The final months of the year always mean handheld gaming for me due to the travel that time of year always necessitates. I always try to load up my 3DS with a few games to get me through the season. Back in November, Nintendo was having a sale on a handful of Virtual Console titles, and I decided to snag Kirby’s Star Stacker for the measly price of $1.49. I have mixed feelings about Virtual Console. I would love to load up my 3DS with a bunch of classic games, but knowing that these purchases won’t transfer over to future Nintendo platforms is strongly off-putting. Consequently, I tend to only buy things when they go on sale for super cheap (which they rarely do considering Nintendo’s aversion to sales).
Star Stacker is a Game Boy falling block puzzle game of the kind that was so prominent back in those days. In this entry of the genre, falling from the top of the screen are dimeric blocks that are composed of either star tiles (or other special tiles) or animal tiles featuring one of Kirby’s three animal friends (the hamster, owl, and fish from Kirby’s Dreamland 2). The goal of the game is to specifically eliminate sequences of star tiles, which is done by sandwiching any number of them between two matching animal tiles. For each star tile that is eliminated, a counter on the right side of the screen is reduced, and the round is cleared when the counter hits zero. The counter is meant to be indicative of King Dedede’s HP, and his face hovers above it while displaying a range of emotions in reaction to the player’s current condition. In addition, any time two or more matching animal tiles touch each other directly, they are eliminated from the screen, but these do not affect the counter. In later rounds of the game, special tiles come into play, like bombs that wipe out a row of tiles when triggered.
As a falling block puzzler, Star Stacker’s main mode is more akin to Dr. Mario than the archetype’s progenitor, Tetris. Star Stacker is composed of discrete stages that begin with a preset configuration of blocks and end when King Dedede’s HP has been depleted. Thus, stages in Star Stacker are more like stages in Dr. Mario where the player has to clear a preset configuration of the virus enemies to progress, as opposed to Tetris where the entire game is one continuous session and the stage number rolls over when a certain score threshold has been met. I think I tend to prefer Star Stacker and Dr. Mario’s style, as completing handcrafted stages gives me a better sense of progression. Usually, I don’t care much for games that are purely score attack, especially when there are no online hooks to foster competition.
Star Stacker initially offers the player four difficulty modes (Normal, Hard, Very Hard, and Super Hard) each with their own unique sets of stages. Despite their formidable names, these modes aren’t especially challenging. The thing about this part of Star Stacker is that it’s actually really easy to get lucky and wipe out huge portions of Dedede’s HP in one move. There were many many times when I was on the edge of filling up the screen, but then, out of nowhere, I triggered a long chain reaction that that wiped out a huge number of blocks and slid me to victory.
In this first part of Star Stacker, it’s just really easy to “accidentally” set off massive chain reactions. I think it’s because it doesn’t take much to make a match in this game. There are only three animal tiles, and it only takes two adjacent to each other to make a match, so the probability of matches being formed as part of a chain is very high. This is exacerbated by the fact that, as a reward, after each step of a chain, the game will randomly dump clusters of transient star blocks that can make matching sequences like normal star blocks, and only exist for the duration of the chain reaction (they disappear afterwards). I realize I’m probably not explaining that last concept well, but I’m just mentioning it to illustrate that chains in the game tend to be self-propagating, which makes it easy to wipe out huge chunks of Dedede’s HP in one swoop. This adds a huge element of luck (which strongly favors the player) to the game. Personally, my brain is really only fast enough predict chain reactions up to the second, maybe third, step in the chain, so any additional matches I get past that is pure luck.
While even Super Hard mode seems like a breeze, the game shows its true colors once this last “normal” mode has been beat, and the secret Insane mode becomes unlocked. This mode is where things get tough. Insane mode possesses 50 stages (far longer than any other mode) and is arguably where the real game begins. I had initially been a bit disappointed by how simple and easy the game had been up until that point, and then my opinion immediately did a complete 180, as the game became incredibly challenging. Especially the back half of this mode is super difficult, and some levels can take well over an hour to put to rest. This is due to the sheer perfection the game begins to demand from the player, as a single mistake can completely ruin your chance to succeed. For me, round 42 was particularly overwhelming. I estimate it took me three to four hours just to beat that one.
The difficulty spike in this stretch of the game is due mostly to the way the blocks are arranged at the start of each round. Often times, these stages start with a good chunk of the screen filled with special blocks that need to be “sandwiched” by the animal tiles twice to be eliminated, and the difficulty of clearing these things can get each level off to a rough start, especially as these rounds tend not to begin with many animal tiles already on screen. In addition, King Dedede’s HP really begins to balloon, which makes each level quite a bit longer, and thus the potential for critical mistakes to occur much more likely.
The gruelling nature of Insane mode really started to get to me after a while. I found that finishing off the final gauntlet of levels often required a lot of luck and incredible precision. I really started to reconsider whether my mission to beat the game was worthwhile. Considering the many hours I put into getting to the end of this game, I probably should have given up on it and spent that play time elsewhere. But, I really can’t deny that the basic matching mechanics of Star Stacker are incredibly compelling (to the point of compulsion). Add to that the fact that I just reached a point where my pride and competitiveness eventually awoke and wouldn’t let me let myself be beaten by this game, and I ended up sticking it out to the very brutal end.
I guess I have a strong love/hate relationship with the game, as cliche as that sounds. The central mechanic is incredibly fun, but the wonky difficulty tuning that swings from too easy to too hard created a lot of frustration. Ultimately, it’s just one of those puzzle games that’s just hard to put down, like the original Tetris or Lumines.