The Elegant Frankenstein

layton_wrightA handful of hours into Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright, one of the clear highlights on this year’s lineup of 3DS games, it is already possible to pin down how Capcom and Level-5 stitched up this crossover. Although the titular characters do bump into each other and work together intensely – sometimes even switching partners – each franchise’s signature gameplay do not fully merge into a single beast.

The game, instead, neatly divides the chapters into adventure segments, where the characters must explore their surroundings in order to locate puzzles and uncover the mysteries behind the astounding setting that is Labyrinthia, and trial sessions where the charismatic Ace Attorney, often aided by Layton, gets a chance to shine.

layton_wrightThe fact the two unique and cleverly designed styles never truly mix might disappoint those who step into the game hoping that the partnership between the lawyer and the professor will spring brand new gameplay ideas. However, within the confines of Layton’s puzzle-solving and Wright’s cross examinations, the game works wonderfully.

Moreover, it benefits from that constant switching in two distinct ways. Firstly, since the gameplay perspective is always changing, the adventure rarely stagnates and loses its luster over long playing sessions; it is nearly endlessly engaging, a natural consequence of its fusion of distinctive elements. Secondly, the writers smartly took advantage of the dual view of the same world to create fair cliffhangers as the passing of the baton between Layton and Wright often comes along with a feeling of wonder in relation to what will happen next to the character one is about to temporarily abandon.

layton_wright2In terms of its vibe, the game feels closer to the Layton experience than the one provided by the Ace Attorney games. Labyrinthia could perfectly fit side-by-side with any of the other masterful locations of the Level-5 series. It is a medieval town that seems to be somehow connected to the contemporary world, and there is clearly something wrong with it. It is an enigmatic backdrop with numerous dark corners that seem destined to be illuminated by insane plot-twists that – somehow – make sense.

The difference is that, as the plot advances and both characters get suddenly, and cleverly, dragged into the same grand conspiracy, the abilities of both men came in handy. While one attempts to think his way to the bottom of the conundrum, the other must use his legal knack to defend characters that are wrongly accused of strange mishaps.

The puzzles Layton and company must solve are usually good; their overall quality, however, is not quite up-to-par with what the franchise usually offers. Sill, the folks at Level-5 managed to create riddles that adhere with style to the context on which they are found.

layton_wright4Meanwhile, Wright’s trials are filled with the unexpected and dramatic turns the character usually deals with, which are nicely supported by the amount of ridiculous detail that is put in the presentation and description of the crime scenes. And, this time, the sharpness of the curves the legal battles take is even greater due to the fact that the logic that governs Labyrinthia accepts the existence of sheer magic.

Some might state, and it is certainly reasonable to say so, that when it is all said and done the experiment is half of a Professor Layton game glued to half of a Phoenix Wright effort. Yet, such an assessment leaves out the incredible joy it is to watch Layton and Luke interact with Wright and Mia. And, most importantly, it overlooks the great pleasure that is found in playing puzzles and trials that are tied up under the very same spectacular plot and scenario.

layton_wrightUltimately, Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright is powered by great writing: the one that crafts the flooring Layton twists and the thrilling Wright court moments. And, here, they have joined forces to manufacture a single package that is mentally engaging, and visually impressive due to all technical resources it utilizes.

The sum of the two parts – or the sum of the two half parts if one feels like being nitpicky to the extreme – has, in this case, created something that feels big and important. It is a sentiment that is hard to shake, and through witch-hunts and crimes, the resulting piece is likely very satisfying to both camps.

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Albums of the Month: September 2014

the_clashAlbum: The Clash [US]

Artist: The Clash

Released: July 27th, 1979

Highlights: Clash City Rockers, Remote Control, Complete Control, Jail Guitar Doors

Back in 1977, the year on which the British version of The Clash’s debut hit the UK market, the album was seen as the stellar beginning of a promising punk band. In retrospect, however, the record gains some quite unique contours that make it rather special. After all, it marks the only time they would go on to write and perform a set of songs mostly confined by the rules of that rebellious musical movement. Never again would they produce an album of such political weight and acid rhetoric.

Musically, the brand of punk displayed here moves away from the one crafted by the Ramones and Sex Pistols due to its larger focus on punchy rhythmic riffs than on constant guitar attacks. In addition, the very distinctive songwriting and singing styles of Jones and Strummer gave The Clash a good deal of versatility even when limited by the punk barriers. While the former leaned towards borderline pop structures and choruses, the latter was angry and purely emotional.

Therefore, while numbers like “Hate & War”, “Complete Control”, and “Jail Guitar Doors” were inclined towards the first catchier spectrum, others such as “White Riot”, “What’s My Name?”, and “I’m So Bored with the USA” were vicious attacks. Through fifteen songs, the band criticized the lack of job opportunities available for the English youth, built a humorous protest against London’s public transportation system, and called for the rebellion of punk bands against their labels and the uprising of citizens against their authoritarian bosses and money-hungry political leaders.

