Pit successfully finds his place among the cast of modern videogame heroes
Deciding which way a gaming series should head next is a pretty tough process for most companies, even if said series has been going through a reasonably long stretch of constant releases that have been achieving both commercial success and critical praise. Things become even harder, then, when a long period of time passes while the series lies dormant. After all, so much water will have passed under the bridge that all gaming concepts that served as basic pillars for a once strong gameplay will have aged to the point of being useless and outdated. Such is the case of Kid Icarus.
What was once a refreshing clash of surprising up-scrolling levels with occasional Zelda-like dungeons has, during the course of twenty years, had its novelty factor washed away many times over by the merciless creative impetus of the industry, hence being made completely useless and precarious. For Project Sora, then, bringing a franchise back to life after such a long while became not a matter of picking up the pieces and organizing them in a new way, but of basically transplanting elements from an ancient environment and building a modern ecosystem where all of those pieces can peacefully coexist, creating a new franchise with old characters. The result is a considerably original software that is successful in merging two unique and contrasting types of gameplay into one cohesive adventure.
In a way, Kid Icarus Uprising’s two gameplay patterns differ so greatly that the package could be considered as two distinct games in one cartridge tied up by the same conductor: its plot. All of the game’s twenty five stages are divided into two different parts. The first one takes place high up in the air. By making use of an on-rails shoot’em up progression that harks back to Star Fox, Pit will fly over mesmerizing locations while shooting hundreds of baddies that pop out on the screen with frantic frequency.
Those segments are the gaming definition of thrilling, as it is barely possible to breathe calmly when there is so much happening at the same time: enemies must be defeated, their attacks have to be avoided, items must be collected, and eventual environmental traps need to be properly identified before they can harm the angel. It is almost unfair that the flight parts of the game leave so little time for players to be mesmerized by the gorgeous open environments that the 3DS is able to render, but everything comes together – heavily aided by the game’s impressive soundtrack – to create one exciting experience.
Palutena’s gift of flight for Pit does not last forever, though, so about five minutes into each stage Pit must descend onto the ground to complete his missions by exploring generally linear dungeons that culminate with a boss battle. On the ground, the amount of enemies to defeat is significantly smaller, but that is compensated by the fact that Pit’s attacks are somehow much weaker when he is not soaring.
All dungeons are pretty well-constructed and boast a nice balance between exploration, battles and puzzle solving, because while clearing a dungeon might only be a matter of going from one room to the next one while beating down foes, each one of them hides lots of treasure chests with weapons and other collectibles.
While being on the ground is not half as great as flying, it still serves as a very nice way to wrap up each of the levels, and it obviously offers a pleasant change of pace, moving the focus from insane shooting to slower battles and meticulous exploration. The boss battles are not overly creative in their design, and not as challenging as they should be – considering that dying to hordes of enemies is more common than losing to a boss – but the fact that the game packs one cool-looking boss with a unique set of attacks for each of its 25 levels is a major positive feature.
Whether he is flying or walking, Pit is controlled in pretty much the same way, with the L-button being used for shooting, the analog stick for moving, and the touch screen for aiming. The core difference is that while on the ground, the touch screen also accumulates the function of spinning the camera around.
The control scheme is certainly quite singular, but it is the right set-up to achieve the full implementation of the game’s gameplay proposal. Given how different it is, getting a full grip on the controls can only be achieved after players face a long learning curve, but while the setup is not intuitive, it becomes pretty natural after half a dozen levels, not giving players too much trouble aside from the punctual occasions when the joint functionality of controlling the camera and aiming with the touch screen ends up not being completely effective during ground battles.
It is worth noting, though, that as a game from a portable device, whose natural goal is to be played anywhere, Kid Icarus Uprising’s control scheme has the problem of making it uncomfortable to hold the Nintendo 3DS when the stand that comes packed with the game, and that requires the presence of a flat surface in order to be utilized effectively, cannot be used.
One of the game’s most intriguing aspects, surprisingly, happens to be its storyline, not only because of how it develops, but also because how Project Sora decided to tell it. The game starts when, after twenty years, Medusa mysteriously come backs to life and starts attacking humans with the Underworld Army, forcing Palutena to step in by summoning Pit and lending him some of her powers to deal with the forces of evil.
However, that straightforward premise that tends to remain static until the tail-end of most light-hearted Nintendo games is actually thoroughly developed here, as the plot branches out to a number of unexpected paths, eventually involving a big cast of characters both evil and good, with a vast number of interests.
Even though there is a lot of story in Kid Icarus Uprising, the game refuses to stop the action and invest in long cutscenes; instead, the plot moves along as stages are explored and battles are fought, because while the action takes place in the upper screen, the bottom screen will always display character sprites interacting with each other through great dialogues and constant voice acting.
