With Kid Icarus: Uprising, Nintendo poses the question, is there any point making one of those on-rails shooters like Star Wars: Rogue Squadron anymore? What are you going to do other than make a lightgun game or a jeep sequence in a Call of Duty? Aren’t you just going to end up with something like those wretched space battles in Star Wars: Old Republic? How much can you do with an on-rails shooter anyway?
Quite a lot, it turns out.
One of the things Nintendo does is take it off the rails. Each mission in Kid Icarus: Uprising starts as an on-rails shooter about a kid who can fly, and then turns into an on-foot corridor shooter. It works, but just barely. This kid is at his best when he’s flying, where the loosey-goosey controls are appropriate. Once you’re on foot, it’s not terribly different from any other decent shooter in the DS.
But the more important thing Nintendo does is apply a thick layer of gameplay in the form of a risk/reward system. Before a mission, you choose how hard you want it to be on a scale of 1-10. This will determine the level of loot you’ll get. Because, yes, there is loot. That’s another part of the gameplay. Like Borderlands and Diablo, this Kid Icarus is all about finding weapons, swapping them out, trying different options, collecting. And other than your weapon, you have an inventory system that uses a grid and a bunch of funky Tetris shapes. Here you equip special powers, which are also part of the loot chase. Kid Icarus is all about the thrill of the chase, and that gratifying feeling when you’re mowing down enemies with aplomb because your new Holy Silver Bow that also gives you +3 defense and a melee bonus is the most badass thing you’ve found so far.
When you die, worse than having to restart, your difficulty level is bumped down. This means any loot you’ve found won’t be as nice, since the actual identity of an item isn’t revealed until the end of the level. That sword you picked up might be a five-star weapon. But if you die enough times, you’re going to end up with two-star vendor trash. On top of this, some levels have special areas you can only enter if you’re playing at a hard enough level. What’s in these special areas? Badass loot.
In other words, Kid Icarus knows enough to be more complicated and rewarding than any simple Rogue Squadron or light gun game. It knows enough to tap into the nearly universal appeal of loot chasing.
The controls will take some getting used to. That’s a polite way to say it. A more frank way to say it is that the controls are tortuous. It’s entirely possible your fingers will never quite adjust to the default set-up, which requires setting your 3DS on a plastic bracket (included) and then curling your left hand into a cramped claw so you can mash the daylights out of the left shoulder button while finessing the analog stick. Dodging, which requires flicking the stick, is always a risky proposition. Curl your hand tightly, with your thumb tucked in at an odd angle. Now flick your thumb. That’s dodging. Meanwhile, your right hand is entirely occupied with aiming by moving the stylus around the touchpad. And since the stylus doesn’t have any buttons, that’s one whole hand’s thumb and index finger wasted. At some point, Nintendo must have decided whether to rework the control system or ship the game with a plastic doo-dad as if that helped much. You get the plastic doo-dad.
An alternate control scheme frees you up from having to use the touchpad. Instead, you can hold down the right shoulder button to alternate between moving and aiming. That’s not going to cut it given the pace. This is a game clearly designed for a player freely using two analog inputs at once while spazzing out on a fire button.
But you’ll deal because the game is good enough. If the risk/reward gamble or the loot chase don’t get you, perhaps the minor spectacle will. This is a great showcase for colorful cartoon graphics in general, and really effective 3D effects in particular. The sweep and depth of the flying sequences is a miniature thrill on the 3DS little screen, even when it occasionally devolves into a latter day version of the trench run in those old Star Wars games. Look out for that beam! But the entire game has a lively likability, and even the self-aware humor works. When was the last time you laughed at a first-party Nintendo game? Kid Icarus knows it’s only the third game in a long dead series, and it’s not pretending you know or even care about the particulars. It’s just here to take you for a treasure hunt and a thrill ride besides.
UPDATE: Thanks to my favorite Finn, Jarmo Petajaaho, for pointing out that I’m misremembering my Star Wars games. References to Rogue Squadron should have been references to Rebel Assault. Next time I get to name a bounty hunter in a Star Wars, I’m totally going to name him Jarmo Petajaaho.