Amid that punk avalanche, it is also possible to find evidence of what The Clash would transform into as their career progressed: a group that would be willing to embrace multiple genres and succeed in writing great songs to fit those varied styles. The cover “Police and Thieves” and the highlight original “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais” flirted with reggae and ska, adding an extra layer of flexibility to the first work of a band that would become the most versatile of them all.

houses_of_the_holyAlbum: Houses of the Holy

Artist: Led Zeppelin

Released: March 28th, 1973

Highlights: The Rain Song, No Quarter, The Ocean

Following a string of four incredible albums released during a very productive three-year span that saw Led Zeppelin treading the line between blues traditions and rock explosions, “Houses of the Holy” pictures the group experimenting with new sonic grounds that would eventually culminate in the stronger “Physical Graffiti”. The record plays like the selected output of a musical laboratory, and – given its exploratory nature – ends up, unlike its predecessors, featuring both hits and misses.

“Houses of the Holy” is far from being bad. The overall package is, in fact, stellar. However, the fact it comes around as a concise eight-track effort increases the weight of the few thuds it carries. Its weaknesses, though, do not cloud the fact it is an undeniable achievement in eclecticism: each tune shows the band tackling a different style and songwriting pattern, shaping the album up as their most varied effort up to that point.

It opens up with the fast-paced hard rock of “The Song Remains the Same” and segues into “The Rain Song”, a gorgeous ballad with an orchestral mellotron that chronicles the changing seasons and compares them to human emotions; one of Plant’s finest lyrical achievements. The grand album-opening trio is completed by “Over the Hills and Far Away” a folky ballad that turns electric after a beautiful introduction. The other two magnificent cuts the album offers are its closers: the sprawling psychedelic “No Quarter”, which is powered by the merging of Jones’ keyboards and Page’s guitars; and “The Ocean”, a riff-centered tune that would be right at home in “Led Zeppelin II”.

And then there is “Dancin’ Days”, “The Crunge”, and “D’yer Mak’er”. The former is a harmless pleasant attempt at a dancier brand of rock, but the remaining duo is simply lackluster. Although they could be considered tongue-in-cheek shots at funk and reggae, respectively, they fall miles below the standard set by the rest of the album and the group’s past output. Though they do not destroy a gem, they cause a few visible dents, diminishing its value and leading it to rank in the lower half of Led Zeppelin’s catalog.

wild_innocent_estreetAlbum: The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle

Artist: Bruce Springsteen

Released: September 11th, 1973

Highlights: 4th of July Asbury Park (Sandy), Incident on 57th Street, Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)

Although “The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle”, Bruce Springsteen’s second record, is not fully permeated by a cohesive plot, it could be seen as a concept album. In fact, as far as perfectly joining theme and music goes, it might as well be the finest example of a work that is able to convey, solely through its instrumentation and song construction, the scenario it is attempting to paint. It is an album of urban motives, set in the midst of the metropolitan chaos of New York and New Jersey, and the music is equally hectic.

Moments of pure calm bliss are interrupted by groovy horns, wailing guitars, and thick keyboards. Rock and Roll rhythms clash and merge with jazz jams. Slow lonesome piano notes suddenly turn into the fuel that powers massive fast-paced rock attacks. And solo vocal lines are occasionally swapped for loose street choirs. The word “E Street” stamped on the album’s title is not merely for show, it is rather telling, for the seven pieces that compose this work mark the point when the E Street Band came upon their signature metropolitan sound.

Springsteen’s lengthy lyrics, which on the first record often seemed like aimless – yet engaging – rhyming, fit like a glove with the scenes they support. The match is so smooth it is hard to know whether the words were crafted with the city theme in mind, or if the combined images were naturally born out of Springsteen’s style. He spills his characters onto the streets and mixes them with busy surroundings, and in that bustling landscape they find love, lust, adventure, fantasy, sadness, and even beauty.

There is the youthful energy and universal celebration of “The E Street Shuffle”, the serene romance amidst the wild 4th of July pier parties in “Sandy”, the street-smarts fireworks of “Kitty’s Back”, the whimsical take on a decadent carnival in “Wild Billy’s Circus Story”, the misery of a hopeless one-night stand on “Incident On 57th Street”, and the wall-imploding and raucous power of love in “Rosalita”. It all culminates with the nine-minute epic “New York City Serenade”, a perfect beautiful way to encompass the portrays of the six songs that precede it and where Bruce, like a perfectionist painter, puts the final brushes on this timeless urban opera of mythological proportions.

ladiesAlbum: Ladies of the Canyon

Artist: Joni Mitchell

Released: March 1st, 1970

Highlights: For Free, Ladies of the Canyon, Big Yellow Taxi, The Circle Game

“Ladies of the Canyon” does not reach for the quality heights which Joni Mitchell would achieve on the masterful stretch that begins with “Blue”, its eventual successor. However, it displays a clear growth both in songwriting and arrangements; a leap that would pave the way towards her more consistent albums and the constant flirts with jazz she would embrace later in her career.

The melodies here are, for the most part, far more remarkable than nearly everything that is present in “Song to a Seagull” and “Clouds”, and the hooking changes that reside in some numbers make for a more dynamic listen on which the verses gain breathing room in relation to the choruses. That wider sonic range is also greatly aided by the manner in which the songs are executed. Although Mitchell’s signature elaborate guitar playing is still the backbone of the record, six of the songs are led by a piano, including the wonderful “Woodstock” which rests on top of a beautiful electric layer, and pretty much every single track has extra instruments added to great effects.

Lyrically, her work remains top-notch. Where Dylan and Springsteen were hyperactive composers who were unable to focus in one subject for too long and created hordes of characters in order to build a scene, Joni is meticulous. She channels her sensitivity as a painter in order to build deep character studies and paint portraits to grand detail. As a prime example of that gift, “Morning Morgantown”, the album’s sensible opener, is such a vivid description of a town’s morning routine that listeners will be able to see it by simply closing their eyes. They might even be able to smell the tea.

“For Free” is a downright gorgeous contemplation of a street musician, and an honest ode to the overlooked talent of those artists. “The Priest” deals with one’s questioning of faith more brilliantly in four stanzas than many do on an essay. “Big Yellow Taxi” is a light-hearted take on ecological issues and fits like a glove beside “Woodstock” and its quiet celebration of counterculture. Fittingly, for an album whose title song gives a nod to incredibly talented females who left considerable timeless artistic marks, “Ladies of the Canyon” showcases another woman coming to the end of her maturation cycle and getting ready to deliver works that would make her immortal.

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The Squirrel’s Dirty Mouth

cbfd_1Nintendo’s brand is, rightfully so, associated with family-friendly entertainment in the minds of most people. Although the company does occasionally partake in the either development or the publishing of games with slightly more adult content, the inclination towards colorful characters and light-hearted scenarios runs deep within the vein of its developers and producers.

Conker’s Bad Fur Day – released more than a decade ago on the Nintendo 64 and produced by Rareware during its incomparable mid-90s and early-00s streak – is one of those games that carries the Big N’s stamp but walks right over the line drawn between fun-for-everyone and a darker side of the gaming alley.

In fact, stating that the adventure merely “crosses” that boundary is rather tame – not to mention glaringly unfair. A far more appropriate description would be that it actually pisses right on top of that border, blurring the frontier of what is acceptable and what is borderline offensive. Then, in its attempt to pick on which side of the street it is going to stand, it drunkenly stumbles, falls on its face, and proceeds to throw up all over itself when trying to get up.

cbfd_2From that point on, the game just loses control of where it is morally headed, and spends the next twelve hours of gameplay producing reactions of disgust, joy, horror, incredulity, and laughter that is – at the same time – both childish and honest.

The game starts with the titular character sitting on a throne and donning a crown. He, in a disturbed and deep tone, claims to be king of the world. However, those royal objects could mean something else altogether. Conker’s Bad Fur Day was, at the time of its release, the king of disrespectful games. Thirteen years later, it has barely had its abusive glory challenged.

Sure, games with bad words and questionable content are released monthly, but absolutely none of them are able to match Conker’s journey. Perhaps the game’s British background – Rare’s headquarters are in the United Kingdom – gave its outrageous manner a dryness that made it more low-key and sharp while keeping it on-the-nose. It pulls all that off with uncanny brilliancy, and fills the voids in between its moral insanity with gameplay segments that often turn towards the unexpected.

cbfd_3Considering the crude nature of the package, it is delightfully ironic that – as one kicks off the adventure – the first name they are faced with is “Nintendo”. Conker’s Bad Fur Day has a cinematographic quality to it, and it acknowledges that fact from the get go by opening its travails with movie-like credits that expose the name of its publisher with a “Presented by Nintendo” projection, only to then mention its developer.

It is the gaming equivalent of going to the cinema, watching the traditional Walt Disney Pictures castle intro, and subsequently being treated to a flick full of profanities, gore, terror, and sex. The audience will likely wonder if they walked into the wrong room, or if the movie’s operator has gone mad. But no, Conker’s Bad Fur Day is the right movie reel; the operator is not a psycho. It is just that the project’s backer has just, delightfully, temporarily lost its mind.

Conker’s Bad Fur Day is so fully aware of the entertaining value of its putrid spirit that it builds its journey around cutscenes, which explains its cinema vibe. There are literally hundreds of them, each depicting situations that are increasingly absurd. Not one to lose an opportunity to ridicule someone, the game embraces those occasions to mock a range of movies with either unsuspecting quotes or full-fledged satirical reproductions of major scenes. The icing on the cake is the voice acting – a grand achievement for the era, which is present throughout the game and adds a lot of life to the whole thing.

cbfd_4The game’s flood of indecency is exacerbated by its look. Conker is, unquestionably, a cuddly squirrel; one whose plush would cause most girls’ brains to go into some state of inertia. Although most of the other characters he encounters do not have such adorable lines – the secondary designs are intentionally rough – this world is happily colorful. Yes, there might be a hill made of rolling poop in the midst of the game’s generally vibrant hub, but the palette used here is not one people tend to relate with mutilations, degenerate vocabulary, and various forms of murder.

