Review: Kid Icarus: Uprising

KidIcarusUprising

One of the first things that Pit says after the goddess Palutena calls him in to battle the evil forces of Medusa and her crew of nasties is “Did you miss me?”  My response: “No.”  I grew up as a kid that had never even heard of a company called Sega until they brought out a blue hedgehog for their Genesis system in 1991, so my video game world revolved entirely around the Nintendo Entertainment System and memories of blowing on 2600 carts.  Despite my NES-blinders and his regular appearance as a whinny imp on Captain N: The Game Master, I never developed a strong affinity for Kid Icarus.  The look and play of the game just did not hold a candle to a certain Sir Mega of Man’s adventures, and there were six of those floating around, so there was never time for Grecian, unforgivingly difficult platforming.  Skip to two decades later, it was very surprising for me to see a positive, nostalgia-drenched fangasm for a new game starring Pit.  It was like if they announced a new Balloon Fight game with the fanfare and celebration usually reserved for royalty and followed by cries of glee which typically only spontaneously erupt whenever Leonard Nimoy walks within thirty feet of a comic shop.

So, for me and probably the majority of the people picking this game up to borrow or buy, Kid Icarus: Uprising might as well be an entirely new game franchise from Nintendo.  It’s been 25 years since the original, just long enough for old players to have bred rose-tinted memories and children who can enjoy this game as their first encounter with the angelic protagonist.  It is a great game for the 3DS that is hindered only by the controls.  How big a hindrance is largely going to be a matter of taste and willingness to cope with clunk.

In a surprisingly long single player game, the new Kid Icarus tale tells the story of Pit’s battle to vanquish evil.  I must have missed the day in my ancient religious studies class where they discussed the temples erected to and offerings burnt for Palutena, the goddess of light and Angel Land, but that is who the be-feathered hero serves.  The characters and settings of the game are drawn from Greek myths and legends and leave a huge margin for Nintendofication.  In one battle Pit can encounter Cerberus, the classic three-headed dog monster, in a marble column arena, and in the next he might find sushi to eat before using a railgun to blast what looks like a beholder that grew mini-bat wings.  The look of the main characters and bosses are distinct, yet iconic enough to be recognizable in an 8-bit sprite rendition that occasionally flashes on the bottom screen whenever a character is first introduced, if it happens to be an entity from the original NES entry.  These visual callbacks to the original are going to be payoff to diehard fans as well as a reminder of how far things have come to newer players.

The game is no A Song of Fire and Ice, or even a yarn out of The Cleric Quintet, but it did have enough twists and upsets to keep my interest throughout.  The game would have been fine without any story at all, so it is a great surprise to genuinely want to see what happens in the next chapter (read: level).  I dare say it has one of the better stories for a Nintendo game, but this is an admittedly low bar.  The characters in the story are constantly yapping while Pit is flying through the sky or running around on the ground.  Pit is full of youthful enthusiasm and Palutena plays off of that to explain background or the workings of some mystical device, all while poking fun of him or making cute comments reminiscent of any popular Shonen Jump anime you’d care to name.  The chatter does give context to the world, and is occasionally funny in a self-referential kind of way, but is often not particularly aware of the game.  The script is fairly set; it is not overly concerned with what is happening.  It’s like Mike and the bots riffing on a movie, if what they were saying had nothing to do with the action on the screen.

The quest to set the world aright is comprised of two modes, one amazing the other a bit dull.  For a reason that is unclear, Pit can only fly for a limited amount of time before he will have to drop to the ground to run around.  The chapters start out with a flight section where Pit flies on an invisible, predetermined path and shoots enemies while avoiding projectiles.  Vast expanses of lush fields with distant towns and ruins and hurricane storms infested with screen-filling tornadoes and deep caverns are but some of the backgrounds players will enjoy as they try to ignore these wonderful sights to keep an eye on the creatures attempting to knock Pit out of the sky. 

Sadly, eventually someone will fly too close to the sun and have to come in for a landing.  Anyone that wants to see the new splendor sitting in the next chapter will have to slog through a comparatively unimpressive dungeon.  When the corridors do not feel cramped, they open up enough to show the complete lack of detail in the environment.  Pit can dash out of the way of incoming fire and perform melee attacks on the ground as he notices the simple textures and gets blindsided by enemies that are not properly identified for the player until they strike and drain precious life.  The ground segments would not be that bad, in fact the action itself is fair to good for any handheld that is not the Vita, but they cannot hold a candle to the flight sequences and seem shabby by comparison.

