In less than a year, Nintendo's established heroes like Mario and Link have made their presence known on the Nintendo 3DS, whether through stunning original adventures like Super Mario 3D Land or superb remakes like The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D. Yet as good as those titles are, many have waited to see Nintendo attempt something completely new on its young portable. Enter: Kid Icarus Uprising.
Though technically 25 years old, the Icarus franchise hasn't had a new installment in more than 20 years. Its lead character, the angelic Pit, is actually best known for his part in the thrilling chaos that was Super Smash Bros. Brawl. Uprising represents a new start for a forgotten hero from an era long past, and marks yet another significant milestone in the life of the 3DS. Yet again, Nintendo proves to its fans and critics that its new portable is capable of hosting some of the best handheld content anywhere. Though not without some significant flaws, Uprising is a fantastic adventure, one that forges a powerful new world for a franchise many never expected to see again.
Developed by Super Smash Bros. creator Masahiro Sakurai and his Project Sora team, Kid Icarus Uprising is a hybrid shooter that contains on-rails segments in the air and third-person action content when it's on the ground. The game keeps these concepts very distinct, and executes them both well. Pit squares off with an onslaught of creatures as oddball as they are menacing, blasting them out of and into the sky as he makes his way to each level's boss. Following the examples set by other excellent 3DS titles like 3D Land and Resident Evil Revelations, Uprising keeps its concepts concise - most levels can be bested in as little as ten minutes, with multiple checkpoints spread throughout. The game is self-aware. It understands players are likely trying to blast as many enemies as possible before having to run off to an appointment or class.
Uprising also demonstrates its awareness through its hugely light-hearted storyline. Though technically facing a variety of 'end of the world' scenarios throughout its approximate dozen hour campaign, Uprising's heroes and villains banter liberally throughout each mission, occasionally discussing legitimate plot points or giving useful tips - but mostly establishing personality and making amusing quips. These exchanges can be some of the game's best moments, as the characters are not afraid to acknowledge that they are in a game, fighting bosses as well as players' attention spans. Unfortunately this chatter can often get in the way. There can be too much of a good thing, and while references to Nintendogs and other 'outside the box' remarks are plenty amusing, they also distract from the action. It's not uncommon to tune out the discussions and miss something important, or focus on them and suddenly get pummeled by incoming projectiles.
While fundamentally sharing the same goal - kill everything in sight - Uprising's airborne and ground-based gameplay settings are significantly different experiences, not only in concept but control. In the air, players will control Pit's aim and physical position, but his actual forward momentum is automatically determined. While on rails, this allows players to focus on shooting and maneuvering through the forces of evil. Though we've seen other games do this, including Nintendo's Star Fox series, the developers here manage to create a sense of breathtaking speed, and then combine that with some incredibly diverse and stunning world designs. While its characters and creatures might not be as technically impressive as something like Capcom's Revelations, Uprising's artistic creativity stands right alongside Mario 3D Land as some of the best material seen on the 3DS thus far.
The simplicity of the air segments help them greatly. They maintain focus. They never try to do more than they should, and therefore are consistently impressive. On the ground, Uprising struggles a little more. By default, the control scheme requires the use of the Circle Pad to move Pit, and the stylus to not only aim but maneuver the camera as well. As you might imagine, holding a 3DS in one hand is not exactly comfortable. To Project Sora's credit, Uprising has more options, settings and control variables than just about any other portable game out there. Left-handed support is ample, and players can even reassign buttons liberally, tuning just about every element they can imagine (short of dual analog support with the Circle Pad Pro, which is not implemented).
There's just one problem - the game is designed to be played with a stylus. The gameplay requires that type of precision and swift adjustment. Though this isn't quite as evident in some of the air-based sequences, the ground-based material makes it a necessity. Dodging between enemies, rotating the camera and aiming are skills that must be executed constantly and simultaneously. And on harder difficulties, the game is merciless. Uprising effectively has a game design that is genius - and it fundamentally has found a control scheme that works. But it's not comfortable to actually play. Spending time thinking about where to grip or how to position a portable so a game can be played comfortably is absurd. And the game's included stand doesn't help much, as players then need to not only have a flat surface available, but one that sits at a reasonable height.
Despite the frustrating control issues - which might have been avoided with a dual analog stick control option - Uprising remains addicting. It's a testament to Sakurai's vision and execution that this is an experience worth visiting over and over again, even if there's no decent way to comfortably play it. Not only is the core gameplay remarkable in its nuanced, intuitive complexity, but it finds a way to consistently surprise players, despite strictly adhering (perhaps to a fault) to a basic formula of air and land-based combat that it rarely strays from. Even the characters and plot, with their bizarre twists and incessant prattling, remain charming and humorous. That's the best way to describe Uprising as a whole - it's great despite and because of its excesses, which also lead to its flaws.
Masahiro Sakurai could have simply crafted a single-player experience worthy of time and money and been done with it. But Uprising also features a difficulty scale that players can manually adjust between missions (from mind-numbingly easy to mercilessly challenging), going so far as to wager in-game currency for the potential to gain the better loot that is dropped by tougher bad guys.
Players can approach this idea in any number of ways, pushing their comfort levels immediately or slowly upgrading Pit's arsenal (the game features more than 100 weapons that can then have any number of perks and boosts, effectively offering limitless variations) in order to return to beaten levels and scale up the challenge. Not only do levels feature areas only accessible on tougher difficulty levels, not only do they feature different rewards when more challenging, but Uprising features its own achievement system, which bestows all sorts of perks upon players who acquire them. And there are 360 of them to unlock. Stunning doesn't even begin to describe the amount of depth packed into this game.
That's just the single player mode, which then directly ties into multi-player, as all weapons and almost all powers earned in the campaign are accessible when fighting with or against friends. Up to six can fire up their copies of Uprising, locally or online, for two distinct modes - a basic free-for-all or a team-based 'Light vs. Dark' concept. The latter operates in two phases - a more typical 3-on-3 match (albeit with a shared team health bar) which then transitions to a sort of 'VIP protection' mode at its end. A number of options allow time limits, item frequency and handicaps to be adjusted, as well as the difficulty of the AI, which can fill in as desired.
There are a few drawbacks to the multiplayer concept. First, the dynamic of multi-player combat tends to be far more chaotic and manic than the single-player game. The controls struggle to accommodate this type of play. Second, many of the stages weren't all that impressive. A few, however, did stand out, including one which managed to create an environment (and level of entertainment) that felt like a 3D representation of Super Smash Bros. on the Final Destination level. Lastly, Uprising's framerate does struggle under the weight of multiplayer. Get six players, including some AI, on a stage with lots of items and some intense action and things will start getting choppier. Latency did not seem to be an issue in test sessions, though the weight of a publicly available game could change that considerably.