Kid Icarus – NES
Release Date (NA): July 1987
Nerd Rating: 8.5 out of 10
I had pretty much forgotten about this game until the release of Kid Icarus: Uprising a few years ago, and then after looking at screenshots of the original, I had vague memories of renting it as child. Ever since then, “buy Kid Icarus” has been floating around somewhere on my to-do list. There’s something so quintessentially 8-bit about the game that it ought to stand alongside other classics of the early NES era, including Super Mario Bros., Metroid, The Legend of Zelda, and Castlevania, though its reputation lies mostly in the realm of “cult classic.”
I just came off of a rather lengthy and satisfying experience with Kid Icarus (more time than I generally tend to spend with NES titles) and man, it’s difficult to know where to start. The first important notion to grasp is that this was a game developed back in the mid-80’s, a time before many of the genre conventions that we now take for granted had settled in. It’s easy to describe Kid Icarus as containing elements from a number of genres, but it’s more than that; there weren’t a ton of existing games in today’s well-defined genres for Kid Icarus to borrow from.
Our story takes place in a world reminiscent of Greek mythology, known as Angel Land. Angel Land is composed of layers for lack of a better word, including the Underworld, Overworld, and Skyworld. Two deities of Angel Land – Palutena and Medusa – are in control of the light and the dark, respectively. Medusa one day decides to claim the entire realm for herself and wages war with Palutena and her forces. The good guys are defeated. Pit, an angel soldier of Palutena, is able to escape his prison cell in the Underworld, and must make his way up through the layers of Angel Land, all the way to the Sky Palace, with the intent of deposing Medusa and restoring order.
At its core, Kid Icarus is a platformer, and a fairly unique one at that. The game is divided into 3 levels plus a 4th area that’s a bit different. Each of the first 3 levels represents a layer, with Pit making his way through the Underworld, then Overworld, and then Skyworld. Each is also divided into 4 stages, the first 3 of which are mostly platforming oriented while the 4th represents a labyrinthine boss area. The first and third levels consist of wholly vertical platforming with the left and right sides of the screen wrapping around to meet each other. Unfortunately, if Pit falls (haha, pitfalls), anything that’s moved past the bottom of the screen apparently no longer exists and Pit dies.
As a platformer, Kid Icarus is pretty damn challenging. There are lots of lengthy jumps, small areas to land on, and some ice to slide around on. What makes it really tough, however, are all the baddies flying around. The game engine produces limitless foes that come in wave after wave. Luckily Pit doesn’t get knocked backwards when he’s hit, so you can make that tough jump at the cost of some life. Regardless, creatures come for Pit from almost every angle and Pit must defend himself vigorously with a mere bow and arrow with a very limited range.
A few rudimentary RPG elements are included as well, mostly in the form of long term powerups. Pit can find or purchase objects to make his weapon more powerful and items to assist with navigation of the boss stages. Most of these items can be found in caves encountered during the journey where they are either given to Pit or available for purchase from merchants using the game’s in-game currency (hearts). These aspects could’ve probably been fleshed out a little more, but they’re still functional and worthwhile additions to the game, especially those that increase Pit’s strength.
Finally, the last little bit of the game leading up to Medusa sees Pit don the sacred treasures he’s found along the way and plays out pretty much like a sidescrolling shooter!
So how does it all add up? Quite nicely from where I’m sitting, with enough peculiarities to keep it memorable, fun, and a cut above similar titles. The levels have often been described as “odd” or “weird,” and while that may be true, I think all platformers exhibit a certain degree of arbitrary placement when it comes to level design. To me, it doesen’t feel that much different than random bricks floating in the sky in your average Mario game. I think the game’s quirkiness really works in its favor, and I really love how the action is broken up between vertical scrolling, horizontal scrolling, and the less platforming-intensive and more combat-oriented boss stages.
The boss stages are my favorite due to their puzzle-like nature. Each stage is a huge complex of rooms with varying doors at the top, bottom, left, and/or right. Although there are some tools to help with the process, it’s still pleasantly challenging. One item to be found is the single-use hammer, which can be used to “break” statues dotted around these dungeons, which in turn frees captured members of Palutena’s army. Later on, these soldiers will come to Pit’s aid during the boss battle. I don’t know how much they really help, but it’s a cool idea.
Good or bad, nearly any review will mention the game’s crazy difficulty. Most of what makes Kid Icarus such a hard game is having to deal with the demanding platforming sequences and the endless enemies. Although a few enemies can be killed “for good,” most of what you’ll be dealing with are the endless swarms of snakes and the flying foes which continually enter the scene. Several scenarios will essentially force Pit to injure himself in order to progress, such as landing on a very small platform occupied by an adversary. Worse still, health isn’t just lying around. There are the occasional “hot springs” that will refill Pit’s health, but otherwise he’s forced to pay for it with many, many hearts in the scattered stores.
There are also a number of unseen, underlying mechanics that govern the experience as well. For example, permanent boosts to Pit’s strength will be granted by a “Friendly God,” but only if the conditions are right – factored in are score, damage taken, and enemies killed. This is another case of an old games that makes it easier for better players, which can be kind of a drag if you’re having trouble. Pit can also acquire somewhat temporary improvements to his bow including an item that sends his arrows further and another that turns them into flaming arrows. (Flaming arrows are encircled with a little fireball making targets easier to hit.) However, if Pit’s health is below a certain level, these upgrades, even if in one’s possessions, will fail to activate. I dig all the nuance at work here, I just wish it was a little kinder to inexperienced players.
