I guess I should wrap up The Anatomy of Kid Icarus and get it over and done with. I’m a little disappointed that people have lost interest in the Anatomy series, since it’s been a lot of fun to write. Is it that the games I’ve been covering are less interesting than the first few I did? Is the concept just tired? Has my writing become worse? I’m sincerely curious. I intend to keep producing these, but I’d like to avoid driving everyone away in the process.
Anyway… on with the analyses. Thanks as always to Rey at VGMuseum for not only being cool with me using his screenshots, but actually producing more for the games I’ve been breaking down so I have lots of material to work with. You’re a prince among men, Rey.
The fortress labyrinth of World 1-4 does more than just provide a moment’s change for how Kid Icarus plays; it actually marks a change in the game’s overall style. After each of the three labyrinths, the format of the action changes. The fortresses thus serve as a sort of transition from mode to mode.
The change in question shouldn’t come as any real surprise to gamers familiar with Kid Icarus‘ companion piece, Metroid. Like its more beloved sibling, Kid Icarus features both vertical and horizontal scrolling. And like the other game, it segregates the two directions of advancement for, one assumes, technical reasons. But where Metroid presented them almost entirely in an interlocking manner with nearly every adjacent room in the game alternating between vertical and horizontal scrolling, Kid Icarus gives you three vertical levels followed by three horizontal levels, then goes back to vertical (with a fortress marking each change, of course).
In moving to a horizontal scrolling format, Kid Icarus becomes a much more familiar style of game. Moving from bottom to top outside of fixed-screen arcade titles like Donkey Kong wasn’t too common back in 1986, whereas left-to-right scrolling was already old hat mere months after Super Mario Bros. popularized it, because there was a tremendous amount of creative convergence happening around the time Mario broke out. Within no time at all — much too soon for them to be mere copycats — the market saw a ton of other games with format similar to Mario‘s, such as Ghosts ‘N Goblins. By the time Kid Icarus rolled around to the U.S., early in 1987, side-scrolling felt natural and instinctive for anyone who spent any time at all following video games.
That’s part of what makes Kid Icarus‘ early stages so daunting (and doubly so back in its day): The underworld forces you to traverse the platforms in a way that runs counter to how the medium had already codified its preferred action in a very short amount of time. When you move into the Overworld, things become far more comfortable and intuitive for a seasoned player. The threat of falling to your death is greatly diminished, and there’s much less platforming to worry about in general since you’re traveling primarily by walking rather than by jumping. Enemies become less threatening as well, as Pit’s three-directional shooting lines up more closely with how enemies approach you. There are fewer threats creeping in from below, where Pit can’t attack them (and will potentially plummet through a platform if he tries to aim at them). All in all, the change makes a huge difference, and once you reach World 2-1 the game suddenly becomes much, much easier to deal with.
So why wait until World 2-1 to give players a more approachable format to contend with? Alas, a clever connection between story and game design is to blame. The Underworld portions of the game represent Pit’s escape from imprisonment, and it makes sense for him to be deep underground, in a dungeon, escaping to the surface. But it does mean that those first couple of stage are ludicrously difficult, creating a harsh roadblock to enjoying the game. If the designers had included something along the lines of a horizontally scrolling prologue level in which players could ease in (and maybe build up their health or attack power a notch), Kid Icarus would feel a lot less like a kick in the pants from the word go.
One thing that doesn’t change here is the tendency of enemies to appear in groups of four. These puffball guys, for example, leap from the bottom of the screen in evenly spaced increments, hover near the top of the screen for a moment, then drop back off. In fact, a lot of enemies here seem less like threats and more like targets of opportunity: Can you shoot them and gain hearts and experience from them before they vanish again? This is especially true for Rokmen, which are — yes — rock-men who fall from the sky in groups of four. They’re a fairly minimal threat, but if you can take a bunch of them out you’ll earn a ton of points. World 2-2 even makes a sort of test of this, with an upgrade chamber early in the stage that only essentially activates if you manage to take out the level’s opening barrage of Rokmen with flawless style.
The horizontal format also diminishes the threat posed by certain other enemies. For example, the Kerons here attack a lot like Commyloose in the Underworld — but since they’re leaping at you horizontally rather than from below, they’re far more predictable and thus less dangerous.
“Keron,” of course, is an absolutely detestable pun, combining Charon (the boatman of the River Styx) with “kero,” the Japanese onomatopoeia for a frog’s utterances.
The Overworld continues to offer split paths as you advance, frequently dividing the road into high and low paths. Usually one path or the other has a chamber or health refill. Sometimes you won’t know which is the better path until you’ve committed — remember, no backward scrolling in this game, even in the Overworld — while other forks actually offer different items on each path and force you to choose one or the other.
In terms of play, the upper path usually gives you more room to maneuver while making Pit slightly more vulnerable to enemies approaching from above or below. And generally speaking the lower path is typically more sheltered but makes it tougher to dodge enemies. In any case, there’s more of a “grab bag” feel to the branching paths in the Overworld, because you’re less likely to die in this much easier section of the game than you were in the Underworld. In the opening stages of the game, the high difficulty level means you have a tendency to traverse the levels repeatedly before you finally reach the end, so you become very familiar with the route details. Here, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll never see a stage a second time, which means there’s more of a lottery feel to your choices. Granted, I’m speaking from my own experiences here, but I can’t believe they’re completely atypical. The Overworld is simply much less harrowing.
Which isn’t to say it’s without its hazards. The worst of them is definitely Pluton, the robber god. These guys are the worst. They move more or less like Keron, taking bounding leaps of various and unpredictable sizes. They don’t actually move until Pit crosses their line of sight, though, meaning you may need to get close to them before they attack. And they’re completely invulnerable.
What makes Pluton so annoying, however, isn’t its movement or invincibility but rather the fact that if one bumps into Pit, it’ll steal one of his hard-earned weapons. You can earn those weapons back in the training rooms, or you can buy them from a merchant for an insane amount of cash, but the net effect of being struck by a Pluton is that Pit is semi-permanently weakened, losing one of his key tools.
Thankfully, Plutons only appear in a handful of places. They’re ridiculously difficult to avoid in their initial appearance, but afterwards you’re given reasonable opportunity to lead them and trick them. The one good thing about Plutons is that they’re set in their movements and can only travel forward. They’ll frequently fall off the screen near pits, and their ability to move through scenery (but only upward) means they will often become lodged in walls and forced to move to a higher level. They’re dangerous and devious, but passing them unscathed is not impossible.
The other unique foes of the Overworld pale in comparison to Plutons. The most dangerous is probably the Snowman, who soaks up a ton of hits while firing fast-moving snowballs that can span the length of the screen. He has a tendency to show up near pits, often large ones that can only be traversed via moving platforms (which, incidentally, you’ll still fall through if you duck). While a tough threat, the Snowman actually feels more in line with enemies you’d find in “typical” action/platform/shooter games of the era, your Mega Mans and whatnot. As such, he’s much easier to deal with.
In fact, as you work your way through the Overworld, you’ll find fewer and fewer new and surprising elements. There are vines and magma and other hazards to avoid, moving platforms over yawning chasms, and so on and so forth; but by and large we’ve seen bulk of the quirky, idiosyncratic elements that make Kid Icarus seem so weird compared other games. They’re largely front-loaded, which means that at this point the game doesn’t offer many more surprises. This is yet another factor that contributes to the fact that it’s much, much more difficult at the beginning than toward the end.