Kirby's Toy Box and the Challenges of Game Preservation

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<i>Kirby's Toy Box</i> and the Challenges of Game Preservation

Kirby has been around for 30 years now, and international audiences have always been a focus. The first game in the series was originally going to be known as Twinkle Popo—there was even box art made up saying as much—before Nintendo intervened and asked HAL Laboratory to rename it to something North Americans might buy instead. Even with this history, though, not every title in the franchise has made its way out of Japan. Kirby no Kirakira Kizzu, or Kirby’s Super Star Stacker, released in Japan after Nintendo of America had already stopped publishing SNES titles. That game was just a console remake/enhanced port of the internationally released Game Boy title, Kirby’s Star Stacker, however, and if you really want to play it legally in the present, you can create a Japanese Switch account, and sign up for that region’s version of Nintendo Switch Online.

Which means the only Kirby title to never have any presence at all outside of Japan is Kirby no Omocha Hako, translated to Kirby’s Toy Box, and that’s because the hardware that it played on never left Japan, either.

The Satellaview was a Super Famicom peripheral that, as the name implies, utilized a satellite system. Released in 1995 in Japan, it would temporarily distribute games that were broadcast over this network, and you could either save them to the Satellaview memory itself, or to 8-megabit memory cards. It was a space for well-known series or popular games to release smaller spin-off titles, or do a bit of experimentation. Squaresoft developed and published the link between Chrono Trigger and the eventual Chrono Cross on Satellaview, a visual novel adventure called Radical Dreamers. Harvest Moon received an episodic gaiden across a few weeks in September of 1996. Falcom put a version of Dragon Slayer: The Legend of Heroes on the service in 1995. Nintendo was plenty busy, too, with an episodic Fire Emblem prequel, a Famicom Detective Club spin-off, and a remake of the original The Legend of Zelda where you played as the Satellaview’s software avatars dressed as Link, where an orchestral soundtrack played due to the SoundLink broadcast technology the satellite system could utilize.

Yes, software avatars and satellite broadcasting that made for enhanced audio—assuming you played the game at the time that those SoundLink broadcasts were happening, anyway. Games weren’t the only thing on the service, either: there were demos, digital magazines, and tournaments for specific games, with prizes for the winners. Nintendo was able to pull this off by purchasing around one-fifth of satellite music broadcaster St.GIGA, and dedicating blocks of their day specifically to the Satellaview service. It was all wildly ambitious for the time.

There were many ways that Satellaview was ahead of its time, but it was also the wrong one: the Super Famicom kept releasing new games throughout nearly the entirety of the Nintendo 64’s lifespan, but Nintendo’s overall hold on the market dwindled at this time. Thanks to Sony’s introduction of the Playstation, the release of the Sega Saturn—which is seen as a commercial failure, but did sell 5.75 million of its 9.26 million units in Japan, more than the previous-gen Mega Drive had managed in the country—and Nintendo’s own new system, the N64, there just wasn’t room in the living room for the Satellaview, too. An expensive peripheral on a previous-gen system, even one that was still supported, wasn’t likely to gather enough consumer support to be a hit, even if it did have third-party publisher support. There were simply too many limitations in place, and the partnership between Nintendo and St. GIGA ended in 1998 when the two couldn’t come to an agreement on how to proceed. The former no longer provided new games or content to the service after this point, even though the latter kept it running until the summer of 2000.

While Satellaview was still up and running, Kirby got its chance to shine on the service. In February of 1996, a series of sub-games, collectively titled Kirby’s Toy Box, were broadcast on Satellaview. It actually predated the spring 1996 Japanese release of Kirby Super Star, and two of the included titles were trial versions of the sub-games included in that game to promote it: Megaton Punch and Samurai Kirby. The rest, though, only exist in their Satellaview broadcast form, and until just the last few years, they might not even have existed at all anymore. More on that momentarily.

Included within Kirby’s Toy Box were eight different, exclusive sub-games, effectively all Kirby versions of existing videogames or arcade games—like, games found in an arcade, not “arcade cabinet” games. There’s a version of pachinko, of course, as well as baseball, where Kirby is the ball and the goal is to hit him with paddles into holes found around the diamond, avoiding the ones that are outs. There’s a pinball game, and a Breakout-style title, Star Breaker. Cannonball is a riff on Worms, Ball Rally is an obstacle course, and Round and Round Ball has you firing Kirby at different speeds, trying to land him into specific holes on a course to score more points. Arrange Ball has you trying to launch Kirby, pinball style, to arrange him into a series of holes found in another pachinko-like setup. None of these are earth-shattering titles full of innovation, but they are definitely enjoyable to play: HAL Laboratory has made quite a few sub-games over the years, and done a pretty great job of it, even. The difference here is mostly that few people have had a chance to play them.

If you care to play the eight sub-games exclusive to Kirby’s Toy Box, though, you now can, thanks to the efforts of preservationists like Matthew Callis. Callis, who runs superfamicom.org, was in the spotlight back in 2016 when four of these eight games appeared at auction. A call was put out by Callis and other preservationists like Frank Cifaldi (now director of the Video Game History Foundation) to raise money to win the auction, so that the games could be, well, preserved. Remember earlier, when it was mentioned that Satellaview games were written onto rewritable 8MB memory cards? The only way to still have a copy of a Kirby’s Toy Box game at that point was to somehow have one of those cards with the game saved on it. And it had to be in working order, too. It’s no wonder these four games alone sold to Callis for over $800.

As Callis tells it, “Almost all of the most interesting dumps are from cartridges listed as ‘empty’ or ‘blank,’ due to how the limited number of plays or live-streaming nature of the game works, they stop showing up in the menu. So you are basically blindly buying memory packs hoping that there is anything on them.” Which means someone having half of Kirby’s Toy Box in one place, and knowing what it was they were auctioning off, was “extremely exciting and very rare!”