Despite the fame he has garnered since the title’s release, Conker is initially relatively mild-mannered. His starting sin is pretty common: going out with friends and getting a bit too drunk. The same applies to his journey, as he sets out not meaning to harm anyone: he just wants to get home safely. It is true he does like money quite a bit (who doesn’t?), but other than his greed, he begins the game as a straightforward guy.

cbfd_5The problem is that, as he tries to go back to the safety of his place, he encounters situations and characters that are dirty, corrupt, and borderline evil. To make matters worse, he suddenly finds himself as the target of an evil panther king who, in a ridiculously specific turn of events, needs a red squirrel in order to fix the broken table on top of which he rests his glass of milk. The hero, then, has to go back home and contend with the horror of being perpetually turned into the feet of a coffee table.

His interactions with the outside world are not neutral. He expresses his disgust towards some of the cursing, is loathe to perform some of the tasks he is required to do, and even defends a silly pitchfork against the can of paint bully. However, as the titular bad fur day goes on, he becomes less sensitive: he does not mind butchering a few cows after they are done pooping, he explodes an entire prehistorical civilization, helps a vampire in the murdering of some villagers, and mercilessly crushes a newly born dinosaur that sees Conker as his motherly figure. Little by little, he loses touch with what is right and wrong.

It all culminates on the “Its War!” segment, when – after going through hours of psychologically harmful activities – he needs to face a brutally gruesome conflict that pitches gray squirrels against nightmarishly evil teddy bears manufactured by a mad scientist. He is certainly not innocent, for he displays the ability to sarcastically get out of tough situations when the game begins. However, the psychotic demeanor he comes to display can be explained by a disturbing series of occurrences that have him dealing with everything from an opera-singing pile of excrement to the weasel mob.

cbfd_6After thirteen years out in the world, Conker’s Bad Fur Day shows some wrinkles – even if its visuals still work fantastically well. However, the game remains astounding due to two factors: its unique structure and the unpredictability of its gameplay. Its non-explicit subdivision into chapters that are tied into one overworld gives the game a unique flow when compared to other titles of its time: the adventure does feel like a series of crazy events that happen across a day.

All of the scenarios in which Conker finds himself are so far-fetched and unexpected that the end of each segment brings a feeling of wonder in relation to what is coming next. More orthodox platforming segments might be followed by transforming into a bat, singing up for a lava-surfing race, riding on top of a dinosaur, pissing all over a night club, helping a bee pollinate a busty flower, massacring enemies with a machine gun, avoiding deadly bazooka blasts, or being thrown in the middle of a heist that includes Matrix-like moves. It is hard to know what is coming.

cbfd7Conker’s Bad Fur Day is a wild trip into a vortex of madness and stinking morality and it is so utterly over-the-top that its finest moments are eternally imprinted into the minds of those who play it. Conker’s psychological downward spiral was legendary then, and it remains legendary now. It is unethical fireworks against a naïve white backdrop, and its depraved ways have yet to be matched.

He begins his day as an average Joe seeking a path home, and – twenty-four hours later – he sits, with his mind annihilated, on a throne ruling over everything that is foul and rotten. It is a hell of a journey.

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Rebels With Cause and Purpose

donald_duckIn recent years, a degrading trend has struck modern cartoons. Influenced by parents who want to avoid discussing thorny subjects with their wide-eyed offspring, the bigwigs leading most networks have consciously opted to favor a brand of shows of empty plots, blank characters, and pale humor. While the conservative nature contained within those works makes the hearts of most adults be at ease due to the sanctity of the entertainment their kids are consuming, it also turns children-oriented TV into one dull pasteurized mass.

No channels have been a bigger display of such philosophy than Disney’s vehicles. If some eighty years ago Mickey Mouse engaged in animal harassment just for the sake of producing fun sound effects and Donal Duck exposed attitudes of questionable moral values, a supposedly more open-minded society was now being treated with doses of unadulterated clean jokes.

As it turns out, one of the key components of laughter is absurdity, and no remarkable punchline has ever been born out of situations that are not utterly self-mocking or pattern defying. All great humor either has to look inward in order to come up with a concise, precise, true, and ridiculous conclusion; or look society in the eye and dare to do the unexpected. Humor is witty rebellion against defined standards.

gravity_falls1A morally sterile landscape is, therefore, not the perfect ground for the birth of anything that is genuinely funny. However, if something truly hilarious is able to bloom in the midst of so much holiness, it becomes all the more extraordinary. Disney’s “Gravity Falls”, a stellar cartoon that has just reached its second season, is exactly that: an oasis of hilarity and clever writing amid a wasteland of handcuffed creativity.

The show’s premise is rather simple: two twelve-year old twins, Mabel and Dipper, are sent by their parents – at the beginning of summer – to spend their vacation alongside their great uncle Stan. Mabel is sweet, silly, loving, and honest; while Dipper is intelligent, brave, and somewhat self-conscious. The two, however, share a common trait: they are adventurers, and it is that sense of exploration that powers the show.

