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Any casual look through the Nintendo Entertainment System's first-party library will uncover the origins of many classic video game icons. Names like Mario and Zelda remain synonymous with gaming today. Many other properties rooted in the 8-bit era, however, have long since sunk into irrelevance. But unlike retro relics like Balloon Flight and Ice Climbers, the series I want to talk about today has refused to get cast aside. After 28 years of straddling the line between obscurity and stardom, Kid Icarus continues to challenge its underdog status.
Released in 1986 in Japan, the first Kid Icarus game introduced Pit, an angelic boy warrior tasked with rescuing the celestial goddess Palutena from the clutches of Medusa, her evil counterpart. During his quest, Pit dispatched hordes of enemies with his mystical bow as he climbed from the depths of the Underworld to the cloud-bound temples of Sky World. After gathering three sacred treasures (the Arrow of Light, Mirror Shield and Wings Pegasus) Pit took to the air in the final level and bested Medusa.
Although Kid Icarus didn't carve out an especially groundbreaking gameplay niche with its standard mix of 2D platforming and Metroid-esque shooting, its outright oddness (purple eggplant wizards, anyone?) lent it a refreshing quality. The game became a cult classic, praised for it varied challenges and catchy music. It eventually landed a Game Boy sequel in 1991, titled Kid Icarus: Of Myths and Monsters, which continued the first game's style of platformer action. Pit enjoyed an equal share of popularity. He joined the main cast of Captain N: The Game Master, a wacky Nintendo-themed cartoon which ran from 1989 to 1991.
For whatever reason, the Kid Icarus brand went dormant after the release of its second game. Maybe Nintendo lost interest in the quirky world it had created. Maybe the company simply wanted to focus on franchises with greater star power. In short, the series fell between the cracks, seemingly bringing Pit's questing to a premature end.
Pit gained a second chance at relevance when he joined the cast of Super Smash Bros. Brawl as a playable fighter. Sporting an updated look and an unbalanced moveset, the winged hero's reappearance heralded his inevitable return in Kid Icarus: Uprising for the 3DS. Developed by Project Sora, the 2012 title came packed with content and made impressive use of the handheld's technology. Brisk action and a playful sense of humor meshed perfectly with an innovative difficulty system that let players gamble hearts on tougher challenges.
Although praised for its ambitious scale, Kid Icarus: Uprising was not a critical darling. Hand cramps that resulted from its taxing touchscreen controls prevented it from achieving unquestionable greatness. Still, Pit's return proved that his franchise could make a comeback after 25 years.
Since the release of Kid Icarus: Uprising, Nintendo has given no clear sign of what it wants to do with Kid Icarus moving forward. Originally founded with the intent of only making one game, Project Sora disbanded soon after it finished Pit's 3DS adventure. When asked about the feasibility of working on a followup game, Kid Icarus: Uprising Director Masahiro Sakurai said he had no interest in returning to Pit's world. "Perhaps we'll see someone else besides me make another Kid Icarus in another 25 years," he told IGN in 2012.
Two year later and we've heard nothing concrete about any future Kid Icarus games. We have, however, seen hints that the series won't face another perpetual hiatus. Nintendo made Kid Icarus a focal point of its E3 2014 online press conference when it announced Palutena as a playable character in Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS and Wii U. Forgoing a simple trailer, Nintendo went all out with an animated short that featured a jaw-dropping fight between Pit and Link. Nintendo wouldn't put this kind of effort into promoting a series it didn't consider a potential key player.
With Kid Icarus: Uprising's director at the helm, favoritism could explain Palutena's inclusion in the new Super Smash Bros. games. But I think there's more behind her Smash debut than that. The makeup of a Smash Bros. roster often represents Nintendo's confidence in its gaming properties. With two representatives, Kid Icarus now has just as many fighters confirmed for the upcoming installment as Metroid. The increase suggests a persistent effort to promote Kid Icarus and validate its rising status.
Of all the underused properties in Nintendo's backlog, Kid Icarus holds the most latent potential. It feels like an inherently Nintendo creation -full of color, whimsy and imagination. Pit himself serves as a likable hero, who fits in perfectly alongside Mario, Link and Samus. His optimistic, outgoing personality overflows with charm. Meanwhile, aesthetics borrowed from Greco-Roman mythology mixed with cartoon weirdness gives his series a distinctive identity, helping it stand out among its peers.
For these reasons and more, I honestly believe Kid Icarus can join the ranks of Nintendo's recurring super-star franchises. It already possesses the right mix of history, recognition and Nintendo magic. All it needs to succeed is an untapped gameplay niche to fill. Over the span of only three games, Kid Icarus ditched its 2D platformer origins and turned into a third-person action game with on-rail shooting elements. The series needs to put such inconsistency aside and solidify a clear gameplay style.
One approach would build on the experimentation seen in Kid Icarus: Uprising. Nintendo could take the 3DS game's high-octane action approach and polish it with tighter controls. Kid Icarus might even work as a lighthearted, family-friendly version of God of War. Taking queues from Kratos's celebrated quests would round out Nintendo's first party offerings with an overtly action-heavy experience.
For me, the ideal Kid Icarus game would come out on the Wii U with triple-A production values. Kid Icarus: Uprising already proved that the series was too big for a handheld (my hands suffered enough adapting to its cramped controls), and its new style of bombastic action seems tailor-made for an HD console. Frankly, the struggling Wii U could use another hit anyway.
Gamers often gripe about Nintendo's over-reliance on its safe, big-name properties. We see new Mario games so often that their announcements bring increasingly diminished payoff in terms of excitement and hype. Rather than introduce risky brand-new franchises, however, Nintendo should instead raise an older one into the spotlight. Kid Icarus offers something that a experimental concept like Splatoon can't: a hero who can stand side-by-side with the company's most famous icons.
This article was originally published at GenGAME on July 30, 2014.