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Kid Icarus: A heavenly delight

I consider the "golden age" of NES games to have been inaugurated at the end of 1986 with top-notch third-party titles like Gradius and Castlevania. But it didn't fully emerge until Nintendo put out a trio of its own stellar games in the summer of 1987: Kid Icarus, Metroid, and The Legend of Zelda. If Kid Icarus doesn't seem great, it's only because it lives in its sisters' shadows.

Except for Super Mario Bros., none of the NES's earliest games were especially great or intricate. Duck Hunt was probably the second best, and it's extremely basic. But that changed with Kid Icarus. Like Super Mario Bros. before it, here was a platformer with multiple worlds. Although it had less than half as many stages as that game (thirteen compared to 32), they were longer and introduced a novel element: vertical scrolling. The game lacked the ability to scroll vertically and horizontally at once, so moving off-screen on vertical levels causes you to appear on the opposite side.

The first and third worlds have the hero — a young angel named Pit, upon whose shoulders rests the fate of Angel Land — jumping up and up and up to reach the top of each stage. The first world is the underworld, from which he must ascend to the surface (world two). In Pit's way are numerous enemies in the service of the big bad, Medusa. These enemies are sort of cute-looking blobby things. Like all NES monsters, they have bizarre names. There's Kobil, a one-eyed winged devil, Commyloose, a high-jumping jellyfish-looking monster, Monoeye, a floating eyeball, and McGoo, a blog of magma that comes up out of the ground to shoot a fireball. The hardest enemy in the underworld is the Reaper, a skeleton holding a sickle that paces back and forth. It takes several hits from Pit's arrows to be defeated, and if it sees him it starts freaking out and summons a group of flying Reapettes. (If this happens while several enemies are already on screen, the game slows way down.) In the third world, Pit even encounters the titular enemy from his sister game: Metroids! They are blue and renamed Komayto, but the manual hints at their true identity: "One theory has that it came from a planet other than Earth."
Upon first playing the game I thought it was insanely hard, another "NES hard" game I probably would not beat. The reason is that Pit starts with a single bar of health and also dies if he falls through the bottom of the screen. The instant death is frustrating, especially if you've played Metroid (programmed on the same engine), in which Samus simply keeps falling. Also as in Metroid there are no extra lives, just Game Over. Or, as it says on the screen, "I'm finished!" Most fortunately the game avoids a crucial mistake: it does not send you back to the beginning of the world when you die.

I felt a real sense of accomplishment when I finally beat the first level, only to find the second level even harder. The sole reason I kept at it was that I looked online and saw that the game actually gets easier as you progress. So I kept at it, patiently playing the second level over and over and over again until I finally passed it! At this point I was awarded with a second bar of health because I had surpassed 20,000 points. Each bar of health (five maximum) is tied to a certain score. This is a key game element, which in the 45-page manual is not explained until you get to the Q&A on the last two pages—and it doesn't even say how many points you need!

Each world ends with a labyrinthine fortress. These are screen-based rather than scrolling, with ladders between vertical screens. Unfortunately, all three fortresses re-use the same room layouts repeatedly. By the time you get to 3-4, it feels tedious, as you once again wander randomly through the same rooms, looking for the boss. The fortresses also feature a dastardly enemy: Eggplant Wizard. They come in pairs and throw eggplants (of course!). If you get hit by one, you turn into an eggplant yourself and can't attack until you make your way to a hospital room. With practice, dodging their eggplants becomes easy, which is good because having to go find the hospital is annoying.

Another gimmick of the game is that the fortresses contain little Centurions who have been turned into stone by Medusa. Pit can free them by using mallets he has acquired. In the boss room, the Centurions Pit freed help him by flying around and shooting at the boss. Although this is a unique novelty that adds to the game's charm, the Centurions go down quickly and thus offer little help. Since the bosses are easy, you could play the whole game just ignoring them and the mallets.

Like Zelda and Metroid, Kid Icarus contains other role-playing elements as well, which is what makes it so compelling. These elements are all accessed through special rooms that Pit enters via doors. "Holy rooms" are empty, but if Pit has earned enough "fighting power," a god bestows an arrow upon him that increases the strength of his attack. The game mysteriously begins with such a room even though you can't use it. The second stage contains the first holy room you can use, provided you've been killing all the enemies. The game deliberately hides how the power system works, with no visible numbers at all. The manual says you should kill enemies, enter chambers, avoid getting hit, and collect items.

