Audio Feedback Elements
To support the visual feedback elements Kid Icarus Uprising features top quality audio design. One feature I want to highlight what KIU does with positional audio (simulated surround sound using stereo speakers). The effect works best when using headphones. Working with the excellent sound design where each attack and effect has a unique sound, the positional audio let's players hear in 3D! Every shot, melee strike, hit, dodge, reflection, power, and block can be pinpointed in the 3D space around your character. So even if you can't see what's going on out of view, you can hear it.
All attacks you land produce a distinct sound effect that gives players key information. For example, bosses and enemies produce specific sounds for hitting weak, normal, and resisted points on their bodies. Hitting an armored spot also has a distinct sound so that you'll known when you're doing no damage. Like the ping players can set in Team Fortress 2, this sound in KIU and the accompanying "hit!" HUD text that appears at the top of the screen goes a long way to inform players the result of their actions. In other words, whether you've hit a target or not is so important to know that the game features redundant feedback for it. This attention to detail in the sound design really supports the 3DS screen's lack of visual fidelity considering the resolution isn't HD and the multiplayer graphical fidelity is less than the single player.
While the voice work and writing in the game is top notch, it is difficult to listen to this "radio chatter" while fully engaged in the gameplay. There are two reasons why this is the case. The first is the gameplay sound effects and the voiced dialog compete for the same audio space. So when there's more to shoot and more action on screen, the soundscape gets busy. The second reason is the inner voice that we use to strategize and explain gameplay happenings to ourselves occupies the language centers in our brains. If you're the kind of person who finds it hard to listen to two different conversations at the same time, then you understand why radio chatter in any intense video game is hard to listen to.
Fortunately in Kid Icarus Uprising, the single player progression is pretty straight forward so players don't have to think too much about navigation. Just follow the guiding arrows. This design frees up some head space for listening. Since the voice dialog is fairly constant throughout the single player gameplay experience, catching all the details either requires some gameplay pausing, multiple playthroughs, or playing at a low enough intensity level that the gameplay challenge doesn't over engage your mind.
More Feedback Features
In Kid Icarus Uprising there are no mini maps, radar systems, or motion trackers. Though these features would be useful in multiplayer, there are other features in the game to help players locate other players. Furthermore, with a bit of team callouts it's never too hard to locate where players are. Many of the multiplayer stages are designed as large open areas with many visual vantage points. Along with using the positional audio to locate where the action is, it helps that players are also highlighted with colored light beacons. This beacon is even more conspicuous for the angel players in Light vs. Dark battles preventing the angel from being able to hide too easily.
As much as I love setting team attack on in Super Smash Brothers team play, it's better that Kid Icarus Uprising does not feature friendly fire. With so many homing properties on the weapons and so many complex grouped mechanics at the core of the design, being able to hit your teammates would probably make gameplay too chaotic and frustrating. Furthermore, like Smash Brothers, high level strategies involve creating matricies or elaborate multiple-step-traps that gradually limit the opponent's options. This level of strategy is far easier to do without friendly fire. While Smash Brother's 2D gameplay is easily cluttered and chaotic without team attack, Kid Icarus Uprising's 3D design benefits from a design where players can easily combine and layer their attacks.
Think back to the difference between 2D side scrolling and 2D top down space. KIU essentially has 2D top down gameplay. So a significant amount of homing hazards are generally used to create enough pressure on players. Feedback wise, it can be somewhat confusing to see a projectile traveling through the field (or any other hazard) and not know whether it's friendly or not. But the yellow bar feedback elements help clear up this confusion.
Weapons and Power Feedback
By far, the area that most egregiously lacks proper feedback is the weapons and powers players use in multiplayer. If weapons are truly like different characters in a fighting game then it is absolutely important to know what you're up against. If you're fighting a team of snipers, that information is critical to know in the first few seconds of the match. KIU only presents tiny, difficult to discern icons on the touch screen to let players know what weapons their opponents and allies have. It would be much clearer if they showed each player with their weapon at the start of every match like they did for their video trailer or like Sakurai did for Brawl.
