Kid Icarus was a game I “loved” as a child. I didn’t own it, and I don’t even remember where and when I played it – I guess as a rental. I have learned from hindsight, after finishing this game, that the “love” I felt was definitely jumping around platforms and shooting monsters to another unforgettable NES theme. For the first stage only. And never any further.
Maybe I’m being too hard on my child self. Maybe I beat the first stage. But no way did I make it any further than that. Taking these retrospective looks at games I vaguely remember all have one common element – the “damn, I must have sucked at this shit” realization. And this one in particular… This game is sadistic. It forgives no mistakes. It demands repetition in order to make any progress. It accepts nothing less than perfection in order to proceed. It instantly feels like Metroid when you start… And I mean that in the worst way.
Alright, maybe I’m being dramatic. But the beginning of this game is excruciating. To start, all gaming logic, even the limited amount you could have accumulated by this game’s release in 1987, must be thrown out the window before you start. Case in point: hearts are EVERYWHERE. You can’t kill anything without being rewarded a small one, half a large one or a full heart. But do they refill life? Nope. Is that clear from the beginning? Not so much. You have a pink square in the top corner of the screen that empties as you take damage, but it takes awhile before you realize how to fill it (chalices full of… wine I guess? You come across a few free ones on a stage here in there for the first 3rd of the game, and then never again, without a price).
Hearts, claims Kid Icarus, are the perfect visualization for currency, used for purchasing overpriced, underwhelming items in this platformer/RPG hybrid. You basically have to grind the HELL out of every level, fighting enemies that crawl, fly, run, and zig zag all over the screen to collect enough hearts in order to purchase a fairly wide variety of collectables. What the hell these collectibles do is anyone’s guess when you start out (this will be the last NES game I play without Googling the manual first, as I’m forgetting that back in these days, this was basically a required step in beating a game). In the first few stages, you are rewarded 1 heart for most enemies, and 5 for a few that are tougher to chase down. It’s not unlikely that you will enter “stores” only to find items cost upwards of 450 hearts. Naturally, you may think, I can’t afford that… I’ll have to go grind out some hearts and come back. Yeah, well, go fuck yourself, because once you leave, that door is sealed up.
As you progress through the game, your life meter will grow. This makes the first stages extra tough because your life meter is so low. The stages also flow with a bottom-to-top progression, which is especially cruel. As you platform your way up, the screen follows you, and it’s one-way only; if the last platform you jumped from has disappeared off screen, or if one of those asshole flying eyeballs hits you mid-jump and sends you back down, it’s death in the infinite abyss for you. From there, you restart the stage with whatever hearts you had to begin with. No checkpoints, no maintaining any semblance of progress you’ve made. Start from scratch. We all know that’s the NES way, but with this game, mistakes cannot be made. All sorts of faulty programming makes for a great enemy as well. For example, Pit (the name of Icarus’ kid? or Icarus’ name when he was a kid?) can crouch to avoid projectiles soaring overhead. You also hit ‘down’ to fall through most platforms, save a few solid ones. So if instinct tells you to duck that flying grim reaper flying at you so he won’t knock you off to your death… Too late. By ducking, you passed through the stage and killed yourself. Game over. No, literally; no lives in this puppy. Every death is met with a ‘game over’ screen that instead reads, “I’M FINISHED!”
Once I figured out what items not to buy, discerned what the hell the mallets did (and did not do), and learned the layout of the first 3 stages enough to survive, the game somewhat eased up. After finishing the initial stages, you explore a Zelda style dungeon with rooms leading to and from another…. No more extreme platforming with imminent death below you at all times. Plus, you get an overdue life upgrade, as well as strong arrows. The wandering-endlessly element of the original Metroid comes back to anyone who’s suffered through that, although not nearly as bad. You can now use your mallets to free flying guards from their statue imprisonments. At first, I thought I had to free them all to progress… I started the level with 8 mallets and came across way more statues than that. There were also stores where I could buy more mallets, so I figured I had to grind for hearts until I could free them all. In reality, you wander around the stage until you find the boss, and all the guards you save then fly in to assist you in taking him down. And by assist, I mean they zip around and fire arrows with all the accuracy of an army of crappy Hanzo mains, missing absolutely everything, and can be killed by you if you hit them with friendly fire. So, luckily, I didn’t stress about getting more than 8.
No in-game maps in Metroid, but not the case with Kid Icarus! Roam around long enough and you’ll find a map. And it’s the best kind of map: blank! Yes, hit start to track your progress and you’ll find a bunch of meaningless squares in the “map” section. You need to buy a PENCIL, of course. This way, Pit can fill in the map as he explores. He does this by filling in the squares he’s visited. No, they do not blink to show you which square you’re on. No, they do not show you how many rooms there are, a la Zelda. So splurge all your hard earned hearts on a pencil, fight your way to a random room that has the map, and you’ll find yourself equipped with a mostly useless tool.
One great room I came across that felt out of place in this theologically-themed-yet-Godless game is one filled with yellow lava. I had already learned taking a bath in red lava predictably hurts you, but YELLOW lava? Turns out, it heals you! Yup, abandon all your instincts, jump in and you’ll realize your life is refilling. But if this area is going to have such a forgiving area, it must come with an equal amount of douche-baggery. And it does. The Eggplant Wizards. These guys (who look just like their name implies) toss purple projectiles at quick arcs, usually in pairs of two. Get struck by one and OBVIOUSLY, your head becomes an eggplant and you can no longer shoot arrows. How to fix it? You can jump, you can wait, you can thrash around all you want… It does not go away. Most likely, you’ll die as you wander through the maze stage with no offensive options. At one point, I came across an empty white room, which was mysterious. I learned later this is the only area that heals you of the eggplant affliction. But since I wasn’t cursed with it at the time, it was empty. Empty! Why can’t they say, “Oh hai! Can’t do anything for you now but if you ever have a fucking vegetable for a head, come on back, k?”