Turning the 3D on makes the game into an almost arcade-like experience.  The feeling generated is that this experience cannot be had elsewhere and that you are playing an interactive ride that shouldn’t exist in your home (or bus, or plane, or Turkish bath house, or wherever).  The closest experience outside of other rail shooters is an amusement park ride liken to the old Disney motion simulator attraction Star Tours: a movie is played on a screen and a moving theater shifts in time with the movie to make it feel like you are somewhere else.  Sure, the room doesn’t shake while you play this game, but avoiding shots and shooting guys does make it very immersive.  The three-dimensional effects in the flight portions of the levels are the most impressive use of the technology I have seen to date on the 3DS.  It is a good showpiece for the system, yet is also completely enjoyable with the 3D slider in the “OFF” position.

Before every chapter the difficulty can be adjusted to increase both the challenge and the reward for completing the level without dying.  Hearts, which are awarded for accomplishing certain feats, selling weapons and blasting foes in the main game, serve as currency.  These can then be used to buy new weapons and other useful items.  In addition to buying them, Pit can fuse two weapons he already has to make a new one.  In my experience this seems to be the most efficient way to get the best gear.  To add to the replayability, challenges laid out in a grid can be completed.  At first these will randomly unlock as players fuse a weapon or complete a given chapter.  From those random achievements will spring vague hints as to how to complete the objectives adjacent to the newly finished goal on the grid.  Finishing most of these tasks will net a reward, often hearts or a new weapon, giving a reason to keep playing after the credits roll.

While flying, the controls are adequate.  By default Pit is moved around to avoid fire with the circle pad, the targeting is done with the stylus, and a shoulder button shoots energy beams and arrows at the bad guys.  Because the forward and backwards motion is controlled automatically, this scheme works, but does not feel very natural.  It feels like the game has a missing phantom limb of a second analog stick that is dying to be used, but has to cope with its prosthesis, the stylus.  When it is time to run to the boss on the ground, the interface becomes a real nightmare.  Instead of only moving up and down, left and right with the circle pad, Pit’s entire movement on the ground is dictated by the circle pad.  Trouble rears its head as the targeting is still accomplished by moving the reticle with the stylus.  In addition to being uncomfortable to hold for prolonged periods of time, lining up shots with a virtual pen and paper is not natural.  At least not to me; perhaps it is great for kids who have played the majority of the games they enjoy on the 3DS and its dual-screen immediate predecessor.  In other games this method of control is not a massive issue as the action takes place on the touch screen, so one can immediately see where the shots will go.  In Uprising all of the action is up top, so there is a great disconnect between input and response.

To compound this problem, turning around is controlled by the touch screen and it can take several swipes with the stylus to get Pit to face a different direction.  Even if one ignores the ergonomics of the situation, it is very difficult to translate one’s intent of motion into practice in the game.  Also, when doing all of this motion the system is likely to be moved just a little bit, ruining the three-dimensional illusion created on the top display.  To combat this the game ships with a stand to help hold your 3DS still while you poke at it with the stylus.  While it works and makes things more comfortable, when you’re using a stand at a desk to fix in place your portable system just to play a game, it really makes one wonder why the product was designed in this fashion.  And it probably makes some of us have flashbacks to the stationary portability of the Virtual Boy.  None of the several control options felt right.  Perhaps if the game featured a smart automatic camera that centered focus on the action and enemies roaming about with murderous intent the controls would have been more bearable.  But that is not the game available for purchase.

If you like dungeon running enough to play all the way through the single player, you might care to try the online play available through the 3DS’s built-in wireless features (assuming you can find a wireless access point).  The House that Mario built – you should just see the plumbing – is a family friendly place, so they would never unleash anything as heinous as a “Deathmatch” or a “Team Deathmatch” on the public.  At least not with those names.  Navigating the slick and intuitive menus to get to the online play will bring users to two final options which are exactly these classic online modes, just called something else.  The underlying code appears to be decent as in the matches I played there was not a significant amount of lag most of the time and the few times there was it did not break the game nor was it any more or less than I would expect from an online shooter. 

