Sunday, May 1, 2011

Kid Icarus 「光神話:パルテナの鏡」

What better way to start my blog than with my favorite game of all time?

I had seen a number of games in the arcades and on PCs growing up, and I had even had a brief glimpse at Super Mario Brothers (complete with a 15-second turn at the controls), but I had not yet become totally enthralled by in any of them.

When I was very young, I knew only a few families who owned a Nintendo Entertainment System.  One of those families was my aunt's.  My older cousin was always on the cutting-edge of electronic gaming, and he and his sister got an NES shortly after it was released.
I had seen the Atari 2600, but the large gray box that was transmitting Super Mario Brothers into the television looked to be a cut above everything else.  Though I had only had a brief exposure to Mario, I wasted no time reading the game manual—something that would become a life-long passion of mine—and the plumber and his games would soon become a fixture in my gaming life.  But more on Mario and manuals later.

The game that matters now is the second one that I ever saw on the NES; the first one that I really had the freedom to sit down and play.
On that day, the NES was in the younger cousin's room; she had appropriated it to play her new game, which she showed me.
The box alone was enough to impress my five-year-old mind: it was silver.  Across the front, under a pixelated cover illustration, were the words, "Kid Icarus".

The power went on, and the screen read "PUSH START BUTTON" on a black background.  The first tinkling notes of the title melody were enough to hook me before the title screen ever even scrolled up.  Music is one of the fastest ways to my heart, and the music in Kid Icarus, composed by one 田中 宏和 (Hirokazu "Hip" Tanaka), remains some of my favorite music to ever grace a video game.

"You can play for as long as you like," my cousin said, as she pressed Start and moved the cursor to "CONTINUE".  "See if you can take care of this level that I'm stuck on."  She handed me the controller and left the room.

The game started, and a little angel appeared on a field of clouds.
He was charming.  I tried pushing the buttons, and was rewarded with a little "chirp" sound as the angel fired an arrow from his bow.
I jumped up onto the first cloud, ducked under an approaching monster, and promptly fell through the cloud to my doom.  A little melody played, and the screen read, "I'M FINISHED!"

Okay.  This game was hard.
3-3: My first exposure to Kid Icarus

I eventually managed to clamber up the few clouds, only to be immediately faced with a series of
small round green platforms.  Each was about as wide as the angel himself, and the poor thing seemed to have a lot of trouble getting his footing on them.  The floating blue blob-like creatures that would continuously swoop down to attack him weren't helping.

After about fifteen minutes or so of "I'M FINISHED!", a curious head popped into the room, and my brother joined me.  As he tried his hand at Kid Icarus, I took a look at the game's instruction booklet.

Manuals simply aren't made like they used to me.  The Kid Icarus manual is lavishly illustrated, with several pages devoted to the story and a large collection of hints and tips.  I learned that the little angel's name was Pit, and that he was trying to save the goddess Palutena from the wicked Medusa.

The quality of that manual sealed the deal for me—the game became, then and forever after, my absolute favorite.

Still, it was hard.  I would later learn that the stage that my brother and I were having such difficulty with was the third stage of Sky World.  It was the final linear vertically-scrolling stage of the game, and was therefore designed to be the most difficult.  When we finally gave up and started the game from the beginning, my brother and I found the going much easier.  Still, it would be a long time before either of us could reach the exit of the first stage.  While we were able to climb a quite a ways up the stage on that first day, our progress was ultimately thwarted by a creature whom we thought resembled as an asthmatic grandmother, who, upon seeing Pit, would race around in hysterics, calling out little swooping creatures to do away with him.  Upon referencing the manual, we found that the asthmatic grandmother was in fact the Grim Reaper, and that the swarms of miniatures he summoned to harass poor Pit were his Reapettes (yes, the Reapettes).  Perhaps it is due to this initial exposure, but I have forever after found images of the Reaper to be more charming than frightening, even in Castlevania.

