Kid Icarus: Uprising Review

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A lot can change in 25 years. Kid Icarus is back and better than ever! I would say something cheesy like, ”throw everything you know and love about the franchise out the window because this reboot is a different beast,” but that doesn’t accurately describe the situation. By playing Kid Icarus Uprising, throw away everything you know about the two classic entries, but hold onto everything you love about their history. That sounds like a better tagline. It’ll make sense as you read on.

Parent Talk: The ever-ambiguous E10+ ESRB rating has been bestowed upon Kid Icarus: Uprising for Fantasy Violence, Comic Mischief, and Mild Suggestive Themes. As with most games that are E10+, it’s actually a relatively harmless experience for children of all ages despite the ESRB’s pointless labeling. As I will elaborate on later, the plot, characters and setting are heavily inspired by Greek mythology yet play out like a Saturday morning cartoon, i.e. lighthearted humor and action which never takes itself seriously. Some jokes may fly over the kids’ heads (and hence immediately picked up by teens or adults) but they’re contained within the caliber of the intended audience. These adult-oriented pop-culture jabs are not uncommon or harmful as most animated movies and shows have adhered to this practice in order to go beyond the targeted demographic…even My Little Pony recently pulled its adult strings with much success. In terms of gameplay, Kid Icarus also manages to grab the attention of casual and seasoned veterans alike by applying a difficulty scale (from 0 to 10) to each of its levels. Narrowing it down to 0 is perfect for young children who just want to have fun. A scale of 5 or more is basically the backyard of hardcore gamers.

Review Basis: completed all 25 chapters and dabbled with both online modes. According to the in-game stats, I played a total of 26 times, 51 hours total game time, 28 hours and 26 minutes devoted to campaign play time and 1 hour and 28 minutes for online multiplayer. I’ve also been turned into an eggplant 21 times. But hey, as long as I got a total of 472 weapons and 489986 hearts, it’s all good.

Plays Like: hoo-boy, bear with me as I take a deep breath. Put shoot ’em ups, action, and RPG in a blender and you’ve got Kid Icarus Uprising in a nutshell. Allow me to paint a better picture for you. It’s half Sin & Punishment and half God of War, with simplified, touch-screen oriented Smash Brothers-like controls. The RPG elements apply to game’s equip-able spoils and deep weapon fusion system, which is extremely similar to and just as addicting as Vagrant Story’s own weapon crafting. I must’ve spent around 20 hours of my game time experimenting with fusing weapons, no lie. Note that gameplay elements of the classic Kid Icarus entries only serve as reference points to this revival. Simply put, Uprising plays nothing like its 2D predecessors nor it is a traditional 3D update of NES gameplay.

Looks Like: a CGI version of Hercules, Disney’s own hand-drawn, animated take on Greek mythology. It fully utilizes the power of the handheld as the quality and variety of locales and enemies are staggering. It’s one of those ’throw in everything including the kitchen sink’ types of games. Even though the backdrop is Greek Mythology, don’t be surprised to witness sci-fi influences from time to time.

Tells a Story Like: Tiny Toon Adventures or Animaniacs. The strong voice cast’s back-and-forth bantering is full of wittiness, self-referential humor, pop culture jabs, cheesy one-liners, jokes that break the forth wall, and adult-oriented humor that has gotten past the censors for being too subtle. Every time I compare Kid Icarus to Disney’s Hercules, the former comes on top because it handles the humor elegantly and tells a better story. While it’s not taken seriously most of the time, the latter half of the campaign contains some grim moments and interesting twists to the battle between the underworld army and the heavens. When it’s all said and done, Uprising is without a doubt Nintendo of America’s best localization work ever and it proves that they can easily assemble a team of experienced voice actors to strengthen their games’ production values. Ali Hillis, who voices Lady Palutena here, is also responsible for Lightning’s pipes in Final Fantasy XIII. If that’s not good enough to impress you, I don’t know what is. I now fully trust NOA with a fully-voiced Zelda game should it ever happen. Who would’ve thought that a 3DS handheld game based on a forgotten IP would be their true leap into the next generation? Furthermore, unlike animated movies, TV shows, and some games, Kid Icarus is unique since most of its exposition isn’t told through cut-scenes. Instead, it’s fed to you in chunks during gameplay, which is a plus as your session won’t be interrupted by long-winded dialogue. Imagine Star Fox’s own exposition multiplied by a hundred–that’s Kid Icarus for you. Cut-scenes are mostly reserved for Boss Battle encounters, but there’s one unique chapter during the climax which surprised the heck out of me as it truly represents the superb blend between story and gameplay.

Sounds Like: a symphony orchestra movement with some light jazz, flamenco, and rock thrown into the mix. As evident by the star-studded soundtrack of Super Smash Bros. Brawl, Mr. Sakurai has a lot of ties in the videogame music industry, so he pulled some strings for his latest project and assembled the best of the best under one roof: Motoi Sakuraba (Star Ocean, Valkyrie Profile), Yuzo Kushiro (ActRaiser), Noriyuki Iwadre (Lunar, Radiata Stories), Yasuroni Mitsuda (Chrono Series, Xenogears), and Masafumi Takada (No More Heroes). Their styles compliment each other well when utilizing the underlying symphonic theme of the soundtrack. Leitmotif is heavily used here too…fans will love it when they hear parts of the classic NES tracks enveloped within the orchestra, which has a lot of live instrument usages intertwined with high quality sampled sounds. I have personally fallen in love with the flamenco-style acoustic guitar music of Dark Pit and Dog’s Themes, composed by none other than Sakuraba himself. Rest assured though, you’ll find a lot to love in Uprising’s music, arguably one of the best-produced soundtracks coming out of Nintendo recently. I’m happy to put it in the same pedestal with Skyward Sword, Mario Galaxies 1 & 2, and F-Zero GX.

