What is it about celebrating landmark anniversaries that makes us want to…rank everything associated with the thing we’re celebrating? As of this year, I’ve played through every single Kirby game ever released in North America, including offshoots like Kirby Tilt ‘n’ Tumble that haven’t gotten re-released on the Virtual Console just yet. I’m going to divide my rankings into what I call “traditional Kirby” and “experimental Kirby”, and split this endeavor into two articles…so there’s less for you to read at one time. I promise, you’ll thank me later.
Traditional Kirby is like what you see in Kirby’s Dream Land or Kirby’s Adventure: cute marshmallow blob inhales enemies and takes their powers. Beat levels. Save worlds. Experimental Kirby…becomes a pinball, or a golf ball, or stars in a block breaker game, or becomes yarn. While the types of games he stars in speak to his versatility as a character, they’re certainly not mutually exclusive.
I think, before diving into this endeavor, it’s important to note what exactly it is I look for in traditional Kirby fare. While I dig the lore, and aesthetics are always nice, I’m willing to overlook these aspects if they struggle. Music is the next step up in the hierarchy for me, because familiar allusions [most often from Jun Ishikawa, who’s been arranging the music from the very beginning] to past games and moments help better oil the “warp star to childhood” analogy I’ve used so very many times. Here’s a decent example of what I mean: Even without proper context, anyone can note the evolution of this particular arrangement over time:  →  → . Most modern Kirby games have over a hundred songs therein. Plenty of them help to better contextualize each individual moment, through familiarity with past adventures or leitmotif specific to each game. But…the top of the pyramid for me is what we as players are capable of doing [so how versatile the Copy Abilities are, really], plus the crazy stuff that happens.
That’s enough of my personal prejudices, eh? Without further ado:
11) Kirby: Squeak Squad
Kirby gets his strawberry shortcake stolen by some pesky mouse thieves…and ends up defeating Dark Nebula, a formidable nightmare creature that wants to drain happiness from the world…because it was locked in the chest he thought had his cake inside. Looking back, I kinda dug that level of nonsense. It’s definitely the weakest story in the series overall, but…it’s pretty humorous, how things end up. What Copy Abilities you use can impact the environment, too, as seen above. Other than that…Squeak Squad is pretty vanilla. Despite having the stomach to show for it on the bottom screen of the Nintendo DS, he’s no less capable than he was in Amazing Mirror & Nightmare in Dream Land on the Game Boy Advance. Nothing really happens to make the game itself memorable either…because a cake is what’s at stake. I don’t think there’s really such thing as a “bad” Kirby game—something I feel is poor quality. But it does feel a bit too basic, at the end of the day.
10) Kirby’s Dream Land
The first game in the series…is over way too quickly! I played through it just a few days prior to writing this. Getting to the end took me 30 minutes, even if I was being scenic about it. What became entire “worlds” in future games…just feel like smaller “levels” in Dream Land. There are no Copy Abilities yet, so all you can really do is move, jump, fly, and inhale/spit out enemies. The fight versus Kabula is a nice touch, and the curry music is probably in my “top 5 tunes”. Still, the fact that the entirety of Kirby’s Dream Land is just one piece of Super Star [in the form of “Spring Breeze”] can’t really be overlooked. It beats Squeak Squad though, because of its place in history.
9) Kirby & The Amazing Mirror
Kirby Super Star’s “Great Cave Offensive” was HAL’s first attempt at creating a more “open world” adventure. It ditches linearity and breezily cruising from one level to the next in favor of a more Metroid-like take on things. Amazing Mirror takes “Great Cave Offensive” and bases an entire game world around the concept. I think this whole experience would rank a little higher…if the map was much more fleshed out, and fast travel felt less restrictive. I don’t think the “warp-points” were as numerous as they should’ve been, and there’s no real option to exit back to the main hub from anywhere. To that end: exploration felt kind of intimidating, and I often got lost. It was the first and only traditional entry I kind of…soldiered through in spite of itself. But the places I went, Copy Abilities I utilized, and bosses I fought all felt pretty refreshing. I’d argue this one’s definitely the “hardest” game of them all. It’s a little difficult to find your bearings, and there’s a lot of backtracking through tough spots to gather every last treasure.