That day, because I loved to draw so much, my aunt gave me a little notebook full of blank pages.  My cousin, a talented artist, filled the first several pages with pictures of the Kid Icarus characters.  I still have that notebook, its pages now filled with a child's rambling thoughts and doodles.
Though it would be a long time before I would have the privilege of owning the game myself, my cousin was good enough to lend me Kid Icarus after we got our own NES.  And, much later, she also did me the kindness of giving me the instruction manual.  The manual remains, tattered after multiple readthroughs, on a shelf in my room, alongside the many others in my collection.

My mother was quick to recognize an opportunity when she saw one, and one day, while I was waiting in the school media center after school, reading Zero to Zillion for about the zillionth time while my mother finished up work, Mother brought me over to a bookshelf in the third-graders' section.  She pulled a book off of the shelf, turned to a page in the middle, and showed it to me.  There was a big illustration of a boy with wings, soaring up near the sun.
"Josh," she said, "this is the story that Kid Icarus comes from."
She had my attention.  I snatched the book from her.  Even as a six-year-old, I had little trouble reading the story of Daedalus and his ill-fated son Icarus, who flew too close to the sun and melted the wax wings his father had given him.  I finished pored over the tale, then threw the book down.  Icarus died?  I couldn't believe it.  I was unused to unhappy endings, and even a song like "Puff the Magic Dragon" was unbearable to me.  Nonetheless, I was enthralled.  I had read my first Greek Myth, and I wanted to know the rest of the world that would go along with it.
It was a few years later that Mother brought me home a book from the book fair: D'AULAIRES' BOOK OF GREEK MYTHS.  As a third-grader, I read that book cover to cover, over and over again.  I memorized it.
See, video games are good for your mind.
I still have the book, its pages barely held together with tape.  I had fallen in love with Greek Myths, though it would be many years before I fully appreciated why I found them so appealing.

I played that game endlessly, navigating the levels, uncovering secrets, and seeing the screen "I'M FINISHED" appear over and over again.  Kid Icarus has become so familiar to me that playing it now is like visiting an old friend.  I still know the layouts of the levels; even the labyrinthine fortress at 3-4, with its wickedly-placed eggplant wizards, no longer fazes me.
I've read everywhere that the game is one of the most difficult ever released on the NES.  I suppose that it was for me too, once.  But now, when I want to relax for a few hours, I simply put the game in and play it from start to finish.  Seeing "I'M FINISHED" has become a rare anomaly rather than a matter of course.

I also managed to get my hands on the Game Boy sequel, Kid Icarus: Of Myths and Monsters.  The game was very nostalgic for me, and I played it quite a bit on my friend's Super Game Boy, but it is much easier than its NES counterpart, and therefore not quite as compelling.  The manual and music, however, are top-notch.

After Pit's Game Boy excursion, I waited anxiously for another title to be announced.  Pit was huge, after all: Kid Icarus had regularly placed in the Top 5 games on the Nintendo Fun Club list, Pit (as Kid Icarus) had become a character on the Captain N: The Game Master animated television show, and Pit even appeared in the cartoon's Valiant Comics adaptation (figured out yet where my blog's title comes from, by the way?).
Apparently, I was not alone—it seems that the little flightless angel's fans are legion.  People petitioned Nintendo for a sequel, and Nintendo of America continuously voiced support for our cause.  I was among the eager fans, of course—a drawing of mine, "Pit: Forgotten Angel" was even featured for a few months on Nintendo of America's home page.
We waited, but as the years went by, no new installment appeared.

When Smash Brothers was announced for Nintendo 64, I thought hopefully that Pit may appear, but the angel was noticeably absent.
Then, there was Smash Brothers Melee, for the Nintendo Gamecube.  With its huge roster of characters, and even the Ice Climbers joining the roster, I was absolutely certain, beyond any doubt, that Pit would make an appearance.  And yet, as I unlocked each secret character, I became more and more nervous.  Certainly, Pit had to be included in the game.  Where was he?
When I unlocked the final secret character and Pit had still not appeared, I was devastated.  Not only that: I was angry.  Why was Dr. Mario given a role and not Pit?  The angel's exclusion was the one big black mark on what I consider to be an otherwise outstanding game.
Pit was not playable, but the angel did appear as a trophy, and I think that at least 90 hours on that game's internal play clock comes from my simply staring longingly at a three-dimensional Pit.

