Super Metroid Review

Never has Nintendo crafted a game that boasts such an uncanny level of immersion, loneliness, and looming threat

super_metroidSome games spend the whole length of their running time searching for a defining watermark; a moment of remarkable weight that will be imprinted in the minds of gamers for decades to come. For Super Metroid, though, that quest comes to an end right as it is turned on. The words “Metroid 3” come in as if relayed from a mysterious outer space source, indicating the game’s placement on the franchise’s timeline, and, soon thereafter, players are met with a vision of utter calamity: as an ominous tune plays on the background, a dimly lit room filled with dead scientists is shown, and while the machinery remains operational, a lonely caged Metroid screeches as if calling out to someone.

From that moment on, Super Metroid is nothing but a large sequence of iconic moments that come together to form what is Nintendo’s finest moment on their very best console: the unforgeable Super Nintendo.

After supposedly ridding the universe of every single Metroid by raiding the creatures’ home planet, Samus Aran discovers that a lone larva has survived the massacre. Given she meets it at the moment of its hatching, the young Metroid sees the hunter as its mother. Unable to kill the organism, she chooses to take it to a Galactic Federation space station where it will be studied by scientists. When a distress signal calls her back to the orbital laboratory, she encounters numerous corpses and witnesses the powerful life form being stolen by Ridley, the leader of the Space Pirates, and taken to Zebes: the hostile headquarters of the intergalactic outlaws. Naturally, she promptly gives chase.

super_metroid_3That, right there, is the full extent of Super Metroid’s plot development. And, like almost everything else about the game, it is done in a concise and effective way. Through a mixture of cutscenes and short gameplay segments, the adventure’s introduction is driven home within a few minutes filled with dread and excitement. With the passing of a short time, Samus will have landed her ship on Zebes and – after giving players an invisible pat on the back and silently whispering “Good Luck” – the game will abandon them to their own luck.

Starting from the hero’s landing pointing, players will be tasked with exploring a gargantuan maze composed by six distinct locations that are connected to each other in various ways and extend all the way from Zebes’ outermost layer to its darkest depths. There is the rocky and superficial Crateria, the organic Brinstar, the watery Maridia, the fiery Norfair, the sinister Wrecked Ship, and the technological fortress of Tourian.

The beauty of this interminable web of rooms, shafts, corridors and caves comes in the fact that under no circumstance whatsoever will the game give as much as a minuscule nod that might tell players the direction on which they must head. Super Metroid marks the first time a game of the series presented a highly useful map that is slowly revealed as Samus explores the vicinity, but other than a few markers indicating possible points of interest like save rooms, missile recharge stations, and the hiding venue of eventual power-ups, it offers absolutely nothing in terms of clues.

super_metroid_4Starting the game with nothing but the most basic version of her suit, which is practically only capable of shooting weak beams, Samus must scour the planet for places that can be reached with her current equipment so that she can find upgrades that will allow her to access new locations. It is a grand circle of constant investigation and discovery, and it often demands that players remember where previously unreachable doors are so they can backtrack there once they find the power that will serve as the key to unlocking those secrets.

The upgrades she will come across are numerous – there are more than twenty of them – and extremely varied, including the famous Morph Ball, the powerful Super Missiles, and the handy Grappling Beam. True to the game’s hands-off approach in relation to helping players, the acquiring of any of those abilities will only come with a simple one-line set of instructions on how to use them, leaving it up to gamers to figure out how the skills can be used effectively and where they will be useful.

Furthermore, as a great statement on Super Metroid’s loosely structured exploration patterns, some of those upgrades are entirely optional, like the X-Ray Scope and a few of the items that make the beams that shoot out of Samus’ canon arm more powerful.

Hence, although Zebes has its fair share of enemies and environmental hazards, Super Metroid’s challenge does not lie in keeping Samus alive, but on figuring out where to go next inside this planetary labyrinth. It is true the monstrosities that are the game’s bosses do pose quite a threat, and the accumulated damage from minor creatures and other traps can leave the hunter in a very precarious state, but those work as a nicely done complementary element rather than the game’s actual meat.

super_metroid_2As a perfect turn that fully depicts Zebes’ overall nature as a hostile and wild planet, its organisms behave in distinct ways. While some beings will show an unchanged behavior despite Samus’ presence, others will actively try to kill her as soon as she is seen.

All those elements, the natural demeanor of the enemies, the solitude of the quest, the scarcity of information as to where to go next, the slightly sinister vibe that emanates from Zebes’ visuals and – especially – the music that accompanies them, and the lingering feeling that bad things are always about to materialize, raise Super Metroid to a level of its own within the Nintendo lore in terms of conveying the feeling of complete isolation.

The game’s greatest victory is, by far, its ability to make players feel totally immersed in the events happening on the screen. Samus’ lonesome quest, one that pits the hunter and her swiss army knife of a suit against a highly organized and intelligent army, is fully broadcasted in all its daunting and secluded glory.

To go along with the intricate exploration needed to clear it, Super Metroid has many collectibles that expand Samus’ arsenal, upping the number of missiles, super missiles, power bombs, and energy tanks she can carry. Locating them frequently demands a great level of attention not to mention a solid memory as some of those items are spotted when the hunter still does not have the equipment needed to reach them, hence forcing completionists to backtrack when her suit is properly upgraded.

super_metroid_3The problem is that, although most collectibles can be encountered in places that are reasonably seen by anyone that is looking attentively, some are impossibly hidden. Super Metroid, sometimes, becomes way too enamored with secret tunnels covered by normal-looking blocks that require bombing and items that are only revealed by shooting random rocks. On certain occasions, it is possible to deduce, via visual cues, that a specific mass can be broken apart; but, usually, it just comes off as a cheap way of hiding secrets. Yet, such a flaw is only a small smudge on the game’s otherwise flawless armor.

The game’s value is also considerably boosted by its legendary speed running opportunities. As it is made clear due to the fact Super Metroid holds tiny surprises in its ending depending on how quickly the game is beat, it is possible to find alternate paths through Zebes and skip parts of the adventure entirely. That built-in bag of tricks is an alluring doorway to anyone who enjoys challenging themselves by blasting through a game as fast as possible.

