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Retro Review: Kid Icarus

Back in 1986, a game came around that went on to become a cult classic, a game whose name inspired awe and fond memories in the hearts of gamers. That game went on to have an unnoticed sequel on the Game Boy, and since then, its name was uttered only in the past-tense and fans continue to wait to this day for Nintendo to make a true sequel of the game for the DS or the Wii. That game, featuring a quirky protagonist in a grand adventure, was called Kid Icarus.

What if you missed out on this title way back when it first came around? Don’t feel bad–I did, too. I’m glad that I took the time to go and visit Angel Land and experience the legend that will be joining the fray in Super Smash Bros. Brawl later this year. And I have to say, I certainly understand why this game has attained the status it has.Kid Icarus stars a winged boy named Pit who has been tasked with saving Palutena, the Goddess of Light, from Medusa. Naturally, it’s not an easy job to undertake, and Pit has to collect three mystical treasures with which to arm himself and defeat the foul beast causing a ruckus. What this leads to is one of the NES’s biggest adventures.

Pit is armed at the outside with nothing but a puny bow that can’t even fire 20 feet ahead of him. Of course, this issue can be remedied as you play through the game–but be warned, as it’s difficult to attain power. You must collect plenty of hearts dropped by enemies, which you can use as currency to buy items to refill health, help lift you from pitfalls, and more. As you progress through this side-scrolling (and often vertical) game, you will encounter various chambers: some are shops, where you can buy items, others are caverns filled with monsters to defeat and collect hearts from, and still others have a health-restoring spring or a cache of currency to collect. Once in a while, you’ll even receive a powerup to your bow.

Since you want money to buy health items and such, you’re encouraged to slaughter foes. But there’s more to it than that–there are powerful weapons you can collect by surviving endurance trials that you will rarely discover. These weapons, which can be chosen in any order, require your health to be at a certain height to use–meaning you have to upgrade your max HP and retain it in order to make use of them. This process involves earning points (through an invisible meter, unfortunately) which accumulate and grant you level-ups when you reach certain amounts. Getting points requires a lot of skill, however, so you’d best be playing with nimble fingers.

As a matter of fact, nimble fingers are a must in order to play this game in general, as it is quite difficult. You need to power up in order to face enemies later in the game, which means you must defeat enemies, collect power ups, and do so adroitly, lest you not earn enough points to have enough health or weaponry to deal with them. Furthermore, if you die, you are dead–period. You must start the level all over again–and they can get fairly long, especially the labyrinths, which are the conclusions to each world. The labyrinths are hard to navigate and often have repeat rooms, making them even more tedious to traverse.

The graphics are good for the NES as far as technical specs are concerned–characters are large and colorful. However, the environments leave something to be desired–as times, the game looks awesome, but others, it looks lifeless. Some more artistic detail could have been paid to the backgrounds. I know this is the NES, but I don’t remember Super Mario Bros. or Metroid feeling quite so barren. Perhaps this was because they were filled with more content–it’s hard to say, but the environments look a little too empty for their own good too often.

The sound, on the other hand, is flawless. The sound effects are true NES quality, and the soundtrack composed here was clearly a labor of love. The title theme and overworld anthem are catchy, memorable, and quite adventurous. I look forward to seeing this music remixed and orchestrated for Brawl.

My biggest complaint with this game, the issue that prevents it from having a true masterpiece status, is its engine. Plain and simple, the game’s engine is downright glitchy at times. It’s harsh, I know, it’s an NES game, but NES games of such caliber in concept deserve better engines. Megaman, Metroid, Zelda, and Mario all physically played better than this game, and it deserves better. When you occasionally get your foot stuck in a wall, enemies that are supposed to be falling from pots pop out from right next to them rather than out of them, walking and jumping feel awkward, and a great deal of other flaws are noticeable, the game becomes difficult to play, the raw challenge notwithstanding. This is a true shame, and I hope that when Nintendo inevitably makes a sequel, its engine is sharp and clean. I’m sorry, but the controls and physical mechanics of the game deserved more attention, especially with such quality game design at work here.

While the game is rewarding, it’s only if you can overcome the steep skill curve, brutal difficulty, and awkward physics. A lot of interesting ideas for the day (1986) are thrown in to create a Zelda/Metroid hybrid that falls from masterpiece status due to its flaws.

Nevertheless, Kid Icarus rewards you if you fight long enough to master it. Skillful playing is rewarded, and by the end, you feel a sense of empowerment for all of your hard work; but the learning curve is a tad steep and the game as a whole is too difficult to be recommended to anyone. The gameplay elements are difficult, many items are confusing and require research to figure out their use, the engine is a bit off, and the overall gameplay is unrefined compared to true classics. Furthermore, the cheat code element found in the original classic has been removed from the Virtual Console release–a decision that makes no sense at all.

Awards:

Superb Soundtrack

Hardcore Difficulty

Deep Gameplay/Value

Steep Learning Curve

 

Score: 3.5/5

Maybe Buy It

Final Word:

Kid Icarus is a title worth playing simply for nostalgic value, or, for those not familiar with it, to experience a cult classic in gaming culture and be indulged in the lore of the game so they can better appreciate Pit’s 2nd coming in Super Smash Bros. Brawl. However, it does not hold up as well to the test of time such as masterpieces like Mario and Zelda. It’s difficulty, confusing elements, and awkward mechanics prevent it from reaching true greatness. Lacking features from the original NES title in its Virtual Console release hurts the presentation. Hopefully, Nintendo will make up for this and not make the same mistake again. As it stands, it’s a decent game that will give you some value for a purchase, but only if you’re willing to overlook its many flaws and struggle with them to do so, making it hard to give a solid recommendation. Kid Icarus is very much like its protagonist–it has wings, and struggles to take flight, but can only stay aloft for a brief period of time before falling from classically epic heights.

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