Best Thing About It: lots of gameplay and high replay-ability, never feeling repetitive in the process. The latter half of the campaign’s chapters last from 20 to 30 minutes, so that alone will keep you busy for awhile. While each of Uprising’s chapters are divided into Air Battles (shoot ’em up), Land Battles (3D Action), and unique Boss Battles, gameplay never feels stale as each chapter manages to implement unique mechanics. Whether you’re given certain vehicles to use, multiple branching paths to discover, encountering bosses in the middle of the stage — gameplay doesn’t adhere to a simple cycle because the narrative plays a major role in dictating your progress. In addition, the difficulty meter is a long-overdue feature which should be utilized in more games. Instead of the archaic and simplified ’Easy, Medium, Hard’ choice in the beginning of your campaign, each chapter starts you off with a scale from 0 to 9, from easy to hard, going by decimal fractions (i.e. 3.2, 3.3, etc). The higher you go, the more of your currency (hearts) you’ll bet, and completing a chapter on set difficulty will net a higher heart return. Losing will halve your obtained hearts and drop you down by 1 scale so you can complete the chapter in an easier fashion. Higher difficulty numbers will also open up branching paths and increase your chance to obtain better weapons. This feature alone is the sole reason why I kept replaying older chapters multiple times. I like how the game feels different in higher difficulties. It’s not just the AI patterns which are heightened. The new enemy placements and types, new attacks, increased damage input and output — it always feels refreshing jumping up a point or two in older chapters. Air Battles turn into bullet hell if you dare to go above 7. On top of all this chunky gameplay, you’re given three 12 X 10 grids worth of achievements to unlock — that’s 360 squares in total. It took me 30 hours to finish the game and I only unlocked half of those. How’s that for replay value?

Most Polarizing Feature: the controls. Finally, let’s address the elephant in the room. Uprising’s controls have been bashed to bits since day 1, so conspiracies need to be put to rest. They’re not broken or complex, and they don’t require three hands to work (the stand accessory is not mandatory). They’re uncomfortable to deal with at first and have a very high learning curve as only a few games in the DS family enforce a dual pad/touchscreen setup. Uprising is similar to FPS games on the DS, only you’re put in a behind-the-back TPS backdrop instead. That alone deserves some props as no other action game has used this control scheme before. By default, you move with the circle pad, fire with the L button, and aim with the touch screen. In essence, you’re lifting the 3DS up with your left hand as your right is busy with the touch screen. Two issues arise: a) your left hand or forearm may cramp with extended use, and b) Land Battles are ’slippery’ as both reticle aiming and camera control (by flicking) are assigned to the touch screen. Two problems, one solution: fully customizable controls! Hate the touch screen? You can enable dual analog-like controls by assigning the face buttons for aiming, which are functional but not as tactile as the touch screen. Is cramping an issue? You can enable auto-fire, reassign the fire button down to the control pad, use the stand for maximum comfort, or even use your thumb/index finger instead of the stylus to aim. Don’t like imprecise aiming and camera controls? You can fully customize your reticle speed vertically and horizontally and how far the camera spins when flicking the stylus for Land Battles. The only negatives you’re left with are twofold: some lefties are left with a less precise scheme unless they buy a Circle Pad Pro, and maintaining a functional 3D effect is hard unless you’re using the stand. All in all, the controls aren’t perfect, but once you get past the high learning curve and customize them to your liking, you’ll appreciate their uniqueness. Similar to the Super Smash Bros. series, Kid Icarus is easy to learn but hard to master…so it’s a rewarding process to eliminate your frustrations the more you play.

Least Favorite Feature: Online multiplayer. It reminds me of Kirby Air Ride’s City Trials mode as battles are fun & frantic. But there’s little incentive to keep playing because it doesn’t have a separate progress setup ala Call of Duty. Instead, multiplayer is directly tied to your single-player progress as unlocked weapons and abilities are shared within both modes, and therefore solo veterans will have the upper hand online. What’s even more baffling is that you can’t filter your opponents or balance teams based on weapon power, so you’ll constantly fight against overwhelming odds. Uprising tries to balance it out a bit in team-based play since defeating opponents with higher weapon power serves as a disadvantage, but the odds almost always favor players with the highest weapon power or better abilities. Moreover, there are only two modes and a few stages to pick from, with no way to vote for which stage to play in or customize match logistics such as length, random drops, etc.

The Lowdown: if you’re expecting a faithful 2D to 3D conversion of Kid Icarus that emulates the feel of Super Mario 64 and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, you’re living an unrealistic dream. Despite being an existing IP in Nintendo’s library, Kid Icarus wasn’t even considered a franchise until Mr. Sakurai made Pit a playable character in Smash Bros. Brawl a few years ago. Two installments 25 years ago doesn’t make a franchise and there’s no playbook on what makes a Kid Icarus entry retain its rightful features like Mario and Zelda. However, despite the radical reboot in gameplay (which is nicely designed and full of replay value by the way), Uprising successfully retains the spirit of the franchise and expands upon it excellently. This is how you make reboots of dormant IPs. From the excellent visual presentation to the hilarious voice cast which smartly weave the foundations of Kid Icarus with original content, Uprising is a technical achievement by Nintendo and Project Sora. It’s a handheld title which veers towards console-like qualities, control issues and simplistic online play notwithstanding.

Average Score Scale: 8 +/- 1 out of 10

Personal Final Score: 9/10 (Inflated)

Reasons: for +1 Inflation: Chunky gameplay and replay-ability. Excellent presentation with great graphics, a symphonic soundtrack, and a strong voice cast with over-the-top humor.

Reasons for -1 Deflation: steep learning curve for controls. Shallow online multiplayer.

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