In addition, differently from most clichéd brother-and-sister relationships, their rivalry is practically non-existent. They are unstoppable partners that love to spend time together, and although natural mockery occasionally occurs, the two are willing to sacrifice themselves to save the other or give up anything they might have obtained in order to favor the other sibling. Their selfless friendship is truly heartwarming.

gravity_falls_diaryUnluckily for the pair, and luckily for viewers, the tiny town inhabited by their uncle is far from normal. In fact, its uniqueness often escalates to life-threatening predicaments. Seemingly unbeknown to most of Gravity Falls’ dwellers, their home is filled with supernatural events, weird creatures, and mysteries that – apparently – carry world-changing power.

Dipper quickly discovers such truth when, on the first episode, he comes across a diary written by an unknown author that catalogs the many bizarre occurrences and beings roaming through the land. In a sinister twist, the book’s text turns increasingly more paranoid, culminating with the warning sentence “Trust No One” inked in huge urgent calligraphy.

The choice of the setting is masterful: a town situated in a real-life geographic location – somewhere in Oregon – and whose paranormal background supports the weirdest happenings. Zombies, gnomes, minotaurs, vampires, leviathans, mermen and other creatures are able to coexist as logically as possible, and – as a bonus – Dipper and Mabel’s progressive investigation into the origins of the diary and the truth behind Gravity Falls gives viewers hope that every otherworldly happening on the show will eventually be explained via one glorious series of slowly revealed twists.

Even if “Gravity Falls” ends up like the infamous “Lost”, on which no satisfactory answer could have possibly been given to tie everything up together, fans will still be able to look back on a lot of wild surprising entertainment fondly. And, most importantly, since we are talking about a wacky cartoon, whatever puzzle it will unveil when its ending comes will have more wiggle room to work with and sound plausible due to the more light-hearted and suspended nature embedded in the color-infused animation art.

gravity_falls_tricksterThe show is able to use its mystical prowesses cleverly to muster distinctive atmospheres. Some episodes are downright sinister and are bound to send chills down the spines of even its most adult viewers. Those include the twins’ encounter with the Trickster, an overwhelmingly creepy being who curses infants who soil Halloween; the Shape Shifter; a couple of poltergeists with a gloomy back-story; and even threatening dinosaurs.

At the same time, other tales focus on more whimsical occult powers, like a gang of gnomes with a habit of kidnapping girls, a gimmicky carpet with body-switching powers, and wax figurines with a dark purpose.

As a statement to the quality of “Gravity Falls” the show is able to pull off both extremes of the mood palette with ease, and it is impossible to say which of its facets tends to be the best one. There are great episodes that are grim, and there are outstanding ones with a much lighter temper.

gravity_falls_moneyDealing with unnatural matters is not the only element on which the show shines, for it also has an incredible knack for stepping well over the line that separates the morally acceptable from the deplorable in order to pull off major stunts. Those moments are mostly achieved through the character of Stan, the kids’ great uncle.

Though his affection for the duo and other secondary characters with whom he interacts frequently is palpable, even under his grumpy demeanor, it is a wonder how two responsible parents left their children under his care through the summer. During the show’s two seasons, it has been implied that Stan has undertaken in money-forgery schemes, tax fraud, and numerous other financial crimes, some of which with the aid of the twins themselves.

Additionally, it is blatantly shown that he deceives his customers – portrayed as brainless tourists – by tricking them into believing the items he sells in his Mystery Shack are genuine, when they clearly are not; and openly steals other people’s property without any remorse. The cartoon also delightfully toys around with other morally dubious subjects in other occasions, such as on Mabel’s recurring addiction to forbidden sugary treats that cause her to hallucinate and foam at the mouth.

gravity_falls_mabelTouchy subjects are not always approached with humor and sarcasm, though, because the show knows reasonably well to touchdown from its frantic lunacy in order to explore topics of a greater emotional depth. Even if it is not bound to make anyone cry, “Gravity Falls” can – at its finest moments – tug on its audience’s heartstrings regardless of their different backgrounds.

Structurally, “Gravity Falls” is also somewhat unique and a pleasant achievement. The cartoon possesses an underlying plot dealing with the origin of Dipper’s diary and the mysteries that surround the town that is developed from time to time, with some episodes focusing on it more than others. However, it remains decently accessible to anyone who is not following it closely due to how each chapter is able to stand on its own.

If the general dullness of the Disney Channel was in need of a serious shake-up, then that movement has already found the head of its rebellion. “Gravity Falls” is the best kind of rebel, for it has both a cause and a purpose. Its root is the completely uninspiring and morally pure nature of the network’s main offerings, something that has been going on for quite a while, and its goal is to get away with morally dubious situations, add macabre twists to a children’s animation, provide deep storytelling in a cartoon, and break away from the mold.

gravity_falls_fireIt delivers humor by being silly and bringing down moral walls, crafts a set of lovable characters, and – if successful – might end up ushering in a new era of animations that know how to make people laugh and mix the stand-alone episodes of a sitcom with deeper threads of plot that run across the show’s whole extension. An uprising may be brewing.

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Small Ball

jet_force_geminiHigh-Definition graphics, overwhelming amounts of content, huge worlds, voice acting, maintenance of powerful servers to support online gameplay, and increasingly complex structures. All those factors, which are demanded by a large part of the audience, have contributed to make the development of a game a process that is financially draining for any company regardless of its size or the weight of its name.

