In 405 BC, Aristophanes premiered his comedy The Frogs at the Lenaia in Athens. The play followed the bumbling god Dionysus, and his canny, sharp-witted slave Xanthias, as they descend into the underworld to retrieve renowned tragedian Euripides, only to discover that Euripides has just challenged the similarly-renowned Aeschylus for the title of the Underworld's Best Tragic Poet.
Littered with jokes about Grecian popular culture, jam-packed with riffs on the conventions of Old Comedy and Greek Tragedy, and stuffed with jokes at the expense of the God of Wine and Parties, The Frogs is one of the great artefacts of comedy's birth and is enormously influential to this day.
Its influence can be traced through the work of Shakespeare, the comedies of manners produced by Moliere and Wilde, the psychoanalytic, self-referential comedies of Woody Allen, and all the way to Masahiro Sakurai's Kid Icarus: Uprising.
Do not mistake this introduction for a comparison of Sakurai (the brain behind Super Smash Bros. and Kirby) to some of the greatest dramatists the world has ever seen - such comparisons are hardly valid. But Sakurai shares Aristophanes' love for metafictional humour, pop culture references and easily-digestible philosophy, and he even couches it in a story about the petulant, selfish humanism of the Greek gods. And while Sakurai's game is by no means The Frogs 2, it's still very funny, very smart, and an easy forerunner for the best-written game of the year.
Uprising revives angelic warrior Pit and sends him into battle for the first time in nineteen years – the Kid Icarus series having been ignominiously ditched following the 1991 Gameboy sequel, Of Myths and Monsters. Supported by Palutena, the Goddess of Light, Pit is sent to Earth to protect humankind from the Underworld Army and its leader, the spiteful Medusa. However, this being the realm of the Gods, nothing is ever as simple as it seems, and a complicated tapestry of alliances, double-crosses and resurrections soon unravels, with Pit smack-bang in the middle.
Uprising could easily have turned into a humourless, child-friendly God of War, and it's to Sakurai's credit that we're not left with a dour retread of the latter series in all but name and brutality. While the game takes a little while to find its comic footing – Pit and Palutena's initial interactions are little more than a tutorial – Sakurai soon finds the comedy inherent in pairing off a sycophantic whitebread angel and an equally whitebread, slightly self-aware goddess. The resulting banter is delightfully funny, even if it is predicated, to an extent, on the pair calling each other out for bad puns (Pit's 'hos-Pit-al' pun in Chapter 4 is the nadir of them, thankfully) and riffing on the medium through which the story is told (such as one early discussion about whether an upcoming villain constitutes a 'boss' or a 'miniboss').
The real colour, however, comes from the deities and mythological figures who hijack these conversations, akin to your mother picking up the phone in the other room while you're on the line with your flame. Or something. The game's best jokes are often the result of the ways our dynamic duo interacts with these metaphysical beings, and there's an impressive range of them, highlights including Hades, an effete, wise-cracking menace who wouldn't be out of place in a Disney film; Thanatos, the outrageously camp God of Death; Pyrrhon, a thick-as-a-brick Sun God doing the world's best Phil Hartman impersonation; and Viridi, the impetuous young Goddess of Nature.
Sakurai's script, impeccably translated, seizes on the all-too-human foibles and flaws of the pantheon and plays them up to fantastic effect – whether it's Viridi awkwardly admitting that she thinks the boy angel destroying her forces is 'cute', or Hades making snide asides just to get a rise out of Pit – the characters are all wonderfully built and their voice actors give top-notch performances. They make self-referencing jokes about the first game (Thanatos explains away his now-properly spelled name with the line, "The H stands for ha-maaaaaaaaazing!") rip on Pit's irrepressible naïveté, and make extremely bad puns, but the game never uses humour as a crutch in place of character development.
That said, while the game's script is its strongest feature, that would mean nothing if the gameplay wasn't much cop. By mashing the flight sections of Panzer Dragoon Orta together with a family-friendly take on God of War’s antiquity beat-em-ups, however, Sakurai and development team Project Sora have created a fast-paced, varied, and incredibly challenging experience. With twenty-five chapters and multiple difficulty levels (of which there is incentive to try if you want to dominate the multiplayer arena), Uprising is a surprisingly substantial experience for a 3DS action game. It also helps that the committed linearity of the experience serves the game's discussions of free will, determinism and finding one's purpose without ever feeling like it's restricting the enjoyment of shooting galleries and BC skirmishes.
As if that wasn't enough, Uprising adds a significant amount of longevity to the game through its multiplayer component. Consisting of classic Free-For-All deathmatch and a team deathmatch with a twist called Light vs Dark, the multiplayer offers as many thrills as the story mode, if in half the timeframe. The game's surprisingly deep 'Arms Altar' system also affords the ability to fuse different types of weapons together to create new ones with different modifications, adding a new dynamic to weapon selection and making multiplayer games that much more challenging.
However, Uprising isn't without its problems. The game can be excessively punishing on higher difficulty levels, though this won't be so much of an issue for those who speak of 'casuals' in hushed tones and long for the days when completing Battletoads was a badge of honour on the school playground.
Further, the control scheme is not particularly intuitive, particularly for left-handed people. To move, the player uses the left analogue stick; to shoot, the left trigger; to aim the reticule and move the camera, the stylus makes the corresponding movements on the touchscreen. If you're putting this image together in your head, you can probably tell by now that this game is designed for right-handed people with strong forearms. This poses a slew of problems, as the strain of the 3DS on the left arm can become difficult after a while, and the options for southpaws are incredibly limited – it’s possible to switch the reticule movements to the A-B-X-Y buttons (sluggish) or purchase the Circle Pad Pro and switch the orientation around (unintuitive, expensive and clumsy).
It's not advised to dismiss Kid Icarus: Uprising out of hand because of teething issues with the controls, though. To do so would be to do yourself a disservice, even more so when one considers that the controls are manageable for any player, given time and commitment. It's merely a blemish on what is one of the funniest, most enjoyable, most challenging games to ever come out for a Nintendo console. Sakurai has done the impossible - resurrected a franchise long thought dead, given it some fresh new kicks and produced something glorious. Irreverent, self-referential comedy has rarely fit a Nintendo game so snugly.