Kid Icarus: Uprising is a Gaudy, Goofy, Surprisingly Hardcore Shoot-'Em-Up

When Nintendo announced Kid Icarus: Uprising at last year's E3, I remember the enthusiastic response from the crowd. "Hooray!" they said. "A new Kid Icarus game!"

And yet when we paused to think about it... "Hooray? A new Kid Icarus game?"

That initial enthusiasm was actually a little puzzling. It was nice to see Nintendo pull out a non-Zelda or Mario franchise, but there has really only been one proper Kid Icarus game (two if you count the Game Boy release), so it's a tad surprising that people would feel such excitement about the announcement of another one. Furthermore, the Kid Icarus game Nintendo showed was more of a 3rd-person shoot-em-up than the original, which was a side-scrolling action game. Perhaps Nintendo was simply grabbing a familiar name in hopes of generating excitement for a wholly unrelated game?

After spending several hours working through five missions from the single-player campaign, I can report that although it demonstrates an ongoing fondness for its side-scrolling NES predecessor, Kid Icarus: Uprising is almost entirely unlike the original Kid Icarus. That's fine by me. This game is a colorful mess, bubbling over with joyful energy and frequently spinning itself into a kaleidoscopic tizzy. It's also fun.

Kid Icarus: Uprising is a Gaudy, Goofy, Surprisingly Hardcore Shoot-'Em-Up

Though it appears at first glance to be a God of War-style third-person adventure game, at its core Kid Icarus: Uprising is a fast-paced 3D shoot-em-up. This is due to the control scheme, which, like the DS' Metroid Prime Hunters, involves moving with the 3DS' circle-stick while aiming using the stylus and firing with the left shoulder-button. Whether on the ground or in the air, enemies come fast and hard and from all directions, and most of the game revolves around frantically moving the reticle around the screen in an effort to clear every threat while simultaneously dodging incoming fire with the circle-stick.

Weapons come in one of eight shapes and sizes—blades, bows, cannons, arms, claws, palm weapons, ranged orbitars, and staves. You choose a weapon at the start of each level, and each one has both a ranged and melee attack—the game automatically chooses which type you'll do.

During my two-hours-and-change with the game (which will be released on March 23rd), I played through five different levels, and each one followed a similar formula—first, the protagonist Pit would fly through an on-rails aerial level, then he would land on the ground to fight through a ground level before facing off against a boss.

The stylus-centric controls weren't entirely intuitive for me at first, but after a little while I got used to them. I'm used to aiming with the stylus in first-person DS games like Metroid Prime Hunters and Dementium, but Uprising's third-person camera is a good deal more disorienting.

The aerial controls are actually fine—aerial sections are essentially on rails, so it's very much a 3D bullet hell game, with enemies circling on all sides and incoming fire flying at you in all different shapes and sizes. At times, the game felt like Child of Eden, actually.

Kid Icarus: Uprising is a Gaudy, Goofy, Surprisingly Hardcore Shoot-'Em-Up

It's on foot where the controls get more awkward, since most gamers are accustomed to using a second thumbstick rather than a stylus to control the camera. Kid Icarus: Uprising will support the 3DS circle-stick attachment (which launches in the US on February 7th), but it's only to allow left-handed players to swap sides—there's no option to play the game with twin thumbsticks. It's stylus or nothing. Fortunately, after I got used to the controls, I found that they gave the game a unique feel and allowed for a good amount of precision when aiming. It never quite felt comfortable, nor did it feel entirely awkward. I suspect that, as with many uniquely control-schemed Nintendo games, after a while it will become easier to wrap my head around. But it still might be a pain in my hands...

As with most things 3DS-related, ergonomics are an issue. I played a lot of Metroid Prime Hunters on the DS, and found that as I did so, my hands would start to cramp and fall asleep after a while. It's simply awkward to hold the DS cupped in your left hand, firing with the left shoulder button, bracing the lower-right corner on your pinky while aiming with a stylus. To address that, Kid Icarus: Uprising will come with a foldable plastic stand designed to hold the 3DS about three or four inches off the ground, theoretically freeing up your hands. (Or as Brian Ashcraft calls it, "a stupid stand!") I found mixed success when using it, and generally preferred to hold the 3DS as I usually do. Otherwise, I was hunched over the desk in an uncomfortable way. Your mileage may vary, and the stand is a nice option to include for free, regardless.

