Multiplayer! There's nothing else like it. Competitive multiplayer is all about gameplay. Striving to be competitive in a deep, complex game will take you on a journey of self discipline and mastery. For most multiplayer competitive games there's practically no tutorials, no scaffolding, and no hand holding. The gameplay is often as open as possible in terms of giving all the tools up front and letting players figure out how to play. If you're looking for challenging gameplay, the simultaneous process of mastering deep games and oneself creates a kind of endless challenge. Of course, a game needs to be well designed to support such experiences. Kid Icarus Uprising's core design has enough complexity and interplay to support years of tournament level competition. But this doesn't mean the options and modes offered allow the game to fulfill this potential. It's time to take a detailed look at Kid Icarus Uprising's multiplayer design.
In Kid Icarus Uprising, multiplayer is broken up into 2 modes; Free-for-all and Light vs. Dark . Free-for-all is pretty chaotic as you might expect in an shooter. With no allies on your side, you will get shot in the back often. In FFA everyone fights to earn the most points from KOed opponents before the time limit runs out. For the same reason why timed Smash Brothers FFA matches never caught on in any serious way, the FFA mode in KIU lacks enough skilled-based control for most players. This prevents many from dedicating serious time to developing its metagame. Sure, some shooters can do competitive FFA like Halo at MLG. But Halo features players who all start with the same abilities and weapons. And to further reduce the unknowns and the chaos of gameplay, Halo FFA MLG rules remove the powerups and weapons from the map. The bottom line is, FFA is crazy enough without these extra gameplay elements playing a factor.
To make Kid Icarus Uprising's FFA mode more competitively viable (more skill based and fair) the core design would have to be changed to reduce the extreme amount of variation. Because players enter the match with so many unknown variables and variations to their weapons; because KOs generally take more time and effort to secure (because of the DODGE mechanic, knockdowns, and resets); because there's a wide array of devastating area of effect powers players can unleash; and because the points you earn depends on how strong the KOed opponent's weapon is, it is generally impossible to predict what's going to happen in a match let alone evaluate the relative risk-rewards of one's moment to moment actions. And with no indication of who's in the lead or how many points other players have earned, informed decisions aren't stressed and therefore gameplay of interesting choices is severely hampered. At least, this is how it currently playing FFA online. Who knows what we'll see in the future.
The star multiplayer mode in Kid Icarus Uprising is the Light vs Dark mode. This is a 3v3 team based mode. With no friendly fire, players are free to unite their offense without fear of hurting each other. Then there's the team health bar (explained succinctly in this video). Everyone on the same team draws life from this shared health bar when they die. This is an innovative way to balance players who select weapons of vastly different strengths. When the team health bar is completely depleted, the player who died last will respawn as the angel with a new weapon.
The Light vs Dark mode is essentially 3 different common FPS multipalyer modes in one; death match, VIP, and something like Odd Ball or Head Hunter in Halo. The first phase of combat is like a standard team death match. Players move around the map and hunt nearby targets. When a team's angel appears, that player becomes the VIP. If that VIP-angel player dies, it's game over for the whole team. Interestingly, that VIP-angel player is stronger, faster, and has more HP than normal players. This design makes the VIP-angel a weighted target in terms of offense and defense. At the same time, about half way through the match 3 pieces of a special weapon called the Daybreak randomly spawn. If a team collects all these pieces, the player who collects the last piece gets to fire an annihilating cannon blast that cuts through the entire level. This blast one-hit-KOs normal players and nearly kills angel VIP players. This item encourages players to move throughout the level instead of just camping a spot. Also, when players collect pieces, they become like mini VIP targets. Hit these players enough times or KO them and they'll drop their piece. This design is practically the same as the Dragoon item from Brawl.
Like Super Smash Brothers, team based gameplay is where Kid Icarus Uprising shines the brightest. I like team Smash the most because of the dynamic and varied strategies and encounters. In team Smash there are 1v1, 2v1, and 2v2 encounters which include dramatic partner saves and incredible comebacks. Kid Icarus Uprising features the same range of encounters with the added options of 3v1, 3v3, and 3v2 not to mention ways to work together at great distances because of the core projectile based core gameplay. Coordinating attacks is key to teamwork. Because the DODGE mechanic is so effective, it's important to layer or stagger attacks to better hit far away targets.
With everything I've explained up until now, you might think that Kid Icarus Uprising is a perfect game. Yes, the design is innovative and well constructed at the core. But the end experience is far from perfect. In fact there are many features and elements in KIU's design that need repair. Some things are minor issues, while others create strong barriers that prevent players from enjoying the game and enjoying the genius in the core design. The following will address repairing the multplayer.
The random elements in Kid Icarus Uprising multiplayer are too strong. Believe me, I have a great appreciation for randomness in games. I fought for years to keep items in competitive Smash Brothers back when the community was still growing with Melee. Even after banning the overpowered items, I understood how much items added to the gameplay in terms of balance, interplay and variation. I also understand that the way items were implemented in Smash Melee made gameplay results less stable in a small yet important way. Because items can randomly spawn into the match instantly and there is no way to turn off exploding capsules or crates, having items in the match carries a chance of causing an unforeseeable, inescapable explosions on any attacking player. So to preserve the control found in predictable gameplay and the sanity of our community we phased out items by the 2nd year of competitive Melee (2003).
It's great that in Kid Icarus Uprising items cannot spawn in ways that instantly damage or interfere with players. Sakurai finally tweaked his item design compared to past games like Smash Melee and Meteos. In Kid Icarus Uprising items are very powerful. The X Bomb, Cyclone, Boom Rocket, Grenade, or the Smart Bomb can unleash destructive attacks from across the stage. Yes, powers like Brief Invisibility, Playing Dead, or Warp are great for getting you out of a pinch. Yes, there are counters like shooting the incoming item out of the air. But overall countering items is a lot harder to do in KIU than in Smash Brothers because of the limiting view of the third-person perspective and environmental structures that block view. In fact, in KIU many gameplay actions are hidden out of view, which touches on the topic of feedback design repair that I will address in full in part 8.
Finally, becoming the angel, which is an important part of every Light vs Dark battle, is too random. Whenever a player becomes the angel, they spawn into the match with a random weapon. As I described earlier, weapons in KIU are like characters in a fighting game. They determine how you attack, defend, move, and many other attributes. And when a weapon can have 6 attributes of around 40 that also augment its abilities, you have a lot of unpredictable, unknown complexities introduced into the match when things become their most dire. The game says "here's a random weapon from the hundred or so in the game. Hope you know how to use it!" Whether you know how to use it or not, being stuck with a slow club against an opposing team of fast claws or long range bows is practically game over. Even if you became familiar with every weapon in the game, the attributes the angel weapon comes with are completely hidden to you. Such randomness in such a key part of Light vs Dark hinders player's ability to make informed decisions and play using their skills.
To repair the random-angel-weapon problem, it would be just as interesting if players were given a few choices not of which weapon to use (though that's one option) but of what kind of weapon they want. If players could choose between speed, power, or balance and then receive a weapon in that style, that would help give players control over the climax of the battle while still maintaining the unpredictability of the original design. Other option would be to display the weapon properties of the angel-weapon on the bottom screen so that the player can make better informed decisions. There's really nothing interesting gameplay wise about making a series of guesses about the weapon you wield. The random item strength problem can be repaired by simply giving players the option to turn individual items on and off.
Randomness in game design can be a wonderfully effective tool at stressing player adaptation and creating gameplay of risk-reward and interesting choices. Too much randomness has an adverse affect on gameplay by scrambling player's ability to predict outcomes and exert control in the match using their skills. Too much randomness and poor feedback can turn great gameplay into chaos.
Chaos vs. Control
Multiplayer gameplay is fast. With shots fired from various distances at various speeds, targets dodging and darting around, powers going off, and items throw in the mix there's a lot going on. Perhaps too much. To the inexperienced, the gameplay is chaotic. On my first play sessions I remember there were colors, sounds, explosions, and not much else that I understood. But this was a familiar feeling. Many new gaming experiences are overwhelming. Playing FFA or team Smash Brothers can seem overwhelmingly chaotic until players learn how the game works, learn how to properly filter the feedback, and develop the skills to control the chaos will higher level strategies.
Yes, Kid Icarus Uprising has a strong core design. But at the beginning I had to wonder if the game was more like Sakurai's 2005 DS game Meteos or like Smash Brothers. By the way, the core gameplay of Meteos is too cluttered with unclear core interactions and a metagame plagued by a near mindless touchscreen technique called scratching. I was hopeful that Kid Icarus Uprising would falls on the Smash Bros side, where the chaos would drop and the clarity would increase. After over 100 hours of multiplayer gameplay time, I know KIU is solid.
Unfortunately, I fear that the metagame and overall competitive scene for Kid Icarus Uprising is dead. From my experience, no one likes to play 1v1 matches, which are important for helping players develop key skills and match up knowledge. Because FFA is not suitable for competitive play, the only competitive mode we have to work with is 3v3 Light v Dark. In my experience, it has been extremely difficult to find other teams of players. Perhaps this is because many purchased the game for its single player modes and only view the multiplayer as a side event. Perhaps its because the 3DS was relatively young by the time KIU was released. Or perhaps people just don't look to their handheld games for serious competitive gameplay. Despite advertising and organizing months of specific KIU online game nights, all semblance of a competitive community has fizzled. I can only hope that when the 3DS is brought into the Miiverse, I can connect with any remaining KIU players and build up the community from there. Either that or hope for the rumored Kid Icarus Wii U version to be real.
I think the only feature that is seriously missing from the multiplayer options is Light vs Dark team match making. Sakurai needed to include a mode where people could play other teams of players after they assembled their teammates. Without this type of matchmaking, the only 3v3 matches I can reliably play with my team are against CPUs. Even when I manage to get 6 players together in an online chat ready to play, it's my team against non-teammate players. I don't even mind not having any kind of ranking system or leaderboards. Though, if you want a great example of a game that does this well, Mario Strikers Charged does a fantastic job with a simple team matchmaking and weekly resetting leaderboards. For KIU, what we have now just doesn't do the game justice.
I'm surprised Sakurai didn't include an option to turn on and off specific items. I'm more surprised that there's no way to control what weapons and powers the opposing CPUs will take into a match. Their loadouts (weapons and powers) are random every match, which makes practicing matchups particularly frustrating. Imagine trying to learn the nuances of a fighting game without a training mode or the ability to practice against a consistent opponent. That's what KIU is like. It just lacks adequate options. Lacking options is an issue that tends to become more of a problem as games become more complex. And as I've explained already, KIU is a very complex game. Taking Kid Icarus Uprising's multiplayer seriously is a lot of work that only the most dedicated will undertake.
It's clear that small design decisions can have a large effect on the enjoyability and lastability of Kid Icarus Uprising's multiplayer experiences. It's the little things that chip away at even the strongest core design. In part 8, I address and repair design features that are more core to KIU's design.