Kid Icarus Uprising 3DS Stack
Image: Zion Grassl / Nintendo Life

Yes, it's now an entire decade since Masahiro Sakurai was permitted to do something other than Smash Bros., so to mark the occasion, Mitch Vogel looks back on one of Nintendo's most ambitious and misunderstood titles...

Let’s all take a step back and rewind the clock to June 2010, a simpler time when for most of us pandemics were merely the stuff of history books. After a long and ridiculously successful run with the DS and Wii platforms, Nintendo was gearing up to reveal its next gen successors and the company had made it known that it would be showing off its next portable at E3.

Reggie and Iwata tag-teamed the announcement of the all-new Nintendo 3DS, a futuristic portable that targeted the 3D craze that had set audiences imaginations (and retinas) alight when James Cameron’s Avatar came to theaters. Features like gyro controls, an analogue slider, and much better graphics than the regular DS all supported the promise of a more advanced gaming experience. And what title did Nintendo choose to showcase its new flagship hardware? They didn’t go with a new Zelda or Mario game, as you’d expect. No, the first game that Nintendo chose to reveal for the 3DS was none other than Kid Icarus: Uprising.

Today marks the 10-year anniversary of Kid Icarus: Uprising landing on store shelves and this writer would contend that it was the most ambitious game Nintendo ever published on the portable, and still ranks highly as one of their most daring releases of the last decade. The company has made plenty of genre-defining and rightfully award-winning titles since, but I still have yet to play anything that feels like Kid Icarus: Uprising.

Calling it a 'rail shooter', 'third-person shooter', and 'hack ‘n’ slash' are all accurate descriptions, yet at the same time, none of these can quite capture what a distinct experience it has to offer. That’s why Nintendo chose this as the title to introduce audiences to the 3DS; despite starring a character that had been dormant for decades, the company knew that this title was something that you literally couldn’t find anywhere else.

'rail shooter', 'third-person shooter', and 'hack ‘n’ slash' are all accurate descriptions, yet at the same time, none of these can quite capture what a distinct experience it has to offer

First, let’s review the history leading up to this visionary release. The game was developed by the now defunct Project Sora, which was a team led by Smash Bros. creator Masahiro Sakurai. Prior to the release of the 3DS, Satoru Iwata approached Sakurai and asked him to make a game for the upcoming console, specifically one that none of Nintendo’s in-house teams could pull off. Sakurai felt it was too soon after Super Smash Bros. Brawl to do another entry in that series, so he asked instead to revive a dormant series.

Pit’s appearance in Brawl made many think that a new game starring him was already in development and Nintendo was frequently asked about a new Kid Icarus game because of this, so it was decided they would make the rumor a reality. At the time, the Touch! Generations line was showing no signs of stopping on the DS, and Sakurai expected these titles would continue on the 3DS, so he specifically set out to make a ‘hardcore’ game to appeal to those looking for more of a challenge.

And what a challenge it had to offer! The Fiend’s Cauldron was a brilliant way to approach difficulty, as it incentivized players to constantly push themselves to their limits and put their money where their mouth is by betting on their skills. Regardless of how quick your reflexes were, there was always another increment you go up on the scale to give yourself just enough challenge. The 4.0-5.0 range felt about like it was where the ‘intended’ difficulty was set, but cranking it up to 9.0 was a harrowing and often near-impossible experience.

I have fond memories of spending many hours learning enemy spawn patterns and trying out new weapon loadouts to figure out the most effective way through a 9.0 level, and was thrilled by how it often felt like an entirely new stage. I failed more times than I could count, of course, but there’s something to be said about how pushing the Fiend’s Cauldron as far as you could acted as the ultimate ‘final exam’.

Image: Nintendo

Higher difficulty here wasn’t simply a matter of turning enemies into bullet sponges and making them one-shot you, but of reorienting combat encounters in such a way that pushed you to engage with all the mechanics Sakurai built into the gameplay. Nintendo still dabbles every now and then in turning up the difficulty in some of its games, but I’ve yet to play a first-party game that’s proven to be both as difficult and as rewarding as Kid Icarus: Uprising.

Kid Icarus: Uprising demands a level of precision and speed that could only be achieved by the controls Sakurai went with

For many, of course, the difficulty was kneecapped by the weird control scheme, which was hokey enough that it led to physical copies of the game famously shipping with a little stand to help you hold the 3DS while playing. I’ve seen many calls for a re-release of this game to feature more traditional dual-stick controls, but I honestly can’t imagine playing this title with anything but the weird touch set-up it was designed around. Not even motion controls would be able to mimic the accuracy of instantly snapping to an enemy directly behind you by a swift swipe and tap.

And yes, it did take several hours for the controls to ‘click’ for most new players, but I see this as an indicator of how bespoke the game design was for this release. The frantic mayhem of dodging and shooting simply couldn’t work with a more traditional scheme, Kid Icarus: Uprising demands a level of precision and speed that could only be achieved by the controls Sakurai went with. It took guts for Nintendo to give this control scheme the ‘all clear’, as the company likely had an idea of how much this element would be blasted by critics and general audiences. Sticking to it shows that the Big N knew it had something special on its hands, something that would be 'reduced' by watering it down with a more traditional control setup.

This was also the rare sort of game where the diversity of weapons on display offered some substantial alterations to your playstyle; it wasn’t just a matter of different damage and speed values, but wholly different effects due to the Smash Bros.-esque directional input system. Even within each class, each weapon felt like its own unique sub-class, and this was only further amplified by the extensive system of skills that made each weapon completely unique. If you really wanted to go in deep with it, you could spend hours farming and fusing different weapons together until you got just the right modifiers on the weapon you wanted. Aside from maybe the Monster Hunter games, no other releases on the 3DS ever came close to this level of depth with an equipment system — and it wasn’t even a main focus of the gameplay.