Amazing Mirror emphasizes multi-player for the first time in the series. But…to this day, I’ve only played the game by my lonesome. Think it’d be higher if I had more local friends? I feel like I’d enjoy a modernized Amazing Mirror…because the map would be fleshed out, and multiplayer would be online/accessible to almost everyone.
8) Kirby’s Dream Land 3
I’ve mentioned elsewhere, how I picked having the SEGA Channel over owning a Super Nintendo growing up. Dream Land 3 was one of the only games that made me regret my choice. I wasn’t able to get my hands on it until it came out on the Wii Virtual Console in 2009. I like how the game’s presented. Visuals felt more like a watercolor variant of the Game Boy games, versus the direction that Super Star took. But the Copy Abilities felt worse than Dream Land 2, despite being mostly the same. “Lightbulb Kine” was practically invincible as long as the bulb was lit up in DL2—in this game, the ability timed out after a while. There are numerous other examples in which both Kirby and his allies felt a little more restrictive than I’m used to. The controls just…handled differently, despite a few added moves. That’s why—despite an obvious bias towards the animal friends—this one’s kind of lower on the spectrum for me.
Still: approaching each level with a unique puzzle to solve to earn the Heart Star at the end…helped make each level feel a little different than the one before it. The addition of ChuChu, Nago, and Pitch to the roster of playable characters didn’t feel excessive, either. And the final fight with Zero is a little creepypasta, if I do say so. Dream Land 3 is definitely one of the more unique games (it’s even got cameos from other Nintendo characters, like Samus!), but…it’s also one of the more restrictive ones.
7) Kirby: Triple Deluxe
I was tepid on this game when it first came out, because it was the follow up to Return to Dream Land [spoilers, but: you’ll find that’s much higher on this list]. I replayed it very recently, to see if I’d warmed up to it over time. As it turns out, I have. But goodness gracious, there is far too much use of gyroscopic motion to solve puzzles in that game. I think that’s one of the bigger turn-offs for me, despite environments feeling lush…and the Beetle Copy Ability being one of the most overpowered, “god-tier” power-ups since Dream Land 2. I can’t get too positive on Triple Deluxe without mentioning Return to Dream Land, so I’ll just save all the love ‘til then. Part of the reason I put Triple Deluxe a little lower is because it just felt like “more of the Wii game”. It’s kind of the first time I felt the series might become fatigued without some intervention. The visuals and soundtrack were pretty great, but there were no real leaps forward in design. Being able to play as King Dedede after beating the main story was pretty neat…but by the time I got to it, I was pretty spent.
6) Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards
Almost everyone I know doesn’t look back on this game as fondly as I do. But Dual-Lightsaber Kirby and Fire Sword Kirby are a thing in this game…what’s not to like? Considering everything I touched on before we started this list—64 sets out to do a few things differently, and succeeds. Combining Copy Abilities to create new ones led to mostly satisfactory results, and some that were just friggin’ cool. Length probably works to this game’s detriment…it’s a little shorter than most entries. But finding all the Crystal Shards helped extend its longevity for me personally…and the endgame being the infamous fight against Zero Two? Icing on a rather delicious cake. Combining abilities hasn’t really been revisited since…and neither have some of the game’s characters. But beyond limiting flight, to place a greater emphasis on platforming, 64 is all the uniqueness of Dream Land 3 with a dual-lightsaber and a bleeding eye god-thing.
Don’t you dare judge my inner-child. Hate on 64 all you want, Greater Internet, but it doesn’t feel nearly as vanilla as other entries, especially over time.
