Kid Icarus Uprising review: Daring reinvention is 3DS's most exciting game yet
23rd Mar 2012 | 10:03
Love hurts. No pain no gain. Can't make an omelette without breaking eggs. Why so many ways of saying 'take the bad with the good'? Probably because of the vast number of good things with bad bits. Sustaining third-degree burns from a delicious McDonald's apple pie. Laughing at the Muppets Movie while feeling sexually confused about Miss Piggy. Lining Rupert Murdoch's pockets as you enjoy Game Of Thrones on Sky Atlantic. Now we can add Kid Icarus to the list.
There's no avoiding it: Uprising hates you. It hates your hands, and it hates your gaming preconceptions. The hand bit is easier to grasp. Or not. You see, Pit's circle pad and stylus controls place the system's entire weight on the left hand (or right, if you're a lefty playing with the Circle Pad Pro). Similar controls in DS's Metroid Prime Hunters gave us cramps, but 3DS has a bonus dimension weighing it down. Needless to say, you needn't fly close to the sun to feel the burn.
Nintendo acknowledge the issue by packaging a plastic stand with the game. Annoyingly, our review handheld was stand-less. However, recreating the effect by crossing our legs and wedging the 3DS into the crook of the knee did prevent the pain. On the downside, the 3DS now smells of inner knee. Sorry about that, Nintendo PR person. Either way: not the most portable of experiences. Wedging hardware into body folds is frowned upon on most bus services.
Survive the hand cramps and brain cramps follow. Uprising asks us to do what few games dare: to learn a genuinely new control scheme. The game's ground battles - more on them later - use the touch screen as a makeshift trackball. Dragging the stylus aims Pit's reticule, while flicking the screen causes the camera to spin. Tap during a spin and the view locks in place. As the game neatly surmises, it's "like stopping a spinning globe with your finger". Only to begin with it's closer to stopping a lawnmower blade with your finger: messy and full of swears.
Our first few hours are spent running into walls, overshooting turns and failing to hit enemies. It's an instinctual set-up, and these instincts take time to settle in. Get a feel for simple right-angle turns and you soon grow comfortable with smaller increments. After two hours, you're circle strafing like a pro. It's arguably faster than a second analogue stick, as long as you can unlearn second analogue sticks.
Front-loading a review with misery is kind of a bummer. That said, front- loading a game with misery is kind of a bummer, too. Know about the problems going in and you stand a better chance of overcoming them. And you need to overcome them, because Kid Icarus: Uprising is the freshest Nintendo game in years.
For a 26-year-old hero, Pit feels fresh as a daisy. Game director Masahiro 'Smash Bros' Sakurai isn't interested in excavating and preserving a forgotten hero. He's syringed the Kid Icarus DNA from a NES cart trapped in amber and spliced it with the potent arcade fun that powered his multi-mascot thumpathon. A Jurassic Lark, if you will.
Perhaps Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is a better analogy. Mad professor Sakurai drags a battered 8-bit chassis into his workshop and emerges three years later with the Swiss Army knife of action games. It flies! It fights!
It occasionally lounges in a hot spring! In true Chitty fashion, Uprising even features a (mercifully short) musical number. Phantasmagorical just doesn't do it justice.
Fight or flight
In 1986 flight was limited to a measly scrolling shooter section. Twenty-six years later Pit kicks off every stage with five minutes of soaring wonderment. Spewing neon death from the foreground feels a lot like Sin And Punishment 2, right down to the melee attacks for henchmen silly enough to float within arm's length. With hundreds of laser projectiles going in and out of the screen, the 3D is spectacular. As death rays patter against the screen we thank Nintendo for the safety glass.
It's amazing how much exhilaration Sakurai squeezes from a screen the size of a credit card. Not since our last credit card bill have we witnessed such tummy-turning ups and downs. Flight is on-rails in the roller-coaster sense: screaming freefalls, brain-battering corkscrews and I'm-going-to-sue-Alton-Towers-for-whiplash U-turns. Choreographed to an incredible orchestral score, Uprising's flying boasts that same bombastic forward momentum as Super Mario Galaxy.
And can Sakurai please show other devs the 3DS's secret graphics switch? His literal flights of fancy skim us under magma arches and over battlefields where thousands of troops glisten in the moonlight. In ten breathless hours Pit soars through alien attack fleets, surfs a stardust ocean, parts a real ocean, defuses moon-sized bombs, fights moon-sized moons... The hairs on the back of the neck are constantly up and down. Must scare the bejesus out of the lice.
Up in arms
Pit needs to be armed before taking off. Weapons maketh the angel, you see, and Pit has nine classes to pick from. Cannons are slow and strong, Orbiters fast and weak. Palms and claws are melee superstars but don't offer the reassuring distance of a bow or rifle. Clubs bat back projectiles, turning the game into impromptu laser tennis. Us? We pick a puny Fireworks Cannon because the explosions look pretty in 3D. The crowd goes 'oooooh'. Enemies go 'argh'.
