Waxing poetic for a wing’d hero

NINTENDO — My sweaty hands are firmly wrapped around the plastic controller, my thumbs tapping red buttons like Morse Code, sending a pixelated, winged child into a fury of jumps and attacks.

Kid Icarus flies before my eight-year-old eyes on my beloved Nintendo Entertainment System. He shoots arrows at flying creatures on the fuzzy Electrohome television atop an oak veneer cabinet in my parent’s living room. I sit as close to the edge of a plaid ottoman, my toes dig into the golden shag carpet, my gaze so fixed that my eyes are red and dry.

I’ve pushed Icarus deep into the first fortress, shooting at the mob of weird and wonderful enemies being revealed with every new screen.

Entering another room of the fortress, I see a blue and purple man trotting back and forth, lobbing what looks like fruit from Pac-Man towards me.

“What the heck is that?”

I decide to grab it, thinking it will restore my health, give me a new weapon or do something interesting — anything cool, I expect.

Icarus transforms into an eggplant.

I’m an inch tall, can’t use my weapon and have tiny feet that stick out of the bottom of the eggplant.

All I can do is scurry around.

Hello, nurse!? A little help? …

This was a 1980s Christmas in the Alberta country. My older brother and I were still kids, wearing acid wash jeans, LA Gear sneakers and ski jackets in shades of neon blue and yellow.

We had picked up a copy of Kid Icarus from the mall after I whined to mom that I didn’t have a game “just for me.” Video games had come home, which was everything to a child in the country those days. We were too far out to get cable TV and skateboards were an impossibility (gravel roads made it a little too difficult).

Nintendo cartridges meant no more forced ventures into the scary “big people” arcade in town. Halfway down main street, Shenanigans was littered with intimidating jean jacketed high school students and their hot girlfriends with crimped hair. I dared only enter with my older brother on a few pre-approved trips from the folks.

A gift from a relative, the NES arrived to my delight but brought with it many questions in an ultra-conservative town that sometimes views new things as worthy of scorn.

Some rural parents I knew actually banned the Legend of Zelda that year because it contains skeletons; I dared not spread the word that the goal of Kid Icarus is to kill everything in front of you — sending a no-questions-asked arrow to the face of the enemy repeatedly until it died.

I simply explained that it’s a historical game based on Greek mythology.

Perhaps it’s nostalgia, a bit of longing for those innocent pre-teen years when there were no worries, taxes or even the Internet, but no video game for me has ever compared to those first few weeks of playing Icarus.

Released in 1987, it is the surreal adventure of a hero, also known as Pit. Medusa has captured him and he needs to climb out of the depths of the Underworld to save Palutena, the Goddess of Light. While he has wings, they only extend his jumping and can’t be fully used until the last level.

This sounds like a straight up “save the princess” video game. But did I mention that flying noses, starfish and the Grim Reaper are out to get you too?

Whoever designed this game packaged together everything bizarre and eerie from the mind of a freak. Kids love this stuff.

The game play itself is also strange. Most side-scrollers have you heading right. This one was basically a vertical
platformer (which makes a tad bit of sense since you’re literally climbing up to reach the Sky Palace).

Depending on how well you play, there are five possible endings. There’s also a code function to let you continue playing at certain stages — all rare features for 1980s gaming.

In Icarus, you can also increase your strength by killing more enemies, collecting their hearts and getting the chance to prove yourself before Zeus.

This odd combination of myths, the surreal and pure fantasy had me hooked.

At one point inside a treasure room, I encountered the God of Poverty, who steals all your belongings.

As an eight-year-old, I didn’t understand the word and mispronounced it.

“Mom, who’s the God of Puberty?” I asked her.

My mother turned, eyes wide open and burst out laughing — an embarrassed “kids say the darnedest things” reaction.

“You won’t figure that one out for a few more years,” my brother quipped like Cosby.

Red in the face, I kept playing. (But he was right.)

A few minutes later that day I encountered the eggplant curse.

Tearing through the game’s pink and silver manual, I found a page that read that these men are no friends to Icarus, but are actually the eggplant wizards. The only cure is finding the nurse hidden in the white room of the fortress.

The novelty of the curse wears off after this happens about 300 times during the course of the game.

I’ve never understood why this feature is included, but looking back I can’t help but think it a stroke of genius. It adds another level of challenge to an already great game.

So here’s to the kid named Pit that we all called Icarus, the little winged child who taught me about Greek mythology and inadvertently gave me my first lessons on puberty and eggplant.

It wasn’t until years later when I discovered the latter are actually really good in a Thai green curry.

No nurse required.

(A version of this article was originally published as a contribution for the video game blog Button Mash.)

Share This: