8-Bit Mondays: Kid Icarus – “Stage 1” (Hirokazu Tanaka)March 23, 2010
At the risk of turning 8-Bit Mondays into ‘Hip Tanaka Days’, I’ve got another classic tune by the master of the 2A03. It’s hard to not pick a Tanaka piece actually, considering how many good songs he composed for the NES and Gameboy. Of course, there’s a lot more than 50 games he made, so the entire 8-Bit Monday series won’t become the ‘Hip Tanaka Series’! Anyway, today’s piece is from Kid Icarus, the sister game to Metroid that was released in 1986. Kid Icarus wasn’t really that memorable – except for the fact it was incredibly brutal. It breaks the sidescrolling pattern in many ways by being primarily an upward-scrolling game where falling off the screen will result in immediate death – and falling (or dying from enemy combat) was incredibly easy to do. Each level stage is also marked off with a Zelda-like temple stage. I think the game simply took too many different play mechanics and tried to combine them in such a way that the game lost its focus – is this a sidescroller or an exploration game? As such, Kid Icarus has kind of become one of those quirky titles that got lost to history, only to be revived once again, like in Super Smash Bros. Brawl (2008). In any event, the soundtrack found its way onto the Famicom 20th Anniversary Original Sound Tracks Vol. 1 (2004) along with about a dozen other NES games (they used 99 tracks – the max a CD will take!).
The “Stage 1” theme is probably the piece I remember most. This level was so difficult because you started off with absolutely nothing and had to fight your way through hordes of difficult enemies with really poor equipment. It was easy to get hit and lose energy. Items were so expensive and you had to kill many enemies to get enough money to buy them. You also had to survive Zeus’s trials, which were basically avoiding tiles flying at you from every direction. To top this all off, you couldn’t fall off the screen or you’d die (quite easy to do) and you were also timed to reach the top!
Anyway, “Stage 1” to me perfectly illustrates how this game was so mismatched. It’s got this great drumbeat with a pompously confident march – how could you possibly NOT fail? What’s more, the high notes of the theme, particularly in the second half, give so much positive light to what is essentially a hopeless situation. At the same time, these airy notes suggest a sense of flight that is absent until the final level. I honestly can’t see how I managed to beat this game, but there you have it. There’s also a static line in the background that seems prevalant of all these recordings. I think part of it is simply the quality of the recording, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was intentionally designed as part of the music.
Incidentally, there is a remix, “Underworld,” from Brawl by Shogo Sakai (Mother 3, Super Smash Bros. Melee) that’s actually quite good. The trumpets and strings are so energetic, and it’s got a nice synth bass line. The jazz piano in the second half is a lovely inclusion as well. What’s more, Mr. Sakai mixes in the theme of our favorite enemy, the God of Poverty. I find it interesting that the track loops very similarly to the “Rainbow Cruise” theme from Melee. I had the opportunity to meet Mr. Sakai at the GDC this year. He’s a very friendly guy – he also let his hair grow out quite a bit! Now he looks like a real artist! I hope he keeps creating such great music!