If you were around during the glory days of the NES, you probably noticed that there was a core group of games that everyone seemed to own. As you'd sift through the labels of your friends' or relatives' collections, it was likely that you'd identify names belonging to those same nine or ten ubiquitous titles: Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, Contra, Mega Man 2, Bionic Commando, Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!!, Ninja Gaiden, Castlevania and Double Dragon. Yet it was also likely that you'd register each acquaintance as being unique for how he or she owned at least one from a second group of outliers--any of those less-prolific games that were second-tier only in terms of popularity.
Some of the kids at school might have owned titles like Metal Gear, Faxanadu and R.C. Pro-Am. Your cousins state-wide surely introduced you to the likes of Blaster Master, Disney's DuckTales and Karnov. That weird kid on the corner of your block was probably eager to sic Adventure Island and Crystalis on you.
In the case of my closest friends, it was Kid Icarus.
Well, that sounded amazing! "How could such a game have eluded me for so long?" I wondered. "And how could it not be of matching quality?!"
It wasn't an immediate realization, but I could soon understand why not many people cared to own Kid Icarus.
It seemed promising at the start. I mean, I found the title-screen and opening-stage music to be rather epic--their rousing themes evoking the same feelings of heroism, grand adventure, and emotional complexity that I remembered from Metroid. And marrying Metroid's formula to a more-action-oriented vertical scroller--a platformer-shooter hybrid of sorts--seemed like a neat idea, my initial impression being that the Samus-like Kid Icarus (we didn't know that his real name was "Pit") would be slyly negotiating his way around waves of enemies and creatively utilizing the screen's wraparound mechanic to solve platforming conundrums. "This will be fun!" I thought.
All of that positive buzz disappeared little by little as I made my way further into that first stage. My biggest concern was that I'd been at it for only a minute or two, and Kid Icarus had already claimed its place as one of the toughest NES games I'd ever played. There was none in the way of true progress and only certain death: A procession of floating-eyeball creatures would fly in and undulate unpredictably, quickly reduce my inadequate energy meter down to a sliver; their distracting motion would furthermore leave me prone to the snakes that would keep dropping on my head from out of nowhere. An enemy would bump me during a jump and I'd fall helplessly into an abyss that was solid ground mere seconds before ("What kind of nonsense is that?!" I questioned. "Why can't the screen scroll back down?!). I'd measure a jump well but still slip off the platform and die.
I couldn't figure out what was going on with that Grim Reaper enemy, why the music would suddenly change whenever I'd get near it, or why I couldn't damage it with my arrows; if I wasn't killed by repeated contact, I'd instead find myself overwhelmed by its offspring, which would spawn in endlessly. So I thought it best to avoid engaging the Reaper and, well, pretty much every other enemy, since stopping to fight any of them would usually end in disaster.
Not much about its gameplay systems made sense to me. There were a number of doors found throughout the stage, but entering into them seemed pointless; the majority of time, there'd be absolutely nothing in the rooms beyond. In other instances, I'd be ambushed by swarms of materializing insectoids, my prize for defeating them little more than an ailing life meter. There were stores selling important-looking items, but they were always ungodly expensive compared to the paltry ten or so hearts I'd accumulated after killing a bunch of snakes; it was if the game was suggesting to me that I spend several hours outside collecting hundreds of hearts from enemies who dropped them in values equaling no higher than five--hardly a recipe for a successful platformer.
I'm sure having a manual would have helped, but I doubt it would have changed my mind that Kid Icarus' obscure design choices spoke of unnecessary complication where Metroid's complexity was instead born from the intriguingly labyrinthine nature of its world and its demand that the player figure out how to use the game's easily understood, dependable weapons to navigate through it. All told, I never made it past that first stage or even came close to seeing its exit, and nothing that I saw from Kid Icarus convinced me that it was a game I needed to own for myself.
Kid Icarus is a game I wanted to like but couldn't. I looked for any excuse to ignore its shortcomings and name it as part of that core group of games that defined Nintendo's DNA; I wanted so badly for its hero, Pit, to emerge as one of the company's most visible all-stars, since I liked the character and would get excited when it'd appear alongside other Nintendo personalities on, say, the victory screen for Tetris B-Type or even in the Captain N cartoon. I was certain that he'd be one day return to action, hopefully in a better, more-comprehensible game.
In the meantime, I kept his lone NES entry in my periphery and enjoyed what parts of it I could via video play-throughs and music files (someone sent me a collection of MP3 files as ripped from Hirokazu Tanaka's spectacular Metroid-Kid Icarus Arranged album, which I continued enjoying for years). And I could see hints of greatness in Kid Icarus: The soundtrack, as advertised to me by those album files, continued be excellent, the music bouncing back and forth between delightfully whimsical and cautiously menacing whenever the situation called for it. I liked the idea of the labyrinth stages, which recalled the game's true roots and reminded me of dungeons from Zelda. And it had a greater depth of content than I originally gave it credit--a series of creative-looking sequences (like the auto-scrolling final stage) that could almost trick me into disregarding the possibility theirs was more a desire to punish me.
"And wait--there are Metroids in this game?!" I shouted at the computer monitor, shocked by their appearance. That Metroids--or at least creatures resembling them--were popping up in a closely related game was super-interesting to me; I'd often think about how the Metroid and Kid Icarus were connected, if at all, and if the two somehow shared the same universe.
I could see plenty of reasons for me to return to Kid Icarus, but the circumstances just never lined up.
As for the NES version: I still find it terribly rough to play. It's the only game I've ever known to have a "reverse difficulty curve," where the most challenging elements are faced directly upfront before the game mellows a bit. The problem is that Kid Icarus exhibits all of its biggest flaws in that first stage: You learn quickly that the controls are slippery and unrefined, Pit stumbling off platforms and occasionally falling through them when your intention is to crouch. Enemies are annoyingly positioned, sometimes popping into view from above and below without warning and sniping you before you can react. Your health meter is entirely inadequate for a stage that drags on that long. You can't afford any of the items. And any death suffered, even if you're within pixels of the exit, will send you alllllll the way back to the beginning of the stage. Experiencing what lies beyond may very well be worth your while, but it's likely that your fruitless attempts to endure this hellhole of an opening stage will convince you otherwise, and that's a shame.
Kid Icarus, the character, has enjoyed some newfound popularity in recent years thanks to the well-received Kid Icarus: Uprising and his appearances in the Smash Bros. games, but he deserves more--desirably the chance to earn greater success via the rediscovering of his side-scrolling roots. Here's to hoping that Pit one day returns in the expertly crafted, fully realized action-platformer that a lot of us have been anticipating for the last quarter of a century.