When Nintendo unveiled the 3DS in 2010 it also teased Kid Icarus: Uprising, a return of a franchise that, a few cameos aside, had long remained dormant. While the original NES title was a conventional 2D action platformer, Masahiro Sakurai, most famous for his Super Smash Bros. series, has given Pit new life in an arcade action title, blending on-rails shooting with ground-based battles. It’s a series reinvention that's truly heaven sent.
From the moment the cartridge boots up, Kid Icarus: Uprising shows an extraordinary capacity for showmanship, immediately launching into witty dialogue and self-referential humour. It’s an attitude that carries through the whole title, and plays a major part in enhancing the experience. Whether watching the more than useful tutorial videos or playing through the solo campaign, the dialogue between Pit and Palutena — the goddess who gives him the gift of flight — is just one example of the playful style of storytelling. At one point Palutena tells Pit that he’s in an area where he died the most in his first game, and he simply says that it's OK, because he "always comes back to life." Such off-the-fourth-wall dialogue and storytelling seems perfect for this title.
In-jokes, references to 25-year-old pixels and so on work so well because the title's been designed with one simple purpose: to thrill and entertain. Many games try to tick certain boxes with scenarios and level design, but Kid Icarus: Uprising takes concepts that promise to be the most exciting and finds a place for them in the storyline. What about a world with false walls and trick exits everywhere, or perhaps a mission that involves flying around a pirate ship in space? The design philosophy appears to have been: if it’s cool and fun, it’s in.
In each level, there are two distinct sections: air battles and land battles. Air battles are on-rails action set pieces, with design similarities to Sin & Punishment: Star Successor, or the retro Space Harrier. With Pit having only temporary flight, these often take on the mantle of frenzied dashes to a destination, and are constructed to maximise every moment. Enemies fly onto the screen in patterns and the environment shifts with every dart and change of direction that Pit takes, always giving a continuous sense of speed and momentum. They truly are a master class in adrenaline-fuelled gaming action, drawing the player into the handheld’s small screen.
Land battles make up the slightly longer section of each level and represent an entirely different experience. No longer guided by Palutena’s flight path, you traverse environments that vary from human cities to the aforementioned pirate ship. Rather than rail-shooting mayhem, these sections demand more patience and strategic shooting, sizing up the diverse (and at times surreal) enemies and placing greater focus on dodging and counter-attacking. These stages are linear but with some minor diversions and secrets to be found, such as useful hot springs that replenish your life bar: all before an often-memorable boss battle. If the air battles are a rollercoaster ride, the land battles are a ghost train: slower paced but still capable of thrills.
In both game styles, though particularly the air battles, the graphical and audio presentation are of the highest quality. Exceptional pacing is matched by fantastic art design, with the 3D effect contributing to the vibrancy of the visuals: the environments are beautifully brought to life while maintaining a smooth frame rate. Sound is also top-notch, with sweeping orchestral music accompanying you through every stage, while the voice acting is exaggerated and very playful, perfectly suiting the tone of the game. This is a title to enjoy with a pair of headphones in a quiet room.
These are all positives, so it’s a pity to say that the control options are a minor disappointment. While in the air, you move Pit with the Circle Pad, the aiming reticule follows the stylus on the touch screen and you fire weapons with the shoulder button. On the ground the controls are the same, with the exception that the stylus not only aims the reticule but also moves the camera with a small swipe. Initially both scenarios take some practice, particularly the camera control on land, and our early impressions were undoubtedly mixed. After a little while, however, it starts to feel more intuitive and natural, though for some there may be a nagging feeling that ground controls could have been smoother.
For left-handed players, the best option is the Circle Pad Pro, which uses the right Circle Pad for movement, meaning the stylus can be used more naturally in the left hand. Amazingly, despite there being an option to use the four face buttons for the aiming reticule, there is no option to use both Circle Pads together for true dual analogue controls. While stylus aiming allows for excellent accuracy, the inclusion of face buttons as an aiming option, but not dual Circle Pad controls, is baffling. That issue aside, options to enable Aim Assist and Autofire may take away some of the challenge but provide welcome help for less experienced players. Ultimately the controls function well with practice, and each player should find a way to play comfortably, with the pack-in stand a good option to avoid hand cramp and discomfort.
This aim to provide true accessibility for all players is demonstrated perfectly by the Fiend’s Cauldron. Before every campaign level you can set the intensity level, from the exceptionally easy 0.1 to the insanely difficult level 9.0. While the title recommends a level based on earlier performances, you can adjust this and bet more hearts — the in-game currency — on a higher intensity. If you die during a stage you can continue, but the intensity and your score will be dropped, and you’ll lose some of the hearts you’ve accumulated. Some stages even have locked areas only accessible when playing on a certain intensity level, and beating these on higher difficulties brings greater rewards and loot: with the freedom to select any stage after its been cleared once, it's a clever system that encourages multiple play-throughs.
The hearts that you pick up can also go to other uses, such as buying weapons. As you buy or earn weapons you have the ability to fuse two together, often leading to improved results. With weapon types such as blades or bows having different levels of range and melee abilities — as well as variations in raw power — acquiring, selling and fusing weapons is an enjoyable diversion.
While the Solo Mode is the cinematic and most significant part of the title, there's online multiplayer too. With support for local and worldwide play these are land battles set within specially designed arenas, with unbridled chaos the order of the day. Free-for-all is exactly as you’d expect: up to six players going all-out for themselves, with the gameplay quickly descending into madness. The camera control with the stylus, while less of a problem in the structured single-player levels, can be troublesome when fire and enemies are coming from all sides: not a deal-breaker, but worth bearing in mind.
Light Vs. Dark is the team event, and in our view the more enjoyable mode. Two teams of three compete, each with a team life-bar: once that bar depletes one member becomes an angel, and the first team to destroy their rival’s angel is the winner. This online functionality does lack an overall ranking or rating system for your profile, but the short bursts of action, combined with the rewards of hearts and weapons, makes it a fun option. We didn’t experience any noticeable lag or waiting times for a match, with the game cleverly adding bots to fill spaces when needed, then promptly replacing them with real players in time for the next round. It may not be a fully-tooled online multiplayer component, but it’s quick and entertaining.
Two other features that make use of the 3DS hardware are AR Card battles and StreetPass weapon trading. AR battles use game-specific cards, though the battle outcomes are reportedly pre-ordained: we didn’t have any cards to test. StreetPass meanwhile allows you to select a weapon from your armoury and turn it into a gem to give to other gamers, in the hope you’ll receive a weapon gem in return. On top of these features there are Idols to collect, which are 3D models of in-game characters, enemies and weapons. There’s an Idol viewer, while more are collected through an egg-tossing mini-game or through Play Coins. These are fairly minor features in terms of your time with the game, but add extra character of their own.
Kid Icarus: Uprising is one of the most attractive, exhilarating, entertaining and outrageously fun titles so far on 3DS. While Mario has recently brought his style of gaming bliss to the handheld, Uprising provides a substantial amount of content, its own brand of adrenaline pumping set pieces and wonderful humour. It sweeps you along at breakneck speed, and is a must-have title for that very reason.