Through the decades that have come to pass since its release, Super Metroid has remained as the franchise’s primary source of inspiration, the grail it is constantly trying to recreate, due to a very clear reason: never has Nintendo crafted a game that boasts such an uncanny level of immersion, loneliness, and looming threat. It is a planet-wide adventure on which players, guided by nothing but their own noses, must slowly navigate the arc between being poorly equipped to achieving the status of a one-woman army set to blow the whole place to smithereens. It is a brilliantly paced and extremely demanding journey, but it is one packed with powerful feelings of isolation and exquisite rewards.

Super Metroid

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When Worlds Collide

big_hero6_1Big Hero 6 is a movie that lands to find an extremely crowded market. In recent years, superhero flicks have grown to become the industry’s bread-and-butter; the almost guaranteed source of income that explores our general affection towards people in odd suits fighting against crime in extravagant ways. Therefore, the film has to contend with the always looming possibility that it might veer into the swamp of commonplace ideas and fall into a muddy puddle of fat stinky clichés; a disaster that would be all the more grandiose given its contemporary abundance of features inspired by comic books.

Fortunately, Big Hero 6 is never a victim to those traps. The crew of heroes is a Marvel intellectual property that, as the company’s vaults were deeply scoured by Disney’s creative minds, was seen as opportune grounds for an animated film due to its obscurity and relatively unique premise. It is, consequently, the very first direct artistic result of the purchase of the comic book giant by the nearly all-encompassing entertainment factory.

Masters at adapting existing works into colorful universes held together by strong script and bursting with family-friendly goodness, Disney – as usual – takes enough liberties with the material to turn it into something entirely different. Sure, the core concept of a band of unlikely heroes and a science project that becomes an invaluable companion is still there, but other than a few other structural nods to the source of inspiration, this Big Hero 6 would be unrecognizable if put side-by-side with its paper brother.

big_hero6_3What that gigantic transmutation allows, then, is for the work to be heavily infused with the signature Disney charm; and that is precisely why Big Hero 6 sets itself apart from all live-action takes on the superhero universe. This is the meeting of Marvel’s zero-to-hero arc with the traditional emotional depth the Walt Disney Animation Studios are known for; in fact, both elements are so well-merged and greatly utilized that looking at Big Hero 6 as Disney’s shot at making a superhero movie is unfair.

Explosions, epic fights, and conspiracies are obviously present, but rather than being the film’s end, they actually work as a complement to the heart-warming and tear-inducing plot that is built through the feature’s first twenty minutes. Instead of being a central part of Big Hero 6, the heroics are truthfully just another element of the recipe that is brewing.

It all takes place in San Fransokyo, which – as the name implies and perhaps as a recognition of Silicon Valley’s emergence as the new technological capital of the world – mixes the impossible urbanistic tightness of downtown Tokyo with the charm of the San Francisco suburbs, including a stylized Golden Gate Bridge that draws visual cues from Japanese temples; hence giving birth to a unique art that ties together the lines of mangas with American comic book sharpness.

Hiro Hamada, a 14-year-old prodigy who has graduated high school and judges himself too good to enroll at an University due to his extensive knowledge in robotics, spends his day battling on and winning robot fights, which are highly popular yet illegal. Eventually, encouraged by his older brother, who is developing the impressive healthcare robot Baymax, Hiro decides to earn himself a spot on the local and world-renowned school by working on a project of his own: microbots.

big_hero6_4Controlled by telepathic headband, those tiny units are able to come together to form any object their master desires, therefore being of great use in the fields of construction, transportation, among others. During his demonstration, though, the pavilion of the science fair mysteriously catches fire, forcing Hiro and all others who are present to quickly flee the venue. Left behind in the midst of the calamity, the powerful microbots are stolen, and – soon thereafter – start being used by a masked villain for unknown purposes.

Hiro has no choice but to form his own band of heroes to both recover his brainchild and find out the bad guy’s real intention. To do so, he turns to his brother’s university colleagues and builds suits that grant them positively original powers, which are cleverly based on the inventions each one had been working on inside the college’s robotics department.

From that point on, Big Hero 6 has plenty of chances to be completely obvious, but it is quick to shun all of them. This is a movie written by experts that are fully aware of the superhero mythology, something that is revealed through the character of Fred – a comic book aficionado – and by the film’s tendency to lead viewers towards an expected line of thought. However, right when it looks like it might be taking the easy and painfully straight way out to join all of its plot elements, Big Hero 6 pulls the carpet from under its audience to some surprising results.

Movie-goers who might have noticed the company’s recent tendency to insert major twists that are simple yet effective on the very climax of its features, as it happened on both Wreck-It Ralph and Frozen, might see it coming, but Big Hero 6 pulls it off with the stone-cold face of a deceptive poker player, making it all come to a satisfying conclusion.

big_hero6_5The astounding effectiveness of everything it does, not to mention its smooth avoidance of average traps go to show that Big Hero 6 is the work of a company that has – after long struggles – once again reached the very peak of its creative powers and settled into a movie-making formula that is precisely calculated, and that – at the same time – leaves plenty of open room for emotions to take over.

Hiro’s peers are undeniably iconic; they are characters that, despite being slightly one-dimensional, make their way into everybody’s hearts whether they are wearing ridiculous costumes full of badassery or just being their own geeky and friendly selves. Baymax, meanwhile, comes off as the perfect Disney sidekick: his lovable and huggable design might have come to be in order to power merchandise sales through the roof, but regardless of financial outcome, he has a well-defined purpose; one that is closely tied to the very heart of the story that pushes Big Hero 6 forward at a pleasant pace.

Big Hero 6 is, ultimately, able to capture all traditional elements found in the superhero universe and use them in the building of something rather unique. All pieces are here: a tragic origin story, an unlikely source of power, a weapon of infinite destructive potential, a masked villain of unknown identity and hidden purpose, and plenty of otherworldly action. The added dash given by Disney’s firm grip on everything that is touching and emotional is the extra push that makes that structure soar high enough to make Big Hero 6 yet another gem on the company’s unbelievable string of stellar filmaking. If Big Hero 6 is representative of the Marvel and Disney collaborations we are set to see in the future, then – at least as far as fans are concerned – the Mouse’s investment will pay off quite nicely.

