We've seen a veritable deluge of Virtual Console releases over the past month or so, but this week is light on new choices. In fact, there's just one: Kid Icarus for NES. Maybe Nintendo figured everyone's still slugging it through EarthBound.
Kid Icarus has always played second fiddle to the Metroid series -- both shared development staff and technological underpinnings in common, having been created in parallel by the same division of Nintendo -- but for a brief moment last year, Kid Icarus came out on top. While Nintendo lets Metroid lie fallow in the hopes that we'll forget about Other M, they let Smash Bros. boss Masahiro Sakurai create a long-overdue Kid Icarus follow-up, Uprising. Tied to that, we also enjoyed a Virtual Console release of the rare Kid Icarus Game Boy sequel Of Myths of Monsters, as well as a 3DS release of the original Kid Icarus. It's the latter that hit Wii U today.
Ah, but here's the thing: Today's reissue isn't the same as last year's 3DS version. Not quite. That was a "3D Classic" release, which meant it was the NES game with some minor visual tweaks. Obviously the 3D enhancements wouldn't make sense for Wii U, but 3D Classics developer Arika went one step further with Kid Icarus than with the other 3D conversions they worked on for Nintendo. Rather than simply tweaking the graphics, they also made a minor adjustment to play mechanics, causing protagonist Pit to flutter ever-so-slightly more slowly to the ground when players hold the jump button.
It was a tiny change, but it changed the game pretty significantly. Kid Icarus has a reputation for being incredibly difficult, and part of that is down to the unforgiving controls. Though Pit moves smoothly for a hero of his vintage, he has some weird quirks -- like, if he ducks to avoid an enemy while standing on a thin platform, he'll drop through the platform. And most of the time, that amounts to plunging to his death, as the upward-scrolling portions of the game adhere to "ratchet" scrolling conventions and don't move backward. While the 3D Classics didn't fix any of that, the ability to fine-tune a jump was enough to make a world of difference in such a harsh environment.
So, as with Donkey Kong a few weeks back, we once again have a Wii U Virtual Console release for which a better version exists on the 3DS. This is typical Nintendo, really: For every step forward, a step backward. Granted, a retrograde Kid Icarus is nowhere near as frustrating as, say, when they finally added a backlight to the Game Boy Advance but forced customers to buy a special headphone adapter to enjoy it... but they both unquestionably come from the same place of counterintuitive, unfriendly corporate decisions.
That being said, the original version of Kid Icarus isn't terrible, but it definitely shows its age. The unrelenting difficulty level, much of which stems from dated design decisions (like the ratcheting vertical scrolling), often feels frustrating in a not-good way. And it's all weirdly front-loaded, too; if you can clear the first couple of stages, the remainder of the adventure becomes vastly easier. This actually makes very good narrative sense, as the story begins with Pit breaking out of an underworld dungeon and escaping to the surface to battle Medusa's hordes, but it also causes most players to give up early.
Amidst all those frustrations, Kid Icarus demonstrates some interesting ideas. Structurally, the game seems almost like one of those "deconstructed" meals where fancy chefs break a dish into its components and expects you to eat them individually. In this case, the dish being deconstructed is Metroid. Where that game featured a complex labyrinth of horizontal and vertical scrolling rooms, Kid Icarus separates these into three separate parts. You scroll up in some stages, right in others, and the only areas in which you can backtrack are the fortresses at the end of each world: Free-roaming screen-by-screen mazes.
All of this leads up to the final level, which totally breaks from the rest of the adventure to take on the form of an auto-scrolling shooter. After 16 levels of unrelenting cruelty, the final showdown with Medusa offers the breezy thrill of riding a bike downhill -- a welcome respite. Equally memorable are the Eggplant Wizards that roam the dungeons and chuck fruit at Pit in the hopes of turning him into a helpless eggplant. It's a weird hazard for any video game, but it somehow fits perfectly into Kid Icarus' fever-dream take on classical Greek mythology.