“Kid Icarus: Uprising” is a game that’s difficult to succinctly sum up. On the surface, it seems like an almost childish take on a classic franchise which hasn’t seen the light of day for more than two decades – the graphics are cartoon-like, healing is a case of picking up the oh-so-classic fruit and vegetables (because who will keep “an apple a day…” going, if not Nintendo?) and the enemies include a novelty ‘big nose with glasses’ face mask that spits bombs at you. Really. On first impressions this game doesn’t seem to have a lot going for it if you’re above the age of six. Despite this, underneath the façade lays a game that has so much more potential.
The plot is your standard fare: the evil goddess Medusa has been resurrected and it’s your job as the world’s first weapon-toting angel, Pit, to save everyone from her wrath with the help of your trusted advisor Lady Palutena, good goddess. There are several twists and turns along the way but the basic premise won’t cause too many surprises. The plot won’t win any awards, but it gets the job done and it’s just complex enough to catch the interest of fans of the series without alienating a brand new generation of potential Kid Icarus fans. You won’t need any backstory to play the game but if you have played the originals there are just enough subtle nods to keep you amused.
The game never takes itself too seriously, with the script frequently making light of the series’ long slumber and delivering cheesy one-liners that’ll somehow manage to make even the most stoic of players chuckle and cringe simultaneously. In what has to be one of the most cringe-worthy statements of the year Pit tells a demon dog, without a hint of shame: “This old Pit is gonna teach you new tricks – now play dead!” That level of humour is consistent throughout and whilst it’ll sometimes leave you wanting to throw the 3DS away in shame, the voice actors are actually quite good at what they do and they’ll usually provide more of a chuckle than a facepalm. Kid Icarus refuses to be something it’s not and you can’t help but appreciate the game more for that.
The gameplay is broken down into several story chapters, each consisting of 3 segments: an air stage, a ground stage and the final boss. In the air you’ll find yourself guided through the sky in a rail shooter, attempting to destroy every enemy that gets in your way. In fact, the air stages seem almost like an iteration of your typical whack-a-mole minigame. Enemies will appear in waves for brief periods of time and it’s your job to get them before they get you. Should you destroy all the enemies in a wave you’ll get bonus points. It proves strangely addictive and, even better, gives the game an opportunity to show how much it can do graphically.
Much has been said about the 3D aspect of the 3DS and the word ‘gimmick’ has been thrown around far more often than Nintendo could surely be comfortable with – clearly this game is their rebuttal. Some of the scenery is utterly breath-taking – one moment you’re diving through layers upon layers of clouds and the next you’ve broken out into a landscape of grassy fields and lakes as far as the eye can, quite literally, see. Kid Icarus Uprising sets the bar for all future games on this console when it comes to graphic potential and from this stage onwards, last minute additions will no longer cut it. The visuals have been lovingly crafted and it shows. Sadly, the air stages never progress beyond adding additional enemies and bringing a bit more chaos to the screen, which does little to ease the sense of repetition. It’s frequently simpler to button mash and wait for the next game section to begin.
On ground, gameplay becomes stronger. Certainly you’re still facing the same enemies in the same linear manner, but you’re given freedom of movement. You can collect treasures and new, more powerful weapons if you’re willing to spend the time looking. The dodging system is really quite intuitive: dash the circlepad in a direction to quickly dive away, all the while firing out a counter attack. There’s never quite as glorious a feeling as successfully avoiding an enemy attack whilst simultaneously watching them get blown to smithereens, and with each demolished enemy you’ll gather hearts to spend on new weapons which will make you more powerful. These make destroying enemies easier, which in turn will earn you more hearts. It’s a cycle that makes the replay value of the game immensely high and each chapter can be played at will once you’ve completed it within the storyline.
And all of this is without even mentioning another important purpose for a hearts, a fantastic addition to the game known as ‘intensity’. In essence, you are allowed to set your own difficulty before each chapter on a scale from 0.0 to 9.0. In order to do this you’ll have to bet hearts; the more hearts you have, the higher the difficulty rating you can set and the better rewards you’ll find in treasure chests throughout the chapters. Of course, the enemies will appear more frequently and will be tougher; bosses will start to use new, more complicated attacks as the difficulty ramps up and should you die the hearts you’ve bet will be stripped from you. It’s a fantastic risk and reward system in order to find better weapons.
There are nine types of weapon to collect, each with their own special ability. Staffs are good for long distance shots; claws provide stronger melee attacks. The variety of weapons means each player will find a particular strength to play to. All weapons can be fused together to create stronger weapons and that means your hunt is never over. You’ll find new abilities with increased intensity too: powers take the form of Tetris-like shapes and as long as you can fit them into a container without overlapping them you’ll be able to use them in battle. Even better, ‘Uprising’ actively encourages you to push your limits. Every time you complete a level at one intensity rating it will start the next chapter with the suggestion of an increased difficulty. You’re under no obligation to heed their suggestion but the scale of the difficulty allows you to find your niche whether you’re a brand new gamer, a seasoned veteran or somewhere in-between.
