Alright, Kid Icarus. You win.
I don’t want to play you anymore.
I’ve encountered a number of 8-bit titles that are exceptionally difficult. Heck, I just recently spoke about Contra a couple weeks ago–maybe the very pinnacle of difficulty! (Or maybe that’s Ninja Gaiden. Or Bayou Billy. Or Ghosts ‘n’ Goblins. Or that %#$@ dam level in the NES TMNT. Okay, you know what? There are a lot of hard NES games.) In part, this difficulty was a means of extending the longevity and value in an entertainment experience which has always been pricey. In part, it’s an artifact of an era when the whole medium was less accessible, less mainstream, more “hardcore.”
But it has always been the goal of the game developer to balance difficulty with engagement, and the classics of the medium have always succeeded to a large degree at striking this balance. Take the Mega Man series, which combines brilliant level design with tight controls and allows the player to experiment through trial-and-error at finding the correct order in which to defeat the robot masters. Castlevania, similarly, allows players to prepare for difficult segments by knowing which of the sub-weapons will be most useful at dispatching the enemies (or the boss) they’re about to face. Metroid offers an enormous, open world full of dangers, but promises that each power-up a player collects will be forever preserved so that they can fully arm themselves for further exploration.
In structuring its progression, Kid Icarus tries to do something akin to what Metroid offers, but with a much more linear environment, far fewer checkpoints, and, you know, none of the aesthetically pleasing aspects of Metroid.
The game gives you about a dozen checkpoints throughout, one at the end of each of its levels, and all of the progress that you’ve made so far is saved–your items, your hearts (currency), your health, even your experience (and the game does have experience!). The upgrade system, which exists somewhere in between Metroid‘s power-ups and Legend of Zelda’s items, offers you new weapons to purchase as you proceed, as well as means of restoring your health when it’s been depleted. If you’ve killed enough enemies and accrued enough experience, when you begin a new level, you’ll have a larger health bar. There are places mid-level where, if you’ve dispatched enough foes, you can acquire more powerful arrows! It all goes a long way to make you feel like it’s worth it to kill bad guys and be thorough.
And this is where the game runs into its major problem, in my opinion. The great paradox of Kid Icarus is as follows: because the game is linear and you can’t go back to earlier levels in a given playthrough, you are inclined as the player to linger as long as possible, killing all the enemies and accruing as much experience as possible before moving on. You want to be prepared when the game gets more difficult in the later levels, right? Unfortunately, the longer you linger, the higher the chance that you’re going to get dinged by some piddly blue serpent or flying octopus, and the larger the odds that you’re not going to make it through to the end of the level. Playing methodically and carefully is actually a risky strategy, because the levels are long enough that your odds of clearing them are relatively low no matter how careful you are. With each run of a level, you are essentially gambling with your time.
In my experience with Kid Icarus, I tended to lose. The game is difficult, no bones about it, and for every attempt at a level that I played methodically and patiently, more often than not my reward was that I would lose ten minutes instead of five. It doesn’t help that a single missed jump will kill you instantly (unless you spend some of your in-game currency on “bad jump insurance,” in the form of feathers). It doesn’t help that the jumping mechanics feel more like the floaty, non-specific controls of Metroid than the pixel-perfect tightness of Mega Man.
It also doesn’t help that the main character, Pit, sounds suspiciously like Ecco the Dolphin when he takes damage, but that’s sort of beside the point.
I think, perhaps, that much of my complaint against Kid Icarus stems from the fact that the various systems that make it interesting are done more compellingly, and with better aesthetics, in other NES games of the time. Is it, strictly speaking, a bad game? No. Is it a game that you should go back and play?
I’m not going to straight up suggest that you would waste your valuable time playing Kid Icarus, and if you’ve got a childhood affection for it, go crazy! I have a long list of games I love that are of questionable quality, and I certainly wouldn’t let some jerk on the internet disparage my nostalgia. But if you have no previous affection for it, and you feel compelled to do some old-school platforming, might I make some other recommendations?
Do you have a hankering for a game where you jump around a lot and shoot things? In that case, may I suggest Mega Man, a series with six entries on the NES? It has tighter controls, better level design, and far superior music than what you’ll find in Kid Icarus.
Are you in the mood for a difficult platformer that rewards you for being careful and thoughtful, that has enemies flying at you from all directions and jumps which will kill you instantly? There are three Castlevania games for the NES, at least two of which are superb. Even if you’re familiar with the original, if you haven’t tracked down and played through Dracula’s Curse, you’re really missing out.
Do you simply have to have a game that’s exceptionally brutal? You should treat yourself to Ghosts ‘n’ Goblins. You’ll be up against an onslaught of enemies that are near-unavoidable, and you’ll die after only two hits. If you’re lucky, you might even make it to the second level! In my opinion, if you’re going to have your spirit broken, you might as well have it broken by the best.