Newsflash: Smash Bros creator likes packing games with content! In the air, the vast range of boomsticks can appear superfluous. Different weapons have different fire rates, but who has time to count laser projectiles when the Pit hits the fan? Stats play a bigger part on terra firma. Pit's simple moveset - little more than shoot, melee, dash and dodge - cleverly amplifies any weapon you plug into it. Adding movement, fire rate or homing modifiers has a tangible impact on how our hero handles.
After some shaky early impressions, ground battles get their act together. Sakurai banishes concerns of bland corridor shooting by cramming said corridors with gimmickry. There are grind rails, stealth sections, Zelda-ish puzzles, mechanised stomp-bots, hidden rooms, labyrinths, minibosses, megabosses, co-op battles, chariot races... Sakurai has come a long way since Brawl's disastrous Subspace Emissary mode.
Ground battles benefit from his Smash Bros knowhow. Briefly flicking the circle pad to whomp a club into a smog-belching frog is just as satisfying as pranging Peach's frying pan into Mario's gob. Flick dodging is even better - a well-timed nudge slips Pit past incoming fire like a besocked kid on a newly polished floor. Master the timing and Uprising's evasive combat is as fast and snappy as Metroid: Other M's.
And master it you will if Pit is to survive Uprising's 'quirky' take on difficulty. Called 'Fiend's Cauldron' it lets you gamble in-game currency to attempt harder variations - or intensities - of the level. These give you more henchmen spouting more projectiles causing more damage. In turn leading to more deaths meaning more swears leading to less pocket money from a more disapproving mother. Intense, man.
Intensity ranges from 0.0 (walk in the park) to 9.0 (watching Shakespeare in the park), making Uprising the first game in history with 90 difficulty modes. This is called replayability, readers - something games used to have in the '90s. Simple maths tells you it's a generous deal: 90 x 25 levels x average 20 minute length = lots o' game. While the promise of better loot ensures we explore its full depths.
The intensity system works particularly well alongside 'Treasure Hunt', Uprising's answer to Xbox 360 Achievements or PS3 Trophies. Along with simple score/time targets, you're challenged to clear stages on particular intensities or with a certain weapon type. Treasure Hunt not only lures you towards unexplored corners of the arsenal, but rewards you with even shinier trinkets to invest in future challenges.
Factor in unlockable 3D 'idols', near-infinite weapon variations, StreetPass gems (swapping weapons with strangers), unlockable powers, AR battle cards and extensive multiplayer modes (reviewed fully next issue) and you wonder how Sakurai can possibly hold it together. That it doesn't collapse in a heaving pile is due to its daringly knowing tone. Sakurai acknowledges that the game doesn't neatly slot together, he just points and laughs.
Pit, little more than a clump of white toga pixels in 1986, is recast as a spunky eager-beaver, hassling the Goddess Palutena with exasperating chitchat. While the non-stop commentary can irk to begin with, the endless prattling about doughnuts and hot springs does eventually wear down your defences. When characters start breaking the fourth wall - gloating how hellhound Twinbellows is earning Nintendog trainer points, for example - you may even manage a laugh or two.
Hit and Myth
Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised - Kid Icarus was silly to begin with. Part of the fun is rediscovering one of Nintendo's more bizarro efforts. Come on, bomb-sneezing Groucho Marx masks and giant gobs modelled on Mick Jagger? It's hard to believe the squares behind Wii Fit came up with this stuff. Sakurai's art team go with the flow and swell the ranks with belly-dancing plants, a parody of Metroid's space pirates and sexy treasure chests that kick Pit's face in with Chun-Li-sized horse thighs. And wait until you meet the Eggplant Wizard's brother...
Whether you're an Icarus buff or not, it's uplifting to find a game so comfortable being a game. Didn't Sakurai get the memo? 'Gaming' in 2012 is about bland suits throwing silly money at war games with all their edges filed off during focus testing. It certainly doesn't permit firework guns, 90 difficulty settings and health-replenishing doughnuts. Hell, do Nintendo even permit these things? Uprising reveals Pilotwings Resort and Steel Diver as the conservative schedule-fillers they really are.
It was always a mystery to us why president Iwata chose Kid Icarus to announce the 3DS back at E3 2010. The answer is clear to us now: because Kid Icarus is the company's most audacious game in years. A game that could only come from an outside agent like Sakurai. Uprising goes against the Nintendo grain in so many ways: cinematic spectacle, intrusive storytelling, user-defined difficulty and - most sacrilegiously - a control scheme that doesn't come naturally to fingers and thumbs.
In an ideal world, user friendliness does trump all. And Nintendo live in that ideal world 99% of the time. But it's that 1%, the rare trip into uncharted territory, that can result in their best work. We won't lie to you: Uprising is awkward and unusual. But love hurts. And no pain, no gain. And you can't make an omelette without breaking tendons. No, we won't lie to you: Kid Icarus: Uprising is 3DS's most exciting game to date.