In fact, the only disappointment in the main levels is the bosses. No matter how much you increase the intensity the boss battles will often feel too short. No health gauge will be displayed nor any indication of how much damage you’re doing and before you even realise it the boss is defeated. It seems like a complete anti-climax to the build-up throughout each chapter; like an after-thought that’s never really been given too much time or attention.
It’s probably important to talk about why a Kid Icarus game is out now, after such a long hiatus, and the answer is fairly simple. Pit’s fanbase has grown insurmountably with his recent appearance in “Super Smash Bros. Brawl” and, unsurprisingly when it was announced the series’ creator was going to spearhead the Kid Icarus franchise. Any Super Smash Bros. fan will find themselves right at home in the game – the menu’s look almost identical; you can collect trophies via a pot luck mini-game and then there’s the multiplayer feature which finds itself taking distinct concept chunks out of Brawl. It’s evident that this is Nintendo making a concerted effort to move into the realm of online multiplayer that they’ve neglected for far too long and it’s a welcome signal of intent before the imminent release of the Wii U console.
The multiplayer consists of two modes: Light vs. Dark and Free for all. The game quickly explains that in Skyland (the totally original-sounding home of Pit and Lady Palutena) the favourite pastime is what surmounts to the Hunger Games with wings, guns and power ups. Light vs. Dark mode finds 2 teams of 3 players each competing to destroy the other. With every death your team’s health bar depletes based on the value of your weapon. It’s an interesting way to ensure a fairness among players. Sure, you can use ultra-powerful weapons, but if you die you’re going to eat up a chunk of your team’s health. Once your health bar is depleted the last player to die becomes Pit and it’s the opposing team’s job to destroy him for victory.
Up to six players can join in the battle, either locally or online and this is highly recommended because when AI teammates become involved you’ll find your team’s health depleting faster than cookies at Christmas as they rush head-first into slaughter. With so much going on, and so many players, the stage can become quite chaotic but additively so; never to the point where you’ll find yourself getting frustrated about not knowing where to go. Opposing teams are clearly marked, making the strategic nature of the game all the better.
And there can be no doubt it is about strategy. Button mashing is certain death, and the powerups you’ll gain in solo mode need to be used carefully to keep enemies at bay. Throw up a reflect barrier at the right moment and when an enemy smugly fires a powerful weapon at you he’ll find himself fried. Stay close to the action and keep enemies from firing, or pick them off at a distance. You can also attempt to go for Daybreak, an almost identical replica of the Dragoon from the similar Super Smash Bros. Brawl. Collect three pieces of it and watch your enemies run in fear from your giant death laser. There’s so much variety in fighting style that most players will find themselves able to find a method that suits them best.
Free for All mode is much of the same, though its rules follow a standard gaming style. A time limit is imposed and whoever racks up the most kills wins. Unfortunately, the removal of the team element means that you’re frequently being hunted down and it is at this point several weaknesses shine through. Using powers when all the focus is on you should be simple but instead you’ll find yourself scrolling through a real-time menu, all the while being pummelled. Sure, certain players will enjoy the extra tension but for a game that seems determined to keep all types of player on a level playing field it’s a misstep. And that pales in comparison to the weakness of weapons balance. The risk-reward feature of Light vs. Dark mode is removed and replaced with absolutely nothing. New players will find themselves being trounced time and time again by players who have played the game for longer than them and have gained weapons twice, sometimes triple, the power of their own. Make no mistake, the multiplayer is incredibly fun, but only if many hours are ploughed into the solo game first.
And then there are the controls… When the peripheral stand was announced, players scratched their heads and questioned whether the stand was a good sign for a portable console. Then the circle pad pro (a circle pad for the right hand side of the 3DS) appeared and genuine panic set in for left-handed players. After playing through the game I have to say that our fears were partially founded. The controls seem needlessly complicated. Aim using the stylus on the touch screen, move by moving the circle pad and simultaneously fire with the L-button on the shoulder. And whilst all of these controls can be adjusted and left-handed players can adapt quickly to right-handed controls (about 40 minutes in my case) there’s a clear bias towards the right-handed player. Left-handed players are faced with the handicap of only being able to move in four specific directions or to fork out more money in order to play at the same par as their right-handed counterparts. It’s an unacceptable handicap for a situation that could have been resolved by an altered control systems or packaging the circle pad pro with the game. Regardless of hand preference, holding the console begins to wear after a while. About 1 hour and 30 minutes in to my playthrough wrist cramp began to set in on the single hand holding the console up, moving the circle pad and firing at once. It’s an irritation for any player who wants to play as much of the game as possible in one sitting and it breaks the atmosphere something horrific when Pit is trying to have a heartfelt moment and all you can think about is the spasm your wrist is starting to have. It’s a real shame but it’s a flaw that it’s just impossible to ignore.
So should you buy Kid Icarus: Uprising? My answer is yes. The game’s beautiful, it has some of the wittiest family-friendly dialogue I’ve seen in a game since the ‘Mario & Luigi’ series and if you’re willing to adapt to some strange control systems you’ll find yourself engrossed for more than 30 hours, before you even start to replay anything or hunt down success in multiplayer.
7 Golden Halos out of 10.