Interplay! Counters! Or put more simply, stopping other forces from stopping you. It's the core of gameplay that's deep with interesting choices. An important part games are their rule systems through which players exert effort to influence the outcome, typically towards the game defined win state. With effort players have to use their skill and focus their mind to the task, embracing the rules and mechanics. By learning what can be done within the limitations of the game system, players find ways to express themselves through the game, which is a critical, self-reflective, real, transformative experience that I highly value. This is one reason why challenge is so important to video games. Giving players something to measure up to or mold themselves around by building skill is an experience that comes most naturally when overcoming challenges.
There are many ways to make challenging gameplay. But it's extremely effective to design the core gameplay interactivity around engaging interactivity so that when the designer seeks to make this interactivity challenging the player is already focused and engaged. Before we talk about interplay, we have to consider where Sakurai reassembled the "fun core" of Kid Icarus Uprising.
Reassembled Fun Core
As the story goes, Sakruai was approached by Iwata about making a new game. This was when Sakurai had left Nintendo after the release of Super Smash Brothers Brawl. Iwata proposed that Sakurai work on a title for the upcoming, unannounced Nintendo 3DS. And it's clear now that Kid Icarus Uprising is a game that takes advantage of every feature of the 3DS (except the microphone). I'll explain how toward the end of this review series. For now, I want to focus on how Sakurai united the engaging experience of the stereoscopic display of the 3DS with the core gameplay and interplay design of KIU.
With the 3D effect turned on, players can judge depth in 3DS games using binocular vision. In my article Farewell Ba3D I explained how we use 6 monocular depth perception techniques to judge the relative distances of objects in 3D space on 2D screens. Video games overall have designed around these 6 techniques well, yet these techniques have a blind spot. The z-depth the runs straight forward into the screen is still difficult to gauge. This is area where the 3DS stereoscopic display solves this spatial feedback problem. Seeing depth to make informed gameplay decisions is a key part of KIU's design.
Between Pit (the player avatar), shots fired by Pit, and targets in the distance players have great reference points to help perceive the Z-depth in Kid Icarus Uprising. In other words, by looking from Pit, along the line of bullets, and at targets using the stereoscopic view, players can feel their way through the 3D space. Instead of shooting small, fast moving, nearly invisible projectiles, the bullets in KIU are large, cartoony, colorful, and distinct. Each weapon has different ranges even between the 8 different shots. Moving in and out of these ranges is key to survival. In these ways looking into the screen to get a good feel for the space is a design element at the core of the projectile combat. And it's a skill that is as useful as meticulous knowledge of 2D spatial relationships of attacks and characters in fighting games like Smash Brothers. Embrace the 3D stereoscopic space and design, and you'll have access to a range of effective counters, which brings the discussion to interplay.
Being primarily a shooter, defending and avoiding projectiles is the main consideration of Kid Icarus Uprising's interplay design. Like Smash Brothers, Sakurai design KIU with an effective, universal dodge counter. Just before an attack hits you in KIU, if you DASH you will automatically transition into an invincible DODGE maneuver (see video here). Even for fast enemy fire that you wouldn't be able to react to normally, as long as you're still just starting to DASH as the projectile draws near, the dodge will be successful. In other words, the window of opportunity is large and dodges come out easily. However, the larger, slower, and more multi-hitting incoming projectiles are the more difficult it is to successfully DODGE through. In these situations, you have to be very careful about which direction you DODGE to ensure that you come out of the invincibility in a safe spot. The beauty of this system is that when projectiles are slow enough to see coming (as many are) it really challenges players to see the depth using the 3DS stereoscopic display and time the DODGE just right, something that just wasn't possible to make intuitive and effective feedback-wise before the 3DS.
But the interplay design gets even more precise. Though the window to activate a DODGE may be generous there is a significant advantage players can gain by using very precise timing skills and playing on the very edge of risk-reward. Like perfect shielding in Brawl (or see video here), after a player DODGEs through an enemy projectile, players can counter attack by pressing the SHOOT button a split second after the DODGE activates. Yes, this technique is a cancel, but it's a fairly clean and skillful cancel that transitions from defense to offense while still committing players to their direction and recovery time from the counter attack. So even if you manage to aim well and pull off the technique, you may still leave yourself vulnerable. This is a great technique that can shift the momentum back on your side.
What if you want to avoid attacks without committing to a DASH-DODGE-counter attack? Well, if you have the skills you can simply walk around incoming enemy fire. If you do, you'll have all of your options available to you. Just like in Smash, naturally dodging attacks with simple movement is the most effective counter strategy. In KIU particularly, weapons have many different ranges from 10-125 meters. Knowing these ranges, seeing these ranges in 3D space, and being able to walk along the limits is the kind of unique gameplay that's the result of a reassembling shooter gameplay in a new direction. And I haven't even gotten to my favorite interplay feature.
