Does a Kid Icarus Revival Have Wings?

The waning years of the Super Nintendo was truly an exciting time to be a gamer. The period from 1994 to 1996 yielded a series of fresh, innovative installments to many firmly established franchises. I vividly recall paging through Nintendo Power in the mid-90s, eagerly looking at what splendors would feature on my Xmas list. Donkey Kong Country, Super Mario RPG, and Super Metroid are a mere sampling of the terrific sequels and spin-offs that graced this pre-Nintendo 64 era. Yet there was one game that never appeared, much to the chagrin of Nintendo Power’s pre-teen readership (myself included). The name of this illusory sequel? ‘Super Kid Icarus’.

At the time, I found this omission puzzling. It seemed unjust that Nintendo would relegate a cult classic title like Kid Icarus to the dustbin of history while less worthy games like Pitfall received the ‘Super’ treatment. In retrospect, my eyes were being opened to the sad reality that developers often allow classic video game franchises to languish and fade from memory.

Developers exhibited such neglect so quickly when 3D graphics became the avenue of choice in the late 90s. These developers, however, were understandably skeptical about whether 2D classics would translate successfully to the third dimension. This uncertainty somewhat explains the lengthy lag time before the gaming public saw updates of certain franchises.

Metroid Prime was a particularly impressive resurrection of a loved, older franchise.

The Metroid series, for example, took a long hiatus after Super Metroid in 1994. It was almost ten years (2002) until the next game in the series, Metroid Prime, landed on store shelves. The Ninja Gaiden series took an even longer break, last appearing on the NES in 1991 until its revival on the Xbox in 2004. These breaks proved the veracity of the adage “good things come to those who wait”. Both Metroid Prime and Ninja Gaiden proved to be critical darlings that sold tens of thousands of copies nationwide.

In short, the video game industry took baby steps but eventually reached a point where successful 3D translations were tangible realities for most franchises. This now being the case more than ever, there remains no legitimate reason to neglect updates of classic series. Surely there is no better time than now to unleash a new version of Kid Icarus upon the world.

History of Kid Icarus

Gamers who owned a Nintendo Entertainment System in the late 80s will possess at least a passing familiarity with Kid Icarus. The original 1986 classic is best described as a combination of Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda and Metroid with a heavy emphasis on Greek mythology. Similarities to Metroid are particularly pronounced given that both games used the same engine and were produced by the late Gunpei Yokoi, celebrated creator of the Game Boy.

In Kid Icarus, the player took control of Pit, a winged angel similar to Eros (or Cupid) of Greek and Roman mythology. The game chronicled Pit’s mission to rescue the Goddess of Light from the evil Medusa. The game, much like Metroid, was a sidescroller. What differentiated Kid Icarus from its brethren was that most stages were laid out vertically, requiring players to jump from platform to platform in an attempt to reach the top of the level while enemies flew downward from all sides. Pit dispatched foes primarily through his trusty bow and arrow. The game was particularly memorable for its enchanting music and unforgiving, controller-throwing difficulty.

In many quarters, Kid Icarus is considered to be a cult classic. This is evidenced by its frequent inclusion on many ‘best of’ lists circulating around the Internet, including IGN’s “Top 100 Games of All Time” in 2003. Despite this fervent nostalgia, the series has only seen one further installment, the 1991 Game Boy title Kid Icarus: Of Myths and Monsters. Old-school aficionados might also recall that Pit was one of the main heroes on the 90s Saturday morning cartoon Captain N: The Game Master.

The Kid Icarus series lay dormant for a long while until Pit re-emerged as a playable character in the nostalgia-thon Super Smash Bros. Brawl. This appearance, along with the original game’s release on the Wii’s Virtual Console, seems to have kindled mainstream interest in the franchise for the first time in almost twenty years. During an interview at E3 2009, Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto expressed surprise by the franchise’s popularity while simultaneously hinting at the possibility of an update. Yet any celebration may be premature. Loyal Kid Icarus fans – Icarites? – are aware that rumors have been swirling around for decades about a possible sequel. Developer Factor 5 was rumored to have been working on a sequel a few years back (a claim supported by leaked concept art). Additionally, the cancelled GameCube title Dead Phoenix was at one time whispered as being a Kid Icarus update. Needless to say neither product came to fruition.

