How much to we value weirdness? How much weight do we place on eccentricity? There are so many video games that are essentially retreads of the same old tired space; it can feel so nice to see a game that, even while following the same basic formulas as its brethren, does so with enthusiastic weirdness.
Kid Icarus: Uprising is just such a game. While at its heart, Uprising is an arcade shoot-em-up no different than countless quarter-eaters from the arcades, the game plays that role with such chutzpah, creative flair, and straight-up oddness that it's hard not to be won over.
Kid Icarus: Uprising is the story of an angel named Pit and his mentor Lady Palutena, the Goddess of Light. At the start of the game, Medusa has somehow harnessed the forces of the underworld to try to take over the planet. It's up to Pit and Lady Palutena to stop her. What follows is a spiraling, barely coherent story that feels something like a Disney movie as retold by an excited eleven year-old.
"And then, they went into Pandora's Labrynth, because she was this huge purple gas-monster of illusion! But after they defeated her, they flew through this desert, and it was like oh man!, there was smoke everywhere, and these giant floating eyeballs showed up, and then Hades turned up and was like 'You better look out!' because see, he had been in charge the whole time!"
It gets crazier from there, believe me. The single-player story takes place over 25 three-act missions. I've completed 15 of them, and each one I've seen plays out over the same basic template. First there's an aerial mission in which Pit flies while shooting oncoming enemies and dodging fire, then a ground-based mission in which he runs around while shooting before engaging in a boss battle.
In the hands of anyone but the terrific (and idiosyncratic) game developer Masahiro Sakurai, Kid Icarus: Uprising could have been a run-of-the-mill third person shooter, with some on-rails flying bits broken up with some God Of War-style ground bits. But this game was made by the Super Smash Bros. and Kirby mastermind, and so it is absolutely stuffed with wild flourishes and curlicues that set it apart.
For starters, there's the controls. Uprising isn't controlled as a twin-thumbstick shooter—even though it is technically compatible with the 3DS' mostly great Circle Pad Pro peripheral, there is no setting that lets players control it like they would a "normal" console game, with movement tied to the left circle-pad and aiming tied to the right. It's a very curious omission, since that setup is almost possible by re-arranging the controls, but not quite. So, the most natural type of control is to set things with Pit's motion handled with the circle-pad while the aiming reticle is controlled with the stylus.
It didn't take too long for ergonomics to become a problem for me. Holding the 3DS in my left hand while using the stylus with my right felt fine at first, but would quickly become uncomfortable. After fifteen minutes or so of playing the game, I'd have to take a break, shake out my hands, and do something else. For a handheld game, this isn't the end of the world— Uprising is designed to be played in short bursts anyway—but it's still a drag that the game just sort of fundamentally doesn't feel good to play. Uprising comes bundled with a stand, but as Stephen has already pointed out, the thing feels largely pointless. It sets the 3DS too low to really be useful, and… well… the 3DS is a handheld, portable gaming system! Having a stand to put it on isn't bad or anything, but it's not much use. Some folks may not mind playing their 3DS while hunched over a desk for extended periods of time, but it's not for me.
The odd stylus control is only part of the problem. The control scheme itself can be troublesome, too. When Pit is flying through the air, stylus controls are intuitive and fast, much more precise than using a thumbstick would be. But once he's on the ground, the stylus is used to control the camera, and things get a lot more dicy. It's okay when you're fighting enemies at range, but up close, it's much too difficult to rotate the camera in a way that makes sense. Flicking the stylus to set the camera spinning and then tapping it to stop feels slow and dizzying, particularly if you're getting railed on by an up-close enemy. Controlling Pit's "Lunge" dodge is also imprecise, and I found that he would often rush in one direction or another even when I wanted him to take it easy. Most of the time that's not a big deal, but there are sections of the game that require precise platforming, and the combination of the overly reactive controls and confusing camera make things frustrating.
Kid Icarus: Uprising eschews the lengthy cutscenes of its video game contemporaries, but it still has a whole lot of story to tell. It does so by having characters simply… talk over the action, babbling jokes, exposition, and one-liners across the 3DS' bottom screen as frenetic action plays out on the top screen. At first, it's off-putting and confusing, but as you get used to it, it becomes something of a familiar and enjoyable rhythm. This is a very well-written game, but it's also, well, a very written one, with a ton of jabbering and babbling going on at most every moment of the game. I liked it, but it could be a turn-off for some. (Fortunately, you can mute the dialogue and just read the subtitles when you're able.)
The people who worked the dialogue had a lot of fun coming up with jokes and references, and the dialogue is almost entirely charming and even chuckle-out-loud funny. The humor is often of the meta variety, with lots of references to the first Kid Icarus, along with plenty of more general video game jokes. One Nintendogs reference, in particular, made me guffaw.
Uprising is a real looker on the 3DS, as well. I first saw this game back before I owned a PlayStation Vita, and I have to say that some of the bloom is off the rose now that I've grown accustomed to Sony's big, bright-screened device. But all the same, Kid Icarus: Uprising matches Resident Evil Revelations as one of the best-looking games on the system. It's a color-explosion, with deep, rich starfields giving way to fireworks shows, pink futuristic labyrinths, and incredible space pirate-ships. It runs well, too—the 3D effect can be tiring after a while, but it's used to its fullest potential, and there's very little of the doubling that I've found in some other 3rd-person adventure games on the 3DS.
The enemy design in Kid Icarus: Uprising is second-to-none. That's mostly due to the fact that the developers at Sora Games simply lightly re-imagined the enemies from the 1986 Kid Icarus. The video game enemies of the 80's were a lot more bizarre than the humanoid lizards and aliens that we spend so much time fighting today. But seeing them painstakingly rendered into 3D creations feels like some kind of revelation—to go head-to-head with a huge multi-layered clam that shoots lightening, or a giant floating sheep-head that launches balls of wool until it goes bald… it feels like a revelation.
