It really is amazing just how forgotten Kid Icarus has been. Aside from its little known Gameboy sequel it took over twenty years for the series to receive a new title. That level of dormancy is usually reserved for failed projects but in this case it doesn’t apply. Kid Icarus hit at the right time. The majority of gamers had probably received their Nintendo’s for Christmas and by 1987 was looking for more. This would prove to be a pretty critical year as new games that pushed the boundaries were releasing every month. Kid Icarus, with its hybrid design, was one of those titles. It combined the platforming of Mario with the dungeon exploring of Zelda and while not quite the perfect fusion of those classics still manages to be an awesome game in its own right.
Among the second wave of Nintendo developed titles for the NES Kid Icarus is often forgotten. I can see why; it is a bit hard to stand out alongside revolutionary titles like Metroid and Zelda. While it doesn’t break new ground in terms of mechanics like those titles it did represent a step up from the simpler games like Mach Rider and Urban Champion. It was definitely ambitious and has its flaws but is still a more than enjoyable game twenty years later.
Kid Icarus represented the next level in platforming for the NES. In the same way that Metroid added a vertical Kid Icarus also does so but takes it a step further. Pit can travel through both sides of the screen which makes for some interesting level design. It is used to great effect and while confusing at first is pretty awesome. The game is broken up into four worlds, with three of them featuring four stages each. The last level of each world is a fortress along the lines of a Zelda dungeon. Kid Icarus combines elements from many genres aside from platformers, most prominently RPGs.
There are numerous ways to become stronger but most rely on your score. Your overall score increases endurance at set intervals. The individual score for each level earns a chance at raising your attack power in the God rooms. These mechanics aren’t spelled out unfortunately and are critical to the game. Trial rooms are a test that will award one of three powerful items. All of these elements are needed to tackle the game’s massive fortresses. Here you explore a giant maze to find the world boss in a similar fashion to the Legend of Zelda. Although a bit similar it isn’t as polished as that game.
What has probably contributed to the game’s low profile are its controls and high difficulty. For a game that requires an extreme level of precision the controls are far too loose. Pit has a tendency to slide a bit when moving. You frequently need to make pinpoint jumps and this is a recurring problem. The best course often becomes hopping or immediately turning around before stopping. But that isn’t always an option, leading to cheap deaths. Another is the myriad number of platforms you fall through when trying to duck. Whether it was intentional or not it is incredibly annoying another misstep in my opinion.
Kid Icarus features an incredibly steep difficulty curve from the onset and only gets worse as you progress. Pit is incredibly weak initially, with a pathetic life bar and weak arrows. The mechanics behind leveling your stats are not explained in game which is another flaw. The game is grind heavy as you need to become more powerful as the latter parts of the game are brutal. You need points to raise your life bar as well as hearts to purchase exorbitantly expensive items. Christ you even need to buy the pencil and torch to track progress in the fortresses! Even Zelda wasn’t that cruel. And whoever created the Eggplant Wizard is one of the cruelest designers in history. The game is clearly ambitious but does not quite come together as well as it should have.
That being said however it isn’t completely ruined either. Once you adjust to the game’s quirks it has plenty to offer. The various RPG trappings give it more depth than your average platformer. They also play a part in the game’s multiple endings. The new wave of games released in 1987 was pushing game design boundaries and that definitely applies here. Although it may sometimes seem as though it were designed with a strategy guide in mind like Simon’s Quest it never reaches that level. Kid Icarus provided a suitable challenge for a burgeoning audience growing accustomed to platformers. While I wish its fundamentals were better I still had fun with it.
Kid Icarus is a good game bordering on great. It may have its flaws but is still quite good considering all it attempts. It sucks that it took so long for it to finally receive a sequel but now is a perfect time to relive the original.