Painting in the Blanks

nintendoOut of all companies that have ever set foot in the gaming market, not a single one has been able to build a portfolio of franchises that could match Nintendo’s. The first reason behind that fact is relatively obvious: longevity. Being around since the dawn of gaming, and holding a big part of the credit for its popularization, has given the Big N numerous opportunities to craft characters, worlds, and gameplay styles with a great deal of appeal.

However, perhaps the biggest culprit behind that assortment of signature assets is the harsh reality that, since the Nintendo 64 days, the company has had to support its systems basically by itself. A tough outlook tends to bring out the best of human creativity, and Nintendo’s case is a perfect example of that correlation.

The decision to stick with cartridges during that generation drove third-parties away, a scenario that has not changed in over two decades, and that getaway put pressure on the shoulders of their internal developers to guarantee that users of its consoles would have their basic gaming needs covered. Consequently, both first and second-party studios started to branch out into new territories seeking to address most of the industry’s mainstream genres.

yoshi_islandTherefore, a set of franchises that on the NES and SNES days seemed to heavily focus on platformers – a natural tendency once one considers that such breed of games utterly dominated the 2-D days – began to expand rapidly. Fast-forward through many years, and we arrive at the current landscape of abundant quality properties.

Nintendo’s home consoles deservingly get a lot of flak for failing to allure multiplatform third-party releases that, if mixed with the unmatched quality of the company’s first and second-party efforts, would give its systems – generation after generation – the overall best library of titles with ease. Yet, on account of the flooring variety found within its collection IPs, those machines remain as the market’s safest option to anyone looking to get games that are among the best of almost every conceivable genre.

It is a statement that might sound absurd on these days of endless Nintendo-bashing. Still, once we choose to focus on the metric of quality while throwing quantity out the window, it is reasonable.

tropical_freezeFor starters, nobody does platforming better than Mario, and lately he has been stellar both on the 3-D front (Super Mario 3D World) and on the sidescrolling realm (the sadly overlooked masterpiece that is New Super Mario Bros. U). As a nice addition, Donkey Kong has gone through a stellar rebirth in recent years with two Retro Studios efforts that leave nothing to be desired in relation to the Super Nintendo works of art that built a name for the character.

Looking for some racing action? It is hard to find something as wild and insanely fun as Mario Kart, not to mention the futuristic beauty of F-Zero that has been sadly absent as of late. Want to punch enemies to oblivion? Super Smash Bros is the most amusing fighting game there is. What about taking a break and relaxing on a virtual life without specific goals? Animal Crossing’s charm is pretty hard to resist and its time-consuming nature is uncanny.

advance_warsZelda and Metroid are nearly unreachable staples of gaming adventures, the former centered around puzzles and the latter sprinkling immersive exploration with shooting. Meanwhile, strategic undertakings can be enjoyed in Pikmin, with its real-time demands, and both Fire Emblem and Advance Wars, touching upon medieval and modern war respectively. The latter, however, has yet to see a home-console release.

If all of that is not enough, Star Fox delivers some fast-paced shoot’em up madness either in space or on amazing alien worlds. Paper Mario tackles the RPG world with accessible, yet deep, mechanics and lighthearted scripts, whereas Xenoblade – or whatever Monolith Soft decides to spin next – deals with more traditional grounds. Punch-Out has an unthinkable brand that mixes fighting and puzzle-solving. Kirby and Yoshi provide even more platforming goodness. Finally, WarioWare and Mario Party – each in their own unique way – tend to be great mini-game collections.

Even when it comes to sports titles, which to other hardwares usually come in the shape of yearly EA releases, Nintendo is able to do quite well through the Mario sports games and the Wii Sports fever. Though they are far from being technically perfect, any multiplayer session with titles belonging to those two lines is undeniably fun.

splatoonIt is a group of works that, aside from being genre-spanning, tends to have its members sitting either on the throne of a niche or working as pleasant counterparts to what is generally offered by the industry.

Although Nintendo’s throughput of new franchises has diminished, they are not exactly just sitting on their laurels, and they are still trying to expand their hold towards other genres. In fact, one of the reasons the company has failed to deliver a constant stream of new IPs is that its fresh properties tend to try to explore different grounds instead of simply mining terrain that has already been handled.

The latest example of such lack of complacency came in the shape of Splatoon, one of the highlights of Nintendo’s E3 presentation in June. Shooters with a multiplayer focus and goofy visuals are nothing incredibly new, the Team Fortress games have gone down that alley with excellence, but Splatoon – as a title that will carry the Nintendo brand – is naturally expected to have its own kind of charm, unique gameplay elements that set it apart from its peers, and a boatload of creativity.

splatoon_2The fact it is being handled by a team of younger developers than those usually allotted to other major Nintendo studios gives this new franchise a hint of intrigue. After all, it will be the result of the work of a crowd that, reportedly, plays Call of Duty and Battlefield for love and inspiration, and that has to fuse those influences with the Big N’s traditional sugarcoating.

More than that, if it is successful, Splatoon might be added to the hall of IPs that are continually updated with the release of every new hardware, and – consequently – Nintendo will infiltrate one of its creatures in yet another genre.

Splatoon might end up shinning brighter than its light-hearted shooting brothers and become a trailblazer that sets up new tendencies that go on to become the genre’s standards; or it might just turn into a pleasant deviation from the norm – a break from the usual action. Nevertheless, regardless of the result, Nintendo will have filled another niche with some of its attractive signature paint.

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Reviewing Tweaks

I had been meaning to tweak my reviews for a little while, but I never really got to it. Last month, however, I was messing around with a very simple drawing tool – my limited skills do not allow me to tackle any of the more complex ones – when I created a simple “Review Summary” panel.

Given my design talent is limited at best, it is nothing special. However, I think it turned out to be good enough. As you can see from the sample posted below, the end of my reviews will now be followed by an evaluation bulletin centered around five criteria. I will try to add a simple list of qualities and flaws to it later.

Pikmin 3Aside from the traditional four areas of gameplay, graphics, value, and sound, I have decided to add one more category dubbed “fun”. I believe every game has various intangibles that can neither be filed under nor evaluated by any of the other areas, so the “fun” metric will allow me to rate those untouchable elements and also tilt the score towards a number I find to be more fitting for the game.

Speaking of scores, even though my reviews did not offer any grades up to now, I love numbers. I am aware some reasonably believe that using decimal increments is absurd, for there is little – or no – difference between a 9.6-rated game and one that scores 9.7. I disagree, though.

Therefore, although the categories will be rated by using 0.5 increments, from now on I will be using decimal increments to give a final grade to every game. The overall score will be calculated by attributing weights to each of the five criteria. The whole straightforward calculation can be seen below.

  • Gameplay (Weight: 3)

  • Graphics (Weight: 1.5)

  • Sound (Weight: 1)

  • Value (Weight: 2)

  • Fun (Weight: 2.5)

Calculation:

(Gameplay * 3) + (Graphics * 1.5) + (Sound * 1) + (Value * 2) + (Fun * 2.5) / 10

My previous reviews have already been updated with the new summary and grades. And I appreciate any feedback regarding the design of the board and scoring system.

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The Great Hylian Destruction Derby

hyrule_warriorsThere is something uncannily liberating about Hyrule Warriors. Wildly running through well-known Hylian scenarios while mowing down hordes of enemies as if they were made of paper is not a revelation, and neither is it earthshaking. It is, however, undeniably fun. And that right there is the redeeming quality of every flawed game that has ever existed. Hyrule Warriors is problematic, but – ultimately – it delivers timely doses of excitement to anyone who is willing to look past the fact that, in spite of looking a whole lot like a Zelda game, it is no such thing.

The polemic spin-off is a Dynasty Warriors title dressed in the vivid colors of Nintendo’s adventure opus. It contains the power of the Gorons, the grace of the Zoras, a Princess Zelda that looks more like a battle-ready veteran than a damsel in distress, and a Link that still plays the role of the silent hero in green with the added twist of – just like his fellow army-commanders – having the power to blast through an entire platoon with a single combo.

hyrule_warriors2Stripped to its bare bones, the gameplay here has the complexity of the puzzles contained within The Great Deku Tree. Sure, each of the uncountable playable characters has its own strengths and weaknesses, the warrior-building options – which include the forging of badges and weapons – are vast, the unlocking of new combos adds variety to the combats, and playing the game on its highest difficulty setting requires more than button mashing.

Yet, despite it all, at the end of the day, you are still selecting a character-and-weapon combination in order to brutally murder thousands of foes on your way to victory. The game is an endless meat grinder, but it dresses up its merciless massacres with some strategic touches. All of the maps are decently big and – scattered across them – are keeps and outposts that need to be conquered and protected in order to stop enemy advances. Win them, and evil armies will stop spawning endlessly; lose them, and within some minutes you might have a new wave of platoons coming at you, turning the battle into madness.

hyrule_warriors3To relatively good players, the management of those positions will come off as window-dressing on the easiest levels of difficulty: victory can be achieved in spite of it. However, on the hardest setting, controlling the field and worrying about where to go next – forward to attack a new location, or backward in order to protect something that had already been won – becomes very important.

It is that tactical undertow that pulls Hyrule Warriors, and the whole Dynasty Warriors franchise, away from the tedious pit of mindless hack-and-slash, and into the safe haven where constant action meets strategic values. And here, that is in display under the signature Triforce sigil.

The problems with Hyrule Warriors are shortcomings that are inherent to Koei’s franchise. Firstly, there are the brainless enemies that, with the exception of some bosses, are nothing but fast-food to the characters’ hungry weapon of choice. Then, there are your beloved – yet dumb – allies whose only purpose seems to be getting into trouble.

However, the game’s biggest sin is that, from the first to the last battlefield of the main adventure, there are no signs of gameplay evolution. The scenarios change, traditional Zelda pieces of equipment are found, new enemies are introduced, and awesome characters are unlocked, but never does the game attempt to branch out and truly surprise the players. The quirks and mechanics that are presented on the introductory map are the very same ones that will power the final challenge.

hyrule_warriors4There are no wild turns or clever tricks, Hyrule Warriors is what it is. At least, the game is candid enough not to hide anything and show all of its secrets – which are not many – from the get go. It does not pretend to feature impressive depth, and it wears that reality on its sleeve at all times, which makes it nearly impervious to the damage of those issues.

Still, regardless of its monochromatic ways, Hyrule Warriors manages to be a solid game that, supported by a good amount of distinct modes, entertains greatly. It is a one-trick pony that performs its lonely trick well, and it is an enjoyable encounter with the Zelda world in the lull that separates one giant adventure from the next Hylian epic.

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Albums of the Month: October 2014

crooked_rainAlbum: Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain

Artist: Pavement

Released: February 14th, 1994

Highlights: Silence Kid, Elevate Me Later, Cut Your Hair, Range Life

Pavement built their debut upon song fragments that often came off as charmingly unfinished efforts and low-fidelity sound drowned in guitar distortion. “Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain” does not veer off of that path: it still features unpredictable song structures and astonishing unorthodox guitar work. Moreover, Stephen Malkmus continues to deliver his lyrics in a distinctive careless manner, as if he is utterly unconcerned as to whether his verses and rhymes will soar or fall to the ground.

The difference between “Slanted and Enchanted” and their sophomore album is that while on the former the group’s fantastic melodies were frequently buried amidst the noise – only punctually jumping above the overall soundscape, on the latter they are far more pronounced. It is not that the band lost its edge or chose to adopt a standard pasteurized sound; they, by all means, as their strident feedback is bound to state, retain a strong market-defying demeanor. “Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain” just pictures the band making their music less abrasive.

Hardly does a track go by without putting forth some remarkably catchy hook that could have easily been an integral part to a hit. However – as if deliberately stating that they had the talent and songwriting skills to make it big, but chose not to – no song makes it completely unblemished through the group’s performance. Sometimes they just begin too abruptly or switch the tempo way too quickly; on other occasions, Malkmus murmurs for too long. Frequently, the words are frequently too awkward, the instrumentals too convoluted, and the music is overwhelmed by powerful noise pretty much everywhere.

Pavement was hardly the first band to purposely sabotage their own greatness. In fact, the indie movement of which they were such an integral part was inspired by musicians that brilliantly refused to live up to fixed expectations. Still, throughout rock history, it is hard to find a statement as subversive as this one. “Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain” is the construction of twelve masterful tunes and their subsequent destruction through execution. Only, like any mighty beasts, they do not go down easily, and that is exactly why their fall is so spectacular.

le_noiseAlbum: Le Noise

Artist: Neil Young

Released: September 28th, 2010

Highlights: Angry World, Hitchhiker, Peaceful Valley Boulevard

As far as appropriately titled albums go, “Le Noise” sits on a very high position. It is more than a pun on the name of its producer, Daniel Lanois, who is known for spinning big soundscapes with a lot of reverb. It is a nod to the fact that, more than any other Neil Young album, this is the result of a partnership. Although Lanois is not the composer of any of the eight tracks present here, his influence is felt in every passing second.

Lanois was able to work his magic to a great extent due to a simple fact: there is no backing band in any of the songs. Two numbers, “Love and War” and “Peaceful Valley Boulevard” are purely acoustic, while the remaining six are electric attacks. The instruments used here are always two: Neil’s voice and his signature loose guitar playing. Within the wide-sounding atmosphere traditionally created by the producer’s style, that leaves a lot of room to be filled, and Lanois does not waste such opportunity: he makes the lonely guitar thicker, and infuses the rest of the space with amplified sounds.

Young also plays his role remarkably well. He takes advantage of the reserved mood of the album’s production to deliver lyrics that often tread on confessional territory, and goes on to approach them accordingly during the songs. He is, through most of the record, seemingly spilling his guts out in the open. The greatest example of that attitude is “Hitchhiker”, in which he openly describes his adventures with drugs, shamelessly name-dropping a few substances.

Despite the record’s mostly angry tone, accentuated by the power Lanois’ echoing musical chambers give Young’s guitar, there are also opportunities for Neil to tackle more emotional themes. There is depression (“Someone’s Gonna Rescue You”), eternal love (“Sign of Love”), partnership (“Walk with Me”), and even a seven-minute environmental dirge (“Peaceful Valley Boulevard”). “Le Noise” rounds up as a fantastic musical experiment that is made stronger by solid songwriting and plain honesty. It is far more than a gimmicky, it is worthy of sitting close to some of Neil’s finest work.

candy_apple_greyAlbum: Candy Apple Grey

Artist: Husker Dü

Released: March 1st, 1986

Highlights: I Don’t Know for Sure, Sorry Somehow, Hardly Getting Over It, No Promise Have I Made

Sitting near the end of one of the most brilliantly prolific runs in rock history, which saw the release of six flooring records – including two double albums – in a span of four years, “Candy Apple Grey” is – unquestionably – Husker Dü’s darkest effort. It shows the group veering slightly, not completely, towards a more balanced production that would later fully flourish on “Warehouse: Songs and Stories”, hence starting to abandon the hardcore roughness of their first five works.

Even if the sound is more polished, it does not really lose its rawness. Husker Dü still comes off as one of the world’s loudest and dirtiest bands, and the record kicks off with four massive attacks. “Crystal” is yelled all the way through, and would have been right at home on the group’s early EPs; “Don’t Want to Know If You Are Lonely” and “Sorry Somehow” are fantastic and typical Grant Hart tunes, on which vicious music is fronted by sentimental lyrics and borderline bubblegum hooks; and “I Don’t Know for Sure” is yet another Bob Mould anthemic punk gauntlet.

What really sets “Candy Apple Grey” apart amidst the group’s catalog, though, is mostly what comes after that grand opening act. Out of the remaining six songs that are committed here, three are quiet ballads, something that both Hart and Mould had never attempted to tackle despite the fact their blatantly emotional songwriting was always a perfect fit for balladry. Given the band’s track record, those three numbers exhale an experimental aura, but they manage to land like stunning pieces around which the rest of the album gravitates.

“Too Far Down” is a despairing and haunting song where, accompanied by an acoustic guitar, painful lyrics are delivered by Mould, who comes across as if he is singing from the bottom of a well. “Hardly Getting Over It” is a six-minute exercise in misery held high by a gorgeous instrumental section. And “No Promise Have I Made” features a tearful Grant Hart over a piano that sounds gigantic. Where other Husker Dü albums are an endless flood of energetic anger, “Candy Apple Grey” seems bent on showing the sorrowful hangover that follows the emotional violence, and it does so extremely well.

let_it_beAlbum: Let It Be

Artist: The Replacements

Released: October 2nd, 1984

Highlights: I Will Dare, Favorite Thing, Androgynous, Sixteen Blues

As the band’s leader himself would come to declare, The Replacements’ initial brand of sound consisted, mostly, of “banging out riffs and giving them titles”. It was not exactly original, but the group did it with such power, humor, energy, and honesty, that it became remarkable. “Hootenanny”, their second full record, showed the band attempting to branch out their songwriting to various genres, but – despite the promise of growth – it lacked the focus to make it a truly solid work. The blossoming of the band was, clearly, yet to come.

That moment arrived one year later with “Let It Be”, where Paul Westerberg finely stitched up his bursts of teenage demeanor with grappling melodies and distinct song structures. Here, the wild experimentation of “Hootenanny” bears its fruits that go far beyond garage rock. “I Will Dare” kicks things off with bouncy guitars carrying a tempo that hovers around the territory of R.E.M.’s early fast-paced songs, and “Favorite Thing” follows with punk rhythms that come to a halt on the chorus.

It is only on the album’s third song, “We’re Coming Out”, that the band bumps into an aggressive guitar-attack covered with shouts that comes close to the shape of their first works. But now, tunes of this sort, along with the tongue-in-cheek humor found in “Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out” and “Gary’s Got a Boner”, are no longer the meat of the record. Rather, they are downright awesome songs that add dynamism to the listen. And they work much better like that.

The key performances here, the show-stoppers that stood as their best songs up until that point, are others: the piano-led “Androgynous”, the hard-rocking Kiss cover “Black Diamond”, the painful “Unsatisfied”, the two-minute instrumental “Seen Your Video” that suddenly culminates on an explosive chorus, the beautiful “Sixteen Blue”, and “Answering Machine” – a guitar-and-vocal closer. It is that mixture of inconsequential silly humor, garage spontaneity, and surprising maturity that makes “Let It Be” one of the strongest and most fundamental supporting bricks of alternative rock. After listening to it, one cannot be surprised by the countless brains it inspired.

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From Plumber to Bear

8_bitAs far as the gaming universe is concerned, there are two kinds of progress. Firstly, there are the advances that have taken place in the field of technology. Those were the changes that have allowed us to – in the blink of an eye – watch this industry go from pixels to polygons, from chiptunes to full-fledged orchestras, and from button presses to motion-capture. In a way, they are the backbone that supports the endlessly creative minds of our most beloved developers; they are the wings that lift dreams off of the ground.

As undeniably impressive as that kind of leap might be, it is far less exciting than the second group of transformations: the ones that happen in the field of ideas. The crafting of new technology is responsible for the birth of a wild assortment of tools, but those tools would have an empty purpose if nobody put them to good use. And that’s when the magic of ideas steps in: it polishes a mountain of scattered bytes, processors, and code into a gorgeous diamond.

8_bit2Compared to pure technology, ideas are much more unpredictable. It is widely known that the power of machines will keep on growing at a steady rate with a lot of research and intellectual effort, but whether or not those new elements will be put to good use is a never-ending mystery because inspiration is harder to come by than sheer effort.

As the pieces fueling the industry evolve, so do its countless genres, and every once in a while those niches will take major steps forward either powered by the pure force of hardware, or by the influence of brilliant ideas. As a statement on how the latter tends to be much more significant and moving than the former, one of the biggest and most unexpected in-genre leaps took place within the same hardware and in a short window of less than two years.

super_mario_64That story begins back in 1996, when Super Mario 64 hit the market alongside the Nintendo 64. The game, aided by the unlocking of 3-D environments due to the hardware, was an enormous departure from Super Mario World and its sequel, Yoshi’s Island, the latter of which arrived some meager eleven months before the plumber wrote the book on how platforming was meant to be done within the confines of this newfound technology.

The concept of traveling from left to right, a nearly unshakable rule on the NES and SNES days, was deposed. Mario was put in the middle of wide environments and it was up to him to navigate through them and locate the elusive stars. What was once about performing jumps that progressively demanded more precision was now centered around exploration that had some ledges and platforms mixed in.

Super Mario 64 was, by all means, a revolution. Playing it back in 1996 was utterly overwhelming and borderline unbelievable. Yet, by looking back on it with different eyes, it is possible to see that much of it was still grounded on the quirks of sidecrolling, which is completely understandable given how it was the first step down an unknown path.

super_mario_64_2Some of its moments, usually its finest hours, could have never existed back in the 16-bit days: the iconic Bowser battles, the unforgettable slides, the magical flying challenges, and the fantastic immersion found in the hallways of Peach’s Castles. However, despite the infusion of exploration, most of the game could have been easily replicated if Nintendo only had access to more archaic technology.

Moreover, the game’s structure was still closely tied to its 2-D past. Whenever entering a painting, players would be greeted by a selection screen on which – one by one – new stars were unlocked as Mario progressed through the world. Although some could be picked up out of order, a large portion of the time – given the fact most stars demanded some changes to occur on the scenario – players were restricted to finding the one that had been chosen.

super_mario_galaxyIt is a tiny detail, but one that – often – worked against the sense of freedom the game tried to achieve. More significantly, it preserved the hierarchy of one world encompassing an ordered series of levels (stars), which dated all the way back to Super Mario Bros. It is not a flaw; rather, it is a characteristic that Nintendo decided to carry over from the franchise’s huge legacy and that has, in recent years, given us great fruits in the shape of the delightfully linear Super Mario Galaxy games and Super Mario 3-D World: games that have launched that old-school structure into the stratosphere.

Still, its links to the past and the fact that many of its mechanics had yet to fully mature meant that Super Mario 64 left a lot of room for tweaking with the foundation it had built. Two years later, they would be rocked to the core and improved in some aspects by Banjo-Kazooie. Rare’s brainchild, and a game that still stands tall among the greatest platformers of all time.

banjo_kazooieWhere Super Mario 64 could have existed in a world devoid of 3-D, Banjo-Kazooie would have never come to be. The bear and the bird inherited a lot from Mario: the encompassing overworld that was slowly unlocked, the wide open worlds, and the sense of adventure. But, truth is, with the advantage of having arrived after the stage was built, Banjo-Kazooie did much more than Super Mario 64 ever hoped to achieve.

There were the technological achievements: the enhanced and considerably less blockier graphics, the steady camera, the tighter physics, and the more predictable controls. There were the artistic triumphs: the vivid details and colors of the environments, the smoothness of the scenarios, the humorous sound effects, and the flooring soundtrack – which included musical transitions between in-land gameplay and underwater moments.

The game also took a very distinct path in relation to the setup of its gameplay. Super Mario 64 slightly guided the players in where to go next by the order and title of its stars; it was linearity in disguise. Meanwhile, Banjo-Kazooie simply threw the heroes in the middle of a location – be it a haunted mansion or a forest with changing seasons, gave them a pat on the back, and asked them to fetch 10 jigsaw pieces and 100 musical notes.

freezeezy_peakAfter that, it was up to players to explore, talk to the wacky characters, and figure out where to go next. There were no chains dictating the order on which events had to be followed. There was no automatically exiting the world after a major goal was achieved. Players could remain in there for as long as they wished to do whatever they wanted, and that looseness played into the hands of the astonishing settings, which invited players to dig deeper and deeper into what the environment held.

Banjo-Kazooie’s worlds were, in the end, massive playgrounds that embraced a grand variety of challenges to be cleared so that the bear and bird could obtain their golden prizes. Sometimes the game demanded great platforming skills, such as the engine room of Rusty Bucket Bay. In other occasions, the searches ended in fun mini-games, like the wild sled race against Boggy the polar bear on Freezeezy Peak.

click_clock_woodAt other times, pure exploration was all that it took for one to reach their goal, like getting to the lighthouse on Treasure Trove Cove. And that all goes without mentioning the RPG-like item-gathering quests, which reach their peak as Banjo and Kazooie, on the platforming masterpiece that is Click Clock Wood, must hatch and raise a little bird through the four seasons until he turns into a majestic eagle.

How could so much variety be packed inside a single game? It all begins and goes through the ridiculously big assortment of moves the titular duo can perform. While in Super Mario 64 the plumber was restricted to some acrobatics and a couple of power-ups, the bear and bird could join forces to unleash more than a dozen different abilities which, within the simplicity of the game’s setup, delivered a great deal of complexity.

grunty_lairConsequently, the weight of keeping things new and fresh did not fall solely on the shoulders of level design. Banjo-Kazooie was absolutely masterful when it came to landing big worlds loaded with details and inspiration, but none of them would ever materialize if the characters could not do everything from farting eggs to flying, and be turned into a variety of beings that included a pumpkin and a termite through shaman sorcery.

Many years later, the question that is replicated by everyone who had the honor of playing Banjo-Kazooie when it came out is whether its magic can be recreated. It is arguable that the Galaxy games did platforming better, but as titles mostly concerned with doing tricks while toying with their linearity, they belong to a niche on which there is no room for Banjo-Kazooie’s free-roaming antics.

grunty_lair2The 1998 game was a product of its era: a time when 3-D platformers where still crawling and there was still a lot to be done and enhanced. Rare took advantage of that scenario to kick things off with Banjo-Kazooie and then went on to produce a string of brilliant titles of that kind with Donkey Kong 64, Banjo-Tooie – the peak of the chain, and Conker’s Bad Fur Day. Linked by subversive and somewhat dark humor, they were the sequential output of a company that was on an unparalleled creative roll.

The sad reality about the legacy of that set (by definition the legacy of Banjo-Kazooie itself, since it was the game that lit that wick), is that – as time moved on – the more explorative line of platforming has been forgotten. Mario has recently moved even closer to his level-based origins and abandoned the Super Mario 64 style of gameplay, whereas other major platforming series have completely reconnected themselves with sidescrolling action.

banjo_kazooie_endingGoing from Super Mario 64 to Banjo-Kazooie was not just a leap forward, it was a lateral jump into brand new grounds, but that territory has been mostly abandoned. Replaying Banjo-Kazooie is remembering how platformers were able to change so much so quickly, but it is also coming to realize games of its kind are close to being extinct.

All that it might take for the industry to go back to exploring that path is inspiration. After all, it was a great idea – joined by a good deal of effort – that allowed us to, in two fast years, go from plumber to bear.

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Musical Mementos

curtain_callWith the passing of a certain amount of time, and the release of numerous remarkable games, some companies and franchises acquire the right to bask under the light of their own glory for a little while. Sometimes it is done by the addition of retro content into new installments, like returning Mario Kart tracks; on other occasions it is achieved by remaking old classics, such as the recent Wind Waker and Ocarina of Time overhauls; and from time to time the magic is recreated by giving small nods to iconic characters and moments, like the exhilarating mine-cart stages reappearing on the Donkey Kong Country Returns titles.

Better yet, there are times when the self-gratification gets blown out of proportion in such a way that we end up with full games whose spirits are solely bent on commemorating an astonishing legacy. That case can clearly be exemplified by the Super Smash Bros series: a celebration of Nintendo’s greatest assets in the shape of a thrilling brawler.

curtain_call2Theatrhythm Final Fantasy: Curtain Call for the Nintendo 3DS is to Square Enix what the aforementioned fighter is to Nintendo. It is an opportunity to sit down, analyze what has been done in the past, and mold everything that is evaluated as being of the utmost quality under the same gameplay umbrella.

Little to no gaming sagas have been able to amass soundtracks that are comparable to what the greatest Final Fantasy games have offered. And when one takes into account that the mother of all RPG series has been doing so for nearly thirty years, one thing becomes obvious: there are a boatload of great songs sitting idly out there, so someone should put them to good use.

It is no surprise, then, that the grand ceremony to honor the franchise’s glorious past is Theatrhythm: a musical series that has reached its second and, by far, most complete effort with Curtain Call. The greatest, and smartest, thing about the game is that the form on which the songs and rhythmic challenges are presented gives plenty of room for the recognition of facets of the Final Fantasy games that extend beyond its music.

curtain_call3The motions that are, preferably, to be performed with the stylus float across a backdrop that displays either turn-based-style battles, trips through large scenarios, or – in a few restricted cases – full-blown cutscenes. Each of the three cases slightly alter the way on which the icons appear: on the first the cues rush across four lines towards the cursors standing over the party of characters, on the second there are unique movement prompts, and on the last one it is the cursor, not the icons, that move.

It is a division that gives the game’s 221 songs, coming from 27 games, a good deal of variety. But, most importantly than that, the three groups allow Square to bring to the spotlight different properties that have been key in the construction of the franchise. Battles highlight enemies, heroes, and their unique abilities; field trips carry locations to the forefront; and cutscenes remember the cinematographic aspect of the most recent outings.

curtain_call4Under that massive layer of content and musicality lies an RPG platform that makes Curtain Call, like its predecessor, stand out in relation to other games of their genre. Among a ridiculously vast selection of famous characters, players must put together a party in order to tackle the different challenges, and keeping each member’s stats and abilities in mind is very important given that the three styles of gameplay benefit different strengths and take advantage of certain weaknesses.

That RPG clutch becomes even more apparent on the game’s Quest Mode on which, instead of freely selecting tunes from a playlist, gamers must – with the aid of items to restore the party’s energy – navigate through an overworld composed of a series of songs that have to be cleared sequentially on the way to a final boss battle.

Despite those interesting role-playing quirks, Curtain Call is – at heart – a rhythm game, and a very good one at that. After all, it checks all prerequisites a game belonging to that niche needs to have: smooth controls, a large collection of great songs, many modes, and movement prompts that are nicely matched with the tunes.

curtain_call5In the end, that intended victory of rhythm over RPG plays right into the hands of the game, because it allows even those who are not Final Fantasy fans to enjoy it greatly. The followers of Square’s finest work will see it as a great experience that is also a gateway to joyful memories, while outsiders will perceive Curtain Call as a pure fun, engaging, and loaded musical game. And both sides are completely correct.

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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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