Then and Now: Kid Icarus (NES)

This weekly column looks at classic video games both in how they looked back in the day and how they stand up today. Though scores will be assigned, our tough review standards will be relaxed a bit for these games to give a general overview instead.

All retro games come courtesy of Retro Games Plus, located at 1761 Post Road East in Westport, CT. If you’re in the northeastern part of the United States, please give them a look.

This might be hard to believe for younger gamers, but back when I was young – the Old Days™, kids – we actually used to save hours upon hours of progress onto scrap paper. That’s right: we used to use passwords that could, at times, roughly be as complex and hard to decipher as something one would see on Mission Impossible1. Back in 1987, Nintendo released two “Password Pak” (sic) games in the United States: Metroid and Kid Icarus. The former has become a major franchise for the company, spawning multiple sequels, some spinoffs, and is regarded as one of the greatest of all time. Kid Icarus, on the other hand, has had a rockier road. A sequel was released for the Game Boy that wasn’t even developed by Nintendo (TOSE did it), and after that, the franchise was unseen except for cameos in other, bigger games. The franchise didn’t fully enter the public’s consciousness again until Pit became a playable character in Super Smash Bros. Brawl (a frustration that Fire Emblem fans know all about), which got enough buzz going to justify a new entry, the thoroughly mediocre Kid Icarus: Uprising.

My personal memories of Kid Icarus are strong, having beaten it in my youth. Would another go around as an adult prove worth it?

Kid Icarus
Original Systems: Nintendo Entertainment System/Famicom Disk System
Developer: Nintendo R&D 1/Intelligent Systems
Publisher: Nintendo
Original Release Date: July, 1987

HOW WAS IT THEN: Kid Icarus had all the prototypical staples of a Nintendo first party game in the late 80s: deep gameplay, some fantastic ideas, and some frustrating gameplay elements. Players took control of Pit, an angel in Angel Land, a Greek mythology styled world, with the goal of acquiring the three sacred weapons to defeat the evil Medusa. Gameplay took place in a mix of levels. The first and third worlds contained vertical scrolling levels and the second world horizontally scrolling levels, each of which contained three primary stages, finishing with a fourth stage in a maze that culminated with a final boss battle. After the first three worlds are done, Pit equips the sacred weapons and plays in one final shooting stage where he gets to take out Medusa at the end. The mix of different types of stages was highly innovative for its time.

The big deal about Kid Icarus was that it was extremely hard. The vertical levels were especially frustrating at the time because one mistake – a mistimed jump, even ducking on the wrong platform – was fatal, and the entire stage had to be restarted. Even in 1987, this was a pain in the ass. Enemies came in a constant stream as well, with some of them just coming up out of the ground if you stood still for too long. When defeated, enemies dropped hearts that were usable as currency in the shops that were laid out throughout the stages, selling everything from hammers to failsafes against instant death such as feathers and life bottles. There were also training rooms for improving arrow strength, rooms with enemies that could be shot for large hearts, and even hot spring rooms for healing. These were few and far between, however, and some memory was necessary on occasion to be able to choose the right path. The game also seemed to get easier as it went along with Pit getting stronger and enemies staying the same.

The password system was effective, but clunky, and required good handwriting. In my youth, I had the handwriting and organizational skills of any other nine year old boy, so I frequently lost passwords, which hurt me on numerous occasions with Kid Icarus and every other password game. Considering the Legend of Zelda had a battery backup at the time, there was no real reason to hold back. Kid Icarus was a fun game for its time, and gained popularity due to the abominably bad Captain N: The Game Master cartoon (which featured “Kid Icarus” as a good guy and the Eggplant Wizard as a bad guy comic relief character), but it definitely had its warts.

THEN: C+

HOW IS IT NOW: If a young gamer were to pick up the Kid Icarus cartridge – in its original form – and play it in 2012, the answer would likely be the same no matter what: “seriously? No, seriously?”

Controlling Pit isn’t a problem, but enemy placement makes the game an exercise in frustration. Two stand out. The Reaper paces back and forth, and if he sees Pit, he rushes forward and calls out smaller Reapettes. He takes a lot of hits to kill, and is usually placed in a position where it’s exceptionally hard to fight him. The second one is basically the same enemy in three different forms, but comes right out of the ground whereever Pit’s standing and shoots. These enemies take off a lot of health, so until Pit starts gaining maximum health, it’s very hard to advance.

I mentioned the difficulty curve before. It’s not a curve so much as a wall; it’s extremely hard to climb, but once you get to the top, the worst is over. The first stage is an absolute bitch because Pit can’t do much damage and doesn’t have much life, but once that’s addressed, the game becomes almost too easy. The difficulty curve is supposed to start low and gradually increase. Kid Icarus starts way up, comes down a bit, then crashes into the ground, so if you have the patience to get past the first stage, it gets better! The fact that a lot of the deaths are of the cheap variety won’t endear the game to anyone, though.

It’s too bad, because there are some good ideas in Kid Icarus that do make the transition well. While not exactly immersive, the world of Angel Land is a fun one, and some of the enemies and other characters are endearing. However, the NES cartridge is virtually worthless to the modern gamer. The Famicom Disk System version – the one that had a save function – is the one that we theoretically should have gotten, as Zelda actually supported backup battery at the time. As it is, those interested in a frustrating beginning with a more palatable latter half should really stick to the 3DS version, which comes with 3D enhancements and – most importantly – a way to save.

Kid Icarus had good ideas and some decent execution, but there’s too much wrong to recommend it to most modern gamers. It was decent for its time, but ultimately inferior to its sister title Metroid.

NOW: D

1 – Ironically enough, the NES version of Mission Impossible had a four character password.

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Christopher Bowen

About Christopher Bowen

Christopher Bowen is the Editor in Chief of Gaming Bus. Before opening Gaming Bus in May of 2011, he was the News Editor at Diehard GameFAN, a lead reporter for DailyGamesNews, and a reviewer at Not A True Ending, also contributing to VIMM, SNESZone and Scotsmanality. Outside of the industry, he is a network engineer in Norwalk, CT and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.