That Paul McCartney hasn’t gone insane is a miracle. He’s lived through half a century where every day involves hundreds of thousands of people exalting things he did when he was 20 years old. The only way McCartney seems to have gotten past it all is by having a bit of fond self-awareness about those imperfect, brilliant early Beatles songs and winking at the classics in his new ditties. Kid Icarus: Uprising is a lot like McCartney’s 1997 record Flaming Pie in this regard. This is the game where Nintendo gets over the trauma of having its first works placed on high pedestals and gets on with the happy business of making something new.
Twenty-five years after its predecessor hit the Nintendo Entertainment System, Kid Icarus is still playing fast and loose with Greek mythology. You play as Pit, the winged but flightless hero of Angel Land and servant of light goddess Palutena. He’s not the son of a tortured labyrinth builder, more of an enthusiastic dork who’s thrilled to be back on the job after a quarter-century on the bench.
The same time has passed in the game—a world where its characters gleefully break the fourth wall—and now Medusa, ruler of the underworld, is back and wreaking havoc with her hordes of floating eyeballs, giant Groucho Marx noses, and spastic grim reapers. Pit and Palutena set out to put down Medusa’s legions across two dozen stages. In each one, you fly over landscapes dotted with evil minions before reaching a fortress you explore on foot. The goals are, as you might expect, old school: Survive to the end and finish off huge bosses, some of whom are tricky to beat. Effete shape-shifter Thanatos, for instance, can turn into a nesting doll and lose himself in a shuffle of twins.
Uprising is deliberately goofy, going so far as to canonize the garbled translations of the original game. When you go up against a flying three-headed dragon, he’s still the “Hewdraw” rather than the Hydra. (The game even shows a little picture of his old pixel self on the 3DS’ bottom screen, as it does for most returning characters.) There’s a pervasive warmth here, too. Palutena and Pit gab their way through each of the game’s chapters, slinging puns and coming off more as fond co-workers than tittering anime stereotypes. When the goddess teases Pit, saying she can read his mind and knows all his dirty thoughts, it’s charming even when it risks getting too precious.
Pit can’t fly on his own—Palutena can only give Pit the power to fly for five minutes, and she’s the one propelling him forward. She also justifies some of Icarus’ gamey quirks when he’s on the ground. At one point, Pit wonders aloud why there are always piles of health-replenishing meat, donuts, and fruit piled in places like Pandora’s fortress of illusion. Palutena replies, “Well, I thought you’d like some snacks!”
Icarus may be lavish, with glittering landscapes and a legitimately bitchin’ score, but it’s also awkward. You move Pit with the 3DS’ analog stick while adjusting his perspective with the touch screen. This setup is manageable—if uncomfortable—when Pit’s in the air, and your path is set. On the ground, though, when you’re exploring castles and space pirate ships, the combination of Pit’s jerky movement and the slippery touch-control camera becomes a problem. It’s impossible to enjoy moments of comedy, like walking in on a reaper taking a bath, when you’re struggling to walk and see straight. The game actually comes with a plastic stand that holds the 3DS for you to free up your hands. It works nicely, but wouldn’t it have made more sense just to make the game control differently?
How your hands get inside Icarus, though, is just one more of the game’s idiosyncrasies. Not all of its ideas are great, but it doesn’t seem to care. Kid Icarus is having fun just being itself, which in turn makes it a pleasure to play. It isn’t trying to live up to some grand legacy, magnified by 25 years of nostalgia. The original Kid Icarus is remembered as the game where a dildo-shaped cyclops throws eggplants that can turn you into an eggplant yourself. Rather than transform those memories into a modern epic, Nintendo doubles down. It winks, plays “Blackbird,” and then does a new number with a smile.