Note: This is sexy, Disney-style Medusa, not gross, Clash of the Titans-style Medusa.

The game's story is a hodgepodge of goofy quasi-mythology—this ain't God of War, and it doesn't want to be. As the tale goes, Medusa is leading the forces of darkness in an invasion of the human world. (Note: this is sexy, Disney-style Medusa, not gross, Clash of the Titans-style Medusa.) The cherubic protagonist Pit is accompanied at all times by his guardian and mentor Palutena, the Goddess of Light, who talks to him telepathically through his golden crown. Their banter is all voice-acted and acted out by cute Phoenix Wright-style minimally-animated cartoons of the various characters on the bottom touch-screen.

The dialogue is cute and playful; the localization team clearly had a lot of fun with this game. And boy, the banter sure is constant—as you blast your way through each level, Palutena is constantly updating you with information and bantering with Pit, and Pit is just as constantly whining, throwing off one-liners, and simply babbling. He's perky, but something of a knob, too.

It's funny for the most part, in an endearingly dorky way. The jokes often use meta-humor, and there are even some topical clunkers: At one point, a villain actually says, "In this economy, you need every job you can get!" furthering my theory that the recession is the next big video game bad guy. Characters frequently say things like "I don't think I'll be using the monster pheromone in the future." It's silly and fun, though I could see it being annoying after a while. Fortunately, I was assured that on subsequent playthroughs you can turn off the spoken dialogue completely.

I mention subsequent playthroughs because Kid Icarus: Uprising is designed to be played multiple times. There are what appeared to be hundreds of different weapons in the game, and they are dropped randomly through the levels and are available in ever-changing, random combinations from the store between levels. There are tons of different base-level weapons in each of the aforementioned eight weapon categories (e.g. Royal Blade, Viper Blade, Burst Blade, Samurai Blade), and as you play you'll collect many variations on each of those, each with better or worse power-ups (e.g. +1 damage, homing, +5 hearts from enemies). It's deep as these things go, though I'm not entirely sure how much difference each one will make in the finished game. But from class to class, there's a lot of variety—I played with a sword, an arm weapon, a giant drill, and a staff, and each one handled significantly differently.

(Quick aside: There are a lot of quirks to Kid Icarus: Uprising, but one that I should explain is the currency system. As you destroy enemies, you get "hearts," and you use those hearts to purchase weapons. "But Kirk," you might be thinking, "that is strange. Shouldn't 'hearts' replenish… my health?" I don't know what to tell you. In this game, Food replenishes health. Hearts buy you stuff. It's like project lead Masahiro Sakurai (the mad scientist behind Kirby and Super Smash Bros.) decided he wanted to flip commonly held video game nomenclature on its head. Nothing to do but go with it.)

(Oh, okay, it turns out that hearts were in the original game. I still like the idea of Sakurai wanting to mess with everyone.)

Kid Icarus: Uprising is a Gaudy, Goofy, Surprisingly Hardcore Shoot-'Em-Up

So. The main way to get better weapons (and earn more hearts per level) is by gambling using the surprisingly involved, innovative difficulty mechanism. Kid Icarus: Uprising has not three but 90 different difficulty levels. Difficulty works on a slider, going form 0.0 all the way up to 9. So, you could play on 5.5 difficulty (challenging) or 8.0 difficulty (very very challenging.) Each time you choose a difficulty, the game wagers a number of hearts, which is higher and higher the harder you make the game. At 2.0 difficulty, it balances out at 0.0 hearts, so it will cost you nothing to proceed and you'll get normal rewards for beating enemies. Go below 2.0 and you'll have to pay again, this time to make the game easier.

It's a bit convoluted to attempt to explain the ins and the outs, but the gist is that by making the game harder, you're wagering hearts, but if you beat a level at a higher difficulty level, you'll get far more hearts in return, as well as better weapon-drops. If you die on a a hard difficulty, say, 9, you'll drop one difficulty point, lose a percentage of the hearts you wagered, and start again from a checkpoint. I played one level at difficutly 9 and got my ass royally kicked—the higher difficulties are for incredibly skilled players only.

