Boss rushes have been a part of gaming for a very long time, and for good reason. Bosses typically represent the mechanical climaxes of the games they reside in, so having segments where players are challenged to beat multiple bosses in quick succession can be engaging, concentrated tests of skill. The Kirby series is especially fond of this concept, as nearly every installment features a boss rush in some form. But it’s with the introduction of the Arena mode in Kirby Super Star that the series’ boss rush modes would really come into their own. The unique mechanics incorporated into each entry’s Arena mode along with how well the bosses complement the series’ core features really make these modes stand out, and later entries have refined the Arena modes to an almost unprecedented degree. The Arena serves as one of the series’ best features, and they add significant value to each installment.
The Original Boss Rush and the Copy Ability System
Before the Arena, boss rush modes in Kirby games were relatively simple. Starting with Kirby’s Adventure, the early boss rush format involved the player going through every boss in the game with no copy abilities and no healing items. This structure is perfectly fine on its own, and it certainly provides a stiff challenge for more experienced players to sink their teeth into, but it does not represent Kirby’s gameplay at its best. The copy ability system allows players to approach nearly every situation with a dizzying array of options, which makes the boss battles in particular more interesting. Kirby levels are designed to be comfy and easy-going experiences, so copy abilities in this context mainly exist to let players cut loose and tear through enemies and stages without a care. Boss fights tend to be more challenging than the main stages, and this is where the copy ability system shines.
Copy abilities introduce a major action element to the series, and since regular enemies tend to be relatively passive, bosses present an opportunity for players to really test their proficiency with each copy ability. Bosses are designed to be beaten with Kirby’s standard skillset, which mostly involves spitting their stars and attacks back at them, but copy abilities expand the player’s attack options significantly, which allows for a whole host of fun strategies. And since boss attacks still remain dangerous, if not more so, if players use copy abilities over the regular skillset, the abilities only make boss battles more enjoyable rather than less. With these benefits in mind, the copy ability restrictions in the early boss rush modes only serve to hurt their appeal and replayability, as they do not let players fully appreciate how well the copy abilities and boss battles mix together.
Reimagining the Boss Rush
Kirby Super Star’s Arena mode would overhaul the boss rush format to the series’ benefit. In the Arena, players have access to every major copy ability right from the start, and they can choose which one to start with before heading to the first boss. This already plays into the series’ strengths much more than the previous format, but it helps even more in Kirby Super Star’s case thanks to the revamped copy ability system. Rather than assigning one or two attacks to each ability, Kirby Super Star allows players to perform a variety of moves per copy ability depending on the controller input. This massively increases the gameplay options and potential of each copy ability and combined with the already high number of copy abilities, the number of ways players can tackle each boss is multiplied exponentially.
In addition, between each round, players are given the option to replace their current ability with another randomly-generated ability, allowing players to customize their playthrough to an even greater extent. Players can elect to simply play through the Arena with their preferred ability, but there is nothing stopping players from tackling each boss with a different ability instead. The Arena also features a unique healing system; between every round, players can grab one of several healing items if they are running low on health, and the number of remaining healing items is carried over between rounds. This simultaneously makes the Arena more forgiving and more challenging, as players will want to conserve these items as much as possible and strategize on when is the best opportunity to heal during their run. These additions turn what would otherwise be a simple challenge mode into a robust, deep experience in its own right.
A New Kind of Boss Rush
Later Kirby games would continue to use the Arena formula, but they would also expand on the concept in a major way. Starting with Kirby Super Star Ultra, the series would introduce a more challenging variant of the Arena, dubbed the True Arena, which features a more dangerous set of bosses as well as more limited healing items. These modes always include souped-up versions of bosses from the main campaign that are incorporated in a separate postgame mode, such as Revenge of the King from Super Star Ultra or the EX mode from Return to Dreamland. The changes made to the bosses are far from minor; practically every attack is tweaked in some way to make them more difficult to avoid, and they often gain completely new attacks altogether.
These changes already make the True Arena a very different experience compared to the standard Arena modes. The aforementioned postgame modes also tend to feature at least one completely new boss that gets incorporated into the True Arena, which makes the mode even more distinct. What really makes the True Arena modes special is that they always feature one boss that is found nowhere else in the game. This boss tends to be fought at the tail end of the mode, rewarding the player’s persistence through the True Arena with their most difficult challenge yet. The fact that the True Arena modes go out of their way to include this specialized content is remarkable, and it is difficult to think of another game series that puts this much effort into their boss rush modes. These features make the True Arena feel like much more than just a higher difficulty option, and it is always a treat to experience this mode at the end of any given Kirby title.
Judging by the release of Kirby Star Allies, the Arena/True Arena format may be switched up further in the future. Star Allies’ boss rush mode, the Ultimate Choice, features a more traditional difficulty slider system, although the highest difficulties essentially serve the same purpose as the True Arena anyway. Whatever form Kirby’s boss rush modes end up taking, they will likely further highlight the series’ willingness to play with a gaming concept commonly taken for granted. The series really demonstrates how much potential boss rushes really have, and that’s not something that can be said about many gaming franchises or games in general.