Kid Icarus Uprising's core gameplay is a combination of a third-person shooter, a fighter, and an on-rails shmup. Though not as core as these parts, I couldn't continue with this review of KIU without explaining how the game is also like a Pokemon RPG. And I can't talk about the Pokemon like aspects of KIU's design without also covering variation and design space.
Massive Design Space
The design space of Kid Icarus Uprising is massive. Recall that the design space of a game's gameplay is a way of organizing and understanding the creative potential a design works within to create a game. On a basic level, a design space is a collection of variables, properties, and gameplay element types. The following are a list of weapon modifiers.
Walking Speed. Running Speed. Overall Defense. Shot Defense. Melee Defense. Health. Petrification. Shot homing. Forward/side/back-dash charge shot. Forward/side/back dash continuous fire. Dash continuous fire. Weakening. Evasion. Item attack. In-peril attack boost. Melee combo. Speed. Burning. Shot range. Stamina. Recovery effect. Heart Bonus. Confusion. Melee dash attack. Full-health boost. Standing charge shot. In-peril auto-dodge. Shaking. Status resistance. Paralysis. Knockback defense. Knockback recovery. Poison. Shaking. Standing continuous fire. Power attack. Freezing. Shot cancellation. Self-injury.
That's more than 40 different properties that can modify the attributes of a weapon! Weapons can hold a maximum of 6 of these properties. Furthermore, these modifiers can be additive (up to +8) or subtractive (down to -4) thus expanding the variety while maintaining a balance of pros and cons. On top of this each weapon has a ranged and melee strength grade that ranges from 1-6 stars in half star increments. Needless to say there is a ton of room for each weapon to be unique because of these properties, complexities, and design space variation. Because these properties affect how well you move, dodge, defend, and attack the entire potential and feel of your character is wrapped up in your weapon choice. The game explicitly stresses that the weapon you pick determines everything in Kid Icarus Uprising. This is not like Halo where all the players have the same abilities. This is also not like Team Fortress 2 or Call of Duty where there are classes or loadouts along with a degree of customization via perks, hats, and weapons. The weapon variation in Kid Icarus Uprising is more analogous to picking characters in a fighting game. And this is only the beginning.
While the properties and strength of each weapon have significant variation in KIU, these modifiers exist on top of a wide range of unique weapons (see video here). How many weapons? Compared to Halo's sub 40 weapons, Perfect Darks impressive 40+, Kid Icarus Uprising has more than double the weapons; 108 total. In my collection I've counted more than 93 unique weapon divided among 9 categories; staffs, bows, clubs, orbitars, blades, claws, palms, cannons, and arms. Each of these 100+ weapons have unique inherent stats, unique shots (bullet shape, size, color, stamina, trajectory, homing ability, fire rate) before the modifiers are added.
Like Pokemon, Kid Icarus Uprising features a somewhat randomized loot dropping system, a weapon trading system, and a way to build stronger weapons. But unlike Pokemon, each of these KIU systems are less straight forward. Pokemon has a rich fiction that consists of meeting wild Pokemon, catching them, training them, and breeding them. Therefore the abstraction of these ideas and other ideas like genetic variation are fairly intuitive.
Instead of abstracting off of more intuitive ideas, the weapon drop and fusion design in Kid Icarus Uprising is designed to encourage players to try different weapons and play in either one of the two main modes of the game; the single player campaign and the mutliplayer battle mode. Creating powerful weapons is very indirect. There is no exp in KIU; so you can't take a weapon and level it up. The stats and properties of a weapon are fixed when it's created or found. It's only when you fuse two weapons that their modifiers and strength will combine to become stronger. The trick is fusing two weapons typically results in a weapon of a completely different type. Continue to fuse weapons and you'll move through many different weapons on your quest to gain power. This kind of design encourages players to keep loose, explore the design space, and experiment. The street pass/spot pass weapon trading system also encourages experimentation. When you select a weapon to trade, you actually create duplicates that are given away every time you pass another KIU player. This is very different from Pokemon where all trades are one for one. In KIU you give up nothing to give. It's a great deal.
The powers system alone is a major feature of Kid Icarus Uprising's gameplay that allows players to argument many of their abilities (watch video here). With powers players can temporarily minimize their weapon weaknesses or augment their strengths. For example, if you run slowly try using super speed. If you tire out quickly try tirelessness. If you need help aiming try auto-reticle or homing boost. If you want to press your luck use random. Some powers are much more effective than others. To balance out the gameplay, players have to select powers and fit them into a 6x6 grid. Because of the size and odd shape of some of the best powers, it's impossible to fit some of the most devastating combinations of powers together. The goal is to balance this space constraint with power diversity in attempt to complement their weapon choice and playstyle. This feature is very similar to building decks of fighters, assists, and abilities in Jump Super Stars.
Just a few of the power icons.
To balance powers further in battle each power has a limited number of uses. For most powers, you gain one more use of each power when you respawn. This decay dynamic works well paired with the infinite ammo design of the weapons in that it allows for a greater variety of encounters and strategies suspended over multiple spawns. Furthermore, powers are designed with lots of interplay, some of which plays into the core interplay design of KIU. For example, Health Recovery slowly recovers player HP when activated. At any time when the health is regenerating, if you get hit the recovery will cancel altogether. It's similar with a power called energy charge. Once activated, players charge energy to increasing their offensive power. Take just one hit and the buff is nullified.
Then there's the powers like trade-off or brief invincibility. While these powers make the user invulerable, there's still the bullet v bullet interplay, doging, and melee clashing options to stall out time. Then there are nuances to using powers like momentary invincibility when activating powers. Though this invincibility only lasts a split second, with some carefully timing, players can activate a power (even a non-offensive one like interference) to essentially parry an incoming attack and gain an advantage.
There are many other wrinkles to the gameplay of Kid Icarus Uprising that I won't detail here. It's more important to understand that Kid Icarus Uprising is made of many unique gameplay systems and sub-systems. These systems have the potential for fantastic gameplay. Now we'll take a look at how KIU executes on this potential.
In part 5 we're moving on to the single player campaign and difficulty design.