Hearts in this game (similar to Castlevania) do not heal you, but are instead currency. There are two types of stores that Pit encounters: the normal shop and the black market. The former has cups of life for 210 hearts, which heals one bar of health; bottles of life for 350 hearts, which give Pit back one bar of health when the life meter runs empty, thus saving him; angel feathers for 390 hearts, which lift him back up when he falls through the bottom of the screen; and/or mallets for 20 hearts. The black market also sells cups, but at the jacked-up price of 480 hearts, and feathers for 450. In addition, it offers the barrel, which can't be bought in the normal shop. For 500 hearts, the barrel lets Pit store up to eight cups of life at once instead of the usual one. This is handy, though I hardly ever had that much money since I would spend it on life.

Also crucial to Pit's progress are the endurance rooms, in which our little cherub is subjected to "harsh training." If he can endure spinning squares flying at him for a few seconds, he will be rewarded with a powerful enchanted weapon. Although this looks intimidating at first, it's easy: have Pit walk back and forth while shooting at the monoliths. All three rewards are fantastic. The crystal rod is the best. It causes two circles to orbit Pit indefinitely, damaging any enemy they touch! This item alone makes the rest of the game easy. The other options are the flaming arrows and sacred bow, which lets Pit's arrows travel all the way across the screen. Weirdly, when you get one of these items, it begins de-activated and only turns on once Pit has three full bars of health. Also weirdly, they don't work in fortresses or the final stage.

The last stage completely changes things up. Pit dons the Three Sacred Treasures he has acquired from the bosses and flies through an auto-scrolling horizontal stage. Suddenly the game is a shooter! The enemies are sparse and not very difficult; it repeats until you've defeated enough of them to trigger the final showdown with Medusa, who is a big disembodied head. The fight can be challenging, as she shoots at you and also unleashes a serpent that bounces around. However, there's a spot near the left edge, centered vertically, in which Pit can't be hit because her shots go either above or below him! Via this technique, you can end the battle in seconds.

This is the first game I know of that features multiple endings based on how well you do. For every attribute (hearts, health, strength, and enchanted weapons) you have maxed out, you get one better ending, from 0-4. If you get at least three, Pit grows full-size, and the fourth gets you a kiss from the rescued goddess, Palutena.

This may also be the first game with a "New Game+" mode (not that it calls it that). Once the credits are done, you go back to level 1-1 but with all the stuff you collected! Now you can power through the game a second time and max out whichever attributes you failed to the first time. This is a fantastic innovation that, so far as I know, may be unique among NES games.

Kid Icarus has great graphics, although all but four of the stages have black backgrounds, which is a bit disappointing. The music is also very good; each world has its own theme, as do the fortresses and boss fights. In audio-visual terms, Kid Icarus is 8-bit goodness all the way.

As fun as the game is, it's not hard to see why it didn't spawn a successful franchise the way Zelda and Metroid did. There was an attempted reboot about ten years ago on the 3DS: Kid Icarus: Uprising. To promote that, Nintendo also released a 3D remaster of the original Kid Icarus. I decided to play that, too, since it received such positive reviews, and it's arguably the superior way to play Kid Icarus. It's the same game, except it has the Famicom Disk System save system (which had been changed to "sacred words," i.e. passwords, for the NES), very attractive scrolling backgrounds for all levels, and a high-score table. It also allows you to float Pit slightly by holding A when jumping. Given that you die more often from falling in Kid Icarus than running out of health, this really takes the edge off the difficulty for a modern audience. Interestingly, the 3D version lacks the "New Game+" mode, probably because of the high-score table. The backgrounds look awesome and work really well with the stereoscopic 3D. I really recommend it, even though the original is still great, too. Grade: A-
Linked Reviews
"There's a slightly more polished, visually appealing version on the 3DS eShop, which offers a better alternative over this original. As a fun experience and the debut of Pit and the Kid Icarus universe, this is worth considering in some form, despite its flaws."
— Thomas Whitehead, NintendoLife, 6/10

"This is classic Nintendo design at work here - the gameplay, challenge and control are pretty much perfect."
— Damien McFerren, VC Reviews, 7/10

"The game has a rather steep learning curve, but the rich and interesting world will likely be enough to keep players returning to Angel Land."
— Pat Contri, Ultimate Nintendo: Guide to the NES Library, 4/5

"This original adventure holds up reasonably well, though nowhere near as well as its summer 1987 siblings. Without question, the ideal way to play it is through Eureka's 3D Classics version on 3DS."
— Jeremy Parish, NES Works

"Kid Icarus' extreme difficulty has turned off many a gamer in the past twenty years, but there's a lot to love as soon as you turn on the game."
IGN, #20 of Top 100


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