5) Kirby’s Adventure
Finally, we’ve arrived at the Top 5—and a brief discussion on Kirby’s three major paradigm shifts, which start here. Adventure is the first game in the series to genuinely establish what Copy Abilities were and how to use them. Super Star, due in part to the capabilities of the SNES I imagine, expanded his range of motion. He didn’t just breath fire when he had the Flame Copy Ability, but he could burst forward like a meteor if the directional pad was pressed at the right moment too. The third and final shift happened with Return to Dream Land, where Super Star’s control mechanics were executed on a modern engine.
Kirby’s Adventure ages gracefully thanks to making the most of its hardware. It’s not much to gawk at these days. But if you were playing for the first time on NES almost 25 years ago, you were met with a world that was bursting with color, charm, and complexities. Story-wise, it’s got the introduction of Meta Knight as a character and…this scene. There are some fantastic set-pieces, including a penultimate level that takes you through Dream Land, complete with a gray-scale look & the original music. There are memorable melodies that are still used in the series to this day, like Butter Building, plus a few mini-games sprinkled in the hub worlds and Extra Mode to keep things interesting & keep folks coming back. So much to do and see…putting other series entries to shame in some respects! This one’s a lot higher on others’ personal lists than mine, I suspect partially because of nostalgia. It’s the first Kirby game that was a freaking home-run, so who could blame them?
Nightmare in Dream Land is a “remaster” of this game. I’m leaving that one unranked…because it doesn’t really change a whole lot. It makes more difficult switches from the NES game a little easier to access, and it marked the first time Meta Knight is a playable character in a separate campaign. But I kind of prefer the original, because of how much it pushed its hardware.
4) Kirby’s Dream Land 2
I really can’t call this one the BEST KIRBY EVER, as much as I want to. I love me some Rick, Coo, and Kine…particularly in this game, before DL3 hindered their capabilities a bit. They help take the philosophies first established in Adventure and elaborate a bit…to make Kirby king of the air, land, and sea. On Coo, Kirby can freely inhale enemies while flying…and make use of extraordinarily cheap Copy Abilities like shooting three projectiles in front to devastate surrounding enemies, strike lightning on the ground below him, and more. With Kine, he can do the same things underwater. I mentioned that light bulb bit earlier. You really can stay invincible for as long as you wish, and fire the bulb from Kine’s mouth like an explosive projectile when you don’t feel like being lit anymore. Rick speeds along faster on land, and doesn’t slip on icy areas. The animal friends were forces of nature in KDL2, and could traverse any area in the game with only limited weaknesses. Picking which one was best for any given situation added a ton of strategy to level design that was already successful in Adventure.
I’ve got so many gooey memories associated with this game in particular. I swear, if they ever bring back the animal friends—and I mean make them playable—my inner-child will light up enough to fuel my apartment on a generator.
3) Kirby’s Return to Dream Land
It’s Kirby’s Adventure Wii in most parts of the world, and for good reason. From world to world, level to level, I think HAL’s initial intent was to create environments inspired by the NES fauna from over 20 years ago. Visuals seem more impressive to me because they’re…what I imagined Adventure would look like if it was created closer to now versus then. They created even more original areas that help the game feel like it could stand on its own, without the big name to fill.
In addition to an entire planet to explore, you could visit parts of the Lor Starcutter—a luxury spaceship—to play mini-games, and complete handfuls of trials that specifically test each of the game’s Copy Abilities, brand new and old. And “old” is a relative term. Plenty of these abilities had never been used in a “3D” game, not even 64. It had all kinds of extra stuff thrown in to add replay value…y’know, never mind the fact that you could play with your friends as King Dedede, Meta Knight, and Waddle Dee.
Return to Dream Land‘s Super Abilities [as seen from the giant sword above] and Triple Deluxe‘s “Hypernova” serve the same purpose. They let folks cause widespread destruction in a level, and sort of act like glorified keys to unlock a room with a collectible inside. The Hypernova had its moments, but Super Abilities offer a greater variety. And they usually led to a sort of inter-dimensional doorway that mixed up mechanics even more. sometimes forcing you to run for your life while the room closed in on you—or face a sub-boss while only having access to one or two powers…some intentionally weak.