Kid Icarus: Uprising is easily the best-looking game I've yet seen on the 3DS. It's not even close, really. The aerial levels, in particular, are downright glorious at times—Pit will burst from cloud-cover into the silent sweep of the setting sun; a later level had him soaring through a galactic ocean, stars and constellations dotting the horizon in a thousand points of light.

View gallery »

It's a colorful, warm-looking game, and shows off the 3DS's horsepower to a degree I've not yet seen. The gallery to the side here includes what I'm talking about, but of course, those are stretched a bit, and you really have to see it in action to get a full sense of it. I'm not used to seeing Nintendo games with this kind of sharpness or fidelity—the development team at Sora has done a good job of squeezing a lot of prettiness out of the little Nintendo Handheld. I played with the 3D slider turned up a bit, since I liked the depth effect, but as with most action-packed games, the 3D can be a distraction. Kid Icarus: Uprising is far too hectic and fast-paced to incorporate the 3D screen with anything resembling the elegance of Super Mario 3D Land, say.

The game also shines in its wonderfully creative enemy design. These are some bananas-ass enemies, buddy. Not a single one is "normal" looking—floating noses that fire bombs from their nostrils, disembodied elephant heads that attack by stomping disembodied elephant feet, giant clamshells with rotating layers of pearls (which shoot laser-bolts), huge weird floating mouths…it's gnarly, and elicited many a smile. I got the sense that many of the enemies (certainly the three-headed Hewdraw Dragon) were simply 3D updates of the enemies from the original game—it's a real reminder of how bizarre and fun many of the enemies of the 8-bit era were.

The foes you face are also where the combat gets its depth—each weapon only has a few attacks, but enemies require various combinations to be defeated, so it always keeps you on your feet. I'm a fan of this type of design—rather than giving my character a billion different weapons to keep track of, I'm required to learn and exploit my enemies' behavior and patterns. For example, one enemy is impervious to harm unless you bat the projectiles he launches back at him; another one does a crazy dance that draws the camera to it, requiring that you destroy it quickly or be blindsided by the enemies to your sides and back.

These are some bananas-ass enemies, buddy.

There's even a bona-fide Metroid in the game. I asked about it, and learned that the enemy, known as a Komayto, is a callback to the 8-bit Kid Icarus. Apparently, that game was made at the same time as the first Metroid, and they wound up using the exact same character in both games but simply called it a "Komayto" in Kid Icarus. Funny.

There are many such callbacks in Kid Icarus: Uprising, and it's in that sense of history that the game once more demonstrates that is has been crafted with a lot of heart. The running commentary coming from the bottom of the screen frequently incorporates graphics from the original game, and some of the menus "go 8-bit" for a little while, lending a sense of fond continuity to the whole thing. The original Kid Icarus is such an odd duck to have grown a cult following, but that doesn't make it any less charming, and doesn't make the game's sense of fond history feel unearned.

It's a good thing the game has so much charm, since its gameplay can feel like a bit of a mess. I should say that a lot of that was doubtless due to my unfamiliarity with it—it's a bullet-hell thing, so with an unfamiliar control scheme, a sometimes distracting 3D element, and a limited field of view that can feel disorienting, it's not the easiest game to get a grip on. If you're looking to break it down along the ol' casual/hardcore dichotomy, Kid Icarus: Uprising will probably be the most "hardcore" 3DS game Nintendo has released, with the possible exception of the back half of Super Mario 3D Land.

But with so many different ways to play, a vast arsenal to mess around with, and an online multiplayer mode that Nintendo hasn't yet shown (our first glimpse here), there's going to be a lot of game here. There's an odd nostalgia involved in playing a reboot that holds such high regard for its now-ancient, one-off predecessor. But if it needed to, Kid Icarus: Uprising could stand on its own as an original idea. Sakurai and his team have tackled the project with gusto and creative verve, and I'm looking forward to seeing more of it.

Lovely star-field looms
Funky stylus cramping style
Laser-clam attacks!