Last week was the Nintendo Game Boy’s 25th anniversary. It’s a weird experience, realizing that the hunk of plastic and silicon I used to play with in the back seat of my parents’ car is now a quarter of a century old. If the Nintendo Game Boy were a person and not a handheld video game system, it would be old enough to buy booze and maybe not get carded. Old enough to settle down and start a family of its own. I’ll spare you the ubiquitous “Game Man” jokes–okay, I’ll admit it, I’m just jealous that I didn’t think of it first–but the whole thing is so weird that I’m almost in denial about it. 25th anniversaries are things that happen to stuff from my parents’ generation, like Abbey Road or, I dunno, Star Wars. Could it really have been 25 years ago that I first played Tetris and Super Mario Land? (Well, no…I’m pretty sure I didn’t get mine until a few years after launch. But you know what I mean.) Am I really this goddamn old?
The answer is yes. Yes, I am. Old enough, in fact, that upon hearing the announcement last week, I felt the irresistible nostalgic pull to return to some original Game Boy games. My first thought was to dust off the aforementioned Mario Land, but that game is so short and breezy–a half hour to beat at best, if you’re a 2D Mario vet–that it really shouldn’t require a special occasion to revisit. Instead, I decided to try a Game Boy game I’ve never played before: 1991’s Kid Icarus: Of Myths and Monsters.
Kid Icarus is a bit of an odd duck in the Nintendo canon. The original game, released in 1986 for the Japanese Famicom and 1987 for the Western Nintendo Entertainment System, is probably right up there with Zelda II: The Adventure of Link as one of the most-played but never-finished video games among kids of my generation. It was developed by Nintendo’s R&D1, the same studio responsible for the Metroid and Mario/Wario Land series, and in a weird way it’s sort of a midpoint between those two: combining Metroid‘s vertical movement and steep difficulty curve with Wario‘s sheer, inspired weirdness. It’s a brutally unforgiving game for children; I can say with certainty that I never made it past the first level when I played it on the original NES. But I did recently revisit it in its remastered form on the Nintendo 3DS, and it’s a fun game once you get the hang of it. Kid Icarus lacks the same peerless level of polish as, say, the Mario games, but makes up for it with inspired quirky touches like the credit card item, which allows you to go into debt with a shopkeeper when you don’t have enough of the game’s currency to purchase something directly, and the Eggplant Wizard: a bizarre (and somewhat, erm, racially troubling) enemy with the power to turn your character into a helpless walking eggplant.
Perhaps because the original game was already so weird, Of Myths and Monsters doesn’t have the warped sensibility of the Mario Land games, which took the opportunity of a home-console-to-portable transition to populate Mario’s new environments with exploding Koopa Troopas and side-scrolling space shooter levels. Or maybe a better reason is that, unlike both the original Kid Icarus and the Mario Lands, it wasn’t developed by R&D1 but by notorious hired guns TOSE, whose rigorously workmanlike design aesthetic–U.S. Vice President Masa Agarida has described the company’s policy as “not to have a vision”-ensures that they play it safe with the Icarus formula. This is in many ways a good thing: Of Myths and Monsters usually feels like a refinement of its predecessor, smoothing away some of the rougher edges and presenting an altogether friendlier face to newcomers. Its difficulty curve isn’t as noticeably inverted as the first game’s, which shares with the original Metroid the distinction of being two of the few games that actually get easier the further you advance. Perhaps most welcome is the fact that the game now allows the screen to scroll down as well as up, so in vertically-scrolling stages a fall past the bottom of the screen is no longer instantly fatal.
Despite these improvements in accessibility, however, the sequel is clearly a less inspired game than the original. Boss fights are so rote and predictable that they are more fatiguing than challenging: once you’ve figured out an enemy’s pattern, it’s just a matter of cycling through the same motions over and over until it finally dies, often long after it has overstayed its welcome. The bosses’ designs aren’t particularly memorable, either: where the original game had Twinbellows, Hewdraw, Pandora, and Medusa, goofball twists on mythological beasts iconic enough to be resurrected in the (phenomenal) 3DS revival Kid Icarus: Uprising, Of Myths and Monsters gives us…a flying skull with bat wings? A fire-spitting snake? Some anime demon guy? Most disappointingly, the game fumbles its final level: just like in the original game, after acquiring the three Sacred Treasures, main character Pit acquires the power of flight; but while in the first Kid Icarus this meant an entertaining detour into side-scrolling shooter territory, Of Myths and Monsters just makes you navigate a clumsily-designed labyrinth of narrow corridors while tapping “A” to flap your wings. Fortunately the final boss battle, set in a narrow vertical corridor and requiring the player to frequently adjust their altitude, almost makes up for it; otherwise, though, flying has never felt less liberating.
In the end, though, Kid Icarus: Of Myths and Monsters is an appropriate game with which to commemorate the Game Boy’s vigintennial. It wasn’t a launch game for the system, nor was it one of its defining titles, but it’s a game that, in 1991, could really only have been released on the Game Boy. Kid Icarus is a franchise deeply rooted in the willful obscurity of the 8-bit era; one suspects that the reason why it didn’t see a sequel for the Super Nintendo and later systems (and why Uprising, when finally released, was such a radical departure from the original series’ style) is because this type of game just didn’t lend itself to the refinements of a Super Mario World, Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, or Super Metroid. But the Game Boy provided an extended–and mobile!–home for these kinds of quirky, experimental 8-bit games, long after their time had passed on the home consoles.
Sure, the limitations of the platform create its own share of problems: the small screen space, combined with the fact that most levels in Kid Icarus loop horizontally while the player moves vertically, sometimes leaves you with the feeling that you’re navigating a disorienting virtual Möbius strip, a fact that is not helped by the system’s grayscale (or, if you’re a purist like me, greenscale) visual palette. But compared to some of the more compromised console-to-handheld transitions of the era–think Konami’s Castlevania: The Adventure, or Capcom’s Mega Man: Dr. Wily’s Revenge–it’s a more than respectable addition to the series, more like a full-fledged if somewhat lesser sequel than a downgraded portable conversion. These days, of course, our options for mobile video games make the original Game Boy look positively quaint: everything from the Game Boy’s latest successor the 3DS to Sony’s competitor the PlayStation Vita, to the ever-growing legion of smartphones and tablets. But perhaps the craziest thing of all about the Game Boy turning 25 is how, at its best, it still manages to hold up.
I played Kid Icarus: Of Myths and Monsters on the Nintendo 3DS’ Virtual Console; as you can see from the screenshots, it provides the option of playing in the Game Boy’s original resolution (complete with an overlay of the original Game Boy system!) using the original colors. You can see more of my screenshots and reactions from the game on Nintendo’s Miiverse.