Tuesday 31 March 2015

Kid Icarus for the Nintendo Entertainment System

An early game for the blessed NES, Pit - the titular Kid Icarus - first appeared in 1986, and put his head above the digital parapet again in 1991 for an outing on the Game Boy. It was then 21 YEARS before Nintendo reminded us of his existence in a 3D shooter for, appropriately enough, the 3DS. Is that a record between video game sequels? Probably, though it's likely to be surpassed by this blast from the distant past. But on with the NES version.

Coming hot on the heels of Super Mario Bros and contemporaneous with the Metroid series, Kid Icarus is a pretty much a conventional platformer before platformers became ... conventional, and so has a few quirks of its own seldom replicated since. The first part of the game has you ascending from an underworld dungeon into an overground level, and then a maze-like warren of rooms, a structure repeated over subsequent levels before going completely off-piste in stage four and transforming into a horizontally-scrolling shooter. At the time perhaps only Mario had combined different platforming environments in this way. Another feature on the 'vertical' levels is that the screen wraps around Pac-Man-stylee, which sadly means enemies you think are safely flying about over the other side of the screen might sneak up and bite Pit on the ass. Not helpful. Another unwelcome design quirk is how you cannot retrace your steps. As soon as you move up the screen, the lower levels fall down the NES memory hole. If during the heat of a battle or thanks to a mistimed jump you plummet to the bottom, you die. Angel wings can be purchased to save you should you stumble, but in all not being able to go back is a bit of a pain.

Armed with a weedy bow our be-winged cherub makes his way from entrance to exit avoiding and killing enemies as he goes. Each of these creatures drop hearts of various shapes and sizes that, confusingly, don't stand in for health but money for shops. Here you can buy extra energy, wings, and various other goodies. In training rooms Pit is put through his paces as enemy objects hurtle at you. Get through it in one piece and you're awarded a more powerful weapon. Take it from me, that certainly comes in handy. As you progress through the levels you meet some - admittedly quite easy - end of level bosses and gradually power up as a character who can take more damage and dish it out.

As for the plot, not that it really matters, you can find the full low-down here. In short it's conventional Nintendo-and-apple-pie stuff. The good people of Angel Land (i.e. ancient Greece) have been imprisoned by the evil Medusa, and now her army of monsters run amok. Even worse the goddess of light, Palutena, has been captured by Medusa and her power shattered. Yes, it grates, and unfortunately the rescue-the-hapless-woman meme is something Nintendo persistently returns to even now. What is particularly galling in this plot line is a goddess has to be rescued by a 1980s Cupid knock off. What kind of message did that send to its young audience? That even little boys have more agency than nominally powerful women? It amazes me they have got away with this sort of nonsense for well over 30 years. And no, Nintendo, having a female lead in Metroid doesn't let you off. Still, it's up to Pit to unite her treasures, restore her powers, and send Medusa packing. Easy.

Or not. The Nintendo Entertainment System was massive in North America, and it had a roster of unbelievably difficult games. For a generation of gamers who grew up in that era, the epithet 'NES hard' is something they know all about. And Kid Icarus definitely fell into that category. For a cutesy kids' game, it is an unbelievably tough nut to crack. The way the enemies swarm you, the initial pitiful energy bar, the instant deaths on the vertical levels, the tough jumps, and - ugh - the super stiff controls on the final shooter stage make for a game that can flip from fun to frustrating in an instant. While more often than not the egregious difficulty levels in many NES games were thanks to sloppy programming, in the case of Kid Icarus and a handful of other bravura titles (Castlevania, Ninja Gaiden/Shadow Warriors, Contra/Probotector), this was a conscious design decision. Why? It's quite simple really. When many modern games have hundreds of gameplay hours in them, and even your typical first person shooter has a campaign mode of around eight to ten hours, but mucho multiplayer shenanigans to be had, you get a lot of game for your money. Back then, while a sizeable game by NES standards, a skilled player can get from beginning to end of Kid Icarus in about 90 minutes. A good level of challenge, as we might euphemistically put it, helps make up for a comparative lack of game. To become expert at something like Kid Icarus demands the sinking of dozens of hours. This wasn't just confined to Nintendo and its stable of third party software developers and publishers. Over here many a software house churned out stupid difficult games for exactly the same reason. Weirdly Sega's own games for their Master System generally avoided going down this built-in extra-difficulty route.

There's another interesting aspect to Kid Icarus. You go about the game offing enemies, collecting dosh, buying goodies, acquiring weapons, and occasionally picking up interesting items. But unlike other arcade adventures you can't manipulate these items, with the exception of mallets that can be used to release imprisoned allies. The rest of the time you're entirely at the game's mercy. You can't equip angel wings to fly a short way up above a tricky section. Your powered up weapons and spinning shield of death doesn't work against enemies in the training screens. Enter one of the game's maze-like fortresses and, annoyingly, your weapons disappear. For whatever reason access is denied. Marry this to the linear character of the game (which possesses no secrets, as per Mario, Zelda, and Metroid) and you have an example of authoritarian game design. The choices the player makes are limited to the immanent problems of resolving platform jumps or shooting up bands of enemies. Items only kick in when the game decides they can kick in. Even stored energy restoration potions work when your energy bar has been reduced to zero. The exception are those fortress levels where you guide Pit from room to room in the hunt for the boss. While ostensibly open, again there is only one correct route to that final room. Along the way are rooms full of ghastly traps, hideous monsters, and the possibility of getting turned into an aubergine(!). Wrong turnings serve to waylay and deplete your energy, which of course makes showing the boss who's boss that little bit trickier. While one could pin the fault of this on design constraints and the fact the development team had to pull all-nighters to meet tight deadlines, it nevertheless sits uneasily with contemporary gaming fashions and their accent on endless choice and customisation. Even then Kid Icarus was something of an oddball.

In all, looking retrospectively, Kid Icarus is a rarity in the sense of being a Nintendo developed and published title fallen into disuse and forgetfulness, until recently. But it is important as an instantiation of the firm's favourite gendered tropes, of 1980s game design conventions, and an authoritarian game playing sensibility. It's still worth playing, though the original cartridge isn't among the cheapest of NES games going.

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