Even if I never played with friends, I think it might be my second-favorite single player adventure. The story started out like your typical quest…”help repair my spaceship by gathering 6 pieces from 6 worlds”—the usual. But the events that led up to the final boss [and probably my favorite final boss music in the series] were genuinely entertaining. The main story might not collectively be a series best, but it’s remarkably close!
2) Kirby Super Star [Ultra]
It’s Kirby’s Fun Pak in other regions…because it really is a fun pack. No Kirby game has done what this one did before or since. Rather than create one cohesive adventure, the “story” of this game is divided into many smaller experiences that sometimes happen to follow a linear progression. “Spring Breeze”, as mentioned before, is a remaster of Kirby’s Dream Land—it’s over quickly, and it’s the perfect introduction to folks playing one of his games for the first time. “Gourmet Race” is a fun racing-platformer hybrid in which the goal is to just…beat the level by inhaling more food than King Dedede. And “The Great Cave Offensive” is highlighted further up. After those, you’re treated to even more bite-sized Kirby snackventures. One’s got him taking down Meta Knight’s airship, and another has him exploring new levels to fight Dyna Blade, a brand new character. After all those, the final game (at least in the SNES version) unlocks.
The goal of “Milky Way Wishes” is to find Copy Abilities. Once you’ve found them…you can keep them, and switch between whichever ability you want, at will. This mechanic is unique to Super Star; it hasn’t been repeated since. That kind of freedom, coupled with the many other types of games to play in the “Fun Pack”…and that paradigm shift I mentioned a few paragraphs back…are why Super Star will stand the test of time, and probably still be celebrated when Kirby turns 50. And that’s not even mentioning the remake or the Arena mode. Marx, by the way, is a final boss that HAL still draws inspiration from years later.
Super Star Ultra makes one of the best Kirby games even better, by adding more games to play. One new mode called “Revenge of the King” is like Spring Breeze on steroids—it’s an ultra-hard Kirby’s Dream Land that won’t be bested in one sitting, unless you’ve mostly mastered what the game’s got to teach you. The other brings back Meta Knight as a playable character…and lets you use him in every. single. game. mentioned before, except “Gourmet Race”. The DS remake is the definitive way to experience Super Star, in my opinion, because of its additional content and improved visuals.
1) Kirby Planet Robobot
I haven’t shut up about this game yet. I won’t shut up about it. Check here, here, here, and all over Twitter for just…endless gushing and praise from yours truly. The Robobot Armor (read: giant mech that Kirby pilots) isn’t Rick, Coo, and Kine, but it serves their same purpose. Kirby can be king of land, sea, and sky…and the mech is just as awesomely overpowered as they are too. It’s strategically employed, doesn’t overstay its welcome, and is used to facilitate my favorite finale in all 25 years of Kirby…by a long shot.
Enemies that feel as powerful as bosses are just…littered throughout regular stages. The Robobot Armor sometimes makes a level a Galaga-inspired minigame. The story brings back Meta Knight and Dedede as “enemies”—but gives them unique twists that makes the “same fight” feel brand new…with remixed music to boot, which you know I like. Playable Meta Knight unlocks after you beat the Main Story…and the secret boss at the end of his campaign is my other favorite finale in all 25 years of Kirby.
Because of everything Robobot does to genuinely surprise and delight longtime fans, it takes my #1 spot…and it likely won’t be topped for quite some time, even if they do bring back the animal friends. It made the tried and true Kirby formula, that I’ve now analyzed well past the point where many of you stayed interested, feel totally exhilarating and brand new. I played it for the first time in a language I didn’t understand…and I still felt genuine childlike awe!
And that’s what Kirby’s all about, to me.
I’m not done yet, though. Next time you hear from me, I’ll rank the handfuls of his “experimental” games…assuming feedback dictates I should. What do you think about this list I’ve compiled? How much does what I look for in a Kirby game differ from what you look for? What’s number one on your personal list? As you’ve probably gathered—Kirby’s pretty dang great to me. So I welcome your opinions and perspectives, now and always!