The double-edged sword of anticipation dangles above all entertainment franchises. Positive buzz heightens awareness which can translate into strong sales. However, overblown expectations create serious backlash when promises must become reality. What, then, can you say for a franchise that has been placed on the back burner for over two decades? Kid Icarus first came out in 1986, received a sequel in 1991, had a confusing adaptation as one of the franchises used in the Saturday morning cartoon Captain N, and then disappeared like a myth. All seemed hopeless for fans… until 2008.
The main character, Pit, appeared in the 2008 release Super Smash Bros Brawl, which was soon followed by a promise at the 2010 E3 of an entry on the new 3DS handheld. Anticipation was so high that nothing short of a divine miracle could save this game’s wings from burning away against the heat of fan expectations.
Kid Icarus: Uprising feels like a lavish welcome home party for a long lost friend. It can best be described as a third person action/arcade shooter with a very deep weapon system. Director Masahiro Sakurai (the creator of the Kirby and aforementioned Super Smash Bros franchises) and his team Project Sora have created a game with love in every line of code. Not since Metroid Prime have I seen a series be re-imagined in a way that is both wholly faithful and totally reinvigorating.
Speaking of Metroid, Kid Icarus yet again follows in Samus’ metal footsteps. The original game ran on the same engine as the original Metroid. Now Uprising has a control set-up that mirrors the DS’s Metroid Prime: Hunters; character movement with the circle pad, shooting with the L-button, and aiming with the stylus. This takes some getting used to. Having to support the entire weight of the 3DS with the three weakest fingers on your left hand is just plain uncomfortable. I even tested using a thumb-mounted stylus, but this prevented me from using the 3D, as it was impossible to hold the unit right in the “sweet spot”. In fact, the most comfortable set-up involves using the included 3DS stand on my desk. It takes all the weight off your hands and holds the 3DS steady so you can enjoy the 3D effect. It certainly takes the portable out of the title though.
There are customization options for the controls, though they're mostly there to aid left handed gamers. It is compatible with the Circle Pad Pro add-on, though again only to allow south paws the ability to use the circle pad to control Pit’s movement. While I understand that this game was in production well before the add-on existed and delays are the only reason it launched after the Circle Pad Pro was available, it's disappointing that this game cannot be played with twin analog sticks. It's the game’s biggest flaw and the main reason that it's not a perfect experience. Being a Nintendo franchise, it's a long shot to hope for some form of downloadable patch that corrects this, which is a shame.
My only other quibble with the game is the way in which the camera control is implemented during land battles. You have to flick the screen to start the camera spinning and then tap again to make it stop. I wish they'd chosen the standard over-the-shoulder third person shooter model instead, where the aiming reticule stays pretty central in the screen and moving it to the side moves the focus. You get used to it after a while, but it still makes you work for it.
You're quickly (re)introduced to Pit who, right off the bat, apologizes for “keeping you waiting”. From this point on, the plot flies hard and fast as you battle the underworld forces of a reborn Medusa (among other gods) who seeks to destroy all of mankind. The tale unfolds with next to no cutscenes due to a shocking amount of voice work, especially for a Nintendo game. In this world, gods and goddesses are able to communicate telepathically, which allows Pit to carry on full conversations without stopping the fight. Playing out on the bottom screen are 2D anime-styled still images that are interesting on their own. It supports the gameplay without distracting from it, which is the best any videogame story can hope to do.
The writing is safe enough for elementary-aged kids, but with plenty of winks to the now-older fans, so there are plenty of fourth wall breaking statements. Upon finding an item from the original NES title, Palutena comments that it ‘looks less pixilated’ than she remembers. I’ll admit some of the jokes are groan-worthy - at one point upon locating a hot spring (this game’s healing areas) Pitt says, “Who has two thumbs and loves hot springs? Anybody with two thumbs!” Of course, Pit’s personality is that of a wide-eyed innocent hero. At no point did I find the dialogue annoying, rather I found it charming. In fact, I turned up the voice track on my first playthrough so I wouldn’t miss any of the story over the sounds of my destroying underworld monsters.
I have never seen a handheld game work this hard to be this pleasing to my senses. The 3D effect is stunning. Even with the stereoscopic effect off, the world feels huge and the bosses massive. The music is symphonic bliss, full of energy and grandeur. Nostalgic tunes have been updated and generous new tracks help round out the package with the excellent sound effects and previously mentioned voice work. On top of it all, the menus are pleasingly stylized and very easy to navigate. Nobody puts as much effort into a game’s presentation as Masahiro Sakurai. True story.
