate eyes and wine gums for shoes, and my horrible brother traumatised me by melting them into a gooey, pink, vaguely Dali-esque distorted mess with a handheld blowtorch. I've never been the same. Kirby, however, has stayed pretty much exactly the same for the past 14 years, as this remake attests. It's almost identical to Kirby Super Star on the SNES, with a few touch-based mini-games thrown in, but you wouldn't necessarily know it - it's the same mix of gently unchallenging platforming and ability-gobbling that has characterised every Kirby game before or since, with the notable and lovable exception of Power Paintbrush. I'm not quite sure whether that testifies to Kirby's quirky timelessness or just reluctance to innovate.
Kirby Super Star is a collection of bite-sized games and mini-games; it was essentially the Kirby version of Super Mario All-Stars in 1995, albeit with loads less content. No individual game has more than about 20 minutes to an hour's worth of play, with the possible exception of the treasure-hunting Great Cave Offensive. There are basic gameplay tenets common to them all, but they dart thematically around between normal Kirby platforming, races, timed challenges, treasure-collecting and boss-fighting. There are seven components in all, and three throwaway touchscreen mini-games.
The weakest offering in the collection is the first - and initially only - game on offer, Spring Breeze, a remake of Dream Land with extra powers and Helpers thrown in. When Kirby sucks up an enemy and absorbs its power, he can reincarnate it as a Helper and have it fight on his side, so you can keep one useful ability for yourself and have a Helper with another. You can have a friend jump in over wireless play and control the Helper, which adds a lot of life to Super Star Ultra. There's more incentive to find and mess with all the different abilities when you're playing with a friend.
Spring Breeze is bland and ludicrously short and easy, designed as an introduction to all things Kirby for absolute beginners, but things do get better from there, if not more challenging. Dyna Blade is a more substantial, five-stage slice of platforming action that even has a mildly difficult end boss. Gourmet Race is an insubstantial but entertaining racing twist on the formula, getting you and a friend to rush through levels gobbling as much food as possible to gain momentum and reach the end before King Dedede.
Great Cave Offensive is the meatiest game on offer, a huge world-spanning treasure hunt with a wealth of secret areas and 60 different chests of valuable nonsense to find. Save-points are annoyingly infrequent; being unable to save mid-game isn't a problem when the games themselves are only about 20 minutes long, but in Great Cave Offensive it is possible to lose an hour of progress. Revenge of Meta Knight is a series of timed levels, peppered with bosses, cute dialogue and fast-paced action, and is the only section of the game that's ever likely to kill you.
Play your way through all of these and you unlock Milky Way Wishes, which is much more boss-focused than the other games and has a different abilities system. Arena, the final component, pits you against all of the various games' bosses in sequence. The presentation varies in style between the different sections, from bright and bland to relatively intricate sprites on Meta Knight's ship, but the standard is universally high, especially the little 3D cut-scenes that introduce each subgame. Some of the boss battles are quite lovable, particularly the one in the middle of the Great Cave Offensive that pits Kirby against a sequence of RPG-alike foes and narrates the battle as you go along ("Kirby gained 31 Experience! Not that it matters.")
Super Star Ultra's seven components are varied and distinct enough to hold your interest until the end of the game, but that end arrives rather abruptly - after about four hours, assuming you don't spend too long in the Great Cave Offensive. There are few things more dispiriting than getting on a long-haul flight with a new game, playing it straight through to completion, then looking at your watch and realising that there are still the best part of eight hours to go. The games might be individually entertaining, but they don't come together to form anything substantial. Thankfully there is incentive to play through again as Meta Knight with harder bosses, or to try and find every piece of treasure in Great Cave Offensive, but it still doesn't take more than six or seven hours to squeeze every last drop of entertainment from Kirby's squishy form.
The problem with all the games, and indeed with Kirby in general, is that it never forces or even gives you the opportunity to use your adaptable powers in an intelligent or challenging way. Unlike, say, the GBA Wario Land games - which I've sorely missed on the DS - you don't use abilities to solve puzzles or uncover hidden, treasure-packed corners of levels. Instead you're battering your way through a bright but boring platform level with whatever power comes to hand. There's no real challenge to it, and no real old-school platform thrills either thanks to Kirby's trademark ability to float across gaps. It's always been rather difficult to see where Kirby wants to be in the broad spectrum of videogame genres. It's a platformer without the platforming, and a puzzler without any puzzles.
There's quick entertainment to be gleaned from Kirby Super Star Ultra, especially in co-op, and the loose structure means you can move around between game-types as the mood suits, but the fact that the first playthrough is over in barely four hours and never offers any challenge at all makes it difficult to recommend highly. It's not as innovative or likable as Kirby: Power Paintbrush, which made the little pink chap's name on the console, and not as shiny and gorgeous as Mouse Attack. Kirby Super Star Ultra definitely represents the series' nineties high point, but Kirby has never really scaled too lofty a peak.
6 / 10