And there's still so much more key information that is hidden. Sure, knowing what weapon opponent's have is great. But it's also important to know how strong the weapons are and what attributes they have. The difference between a strong weapon and a weak weapon of the same type can be up to 10x damage. Because the attributes can change a weapon's offensive and defensive abilites so much, this information is incredibly important to know. The point is, Kid Icarus Uprising's multiplayer gameplay is so complex with so many variables, it would only help players understand and enjoy the complexity if they could make informed decisions. If a weapon has a particularly unique weakness or strength, it's fun and interesting to play around these unique qualities, not guess about them and still fail to get enough feedback to understand what happened.
Powers are the same way in that they lack feedback while adding more complexities and unknowns to the gameplay. Each player constructs a "deck" of powers to take into battle. The stronger powers take up more space in this deck, which is a clever system of gameplay balance that I haven't seen since Draglade or Jump Super Stars. These powers add a lot of mechanics and interplay to the gameplay, but to play around these features players must see who's using what powers. Unfortunately, the feedback in this area is somewhat lacking. The feedback works well when players use certain powers like Aries Armor or Energy Charge because their character model glows. But other activated power buffs are harder to discern. On the bottom screen next to each player's name are small icons that indicate which powers are in use by which players (like Mario Kart DS). This information is very hard to see in the heat of the fast, paced competition. What's worse is, when a player activates multiple powers in a row, the icons overwrite each other, thus giving players the ability to conceal what they do even further.
Now you may be thinking that there's nothing wrong feedback design wise for a game of imperfect information. After all, I even said that Kid Icarus Uprising is a lot like Pokemon featuring many possible "characters" with variable stats and other ways to augment their abilities and movesets. I have no problem with the concealed attacks, items, and stats in Pokemon. So what makes KIU different? The simple answer is KIU is a lot more complex than Pokemon. Because Kid Icarus Uprising is a real-time game, moments fly by at blazing speeds. In Pokemon, being a turn-based game, players have time to think and ultimately make a relatively simple decisions: to use 1 of 4 attacks or switch out their Pokemon. Pokemon's design works well by focusing on the core double blind interplay of the battle system. In other words, players have time to figure out what they don't know, scout information, and make very informed, calculated decisions based on many known complexities.
Because KIU is real-time, players have less time to think about and analyze the moment to moment situations. Real-time puts a unique kind of pressure on the mind that turn-based games do not. Furthermore, double blind encounters and "reading" is an important part of the interplay in KIU, but it's not the only important part. Reading opponents (yomi) and getting the advantage in double blind encounters is mostly a matter of using knowledge and adaptation skills. But KIU also stresses aiming (dexterity) skills and the special dodge counters (timing) among other types of interplay stressing others kinds of skills that are important. The bottom line is, the core gameplay of KIU would have enough complexity, wrinkles, and variety without concealing this information about powers and weapons. Therefore, concealing it only detracts from the gameplay by adding complexity while hindering player's ability to make informed decisions.
In fact, I will go as far to say that the attributes and RPG stat like variation to the weapons do more harm than good gameplay wise. I think that RPG stats and RPG leveling easily detracts from gameplay in almost every game they're featured in. I will go into this idea in depth soon, but for now I will say that the added complexity and hidden information the weapons and powers bring to the gameplay of Kid Icarus Uprising do harm by raising the skill ceiling while bending the balance of the design space to an extreme level resulting in a less clear design space with many functional overlaps.
Complexity can be a type of serious clutter. And with Kid Icarus Uprising, it is. No matter what kind of player you are (experienced, dedicated, beginner, etc), you will stumble and choke on the shear amount of complexity in the game. If you play multiplayer, you'll struggle to wrap your brain around all the fast paced, varied action. You'll likely try to simplify your gameplay experiences by sticking to a weapon or two and a few familiar powers. Instead of learning the complexities of the game effecitively, your learning attempts will be scrambled by the shifting variations. Though there are features in KIU that encourage players to try new things and experiment, this is best done when players are intrinsically motivated and they feel like they can actually understand what's going on. In the end, Kid Icarus Uprising has great feedback design for the single player, and decent feedback design for multiplayer.
In the 10th and final part, we'll consider the design differences between Sakurai and another one of my favorite developers, Shigeru Miyamoto.