But as much as Uprising centers on flying, shooting, and fighting, it's also about menus and unlockables. So, so many menus and unlockables. Kid Icarus: Uprising's currency system is hearts, which are earned every time you kill an enemy and are sometimes scattered throughout the level in hard-to-reach places. Hearts can be used for all sorts of things, and at the start of every level of single-player, you'll have the option to gamble hearts on the game's difficulty. Play at a higher difficulty, and you'll win more hearts—but if you die, you'll lose hearts from your own store. There are 90 (!!) levels of difficulty in the game—anything below level "20" and you're actually paying in hearts to make the game easier. Past 20, you're gambling hearts that you're good enough to make it through the level without dying. It's a fun and very involved system.
Hearts mostly come into play in Uprising's many menus, which are attractively laid out, and can even be moved and jumbled around if you grab them with the stylus. Outside of the game, here are but a few of the various options:
- Go through what appears to be hundreds of weapons, comparing and contrasting them, and combining them into new weapons.
- Create streetpass gems for weapons that allow you to share your arsenal with people you encounter on out in the world. Fuse the gems you've recieved with other gems to create new gems, just like you would with weapons.
- The "Treasure Hunt" is a huge tiled mosaic in which each tile corresponds to an in-game challenge like killing a certain number of enemies or getting a certain kind of weapon. Getting all the achievements lets you… apparently, see the painting beneath?
- The "Idol Toss" lets you take eggs that you've earned in the game and place them into a container that launches them into space, converting them into weapons and collectable idols. You can use your 3DS coins to buy more idols—I could buy hundreds of eggs if I wanted to.
- In addition to weapons, you can lay out your powers, which are assignable to the D-pad. They run the gamut from useful (Health Recharge) to crazy (Launch a fireworks show!). They must be arranged like Tetris pieces in Pit's inventory, something like Resident Evil 4. There are tons of powers, and new ones unlock all the time—it's possible to have the computer arrange the powers for you to save time.
- There's a music gallery where you can listen to songs that you've unlocked.
- Even the control-settings menus are odd and involved—what most games would have as a simple series of check-boxes Uprising makes into a whole colorful affair, complete with submenus and unique graphical elements.
- My favorite feature is called "Offering," mainly because I'm not yet sure what it does. Players can sacrifice hearts earned in the game to the Goddess Palutena. Doing so will "bring you closer to the Goddess." Palutena stands off in the distance at first, and as you give hearts, she moves a little bit closer. To what end, you may ask? I don't know! I haven't earned nearly enough hearts to bring her close enough to ask her.
All of this noise under the hood can feel distracting at first, but after a while, it become an inextricable part of the overall game.
So far I've talked about single-player, but Uprising's multiplayer is an entirely organic, enjoyable extension of the game. Charmingly, the game doesn't ever use the term "multiplayer," instead putting online options under the menu heading "Together." I like that! I agree with Stephen—maybe we should just start calling all multiplayer "together."
Players can play Kid Icarus: Uprising together in one of two modes—a free-for-all mode plays like a simple deathmatch, with players running about shooting at one another and smacking each other around. Far more interesting is "Light vs. Dark" mode, in which up to six players (three per team) battle in a team deathmatch. The teams have a combined health bar, and once it is depleted, one member of the team becomes either Pit of Dark Pit, his dark-side doppelganger. At this point, that person is "it"—if the opposing team can bring him or her down, they'll win. It's a neat system, basically a game of team-deathmatch with a "protect the VIP" endgame. In one of our matches, Stephen Totilo and I became Light and Dark Pit at the same time, and had to battle it out to see which of our teams would win. (He won.)
Light vs. Dark mode also features a type of gambling, in that the stronger the weaponry you bring into the field, the more of a chunk of your team's life-bar will deplete if you are killed. So, if you're going to bring that five-star bow into the fight, you better be good enough to use it. Winning multiplayer matches can net you some fabulous prizes—in my first multiplayer victory I won a staff that hugely outshines the paltry weaponry that I've won so far on my single-player adventure.
Are you getting the sense that there's a lot of game here? Because there is. So much that I haven't yet finished the main storyline—though that was at least in part because I was deathly ill for the first four days I was playing the game (this is most assuredly not a fun game to play with a fever). It goes on and on, with revelations layered on top of other revelations, breathless chattering over shooting gallery after shooting gallery. The story never feels particularly vital or impactful, but it's breezy and light and keeps things moving. I've spent a good chunk of time going through the menus alone, and feel like there are scads of hidden things that I haven't yet seen. Better still, every aspect of the game is designed to be highly replayable—the huge range of difficulty modes and the treasure hunt challenges will keep completionist gamers playing for a long, long time.
Kid Icarus: Uprising is a distinctive, oddball piece of work. It's not easy to recommend in the way that many other games are—this isn't a "If you like xxx kind of game, you'll like this" type of situation. Its controls are a headache, and it can be physically uncomfortable to play. Its goofy enthusiasm can get tiring, and at higher difficulties the camera issues can be maddening.
But it's also full of joy, a whirling dervish of color, light and humor. It feels uncalculated in a way that very few games do anymore. It's unlike any other game currently available for the 3DS, and is fundamentally fun to play despite its flaws. And so while the adage "Your mileage may vary" is particular true in this case, I have gotten a good number of miles out of Kid Icarus: Uprising, and when I look to the future, all I see are more miles, stretching out to the horizon.
What's that blocking my view? Oh, it's a giant flying nose-monster that shoots bombs from its nostrils.