And he would know how rare it is, too: finding Satellaview games is something Callis focuses quite a bit of energy on. His goal is to “preserve whatever is still available, this isn’t strictly limited to Satellaview or Super Famicom or even games,” and he enjoys “the marketing materials and old documents related to gaming,” as well. “I tend to [search] more in the evening now, sit back and get high and go through literally 1000s of auction listings seeing if anything is hidden out there. I would say it is like fishing.”

The number of roadblocks are significant in these searches. For one, Callis is not alone in looking for these games, and not everyone is necessarily interested in them for preservation purposes: rarities like these are collectibles, after all, and collectibles can fetch a high price when sold at the right time. It’s also a rarity that even a dump of the game—just the actual digital content contained within the physical card—will be shared with preservationists. Sometimes the reasons for that are straight-up hoarding or related to the aforementioned collectibles and rarity thing, and other times, it’s more of a legal issue. As Callis put it, “Some of that can be attributed to stricter copyright laws and other general laws outside of the USA, specifically Japan seems to have some strict laws around it, so self-preservation comes before digital preservation. I mean, I might go to jail for a minute if the game was impressive and important enough—some very early and cool Final Fantasy VII for the Super Famicom demo?” Square, please, just put that demo online so no preservationists have to go to prison over it.

There is also the quality problem: ROMs degrade over time. In fact, the remaining missing Kirby’s Toy Box games were eventually acquired and dumped by the end of 2020—meaning all eight of the exclusive games can now be downloaded from satellaview.org and played in an emulator equipped for Satellaview titles—but they aren’t all in pristine shape. The announcement of the Ball Rally dump at superfamicom.org came with the news that, “the Flash memory was rotting away the data,” which meant the game wasn’t “in its pure state.” The second dump of Baseball was also suffering from bitrot and couldn’t be fully repaired: both titles work, at least, but they’re still considered bad dumps given their impurities.

What is a bad dump? Callis helpfully explained the concepts: “All things eventually die, and digital media is no different. Like CDs losing their backing or getting scratched, or diskettes or tapes losing their magnetism, flash memory can also decay when the tiny bits holding some state (on / off) suddenly and unexpectedly change. Here is a quick, very simplified example. Let’s say we have the string of characters MARC, in ASCII binary this is 01001101 01000001 01010010 01000011. Fast forward 30 years now, we will say one bit of one byte of this data has flipped to 01001101 01000001 11010010 01000011, and now we have MA?C. Because a single bit of a single byte has flipped, we can guess at what that character was, but usually not guarantee.

“In a Satellaview ROM there are at most 8000000 bits, much more room for error. Sometimes the damage is in a benign spot like empty space, sometimes it is in graphics, sometimes code, etc. So not all damage is equal. The ROMs will usually include a checksum to indicate if this has happened, but sometimes that is blanked out so it is difficult to tell.”

Obviously, this damage is an issue for preservationists who want working, pure ROMs. For a programmer who knows what they’re doing and can repair the data, it might not be a huge hurdle to getting the game into a working state. For someone who just wants to download a ROM and experience a lost game with ease? This rot can be a real problem.

Of course, if you were looking for a straightforward way to play an old game, Satellaview emulation might not necessarily be for you, anyway. It’s not always as easy as just loading up the game in SNES9X or what have you. Well, sometimes it is, and sometimes it’s not. The first time I played any of the Kirby’s Toy Box titles, I did so by just loading them right up in an emulator like any other ROM. And then they stopped working that way after some time, without explanation, which led to the discovery that there’s a higher percentage shot to take there: by playing the actual Satellaview software in the emulator first.

SNES9X (and other emulators) have been updated to work with Satellaview titles like Kirby’s Toy Box by way of Satellaview’s own software, BS-X. This is what you used that previously mentioned avatar for: a town to walk around, to go to the various buildings and access broadcasts, saved games, and the like. So, now you can load an unofficially translated BS-X up in SNES9X like it’s a BIOS file for a console, and at the same time, load up the ROM of the Satellaview title you want to play. You can then load it up within BS-X by walking to the appropriate part of town to do so. Is it a pain to do all of this, with all the extra loading and reloading and having to walk around bits? Yeah, but it’s less of a pain than all the work that went into making sure you could do this if you want to, decades after the systems involved ended. Don’t be an ingrate.

The work of preservationists and programmers and the people you should thank for the existence of working emulators is vital in ensuring that videogame’s past remains part of its present and future, but it would also be lovely if the game publishers themselves did a bit more heavy lifting in keeping this past alive themselves. Square Enix actually reworked and included Radical Dreamers as part of its 2022 remaster of Chrono Cross, but that kind of action is rare: Nintendo hasn’t made a habit of resurfacing Satellaview’s past, which is why Kirby’s Toy Box wasn’t a vital find just for preservation purposes, but also for anyone who just wanted to play the thing, as this was the only available way to do so. Has Nintendo lost the source code for the games, which is a thing that can still happen, or is it that they simply have no interest in making them available once more? Maybe it was naive of me, but I had a small hope that a re-release of Toy Box’s sub-games would be part of the Kirby 30th anniversary plans—maybe we’ll have to wait for the big 4-0 for that one, though.

Regardless of what Nintendo or any other publisher with a Satellaview phase does with their past work, however, at least we know preservationists are doing what they can to find these games and make them available to anyone interested in checking them out, for whatever reason they care to do so. “Some people are using the output for research, some people just want to play the games,” Callis said. “And honestly as long as they aren’t pirating them [for profit] I don’t really care what anyone does with them.”


Marc Normandin covers retro videogames at Retro XP, which you can read for free but support through his Patreon, and can be found on Twitter at @Marc_Normandin.