The storytelling, as a consequence, becomes as frequent of a component of the game as gameplay itself, as all twelve hours of the adventure tick away along with characters chatting and new plot details being revealed. Despite the heavy story development, Uprising is never a game that takes itself too seriously, as the characters are always making silly comments about what happens on-screen, villains usually alternate evil threats with friendly chit-chat with the heroes, Palutena is always finding a way to pull Pit’s legs with witty remarks, and the entire cast occasionally acknowledges that they are in a game.
It is a path that tends to thread the dangerous line between vomit-inducing cheesiness and funny, but the game manages avoid any dangers and, although the voice acting falters in some places, the result is a heart-warming tale on which one truly comes to like and care about the characters, and, when the game comes to a close, the friendly conversations are one of the things players will miss the most.
The blend of silliness and epic, in addition to the menus that look a whole lot like what is seen in Super Smash Bros. Brawl, are not the only things that remind players that this game was captained by Masahiro Sakurai, as the designer also left his mark in the amount of content that Kid Icarus Uprising carries with it.
For starters, the game features about one hundred weapons to collect, and even though the same weapon can be acquired twice, no two weapons are quite the same, because two instances of the same weapon will almost always have different stats (melee attack power and long-range attack power) and skills (such as granting Pit more speed, attack power, or boost his shield).
Weapons are all divided into nine types (bows, clubs, palms, orbs, and etc.) and each of those types drastically changes Pit’s behavior during battles, making it possible for players to freely experiment with different approaches before they can decide which combat pattern suits them best. As if all that customization was not enough, Pit will also acquire certain skills during the game. Those can be neatly arranged, as if they were Tetris blocks, into a pre-determined space so that players can power-up the angel as they see fit and use the skills granted to him as their unique strategy to tackling the stages. All those combinations make it plausible to say that chances are no two players in the world will equip Pit with the very same weapon and skills.
Finding a good combination of weapon and special abilities becomes vital due to the fact that Kid Icarus Uprising can become a merciless game very quickly. The title has nine different difficulty settings, ranging from so-easy-it-makes-you-yawn to so-hard-you-had-better-wrap-your-3DS-in-foam-before-you-play-it, but picking between one and another is not as simple as it usually is. The game implements a gambling system where the hardest levels can only be played if the player is willing to bet a very high number of hearts – the game’s currency.
If players succeed in clearing the stage at high difficulties, they will be rewarded with tons of hearts, a positive result for the extreme gambling; however, if they fail miserably and die a lot, the game will happily burn away all those hearts, which makes it possible for rich players to become quickly poor due to daring to play at extremely high levels when they do not possess the skills to do so. The system is an interesting one, but it can make losing at high levels extra frustrating due to the mandatory entry payment for those levels. Losing at level 9 might mean that, in order to try again, a very skilled player will have to play a few stages on lower levels – with affordable heart fees – just to acquire the amount of hearts necessary to once again get a chance at tackling the hardest difficulty setting, which is downright annoying.
With all that in mind, Kid Icarus Uprising undeniably is a game with an impressive amount of replay value. Its engaging gameplay is divided into 25 relatively short bits, each chapter takes about twenty minutes to clear on a first playthrough, and its overwhelming amount of collectibles (weapons, power-ups and trophies, just like the ones from the Smash Bros. series), highly adjustable difficulty settings, and 360 achievements – some of which are ridiculously tough – mean that only the most dedicated and skilled gamers will be able to fully complete the game, but at the same time Kid Icarus Uprising presents itself as a game that is accessible for all, in spite of the long climb required to master its control scheme.
In addition to its fleshed out single-player, the game also includes a very good multiplayer mode. In it, up to six players will battle it out in a variety of nicely designed arenas, by using their weapon and powers of choice, in two distinct modes: free-for-all and team battle. The former is as straightforward as one might expect, but, as an extra twist, in team battles the more powerful is the weapon carried by a certain player, the more damage he will cause to his own team’s energy meter upon his death.
It is a feature that evens out the playing field, which can be awfully uneven in free-for-all battles, and makes things interesting to all players regardless of their skills. Due to how frantic, fast-paced and thrilling Uprising’s multiplayer mode is, playing it either locally or online is basically seeing the materialization of a 3-D Smash Bros. wild battle. It is fun, and it will keep players coming back for more.
It is safe to say that Pit has successfully found his place among the strong cast of modern videogame heroes. The days of up-scrolling levels might be sadly over, but by combining addictive shoot’em up segments with meticulous and slow exploration, the character has encountered a restarting point for his adventures that, while not extremely original in neither of its two instances, still manages to be unique.
Kid Icarus Uprising easily stands out as one of the defining moments on the 3DS’ lifespan, both for the good and for the bad. If on one side it shows that the addition of a second analog stick could have easily made the game more playable without the packed-in stand, it also makes a statement on how great its hardware is and how much content one can pack into a tiny cartridge. In being reborn, Pit breathes more life into a great system, and, by the time Kid Icarus Uprising bows out of the stage, players will greatly miss its delightful characters, but will, at the same time, be excited for what is on the horizon for this old – yet new – series that Nintendo has just put back on its belt alongside so many of gaming’s greatest franchises.