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The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D Review

What Ocarina of Time 3D does is to deem obsolete all Nintendo 64 cartridges of the game, turning them into museum items

oot_1Depending on how one looks at it, embracing the task of remaking a game like Ocarina of Time can either be considered the most daunting quest in the world, or the easiest one. Through the fourteen years separating the Nintendo 64 release from this Nintendo 3DS overhaul, Ocarina of Time has become the ultimate legend in the lore of the gaming universe, a game – at the time – so revolutionary in its introduction of the targeting system to streamline combat in a 3-D environment and so overwhelming in the dimension and scope that Hyrule and its dungeons gained, that it left marks in our memories that are impossible to remove.

Ocarina of Time’s achievements were not restricted to the mastering of 3-D gaming design, though; it also thrived due to its strong story, its lovable characters, its inspired soundtrack, and its well-designed puzzles. Therefore, recreating a magical experience, which had aged in its visuals, is a matter of slapping a new makeup layer on its surface; however, simultaneously, bringing it out for another spin is removing the game from the time capsule where it laid asleep and immaculate for so long and running the risk of letting it fall to the ground, hence shattering its historic value.

For those who have played the original, the big allure of this release will be the game’s graphics, and it is hard to be disappointed. The Nintendo 64 game, while visually stunning for its launch time, was still a little rough around the edges, especially regarding its textures. Fortunately, all of them have been gracefully updated and even though some shapes and objects are still a little bit too brute, the game looks fantastic.

oot_2Hyrule Castle Town and the inside part of the many houses across the land, which were the two areas on which the textures were the most lacking, greatly differing in quality from the rest of the game, now look up-to-par with the overall visuals of Ocarina of Time. Essentially, players will go through the same locations they visited over a decade ago, as nothing was changed in terms of structure, but the game has taken such a considerable visual leap that exploring all places, from Hyrule Field to Gerudo Valley, feels like a process of rediscovery, something that will come off as a sweet factor for those who have the game too fresh on their minds from replaying it a hundred times over.

Needless to say, another area on which the game has clearly gotten better are its character models. The fogginess of one’s memories might have obscured how oddly shaped and expressionless the main stars of this adventure looked, but by putting pictures of both versions of the game side-by-side, it is possible to notice crucial differences such as how unnatural the structure of adult Link’s body was back then compared to how evenly built it is now.

It is something that can be seen both in a smaller scale – enemies, NPCs, and Link; and on a large scale, such as it happens in the case of bosses, which are now ugly not because of how their models aged, but because they are actually very threatening creatures of flawless deign. Starting with the character models, and leaking into the eyes, mouth, and general animations, Ocarina of Time 3D looks leagues better than its twin. Hyrule feels more alive and organic this time around, and some added particle effects are a joy to look at with the 3D visuals as players’ eyes will make them feel like floating ashes from the volcano or tiny fireflies from the forest are coming out of the screen to merge with the real world.

oot_3Gameplay-wise, some things are slightly altered due to how different the 3DS’ structure is compared to that of a Nintendo 64 controller. The first change players will notice, and the one they will come across the most, is how the 3DS only has two free buttons to be used as slots to equip items versus the three on the Nintendo 64. It is a minor annoyance, but the lack of a third button means the game will be paused more often to equip necessary items, especially as Link’s inventory grows. In the light of the seamless and quick item-change process of Skyward Sword, it is hard not to feel like Ocarina of Time 3D is a step back in inventory management.

On a far more positive note, what the 3DS does add to the experience are three main features: the analog directional, which is obviously more comfortable than the one present on the Nintendo 64 controller; the ability to use the system’s built-in gyroscope as a pleasant, and more intuitive, option to look around the environments or aim while using a few items of Link’s inventory, such as the bow-and-arrow and the hookshot; and, opposed to the bumpier adventure caused by the more frequent item changes, the fact that the map always shows up on the bottom screen, although the lack of a cursor that pinpoints Link’s location is a little bit baffling.

Nintendo was smart enough not to let the only additions to their timeless masterpiece fall into the shoulders of what their new hardware had to offer, so they made sure to add a couple of extra modes to try to gain the attention of those who were not inclined to buy the game given the fact that they had already played it, even if they did so with inferior graphics.

oot_4Unlocked upon completion of the regular quest, Ocarina of Time 3D features the epic Master Quest: an adventure much like the traditional one, but where enemies deal a lot more damage, dungeons are altered, and some optional items become mandatory. Besides, the game also comes with a form of Boss Rush mode where unforgettable beasts like Phantom Ganon, Bongo-Bongo, and Twinrova can be fought at will so that players can compare their best times.

In the end, what Ocarina of Time 3D does is to deem obsolete all Nintendo 64 cartridges of the game, turning them into museum items. It is absolutely the definitive version of that game and, by breaking the time-proof seal that had been surrounding the game, Nintendo gives some validation and support to the claims that Ocarina of Time is the best Zelda ever and one of the best games of all time.

oot_5It is an amazing experience that will last about 20 hours with as many hours of extra content available if players go looking for all those Golden Skulltulas, Poes, and Heart Pieces we have learned to obsess over ever since Ocarina of Time came out back in 1998. It is a must-buy to anyone who has yet to finish the game, a mandatory purchase to those who need to have their memories of the epic journey refreshed, and a recommended piece of software to acquire to just about everyone else, including those who have played through the game one too many times and wish to have the ultimate Ocarina of Time experience at their reach for as long as gaming exists.

Ocarina of Time 3D

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Mega Man 10 Review

An extremely successful mix of old-school values with new little ideas that take the experience one step further

mega_man_10On an era where games that take inspiration on the very roots of the industry are everywhere, pieces of software that thrive exclusively on nostalgic value in order to trick a few players into purchasing them are spreading like a virus. On a far more positive end of that spectrum, fortunately, some titles are turning their old-school gameplay and visuals into just another positive and secondary characteristic on a very solid gaming package whose star is excellent gameplay.

Mega Man 9 was one of those titles and it could possibly be appointed as the effort that triggered the 8 and 16-bit revival the gaming universe has witnessed. Naturally, such a resounding success would eventually generate an equally carefully crafted sequel that, while not as refreshingly unique as its predecessor, is still able to provide many great hours of gameplay by adding a few extra modes, and bringing the same charm and challenge that made the blue bomber one of the industry’s most well-known icons during its 2-D era.

The adventure begins when a disease called Roboenza, which causes many of the bots to misbehave, starts infecting robots all around the world. When Roll, Mega Man’s sister, starts suffering from the disease, Dr. Wily claims that he had created a machine that could produce a cure for the terrible illness; sadly, though, a group of berserk robots destroyed and stole different parts of the equipment. After hearing the news, the blue bomber is quick to act and, as he usually does, jumps into action right away in order to defeat the robot masters who are holding the means to not only save his sibling’s life, but to cure his peers from all over the globe.

mega_man_10_1As far as gameplay goes, Mega Man 10 holds little to no surprises to those who have already experienced some of the traditional series’ past installments. Eight different robot masters lurk at the end of eight distinctly themed stages, and it is up to the player to choose the order on which the robots will be tackled. Each boss has a specific weakness and by defeating a robot, the hero will acquire the right to use their weapon with limited ammo, which – in turn – can be used to down another evil robot with great efficiency, turning the eight-boss core into a brutal rock-paper-scissors affair.

Figuring out the Achilles heel of all the bosses is a matter of some logic mixed with trial and error, but the reward is a much easier battle than if Mega Man were restricted to his standard weapon of average power. The weapons are quite creative and diverse, and if players take their time with the game it is possible to figure out great smart ways of using them. However, the fact that the adventure is naturally action-based means that all of those clever uses are not mandatory since there are almost no puzzles.

The game plays in pretty much the same way as its predecessors. By using just two buttons players can jump and shoot, with movement being handled by the WiiMote’s extremely precise D-pad. The big addition in this field is that now, instead of having to go through a slow menu to switch weapons, players can simply press either the A or B button in order to quickly make the change to the next weapon of the inventory. Unfortunately, due the B button’s position in the joystick some inadvertent exchanges are bound to happen, a frustrating fact due to the game’s frantic and challenging pace. Had the switch command been implemented exclusively to the A button that problem would have been avoided.

Yet, no odd control behavior could possibly tarnish the fact that Mega Man 10 is delightfully entertaining, and one of the biggest reasons behind that is its amazing level design. Most of the game’s stages are built around one or two nice gimmicks that are brilliantly explored from their most basic level to their toughest possible layout by the developers.

mega_man_10_3Nitro Man’s stage, for example, has a series of fast moving vehicles that are ready to run over the hero if players do not pay attention to audio and visual signs that warn of their approach. Meanwhile, Commando Man’s level features constant sandstorms that can improve or diminish Mega Man’s ability to jump based on the direction in which they blow, aside from totally blocking players’ view of the nearby platforms. It is this series of amusing trials that keeps the game – and the franchise as a whole – fantastic, refreshing, and inventive even if some of those gimmicks are more fun and original than others.

This time around, Mega Man will not be alone on his quest to overcome evil, as Proto Man will join him on his quest. At the beginning of the adventure, players can choose between both characters. Proto Man can use a shield, a slide attack, and power-up his shots, but so much firepower has a drawback, which is his reduced defense. The addition of another character gives players a bigger push to go through the stages all over again by using different abilities and experiencing ordeals that have been altered by the character’s features.

Mega Man 10 is not all about taking concepts used on the series and dressing them in a new coat of paint. The game offers some new modes that add great value to an adventure that can last about six hours on a first playthrough. First of all, the game has an easy and a hard mode. The former features platforms humorously placed on top of deadly spikes, and enemies with reduced intelligence, while the latter powers up the existing foes, adds new ones, and creates even more traps without altering the design of the levels.

mega_man_10_2The easy mode will certainly make the title more attractive to more inexperienced players that are unable to tackle a Mega Man game on its standard high difficulty, while the toughest level will offer a nice alternative to those looking for a bigger challenge either from the get go or after going through the regular adventure once. Given Mega Man’s stages are conquered by trial and error, and memorization is slightly removed from the equation when the stages suffer minor tweaks, the replay value receives an important boost due to hard mode.

Secondly, this installment brings back the challenges introduced in Mega Man 9; however, this time around, the structure on which they are presented is slightly different. Instead of working like achievements, the challenges are now set up as small stages, and it is up to the players to unlock most of them during the regular adventure. The way on which those challenges were set up makes up for a much better experience for gamers who attempt to clear them all.

For instance, instead of going through an entire stage just to try and beat a robot master without getting hit, something that would have happened on Mega Man 10; this time around, it is possible to simply press a button and face the robot master again right away. Some may say it excludes part of the difficulty, but the truth is it actually takes frustration away from the title, which can only be a good thing.

Visually, Mega Man 10 is an 8-bit title that takes advantage of its pixels to create charming visuals, enemies, backgrounds, and character models that take players on a big trip down memory lane that begins right as the game’s plot is presented by still frames and text boxes. Needless to say, the menus follow the same old-school presentation.

mega_man_10_4The series has always been famous for its tunes, and Mega Man 10 absolutely keeps this trend alive by featuring a very good soundtrack that, however, does not feature as many catchy themes as fans of the series are used to. Yet, lack of catchiness by no means implies lack of quality, and even if Mega Man 10’s soundtrack is not as shiny as the one from number 9, it still is a quite remarkable array of compositions based on beeps and noises.

Mega Man 10 ends up being extremely successful in mixing old-school values with new little ideas that take the experience one step further. It is not as hard as Mega Man 9, but that doesn’t make it an easy game, as it keeps throwing challenges at the screen in a borderline merciless manner. Clearing the adventure for the first time might take up to six hours, add the time avid gamers will spend clearing challenges, playing as Proto Man, and beating the game on other difficulties and you have great value for a downloadable software built around addictive gameplay and pure old-school goodness.

Mega Man 10

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Shinning Melancholic Light

kaguya_4Like most folktales, The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter has its origins traced all the way back to oral traditions; in this case, those of the 10th-century Japanese people. Therefore, it is a story that was born and grew up with no defined visual pattern, as the lines that defined its characters and the shapes that built its scenarios were left up to the imagination of those who heard the script being told.

