Level Design: Kid Icarus

I have been playing some games lately and I have noticed that a lot of observations I tend to do on aspects like level design often cannot find space in a reasonably sized “review”. Since I do not have anything particularly better to do and I found the button on the emulator that allows me to take screenshots, I have decided that from time to time I will write some long form-article-thingy where I go through random observations about a game’s level design.

Kid Icarus (Hikari Shinwa: Parutena no Kagami in Japan) is a platform game directed by Satoru Okada (Metroid, Super Mario Land). It was released in 1986 for the Famicom Disc System and later in the 1987 for the western NES. Its core gameplay mainly consists in controlling the young angel Pit in a 2D environment, jumping from platform to platform while avoiding and killing enemies with a bow and arrow (which have a relatively short range but are not tied to any kind of ammo resource). Killing enemies will grant Pit two kind of resources: points (which are assigned at the end of each level) and hearts (which are picked up and stay on screen for a limited amount of time), the former will be used to upgrade Pit’s health (the starting health allows him to take seven hits before dying), while the latter can be used to buy items in a series of in-game shops.

The most interesting part of the game is how the vertical scrolling is used as a way to keep a constant level of difficulty. As the player moves upwards the screen will follow him and therefore move lower platforms out of view. As the screen will never scroll downwards, falling below the screen will result in immediate death, regardless of what platform was in the “out of view” part of the screen. While there is some frustration in the fact that falling will immediately kill the player, regardless of his health level, this is a quite elegant way to build reasonably “full” and traversable level, while still keeping a good degree of platforming challenge.

The first level opens with the always-great trope of introducing the first enemy in a big area where the player can fully see its movement pattern. I actually quite like how these winged-snakes work. They always spawn in groups of four or five and immediately turn towards the player as they spawn. After that, they move horizontally and invert direction every time they hit a wall or fall in a place that is not blocked by a wall (meaning, if there is space in the opposite direction when they fall, they will turn, otherwise they will not). Making them track the player only when they spawn is a great way to add a bit of dynamicity to levels, while not making the enemies too frustrating.

In this opening, the player also learns that big square blocks cannot be passed through by jumping.

After killing the first wave of enemies and moving upwards, the player reaches a place where the only obvious way to move is inside a door. While this forces the player to engage with a door making him learn how it works in the process, the fact that entering will just bring him in an empty room is a bit weird. Going forward with the game this kind of rooms will actually be quite important, both because they allows the player to clear the screen of enemies and because they usually contain shops and upgrades. This first approach with the concept doesn’t manage to teach the player neither of the two things and leaves him weirdly disappointed only few minutes into the game.

Exiting the room though will give the player a very elegant introduction to the fact that going past the horizontal limits of the screen will move him to the other side of it (that is not a great description, either look at the picture or think Pac-Man). The door closes behind the player, so he has not place where he can naturally go to proceed. At this point he has two possibilities:

1. Be smart and explorative and try himself to jump above the door, moving towards the limit of the screen (as this is the first time the level allows him to do so)
2. Be confused, wait, and then see a group of enemies reaching the edge of the screen and then moving to the other side (look at the red arrows in the picture)
As an aside, this is another mechanic that I really like, as it gives the player a way to fully utilise his range of movement, making a game with only one axis of scrolling feel as if it takes place in both axes of 2d space.

Continuing upwards there is another weird design choice: fireball enemies are introduced in a place where there is a high chance the player will be still fighting with some winged snakes, creating an annoying difficulty spike for anyone playing this game for the first time.

This is made even weirder by the fact that just a couple of seconds after fireballs will actually be fought in an “empty” location that gives the player the time and space to learn to how to deal with them.
In this place the player also gets introduced to “lighter” platform, which can be passed through by jumping (no complaint here, the assets look different enough from the big block to make it quite clear from the get go) and the harp power-up, which will transform all the enemies in keys for a short while.

One mechanic that annoys me a lot about Kid Icarus is the jump down button, which the player first “gets to use” here. Whenever the player is on a “lighter” platform, he will be able to drop down by simply pressing DOWN. Not DOWN+A, mind you, like in most games that offer this functionality, but just down.

The first problem with this is that this game does not need a drop down functionality at all. Its core principle is that going down means death, which practically transforms the down button in the suicide button. Moreover, even if you really wanted to include a “jump down”, simply DOWN is not the way to do it. I could have seen it being mapped that way in a game where jumping down is your bread and butter, but in Kid Icarus it is an extremely situational action, and again, the risk for doing it at the wrong moment is always death. It just doesn’t make any sense mapping it to a button so easy to press by error.

As the player proceeds, he will come by a bifurcation. There is some good and some bad in how this is designed, but I will start with the good.

The more natural way to go is to the right, as it is the wider and more obvious passage. This will lead the player to a narrow upward corridor that is very quick to navigate and that allows the player to get a peek at the Reaper’s (blue guy on the right) movement pattern before he has to face it. Great! Right?

Well, not really, because If the player got the harp power up before, a stream of keys will fall on the left, guiding him towards the wider part of the level in which he will have to immediately face a Reaper (a totally new enemy) AND a swarm of fireballs. Another annoying difficulty spike.

As the player goes back to a unique path, he will finally meet a Reaper in an “empty” environment.

Reapers are quite interesting enemies, as they cannot be killed. The only way to get past them is to wait until they have their back turned and avoid them. If a Reaper “sees” the player it will summon a swarm of blue thingies to stalk him for a while (the blue thingies can be killed). This is another mechanic I quite like, as it is a punishment much more interesting than just taking away health and makes the Reapers feel very “different” from the rest of the enemies.