Not too long ago, on the Nintendo 64 days, a developer like Rare was able to release a whopping 11 games during the course of 6 years. And they were not straightforward titles that required little effort. Banjo-Kazooie, Banjo-Tooie, and Donkey Kong 64 were absolutely enormous and technologically impressive, and the same goes for Perfect Dark, Goldeneye, Jet Force Gemini, and Conker’s Bad Fur Day.

Nowadays, such a streak of productivity – especially one boosted by so many original franchises and innovative gameplay elements – seems, to put it kindly, unlikely. Placing a lot of money on a project implies a high degree of risk, which causes companies to play it safe. Sequels to successful franchises, or spin-offs that carry a recognized brand, have become commonplace given that they are a sure bet for companies to get their investment back.

While those sorts of games can be highly entertaining, bring creative new concepts, and provide refreshing gameplay tweaks – something that resounds, for example, in many of Nintendo’s long-running franchises – those cash-consuming projects have made most of the mainstream industry become less adventurous. And as much as gamers love to play a new Mario adventure, or an exciting new Zelda, that artistic and explorative vein is undoubtedly missed, for it often produces some spectacular and unexpected gems.

braidWith the advent of digital distribution, and the lower costs brought by the possibility of selling small-scope games without dealing with the bureaucracy of the old publishing system, that intrepid role was filled by indie developers. Games like Braid, Limbo, Super Meat Boy, To the Moon, Journey, Cave Story, LostWinds, World of Goo, La Mulana, Shovel Knight, and countless others have proved that indies are more than capable of producing titles that are up-to-par with what the industry’s giants manufacture while creating new franchises that are built upon new smart ideas.

Still, one has to wonder what Nintendo, Capcom, Ubisoft, Sony, Bungie, Blizzard, Retro Studios, EA, and other massive corporations would craft if they did not have to cope with the extreme profit expectations of their shareholders. After all, that’s what triggers the enormous expenses on equally large games that are bound to bring home beautiful sales numbers.

They, after all, house incredibly talented developers that could birth countless new franchises if they were given enough freedom; something that is repressed by the need to constantly work on the same old, yet fantastic, industry staples.

child_of_lightBut, perhaps, we have to wonder no more, because there already is one game that gives us a glimpse of what a major developer is capable of doing when given the liberty that indies have with the added ingredient of a considerably larger budget. That game is, of course, Child of Light; Ubisoft’s gorgeous and simple look at the RPG world with a dash of fairy tale romance.

The game’s critical and commercial success is proof that there is a wish among gamers for software of that kind. At heart, Child of Light is an indie game, the only difference is that it is backed up by Ubisoft’s hype and marketing machine, something that no independent developer has access to.

The reception it received, and the money that it undoubtedly generated to Ubisoft, may – down the line – prove to be an odd point in gaming history. However, if other companies are watching and taking note, Child of Light could be an opportunity for a fresh start. It is not that companies need to drop their biggest series in exchange for smaller, adventurous, and artistic games – we all need our Mario fix, after all. It is just that the model of a large company producing a relatively small downloadable game has shown to be very rewarding.

child_of_light2It is true that if the world’s most famous developers decide to tip their toes on those waters, it might create a tsunami of releases that could drown many indies and their great projects. However, that move could cause the opposite effect if the avalanche is not so heavy: many reluctant gamers could have their eyes opened to the wonderful gems hiding in the digital distribution world, and games like Child of Light could be their entry point into that realm.

Many pessimist analysts claim that the rising game-development costs could eventually lead to an industry that would not be able to support its own weight. If that is so, then Child of Light could be the beginning of a new development model. Yet, if such catastrophe does not occur – which might be the most realistic scenario – it could be a seed that, when sown, will foster brand new ideas.

Maybe other companies will simply not follow in Ubisoft’s footsteps. Maybe they will choose to only occasionally gift their fans with such surprising treasures. But the best outcome for gamers, by far, would be if such a model of business became so successful that Nintendo and its peers would opt to form internal studios focused on the development of indie-like games.

child_of_light3It could be a platform to test new professionals, harvest new talent, infuse motivation into experienced developers, and develop concepts that could mature and eventually be used on the companies’ main franchises. But, most importantly, it could be the trampoline with which charming epic little games like Child of Light would be launched into the world. And, as far as I am concerned, that could only be a good thing.

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Shovel Knight Review

A testament to the relevancy old-school games can still have today, and proof it is possible to reinvent the genre by nodding to the past while carving its own identity

shovel_knight1In a time when numerous indie developers have, on the heels of Mega Man 9, decided to choose an 8-bit art style and purely old-school gameplay as means to craft engaging and low-cost games, it is hard to stand out. Not only has that fad lost a huge part of its novelty value, but also – given how many 8-bit classics the gaming industry has already manufactured – producing something remarkable and new by following that pattern becomes an awfully tough task to pull off.