Gunplay! I understand this is a general term that refers to the tactics and strategies of projectile based combat. However, I more specifically use the term to refer to the interplay design in projectile based combat. And typically, gunplay between the actual bullets and guns doesn't exist in most shooters. Instead, they've used cover systems and regenerating shields/health to give the combat a push-pull of position and variation of combat advantages. Still there have been a few shooters and shumps that actually feature mechanics that allow players to maneuver around and even counter bullets. Ikaruga, Bangai-O Spirits, Viewtiful Joe, and few other games let players engage and clash with bullets. Kid Icarus Uprising now joins the list and takes the design concept to a new level.
Every projectile in Kid Icarus Uprising has stamina (HP). Typically, the slower a projectile moves the more HP it has. The continuous fire, dash continuous shots, and the charge shots are typically design in 3 tiers of HP strength with charge shots being the strongest. When any two bullets collide, the lower HP bullet is deleted and the difference of their HP remains in the more powerful bullet. Since most projectiles in the game travel slowly enough for players to react to at most ranges, players are well informed of incoming dangers. And with this information, players have some interesting interplay choices to make; 1) avoid by walking or dashing, 2) avoid with the DODGE, 3) defend with a lower strength attack, or 4) match their attack with one of equal strength.
Bullet v bullet interplay changes the way the Kid Icarus Uprising looks and plays as a third person shooter. Instead of the typical FPS or TPS movement strategies that largely involve moving between defensive cover points with bursts of offense, in KIU players can swim through oceans of bullets with grace, dancing through danger. Perhaps I feel this way because the animations in KIU are very acrobatic and expressive. Regardless if you like my description, in KIU it's possible to step into the middle of the battle field where everyone has their targets set on you, and maneuver through it skillfully. It's the same feeling of clarity, control, and power that I get when playing Smash Brothers 2v2 when it's just me versus two opponents. I know that I'm technically at the disadvantage, yet by skillfully playing my opponents against each other and maneuvering very precisely victory is still within reach.
Most other FPS or TPS can't have this kind of gameplay as a common occurrence because their core gameplay systems don't feature as much interplay with their core mechanics. I've seen 1v4 comebacks in Gears of War, Call of Duty, and Halo, but these events are rare and often involve a power weapon or a significant element of surprise. Aiming and shooting in these traditional shooters is so effective that getting caught out in the open against one skilled player is essentially game over.
With a dynamic, core gameplay system centered around engaging interactivity and interplay, Kid Icarus Uprising innovates in the area of shooter aiming. In other shooters, most weapons work in the same general way. Align the reticle on the target, shoot, and bullets are launched on a mostly straight path at very high speeds. The biggest variation to this kind of aiming for most shooters comes from grenades. Throwing and rebounding grenades is a kind of aiming that stresses skills in a very different way. Being a pro grenade thrower can involve factors like player momentum, knowledge of environmental objects, and significant timing skills. But for the most part, aiming in most shooters is a matter of aiming at head level and tracking bodies. This works great for traditional shooters. I don't have any complaints about this design. However, I bring this point up to highlight how Sakurai has innovated on aiming in KIU.
In Kid Icarus Uprising, there are no head shots. The entire body is one hit box that takes damage the same way wherever its hit. Fortunately, KIU is a game designed understanding the potential of touch screen aiming, which is my preferred method for controlling a shooter. As I've explained here, the stylus control is fluid and versatile because it draws on the dexterity skills we've developed from handwriting. It's more versatile than the mouse in this regard and far more effective than an analog stick. Where you aim is where you'll shoot. While the controls are precise, sensitive, and fairly responsive it is still hard to hit other players as they move very quickly and erratically with DASHes and DODGEs. Normally such a design would make the basic gameplay of hitting targets too difficult for most players. This is where the genius of homing shots comes into play.
Many weapons are designed with homing properties. This design helps players hit targets easier, but it also opens up new possibilities for aiming. If there's a small obstruction in your way, you can possibly shoot around it knowing that the homing will alter the trajectory back on target. Some weapons specialize in homing like the Eyetrack Orbitars, while staffs (sniper rifles) have no homing. Depending on the weapon, you may find that there are many different effective ways to aim that completely expand the variety found in most shooters. One time I saw a flaming skull projectile traveling across the battle field at my teammates. With a little anticipation, I defended my friends by shooting the skull out of the air. Some bullet bounce off of walls like the EZ Cannon or the Crystal Bow changing how players aim even more. Because bullets travel in a variety of arcs, speeds, and patterns, players looking to counter with bullet to bullet interplay have to aim in new ways as well.
The result is a game where you'll move and shoot, aim and dodge in new ways. With such a design there's plenty of potential and variety of shooter gameplay. Before we move on to the topic of variation and design space, there are a few key combat elements I have to cover that give Kid Icarus Uprising a fighting game feel. In part 3 we'll cover melee attacks.