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Kid Icarus Review

Thanks to the Virtual Console, a new generation can experience the simple gameplay and cruel levels contained in Kid Icarus.

The Good

  • Jump-and-shoot design is easy to pick up  
  • Going gets slightly easier once you collect some upgrades.

The Bad

  • Items don't add much to the basic jump-and-shoot design  
  • Exploration and backtracking are limited to fortress levels  
  • Difficulty seems excessive with 20 years of other games to compare against  
  • Graphics and audio are bland  
  • Slowdown from NES game was left in, but cheat passwords were removed.

For some reason, Nintendo hasn't done much to keep Kid Icarus going as a franchise. The original NES game was released in 1987 and a sequel was produced for the Game Boy in 1991. That was it--until recently, when the NES game was again made available for the Wii's Virtual Console. Some people regard Kid Icarus as a challenging, Greek-themed alternative to Metroid. Others regard it as a bland 2D action game that's memorable only because some goofy design choices transform the already cruel level layouts into absolute acts of masochism. Both perspectives are accurate, which may be why the game never achieved the same popular following or spawned as many sequels as Nintendo's other character-driven properties.

In a nutshell, Kid Icarus is Metroid without the large, contiguous world. Pit, the protagonist, is a winged angel with a bow who can shoot an endless supply of arrows. The gist is that you have to jump and shoot your way to the end of the game's scrolling stages and then navigate the many conjoined rooms within the fortress at the end of each world until you reach and slay the boss. As you make your way upward and forward, various enemies will appear and crawl or fly toward you. If they hit you, they'll take away some of Pit's health. If you shoot them, they'll leave behind hearts that you can use to buy items from merchants you encounter. Doorways situated throughout each level lead to shops and training rooms, which allow you the opportunity to buy and gather items that refill Pit's health, save him from death, or upgrade his arrows. It isn't the most unique blueprint for a video game, but it was fairly fresh back in 1987.

Kid Icarus is one tough game. Pit's initial health tank can absorb only four hits, his shots don't travel very far, and enemies are constantly materializing. On top of that, the levels are long and routinely feature platform-jumping sections that involve hopping from one sheer ledge to another. You can expect to retry each of the game's 13 levels dozens of times before you're familiar enough with the layout to reach the exit. Health bottles and shops offer a smidgen of relief, but they're scattered so sparsely and the items cost so much that you rarely benefit from them. The going gets a little easier after the first three or four levels, once you gain an extra health tank and can afford some upgrades, but not by any significant measure. What's sick is that the developers seem to have designed some areas of the game solely to frustrate players. Rooms are sometimes empty, health bottles are occasionally placed near the beginning of a level, and you can't go back into a shop once you've left.

Kid Icarus was released early in the NES life cycle, and the graphics and audio haven't aged gracefully. The game employs only a single scrolling layer, so, while the stones, columns, and statues in the foreground are colorful and reflect the game's Greek overtones, the background itself is simply pitch-black. Pit is a cute little angel and his enemies are a diverse menagerie of snakes, mummies, and other creepy crawlies. Apart from the bosses, however, the majority of character sprites are small, two-tone, and don't animate much. The music is nicely composed, but the few sound effects are all taps and thuds. For the most part, the Virtual Console emulates the game exactly as it was on the NES, right down to the slowdown that happens when the screen is crowded with enemies. The only obvious exception is that Nintendo disabled some of the old cheat passwords.

Kid Icarus is a risky proposition for anyone who hasn't already played the game. You might appreciate its straightforward gameplay and challenging level layouts. Alternatively, you might find nothing special in the gameplay and recoil in horror at the unflinching difficulty.

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