It's clear that Nintendo poured plenty of resources into Kid Icarus: Uprising, the much anticipated 3DS revival of a series that's been collecting dust for more than 20 years.
The Japanese game giant handed the reins to Masahiro Sakurai, the same fellow who looks after the publisher's popular Super Smash Bros. games, and he's done a bang up job of bringing the classic series into the modern age of splashy visual design. The game very nearly sparkles as our angelic protagonist Pit takes to both sky and ground to once again battle Medusa's bizarre-looking forces. It's especially pretty during aerial missions, where we streak through the clouds and zoom low over cities and canyons at what I imagine are mach speeds. Nintendo hasn't made many finer looking handheld games.
Mr. Sakurai also makes unusual and clever use of the lower screen, employing it as a means to deliver narrative without interrupting the action. It displays not just a transcript of the witty voiced banter that takes place between Pit and other characters during battle, but also images that enhance these exchanges. For example, when Pit's mentor explains that he's about to confront Hewdraw, a three-headed flying serpent, he responds, "You mean this guy?" and the display shows an image of a pixilated, decades-old version of the creature from the original game. Regardless of your familiarity with the franchise, it's a chance to reflect on and respect just how much has changed in the world of games since Pit last graced our screens.
What's more, the game's bonus content and replayability are both through the roof. There are idols to collect and admire, pieces of a giant puzzle to earn by completing specific objectives, countless weapons to be purchased, fused together, and enhanced, an egg-tossing mini-game that ties in with the coins all 3DS players earn with the device's pedometer, and even a decent little multiplayer mode that makes it a snap to hook up with friends or strangers over a WiFi connection. Add in a scalable difficulty system that taunts those willing to take on a greater challenge with better rewards, and there's plenty of reason to keep playing long after you work your way through the campaign.
But now we get to the troubling part, the part of the experience that will ruin Kid Icarus: Uprising for some players as surely and as quickly as a thunderstorm will put a damper on a nice afternoon picnic. I'm talking about the controls. This game has an interface that ranks among the most physically uncomfortable and aggravating this reviewer has ever encountered.
Players bear the (not inconsiderable) weight of the 3DS entirely in their left hand while using their left forefinger to depress the shoulder button to fire and their left thumb to control movement via the circle pad. Our right hand, meanwhile, wields the stylus, which moves the targeting reticule as we slide its tip across the lower screen.
It seems a simple enough configuration, but it gives rise to several unusual fatigue issues. With only one hand holding the 3DS, players have to keep the console – which naturally tips forward due to the top screen's weight – from dipping by pressing down on the circle pad and shoulder button harder than they normally would. This results in strain and, eventually, finger pain. And since these two digits are also manipulating controls, there are times when they can't completely balance the device as it tries to tip forward. I intuitively compensated by wedging the front left corner of the console into the palm of my hand, just below the thumb. This eventually became painful, too, and I noticed a sore red mark on my hand after most sessions.
It wasn't long before I began grasping for some form of relief. The method I came up with involved extending the pinky on my right hand around and under the right side of the 3DS to shoulder a bit of the console's weight. It wasn't exactly comfortable, and I'm pretty sure it affected my aiming performance, but it lessened the stress on my left hand at least a little.
The real sin here is that Nintendo knew the controls would be a problem. Included in every box is a little stand on which to rest the 3DS while playing – a tacit admission that holding the system is taxing. The good news is that it works. Sessions I spent using the stand on my kitchen table were much less exhausting than those with the console held in my hand. But keep in mind this is a mobile game, and that people play mobile games while on the go, lazing on a couch, or resting in bed. Designing a mobile game to be at its best when played at a table is very nearly incomprehensible.
I can see Nintendo mounting a plausible argument for the controls in the game's aerial missions, which are on rails. The quick, pinpoint accuracy of the stylus is an undeniable boon to aiming, which means we're exchanging physical comfort for enhanced targeting. That's a trade the more competitive among us might be willing to make.
However, the controls become downright detrimental when we move to the ground, where we have free movement. As we skip across the ground (that's right, Pit skips) we control the camera by repeatedly swiping across the screen and perform dashes by pulling back and pressing the circle pad a second time in the direction we want to move. Needless to say, these controls are decidedly awkward and take far too much time in the heat of battle, leaving us vulnerable to enemy attacks when we should be shooting or moving.
Sadly, the designers seem to have overlooked what could have been a great fix: The 3DS's recently released Circle Pad Pro peripheral. This bulky but useful device adds a second circle pad that could be used to control the camera/targeting reticule, if not in the air then at least while on the ground. Maddeningly, the game actually does support the Circle Pad Pro – but only to afford lefties the ability to mirror the existing control scheme.
Buried beneath Kid Icarus: Uprising's unfortunate interface is the promise of a great game filled with frenetic action and neat storytelling twists. There are moments – especially in the air, where the game very nearly sings. That said, if the next entry in the series forces us into a similar style of control, I won't mind waiting another 20 years for its release.
Kid Icarus: Uprising
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Release: March 23, 2012
ESRB: Everyone 10+