Kid Icarus

Anomalies

It can be difficult to distinguish between Gameplay mechanics that have been hurriedly implemented, and those which disappoint because of a poor underlying grasp of basic usability principles.

Few games make this distinction more difficult than Kid Icarus; a game released so long ago that one might expect some rustiness on this front, yet designed by a company that exercised the highest standards of design even then.

There is one particular anomaly early in the game which aptly demonstrates the blurred boundaries between usability and hurried design in Icarus. The first door on the first level of the game leads to an empty room. There is virtually nothing to do here but to exit the room and continue the quest.

No one has managed to satisfactorily justify this anomaly’s existence over the last two decades, and where there are only two possible explanations for its presence, neither of them seem likely:

The first is that the designers forgot to remove it at the end of development. This would be a remarkable oversight given its unmissable placement so early in the level, and one which I (with some experience of software testing) struggle to accept given Nintendo’s high production values.

The other explanation is that the designers were aware of it, but somehow did not feel that removing the room would add enough ‘polish’ to warrant the time and effort. As absurd as this may seem, consider a third alternative:

Perhaps a room was required in this location due to limitations in the game engine, and could not be populated with any meaningful item or enemy for fear of unbalancing the rest of the game experience. Surely this explanation approaches the realms of impossibility!

Nonetheless – there it is. Bold as brass. Numerous Icarus scholars have tried to read in between the lines of code (perhaps through a Hex editor) in search of a purpose – or at least – the remnants of a purpose. All to no avail.

The point of this example? To impress upon you the one fundamental truth about Kid Icarus: namely that for all its flashes of genius; the clever enemy attributes, reward system, fantasy driven environments, and variety of level layout… the game is littered with all sorts of anomalies that just don’t make sense.

As a general rule, most of these fall under the heading of ‘Difficulty Level’. Other peculiarities – like the mystery door in the first level – are without peer.

Difficulty

A less quirky (and altogether less acceptable) incongruity is evidenced in the reversed difficulty curve: Icarus is infamously unforgiving at the start, and becomes easier as the hero reaches the end of the game. This happens for two main reasons: the empowerment drought for the main character early doors, and the fact that each new world becomes easier to traverse than the one before. Most of the penultimate world and the final level are especially easy to complete.

There are also alienations that are more commonly found in other titles of this era. Video game Inflation rates have slowed emphatically since the mid-eighties, for example, and the items in Icarus are virtually unaffordable for much of the game. Similar over-pricing can be found in plenty of other adventures, such as Zelda and Final Fantasy, but Icarus raises the stakes:

Key items acquired en route can be sporadically stolen by some enemies. Should this transpire; the player is required to buy them back from one of the traders in the game. Unfortunately – one could play very well throughout, and simply not be able to generate the capitol required to reclaim the stolen goods. And if this situation is not resolved in advance of the final level, you must go back to the game’s start and try again. No matter how often this unfortunate encounter occurs; the player always feels cheated.

Controls

There is also a general lack of polish in this title; the presence of which helped edge some of Nintendo’s other 80’s releases (most notably Super Mario Bros.) above their peers. The iced platforms in Icarus – found in several locations during the adventure – make controlling Pit unpredictable, and the exaggerated inertia sometimes persists if the player then becomes airborne. Landing and maneuvering becomes uncommonly difficult as a result.

Pressing down on the D-pad allows Pit to drop through some types of platform, and onto whatever does – or does not – lie beneath. All too often this means plummeting off the screen and losing a life; a big price to pay for trying to perform a simple task like ducking a projectile (the other, more typical result of pressing down).

Cross Pollination

Lack of refinement aside, Icarus is a creative and highly original title at its core. The vertically scrolling levels in particular – when coupled with Pit’s projectile firing ability – point to a platformer with strong links to shooting games of the time (Xevious springs to mind). The onslaught of enemies from the top and bottom of the playfield forces the player to circumnavigate the screen with a dynamic and elegance as characteristic as the engines that drive titles like Super Mario Bros. or Balloon Boy.

This blending of game types is brought to a head in the last level; where the style fittingly slips into a side scrolling shooter. The player is finally freed from the pull of gravity – and with it – the last vestiges of the scrolling platformer.