Friday, October 24, 2014

NES Replay: Kid Icarus

Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo
Released: July 1987
Kid Icarus is one of the more difficult games to write about, for one big reason: It’s easy to appreciate Kid Icarus, but hard to like.

We’ll back up a moment. The development of Kid Icarus was troubled. Initially, Nintendo was trying to make a side-scrolling action game with role-playing elements. There were delays and problems during development, so they had to change directors just to get the game out of the door. The new director, Yoshio Sakamoto, had just come off of Metroid, a completely different type of game. In order to get the game in the can, large chunks of Kid Icarus had to be scrapped or rewritten.

This made Kid Icarus a little more disjointed than it could have been. You can see pieces of the platformer-RPG that it was intended to be. Your arrows get stronger, your health bar can grow, and there are rooms that you can enter into to buy items to help you on your quest, among other things. However, each of those pieces is a problem on its own.

We’re going to spend a lot of time ragging on this game in the early going of this review, so you might think that this is a totally negative review. However, we’re tearing apart Kid Icarus, not because it's bad, but because Kid Icarus almost touches greatness in so many ways. Unfortunately, the individual pieces are so flawed that they can’t congeal into a cohesive and satisfying whole.
For example, in the early going, your arrows are very weak, with a very short reach. That’s not a problem in and of itself, but the way to improve them is by killing enemies without taking damage, as well as fulfilling a very specific set of circumstances. This is from the instruction manual’s explanation of how to improve your arrows:
“How many of the enemy have you killed? How many chambers have you entered? Have you got a lot of items? And how little damage has the enemy inflicted on you?”
That’s all well and good, but in the early going, you have a small health bar and very little power. The early sections of Kid Icarus become grind-tastic as you try and kill as many enemies as you can so that you don’t get obliterated later on. That’s also the way to increase your health bar, by the way: The more enemies you kill, the more points you get. At the end of every level, your points are tallied up, and if you hit certain thresholds, you get a larger health bar. Hope you like shooting arrows at snakes forever! The combination of these two factors forces you to play Kid Icarus very slowly through the first few levels.

We've also mentioned the various rooms that you can enter into scattered throughout the world. Each room is a little different. One might house a hot spring, which refills your life bar. Another might hold a merchant, or another might be a chamber where you have to kill a bunch of enemies. It’s a great idea in theory, but there are so many of these rooms that it interrupts your quest instead of adding to it. Kid Icarus turns into a sequence of “grind, then enter door, then grind again,” instead of actually being a fluid game.

All that being said, there is a lot to appreciate about Kid Icarus. There wasn’t another game quite like Kid Icarus for a long, long time. It had an odd sense of humor and a rhythm all its own that is wholly unique. There’s an enemy that’s shaped like a nose. The manual has a reference to Metroids. The vendors are shady. It’s just silly all over.

Also, the monster designs are standouts. The funniest one is the Reaper. The Reaper paces back and forth on its platform, and if it happens to be looking in your direction when you pass, it starts jumping around and making little panicked chirps. It’s never not funny, except for the fact that it’s calling enemies who swarm you in an attempt to kill you.

But for each positive step that Kid Icarus took, it took one backward. It’s progression system was such that it got easier, not harder, as it went along. It hides its best ideas toward the end of the game, where most players would never get to them. There are dungeons with maps and items. The last level turns into a side-scrolling shooter. You would never guess that these things were in the game in a million years while you were slogging through the first few painful levels.

Kid Icarus was the sign of a company that didn’t want to sit on its laurels, and it was great as a demonstration of new directions that the platformer could be pushed in. The ideas it introduced would be refined in the Game Boy sequel, which sanded down some of Kid Icarus’ rough edges but lost a little of the goofiness from the original.

For better or worse, Nintendo never made another game quite like Kid Icarus. It was a swing for the fences that fell short, but still had enough good ideas to make you wish for what could have been.

Final Rating: