Ragged Beauty

wind_rises3For an acclaimed director who built his career on the portrayal of strong female characters, choosing the story of Jiro Horikoshi – the Japanese plane designer responsible for the creation of important World War II fighters – as the basis for his swan song is certainly an oddity. However, that is precisely how Hayao Miyazaki, the head of Studio Ghibli, puts and exclamation point on his life’s astounding body of work.

With “The Wind Rises” he displays, in glorious and lush animation, a slightly romanticized view of the life of a man who, like many others, dealt with the conflict of watching his passion be turned into a killing machine by the powers that be. Horikoshi once famously stated that “All I wanted to do was to make something beautiful”, and – with that sentence as his source of inspiration – Miyazaki put together one of his most thought-provoking creations.

It all begins at the point when a teenage Jiro, who dreamed of becoming a pilot, realizes he will never be one due to his poor eyesight. Instead, moved by an utopic dream in which he sees the creation of planes as something purely beautiful and liberating, the young boy sets out to be a designer. The movie, then, chronicles his life up to the moment a devastated Japan tries to recover after an utterly catastrophic war that left the country in hopeless ruins.

wind_rises4The movie’s complete arch is rather telling of its nature: it begins with a naive colorful delirium that gives birth to a slightly idealistic human, and ends with the confrontation of that purity with the cold bitterness of reality. Jiro is so overwhelmed by his desire to make a plane that matches what is being produced internationally that he frequently overlooks what the objective of these machines are. However, he is often being put face-to-face with the poisonous power struggle that is so prominent in the real world.

“The Wind Rises” does not solely focus on Jiro’s legendary professional career, though. Miyazaki takes some liberties with the designer’s biography in order to add a layer of romance to the story. That extra element, however, is perfectly tied together with the movie’s overall theme. Jiro meets and marries a woman afflicted tuberculosis, and even if her very delicate condition requires special care, she often willingly neglects it in order to get to spend time with her beloved husband.

Jiro, in turn, as an extremely driven professional, occasionally lets his work get the best of him, failing to come home on time, or be there when she is in need of his presence. It creates an interesting contrast, for while at work he is the one that compromises the ideal beauty of flying due to the final purpose of the planes he designs, at home his wife sacrifices herself so she can support him entirely and they are able to create beautiful memories while they can.

wind_rises“The Wind Rises”, therefore, is not unique in the director’s canon only as a movie that stars a male character. It is also rather distinctive in the fact that it is firmly realistic. Dreams of lovely aviation get shattered by wars on which both sides waste human lives; promises of love that are genuine end up being sometimes broken by dull and gray duty.

It is not, by any means, a sad movie. The couple gets to live a relatively happy and beautiful marriage, and the wide-eyed boy does watch the plane of his dreams take off in its full splendor. Yet, none of those achievements are as unblemished as they were supposed to be. They are dented by the vicious claws of reality, and that might make them even more beautiful, for nothing that comes too easily is as gorgeous as something created in the midst of daunting difficulties.

By far, the largest triumph achieved on “The Wind Rises” is that it does not make any points. As a movie that gravitates around the life of a man who created machines of war, it obviously touches on some extremely delicate questions. Still, it does not take any sides.

wind_rises2It approaches its more sensitive matters extremely loosely, a delicacy that is often the main calling card of all the masterpieces ever done by Studio Ghibli; and it raises a lot of questions, both political and personal, only to leave them floating in the air so that each viewer – with their backgrounds and points of view – can decide what to think of what they are seeing. Its themes remain low-key throughout the movie’s running time, which showcases impressive movie-making maturity.

In spite of all that depth, “The Wind Rises” is far from perfect. By going through a great part of the life of a complex character in two hours, the movie skips around a little bit too much. A few times, it cuts from one situation to the next, which might happen five years later on a totally different location, without providing a smooth transition between the two scenarios.

Consequently, some of the scenes feel – for some minutes – a little bit disjointed from the previous happenings, which can slightly harm the emotional effects or thematic value some occurrences are meant to have. In some cases, that lack of unity can cause some of the movie’s minor relationships to feel quickly put together, making some supposedly major scenes either come off as slightly awkward or fall completely flat.

wind_rises5Hayao Miyazaki may not have ended his journey as a director by assembling his greatest work, but he does leave the spotlight with a good round of a applause. “The Wind Rises”, without abandoning a dreamy atmosphere, is far more realistic than any of his other works, and it shows a strong prowess in dealing with and developing a major male character. More importantly, it is a film that lifts so many questions up to the air, demanding further thoughts and analysis, that it doesn’t matter what lesson one will take from this movie, it will certainly be imprinted in one’s mind for years to come.

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How Green Was My Valley

megaman_9Nowadays, with the digital distribution platforms provided by many of the industry’s giants, groups of indie developers with low budgets and bright ideas have found a great entry-point to the gaming market. Given the financial limitations and small personnel of those companies, most of them – wisely – set out to build titles of straightforward structure and presentation.

Frequently, the path chosen in order join simplicity and charm is one: 8-bit graphics. It is hard to pinpoint when that visual revival started, but by looking back on the recent history of videogames, one old-school landmark in particular stands out: Mega Man 9.

By 2008, the year of the game’s release, the state of that franchise was not very distant from the situation in which Sonic finds himself ever since 3-D graphics became the norm. Although the Blue Bomber never reached the embarrassing low points hit by Sega’s hedgehog, a considerable amount of time had passed since the character had last starred in an adventure of remarkable quality.

megaman_9Capcom’s solution to the problem was simple. In order to push the franchise forward, they would look into its past by producing an 8-bit game – with all its graphical, musical, and control boundaries – in the 21st century. Six years later, when the amount of games of the sort that have appeared since then is counted, that move does not look like such a big deal. However, back then, it was somewhat bold.

Nobody was really sure whether or not there was still a market for that kind of software. Capcom was playing a low-risk and high-reward game; after all, it was a massive company investing in a low-budget title featuring its most beloved mascot. Still, nobody likes to see a product sink in failure, and Mega Man 9 was the simplest of games launched in the midst of a battle of high-definition graphics. It was, by all means, an ant – albeit a popular one – among titans.

Mega Man 9 hit it out of the park. In fact, it did so well that it warranted a sequel, which would be released two years later to equal commercial and critical accolades. It proved that experienced players craved for brutal and bare-bones games in the middle of all complexity found in modern efforts, and that a new generation of gamers was willing to discover and enjoy the industry’s legacy.

cave_storyThe greatest testament to the success of Mega Man 9, though, was the huge amount of 8-bit and old-school titles that would flood the online marketplaces to the delight of fans and critics alike. Super Meat Boy, the Bit Trip series, To the Moon, Cave Story, Fez, La Mulana, and the recently released Shovel Knight are just some of the examples of works that, perhaps, would not have gained the deserved attention had Mega Man failed to open up the gates.

Games of that sort have to contend with a factor that can be both helpful and perilous: nostalgia. It is no secret that all 8-bit titles try to bet on that fondness towards the past with the goal to charm players who lived through that romantic era. Almost invariably, it works; throw in some nice chiptunes, a few references to old treasures, and well-crafted blocky visuals and the game will produce a good bunch of smiles on an older audience.

In spite of that, relying on nostalgia alone to build a quality game, a strategy used by Retro City Rampage, is a recipe for underwhelming results. A few moments of feel-good remembrance of old times do not make a good game by themselves. Actually, tackling the production of an adventure of the sort is not taking a shortcut to greatness carried by the wheels nostalgia; it is the killing of a dragon full of old tricks. Acknowledging that is the first step developers involved in such a project must climb on their way to positive results.

All in all, there are two types of audiences that must be charmed: youngsters who are used to flashy new visual standards, and players that – through hours of gaming spread across numerous generations – have seen and experienced quite a lot.

bit_trip_runnerCharming the former group usually demands the crafting of old-school games with touches of modern gaming. Developers and companies alike have learned a lot during all these years, and polishing the simple 8-bit gameplay with the knowledge acquired on those failures and successes is vital.

Meanwhile, alluring the more experienced audience goes through the finding of a way to make surprising design choices to create inventive levels. That is a tough path to take considering the amount of 8-bit classics out there that have fully explored bags of ideas, which goes to highlight how hard it is to produce a game of that sort on this day and age. Another easier, yet still daunting, option is using 8-bit graphics as a platform for some brand new gameplay ideas.

super_meat_boyIt is in the merging of all those characteristics that most of the recently created 8-bit classics inhabit.

Super Meat Boy, while drowned in its brutality, made its gauntlets ridiculously short, which shows a great degree of awareness towards the frustration most 80s gamers went through when playing long levels with no checkpoints whatsoever. It added modern ideas in a purely old-school cauldron of gameplay.

Mega Man 9 tried to emulate the masterpiece that was Mega Man 2. And, confined within the use of a structure that was identical to that of its much older brother, it found brilliant ways to put out a set of incredible levels and abilities that displayed great creativity.

The Bit Trip series invented multiple gameplay scenarios of ancient simplicity but newly found concepts that gave birth to a contemporary game dressed in the looks and easy-to-digest spirit of long-gone arcade titles.

shovel_knightAnd then, there is the incredible and very fresh Shovel Knight. It is a game that draws clear inspiration from the Mega Man blueprint. Its levels are uniquely themed, clever bosses await at the end of each stage, and the titular character can master many useful abilities.

In order to keep things interesting to both newcomers and long-time players, it employs great level design ideas, scenarios with multiple beautiful 8-bit layers, an overworld in the vein of that of Super Mario Bros 3, and towns filled with intriguing NPCs and tons of shopping opportunities that are a clear nod to Adventure of Link. It is old-school 8-bit gaming made stronger by ideas that came during or after that era.

It goes to show that even though there will always be various games that will try to gain notoriety only by relying on nostalgia, the only ones that will be praised enough to stand side-by-side with the blocky works of art of yesteryears are those that seek to bring something new and remarkable to the table.

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Swift Law, Steadfast Logic

advance_warsThe Nintendo DS – arguably the best handheld system of all time – gave the world a library of titles containing innumerable quality games that covered all of the industry’s core niches. Its dual screens and touch commands nourished the creation of software that either used those functionalities to power complex gameplay scenarios, or took advantage of the hardware’s clever simplicity to craft games that were fun and easy to pick-up and play.

Straightforward works like Meteos, Brain Age, and Elite Beat Agents flourished beautifully with the aid of the stylus and the support of stripped-down concepts. Meanwhile, more complex efforts like Grand Theft Auto, The Legend of Zelda, and Advance Wars had their engines oiled by quick and easy commands.

However, amidst all that gaming goodness, the system’s largest contribution was, perhaps, the fact that it allowed the rebirth of a genre that stands nicely between the humble structure of the former group and the intricate bones of the latter.

Point-and-click adventures had been virtually dead – at least from a mainstream perspective – ever since LucasArts, the creative mother of that gameplay style, abandoned the ship it had built in order to focus on highly-profitable Star Wars epics. The fact that the power of computers rose to a point on which the static-scene anatomy of those games started being seen as aged had seemingly put the final nail on that digital coffin.

grim_fandangoBut that corpse blasted right through that casket when the Nintendo DS came around. Its portable size was the perfect trampoline for storybook games with heavy amounts of text, and the smoothness of the stylus appeared to be suitable for a exploratory kind of gameplay on which players had to investigate the screen by touching certain points of interest.

Numerous titles were the offspring of that ideal scenario, such as the wonderful Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective, or the mysterious Hotel Dusk: Room 215. Still, no games were able to garner as much critical and commercial appreciation as the ones starring a goofy attorney and a wise scholar. Phoenix Wright and Professor Layton read the book written by Monkey Island, Maniac Mansion, Full Throttle, and Grim Fandango, and updated it with great style.

Wright replaced the item-based puzzle-solving with crime investigation that culminated on exciting trials, while Layton approached riddles in a different way: by betting on more traditional and logical problems. In spite of their difference in style, the two games were united by common threads that had always permeated the genre: fantastic storytelling that served as the main fuel to the gameplay through incredible well-written twists, and interesting environments whose lines were determined by great art.

As it turned out, the updated point-and-click style found a very receptive audience. The four Layton games released on the DS ranked among the system’s highest sellers, with all of them selling over 1.9 million copies worldwide. And although Phoenix Wright did not achieve the same extreme numbers, it did well enough for Capcom to spin a series of five games packed with cases, trials, and mysteries.

layton_phoenixGiven the similarities between both franchises, and the fact they were the most prominent catalysts of the rebirth of a beloved but long-forgotten genre, it is only fitting that Layton and Wright join forces in the same game. Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright, released in Japan almost two years ago and in Europe early this year, will arrive in the Americas – and in the arms of a fanbase that has been waiting for a really long time – next month.

It is one of those too-good-to-be-true concepts that border on fan-fiction, but it is about to become real due to the joint efforts of Capcom and Level-5. To those who enjoy both Layton’s logic-defying puzzles and Wright’s courtroom attitude, it will be the gaming equivalent of being a superhero fan and going to the movies to watch The Avengers in full-blown silver screen glory. It is the joining of different universes into one cohesive realm, and watching the different factions interact and work together will be a sweet scene to many.

If the gameplay style the game will feature is already familiar to those who have enjoyed both series, the greatest expectations end up falling on the shoulders of its storyline. The Professor Layton and Ace Attorney series are among the finest storytelling achievements in gaming, creating stellar characters, situations, and surprises through brilliant narratives and dialogues.

layton_phoenix2The union of forces behind the scenes (the Level-5 and Capcom writers) and on the screen (Layton and Luke paired up with Wright and Maya) will likely create some astounding developments during the adventure.

And, when it is all said and done, Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright could, through the display of a great tale, pay a great homage to the line of games that inspired both characters. After all, what truly made the family of LucasArts adventure titles so universally beloved and culturally relevant were its delightful scripts, which proved how powerful a great plot can be when it is employed on a game that claims for it.

Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright could make that point resonate almost two decades after point-and-click adventures were seemingly left for dead. And that would be the greatest favor it could do for Monkey Island, Maniac Mansion, Full Throttle, and Grim Fandango. As Layton and Wright head towards retirement, they could come together to give the genre one more boost and inspire a new generation of games of its kind.

Then, the LucasArts gaming legacy could be kept alive and kicking, showing that the power of great tales is indeed everlasting.

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Mario Golf: World Tour Review

Though they have explored many sport venues, the golf course is where the Mushroom Kingdom crew feels most comfortable

world_tour2If games, like humans, hold the ability to inherit the qualities of its predecessors through some sort of electronic gene pool, then Mario Golf: World Tour was born to be a winner. In the midst of the mixed – but generally fun – bag of Mario sports titles, the Mario Golf franchise has never failed to deliver a great and challenging experience. As the line of games that kicked off the plumber’s sports fever back on the Nintendo 64 days, it has nailed it time and time again, whether it was in the form of the extremely refined Toadstool Tour or on the deep role-playing of Advance Tour.

World Tour continues that tradition in a remarkable fashion. Given that Toadstool Tour had already brought the series’ mechanics to absolute perfection, this 3DS installment chooses not to overcomplicate things. The implementation of its gameplay is a dead ringer to that of the great Gamecube outing; veteran players will feel right at home when performing long shots and putts alike, and newcomers will get the basic hang of it quite quickly due to how simple – yet deep – the game is.

When out on the course, players will have more than enough information in order to perform great shots. The velocity and direction of the wind, the distance to the target, the ball’s flight path, the slopes on the green, the current club, and the difference in altitude between the character’s current position and the pin are all clearly displayed.

world_tour4Even with all that input, pulling off the perfect shot and learning how to weigh all those variables is quite a challenge – especially when the conditions are brutal. And so, Mario Golf lures all kinds of players into its claws. It makes you feel like making an excellent shot is possible, but the many environmental conditions turn landing the ball on the desired location into a thrilling and fun challenge: every stroke works as a tiny little puzzle.

Making the right calculations and approaching the hole with the best strategy is useless if swings are poorly performed, and World Tour’s shot mechanics work wonderfully. By using the A-button (or just the touch-screen), a bar will move through the gauge and players will have to press buttons (or touch icons) twice: first to determine the power, then to actually impact the ball. Mistakes on the former can cause the ball to either fall short or go beyond the target, while screwing up on the latter can generate disastrous sideways hooks.

Inexperienced players can opt for an automatic swing, which makes the second part of the motion be controlled by the game itself. However, doing so will not allow them to put spins on the ball: a considerable downgrade to balance out the extra precision. Spins, which are performed via simple two-button combinations, can help balls stop or move forward once they hit the ground, and are of incredible value either when devising a strategy for the stroke or compensating for a mistake that was made when pressing the button to determine the distance.

world_tour5World Tour pulls ahead of the pack formed by other Mario sports games in the massive amount of content it offers. Whether it is offline or online, the game has a lot of muscle and is able to provide value, variety, and challenge. When it comes to single-player, it is possible to set up rounds of stroke play, speed golf, points play, and match play at will. However, the core of the solo experience undoubtedly resides in the Challenge Mode.

Each of the game’s ten courses hosts a whopping twenty tests each: ten that range from easy to hard, and another ten that are downright brutal. Match play battles against designated characters, stroke play rounds where players must reach a certain score, three-hole time trials, and challenges on which players must either go through all rings or collect all coins in a hole and save par are all ridiculously engaging and will test an endless set of skills from all players.

Meanwhile, through Nintendo’s network, players will be able to enter a huge amount of tournaments. Regional and Worldwide opens, which are only playable with Miis and award the 60% best-positioned players with the right to play on upcoming Majors, are posted every few weeks and offer exclusive rewards to any who participate and trophies for the top-ranked rounds. The company also frequently publishes Mario Open tourneys, which have wilder rules that may include the obligation to use certain characters or items.

world_tour6In addition, players themselves can set up their own tournaments by messing around with configurations that include the position of the tees, the wind speeds, the characters and items that can be used, enabling or disabling the flight path, and much more. Those tournaments can either be made public or only available to friends via the use of a code. To top it all off, players can also engage in nine-hole foursomes against random challengers where everybody tackles each hole simultaneously.

The online implementation is extremely smooth, and little details such as the ability to express reactions through audiovisual effects and the markers that show what other players did when taking on the tournament add a great deal to the experience.

The only shortcoming present in the game’s online modes is the fact that, in tournaments, it is possible to play an unlimited number of rounds in search of the best score. It is a system that rewards those who grind endlessly, makes all top scores impossibly high, and takes away part of the excitement. A one-and-done implementation would have been far better and fairer.

In spite of all its qualities, World Tour’s greatest flaw is bafflingly primary: its content is very poorly structured. The game is split in two main modes: one on which players use their Mii – dubbed Castle Club, and one where all characters can be used. Castle Club is visually charming; its activities are found by walking through a country club filled with Mushroom Kingdom characters, a store loaded with unique pieces of equipment, and a trophy room.

world_tourUnfortunately, all that visual candy is wasted for Castle Club is extremely thin. It features a meager three stroke play tournaments that can be cleared within a few hours, three fun training mini-games, and the entry point to the Regional and Worldwide tournaments. The rest, and most, of the game’s meat is actually found on the other main mode, on which the content – over 200 challenges, single-player rounds, and other online features – are neatly organized in menus.

That configuration makes it hard to find all the content the game has to offer. Besides, once the three stroke play tournaments are done, the only reasons players will have to go back to Castle Club is buying equipment and entering the Regional and Worldwide opens. Hence, the worst offense of such structure is creating the hassle of having to move between the modes just so that those two features can be accessed. The game should have either opted solely for the use of menus, or made the Castle Club into a huge and appealing hub for everything the game offers.

World Tour’s main stars are undoubtedly its courses. They are, after all, where the game’s action takes place, and Camelot has delivered a nice package. The game contains four 18-hole venues, including one consisted exclusively of par 3 holes, which have traditional layouts. Additionally, six 9-hole fields located around the Mushroom Kingdom and loaded with gimmicks and traps serve as the wacky counterpart to the more straightforward maps.

world_tour3Those include Peach’s Castle and its pink fairways filled with boost pads, an underwater club, Bowser’s Castle, Donkey Kong’s Jungle, a giant garden, and a Yoshi course with visual cues taken straight from the character’s colorful games. The courses are quite good, and all of them have the ability to put up a challenge even to experienced players if harder tees and stronger winds are configured.

Ten courses and one hundred twenty-six holes are plenty, and all gamers will be satisfied with that initial set. However, it is also possible to purchase a reasonably priced DLC package that will add a handful of characters to the game’s already incredible roster, and another six 18-hole courses to the game and, consequently, one-hundred and twenty new challenges to clear.

Those DLC courses are visually enhanced versions of the ones that starred the Nintendo 64 outing of the series, and – even if the fields original to World Tour are very good and varied – most of the DLC ones are better. Some of them are virtual golfing masterpieces that test every stroke, strategy and approach players have on their sleeve, and they end up working as the crowning jewel of World Tour for the ones who acquire them.

Although some of its structural shortcomings may keep it away from being the unquestionable peak of the entire Mario sports franchise, one thing is indisputable: even without the DLC, World Tour packs far more content and value than any of its peers. Regardless of one’s thoughts towards the sport, it is an engaging must-buy that can provide hundreds of hours of fantastic gameplay. Even if the Mushroom Kingdom crew has performed quite well on tennis courts, baseball parks, and soccer arenas, their preferred venue seems to be the golf course. It is great to see them back out there smacking balls down the fairways.

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Albums of the Month: July 2014

lazarettoAlbum: Lazaretto

Artist: Jack White

Released: June 10th, 2014

Highlights: Temporary Ground, Would You Fight For My Love?, Just One Drink, Entitlement

“Lazaretto”, Jack White’s second solo record, does not take grand deviations from its predecessor “Blunderbuss”. Jack does not break into any new sonic grounds. He does, however, continue to guide us through the varied hall of influences he has been drinking from since the early point of his career. Where the White Stripes served as an output for his blues love, his solo albums are a mean for him to tackle other sources, and “Lazaretto” is the second step on that journey.

Differently from “Blunderbuss”, here it is harder to find direct links to The White Stripes, which seems to indicate Jack has dived deeper into his country and folk roots. While that record had “Sixteen Saltines”, a riff-centric song that could have been right at home on “Icky Thump”, “Lazaretto” only comes close to that garage vibe on “Three Women”, the album’s opener and an inventive Blind Willie McTell cover; “Would You Fight for My Love?”, a dynamic quite-and-loud tune; and “High Ball Stepper”, a great quirky instrumental with distorted guitar screams and wacky shifts.

Everywhere else, Jack toys around with a width of instruments and textures that are beyond what he could achieve alongside Meg due to the restrictions the duo imposed upon themselves. The title song and “That Black Bat Licorice”, for example, flirt with funky beats as a mad Jack shouts a quick succession of words over the microphone, while “Just One Drink” drives forward like the Velvet Underground’s “I’m Waiting for the Man”.

The album’s greatest strengths, though, lie in the incredible melodies White is able to spin, and nowhere do they become more clear than in the acoustic tunes. The unplugged trio of “Temporary Ground”, “Entitlement”, and “Alone in My Home” are among the catchiest songs he has ever written, which goes to show that, aside from being a wonderful entertainer, Jack White remains a stellar and resourceful composer. “Lazaretto” brings that overwhelming prowess to an engaging display.

turn_blueAlbum: Turn Blue

Artist: The Black Keys

Released: May 12th 2014

Highlights: Weight of Love, Fever, In Our Prime, Gotta Get Away

Coming on the heels of “Brothers” and “El Camino”, two albums of extreme commercial and critical success, “Turn Blue” marks the fourth straight time on which Danger Mouse takes on the role of producer for The Black Keys. Like it happened on “El Camino”, aside from manning the board he also shares songwriting credits with Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney on all of the album’s eleven tunes. Yet, despite presenting the same formula as its successful predecessors, the results here are far more mixed.

“Brothers” and “El Camino” worked well for they achieved a perfect balance between the producer’s electronic soulful sound and The Black Keys’ pop-infused blues. “Turn Blue” shows that equilibrium shifting into a more digital spectrum, leaving the guitar and drums either absent or buried in a mix of keyboards. Consequently, while “Turn Blue” does take the band to new grounds – an achievement that is always remarkable, the land they find here is not completely beneficial to the duo’s compositions.

The record does work quite well in some points. Sometimes it is because the combination just clicks, such as on “Weight of Love”, where The Black Keys reach into lush and psychedelic Pink Floyd territory, with Gilmour-like solos included; or “Fever” and “Turn Blue”. In other occasions, it is because the group abandons the bells and whistles for stripped-down efforts, like the energetic album closer “Gotta Get Away”, and “In Our Prime”, a weary bluesy number filled with angst.

It is hard to determine why “Turn Blue” is not completely satisfying, but the group – maybe due to trusting their producer too much – occasionally comes off as comfortable, as if they were resting on past laurels. Nowhere is it more evident than on the sequence of five songs that begins with “Year in Review” and ends with “10 Lovers”, where the group turns on their musical autopilot. In spite of its enjoyable moments, “Turn Blue” shows that the great partnership between the group and Danger Mouse might have run its course.

indie_cindyAlbum: Indie Cindy

Artist: Pixies

Released: April 28th, 2014

Highlights: What Goes Boom, Greens and Blues, Indie Cindy

For any band, producing a record some twenty-three years after their last work is a daunting challenge. For a group whose original run was a flawless seven-year period that yielded four classic records and one historic EP, it is even harder. If any rock act was to pull off something of the sort with great success, the Pixies would have to be a safe bet. After all, they achieved notoriety by defying conventions with mind-twisting dynamics and lyrics of intricate symbolism. They could sure do it, right?

“Indie Cindy” is a tough work to assess. After two decades, it is natural to expect that Francis, Santiago, and Lovering have greatly changed both as people and musicians, so expecting a straight follow-up to “Trompe le Monde” would be downright wrong. At the same time, it is impossible not to compare it to the ridiculously high bar set by the group between 1986 and 1993. That is why it warrants two distinct evaluations: in a bubble it is a good fun album, while as a Pixies record it falls flat.

It is fun because Francis knows a great rock hook when he sees it, as it is evident on the pleasant poppy “Greens and Blues”, which includes a signature Santiago wizard guitar, the sunny surfer “Another Toe in the Ocean”, and the beautiful chorus of “Ring the Bell”. At the same time, it lacks those fall-out-of-the-chair punk moments that were generally caused by the early tunes’ mad progression and the quick swapping of random shouts for blissful quietness.

Truth be told, Francis does achieve – to some level – that kind of flooring magic. The opener “What Goes Boom”, the title song “Indie Cindy”, and the threatening “Magdalena 318″ have that unique Pixies edge. But, at the same, the album falls short of the Pixies greatness on good but pedestrian tunes like “Andro Queen” – which would have been great on a Francis solo record, “Blue Eyed Hexe” – an attempt to rewrite the classic “U-Mass”, and “Bagboy” – whose great chorus is wasted on a song with awkward verses.

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Tracking Treasures, Striking Gold

toad_treasure_tracker1Aside from Splatoon, the possible first step in the life of a brand new Nintendo franchise, no other E3 announcement made by the company caused as much surprise as Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker. The goofy and adventurous character was introduced on the original Super Mario Galaxy as a comic relief whose bravery got him into trouble all around the universe. Although he was one of the most beloved and remarkable side-characters found on that pair of platforming masterpieces, it was hard to imagine he would eventually star in his own game.

When Super Mario 3D World arrived, Nintendo acknowledged his popularity by creating a handful of stages on which the fearless captain set out to find treasure. Those efforts took place in cubic environments that needed to be flipped around so that players could find ways to navigate through the maze-like maps. Those levels ended up working as pleasant puzzle-focused breaks from the platforming and coming off as light-hearted bonus stages that were greatly creative and widely entertaining.

Due to the brilliant simplicity embedded in those brief challenges, a character that had charm gained utility. Fans started claiming for downloadable content centered around that gameplay style, and some went as far as suggesting Nintendo should work on a full digital game packed with a bunch of those inventive levels.

toad_treasure_tracker2It is unknown whether Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker only came to be due to the positive response it received from the fanbase, or if the Big N already had such a project in its backlog just waiting to be greenlit in case the public opinion feel in love with the levels contained in Super Mario 3D World. Regardless of the cause, one thing is for sure: the consequence – the game’s development – was certainly influenced in some way by the overwhelming feedback and pleas from the fans.

Surprisingly, though, upon the announcement of a title that was neither downloadable content nor a package of levels released as an e-shop exclusive, but a full-blown retail game, some began to question if the game’s substance could sustain such a large release. In a world filled with sixty-dollar ten-hour shooters that regurgitate the same themes, ideas, worlds, and color palettes, a creative concept that is bound to explore some very unexpected terrain during the course of its adventure is cast into doubt.

The gameplay that backs up Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker is indeed blatantly limited. Carrying a backpack of gigantic proportions, the main character cannot jump. Nor is he able to perform any acrobatic jumps and moves one would expected to find in a game that blends platforming and puzzle. He is not a resourceful explorer, and players must guide him through gauntlets with a limited set of alternatives.

toad_treasure_tracker3However, such strong limitations should not be seen as some sort of weakness that will stop the title from maturing into a great full game. They are, in fact, its most intriguing quality, and if the glorious track record of Nintendo EAD is to be taken into account, then the developers will know how to take advantage of it.

Humanity’s brightest ideas come to be in difficult scenarios on which adverse conditions must be surpassed. Necessity is the mother of the finest creations. In a smaller scope, the same can be said about videogames and the teams that produce them. Games that have wider scopes, while great, exist inside one grand sandbox where anything can be achieved without much effort, whereas those that gravitate around strict rules rely on major design breakthroughs in order to deliver a good experience.

Those are exactly the conditions under which Nintendo seems to thrive. Their games rely on imagination rather than brute force; a direct effect of the fact the company started its electronic run during a time of very limited hardware power.

Mario runs and jumps; Donkey Kong’s set of skills is equally limited; Fox and his team hop into airwings and blast it all away; Yoshi eats his enemies and turns them into eggs; Kirby swallows foes in order to steal their powers; and Olimar’s powers only go as far as his pikmin can take him. And within the tight confines of each of those characters’ abilities, Nintendo is able to pull off magnificent games of double-digit length that keep surprising players all the way through.

toad_treasure_tracker4The key to that chest of gaming goodness is one: creative design. And inside its clever simplicity, Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker looks just like the type of game that will foster imaginative solutions and tricks in its developers.

In a few months, we will watch those seeds blossom right in front of our eyes, and Nintendo will have another excellent franchise under its power.

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Kirby: Triple Deluxe Review

Triple Deluxe is a nearly perfect blueprint of what can be creatively done with the 3DS and its visual effects

ImageFor the first years of the 3DS’ existence, what was once thought to be its key feature – the 3-D effects – remained a nice little extra that was miles away from being a true game-changer. Super Mario 3D Land made a commendable effort in trying to create platforming elements that were affected by the depth present on the system’s top screen; however, the game just made use of them occasionally in order to bring some twists to certain stages. The 3DS, in spite of its great library, remained without a flagship title that truly embraced its tridimensional quirks and validated Nintendo’s bet on 3-D.

Fast forward to 2014, and such a game has – at last – arrived. Kirby: Triple Deluxe does not require the use of 3-D to be played and enjoyed; a wise choice considering a great part of the pink puffball’s audience consists of youngsters that are under six years old and should not be exposed to the system’s 3-D effects. However, the game and its mechanics are totally built around the sense of depth provided by the handheld, adding a whole bunch of personality to yet another great entry to the Kirby franchise and creating inventive stage design possibilities that are nicely explored by the folks from HAL Laboratory.

The game’s adorable opening shows the cuddly hero having fun around Dream Land and quietly going to bed. In the middle of the night, though, a mysterious gigantic beanstalk sprouts from the ground and lifts both Kirby’s house and King Dedede’s castle high into the sky. Shocked by what he sees when he wakes up, he heads to the king’s castle and, upon witnessing his kidnapping, decides to follow the sinister captor.

ImageThe adventure takes place across six floating islands (the game’s worlds) each featuring between five and six regular levels and one boss. Although the overworld design of the islands suggests that each focuses on a specific kind of scenario, all of the levels offer pretty unique landscapes that are nicely integrated with the overall geography of where they are. Consequently, not only does Triple Deluxe deliver a pretty good deal of variety in terms of obstacles, it is also visually dynamic, greatly supporting the general freshness that permeates the game.

All of the levels set out with the goal of taking advantage of the system’s 3-D. Hence, every single one of them is built around two layers, and Kirby can travel between the foreground and background by using special warp stars. The notion of depth, which is greatly accentuated by turning up the 3-D slider, becomes essential due to the fact numerous enemies, mechanics and traps have been designed to toy around with that perception.

Crazy contraptions will blast projectiles towards the screen, trees that are cut by foes on the background will fall on Kirby, enemies attached to ropes will swing between layers as if they are having fun on a playground, and players will find weapons that can affect both layers at the same time – such as a powerful laser Kirby can carry around for a while or canons that must be used to destroy boulders on the background.

ImageStages are not the only element of the game designed around 3-D, as the bosses also make fantastic use of those twists. They are, by far, one of the best and most creative set of big baddies to ever appear on a Nintendo game. All of them have more than one form, and the array of moves each of the forms possesses is astonishingly big. While the levels display extremely creative 3-D twists, the bosses often take them to whole new levels of inventiveness. Even the Whispy Woods, one of the series’ most simple and traditional bosses, has quite a few tridimensional tricks on its sleeve.

Although it displays an incredible influx of creativity through most of the journey, Triple Deluxe stumbles a little bit when it comes close to the finish line. The last portion of the game, starting with the tail-end of the 5th world, recycles some old ideas a little bit too much – including boss rematches. As a consequence, a part of the adventure that is supposed to be its very peak ends up coming up a little bit short in relation to the rest of the game, which is widely creative from its very first seconds.

Despite all the 3-D novelty, Triple Deluxe remains a Kirby game at heart. Standards of the series – such as a generally forgiving difficulty, and the character’s ability to float and suck the power out of his enemies and use them for his own good – are back in full force. Joined by a catchy joyful soundtrack and colorful graphics, they greatly contribute to the feel-good vibe that is present on every installment of the franchise, which makes Kirby come off as this little cute hero who is so awesomely overpowered he quickly disposes of his enemies.

ImageThe culmination of that power comes in the shape of Hypernova, Kirby’s newest and most hilarious skill. With it, the hero’s sucking power is greatly increased, allowing him to swallow pretty much everything that is on screen. Instead of using it as some sort of invincibility aura – which would be rather dull – designers wisely crafted a bunch of varied clever puzzles and even on-stage bosses that require the power, adding Hypernova to the numerous tools Triple Deluxe uses to surprise players.

It is worth noting that the overall challenge increases as the game advances, and some of the levels towards the end can be relatively hard even if they won’t cause players to lose many lives. Still, the game packs extra rewards and challenges to the more dedicated gamers. For starters, each level has a few hidden Sun Stones that can usually be acquired by locating and solving very clever puzzles, some of which smartly utilize the 3DS’ tilt controls to great effect. Upon collecting all Sun Stones in a world, a wild extra level – usually a fun potpourri of all mechanics introduced in that world – is unlocked.

The game also holds a whopping 250 key-chains. Depicting iconic characters that have appeared across the many years of the franchise, they are cleverly hidden around the stages. Each of the levels contains one specific gold key-chain, and a few blue ones. Sadly, the latter type awards figures that are random. Therefore, those who want to complete their collection will most likely – at some point – have to grind for them so the randomizer eventually hands out the ones that are missing. It would have been far more engaging – and less frustrating – if the blue key-chains, like the gold ones, were level-specific.

Beating the game with all of the collectibles amounts to a total of about fifteen hours of gameplay. However, in the tradition of the franchise, there is a whole lot more to Triple Deluxe. There are two Boss Rush modes, a mini-game that mixes rhythm and platforming, and a wacky time-trial adventure mode on which King Dedede must, with the aid of shortcuts, traverse slightly altered versions of the levels found on the regular adventure.

ImageThe peak of the avalanche of extra content, though, is Kirby Fighters. On it, players choose one of the many copy abilities available in order to tackle a series of Smash Bros-like battles – with items and stage hazards included – on which numerous Kirbys try to beat each other into submission. It is ridiculously fun, and the good array of copy abilities to choose from and the adjustable difficulty makes it highly replayable, challenging, and accessible at the same time. Its only downside is that there is no online multiplayer; the only way to fight against friends is through local download play.

The end result, despite a few shortcoming here and there, is one of the brightest moments of the Kirby series. More than that, Triple Deluxe is actually a major landmark on the Nintendo 3DS’ life cycle for it shows that 3-D effects can be successfully used to affect and inspire gameplay. Whether or not it will inspire other companies to build more games around the system’s key feature is unknown, but one thing is for sure: Triple Deluxe is a nearly perfect blueprint of what can be creatively done with the 3DS. It is an essential item in the collection of all 3DS owners.

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