I have always loved the Kirby series. Handheld titles like GBA’s Nightmare in Dreamland and DS’s Squeak Squad were the Nintendo platformers that I truly grew up with. Mario, Donkey Kong, and Yoshi largely came later in my life. Kirby was there first. But unfortunately, Kirby never really grew alongside me, continually stuck in the same 2D lane that the series always traveled along. That is, until Kirby and the Forgotten Land was announced! Finally, after generations of missed opportunities, my beloved Kirby series was transitioning into 3D. Considering that I had been wishing for this for more than ten years, I pretty much lost my mind when Forgotten Land was revealed.
This announcement translated into a wave of excitement that I rode back to 2008, as I popped into my favorite entry in the series, the DS title Kirby Super Star Ultra. I wanted to be back in this world for a bit so that I could release some of my overwhelming hype as I (im)patiently await Forgotten Land’s Spring 2022 release date. Let me tell you something, Super Star Ultra still hits. I still think this is the pinnacle of the franchise. There is such a lovingly curated smorgasbord of Kirby delights to dig into here. From the core platforming mini-campaigns to the sub-games and all that falls in between, Super Star Ultra is an excellent game to spend a few afternoons with.
Of course, it’s far from perfect. The early modes are just a bit too toothless and wind up being forgettable. The Helper AI is also just disastrously boneheaded too, which is rather unfortunate. I don’t find these issues to be that critical though, especially when playing Super Star Ultra opposed to the original Super Star, which was released back on the SNES. The bonus modes included in the Ultra version, especially Meta Knightmare Ultra, compensate for an underwhelming opening by providing some more developed platforming action.
No single mode is more developed and clever than Meta Knight’s Revenge. This is bizarrely one of the most badass pieces of content that Nintendo has ever produced. HAL Labs absolutely cranked the Kirby dial to sicko mode in this multifaceted and operatic siege of Meta Knight’s ship, the Halberd. This adventure sees Kirby raining hell upon Meta Knight’s troops and catching an equal amount in return, constantly thrown from the ship the forced to fight back into it, taking it down engine by engine. With perfectly zany characters, great set piece moments, and absolutely pulse-pounding music, this is Kirby at its absolute best.
Easy-Peasy Spring Breezy
However, no part of that equation really includes challenge, which is a point of contention for many. Kirby games are easy, especially when you get older. Super Star does try to make one key counterpoint to this: the Arena modes. Effectively, these are boss rushes where you have a single life and limited recovery items to use in your quest to conquer scores of headlining foes. This is a fairly traditional mode archetype, but one that Kirby implements to great effect. In an experience which is very breezy difficulty-wise, the recontextualization of Kirby’s bosses in the Arena can be a genuine challenge, albeit one relative to the rest of the game.
As a kid, I simply could not beat either the Arena or Helper to Hero. The latter is pretty similar to the Arena, but puts you in control of a Kirby Helper. While I blitzed them both in a matter of just a few attempts as a college student now (Helper to Hero with Bonkers took literally five minutes), these challenges were an insurmountable roadblock when I was eight. I used to play Super Star Ultra everywhere. For a good while, it was all that I wanted to play. But I could never beat either of these post-game challenges. I simply was not experienced enough as a player to learn these bosses and execute on Arena’s almost twenty sequential fights.
While my terrible impatience as an adult killed a few runs for no real reason, neither mode is actually that hard. Most bosses go down pretty quickly and almost all of them have easily recognizable and exploitable patterns. And if you have the Hammer copy ability? Well, that thing’s just OP. Looking back, it probably shouldn’t have taken me a decade between revisits to overcome these obstacles, especially when I was playing this game day in and day out as a kid. That’s when I should’ve been able to brute-force my way through a challenge like this, but I just didn’t have the talent.
Nowadays, I’m naturally just a more adept player. Sure, Main Cannon 2 had me saying some things that I shouldn’t repeat. But ultimately, the Arena was no real trouble. Turns out, young Abram just wasn’t very good! However, twenty-year-old Abram still isn’t that much better. I rinsed the Arena after just a few tries, and Helper to Hero was a total pushover. True Arena though? The FINAL final battle that I didn’t even know was in this game? Well, I gave up on that before too long.
Honestly, it’s still not that difficult. The ten bosses in True Arena, while harder than those in the regular Arena, are still predicated entirely on easy patterns that the Hammer copy ability can totally exploit. But, the challenge this mode presented me was different. Skill wasn’t the issue. Overcoming True Arena would have required me to throw myself against the challenge time and time again to learn when Kracko Jr’s Revenge is going to dive to the middle of the screen opposed to the edge so that I don’t take extra damage before the Galacta Knight fight. While my skill cap prevented me from beating regular Arena as a kid, my impatience now stopped me from beating True Arena.
I don’t see the appeal of grinding this sort of endgame challenge just for the sake of doing so anymore. I cleared regular Arena partially because it really wasn’t that time consuming to do, but mostly because I was tired of this dumb challenge hanging over my head for the better part of my life, which seems weird to say. In the absence of that motivation, I didn’t really care to subject myself to much more deliberately hard content.
the subjective nature of game difficulty
In realizing this, I ended up catalyzing my overall opinions on “The Great Difficulty Debate.” This is one of the most cyclical and frequently raised conversations within our communities, and one that feels rather tiresome. I’ve always wanted to say my piece on it, but I never found the right entry point into the topic. Turns out that a notoriously easy Kirby game was my way in. Unfortunately for those looking to find decided support for the already entrenched positions, I’m somewhat of a tiresome centrist on this matter.