Due to that, when Studio Ghibli – more specifically, the gifted director Isao Takahata – chose to pick that story as the source of inspiration for the studio’s nineteenth feature film, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, settling down on an art style that would be able to channel the age-old spirit of the tale and its deeply folkloric roots must have been quite a challenge. Differently from most of the other films created by the company, this was not just fiction; it was a story so ancestral its borders with reality have been blurred with the passing of time.

As the man behind the quirky My Neighbors the Yamadas, Takahata was not a stranger to unique aesthetics, and by combining that movie’s minimalistic animation with Japanese watercolor paintings, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is given a look that, more than gorgeous and original, perfectly conveys the source from which the plot drinks. As if by the capturing of some spiritual residue from the 10th-century, Ghibli is able to transmit the idea of folk tradition so flawlessly that even those unaware of the movie’s origins will understand it is supposed to be the coming-to-life of an ancient tale.

kaguya_1That untouchable timeless energy the visuals ooze with every passing second turns out to be very representative of the movie, because differently from Disney, which usually uses existing stories as extremely loose inspirations, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is almost a direct retelling of the original plot. Even though Takahata does take some deviations, which are mostly for the better, the script’s course is basically the same.

While in a grove, a bamboo cutter comes across a glowing shoot. Naturally drawn to the curious phenomenon, he approaches it and discovers – peacefully protected by the plant – a doll-like thumb-sized princess. After being found, the mysterious being quickly transforms into a baby and the man decides to take her home and raise her as his child alongside his wife.

She eventually earns the nickname Little Bamboo from the other kids of the pastoral region due to her astonishingly rapid growth; within a few seasons, she develops from an infant to a beautiful teenager. Her wild, caring, and free-spirited nature quickly allows her to develop a strong friendship bound with many of those around her, and a especially colorful innocent relationship with Sutemaru, the oldest boy of her gang.

kaguya_2After the cheerful and magical first act, the movie – following the directions of the original tale – takes a turn towards somewhat clichéd waters when the girl’s father finds, inside some of the very same grove on which he had found his daughter, gold and expensive cloth pouring out of other glowing shoots. He takes it as a heavenly sign indicating that the girl is to lead the life of a princess, and then promptly decides to move from the country towards the city, hence abruptly ending the girl’s childhood.

As it often happens, due to the ties that bind her society and the expectations of her father – who thinks his daughter’s happiness is tied to marriage, not to mention his somewhat selfish cravings for a better social position – she is forced to learn how to behave like a lady and choose a husband.

Despite that structure, though, taking The Tale of the Princess Kaguya as yet another re-telling of the conflict between a rebellious daughter who does not wish to conform versus a family that sees her attitude as imprudent, sinful, and disrespectful is absolutely wrong.

kaguya_5For starters, in spite of her father’s search for husband candidates of the highest rank – something he easily achieves due to the girl’s legendary beauty, her family never gains the villainous contours movies of that kind tend to give them. They know their daughter is a gift from the heavens and their love for her transcends the distinct demeanor she exposes. They are purely good-hearted and want her to be happy badly, they just do not know where to look – sometimes because of humane flaws, and in other occasions due to their inability to grasp her spiritual complexion.

Secondly, and this is the point where the movie truly shines and resonates as one of the best flicks ever put out by the studio, Princess Kaguya is far from an ordinary girl. There is an otherworldly line that follows the movie through every second. Although she lives a relatively normal life, the initial lack of explanation for her quick growth, her mysterious appearance in the bamboo grove, her unparalleled beauty, the supernatural occurrences in her life, and the fact Kaguya herself is ignorant to her true origins linger.

That spiritual and non-natural undertow, however, is kept on the background during the movie’s first two earthly acts (her rural childhood and her sad life as a princess in the city), staying up and alive on viewer’s minds. On the last act, though, supernaturalism masterfully comes to the forefront, and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya comes together; it completes its journey towards a deserved masterpiece status.

kaguya_3The pieces fall into place in typical Ghibli fashion. There is a strong level of happiness when truth surfaces, but that pure joy exists within sadness and adversity. While the hostile environment that surrounds such magic makes it even more beautiful, after all, high peaks become even higher when they are preceded by lows that reach the bottom of the darkest pits; there is no other way around it, it is a bittersweet conclusion that leans heavily to the sour.

With visuals that, in a fantastic touch, gain detail as the story itself gains complexity and clarity, as if both art and script held hands in order to follow the same crescendo; The Tale of the Princess Kaguya ultimately reveals itself to be concerned with the search for happiness, the fast closing of the gates of opportunity, the finite brevity of our lives, and the fact that – even in the midst of a harsh quest for happiness – it is possible to create positive bonds of love and friendship.

It should be no surprise to anyone that follows Studio Ghibli closely that The Tale of the Princess Kaguya thrives on the same subdued emotional roller-coaster filled with sensitivity and delicacy that is the unmistakable DNA of most of their works. It carries the same thought-provoking and tear-inducing qualities of movies like Spirited Away and Grave of the Fireflies, while pairing them up with the mundane problems of From Up on Poppy Hill and Whisper of the Heart.

kaguya_6However, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya differs from those efforts by the placing of numerous messages and lessons in the same package via the uniting of two wildly distinct currents: the earthly and the spiritual. It keeps its best cards on its sleeve until the time is right, and when it unleashes them, it is able to create effects that are both awe-inspiring and devastating.

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Super Mario Galaxy 2 Review

More than the pinnacle of Nintendo’s remarkable creative output, Super Mario Galaxy 2 is gaming at its purest and most polished state

super_mario_galaxy2Handling the development of a sequel is invariably a double-edged sword. Sure, repeating the commercial and critical success of the original can be a given since developers have a very solid base on which they can build a new adventure, but there is always the looming chance that a second effort will lack the heart of the first one, or perhaps feel like an unnecessary extension of the ordeals of the prequel.

There are many factors and risks that can negatively affect the quality of a game of that kind – repetition probably being the biggest one of those variables, and stakes become even higher when the sequel in question follows a highly regarded software that set all technical and abstract standards for a system.