Each stage was designed like a roller coaster, filled with all manner of twists and turns as Pit first flew to his assigned mission and ran the last mile on foot through intricately designed dungeons. Assaulting the Space Pirate Ship and proving your worthiness of the Lightning Chariot were some of my favor segments, showcasing the unrelenting energy and chaos of battles while integrating some thrilling and imaginative set pieces. That rapid-fire, in-your-face pace was peak Nintendo magic, as you went into each stage not knowing remotely what to expect, but knowing that it would be something quite distinct from what you just went through. Most home console games don’t have half the ideas presented across the 25 chapters in Kid Icarus: Uprising, and this was a portable game released in 2012!

Most home console games don’t have half the ideas presented across the 25 chapters in Kid Icarus: Uprising, and this was a portable game released in 2012

Now let’s talk about the story, which went way beyond what it initially set itself up to be. Kid Icarus: Uprising would’ve been a satisfying enough game if it simply followed the Medusa plot introduced in the opening, but this release dared for something greater than that. After you defeat the ‘final boss’ in a fittingly climactic battle, it’s revealed that there’s a finaler boss pulling the strings, and you’re not even halfway through story yet.

Throw in all the unexpected detours afterward, like the Aurum subplot and the Chaos Kin, and you have a game that in many ways feels like a proper sequel to itself due to the time skips and well-explored narrative arcs. Kid Icarus: Uprising wasn’t afraid to build out an expansive and interesting world, one that truly kept you guessing right up until the very end. Perhaps most importantly, it had a well-defined and dynamic cast of characters that grew and changed as each major plot point hit, standing as arguably the most story-heavy release from Nintendo barring its RPG offerings.

Kid Icarus: Uprising also took full advantage of all the features of the 3DS, acting as a legitimate showcase of what the system could do. Not only was there a well-paced single player mode that lasted for dozens of hours, there was an addictive online battle mode, interesting StreetPass functionality, and even clever usage of the mostly forgotten AR Cards.

All this was presented alongside some of the flashiest and most detailed graphics available on the system, all delivered without performance issues and with some impressive implementation of the then-novel autostereoscopic 3D function. It’s perfectly playable in 2D, of course, but this was one of those rare early 3DS releases that really brought something meaningful with its implementation of 3D. Let’s also not forget that nearly every single line of dialogue here was supported by a full voice cast, giving the characters that much more dimension as they bantered and cheered while Pit went to work on legions of monsters.

Kid Icarus Uprising Switch
Ooo, yes please! — Image: Nintendo Life / Nintendo

All of this is to say, Kid Icarus: Uprising had it all, which begs the question: why didn’t it sell that much? It had the full marketing push (remember those animated shorts?), plenty of quality content, and it was released at a time when there wasn’t much competition in terms of 3DS software. What went wrong?

I’d say its relative failure was down to the fact that it was too high concept for most audiences. Most people didn’t recognize the Kid Icarus IP and even for those who did, this entry in the series was nothing like its two predecessors. Combine that with the relatively high difficulty, chaotic gameplay, and the weird control scheme, and you have a masterpiece that nailed everything except the little detail of finding a way to meaningfully connecting to a mainstream audience. If you spent the time with it, this was the game that kept on giving, but that was only if you managed to get past those first few hours of coming to grips with everything.

Still, I think it’s a genuine shame that Nintendo never saw fit to follow it up with a proper sequel. It probably never will receive one either, as Sakurai famously doesn’t like doing sequels and he’s really the only director who could deliver another entry that would be able to match the distinctive magic of this one. Sometimes it’s alright for good things to end, though, and we can comfortably rest knowing that regardless of what happens in the future, this was indisputably a rare moment in gaming history that represented a thrilling union of form and function.

In an industry today that’s increasingly driven by popular trends and copycat design, the value of something as wholly unique as Kid Icarus: Uprising can’t be overstated

Not only was this an opportunity for Sakurai to flex his game design skills in something that wasn’t Smash Bros., but it was Nintendo’s best pitch for why you should buy a 3DS. There were plenty of amazing titles released on the console afterwards, but this game will always be the one that carried that banner of being the game that represented 3DS' potential. It pushed the console to its very limits, took advantage of nearly every feature it offered, and did it all in a ridiculously high quality and well-paced action experience that not even Nintendo itself could copy with future hardware. In an industry today that’s increasingly driven by popular trends and copycat design, the value of something as wholly unique as Kid Icarus: Uprising can’t be overstated.

Yet, with the impending death of the 3DS eShop and growing prices on the secondhand market, Kid Icarus: Uprising will soon be forever relegated to history. Maybe Nintendo will see fit to do a sequel or re-release someday — we'd certainly jump on it — but there hasn’t been much movement on this front in the last decade and there frankly isn’t that much demand for it today (not to mention the fact that Sakurai himself has stated recently that it would be "difficult").

Like it or not, Kid Icarus: Uprising will probably always just be a very interesting footnote in Nintendo’s long history, a fun and incredibly well-executed experiment that simply never found the audience it needed. If you’re still scrambling to scoop up the must-have titles you missed during the 3DS generation before the eShop doors close for good, I’d say this one deserves to be at the top of your list.

At any rate, here’s to hoping the next decade is a little more prolific for our goofy angelic hero.

Kid Icarus Uprising
Image: Masahiro Sakurai