In addition to the fun of competition, players are rewarded with new weapons for completing matches to be used in either the online mode or the fight against Medusa et al.  As a nice touch the newly acquired weapon can be converted to hearts immediately if it is beneath your refined, gorgon-slaying armament, saving clicks around the item shop.  There is no kind of matchmaking on display and it is possible to get thoroughly trounced by more experienced players with better gear if that is who fate puts into the match.  In team deathmatch each team has a certain amount of life that is reduced whenever one player is temporarily knocked out.  To try to even the experience more life is knocked off whenever a player with a better weapon is knocked out, but in practice it is so hard to kill a properly equipped player that it is almost not worth playing.  It might be worth mentioning that there are options to only go up against people you know, which can help balance things a little bit.

Perhaps as a nod to the target age of this product, players will be able to use the 3DS’s camera to engage in Augmented Reality or “AR” battles.  Using cards, some of which come with the game, some of which I am told came with a Best Buy circular, and all of which are available on eBay, this mode engages the cameras of the system and displays their delayed output on the top screen.  When the system recognizes a card, it will bring up stats for the character and overlay a 3D model of the character on the card actually standing on the card, thereby augmenting one’s reality in a method that was heretofore unrequested.  If two cards are placed opposite one another, both characters will pop up and they can fight as reflected on the bottom screen.  After a limited amount of experimentation, it seems that some cards are simply better than others and the game is essentially a collectible card version of War, where on can collect nothing but aces.

This could have been a harmless diversion for kids on a lunch break, but the technology behind it does not work.  The system is supposed to be that a card is thrown down and in a few second the camera recognizes the digital essence of the character contained within and remakes reality like a level 17 Wizard with a Wish spell memorized.  Instead, usually what happens is the system looks at the cards and does nothing but display a processing icon and a mere picture of the cards in an un-augmented reality.  There are no instructions indicating that the camera needs to be closer or further away, that the image is out of focus or that there is too much, as opposed to too little, light.  With zero guidance as to how to make things work, players are more likely to get frustrated and tear the cards up as they are to keep moving the waxed paper a third of an inch this way or that.  Just more litter in the cafeteria.

Whether or not this is a great game for you will largely depend on your response to the controls.  Kid Icarus: Uprising wants to be a game that is colorful and detailed, a blast to play with lots of replayability, but for me it was hidden behind a downright horrible set of control options.  I came to a realization when playing this last night.  I was sitting at my desk, hunched over looking at the screen whilst ignoring the pain in my hand from gripping a fat toothpick/stylus for more than thirty minutes, and for no reason looked up.  I saw my monitor and the keyboard just a few inches from my left hand that was trying to hold onto the 3DS to press the Fire button, and the mouse a foot to the north of my other aching paw.  Then I looked over my left shoulder and saw the home theater with its high definition display, 3D capability, and synthesis of engagement and comfortable sitting.  It is in that moment that it hit me: I don’t want to play this game on the 3DS.

The controls are horrible.  They are not responsive, ergonomic, or even optimized for the system.  The way the game plays makes it seem like the designers started making the game they wanted and then had to shoehorn it onto the system.  In the end the new Kid Icarus is a great piece of software that is marred and obscured by the system it is on.  Every single thing Pit can do would be accomplished better with the Wii Classic Controller.  Imagine an epic and beautiful poem that the author refuses to let be published in another language, saying that anyone that wants to enjoy it will have to adjust themselves for the experience.  To conform themselves to engage in its native form.  That’s this game.  Whether or not you’ll like it is going to depend upon whether you are willing to meet it halfway.

TryIt

Pros:
+ Imaginative visuals
+ Lengthy campaign (for a rail shooter)
+ Tons of options for replaying levels

Cons:
- Poor controls
- Online mode seems unbalanced
- AR cards mode is broken and pointless

Game Info:
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Publisher: Nintendo
Developer: Project Sora
Release Date: 3/23/2012
Genre: Rail Shooter
ESRB Rating: E10+
Players: 1-6
Source: Game purchased by reviewer

About the Author

Steve has been playing video games since the start of the 1980s. While the first video game system he played was his father's, an Atari 2600, he soon began saving allowances and working for extra money every summer to afford the latest in interactive entertainment. He is keenly aware of how much it stinks to spend good money on a bad game. It does things to a man. It makes stink way too much time into games like Karnov to justify the purchase.