Cloud of War

In 1998, Nintendo released the Game Boy Camera, a low-resolution camera that snapped pictures using the Game Boy’s four-color palette. Its latest handheld, the 3DS, includes the ability to take three-dimensional photos and video right out of the box. But the low resolution and lack of flash requires a steady hand; playful options like stop-motion or time-lapse become near-impossible with the system’s present form factor. Finally, Nintendo offers a solution: the 3DS Stand. 

The stand is a simple slab of folding plastic, providing a firm base on which to set the system. Now you can shoot pictures from low angles or for extended periods of time without fatigue or a shaky grip blurring the finished product. This works particularly well with certain time-lapse photography: Set the shutter interval to one minute, place the system in the stand, point the dual lens up to the sky, and an hour later bear witness to a remarkable vision: Clouds flowing in swift undulations, imperceptible to the human eye.

Charitable as always, Nintendo included a bonus piece of software with each 3DS stand, a game called Kid Icarus: Uprising, serving as a reminder that however far astray Nintendo might edge into other territory, it will always and forever be about a player playing games.

You are the sprite named Pit, who flies through the air and lumbers through maze-like ruins, shooting down mythical creatures on a quest to return the Earth to peace. Uprising plays like a three-headed guardian of games past: the on-rails shooting of Star Fox or Sin & Punishment combined with the third-person sniping of a fantastical Gears of War

Concurrent to the action on the top screen, the bottom screen shows a flat image of Pit conversing with an array of friends and enemies, notably Palutena, a goddess that gives him the power of flight. Their expressions change in static jump cuts, mirroring the tone of the spoken dialogue. This device is used in other prominent Japanese titles such as Ace Attorney and Trauma Center, both of which originated on Nintendo’s previous dual-screen handheld, the DS. But there the talking heads at least make sense: in one, a story unfolds in the courtroom and various crime scenes; in the other, surgeons chat in hospital offices and over operating tables. Uprising takes place in locales slightly less befitting a one-on-one. 

When did players become less interested in the play, and more interested in the war off-screen? 

Each chapter is broken into two halves. The first finds you soaring above the ground, flying and shooting through a swarm of winged eyeballs, demon critters, and phosphorescent blobs. The second takes you on foot through some labyrinthine realms, from crumbling ruins to a galactic pirate fortress to Hades’ underworld palace. Your continuous objective: Shoot, dodge, slash, run, and shoot some more. This is a capital “A” action game.

And yet running in parallel with the top-screen chaos is a consistent back-and-forth between Pit and the main friends or foes of the chapter. They trade barbs, discuss upcoming events, make off-handed comments about food. The banter acts as another burst of firepower with which to contend, only instead of avoiding it, the player attempts to listen in while simultaneously dodging laser beams above. The choice does away with a very modern-day scourge: story-forwarding cut-scenes that stop the action. Kid Icarus: Uprising answers the question, “What happens if you give the player everything all at once?” Your attention is challenged—and rewarded.

The lighthearted chatter provides helpful tips and fills in the 20-plus-year gap between the series’ last entries (the original released in 1987, with a Game Boy sequel, Of Myths and Monsters, in 1991). But you’re not here for a nuanced plot line. What’s most unexpected is how funny Kid Icarus: Uprising is. Upcoming boss battles are presaged with a graphic from the actual 8-bit monster. In one swift move, the game acknowledges its influence, gives the veteran player a nostalgic jolt, and showcases the vast distance traveled in a few short decades. Its sense of humor lies somewhere between a mid 20th-century postmodern narrator and the hero of a Pixar film. Given its own screen, the humor is unavoidable: the commentary runs constantly with no option to turn it off, in full voice-over. The result might have proven disastrous, a fantastic, high-octane shoot ’em up mired in the unskippable, unpalatable buzz of obnoxious cartoons. And some may feel this way. To them I say: “Loosen up, soldier.” 

There is a war going on between the stone-faced and the sassy, the super-serious and the supercilious. In most games, we see a head in the distance. We aim and fire. But what if it was about to say something witty, or weird? Outside the games, we talk about hurt feelings and poor intentions. The essence of play is lost in the bigger picture of “meaning.” That war is an endgame with no survivors, a zero-sum model with scores tallied in bruised egos. When did players become less interested in the play, and more interested in the war off-screen? 

We aim and fire. But what if it was about to say something witty, or weird?

Even enemies in Kid Icarus: Uprising provide an unusual burst of levity. A flying nose hovers before you. The Tempura Wizard is a sentient cocktail of panko-fried shrimp sitting in a bowl of rice. See that treasure chest? What would normally open to provide currency or health in other games here turns that capitalistic expectation on its head. Instead of releasing its treasure, the chest sprouts a pair of svelte legs, chases after you, and unleashes a flurry of deadly kicks. This is the Mimicutie. Analyze it if you wish: the absence of a face, the “chest” replacing a woman’s upper torso and the treasure found therein, the questionable theme of female empowerment based on deceit. But my connections are tenuous, and I am missing the point. My alleged reward is kicking me in the face. It’s getting my attention. It’s making me laugh.

Critics elsewhere cried foul, mostly at the controls, which ask you to move with the circle pad, aim with the stylus, and shoot with the left shoulder button. Sure, the necessary grip is unwieldy at first. (My preferred method: push my right pinky against the side of the system, taking the weight off my left hand.) But so is running with a giant club in both hands while wearing winged sandals. I won’t say the controls of Kid Icarus: Uprising purposefully enact the labored movement of war. But I won’t not say this, either. Play for an hour and you become accustomed. If you must, set your 3DS in the included plastic stand and have a go. Or do as I did: Use the stand as a tripod and take time-lapse pictures of the sky. Either way, you’ll lose yourself in the clouds.