In simplest terms, I do not care about the traditional push-and-pull between “all games should have easy modes” and “players should just step up to the challenge.” While I know there is nuance to each end of this tenuous rope, I’m frankly disinterested in the exploration of either. HAL Labs wanted True Arena to be a real pain in the ass, a sweaty conclusion to a chilled out adventure. There’s nothing wrong with that. Would I have liked an easier iteration of True Arena so that I could’ve at least gotten the satisfaction of checking every box in the game? Sure. Would an easier version of the regular Arena have allowed a young Abram beat it and thus prevented this article from ever being written? Yes. But, it was HAL’s vision to not include such affordances.
I distinctly remember struggling through New Super Mario Bros. Wii the Winter that it came out, and then using the Luigi Assist Mode to clear the final Bowser fight. This basically undermined any and all personal satisfaction that victory could’ve brought me. But also I was a kid and couldn’t complete the game otherwise. Mario was not my bread and butter. I still made comparative strides though. Just years before, my dad had to clear the final world of New Super Mario Bros. on DS for me. So at least getting up to King Koopa was an improvement. In effect, my use of the easy mode here was predicated on lacking skill.
Nowadays, the utility of easy modes is predicated on the value of my time. When I reviewed Kena: Bridge of Spirits recently, I rode the difficulty select and temporarily dropped down a notch to easy when my teeth were being repeatedly kicked in by a few select bosses. I just didn’t have the patience to push through what I felt was overly demanding (and somewhat cheap) boss design. I certainly could have done it, but I would’ve been completely infuriated by Kena as a result. I’m more than willing to hone my skills and push through a tough challenge – I banged my head against Cyber Shadow for a good ten hours before finally surmounting its most demanding moments. I’ve yet to skip a single stage or use Helper Mode in Super Monkey Ball: Banana Mania no matter how outrageous its level design becomes. These are just a few recent examples of my willingness to crest this mountain. But given that I’m getting older and have more responsibilities, I’ve become less content spending hours upon hours on a singular obstacle when I don’t have to.
The reason that I share these anecdotes – Kirby, Mario Bros., Kena, Cyber Shadow and so on – is that my perspective on difficulty hinges on subjectivism. Why do I wish for easy modes? Sometimes it’s because my skills just aren’t up to par. Sometimes I simply don’t have the patience. Other times, I deliberately seek out a challenge or impose a tougher one upon myself intentionally, whether we’re talking Halo Heroic runs or Fire Emblem Permadeath playthroughs. This is a rhyme and a reason that makes sense only to me. I’d be willing to wager that this sentiment extends to most who wade into the topic of difficulty, and that is absolutely fine. No one’s opinion is invalidated as a result, it’s only contextualized within concrete play habits.
commerially-digestable art or skill-based endeavor?
Such is the nature of any skill-based pursuit. Right now, I’m learning how to skateboard. I tried to hit a body varial the other day and landed squarely on my ass. Other kids on campus kickflip and ollie like there’s no tomorrow. We all enter these activities with different innate skills and varying amounts of time to devote. I would like to become a true skater boy, but it’ll take some time that I don’t have just yet. Given my lifestyle, I just enjoy cruising around my college campus and practicing basic tricks because I’m not yet ready to wind up in the hospital halfway through a shove-it. I’m comfortable leaving those advanced, awesome skills to those who can perform them. I don’t feel left out because they are beyond my reach.
But many people, especially in an era where games have largely gotten easier, don’t think that this sentiment applies to gaming. I’d argue that such a perspective comes from the notion that video games being consumable art supersedes video games being tests of skill. To the latter, no one asks for complex skate tricks to be dumbed down so that even a dummy like me can pull them off. But we do ask for FromSoft to put an easy mode in Demon’s Souls so that we can all see the final boss. It’s a troublesome dynamic to reconcile because I totally understand both avenues here. But I just think that neither idea has the power to overwhelm the other. We’re used to all books, albums, and films being accessible to all consumers in their totality on the most basic level. You might find Nicolas Winding Refn’s conceptually inaccessible movie Only God Forgives to be vile and pretentious nonsensical garbage (you’d only be partially correct), but at least you can watch the film start to finish without being physically challenged, even if you understand none of its themes or allusions. Games, by merit of their interactivity, do not meet that same benchmark that these other mediums do because you have to, well, play them. Their complexities can prevent the audience from even completing them.
As such, I find myself at a loss for how to proceed as someone who’d like to bridge the gap of the difficulty divide. I think that if we’re going to truly see games as art, we need to let creators take their artwork to the outer limits of mechanical experimentation. This will leave some players at the door, but it will also create genuinely interesting experiences. FromSoft’s work is a perfect example. I’m left out from enjoying their games because I don’t have the patience needed to develop a talent for their punishing action. But I absolutely love and champion the concept of those games because they’re true breaths of fresh air. These titles are genuine and unfiltered creative expressions that tell an evocative, emotionally resonant story through their difficulty. From the outside looking in, this is a very influential design philosophy, one which has spawned an entire genre – the Soulslike – on the basis of challenge, among other related design tenets.
In saying that, we arrive at what I feel is the only logical conclusion to the nature of difficulty in the context of an interactive medium. I believe that we ought to just throw up our hands and let the creators draw their own conclusions. How can I put the notions of accessible art and skill-dependent hobby into conversation? I have no idea. But Nintendo does. SEGA does. FromSoft does. Naughty Dog does, Bungie does, Yacht Club does, Matt Makes Games does, Supergiant does, et cetera, et cetera. Not all games are for all of us, and not every challenge is within our grasp. We’re best off shifting the responsibility of addressing that to the developers in the first place. Attempting to impose mechanical limitations is to put an interactive medium with unlimited possibility within a box. I see this as no different from asking a filmmaker to steer away from certain heady themes or modes of storytelling as to ensure everyone has a commensurate experience. As players we can grow into experiences which challenge us, absolutely. But not every challenge fits us in the moment. Maybe I’ll beat True Arena when I’m thirty.