Yacht Games’ Shovel Knight is yet another one of those titles, but instead of lazily relying on nostalgia alone, it feeds off of it in order to put together an unforgettable adventure. It does not hide its influences; it wears them plainly on its sleeve and uses that assortment of inspirations to create a solid structure upon which its designers cooked up some downright fun sidescrolling gems. It is a recipe that works to astounding levels.

Shovel Knight and Shield Knight were tight partners that traveled through the land gathering treasure until they fell victims to a cursed amulet inside the Tower of Fate. Shield Knight mysteriously vanishes, and Shovel Knight – depressed – becomes a recluse. Sometime later, when a dark Enchantress rises to power and unlocks the once sealed tower, Shovel Knight decides to journey back to the place where disaster had struck him.

shovel_knight1The journey there, however, is not an easy one. Aiming to stop the hero’s advances, the villain unleashes the Order of No Quarter, a mighty group of knights that seek to destroy the blue warrior. The fact that the devilish team is composed of eight foes whose names all end with the distinctive title of “Knight” makes it blatant that the game is built around the bones of a Mega Man adventure: creative bosses lying in wait at the end of each the game’s stages, which – in turn – are thematically designed to go along with the boss’ element.

King Knight sits on a throne at the end of a castle level; Specter Knight’s home is a dark graveyard; Polar Knight awaits on a stranded ship in the middle of a frozen lake; and the others follow suit with that rule. One of the game’s finest qualities is that, frequently, the association between the nature of the boss and the stage where he is found is not necessarily obvious, but the folks at Yacht Games have done a great job in forming those links and making some really creative relationships between the knights and their respective headquarters.

Mole Knight, Treasure Knight, Tinker Knight, and Plague Knight – for example – do not produce any direct connection to a specific theme, but the game nails it on the head with a lot of ingeniousness. The ultimate consequence is that some levels are able to visually tell an interesting story related to the background of these characters.

shovel_knight3The stages are both challenging and long, and in the vein of the finest sidescrollers they throw numerous challenges at the player, focusing on one specific trap and making it progressively tougher until it is time to move on to the next gauntlet. They are also packed with secret rooms absolutely loaded with treasures and even new equipment that causes Shovel Knight to gain some clever optional abilities.

Instead of embracing the Mega Man philosophy of sending players right back to the beginning of the stage whenever they lose all of their continues, Shovel Knight – in a twist of modernity – does away with lives altogether and places a great number of checkpoints in each stage, which is a thankful sight considering how long some of them can be.

Even though players do not lose continues when they fail, the game still finds a way to punish them severely. Shovel Knight has a heavy focus on treasure-gathering, which is ridiculously useful in order to purchase all of the game’s items and upgrades. Therefore, when the warrior dies, a portion of his gems is lost. They can be recovered if players are able to reach the location of their previous death, though, but they are lost for good if the knight dies on the attempt to reach them.

Removing does not make the game any easier, for challenge is derivative of the level design itself and not of the number of times one must replay the level from the start, clearing away the frustration of having to go through everything all over again. Still, in a smart attempt to please all gamers, those who want to rid themselves of the checkpoints can do so by simply smashing them to pieces.

shovel_knight6In place of following in Mega Man’s footsteps by neatly displaying all of the knights on an easy-to-navigate menu, Shovel Knight – showcasing its prowess to draw the best from each of its 8-bit peers – implements a nice overworld that harkens back to Super Mario Bros 3. It is split into three different regions, which are unlocked as knights are defeated, hence allowing players to choose – to some degree – how they advance.

In addition, the map will also display a few pleasant bonus stages that gravitate around the use of optional equipment and treasure-harvesting, a handful of wandering knights that are thirsty for battle, and even a couple of towns that add a spice of RPG elements into the recipe.

The free-roaming sidescrolling style of the villages is a direct nod towards The Adventure of Link, and they feature interesting inhabitants, some secrets, and – most importantly – various shopping opportunities.

shovel_knight4For a simple platformer, Shovel Knight offers an amazing wealth of options to upgrade the character’s powers, such as health and magic upgrades, relics that grant him abilities that go beyond his shovel-based moves (such as temporary invincibility, projectiles, and even a fishing rod), chalices to carry potions around, and different armors with distinct quirks. The game, consequently, puts all the shiny stones that are found on the stages to great use.

Aside from its many greatly-designed stages, challenging boss battles against foes with great movesets, and stellar use of worthy influences, Shovel Knight has a nice level of extra content. At least a couple of music sheets are hidden in each of the game’s levels, making up a lengthy and alluring collection for completists, and a list of nearly fifty achievements is available for anyone that is willing to tackle the ordeal.

The tasks range between relatively mundane, such as finishing the game or buying everything; to random, like using all of the game’s potion or performing a circus act with a hula hoop; and brutal, for instance, beating stages without being damaged or clearing the game without the use of checkpoints. In other words, there are achievements for all gamers regardless of age and skill level.

shovel_knight2To top it all off, and put the last touches on a must-buy package, Shovel Knight is also pretty respectable on the technical front. The game is powered by incredibly catchy chiptunes that are up-to-par with what the Mega Man series offers in that area – which is usually the gold standard to which all songs of the sort must be compared, and its visuals make great use of the 3-D effects of the Nintendo 3DS, which highlight the layers of the scenario and the effects flashing across them.

