The popularity of Pit, even before his triumphant return in Kid Icarus: Uprising, was focused around nostalgia for his first two appearances on NES and Game Boy, with the home console original setting the tone with catchy music, quirky mythological enemies and lashings of creativity. This was impressive in the days of the early 8-bit revolution that Nintendo set in motion, but played in the modern day it lags behind some of its retro contemporaries, relying on the power of golden memories over execution.
Kid Icarus, to its immense credit, is a short experience — common for the time — that is nevertheless full of variation and diversity. After an initial few levels of clambering up tower-style levels you enter a labyrinth, you then move onto side-scrolling rather out of the blue, showing that even over its modest number of levels this is a title aiming to be memorable; it largely succeeds in that respect. You have to use your move-set in slightly different ways as you progress, and shaking up the level design in this way is clever and welcome.
Pit himself is portrayed with that iconic sprite design, and has the good-old run and jump controls as well as a fairly short-range projectile which — eventually — gets levelled up. The physics stand up fairly well, with neat touches such as a minor loss of control when running over icy ground, but nevertheless there is a slightly stiff feel to some of Pit's movements, particularly jumping. As a more primitive NES title there are design quirks such as running off one side of the screen and emerging on the other, which is fine, and inconsistent hit boxes, which aren't fine. Particularly in the vertical stages there are vines that sometimes hurt you, and sometimes don't, and when you combine those niggles with occasional cheap difficulty, the early stages in particular can be an exercise in frustration.
This is a title that, surprisingly, feels easier as you progress. Pit's initially piddly life bar and the constant vertical jumping early on can cause bouts of serious rage, but later levels with more enemies but less platform hopping — not to mention a much more robust life bar — feel considerably less stressful. You level up and become more powerful, and not having enemies tumbling from the top and rising from the bottom, while attempting to climb a tower, allows for some seriously fun 2D gaming. It's also quite a methodical process, working through its levels, as blazing through will only bring premature death; it's pleasing to tackle a challenge that rewards a small degree of patience and strategy. Add to that rooms to explore and some useful extras to discover (such as using a hammer to release assist soldiers in boss stages) and there's more than simple action platforming at this game's core.
A special mention should go to the boss levels, with mazes and obscure routes to the end that are — depending on your personal perspective — ludicrously secretive or brilliant conceived. While we imagine that NES enthusiasts will enjoy finding their way, we can't help but feel that they were levels designed with strategy books and magazine sales in mind, as consecutively putting together a dozen or more exits without a wrong turn is a long shot, while enemies that force you to start again had us making liberal use of the Wii U Virtual Console restore point functionality. Without an online guide you may not know that you need to fall directly to the left from the bottom ladder in the eighth room, for example. That's NES logic, and newcomers may be left baffled.
For those that are happy to tackle these occasional issues, however, this is a fun experience, but not actually the best variation of it that's available. 3D Classics: Kid Icarus on the 3DS eShop offers up improved visuals — such as attractive level backgrounds — and slightly tighter controls. This NES ROM has, in that respect, been usurped, yet remains an option for those either without a 3DS or Wii — which has this same original — or others that simply prefer the real original.
Whichever version you get, enemies will still fly through walls while you can't shoot them, so you don't completely win either way.
Kid Icarus on NES is an iconic part of Nintendo's IP history, and having this original available on the latest Virtual Console reminds us of just that fact. As the years pass some technical and design idiosyncrasies increasingly stand out, while early frustration and difficulty may drive some away. There's also a slightly more polished, visually appealing version on the 3DS eShop, which offers a better alternative over this original. As a fun experience and the debut of Pit and the Kid Icarus universe, this is worth considering in some form, despite its flaws.