I did not understand why the fans' pleas for Pit were being so largely ignored until I went to live in Japan.  Pit is not completely unknown there (his 8-bit adventure was re-released on the Game Boy Advance, and is the first Japanese video game that I bought), but the poor angel is nearly so.  Pit's Japanese excursion, named 「光神話:パルテナの鏡」(Myth of Light: Palutena's Mirror), did not enjoy the success of its sister game, Metroid, and largely fell off of Japan's radar.  The Game Boy game never saw Japanese shores.  Few Japanese gamers even know who Pit is.

But even while living in Japan, I did not give up hope.  Perhaps someday, I thought, Pit would return.

And then, the teaser trailer for Smash Brothers X (known to American gamers as Smash Brothers Brawl) was released.

When I saw the trailer, I shouted so loudly that the neighbors dropped by to see if I was all right.

I was.

Pit had come back to me.
I was so excited that I even called home to share the news (my mother, bless her soul, appreciated just how happy I was).  Pit had returned, and he looked outstanding.  The designers had done a brilliant job with him.  I began to follow the news for Smash Brothers X obsessively.  Not only was Pit back, but he had a prominent part in the game's adventure mode, "The Sub-Space Emissary", as well.  Every day, new news was released, and 桜井 政博 (Masahiro Sakurai, the man behind Smash Brothers) fed fans a continuous stream of information.  It was the best job of promoting a game that I have ever seen—but more on Smash Brothers another time.  We're talking about Pit, after all.

What was most interesting to me was that Pit's presence had to be explained to the Japanese audience, as many people didn't know who he was.  Mr. Sakurai detailed Pit's prior adventures in an interview for a Japanese gaming magazine, and went on to add that the angel's presence in Smash Brothers X was due to his overwhelming popularity with American fans (THANK YOU!).  So that fans could understand where the angel had come from, Nintendo even included a demo of Kid Icarus in the "Masterpieces" section of the game.  I love that demo; my friends are always amazed to see me clear the first stage before the time limit ends.

Pit was presented extremely well in his Smash Brothers excursion.  He was well-designed, his Japanese voice acting was excellent, and he even randomly groaned 「ヤラレチャッタ」 ("yararechatta") when defeated.  Why is that so special?  Well, that 「ヤラレチャッタ」 was the original text that was displayed when Pit was defeated in his 8-bit days.  Yes, that's right: 「ヤラレチャッタ」 is "I'M FINISHED!"
Sadly, I'm pretty sure that the quote was translated as "I'm done for!" in the English release of the game, thus completely ruining the reference.

I was happy beyond words to see that Pit had returned for Smash Brothers X on the Wii, so you can imagine my elation when Nintendo announced that Pit would be getting his own game on the Nintendo 3DS.  I found out about that one at school, when a fellow employee called me over after surfing the Internet in the teachers' room.  (Bad, yes.  Uncommon, no).
He had wanted to show me Skyward Sword, the new Zelda offering, but his news was completely lost to me when I saw the logo for 「新・光神話:パルテナの鏡」 —yes, that's Kid Icarus: Uprising.
The music, the graphics, the art, the character design: everything looks to be exactly as I had hoped for.  How could Nintendo have done such a perfect job, I wondered?  The answer appears to be the game's director: Masahiro Sakurai.  I get the impression that his taste in games is closely aligned with mine (he is the man behind Kirby, after all).
Have you seen that teaser poster, in which Pit is about to fly out of a door into a golden land above the clouds?  I was flying about that high for the rest of the day.

I had hoped to get that game in Japanese before I left Japan, but alas, it was not to be.  Still, Kid Icarus: Uprising remains the game on the horizon that I am most looking forward to owning.  I will, at least, have to order the Japanese strategy guide—Japan does its guides extremely well.

In the meantime, there are other games to play, other challenges to be overcome.  I will probably keep playing games forever, since I seem to be a natural at them.  My friends always ask me how I got to be so good at games.
The answer is simple.  I had good training.

I cut my teeth on stage 3-3 of Kid Icarus, after all.

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