Anyway, I later found the boss: a red three headed dragon. He wasn’t all that tough; I beat him without the flying guards help and acquired one of the Three Sacred Treasures! Maybe this will make my journey easier! Nah. It’s just an unopened treasure chest to lug around. Sweet.
More of use, I pick up another life upgrade for my efforts, which is absolutely what I need most, and its on to Level 2. This area was one big sigh of relief after Level 1. Platforming on all three stages for this level now progress left to right, rather than the death-is-only-a-misstep-away bottom to top. The sky is blue, the enemies are easier to predict and kill, and the game starts to feel more like Super Mario Bros. A welcome change for sure. I eventually came across a room that tested my will by throwing a whole bunch of flying tiles at me. Survive the onslaught and you’re given a choice of one of three prizes. I picked the bow, mostly because I had no idea what any of them did. The bow allows you to shoot arrows that traverse the entire screen, rather than just a short distance before disappearing. Turned out to be a much more useful upgrade than I ever thought it would be.
The rest of the stages in Level 2 stayed consistent, so I got through them with relative ease. After three of them came another maze. It was around here I gathered that there would be 3 levels, with 3 stages each, all concluded with a giant maze that would grant a Sacred Treasure if completed. And if THAT was the case, maybe I would make it through this endeavor after all. The maze was larger, and had new frustrating elements. A lot of rooms are duplicated throughout the maze. This seems like just lazy design at first, until you realize it was another intentional challenge. For example, you’ll come across a room with a ladder in the center, several statues and a couple enemies. You may find a life fountain on the door on the left. Wander around the maze some more, come across what seems to be the same room with the ladder/statues/enemies, and you’ll think “Thank Christ, I’m almost dead but at least there is life to the left”. Pop through that door and NOPE! How about Eggplant Wizards instead?
Eventually I stumbled on the boss – a bouncing hydra in a room with a few platforms and red lava. My flying guard friends actually kind of helped on this guy, and like the first boss, he wasn’t the agonizing experience you would expect a boss fight to be in Kid Icarus. Took him down on the first try, albeit with little life left. When he croaked, the lava turned yellow! How wonderful! Time to get a full life bar! Cannonbaaaaall! OH FUCK NOPE THIS YELLOW LAVA HURTS WHY WHY KID ICARUS WHY GET OUT ALMOST DEAD.
And onto Level 3.
As if the game read my mind, it’s back to the bottom-to-top stage progression. Still, it doesn’t feel as terrible as Level 1. This is probably because the shock factor of this game has now worn off, and you now have a decent life bar. They even give you a room with yellow life-lava right off the bat. Some new and tougher enemies though, including what has to be a flying Darknut from Zelda. Luckily he is much easier to kill in the heavens than he is in a Hyrule dungeon.
I got through these three stages somewhat quickly, but I can’t tell you how many times I suicide-ed when ducking on a goddamn cloud. The third maze was similar to the second, complete with some of the very same rooms. I bought the pencil and while looking for the map, I stumbled on the boss. Again, all things considered, not much of a challenge at all – he was basically a giant Blue Slime from Dragon Warrior, who slowly bounces around the room like a sort of killer screensaver. He blinks, and you can only hit him when he appears, and he has two bubbles that also float around, but they’re all pretty easy to avoid. A little patience and down he goes.
And then you’re granted the third Sacred Treasure. Now, in the presence of each other, the chests open! Yes, you now have THE MIRROR SHIELD. THE LIGHT ARROW (thanks for lending so much of your stuff, Zelda!) and the ICARUS WINGS. You’ve worked hard, gathered all of them up, so let’s put them to use for the final stage.
Not that I’m complaining, I was hoping it would only be one. The final level plays like a side scrolling shooter. You can float all around the screen as it progresses, but movement is somewhat sluggish. Your arrows are basically large torpedoes, and for now, your shield seemingly does nothing at all. Kill enemies as you progress and collect more hearts that now, officially, do absolutely nothing at all. One might conclude, Hmm… Don’t need these hearts… Might as well not waste any effort killing these enemies. Not so! If you don’t kill enough, instead of flying your way to the final boss, you’ll find yourself repeating the entire stage.
You’ll then find yourself face-to-eye with Medusa. She’s basically a giant eyeball mounted in the wall, shooting stone-gazes repeatedly at you as well as firing off hydras (similar to the second boss) from her head. The only life you have is what you managed to keep by the end of the stage – no refills. At first, I was looking for a pattern of avoiding the gaze projectiles while shooting the eye, and found sort of a groove. Soon after, I noticed if you’re not shooting an arrow, your shield will block her gaze. While looking for a strategy to use this, I inadvertently found a sweet spot where the gazes sailed over me, the hydras all took my fire before they could get close, and I could unload arrows into her eye. Couple dozen mashes on the B button later and she was dead. Palutena is saved, the player is congratulated, and you’re offered an opportunity to restart the experience with all of your upgrades! Could this be the first example of a New Game +? How exciting! Yeah, no thanks.
Damn, man; Kid Icarus was tough. Tough as nails. It has its standout moments, and some fun and exciting gameplay. The bosses are great examples of classic NES tests of endurance, patience and strategy. But overall, the design flaws and brutal difficulty don’t really justify the whole experience. So when they offer me to start over, even with my full life bar and power arrows, it was an easy call: