Review by DDJ
"This is what qualifies as a great 3DS game?"
Review in Brief
Game: A sequel to Nintendo's NES-era Kid Icarus games, combining air combat, ground action, and RPG elements.
Good: Humorous tone and approach; visually the best the 3DS has to offer; innovative way of determining difficulty.
Bad: Terrible, terrible, borderline unusable control system; a lack of identity or good core gameplay.
Verdict: An average game: but wasn't it supposed to be excellent?
Recommendation: 3DS owners are already starving for games, so it's not a bad pick-up. No better than an average game, though.
"This is what qualifies as a great 3DS game?"
I've long said that it's disingenuous to judge games from different consoles by different standards from one another. If we judge 3DS games or Wii games by different standards than we judge Vita or PlayStation 3 games, we lose all real standard of comparison between different consoles. It's for that reason that I ask the question: this is what qualifies as one of the 3DS's best games? This is the kind of game that was used to hype the console?
Don't get me wrong: Kid Icarus: Uprising isn't a terrible game. It's not even a bad game. It's an average game. It's built primarily on tried-and-true gameplay concepts. It's got some unique, fun elements. It's got some fatal flaws. It's your quintessential average game. You'd pick it up, play it, have a decent time, and the put it down and likely never really think about it again. There's nothing inherently wrong with being average -- every console is littered with average games that fill out the game's library and give some context against which to judge the better games.
The problem, though, is that that wasn't how it was billed. Kid Icarus: Uprising was going to be a console-seller, one of the gems of the 3DS's library. It was one of the earliest games announced and, aside from entries into Nintendo's bedrock Mario franchises and a couple remakes of cult classic games, was easily its most hyped. It was meant to be the 3DS's killer app. And yet, with all that fanfare, all that hype, all that anticipation, the outcome is a decidedly average game. Is that really the best the 3DS can do? With the epic success of the original Nintendo DS, with the millions of consoles sold, with some truly excellent games (Mario Kart DS, The Legend of Zelda: The Phantom Hourglass, The World Ends With You, Pokémon Black & White, and Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story, to name a few), why hasn't that quality carried over to the 3DS?
I'm not holding the hype against Kid Icarus: Uprising. The game is a solid, firm 6 no matter if it's incredibly hyped or utterly unknown. But regardless, the fact that it has been so well-received despite being such an average game is a dire referendum on the 3DS.
Kid Icarus: Uprising is the long-awaited sequel to the original two Kid Icarus games that date all the way back to Nintendo's earliest consoles, the NES and the Game Boy. Plot-wise, the game is relatively non-descript. You play as Pit (the easy name for, presumably, the title character), who, guided by the goddess of light must save the world from the evil Medusa who has started attacking after a 25-year hiatus. You and your goddess guide talk throughout the game. The game is beaten level-by-level by defeating Medusa's various underling commanders until you earn the right to confront Medusa herself.
Gameplay can be divided into three areas. First, every level has a flying section that acts essentially as a classic rail shooter in the tradition of Star Fox 64; your overall flight path is controlled while you are free to control Pit's orientation within that flight path, as well as aim for enemies flying by with the touchpad. In the second mode, you control Pit on the ground, walking around with the control stick while aiming and moving the camera with the touchpad. In both these modes, all attacking is taken care of with the L trigger -- holding it down initiates a rapid-fire technique while waiting for a moment before pressing it releases a charged shot. Aside from these, there is also a significant menu screen that lets you decide on your powers and weapons, both of which you can buy using an in-game currency you acquire based on performing well in the game. Different weapons have different stats, strengths, and weaknesses, and different powers, of course, have different effects.
Kid Icarus: Uprising does have some good features, of course -- any game with this much hype and at least decent reviews must do something right. It strikes a nice chord in a couple ways and introduces one excellent feature that I distinctly hope is adopted more in the gaming industry.
Throughout the game, Pit and the goddess (who I'm going to keep referring to as 'the goddess' since I've already forgotten how to spell her name) converse back and forth during the majority of most battles. I'm going to make this comparison a lot, so get used to it: it feels very much like conversations in Star Fox 64. They aren't context-sensitive necessarily, they're obviously heavily scripted, they come up in the midst of gameplay, and most importantly, they're reasonably light-hearted and fun. In many ways, these conversations -- as well as conversations Pit has with the various enemies he comes across -- set the tone for the entire game. A different mood in these conversations would have turned the game too serious, too dark, or too slapstick.
The conversations serve another role as well, although it's still somewhat lighthearted function. The conversations make frequent references back to the original Kid Icarus games, including showing some of the original pixelated pictures of some of the enemies you encounter both then and now. What makes this particularly amusing although it might just particularly appeal to my humor is the propensity of these little dialogue clips to "break the fourth wall". The concept of breaking the fourth wall comes from sitcoms and movies; imagine, for example, a living room scene. In order for the camera to film the action the fourth wall of the room has to be removed. Its existence is implied, but there clearly is not a physical one in place. Breaking the fourth wall, then, refers to moments in the game were that fictitious fourth wall is broken by dialogue or events the knowledge the fact that the game is, in fact, a game. Several of these passing lines are quite funny with Pit and the goddess referring to the player directly or otherwise making reference to the 25 year gap between games or the 3DS's functionalities.
Overall, although the banter and dialogue in the game did not drive the game, and although it would be a stretch to say that the game has a very significant and engrossing plot line (the type of thing that the dialogue and discussions would usually drive), the dialogue does play a key role in setting the overall mood and tone for the game, giving a more lighthearted feel than the game would likely have had otherwise.
Excellent Difficulty Control Technique
The game provides exactly one gameplay innovation that I hope will be carried over into other games in the future: a better way to control the game's difficulty. Most games nowadays fall into one of three camps with regards to difficulty: some have no adaptive difficulty in the game is just as hard for each player as it is for everyone else; some games have the traditional tiered difficulty settings, such as a very easy, easy, average, hard, and very hard; in some games try to achieve something more adaptive and their difficulty level, picking up on specific player skills and abilities and reacting accordingly (although an application most of these games just raise the enemies' levels as the player's own level rises).
Kid Icarus: Uprising does not fall into any of these three camps. At the beginning of each level of Kid Icarus: Uprising, the player is prompted to choose a difficulty level from 0 to 10. Choosing higher difficulty levels costs some of the in-game currency; however choosing higher difficulty levels also guarantees that the enemies in the level will drop more currency when they are defeated. The increase in dropped currency far, far outweighs the money put down to raise the difficulty level. The real risk with raising the difficulty level (and thus, paying more of the in-game currency) is that if the player fails level and dies, that currency is lost and the difficulty level automatically drops down by a point. In effect, what that means is that increasing the difficulty level for the game is something of a gamble: the more you risk, the greater your potential reward. In order to unlock the best weapons, the best skills, and collect the most currency, the player has to consistently challenge themselves and keep the game at a challenging, but not impossible, level.
You could call this idea a bit of a copout: after all it boils down to a waiver the game developers to avoid having to worry about how difficult the game is. However, game design isn't performed in a vacuum, and if the result of this design feature is a positive impact on the player experience, it's certainly beneficial feature. It's only major drawback, in my opinion, is that it does prevent the later levels of the game from being particularly challenging and climactic; at that point if the game is to challenging you can just turn the difficulty level down a fraction of what it was earlier and suddenly it's no more challenging than the rest of the game, even though it's the supposedly dramatic end. Still, however, the game strikes a great balance between giving the player control over the game's difficulty and incentivizing the player to challenge themselves as they go through the game.
Decently Fun, I guess?
To be honest, I'm not entirely sure what to say here. I've praised the games dialogue and humor; I've praised the game's user-controlled adaptive difficulty; and I feel like if I leave this section of the review at that point I'm essentially suggesting the game has no actual fun features.
That's not quite the case. The game can be quite fun. The on-rails flying sections expertly harken back to the days of Star Fox 64, with just enough new twist to keep the game feeling a tiny bit fresh. There are sections are enjoyable to replay trying to higher score. There are worlds are visually engrossing and entertaining. There are battles that are fun, and the overall tone of the game is engaging. The problem isn't that the game is never fun: the problem is that the game is no more fun than any other decent game that comes out in a given year. So, the game does have some entertainment value, and it certainly can be fun at times. In the end, though, it's just an average level of fun.
Just to reiterate before starting this section, I'm not saying that Kid Icarus: Uprising is a bad game. It's an average game; it somewhat fun the play, it has some pretty significant flaws, it has a couple memorable, redeeming features, and while you won't regret playing it, you also won't really remember it couple weeks from now. The reason my tone is more negative (even if my score is not) is that Kid Icarus: Uprising was hailed as one of the 3DS's killer apps. It was supposed to be this console's Legend of Zelda, Mario, or Super Smash Bros.: a game so good that you would buy the console just play the game. It does not even come close to living up to that level of hype.
the first, and by far the most significant, complaint I have about Kid Icarus: Uprising is the controls. In the interest of full disclosure, though, I should also mention that I'm never a fan of controls for games on the 3DS. I've yet to come across any game that finds a way to use the touchpad during active, reactive gameplay in a way that is not clunky, unwieldy, uncomfortable, or downright unplayable. However, just because no one else is been able to do it either does not mean that this does not detract from Kid Icarus: Uprising.
The game comes with several different control profiles, and quite frankly, none of them really work very well. The default profile, and the one the game seems most suited for, involves a relatively simple system. The control stick is used to move Pit around. The L shoulder button is used to fire or strike with your sword. The touchpad is used to either move around the aiming reticle (when in the flying sections of the game) or to simultaneously move around the camera and to move Pit around on the battlefield. There are several problems with the system, though. First of all, there is a simple problem of holding the device. The game is sold with a stand to use so that you don't have to hold the device in your hands, although whether or not that completely defeats the purpose of a mobile console in the first place is up for debate. In renting the game, I did not receive this statement, but my several attempts to make a makeshift version failed anyway. More importantly, though, I don't really know of anybody who plays portable games while sitting at a desk or table. If I'm going to be sitting at a desk, I may as well play a PC or console game, so trying to make a way the game can be played at a desk seems to me to be pretty irrelevant.
That brings up the problems of holding the device while playing. Your left hand control to control stick and L button, leaving your right hand to simultaneously hold the stylus and hold up the console. If you can find a comfortable way to do that the doesn't have your hand twisted into grotesque and unrecognizable positions, more power to you. I, however, never could get used the system, and judging from complaints I've heard from others, this is not an uncommon problem -- in fact, when I tried to find a list of the game's controls for reference for this section, the first two dozen results were articles about Nintendo defending the controls against those criticizing them. The comfort is not the only problem with this control system, though. In addition to that, the touchpad function seems to fail miserably especially during the ground areas. Dragging the stylus across the touchpad is used change the camera angle. In theory you use the touchpad to spend the camera like a globe: start dragging to start the camera moving in and tap again to stop. In theory, this might sound like a pretty straightforward way of controlling the game, but in practice it is incredibly unwieldy. It is nearly impossible to change the camera's viewpoint while Pit is in motion, a fact that can make battles extremely annoying. The ground game is a constant transition between moving and fighting and moving around the camera without any smooth merger of the two facets of gameplay.
There exist other ways to control the game as well. For example, you can also choose to the four lettered buttons on the right to move around the aiming reticle and serve other functions originally served by the touchpad. Four buttons, however, cannot come anywhere close to approximating the precision and accuracy of two control sticks. The game that needs the touchpad to work, but at the same time, the touchpad will never be able to successfully do as much as the game creators of wanted to do in this game. The air combat sections are not bad (besides persistent discomfort in holding the game console), but the ground combat sections, which seem to make up more than 80% of the game (although that estimate might be influenced by time moving faster during the parts of the game you actually enjoy) are effectively barely even enjoyable.
Scattered Without an Identity
If you look at nearly any description of Kid Icarus: Uprising, it's described as an action game with role-playing game elements. I would divide the game into three primary areas: the air combat, the ground combat, and the RPG elements. The problem is that none of these three gameplay areas really fit together in a significant way.
First of all, I'll talk about the conflict between the air sections and the ground sections. Nearly every mission starts with an extended period of fighting in the air, after which the plot find a rather contrived reason to send Pit down to the ground to do some fighting on foot (the game insists that he can only fly for five minutes at a time, but it also seems like it always grounds him whenever it needs combat to shift the ground, whether five minutes is up or not). The air combat sections, as I stated before, feel like the next logical step of evolution for the Star Fox series. The sections are fun, if not particularly deep. Then Pit goes to the ground, and the fighting basically completely changes. Sure, you can still point the aiming reticle at long-distance enemies and pick them off from afar, but at this stage it becomes much more like a melee hand-to-hand brawler. It has some flavors of The Legend of Zelda to it, but lacks the same depth or complexity of combat. Every battle I encountered on the ground could be boiled down to dodge and strike: dodge the enemy's attacks and strike when you have a moment. The problem is that these two gameplay modes are presented as near equals. Which one is the core of the game? It feels like two games carelessly mashed into one. Additional problem making this even worse, though, is that neither type of gameplay is particularly deep enough to carry the game is a whole. The game never feels like it gets very complex, strategic, or challenging (besides enemies having more health when you turn the difficulty up) in large part because it doesn't have a core gameplay to fall back on. In short, putting to half-assed games together does not make a full game. Neither the air combat nor the ground combat is strong enough to carry the game, making the game feel weak and disjointed as a result.
But the real reason the game feel so scattered is the role-playing elements. The game comes with an incredibly robust system of weapons, weapon upgrades, skill development, and skill usage. Throughout the game, you can find new weapons in the battlefield, in treasure chests or as rewards for winning particular big levels. As you go through the game, you also accrue the in game currency - hearts - the can be used to by other weapons in between levels. These weapons fall into numerous different categories: blades, staves, bows, claws, clubs, palms, orbs, cannons, and arms. Within each category, there are numerous different individual weapons you can have and use. In addition, weapons can be merged together to create new weapons. Individual weapons also come with modifiers that do things like increase the power or firing rate of the weapon as well as numerous other extremely varied modifiers. When combining and creating new weapons, some of these modifiers may also carry over, allowing the player to sculpts more and more powerful weapons.
Skills are the same: skills referred and numerous, numerous different things that can be done in the battlefield, such as automatically dodging attacks and dropping mines or bombs to hit enemies. Skills are obtained in various different ways, at a time when you can have nearly countless skills at your disposal. These skills must be equipped, though, and the game comes with a relatively interesting way of equipping them: each skill has a particular shape associated with it, resembling Tetris blocks. You must arrange skills onto a pad to determine what skills you will have to use. More powerful skills will take up more space on the pad, as well as come in more unwieldy shapes that make it more difficult to equip more other skills.
The weird thing about the role-playing game elements in Kid Icarus: Uprising is that they're actually pretty awesome. I'd really like an RPG uses a system like this -- it's interesting, it's innovative, it's engaging, and it absolute overkill for a game like Kid Icarus: Uprising. The simple fact is that the levels of Kid Icarus: Uprising are not nearly challenging enough, complicated enough, complex enough, or varied enough to make such a robust system worth it. What's more, the level structure of Kid Icarus: Uprising makes this system even more difficult to use and experiment with. RPG-like systems are very much driven by the ability to make on-the-fly customizations. Kid Icarus: Uprising requires you to decide at the beginning of the level what your weapon will be and your skills will be for the entire duration of the level. That's not a bad thing, but the problem is that that lends itself to a more simple system. A level layout like that is best suited for choices between a relatively limited number of weapons and skills with obvious strengths and weaknesses. Instead, Kid Icarus: Uprising does the system so complex and deep that it could support a modern full-scale console RPG, but yet the game just doesn't need that. To use an analogy, it's like having a state-of-the-art wind tunnel to design the fastest soapbox for a Boy Scout Soapbox Derby. It's just overkill and it distracts from the rest of the game. It's also rather frustrating: you find yourself wanting to use it, developing weapons and assigning skills because that part alone is somewhat engaging, but that never really translates to actual gameplay. It's like optimizing that soapbox to shave 2 seconds off your time when you're already winning by 2 minutes.
In and of itself, Kid Icarus: Uprising isn't a terrible game. It's not a bad game. It's an average game. It's somewhat fun the play at times, and the air combat sections are legitimately engaging. It's obviously very well put together: the graphics are immaculate, and easily the best we've seen on the 3DS to date. The game is polished and follows a normal gameplay conventions. It, like all average games, has some pretty significant and fatal flaws. The control systems are terrible, the game lacks an overall identity, and in the end it just isn't very memorable. It's an average game. We need average games. Being average is okay.
The problem, though, is that Kid Icarus: Uprising wasn't billed as an average game. It wasn't even hyped as a good game. It was going to be an excellent game, a console-seller, a killer app, a Game of the Year contender, and an epic victory for Nintendo. It was supposed to be excellent, but it's just average. This comes after a long line of average 3DS games. Super Mario 3D Land, Mario Kart 7, Resident Evil: Revelations, Tales of the Abyss, and more -- nearly every game for the console has been average at best. Now that we finally have the console's killer app and it has fallen short, it might be time to start planning the funeral for Nintendo's once-hyped console.
If you've got a 3DS, you're already aching for decent games, so Kid Icarus: Uprising isn't a bad pick-up. It's not a must-play by any stretch of the imagination, though.
Reviewer's Rating: 3.0 - Fair
Originally Posted: 05/14/12
Game Release: Kid Icarus: Uprising (US, 03/23/12)
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