What is Kirby? Yes, I know he's a pink blob, but what exactly is he? Mario's a human being. Donkey Kong is an ape. Link is an elf-like boy. What is Kirby? WELL? WELL?
Wikipedia says he's (he's definitely a he, isn't he?) a "small, pink, spherical creature with large red feet, stubby flap-like arms and trademark pink cheek-blushes". According to the instruction manual for Kirby Super Star Ultra, the DS remake of the 1996 SNES platformer, Kirby is a "gourmet who uses his big mouth to inhale and swallow almost anything". I suppose that's as good a description as I'm going to get.
Now we know what Kirby is, we can get on with the good stuff. What is Kirby Super Star Ultra? The answer is that it's a cute, cuddly, old school 2D side-scrolling platformer. Kirby can move left and right, jump, fly and, as the instruction manual says, inhale and swallow almost anything.
That last bit, as anyone who's played one of the many Kirby games Nintendo has released down the years will know, is what makes the Kirby games unique. When Kirby inhales an enemy, he can swallow them to assume their abilities and change his appearance. Or he can make a helper by what looks like regurgitating them.
There are absolutely loads of different kinds of enemies, each with unique abilities - so Kirby, in effect, has access to tons of abilities. He can hang onto walls as a ninja; fire a powerful arcing beam attack; fly using a jet pack; chuck bombs; smash with a hammer; slice with a sword; punch and kick as a fighter; turn enemies into blocks of ice and even cook every enemy on screen, turning them into recovery food. The sheer number of possible abilities is quite astonishing.
What's disappointing is that the game doesn't riff off of this mechanic. You're almost never required to employ smart use of copied abilities. Only The Great Cave Offensive game mode, which sees Kirby lost in a deep cave as he searches to find 60 hidden treasure boxes, challenges you in this regard: some treasure boxes are placed so that certain copy abilities have to be used to open them. Bar that, though, it's irrelevant what copy ability you currently have equipped. The upside, however, is that you're motivated to hunt down every last enemy just so you can see what power they grant. It's a classic "gotta catch 'em all" affect.
The helper system is another mechanic that's almost not needed. As I said, after copying an ability Kirby can create an ally. In the single-player mode the helper is controlled by the AI, but a friend can also control him via a bizarre game sharing process that involves both players looking at the host's DS while playing their own consoles. The second player's DS acts as a controller, with the screens redundant. The helper has its own health bar, and does a decent job of attacking every bad guy on screen, but there are no puzzles or bosses that require coordinated play on a sophisticated level. The "gotta catch 'em all" effect, however, gets under your skin once again. You find yourself wanting to discover every last helper just to see what they do.
Both the copy ability and the helper mechanics are, of course, layered on top of traditional platforming, although Kirby leans towards the action end of the Nintendo platform scale. He's got a stamina bar, a guard action (L or R), a slide (down and A or Y) and a dash (double tap left or right on the d-pad). His basic attack involves inhaling an object then spitting it out as damage-dealing stars. At the end of stages there are bosses to defeat. Lose all your health or fall into a pit and you have to restart from the last checkpoint. So while there's a good deal of platforming to be done, most of your time is spent defeating enemies that get in your way.
The platforming, is pixel perfect though, and has that quality Nintendo feel. Jumping and using abilities is responsive, and collision detection never frustrates. As with all great platformers, when you die it's your fault. Unfortunately Kirby Super Star Ultra never manages to reach the heights of the likes of New Super Mario Bros., the standard bearer for all platform games on the DS. This is in part due to graphics that look dated (the brand new 3D FMV cut scenes look ropey), as well as uninspired level design. The game relies too much on the copy ability, hoping it'll keep players' attention long enough to distract them from the general lack of oomph. For the first hour the ploy works, but after the novelty wears off the game becomes something of a slog.
On the back of the box it says "tons of games in one!", but there's also not much to the overall experience. The game's structured in a slightly odd way. From "The Corkboard" you're able to choose from one of five main game modes, each unlocked after its predecessor is completed. Five of these are traditional Kirby experiences, with slight differences in gameplay. Spring Breeze, the first, is an incredibly easy four-stage adventure that sees Kirby fighting to take back food stolen from Dream Land by long-standing adversary King Dedede. Dyna Blade is set on a Super Mario World-style world map, and again features traditional platforming. The Great Cave Offensive, as mentioned, is a hunt for treasure in one giant level, and is the meatiest of all the game modes. Revenge of Meta Knight is a frantic, fast-paced fight on Meta Knight's battleship that's more 2D shooter than it is platformer. And Milky Way Wishes prevents Kirby from copying the abilities of enemies he inhales. Instead he must collect "Deluxe Ability Pedestals", essentially items with abilities on them. Once collected, they're selectable from a list.
You'll tear through the first few single-player game modes in half an hour. While the more difficult modes will keep you busy for a while, Kirby is generally quite easy. Only one mode adds variety by switching up the gameplay slightly: Gourmet Race is a side-scrolling three-stage race against Kirby's King Dedede. The only problem is it's largely pointless and you won't want to try it more than once. And while three new touch-based mini-games have been included, none will keep you occupied for long, despite the fact Wireless DS Single Card Download play is supported. Once you've completed the five main game modes, new harder modes become available, including some rock hard boss arenas. But most of the new stuff is just rehashes of what's gone before, and they're not actually that hard.
Still, Kirby fans will find much to enjoy. Kirby Super Star on the SNES is considered the best Kirby game ever made by aficionados, so the fact that this remake adds a few bells and whistles should ensure smiles all round. While it's not as imaginative, challenging or as well designed as New Super Mario Bros., still the best platformer on the console, it's a solid addition to the DS' impressive library of platform games.