To balance the fact that the player is for the first time facing an enemy so different from the ones he fought before, there is also the first “life cup” hanging around here. A power-up that refills Pit’s health entirely. This is nice, as it gives the player quite some room for errors.

Next up is an awfully strict platforming challenge. Making platforms extremely small is never a good way to add difficulty, and this section is not an exception. Although it is not as bad as it could be, as the controls are still very crisp and there is no momentum to Pit’s jump and movement.

As the player reaches the end of the level he will also meet two new enemies. A frog that takes two hit to die and can sometimes avoid arrows, and a red-thing that appears from the ground and shoots a bullet towards Pit. I don’t mind them, but introducing enemies at the end of a level feels a bit weird and unfair (the first time the player sees the red-thing he will definitely get hit, not knowing that the ground becoming red means WARNING AN EVIL THING WILL MURDER YOU. I can see how if this hit killed the player near the end it would be incredibly frustrating).
Also, introducing two non-thematically-tied enemies at once is a bit icky*.

Thus level 1 ends. Funny thing: Pit looks up to see the score. This, apart from being quite cute, hints to the player that it is possible to shoot upwards, in case he did not noticed it already.

Level 2 opens with the same type of blocks with which level 1 closed. That is nice.
Also, here the player gets to fight a bunch of fireballs on their own. I do wonder if fireballs were originally to be introduced here but were later added to level 1 to up the difficulty a bit.

A bit later here come some Ice Platforms. They work like normal “light platform” but add a sliding momentum to Pit’s walk. I generally don’t like momentum in platform games, but that might be just me…

…what’s not just me though is the awfulness of re-doing the here's lots of super narrow platforms challenge from before, but with some Ice Platforms mixed in. WHY? What made that challenge passable was EXACTLY the lack of momentum.

Before that challenge there’s also a Life Cup to replenish Pit’s health. This is great the first time the player plays this level, as damage is kept through levels, but since dying does instead replenish health, it becomes pretty useless on every subsequent continue.

While proceeding upwards the game also introduces the first shop, although the player will be most likely unable to buy anything in it, as all the prices are quite high. While this is nothing game breaking, it would have been nice to have a realistically purchasable item on the first shop, just to get a handle on how this system works.

Again, this is made more annoying by the fact that the second shop the player encounters does have a cheap key that the player can buy. Why the shops were not switched is beyond me.

Now onto a really nice section with moving platforms. These platforms, just like the winged-snakes, invert their direction when they hit a wall. The player can either wait on those walls for the next one (boring but safe) or try to jump in the brief moment in which the platforms stack.
This is topped by a “final exam” that makes sure the player is good at avoiding Reapers and traversing moving platform. This is a quite hard challenge, but definitely doable, and being the enemy a Reaper the punishment for losing is manageable (getting swarmed by a bunch of easily killable enemies).

Once the player gets past this last reaper he is rewarded with an upgrade for the bow and arrow and is sent to level 3

I will not go deeply into level 3, as the game is incredibly hard and it took me hours just to get there. The only thing that I want to talk about is how the game lets the player “test” his new power-up.

The level opens with a now rote swarm of winged snakes. After killing or avoiding them a single frog will spawn. Being in a relatively safe environment (read: no red-things in sight) the player will boldly face the frog and notice that now he can kill it with just one arrow.
This is quite good, although the first wave of winged snakes seems unnecessary. Opening directly with the frog would have probably been more powerful.

Don’t let this rundown of the first two levels fool you, Kid Icarus is a nightmarishly hard game, but as this analysis proves, it is not because any particular flaw in the game’s design. Sure, there is some weird difficulty spike, but apart from that, the game is pretty slick in its challenges.

I originally was quite frustrated with how falling from a platform was a one hit kill (while being hit by an enemy is not), but after looking closer at the gameplay it actually makes sense. Fighting and platforming in Kid Icarus are not two separate systems and enemies are effectively just a platforming obstacle. Every time I died it wasn’t because I just failed a jump, but because I failed a jump because I was trying to get away from an enemy. While there are probably some more elegant way to implement this**, it does still make for some very interesting gameplay (a type of gameplay which seems kind of lost in modern “huge but heavily compartmentalized” games).

In the end, what really makes the game so “difficult” is the structure itself. The levels are very long and without any checkpoint, the game requires extreme concentration as any error will force the player to restart the level, maybe without even getting to the part where he originally died.

I will argue though that this is not a flaw in the game, but a carefully thought out design choice, tied to the different way in which games were consumed at the time. It is very likely that in ye olden times of 1986 a kid would receive a game like this for Christmas (or his birthday, or something) and then have to wait months and months before being able to afford/to get gifted another game. Therefore, Kid Icarus was a game meant to last, a game to play over and over while slowly learning how to get by flawlessly through every challenge. This is supported by the fact that the game does not have any kind of life systems and allows the player to retry any level how many times he wants, even allowing him to save the game (In the NES version through a password system and in the Famicom Disc System, proper Zelda-Like saves). While there is an argument for disliking this type of demographic-oriented design, I do find this solution to be far more elegant than just making needlessly long games, like it later came to fashion with the advent of jrpgs.

P.S. I have been replaying the game and I've noticed I messed up a couple of things:
  1. In level 1 I forgot that before the end there's also a "final exam" where you have to avoid two Reaper at once
  1. Frogs actually take three hits to defeat without the power-up, not tw
  1. I missed a bunch of stuff from level 2 too. I guess that's what you get when trying to take notes while playing a game this hard.

*from the official dictionary of game design terms
**no damage on hit, but heavy knockback? I don’t know, just throwing stuff at the wall

No comments:

Post a Comment