In the case here, that original, and seemingly unreachable, title is Super Mario Galaxy, and the bar it set during the Wii’s early years was placed so ridiculously high in every possible quantifiable and uncountable criteria of gaming quality that it had yet to be barely grazed by any other title, even a few years later.

super_mario_galaxy2_2Super Mario Galaxy 2 is the sequel, and it somehow surpasses the technical achievements of its older brother. More importantly than that, though, on its way to technical prowess, it makes sure that the challenges it provides are also much more entertaining and engaging than those of its predecessor. What seemed like a nigh impossible task is, then, so smoothly handled that the outcome could be no other than the very best game Nintendo has ever constructed.

On the nearly thirty years of adventures that preceded the release of Super Mario Galaxy 2, the plumber’s games have been constantly delightful regardless of their shallow storylines. In fact, such seemingly unmovable characteristic has grown to be so unique in an era of increasingly cinematic gaming experiences that, by now, it is considered to be a positive aspect of the series rather than a recurring flaw.

Therefore, Nintendo didn’t feel compelled to take things to another level on this department; their call was to stick with the basics. Once again, Mario is invited by Peach to drop by her castle and eat a piece of cake. Upon arrival, the plumber is faced with a giant Bowser wrecking havoc through a thorn kingdom. Reasoning takes a backseat to sheer spectacle when, without any reason or explanation whatsoever, Bowser departs towards outer space carrying Peach in his arms. The hero naturally gives chase and ends up finding himself on a beautiful spaceship that will carry him on outer-space adventures.

super_mario_galaxy2_5From the get go, Super Mario Galaxy 2 is willing to show its dynamic nature. Here, as if the game is aware its gameplay is so utterly fantastic that players will be filled with anxiety to just get to kicking some intergalactic Koopa butts, instead of just watching, gamers are constantly given control. The gist of the plot, for example, is quickly told via a wonderful storybook where Mario goes through the pages with the aid of the player. If games are interactive entertainment, Mario certainly knows what to do.

That optimization is everywhere. Super Mario Galaxy 2 is streamlined to the brim so that lulls on the fun are brought down to a minimum. On the prequel, Mario had to go through an overworld every time he felt like traveling through space and collecting a star. This time around, things have been greatly simplified, hence making gameplay much more fluid.

The old-school overworld maps born in Super Mario Bros. 3 make a glorious return. Galaxies are displayed on the screen like the levels of the traditional 2-D Mario games and all players need to do is control their spaceship through the map and decide what the next stop of their spatial odyssey will be. The world maps are designed in a way that, at some moments in the game, Mario will have a wide array of galaxies and stars to choose from, allowing each gamer to take on the game at their own pace, instead of having to follow one stiff path.

Spaceship Mario, which looks exactly as the name implies, isn’t as engaging as some of the franchises’ past overworlds. In fact, it is more of a humble planetoid-like home base than a hub. However, the no-frills all-fun gameplay rhythm that is created due to this change matches the nature of the series so perfectly that it is hard to file any complaints. Stepping on the gas pedal to tackle the next challenge is far more practical than walking around Rosalina’s gorgeous observatory.

super_mario_galaxy2_6The biggest achievement of Super Mario Galaxy 2 – and the greatest reason why it is better than its prequel – is the game’s uncanny ability to never touch on the same ground more than once during its thirty-hour adventure. On each one of the game’s fifty galaxies, developers will throw a new and unexpected challenge on the screen and then proceed to explore it from its simplest twists to its smartest and toughest turns.

The sheer variety of mechanics that were crafted for the title is so impressive that reactions rooted in their originality will range from astonishment to laughter. At one point, Mario will be carried by a bird while controlling its movements with the Wiimote’s capabilities; five minutes later, the plumber may find himself sliding through an enormous tree avoiding pitfalls and enemies at mind-blowing speeds.

Super Mario Galaxy 2 holds so many varied and diverging styles under the same umbrella that it feels like a collection of different titles that are all thematically connected by two central themes: gravity and the wonders of strangely-shaped planetoids.

One of the main supports that allows such creative level design to materialize are the power-ups. With the aid of those amusing items, Mario is able to gain a variety of abilities that unlock new possibilities of platforming gameplay. Aside from the returning items, such as the Bee Suit, Boo Suit, and the always useful Fire Flower, Mario can now create cloud platforms at will by using the Spin Jump in conjunction with the Cloud Suit, transform into an unstoppable rolling rock, or use a drill to dig his way to the opposite face of sandy planets.

super_mario_galaxy2_1As if all of those weren’t enough, Yoshi makes a return. Saying this is the green dinosaur’s most significant appearance in a 3-D Mario game would be understating his importance in Super Mario Galaxy 2 given that his only other tridimensional outing had been on Super Mario Sunshine. However, make no mistake, his presence here in frequent and invariably valuable.

Gaming’s most iconic sidekick is a blast to control. Aiming his tongue properly in a 3-D environment could be a frustrating activity, but thanks to the Wiimote’s biggest feature – its very precise pointer – all players need to do is guide the red dot on the screen to items, enemies, platforms, or ledges and press the B-button. It is fun, impossibly accurate, and effective.

Additionally, making the amount of gameplay possibilities even more absurd, Yoshi himself can also make use of some power-ups: the thrilling Dash Pepper, which will send the dinosaur into a fast and furious rush that will allow him to both run on water and go up slopes that would be otherwise impossible to navigate; the Blimp Fruit, which will make him inflate like a balloon; and the fantastic Bulb Berry, which – by turning Yoshi into a source of light – is used to great effects on dark stages or in the unveiling of invisible platforms.

Power-ups and overworld navigation are not the only areas where Super Mario Galaxy 2 is different from its predecessor. The original game featured a blend of open-world levels, heavily inspired on the standards set by Super Mario 64, and some linear galaxies that were more aligned with Super Mario Galaxy’s own characteristics.

super_mario_galaxy2_4This time around, the game goes completely linear as, among the fifty galaxies available, only two of them feature a certain degree of exploration. Some may look at that fact in a negative light, but the first game was at its best when Nintendo went totally crazy with the gravity mechanics of smaller planetoids, which were featured exclusively on linear levels.

Therefore, in the end, such radical change only makes things better, for it gives much more room for designers to let their creativity go wild without being stuck to a level structure that is dated back to 1996. Moreover, such linearity makes all stars contained within a galaxy rather unique. Although they will share the same starting hub, the path taken to reach each one of them will branch out in different ways, making every star feel and play like a galaxy of its own.

