As that great actor, James Caan, said a long time ago, “You know the old saying, absence makes the heart grow fonder? Absence makes them think you’re dead.” That’s been the problem for Nintendo’s Kid Icarus for the last nineteen years. Once upon a time he was part of the gang, partying with Mario and Luigi in the mushroom kingdom, chilling out with Donkey Kong and Link by the pool. Then, nineteen years of silence, and people start to say ‘Kid Who?’
Still, he’s back and the resulting game is one of the most interesting additions to the 3DS line-up. Kid Icarus: Uprising has issues that go deep into the gameplay, but it’s also one of the most spectacular games on Nintendo’s handheld, and one of the best when it comes to what used to be the 3DS’ selling point, i.e. 3D.
It’s at its best in the game’s shoot ‘em up sequences, which see the Kid – who goes by the less flouncy handle, Pit – flying at speed through the skies, above mythical lands and pseudo-Greek cities, or even into space or under the sea, while blasting away at the denizens of the underworld, who have arisen once more to blight the land. With epic vistas to swoop over, twisting canyons and tight tunnels to navigate through, plus some truly impressive monsters, you’ve never seen in-game 3D that’s so in your face or that works so well to heighten the sense of speed. Of course, there’s the old 3DS problem that the effect is completely blown and the screen becomes virtually illegible as soon as you move your head, but Nintendo has never had a better showcase for the 3DS’s 3D.
There are a couple of compromises to be made along the way, however. The first is that the action during these sequences runs completely on rails, just like in Child of Eden, Sin and Punishment and a whole host of games dating back to Space Harrier and the Star Wars arcade machines. Pit can move from side to side and dodge obstacles and incoming attacks, but the actual direction of your travel is set in stone. The second is that you’ll have to get used to one of the most physically uncomfortable control setups in gaming history, as you grip the 3DS in your left hand, moving Pit with the analogue pad and squeezing the left trigger-finger to fire, while using the stylus in your right hand to aim. It’s alright for the odd five minutes, but keep at Kid Icarus for an hour or so and agony will follow. Nintendo, realising this, supplies the game with a little plastic stand, but if you plan to play the game on the train, in the bathroom or on the bus, this might not be of that much use.
These sequences are also relatively short, taking up, we’d guess, around a third of the game’s running time. For the rest, Pit is on foot, making his way through a series of simple city or dungeon levels where you’ll take on dozens of gruesome baddies before finding the end-of-level boss. Your current weapon doubles-up for close-combat as well as blasting, with your targeting reticule swelling to show when enemies are within bashing range, and you’ll find the odd smart bomb power-up to help you out when things get really tough.
Unfortunately, these sections use the same control system as the flying sequences, and here it doesn’t really work. Pit moves using the analogue stick, with some handy dash and dodge moves you can trigger by double-tapping the stick in the desired direction, while the stylus targets and moves your view a bit like the mouse in a PC FPS. This doesn’t just leave you with hands that feel like stiff little crab claws, but also makes it difficult to change direction suddenly, which you’ll need to do to deal with some of the larger, more numerous or faster foes. It’s Kid Icarus’ biggest source of frustration.
At the same time, the on-foot sections are a bit of a mixed bag. A few have neat ideas, using tricks of perspective or hidden switches that reveal secret routes, and a couple take place in beautifully crafted environments. Others, though, plod along, and while there are some cleverly-designed monsters to maintain your interest, the on-foot sections have a tendency to go on too long while the flying bits whizz by in a flash.
Luckily, Kid Icarus has some very smart game mechanics that help to prolong your enjoyment even if the current level is a bore. The first is what the game calls its Intensity system. Kid Icarus uses hearts as a currency. You earn them by blasting monsters, and you can spend them on shiny new weapons. At the start of each level you’re asked to set the Intensity, which affects how resistant to damage the local monsters will be, and also their numbers and how much damage they’ll mete out. What’s more, some sections of a level will only be playable once you go over a specific intensity level.
Now, raising the intensity from the default settings means betting a few hearts. Survive and beat the boss and you’ll get more back. Die, and you’ll lose some and watch as the Intensity dials slowly downwards. If you want hearts and you want to finish the game properly, then you need to keep challenging yourself with higher levels of Intensity, but when you do so, there’s always a cost when you fail. This gives the game some decent replay value, plus a difficulty level that works for both casual gamers and the hardcore crowd.
Why do you want more hearts? Because you’ll want to experiment with the biggest and coolest weapons. Not only are there some mighty hand-cannons, bows, staves and claws to splash out on, but there’s a cool crafting system where you can combine two weapons into one uber-weapon, and then combine those uber-weapons with other weapons to make an even more uber uber-weapon. This is oddly addictive, and when you combine it with a clever system of perks, armour, defences and special abilities, it gives Kid Icarus a bit of the feel of a classic dungeon-crawl RPG. You want to slay monsters at higher Intensity ratings so that you can get better gear with which to slay even more monsters at even higher intensity ratings, and so on.
This makes Kid Icarus a pretty compelling game, providing you can put up with the control issues and an early preview of what arthritis might one day feel like in later years. It’s also worth mentioning that it’s a game with a great deal of charm. Every now and then Nintendo goes a bit zany with games that make knowing reference to the fact that they’re games, and feature characters who don’t take their roles too seriously. Kid Icarus is definitely one of them, and some of the exchanges between Pit, his friends and his foes are surprisingly funny. It’s a game that knows its audience, and isn’t afraid to indulge them in a knowing gag or two.
The final reason to get Kid Icarus is that it’s one of the few Nintendo games with a decent multiplayer mode. In Light vs. Dark, two teams battle it out until one team’s points run out, with the interesting wrinkles being that killing a player with a stronger weapon will have a bigger impact than killing one with a weaker arm, while Kid Icarus and his semi-evil twin turn up for the last few minutes of the game. Free-for-all is a straighter deathmatch, and a bit of a mess at times, but still an entertaining way to pass the time.
- Dazzling 3D graphics, collectible and combinable weapons, customisable challenge, sheer winning charm.
- Awkward controls, inconsistent quality.