Kid Icarus: Uprising is not ashamed to be a video game.
It’s an odd statement, but relevant. From the writing to the design, everything about this game seems to be a celebration of the medium. As if to say “yes, this is some crazy stuff going on, but we can get away with it because we’re a video game”. It doesn’t go for realism and it doesn’t try to build some detailed world. It creates a playground for the player and focuses on having fun.
Which is probably why it’s one of the best games I’ve played so far this year.
Before I get into everything Kid Icarus does right, however, I must address the metaphorical elephant in the room. The controls have been criticized by forumite and critic alike. For some folks it’s a deal breaker, and for others it’s perfectly fine or that you get used to it.
Myself, I stopped having hand cramps after a few play sessions. That or I stopped noticing them because I was getting absorbed more and more into the gameplay. However, I cannot just shrug it off as “you get used to it”. All my design courses, my knowledge of usability and Human-Computer Interaction, are screaming that a system that requires the user to “get used to it” is a failed interface. At the same time, the controls are part of what makes the game work.
To understand what Kid Icarus: Uprising is trying to accomplish you must first know Masahiro Sakurai and his previous games, the Super Smash Bros. franchise. A brawling fighting game that only requires a few buttons to understand the basic gameplay, but has several minute details to master. While Kid Icarus isn’t quite the same, it operates on the same mentality. Quick to pick up and learn, takes time to truly master.
Thus the controls are designed to work with two fighting styles: melee and ranged. This isn’t merely speaking about the two segments of each level, Star Fox or Sin and Punishment style aerial combat followed by ground combat. This is purely focused on the different weapons the player is capable of using on the ground.
If ground combat was purely melee, then the best controls would have been to ditch the stylus and go traditional. However, if the ground combat was purely focused on range, then it would have done better to emulate the bounding box of Metroid Prime Hunters or Moon on the Nintendo DS (for those not familiar, a bounding box is the invisible region towards the edge of the screen that increases the speed that a player turns in a first-person shooter on the DS).
Kid Icarus foregoes choosing one style and instead goes for both, and provides a variety of weapon categories whose strengths and weaknesses vary. Most weapons will lie somewhere in between, decent at melee and ranged, while others will lie on the extreme. For example, clubs are all about melee while orbitars are focused on range.
The controls are thus built around these options, meant to allow for either while trying to optimize for both. Instead of the aforementioned bounding box, you move the camera by swiping the stylus across the touch screen. The severity of the swipe determines the speed and duration of the camera’s spin, though it can be stopped at any time by a simple tap of the stylus. While this method is not ideal for ranged combat, it’s built for melee, particularly as your strongest attacks tend to charge right on through them. Being able to spin around with a single swipe of the camera allows the player to more quickly reorient themselves and continue the assault on a foe up close.
Similarly, it also allows precision for long-range attacks. The player is capable of aiming for foes anywhere on the screen without having to worry about the camera moving. Not unless they wish it to do so.
It’s a system that certainly requires an adjustment, but it also allows for a variety of play styles. Easy enough to learn, and anyone can get through the game with a simple enough bow weapon. In order to get the most out of the game, though, especially on higher difficulties, then the player must dig a little deeper and learn to take advantage of this system.
As for the hand-cramping, please. Let us not pretend that this hasn’t been an issue before. There are several stylus-focused Nintendo DS games, and hand cramps have been a risk for each of them. Kid Icarus just had the added attribute of a new style of control that at first seems counter-intuitive.
That’s not to say I completely like the controls myself. Too often I find myself staring down walls and spinning around to try and locate my foe, occasionally having to wrestle with the camera. These moments have decreased over time as I adjusted, though I have certainly thought of potential alternatives. They each carry their own flaws, however. Adjusting the controls based on which weapon type was equipped would have over-complicated matters. Shifting ground combat to more traditional controls and using a lock-on for ranged would have simply made everything too easy. Players would have no reason to experiment with melee as any ranged weapon would do all the work for them.
In the end, you wouldn’t have been able to change the controls without fundamentally changing the game. This means changing a game that I fell in love with despite the initial hurdles of adjusting. If I had to choose, I’d choose to stay with what we have.
See, when I first played Kid Icarus, I said the same thing I’ve read across the Internet from countless other fingers upon keyboards. The aerial combat was fun, and the entire game should have been just that. Only I, and all those others, were wrong. While the aerial combat is more traditional and easier to adjust to, it’s also more limited in gameplay opportunities. As I began, Kid Icarus is a game that celebrates itself, and as such the ground combat is littered with ideas whose sole purpose is “because it’s fun”.
A level of illusions where walls are always moving, floors that bounce and triggers that blast open secret rooms. There is no greater purpose than to simply try out new concepts and be fun. That’s it. Several levels have themes attached, and many of these themes allow for new tricks and gimmicks in the levels that set them apart from all the others.
Most importantly, no one level overstays its welcome. While the “short” length of each level is likely a product of being on a portable system, it ensures that any good idea isn’t stretched too thin. Each level is as long as it needs to be and no gimmick gets overdone, trite or tired. This also allows for each map to be easy to jump back into, replay and still have a great time.
Which is fitting, as these maps are meant to be replayed. Kid Icarus implements a clever challenge and accomplishments system in order to keep the player returning. Bet some hearts, the game’s currency, to increase the difficulty and the game will reward you with more hearts and more powerful loot. But if you die, you lose some of those hearts you bet permanently and the difficulty is kicked down a notch, reducing the rewards earned. It’s a system accessible enough for casuals that just want something to play and kill some time, but punishes more dedicated players looking to get better equipment.
The accomplishments, meanwhile, are similar to Achievements or Trophies on the Xbox and PS3, respectively. The big difference is a player earns tangible rewards for unlocking an accomplishment. They can range from beating certain levels in a short amount of time, completing them on certain difficulties, beating a map with a specific weapon and more. It gives a player goals and rewards to shoot for long after they’ve already completed the story.
So many developers these days are so focused on building a sandbox, yet Kid Icarus just goes ahead and constructs an entire playground. There’s a lot to do here, plenty to see and a large amount of variety. It harkens back to older styles of games without having to “be retro” to accomplish it. It’s not about the mechanics, the physics or the A.I. It’s about elephant heads that trumpet their nose to summon giant stomping feet to try and crush Pit, or a pair of glasses and nose that sneeze out a pair of bombs, or a flashing invincible skull that can kill you in a single touch if you’re not careful. It’s about shooting into thin air to discover an invisible floor, hopping into a celestial mech to knock down monsters and shooting at bright lights so that the rail you’re grinding doesn’t decide to just stop in mid-air.
The design and playstyle are all modern, but the philosophy is the same as it was for Nintendo in the 80’s.
“Let’s have some fun.”
In the end, that’s what’s important, and that is the focus of Kid Icarus: Uprising. It is that reason that this game is so easy to love.