Super Mario Galaxy 2 also improves on some of the small issues of its prequel. First of all, the difficulty has been turned up; losing a life now is much more common than it was on the original, even on the game’s initial levels. However, the constant dying never becomes frustrating; Nintendo placed a good number of checkpoints in each level and those points are usually located near critical sections.

Any frustration is further diminished by the fact the game is very kind in the appearance of 1-up mushrooms. It is true that it is a decision that debases the once cherished item, but such abundance is actually a user-friendly way of reducing the chances a player loses all of their lives and, consequently, all of their progress inside a level just because they have made tiny mistakes.

Thus, deaths are regular events, but Game Over screens and lost of progress are an extremely rare sight. Given that replaying portions of levels that have already been mastered just to get to a tough sequence that spelled the plumber’s doom is not a lot of fun, that design choice comes off as yet another optimization made by the game.

super_mario_galaxy2_3The second improvement is on the automatic camera. What was a sometimes erratic feature on the original is now nearly perfect as the game will always provide players with the best-possible view of the scenario they could ask for. The absence of wide-open levels was certainly helpful in that regard.

Perhaps inspired by the impressive success of New Super Mario Bros, Nintendo packed Super Mario Galaxy 2 with many side-scrolling sections. Not only are they a wonderful blast from the past, but they also add up to the many design possibilities allowed by the features of the game. Even though they are certainly simpler, the 2-D sections are as creative as their tridimensional counterparts since they make great use of the game’s many mechanics while being totally original in their execution. They provide a nice change of pace for the extremely long adventure contained within Super Mario Galaxy 2.

The game also implements some nice solutions introduced by Mario’s 2-D rebirth, such as a new version of the Super Guide that will show inexperienced players how to go through the hardest sections of the game, aiding those who have died way too many times for their own good.

As a prize to players who acquired 120 stars, the original Super Mario Galaxy gave those people the opportunity to play through the same levels again as Luigi; now the prize for apparently completing the game is much more compelling as Super Mario Galaxy 2 features a whopping total of 242 stars, 120 of which are only unlocked after players complete the first half of the game.

The final 120 stars are hidden through the game’s many galaxies, and finding them is a matter of careful exploration that often requires extreme jumps and insane skills. If going through the first batch of stars didn’t seem like a hard challenge, then the final half of the game will make even the most skilled players bow before the difficulty.

super_mario_galaxy2_7Technically speaking, Super Mario Galaxy 2 is slightly superior to the original. The game clearly uses the same engine, but improvements have been made here and there to make this game the better-looking of the two. Animations have been clearly improved, some effects are absolutely mesmerizing, and boss battles showcase the hidden potential of the system’s hardware. Artistically, the colors and themes of the many galaxies within the game are as creative and stunning as their design.

On the musical front, the game recycles some of the best songs composed for the original while adding some orchestrated masterpieces of its own, the quality of the new tunes is certainly on par with the breathtaking scores of Super Mario Galaxy and they turn an already impressive game into an unforgettable adventure.

More than the pinnacle of Nintendo’s remarkable creative output, Super Mario Galaxy 2 is gaming at its purest and most polished state. As if it were made inside an hermetically sealed chamber, it is devoid of impurities that sometimes find their way into development due to human error. It trumps its sequel not by trying to reinvent it, but by acknowledging its flaws and erasing them, and identifying its qualities and exploring them to their full potential. It is unimaginable that a game could encompass as many disparaging ideas and drive them straight to perfection, but Super Mario Galaxy 2 does it.

Super Mario Galaxy 2

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Mother 3 Review

One of Nintendo’s greatest storytelling achievements

mother3Mother 3 is, at the same time, decidedly similar and completely different from Earthbound, its predecessor and a game whose catastrophic commercial run back in 1994 on the Super Nintendo did not stop a cult of unparalleled devotion and enthusiasm to develop around it. The shared quirks start and go through the setting, which is the one element that set Earthbound apart from pretty much every other RPG ever released, turning it into a curious and brightly shinning gem that succeeds mightily despite its technical simplicity.

Where most role-playing journeys are inspired by medieval motifs, building worlds out of swords, bows, armored heroes, wizards, monarchies, and towns stripped of commonplace technology, the Mother franchise subverts those concepts. Taking place in locations that are clearly rooted in modern-day America, it tasks average-looking folks – mostly children – with taking down some unbelievably powerful evil while going through situations and scenarios that are often highly satirical expositions on the absurdity of our contemporary times.

Health-regenerating potions are replaced by burgers. Normal melee weapons take a back seat to yo-yos and baseball bats. Castles and dungeons lose their place to skyscrapers and factories. Menacing evil soldiers become clumsy and clueless minions whose wickedness is so extreme it soars to humorously extravagant. Convoluted situations are resolved through weird and unexplainable turns of events instead of fully-formed twists. Gentle and friendly NPCs are frequently exchanged for sour, selfish, silly, and mocking characters. And tasks of daunting complexity sometimes turn into general futility.

mother3_4Mother 3 takes that set of rules finely tuned by its prequels and implements it on new levels of weirdness, but under all outrageous insanity, it holds what is – by far – the most emotionally powerful plot ever unraveled during a Nintendo game. Tazmily Village is a town of such untouched naiveté that its inhabitants are unfamiliar with the concept of money, sharing services and products with one another in sheer good-will, and its tiny jail has yet to hold a prisoner.

That virginal peace, however, is placed in peril when their once quiet land suddenly becomes the target of a mysterious group with an equally enigmatic leader and inscrutable goals. Docile animals begin to transform into ferocious cyborgs due to cruel experiments; strange ships start to fly overhead; sudden natural disasters are triggered; and notions that were once alien to the people, such as commerce, and TVs – ironically labeled “Happy Boxes” – that are always turned on to broadcast propaganda are introduced.

