For all the subtle nuances and delicacies that make game development such a complex practice, it’s difficult to deny that great games follow a similar template.
A recipe, if you will.
Consider the artists of the culinary world—I’m partial to Bobby Flay, myself. They may take a few unexpected twists and turns en route to a pasta primavera, but for the most part, they’re making the same dish people have enjoyed for decades, using the same ingredients your grandmother has used since the Eisenhower administration. Their spices may give the dish a fresh spin, but the core of what makes pasta primavera enjoyable doesn’t really change, regardless of the depth of the chef’s spice rack.
Judging by the unfortunate case of the oft-rumored, oft-denied and perpetually coveted Kid Icarus revival on Wii, it seems the game industry’s spice rack has gotten thin.
Pit, Kid Icarus’ boy hero
That someone considered adding such strange ingredients to the Kid Icarus recipe proves it.
Created more than 20 years ago, the regard with which the gaming community holds the Kid Icarus series is remarkably high, particularly considering Kid Icarus barely qualifies as a series—the 1987 NES original never had a console sequel.
Only one Kid Icarus game, 1991’s Of Myths and Monsters on Game Boy, has released since.
But postmortem praise for Kid Icarus is far from unfounded. Despite the thin résumé, Kid Icarus has always been a memorable franchise due to its endearing protagonist, charming art style and innovative blend of gameplay styles. In issue 204, Nintendo Power likened Kid Icarus to an amalgam of Nintendo’s premier franchises, raving Pit could “jump like Mario, collect items like Link and shoot like Samus.”
A blend of equal parts Super Mario Bros., the Legend of Zelda and Metroid—within the kitchen of video games development, there’s really no better recipe than that.
Though it has been a topic of media lip service and fans’ prayers for years, talk of a console sequel to Nintendo’s 1987 classic reached a boiling point last January, when rumors purported development studio Factor 5 was working with Nintendo to revive the franchise on Wii. Five months later, the gaming Web site Kombo poured fuel on the Kid Icarus fire by publishing what it claimed was concept art from an early 2008 Factor 5 “pitch document” to Nintendo. It seemed inevitable the Kid would soon fly again.
It was cause for tremendous excitement. Until you saw the concept art.
Some of Factor 5’s concept art mixed the wrong spices
Some sketches portrayed Pit as a brawny caricature of Greek mythology, with flowing hair, a rectangular jaw of granite and a white toga dangling off his bulky shoulder—one wondered if this were Nintendo’s young Pit or an ancient Greek equivalent to He-Man.
Worse yet, other sketches depicted the hero as if he were an extra in a My Chemical Romance video, his vision impeded by a swoopy haircut, his skin almost transparently pale and his eyelids inexplicably blackened with eyeshadow. Evidently, this concept had the Goddess of Light refusing a date with Pit, embedding within our young hero a hatred for his parents and a taste for generically written prepubescent rock songs.
According to Kombo, this early artwork had advanced considerably, but the damage had already been done. While they may have shown radically different ideas, each of these concept sketches shared something in common—they were painfully derivative spins on charmless fictional clichés, lacking the slightest semblance of originality.
More importantly, they showed Factor 5 had missed the point of Kid Icarus entirely.
But the problems went beyond Pit’s awkward new look. Even more troubling for fans was the “very casual” gameplay focus Factor 5 seemed to have adopted for the project. While the original Kid Icarus was a challenging action/platformer similar to the original Metroid, Factor 5 president Julian Eggebrecht told IGN in Feb. 2008 the company was emphasizing casual gameplay for their upcoming Wii title, widely believed at the time to be the long-awaited Holy Grail for Nintendo devotees—a new Kid Icarus for Wii.
“I can’t really comment yet,” Eggebrecht told IGN when asked if Factor 5’s Wii game would use the nunchuck controller attachment. “Quite frankly, you try to design almost every game for the Wii, I think, to avoid the nunchuck unless it’s necessary.”
“One also has to be aware of the genre,” explained Eggebrecht, “because if you want to go very casual, then the nunchuck is the first barrier for really casual gameplay.”
The original NES classic
For fans of the original game, Eggebrecht’s words were like a punch to the throat. Kid Icarus had been anything but casual, a jump-and-shoot exemplification of classical gaming trends during a golden age in which challenging gameplay wasn’t a flaw, but a goal and selling point.
Still, Factor 5 insisted their game should be casual. In fact, it had to be “really casual.”
The real problem, however, wasn’t the casual gameplay itself. Rather, it was the dramatic shift such a focus would bring. In contrast, Nintendo’s Mario, Zelda and Metroid series made successful transitions from two to three dimensions not by changing the recipe, but by keeping the game similar and spicing up the perspective. Mario may have warped into a fully 3D castle in 1996’s Super Mario 64, but he was controlling similarly and doing things he had done in 2D for more than a decade.
The same principle applies to Zelda’s 3D jump, 1998’s Ocarina of Time, and while 2002’s first-person Metroid Prime proved the widest evolution from its 2D roots among Nintendo’s premier franchises, Metroid still felt and played on GameCube very much like it had on the NES and Super NES. This seamless translation of mechanics and gameplay from 2D to 3D is a primary reason these franchises are still relevant.
Consider Sonic the Hedgehog, struggling in 3D, for an example of the converse.
Indeed, Factor 5 seemed to have miscalculated how pivotal Kid Icarus’ initial jump into 3D would be, opting for an experimental route that seemed more Sonic than Mario.
Of course, Factor 5’s project was never confirmed to be a Kid Icarus revival. But given the reports of multiple credible sources across the Web, the writing seemed engraved onto the wall—Factor 5’s recipe for a Kid Icarus revival included unnecessary dashes of testosterone, a few teaspoons of emo and, unfortunately, a cup of simple, casual gameplay, an odd concoction which strayed perilously far from the original recipe.
But let’s be fair. Much of this analysis, while well-founded, is speculation. With Factor 5’s closing in May, we may never know if the studio’s Wii project really was Kid Icarus.
If it was, however, one thing is clear—Factor 5 seemed to be on a disastrous path, needlessly taking liberties with an established recipe, and the product—in this case, one of the most absurdly hyped would-be Nintendo games of all-time—might have suffered dramatically as a result.
After all, they were really screwing with the pasta primavera.
Fans have waited 18 years to see Pit fly again, but with all due respect to Factor 5, until someone who can follow a recipe mends them, our hero’s wings are better off clipped.