Unusual for the time period, these same factors and similar ones (score, hearts, strength, etc.) determine what ending one will receive. It’s not a huge difference from one to the next, but there are a total of 5 different endings. I’ll hold off on spoiling the “surprise” for those that wan to track down these finales on their own!
Another contributor to the difficulty is the flimsy controls. What is perhaps the only major flaw in Kid Icarus will lead to scores of accidental and avoidable deaths. The issue seems to stem from what happens when the area between two directions is pressed, i.e. “up-right” or “down-left.” It doesn’t seem intentional, but it feels like there was a very rigid and narrow line defining where “right” means “right.” Here’s what I’m talking about. When Pit looks up (by pressing “up”) he stands completely still. While trying to make longer jumps, I’d go for a running start, but sometimes I can only suppose that my finger was pressed slightly in the direction of “up,” which would then cause Pit to sort of stop midair and drop. This happened to me over and over again and eventually I had to be very care to push as straight as possible on the “right” or “left” buttons of the D-pad (depending on which direction I was going).
For anyone who’s played Kid Icarus, you’ll no doubt remember the horrors of the Eggplant Wizard! What the hell is this thing? I don’t know. It’s one of the most random things I’ve ever seen in a game. And it’s not so much the “wizards” themselves…it’s what they do to you that’s so awful. By throwing little bomb-like looking eggplants, they can turn Pit into…an…EGGPLANT! That’s right, one little hit and Pit becomes an eggplant with legs. This is easily the single most annoying occurrence within the game, especially since there’s no way to shake it except for dying. Pit can walk, jump, and even slide around in a ducking position as a vegetable, but he can’t fight. I guess I have to throw some credit to the developers for coming up with something so absurd, but I at least wish there was a way to shake the curse. I think it’s a little excessive that one has to outright die to get back to humanity…or angelity in Pit’s case.
A similar problem manifests while ducking. Pit can duck (with the push of “down”) like most characters, yet he can also move around like this. The moving around is useful, but not nearly as much as plain ducking. In order to move around while ducking, “down” must be held while rolling one’s finger around to the right or left arrows. But again, there tends to be a very narrowly defined arrow of “plain down.” Many times I would be ducking and waiting for some event or hazard to pass, only to inexplicably start walking (while ducking) into harm’s way or straight off an edge! Again, I had to be very meticulous when just pressing “down” to avoid these incidents.
One of my favorite aspects of Kid Icarus is the beautiful scenery. Yes, the graphics are old and dated looking, but they perfectly capture that NES-essence that many of us crave. Simple but colorful imagery abounds, and although a few enemies appear to be little more than amorphous blobs, most of them contain an appreciable level of detail. The real treat though is the scenery. You have to use your imagination a bit, but I love the settings that the graphics suggest. The Underworld is cave-like and subterranean while the Overworld has a normal, terrestrial feel. Skyworld is most impressive with its use of clouds and basic Greco-Roman structural elements.
The music is also top notch. It’s loud, lively, and full of catchy tunes. In fact, I think it gets better with each and every level. This is the kind of 8-bit music that’ll easily get stuck in your head. Without a doubt, Kid Icarus belongs among the top 5 NES soundtracks of all time.
Despite its legendary difficulty level, Nintendo was nice enough to program in a few cheats via the game’s password system to make it easier on us, ranging from level skipping to infinite energy. Note that these cheats have been removed from subsequent digital releases of the game such as the version on the Virtual Console. And of course the Game Genie can be of immense value as well.
I will say that even with various codes on, Kid Icarus still poses a significant challenge due to the unavoidable and intensive platforming design and the time consuming mazes of the boss stages. And although the controls provide ample annoyance (at least until I started pressing the D-pad with an unheard of degree of hyper-vigilance), this is still a wonderful game and certainly one of the best that the NES has to offer. I really love how diverse the gameplay is more than anything. Vertical and horizontal stages offer up significantly different styles of play from one another and the exploratory portions of the boss areas are a refreshing reprieve. It’s pretty great that so may style are incorporated into a single game without making it feel fragmented or disorganized. I know I haven’t touched much on the final shooter-esque stage, but it’s really just icing on the cake and a nice diversion after one’s previous rigors. Even the showdown with Medusa is comparatively easy.
I only wish I’d discovered (or rediscovered, as it were) Kid Icarus sooner. This is one of the greats of the NES library despite any imperfections. It has a vibe and a look (and a sound!) that both embodies the spirit of the NES era and exemplifies the change in the industry that changed video games from a fad into an art form. If you haven’t played it….you should!
Password Cheats (Click to Expand)
Password Cheats (Click to Collapse)
|Final Level w/ Invincibility||
|Final Level w/ All Upgrades||
|Begin “Fully Loaded”||
Game Genie Codes (Click to Expand)
Game Genie Codes (Click to Collapse)
|Game Genie Codes|
|No Ordinary Damage||
|No Damage from Floor Hazards||
|No Damage from Medusa||
|Invincible Against Enemies||
|Immune to Eggplant Wizard||
|99 Hammers on Pickup||
|Break 1 Statue for 24 Soldiers||
|Small Heart = 2 Energy Pts||
|Small Heart = 5 Energy Pts||
|Big Heart = 20 Energy Pts||
|Small Heart = 225 Hearts||
|Big Heart = 225 Hearts||
Reviewed by The Cubist
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