Lives are obviously deeply changed, but one family in particular is brutally torn apart. Hinawa, the caring mother; Flint, the quiet father; and the twins Lucas – shy and unadventurous, and Claus – outgoing and brave, are the unit around which the core of the wonderful but heart-breaking script moves.

mother3_4Instead of coming off as two pieces that do not fit together, the powerful emotional plot and the over-the-top quality that infiltrates all of the game’s corners counterbalance one another perfectly. Somehow, Mother 3 is able to craft a cloth where painful distress can coexist with a tribe of mystical transgenders that live to protect the world from doom, mazes of bathroom stalls, enemies that – instead of attacking – tell horrifying stories, and ailments like uncontrollable crying, nausea, and “strange feelings”.

Aside from overall quirkiness, the second bond Mother 3 shares with its predecessors is the battle system. Much like Ness in Earthbound, Lucas eventually heads out into the world with a set of three allies, and they will encounter hordes of enemies – in a non-random fashion, thankfully – against which they must fight in order to save the land from utter destruction.

Those confrontations are positively deep, and much of that depth comes from the unique abilities each member of the four-piece party carries. Both Lucas and Princess Kumatora are users of PSI, the series version of magical attacks, which come in the shape of psychic powers. However, while the former works as an assist character – as his capacity to heal others from negative stats, inflict ailments on enemies, and recover energy is far greater, Kumatora serves as an offensive ally due to her very wide range of elemental attacks.

mother3_3Meanwhile, Duster – the thief – features numerous tricks that have a great range of effects on foes, and Boney – the dog – offers a standard physical attack and the sniffing ability, which gives players extra valuable information on the adversary.

In spite of the twelve-year gap that separates Earthbound from Mother 3, the Game Boy Advance game retains the same minimalistic battle presentation of Ness’ great adventure. Enemy sprites are shown in static form on the screen, the heroes are represented by boxes displaying both HP and PP, attacks are seen and heard through crude visual effects and sounds, and the events are narrated via sentences that sometimes take a turn towards the hilarious and unexpected. It is a setup that is undeniably archaic, but battles are very fun and engaging to play through regardless of that visual simplicity.

Like it happens on Earthbound, the battle system of Mother 3 holds the interesting twist that whatever damage is taken by player-controller characters is not counted immediately. Instead, as soon as an attack lands, the HP counter begins rolling down in order to account for the blow that has been received. Such pleasant oddity means that even if Lucas and his peers have taken mortal damage, it is still possible for them to act until the counter reaches 0.

mother3_2By far, the greatest implication of that feature is that some battles – especially those against tough bosses – will gain a lot of excitement since players will have to be quick in their reasoning and in the selection of their moves so that they are either able to kill the foe before their party’s health is gone or heal a certain character before he faints. It is an amazing rush of adrenaline that easily overcomes the visual shortcomings of the battle system.

It is not all about recycling, though, as Mother 3 adds its own spice to the skirmishes through musical combos. The soundtrack to the skirmishes changes depending on the character that leads the opposing party, and if players are able to press the attack button in perfect synchrony with the song’s beat, they will be able to chain combos of up to 16 physical hits. Given the great variety of the tunes, not to mention their often irregular rhythm, activating and keeping those combos can be quite a challenge.

Fortunately, however, not only does putting enemies to sleep alter the background tune so that it exclusively features the beats, the game also gives players the opportunity to, at will, tackle practice battles against enemies they have already encountered so that the songs and beats can be mastered to their fullest.

mother3_6The mastery of the songs is by no means required to clear the game, but it works as a fun mini-game of sorts to anyone who cares to try it. Landing those combos, though, can be quite important because Mother 3 packs a great deal of challenge, especially on its enemy-ridden dungeon-like segments. Fortunately, although the game utilizes a check point save system that sends players back to the last save point they have used whenever the whole party faints, those save points (that come in the shape of funny and thematically adherent frogs) are numerous and well-placed.

Where Mother 3 truly sets itself apart from Earthbound is in its structure. Earthbound’s great plot served as the support on which its two greatest starts, its gameplay and its setting, stood. Mother 3, meanwhile, completely inverts that configuration. Aware of the overwhelming power of its excellent story, the game opts to build itself around it.

That decision has two direct effects of opposite results. First of all, for the good, the game’s division in eight chapters allows the exploration of different characters and perspectives that, combined, highlight the complexity of its script by showcasing the same events through different eyes. During the first four chapters, players will switch between characters whose independent (and sometimes simultaneous) investigations and discoveries feed the greatness of its plot, hence creating a structure and progression that is very unique.

Unfortunately, those constant changes somehow hold the game back on the gameplay front. As a testament to the big scope of the storyline, and the length of the game – which clocks in at about thirty hours, the first three chapters work as a mere introduction to the real meat of the adventure, which comes in on chapter four when players finally take control of the party of heroes with whom they will rescue the world.

mother3_7As a consequence, although the introductory three segments are fun and entertaining, they mostly achieve that through story, turning the gameplay into something minor and delaying the point when Mother 3 truly takes off and achieves cruise altitude. On the bright side, though, when compared to chapters four through eight, the game’s beginning (chapters one through three) is much briefer, meaning that a very considerable part of the title’s adventure takes place when all cylinders are going at their fastest speed.

The game’s general emphasis on story, however, hurts it quite a bit when it comes to its replay value, for much of its emotional weight is lost on repeated playthroughs, and the introductory plot-focused chapters – especially – can become a drag on replays.

On the technical front, Mother 3 is almost flawless. Its graphics are made of the same isometric sprite-based simplicity that was stamped right across Earthbound, but what truly elevates its visuals to remarkable heights is the incredible sensitivity in the use of its color palette. Without being colorful in an exaggerated way, the game comes alive in its contrast between dark and serious tones with bright shades that borrow a very light and cartoonish vibe to some enemies and scenario details. With those colors as its greatest ally, accompanied by its amazing soundtrack, the game creates an atmosphere that is as unforgettable as its astounding script and humor.

Mother 3 stands tall as one of Nintendo’s greatest achievements on the storytelling front. Through pixels and colors, the game tells a touching tale of great complexity that touches on family values, friendship, and offers some poignant undertones filled with political commentary. It pits good versus evil, nature versus industry, and money versus cordiality with great style, and tops it all off with gameplay, sarcasm, and pop-culture references inherited straight from its historic predecessor. The result could be no other than a game that, more than entertain, has the potential to generate both laughter and tears, and leave a strong mark on anyone that plays it.

Mother 3

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