Just like it deserved a shot at modern stardom with a new installment, Kid Icarus also deserves to be played by a contemporary audience; even if not everyone will make it to its end, the game has enough quality and flexibility to hold some value to a wide and varied public
Inside the Nintendo lore, Kid Icarus is a bit of a curious case. Like the Metroid and The Legend of Zelda franchises, for instance, it also had its start as an NES effort that offered a great deal of originality, but that suffered due to the limitations and game-design annoyances that were prevalent at the time. Unlike them, however, the property did not really get the chance to mature. For although it did receive another shot at stardom via a Game Boy sequel, its universe ended up not making it to the Super Nintendo, the system in which the company’s greatest series – including Metroid and The Legend of Zelda – would fine-tune their mechanics and reach an optimal state that would define their gameplay.
As such, a product that could have developed into a major asset under Nintendo’s belt would lie unused for over two decades, only being given another go in 2012 via Kid Icarus: Uprising, a game that was the result of a reawakened interest in the character thanks to his appearance in Super Smash Bros. Brawl.
The limbo into which Kid Icarus was thrown, nonetheless, is not entirely incomprehensible. Because while Metroid and The Legend of Zelda were critically lauded upon release and moved millions of copies, the mythological adventure hit the market to a far more subdued reception, as reviews were mixed and sales – even if good – did not match the heights of the system’s most popular hits.
Yet, revisiting the 1987 debut of Pit reveals that, from a modern perspective, the game is neither much better nor much worse than the starting point of most Nintendo properties that were born during that era. Similarly to them, Kid Icarus explores a gameplay niche that is its own and it does so while matching some fun with a stack of frustration; differently from them, though, it achieves that position in a unique way: by merging disparate influences within the same package and forging a quest that embraces a surprisingly large palette of mechanics.
The first dash of originality that can be found in Kid Icarus is, of course, its setting. Not only because visually and thematically it borrows heavily from Greek mythology, but also due to how it merges these prominent elements with sprinkles of wacky Japanese humor. The game is based on the conflict between Palutena, the Goddess of Light, and Medusa, the Goddess of Darkness. The former gives humans the means to live happily and cultivate the land, but the latter dries their crops and turns them into stone. Palutena, then, transforms Medusa into a monster and imprisons her in the Underworld.
In that realm, Medusa gathers her forces; soon afterwards, she storms Palutena’s Palace in the Sky, defeats the army that is guarding the place, and locks the Goddess of Light up. As a last resort, and by using the final ounce of her power, Palutena gifts the young angel Pit with a bow and arrow. With those weapons in hand, he must rise from the Underworld, where he had been kept as a prisoner, and make his way to the Palace in the Sky while collecting the three sacred treasures that endowed Palutena’s army with power, but that were taken away by Medusa.
Pit, therefore, must traverse three areas before he can knock on Medusa’s door. He has to ascend through the Underworld, reach and go through the human Overworld, and then climb through Skyworld until he gets to the palace. What that configuration means, effectively, is that Kid Icarus has a distinctive blend of levels that scroll upwards, the ones from the Underworld and Skyworld, and stages that progress in a sideways fashion, the ones from the Overworld and the final challenge in the Palace in the Sky itself, which surprisingly takes the shape of a flying shooter.
Consequently, while those of the Overworld have blatant Super Mario Bros. vibes in them, the ones of the first set display Nintendo tackling a different sort of course construction, and developers take advantage of that configuration by allowing Pit to – in upscrolling stages – walk out into one side of the screen to emerge on the other, integrating that quirk nicely into the design of the levels themselves, as doing so is often needed to move forward. Naturally, even though the gameplay present in these two types of levels is, at heart and for the most part, the same, that variation gives Kid Icarus pleasant flexibility.
That is not, however, everything the game packs. The Underworld, Overworld, and Skyworld have each three levels of straightforward platforming and action, but they all culminate in tests that come in the form of sidecrolling dungeons, where the sacred treasures Pit is looking for are guarded by mean bosses. It goes without saying that this trio of dungeons is heavily inspired by the maze-like buildings of The Legend of Zelda; more specifically, given the perspective in which they happen, to a contemporary player they will seem a whole lot like the palaces of The Adventure of Link, which at the time of Kid Icarus’ release in Japan was still in the future.
Therefore, in a way, the game was the first Nintendo effort to show how series of self-enclosed rooms could work inside a sidecrolling scenario. And, generally speaking and despite punctual annoyances, the game is usually successful in that regard, because the mazes – which get progressively more complex as the game goes along – pose an interesting riddle as far as navigation goes, for finding a way to get to the boss requires attention and exploration due to how the places are full of dead-ends and only have one path that leads to the sacred treasure.
In spite of how stages and dungeons differ in progression and in the kinds of challenges they offer, controlling Pit is always the same. He walks, he jumps, and he uses his bow to shoot out arrows. The last action, in particular, lends the game a lot of personality, because it turns Kid Icarus into a notable mixture of shooting and platforming. Especially outside the dungeons, the game is filled with tight jumps that require a ton of precision from players; yet, at the same time, the adventure is also brimming with segments featuring no falls whatsoever, where the main threat comes from foes that pop into the screen and need to be shot down.
As a consequence, it is appealing how Kid Icarus seamlessly switches between these two modes, sometimes even integrating them into the same daunting sequence. However, the most praiseworthy ramification that stems from the way Kid Icarus brings shooting into its platforming is how taking down foes with arrows is not just a matter of survival. That action becomes even more rewarding and necessary when one takes into account that it feeds directly into the thick RPG fabric that underlines the quest.
