"Sorry to keep you waiting" true words spoken by Pit, or should I say Masahiro Sakurai, the creator and writer of Kid Icarus Uprising (KIU) for the Nintendo 3DS. It has been 25 years since Kid Icarus was released on the NES and about 4 years since since Sakurai released his last game Super Smash Brothers Brawl, one of my favorite games of all time. As one of my favorite developers, Sakurai is the man who created Kirby and reimagined the modern version of Pit, my two main characters in Smash. Taking a break from that series, Sakurai has poured his full talent and attention into KIU, and once again he has created a rich gaming example for us to learn from. For KIU we'll be covering every inch of its game design from core gameplay, engaging foundation, mechanics, interplay, variation, single player design, and multiplayer design. At the end I'll present an extensive repair on KIU in addition to an in depth analysis of the differing philosophies between Miyamoto and Sakurai. It's been over 2 months since my last game review. I'm sorry to have kept you waiting as well.
Core Gameplay Design
The core gameplay of Kid Icarus Uprising is a combination of two different kinds of shooters. The bulk of the game is designed as a third person shooter (TPS) while 1/3 of the single player is designed as an on-rails, shoot-em-up. But there's more to KIU than these two gameplay types. Sakurai is the kind of designer that disassembles conventions and genres only to reassemble the pieces into something unlike anything else (read more here). To best understand KIU we have to think of it as a shooter-shmup-fighting-RPG game. Fortunately, I've covered the design of Pokemon and Super Smash Brothers. If you're not stranger to Critical-Gaming you should be able to navigate my analogies to KIU with ease.
Remember when Sakurai explained how he made the first Smash Brothers game as an antithesis to fighting games. Among many other differences, Sakurai took what many consider to be a very "Nintendo" approach to controls by simplifying the input requirements. Instead of a fighter played with digital movement and 6 buttons, Sakurai designed a fighter around analog movement and 3-4 buttons. This simple design shifted the interactive and engaging design (not to mention the "fun core") away from complex inputs. Instead the inputs are relatively simple, yet precisely executing them in a dynamically changing context is very challenging. After all, analog movement is more engaging than digital movement so games with analog controls can challenge players to use more dexterity skill to achieve mastery.
Skip to 36 seconds for the tutorial segment.
Three Basic Controls
Kid Icarus Uprising was designed with a similar, simplifying approach to the controls and core mechanics. Essentially KIU can be played with only 3 basic controls. Right handed players control analog movement with the circle pad, SHOOT with the L-button, and AIM via the stylus on the touch screen. This design works extremely well as it did many years ago with Metroid Prime Hunters on the DS. But the control scheme works even better on the 3DS with its larger screens, higher resolution top screen, and analog circle pad. Compared to a common control scheme in modern console first and third person shooters, Sakurai has removed the functions or buttons for reloading, switching weapons, grenades, switching grenades, crouch, jump, melee, zoom, and other functions.
The only way to increase gameplay complexity (whether the intent is to create rich, engaging, gameplay of interesting choices or not) is to add complexities to the gameplay elements. Seems like a no-brainer right? You'd be surprised how many people attempt to talk about gameplay complexity without talking about the specific rules, parameters, and properties of the interactive gameplay elements. In KIU, with just MOVE players control their walking speed and have the ability to activate a DASH by sliding the circle pad quickly in a direction. Sakurai developed this innovative DASH design for Smash Brothers, and I can't think of any other game that uses it.
Aiming with the touch screen controls is fairly direct and straightforward. As you slide the stylus around the cursor on the top screen closely matches your inputs with only a slight delay. This slight delay keeps the visual from changing too rapidly, which I greatly appreciate.
The SHOOT mechanic is a bit more complex because it has an auto-charge feature. Every weapon in the game has a set of charge and continuous fire (uncharged) shots. Simply hold down the button to shoot continuous shots out of your weapon. Stop shooting for a few seconds and your weapon will automatically charge so that the next shot you make will release the charge shot. As I described in my article Taking CHARGE, mechanics that can be charged are great for reducing the spam of continuous fire especially in games with unlimited ammo like Kid Icarus Uprising. Waiting a bit for your weapon to recharge feels a lot like reloading, a small but important feature in typical FPS/TPS gameplay. Along with the auto-charge design, the shoot mechanic is grouped or mapped to the same button as the MELEE mechanic. When close to targets, Pit will use a MELEE attack instead of SHOOT. Unlike Halo, Gears of War, Resident Evil, or other shooters players cannot execute their MELEE attacks without being in close proximity to a target. With such a design, the MOVE and SHOOT controls and mechanics are tied together in new and complex ways, which brings the discussion to analyzing the mechanics of KIU.
Simultaneous moving and shooting; many western gamers prefer this style of mechanics design while many Japanese gamers prefer what I call the stop-and-pop style. As I've written about in detail in my series on clean game design, I prefer the stop-and-pop style design because it tends to develop cleaner gameplay by isolating actions, which helps designers present clear cause-and-effect feedback loops. While Kid Icarus Uprising is a dual analog shooter, there are several design elements that punctuate the continuous moving and shooting interactivity. KIU's auto-charge feature helps reduce constant, continuous fire by giving players an offensive advantage for waiting. In addition to the charge feature there are more mechanics that limit player movement or shooting ability to also help give the gameplay a stop-and-pop feel. Now we can take a closer look at dash attacks and the new level of complexity it brings to KIU.
All of the core gameplay mechanics (move, aim, shoot) are pretty simple. But when combined, there are many new factors to consider. SHOOTing while DASHing forward, backwards, or sideways changes the charge and continuous fire shots change (see video above @4:48). So, essentially, Kid Icarus Uprising packs 8 different projectile attacks into a simple 2 input control scheme. Initially, this may seem complex and confusing, but it all makes sense because of the animations. Like the dash attacks in Smash, all of the DASH attacks in Kid Icarus Uprising have significant recovery time. Because Pit fully commits to running, shooting from his running state, he must takes quite a fancy maneuver to pull off; or at least that's what it looks like. Pit leaps and dives on the ground to pull off these shots and afterwards takes a second to get back up off the ground.
Moving and shooting are tied together to make players more conscious of how they control their character. Footing and momentum are important to keep track of. This kind of design is more akin to fighting games and platformers. In many shmups and shooters, how players move hardly affects their shooting abilities and visa versa. A common clear example is from Call of Duty where sprinting prevents players from shooting. In KIU, continually using dash attacks forces you to move around in slow, ridged spurts. Walking around and shooting is a balanced compromise of attacking and moving, but it's not fast. And not shooting at all lets players dash and smoothly turn at high speeds. Moving and shooting are so tightly knit in KIU, you'll find that gamplay falls somewhere neatly between stop-and-pop gameplay and run-and-gun. It's the best of both worlds!
I should say that while Kid Icarus Uprising's core gameplay uses 3 inputs, it also features special power moves players can activate in battle (see video @7:20). These moves range from jump glides, healing spells, defensive buffs, aim assists, to power bombs. All the powers can be switched between and activated via the touch screen icons on the lower left side. However, I've found that using the D-pad to switch and activate powers to be much more accurate and practical. Yes, I have to take my left thumb off of the circle pad to switch powers, but my thumb is in the perfect place to activate the powers while still using the circle pad. Besides, many of the powers stop player movement to activate, so trying to activate powers while moving is not necessary. Understanding how these powers add another wrinkle to the gameplay is best explained later.
The result is a solid core designed around 3 inputs that's very engaging and versatile. In part 2, we discuss interplay.