As someone who aspires to be “well played,” I’m glad that I have gone and finally spent some time trying to wrangle with Kid Icarus. But you know what? Now that this blog post is over, it’s going to go back on my shelf, and there it will probably remain. Your mileage may very, but my advice is to pass this one over for another.
When you’ve booted up a beat-’em-up or a fighting game, before you can get your beat-down on, you have a very weighty decision to make: Who shall be the instrument of your butt-kicking? Which avatar of violence will you utilize to wreak gratuitous havoc on the denizens of the virtual universe in which you’re about to set foot?
The music that accompanies this decision-making process has a relatively short time in which to pump you up so that you’re at your butt-kickingest when you begin the process of mashing your avatar’s fist into the various faces of your adversaries. What follows is a collection of (mostly) simple beats that are some of the best get-excited tunes that gaming has to offer. Keep at least one of these on hand for those days when tasks seem insurmountable. Maybe they’d even get you out of bed on a morning that you’re being oppressed by the crushing weight of existential bleakness.
TMNT IV: Turtles in Time (SNES)
A simple loop that you may recall from your childhood, this music is nostalgia city. Pretty much the entire soundtrack to Turtles in Time was musical gold, but people were likely to linger on the character select screen for more than just a moment because each of the four turtles played slightly different–conservative, strategic players picked Donny, who had reach and higher defense, while reckless players picked Raph, who had speed and maneuverability.
Streets of Rage 2 (Genesis)
Streets of Rage 2 is one of the greatest beat-’em-ups of all time, and if you don’t agree with that statement then you have questionable judgment at best. The character selection music is mellow enough to give you time to debate whether you’re going to go for speed (Skate), raw power (Max), or a combination of the two (probably a wiser choice). The screen even gives you a breakdown of each character’s stats! Generous. Good music by which to select your outfit for a night out on the town (perhaps to bust some heads).
Marvel Vs. Capcom 2 (Dreamcast)
I never owned a Dreamcast, and I’ve never spent dedicated time with Marvel Vs. Capcom 2. Despite this, every gamer I know seems to know this song. Perhaps people enjoy being taken for rides? Do me a favor and listen to this for somewhere between thirty and ninety seconds. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
Congratulations! Now it will never leave your head.
Super Smash Bros. Melee (GC)
Brawl‘s music might be more refined, but this is the song that played in my dorm room for something like eight hundred hours over the course of my college experience. The original Smash Bros. for N64 was delightful, and Brawl is an excellent game with much more content, but I don’t think I’ve ever come across someone who’s played either of these as much as they’ve played Melee. The character select music, with its triumphant horns, is a different sort of “pump up” theme, far removed from wailing guitars and excellent bass beats. I’m pretty sure this is still enough to get you excited before you have to tackle something difficult, however.
Advance Wars: Dual Strike (DS)
The Advance Wars games are all known for their colorful, ever-growing cast of delightful characters. By the time Dual Strike hit store shelves, players had fully twenty-seven commanding officers from whom they might select. And the game went ahead and stacked equip-able abilities on top of that! That’s a lot of decisions to make before you get to send hundreds of cartoon men to their violent deaths. Fortunately, the lovely people at Intelligent Systems gave us this groovy tune to bob our heads to while we outfitted our characters. This is good music to listen to while you pick out which of your friends is going to join your Elite Strike Team.
TMNT: Tournament Fighters (Genesis)
What, again with the Ninja Turtles? Well, it turns out that whoever the Konami musical wizards were in the early to mid nineties, they were particularly kind to the TMNT franchise. Tournament Fighters, while not particularly remarkable as a game, did a lot to put the Genesis hardware to good use (the game also came out on SNES and NES, each with totally unique soundtracks!).
Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike (DC)
Fighting games like to bring the funk, and the Street Fighter franchise is no exception. While not as catchy as Marvel Vs. Capcom 2, this piece of music is certainly just as odd of a choice for a character select screen. Nevertheless, it’s hoppin’ enough to make you want to delay your decision just a little bit… sure, the fighting is gonna come, but are you so eager to get to it that you’re going to interrupt the funk?
Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World: The Game (XBLA, PSN)
I cannot possibly say enough good things about Anamanaguchi‘s soundtrack to the Scott Pilgrim game (except perhaps that you should buy it, buy it buy it buy it), but this delightful character select riff is so simple and short that it’s not even on the soundtrack. That doesn’t change the fact that it is the single happiest chiptune ditty in the history of videogames. Seriously, put on this music and… clean the house, do your homework, drive to your job, hang out with your friends–it doesn’t matter. This song can get you pumped for anything. If I set this to be my alarm in the morning, I would wake up at 5:00am, run six miles, cook my wife a bountiful breakfast, write a sonnet, and then go to work. And love it. The video I’ve given you here has fifteen minutes’ worth. I hope that’ll be enough.