Revival on the Cards?

This all begs the question as to whether or not Kid Icarus even deserves the praise lavished upon it and by extension a new installment. Indeed, after playing the original game via the Virtual Console, I’m sad to say that the game hasn’t stood the test of time as well as some of its 8-bit brethren.

Kid Icarus has inevitably lost something over the many years since its release.

That being said, some could argue the same point about the original Metroid, yet that series has gone on to enjoy great success in recent years. Kid Icarus remains a entertaining platformer that while dated is certainly as deserving of a sequel as A Boy and His Blob is, the latter cult 8-bit title that recently received a ‘Wii-make’. A new Kid Icarus game, if put in the hands of the right developer, could be every bit as compelling as Super Mario Galaxy or The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess.

So what would a new Kid Icarus game look and more importantly play like? There are two readily apparent avenues that Nintendo could take for such a sequel. The most evident is to modernize Kid Icarus with a 3D reincarnation. Since Pit has wings, it would be logical to assume that such a 3D update would involve flying in third-person. Indeed, if the previously-mentioned concept art is any indication, this is what Factor 5 had in mind. An action title in the style of the God of War series (with less decapitations) or the upcoming Metroid: Other M would not be out of the question. Nintendo could build upon some of the refinements introduced to Pit in Super Smash Bros. Brawl and perhaps even use a similar character model.

Yet moving Kid Icarus into 3D is a perilous undertaking. Past developer skepticism about 2D to 3D translations were well placed, and history shows that for every series that successfully makes the leap to 3D, there is one that utterly fails. Neither Capcom’s Mega Man series nor Konami’s Castlevania and Contra franchises really fit the 3D model. Sega continues to unsuccessfully recapture the glory of the 16-bit Sonic the Hedgehog titles with what seems like annual 3D sequels. The recent next-gen incarnation of Bionic Commando – a huge flop by any objective standard – is a testament to the risk of bringing a 2D classic to the 3D realm. It would seem that the fun factor of certain classic games are intrinsically tied to their initial design.

What makes a 3D translation successful is bringing what was great about the 2D games into the third dimension. Super Mario 64, for example, was so successful because it retained the platforming elements of Super Mario World. Metroid Prime kept Super Metroid’s exploration-based action intact. As previously mentioned, some games allow this better than others. Since Kid Icarus is such an amalgamation of other games, it’s hard to pinpoint what, if anything, is quintessentially Kid Icarus. While this gives developers some degree of flexibility, it also unfortunately paves the way for Kid Icarus to become a rather uninspired clone of another series. Take, for example, when Konami tried to again bring Castlevania to the 3D world with Castlevania: Lament of Innocence in 2003. The end result was a game that played like a poor Devil May Cry clone.

The best way to avoid this trap is to keep a new Kid Icarus game as close to its roots as possible. This means retaining the original NES game’s sidscrolling gameplay, while incorporating refined graphics. A recent plethora of successful sidescrolling titles with 3D models such as New Super Mario Bros. Wii and Shadow Complex show that there is definitely a market out there. Moreover downloadable titles like Contra Rebirth and Mega Man 9 show that even 3D graphics aren’t necessary for new games, particularly in extensions of traditionally 2D-based series. The video game industry has reached the point where it can cultivate niche titles, and a new Kid Icarus game can benefit from the present zeitgeist. A moderately priced ($10) WiiWare Kid Icarus update could breathe life into the series in a way that a 3D re-invention of the series could not.

Perhaps this is all a pipe dream, but with enough fan pressure there is at least a slight possibility that Nintendo will make a Kid Icarus sequel a reality. The big N could certainly use a fresh, yet familiar face added to its game lineup. While there is certainly nothing wrong with Mario and Link, it would be nice to see the company diversify its games and take a few risks like it did with the Pikmin series. Besides, a re-imagining of Kid Icarus would be a precursor for what we older Nintendo fans really want: ‘Ice Climber 2: Popo and Nana vs. Global Warming’.

Author: Dave Taylor