Firstly, there is how, at the end of every level, players are given a score that depends on the amount of enemies defeated; and, as that counter accumulates, Pit’s health bar increases every time a predetermined threshold is reached. Secondly, all the units of Medusa’s army, when vanquished, produce a certain amount of hearts, which depends on how tough they are.
Working as the game’s currency, these can be exchanged in shops found in levels and dungeons alike for items such as the feather, which gives the angel a chance to recover in case he falls towards the bottom of the screen; the water of life, which automatically regenerates his health if he is killed; as well as maze-specific assets, such as the torch, which marks on the map the location players are in, the pencil, which highlights rooms that have been visited, or the mallet, which allows Pit to free petrified centurions that will come to his aid when it is time to face the boss. Finally, every once in a while, Pit will come across a god that will boost the strength of his arrow if he has met a somewhat obscure prerequisite that, among others, considers the bad guys that have been downed, the damage he has taken, and the number of shots he has fired.
Thanks to those incentives, Kid Icarus gives purpose to its shooting, and players will be happy to comply, because there is a decent level of fun to be found in getting rid of enemies and gathering the hearts they drop. More than being entertaining, though, such activity is ultimately necessary, because – like most NES games – Kid Icarus is hard, and getting to its ending without extra health, upgraded strength, and enough cash to stock up on helpful items is almost impossible, or at least so frustrating that it will turn many gamers away.
The title is, in fact, so aware of how important it is to have cash, beat foes, and get mightier that, throughout the levels, it features bonus rooms where gamers can encounter – besides shops and gods willing to hand out stronger arrows – enemy nests, training grounds where if Pit survives an onslaught of falling debris he can choose one between three special weapons, and treasure chambers where he will partake in a mini-game of sorts that can produce a solid amount of hearts and mallets.
Kid Icarus, then, besides being varied when it comes to the gameplay it presents, also has a surprising depth under its charming mythological surface. Nevertheless, the game – although ranking among the NES’ best efforts – has problems that can make it a bit hard to swallow if consumed by a modern audience. For starters, even if its music strikes a nice tone between epic, heroic, and cheery, its sound effects are clunky.
Likewise, its graphics are an equally mixed bag, because while character models are good and the assets used in the building of the scenarios tend to be good-looking and thematically appealing thanks to their occasional Greek inspirations, the game suffers because of its almost total lack of backgrounds, as a dull black or blue mass always covers most of the screen. The most serious issues that affect it, however, are related to frustrating developments on the gameplay front.
The map of each dungeon, which is found lying around in one of the rooms, is extremely unhelpful without the torch and pencil, meaning that players who do not posses cash to spend on those items – or have a hard time stumbling upon the shop that sells them – will be forced to blindly navigate the maze and run the serious risk of getting lost. Out of the dungeons, the nine levels that form the three realms through which Pit travels are not numerous, but they make up for it by being somewhat long; that nature, unfortunately, causes a great deal of pain, because since dying means being kicked back to the start of the stage, the amount of progress that is lost has the potential to be rather big, an issue that becomes larger if the abundant tight jumps – where failure usually leads to automatic death – are considered.
Moreover, Kid Icarus has a few moments when it signals it lacked more strict testing, as it happens on punctual occasions when enemies show inconsistent behavior and in its unbalanced difficulty curve, for the game starts much harder than it ends: a likely consequence of the fact that Pit receives upgrades as he goes along and a shortcoming that displays stages were not balanced to accommodate the hero’s growth.
Among all problems that hit the game, though, the biggest one has a name: the Eggplant Wizard. These enemies, which only exist in the dungeons, are humorous and weird in design but unbelievably anger-inducing in functionality. Always found in pairs, the projectiles they throw immediately turn Pit into an eggplant with a pair of legs; given he cannot attack when in that state, the protagonist has to seek the maze’s hospital in order to be cured from that terrible condition.
Effectively, that means gamers have to stop the exploration they are doing and backtrack to the healing point due to a single hit. Given dungeons can be hard to navigate as a consequence of the lackluster map and since the positioning of the Eggplant Wizards seems to have been mathematically calculated to maximize frustration, as they can be quite close to the bosses and very far away from the hospitals, it is often easier to simply restart the level than to walk around as a defenseless vegetable for minutes while hoping to find relief, making the presence of Eggplant Wizards be a major dent on the enjoyment one will get out of the dungeons.
Without so many sources of overwhelming frustration and points that reveal technical inconsistency, Kid Icarus could have been hailed as a classic upon its original release and still hold that status until the present day. As it stands, however, it is a game that, albeit good, has to be tackled with patience and willingness to overlook its rough edges. Its mixture of platforming and shooting is remarkable, and it is even more engaging due to how the adventure offers rewards to those who are efficient in the killing of enemies. Additionally, its gameplay variations, which include dungeons of The Legend of Zelda inspiration as well as stages that scroll sideways and upwards, keep it fresh and entertaining all the way through.
Because of that, although it is understandable the franchise was kept for so long in a limbo, it is also slightly sad Nintendo temporarily abandoned the unique formula, in both gameplay and mythological theme, they uncovered with the title. Just like it deserved a shot at modern stardom with a new installment, Kid Icarus also deserves to be played by a contemporary audience; even if not everyone will make it to its end, the game has enough quality and flexibility to hold some value to a wide and varied public.