In the end, Shovel Knight is not a game that shies away from the stellar 8-bit competition it faces. Even when compared to the classics, it stands up remarkably well, and it finds a way to mix its inspirations to shape an adventure with a personality of its own and that joins the best of what was brought by the 8-bit era with dashes of modern gaming. More than a testament to the fact that old-school games can still be relevant today, it is proof that it is still possible to reinvent the genre by nodding to the massive masterpieces of the past while carving its own brilliant identity.

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Stray Fox

The Star Fox franchise delivered, right out of the gate, a string of two magnificent titles during a five-year span. The original game, powered by a technologically impressive chip, featured intriguing 3-D visuals that brought the traditional arcade flying shoot’em ups to a whole new level of gameplay. Its fast-paced concept of shooting everything in sight while avoiding barrages of lasers was far from revolutionary. However, the leap provided by its perspective still stands as one of the biggest evolutions any gaming genre has ever gone through.

Its sequel, Star Fox 64, which came four years later on a much more powerful console, took advantage of the strong hardware to render fantastic outer-space and urban scenarios and fill them with exciting dog fights. The arcade nature of its predecessor was maintained: the missions were highly replayable and short points-based affairs. And a certain degree of complexity was added by creating a web of levels that could be navigated in numerous ways in order to reach the game’s final destination.

The two games held a similar attribute: both were commercially and critically praised. Yet, perhaps due to the incorrect assumption that such arcade-like gameplay could not sustain itself in a world where games were getting bigger, Nintendo kicked off an era in which Star Fox got outsourced to various companies in hope that it would go larger due to the addition of different gameplay elements.

Instead of simply updating a winning formula with a few tweaks and natural graphical advances – something the company does quite well – the Big N opted to follow a far more radical path. Fans greatly diverge on whether or not the results of such an a venture were positive – perhaps a testament to how the franchise took on many distinct faces during that time – but one thing is for sure: the greatness of the two original games was never replicated.

The nearly fail-proof Rare gave us Star Fox Adventures, a visually stunning title that almost crumbled due the watered-down Zelda gameplay that supported it. Namco trekked back to the series’ origins with Star Fox Assault, which made the commendable attempt to introduce on-foot gameplay and new mission structures, but failed to polish the former’s gameplay and to connect the many levels in multiple ways like Star Fox 64 had done. Finally, Q-Games turned the series to interesting strategic grounds, but forgot to build compelling missions on Star Fox Command; crafting a game with great bones but poor content.

Now, after being absent for a whopping eight years, Fox and his crew are now set to make a comeback on the Wii U. Although Nintendo’s outsourcing measures have given us quite a few gems – such as Punch-Out Wii, Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon, and Mario Strikers – fans cannot help but let out a sigh of relief to see that Miyamoto is apparently taking charge of the project.

star_foxIt is true that the master game designer has stumbled on a few occasions during recent years, as it is evidenced by the lackluster Wii Music or in his blatantly negative influence on Paper Mario: Sticker Star, which stripped the game of all the elements that made that series fun. Still, even though he is human, the track record indicates that when he and Nintendo EAD deal with a Star Fox game, they tend to hit it out of the park.

Although naturally not unanimous, what fans want – and have been wishing for during all these years – is a Star Fox game in the vein of the first two glorious titles. They crave for short missions with lots of scoring opportunities, thrilling dogfights against nameless enemies or remarkable foes that get under one’s skin, multiple levels that can only be unlocked by meeting certain criteria or finding a secret exit, quotable epic or goofy dialogues, and that massive empowering feeling one experiences when manning an airwing.

The truth is the table seems to be set for yet another very good game. In its favor, the game has all the technological advances that have taken place since its last outing. The Wii U’s hardware will allow the creation of absolutely mesmerizing alien scenarios. Meanwhile, a strong online infrastructure is bound to support various kinds of leaderboards, downloadable missions that will extend the game’s already considerable value, and – for the delight of all fans – a stellar multiplayer mode with tons of options.

Besides, Miyamoto seems to be greatly inspired with his new project. The announcement of gyro controls and a cockpit view that is constantly displayed on the Gamepad, not to mention side-missions with lots of alternative gameplay methods, indicates that he aims to make intense use of the system’s most unique – and underused feature – the tablet controller. Though such news may be despairing to those who prefer a traditional approach to gaming, it is important to note that, recently – after Super Smash Bros Brawl, Nintendo has sought to produce games with as many control options as possible.

More importantly than all of that, though, is that Miyamoto has seemingly noticed that the times in which we live are perfectly suited for a game like Star Fox. If back in 1997 the world of technology was looking for complexity and size – a factor that might have influenced the franchise’s bumpy detour – it now aims for simplicity.

A website with just one button is the gateway to all information in the world, and the most important pieces of news are broadcasted in 140 characters. As Miyamoto said it himself, people do not have much free time anymore, so an episodic game packed with short missions could be a sensible option in times like these.

The world urges for the simplicity of good-old arcade titles, and Star Fox will look to deliver it in beautiful and frantic dogfighting glory.

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