Confession time: I used The Code.
Is it so surprising? The Code is carved into the very heart of Contra. Contra is the reason that most of us know The Code. If it weren’t for The Code, thousands of children would have never seen Contra‘s later levels. Even as an adult gamer with some skill and a fair amount of retro cred, I can’t make it halfway through the game without The Code.
I wanted to really feel like I understood the game before I tried to comment on it, and I didn’t feel like I could do that properly without seeing it through to the end. Hence: The Code.
Contra is such a fascinating dichotomy: brutal, unforgiving, and unbelievably fast-paced; it is a game that chews up players and spits out their tiny pixelated bodies. And yet: The Code. Contra starts you out with three lives, and you’re allowed two continues. That gives you a grand total of nine–count ’em, nine–like a cat. Good luck making it past level three! You’ll need it.
Of course, all it takes is a little up up down down left right left right B A select start and you’ve got yourself a nice deal with the metaphorical devil: Thirty lives! Thirty lives per continue! For those playing along at home, that’s ninety lives. That’s ten cats.
Ninety lives gives you plenty of wiggle room to beat the game. On my first try, without having seen levels five through eight before, I cleared it in somewhere around sixty-seven deaths. It’s still fun, and it still takes a certain modicum of skill and reflexes, but deep down inside you know you’ve used The Code and there are no bragging rights to go along with your accomplishment. You are a Contra Tourist.
Difficulty levels in games have always fascinated me, because when considering the choice of which difficulty to select you necessarily have to ask yourself what you want to get out of the game experience, like an actor calling offstage to the director: “What’s my motivation?” Are you playing primarily for the narrative? For the joy of exploration? Or are you playing for the challenge itself–for the sense of accomplishment that comes from having triumphed over a system that’s trying to kill you?
Speaking from personal experience, I almost always play games on “Normal.” Why? What’s my motivation? Well, when I ask myself what I want out of a game, I ultimately have to admit that a lot of the reason I’m playing is to have a dialogue about the experience with other players. When I talk to other gamers about having played the game, I want to make sure that my experience is in line with theirs–and I assume that most players select “Normal” because this is often the default setting. Very frequently, if I take a second trip through a game, I’ll crank the difficulty up to “Hard” in order to give myself an added challenge.
Nevertheless, this decision has implications. I’ll be honest and admit that I wasn’t all that frightened by the original Dead Space on account of playing it on Normal. (It’s still a super great game! I had fun!) I simply didn’t feel in real danger enough to be frightened (brilliant sound design and direction notwithstanding). I still enjoyed the narrative a great deal, and the exploration–it’s a very atmospheric game–and blasting Necromorphs was a hoot even if they didn’t kill me very often.
I was frankly a little bored during my first playthrough of Kingdom Hearts II because it was simply too easy on Normal. I was mostly in it for the story (yes yes, enjoy your laughs at my expense here), but the game does have a very compelling combat system that’s a great deal of fun to play–if it’s challenging enough for you.
If I’m playing the guitar in Rock Band, I get bored if it’s a difficulty lower than Expert–if I’m playing drums, I’ll fail out almost immediately if it’s on Hard. All of these choices of difficulty can legitimately affect the quality of the entertainment I’m experiencing (and the character of the entertainment as well, in the case of Dead Space).
Which brings me back to Contra. How does the enormous difficulty gap affect this game? More importantly, is this a game you should go back and play?
Ultimately, I think it is. It has a flavor unique among 8-bit games, and because of its arcade roots, it’s immediately accessible–jump, shoot, run. I think the most important thing about it, though, is that there are more than just two Contras: there is, of course, the Contra that will keep you cursing and fumbling with your pitiful mortal thumbs after the fifth time you’ve been shot in the foot and killed. There is the benevolent, forgiving Contra that grants you innumerable chances and reassures you with “There, there, it’s all right–perhaps I made the flame-spewing pipes too numerous. Give it another try.”
But in an environment with such a yawning gulf of stark contrast, there must necessarily emerge player-driven objectives and self-challenges. “Well,” perhaps you’ll say, “I’ll use The Code, but if I bring my buddy along for the ride we’ll see if we can beat the whole thing without having to continue.” “Let’s see who can get the furthest on the nine lives we’re given.” “Whoever dies first buys the beer.” That sort of thing. Could we call them “emergent objectives?” Why not? Who’s to stop us?
The common wisdom is that 8-bit games are monstrously difficult, and this truism isn’t entirely off-base. But through avenues like the Konami Code, they are more diverse than they are often given credit for. Contra is made easier by means of The Code, but it’s not at all cheapened. Rather, it’s made more interesting–the player is given more perspectives from which they can evaluate it. It’s for this reason that I think it’s worth going back and replaying. Well, this, and because shooting everything with a million bullets is somehow fundamentally satisfying. Surely that has something to do with it.