Each of the game’s 25 chapters begins with a 5 minute long flight sequence, which plays like an on-rails shooter. It's here where the use of 3D really shines. You'll soar through the skies, under water, through a volcano, and even freakin’ space; all the while you're dodging enemy fire and environmental hazards. It's gameplay like this that makes being a gamer so rewarding.
As previously mentioned, the land battles make up the second third of a chapter and play out as a 3D third person action game. There are secrets to find if you go off the beaten path and areas that are locked out unless you're playing on a harder difficulty. The end of each land battle section goes into a boss battle, each of which is a truly epic experience.
Classic enemies have been redesigned to look exactly as you would imagine they should in 3D. New enemies are mixed in frequently and look as if they have always belonged in this world. The design is inspired and all of the enemies behave differently in their attempt to destroy you. Their behavior is also largely affected by the amazing difficulty setting feature.
Before starting a chapter, you'll see the Fiend Cauldron and a slider from zero to nine. By default, the game is set at 2.0 and you can increase or decrease the challenge as you see fit. You have 90 different levels of difficulty. At setting 0.0 (called Effortless) you are practically invincible as the enemies won’t attack and setting 9.0 (called Nothing Harder) makes you fight just to stay alive each and every second. Similar to the AI levels found in Super Smash Bros, the higher the difficulty, the smarter the enemies. They're not just able to take more hits, they fight both harder and smarter. They 'll lead their shots, retreat only to flank you later and force you into a corner. This makes replaying a level a completely different experience on a different difficulty.
On top of this, the difficulty setting makes use of hearts (the in-game currency). If you want to make the game easier, you've gotta pay the piper. If you want to make the game harder, you have to make a wager with the cauldron and put up some of your hearts as collateral. Fail and you'll lose them, win and you reap the benefits. This level of risk/reward does wonders to give you a reason to avoid failing in an industry that has long since removed limited lives from the experience.
Hearts are a powerful reward because in this game you can trade hearts for weapons. Oh so many delicious weapons. You can choose from nine different types of weapons, from the classic bow (which excels at long distance), to claws that make you look like Wolverine, to a club that does amazing melee damage as well as being able to reflect projectiles. Within these types are dozens of variations, like a ninja palm that fires kunai knives rapidly, or a fireworks cannon. Even with these hundreds of different weapons there are yet more variations. High powered versions can also be found in the store, but they’ll cost you. Alternatively, you can gain more powerful weapons by playing on higher difficulties, receiving them through Streetpass, fusing weaker weapons together, or by playing multiplayer.
Called “Together”, the multiplayer options allow for nearby (local) or far away (global) play. Playing globally you can choose to limit it to just friends or take on anybody. Up to six people can compete in a Free-for-All match, or the far more interesting Light vs Dark mode. This mode is 3 vs 3 with each team having its own life meter. Being destroyed loses your team an amount of their life bar equal to the value of your weapon. If you bring a powerful weapon to the fight, you better know how to use it or you'll end up costing your team the game. The person who ends up depleting their team’s lifebar will be respawned as an angel (Pit, or the creatively named Dark Pit) with a random powerful weapon. The first team to lose their angel loses the game.
Multiplayer is fast and often furious. Even playing globally there is no slowdown or long waits for the lobby to fill up. The computer will fill in AI members to get the numbers up to six, dropping in human players as they become available. This means no waiting, only fun. All of the weapons and powers unlocked in solo play are available for multiplayer. You can even save up to 16 different presets of your favorite weapon/power combo. Best of all, you gain rewards for playing multiplayer: win or lose you gain hearts, and even some new weapons.
Everywhere you look in this game you find more content. On top of the engaging multiplayer, deep weapons system, and highly replayable solo missions you have extra unlockables. There are image and sound galleries to fill out, as well as idols to collect (think trophies in Smash Bros), and you can even use your 3DS play coins for more chances to win. There is also a collectable AR card battle game you can play with the play cards that come with the game. Best of all, there's an achievement system that all achievement/trophy systems should hang their heads in shame for not being.
In similar fashion to Super Smash Bros Brawl, there are multiple large grids that unlock various panels as you complete various specific tasks. When a panel unlocks it not only reveals another part of a large picture, it also allows you to see what other tasks you have to complete for the adjacent panels. These tasks are varied and truly challenging to complete. The cherry on top is that for a majority of these tasks you get an actual in-game reward for completing them, instead of just a number to add to your digital bragging board.
It feels as though, since fans had to wait over twenty years for a Kid Icarus game, Project Sora have made a game with over twenty years' worth of fun to make up for the wait. The learning curve of the controls aside, this game is a pure gem. It has set the bar for visuals, sound, and content, not just for Nintendo but for any 3DS title. In my opinion, it's not just worth owning, it's worth buying the system for. Games like this are why I game.
The kid is back. Long live Pit.