Shantae: Half-Genie Hero Review

It shifts its focus away from what made the franchise unique and directs its attention towards action-platforming, stripping a portion of its originality and leaving it adrift among a sea of similar titles

half_genie_hero1Supported by a devoted fanbase that poured their hearts and hard-earned cash into a successful Kickstarter campaign, the Shantae franchise leaps from its handheld origins towards home consoles with its fourth installment: Half-Genie Hero. As a series that, with each passing game, slowly polished the edges of its unique gameplay style, culminating with the spectacular The Pirate’s Curse, one could expect Half-Genie Hero to be a continuation of the process; a game that would lean over the few lessons learned and improvement opportunities found in its prequel and catapult Shantae to a new-found level of greatness. However, even though the game does attempt to stretch its wings further than ever before – perhaps to make it more suitable for the bigger stage upon it now sits – Half-Genie Hero comes off as one step sideways and one step back instead of an evolution.

Through its first three installments, the Shantae games built their legacy upon a clever mixture of action-based platforming, Metroid-inspired backtracking, and a series of dungeons that recalled those of the Zelda series – albeit from a sidescrolling perspective. The hero would traverse lengthy and maze-like stages while beating enemies down, locate roadblocks in the form of characters in need of items or impossible-to-overcome obstacles, go back to find the necessary assets to proceed, and eventually reach smartly designed dungeons. It was a combination that worked not only because it was spectacular, but also due to the fact it lent the saga a great deal of originality, making it a one-of-a-kind platformer.

When Shantae’s uncle builds a machine that is meat to aid his niece in the daunting task she has as a half-genie guardian of protecting Scuttle Town, only to have it stolen by the pirate Risky Boots, Shantae must go out into the world to discover what her rival is up to. What players encounter as the character steps into the many locations of Sequin Land, though, is considerably different from what was brought to the table by the game’s most recent prequel.

half_genie_hero2Under a purely positive light, Half-Genie Hero greatly benefits from its encounter with high-definition platforms. The game abandons the lovely pixelated sprites that had accompanied the franchise since its inception, and replaces them with gorgeous hand-drawn models placed in front of nice and layered tridimensional backgrounds. The game moves with uncanny fluidity, and even though some of its menus and other secondary parts of its visual presentation are a bit dull, the in-game graphics are a top-notch work of art that stands shoulder to shoulder with the best-looking platformers of the past few years, such as Rayman Legends.

Half-Genie Hero will also please both newcomers, and especially longtime fans, by bringing back the character’s signature move: Shantae’s dance transformations, which were absent from The Pirate’s Curse due to story-related reasons and that had been replaced by obtainable pieces of equipment. Aside from jumping, running, and using her long ponytail to whip enemies to a shampooed oblivion, Scuttle Town’s guardian has, at her disposal, a whopping eight transformations, which are acquired as the game progresses.

Shantae can turn into a monkey in order to climb walls; an elephant that lets her smash huge concrete blocks; a crab that can squeeze into tight underwater spaces; a mermaid that swims freely and quickly; a harpy with impressive flying abilities; a spider that latches onto the ceiling; a bat that flies in a straight horizontal line; and a mouse for sneaking into narrow mazes. All of the transformations are as charming and fun as they sound; additionally, as expected with such an impressive array of skills, they allow developers to implement roadblocks and platforming scenarios of varied natures, hence creating an opportunity for the game to explore a wide palette of challenges and sustain fresh gameplay through the entirety of its running time.

half_genie_hero3The thing is, however, that Half-Genie Hero fails to capitalize on that scenario; Shantae’s arsenal leaves the door to a room full of alluring toys wide open, and WayForward mostly ignores it. That happens because, surprisingly, Half-Genie Hero somewhat abandons the Metroid-style exploration while also not implementing a single Zelda-inspired dungeon. The game shifts its focus away from what made the franchise unique and directs its attention towards straightforward action-platforming, which ends stripping a considerable portion of its originality and leaving it adrift among a sea of similar titles.

Besides Scuttle Town – which works as a hub where Shantae can buy items, upgrades, and look for information regarding where to go next – Half-Genie Hero contains six worlds that are actually formed by two or three levels played in succession and that culminate with a boss battle. Players will travel to each of those locations in a predefined order, clear them, and eventually return looking for either mandatory items that are hidden in locations that could not have been reached originally or additional assets such as heart containers, collectibles that are part of sidequests, or keys that unlock the doors of an art gallery.

It is a setup that, in its heart, is not all that different from what the game’s three prequels had offered; however, the delicate, yet critical, difference lies in how the stages are not built like branching Metroid maps anymore, but as linear levels that would have been right at home in any other platformer. Truth be told, Shantae’s move towards an action-platforming ground is successful: the game is fun to play through; the stages are varied (as they include a trip through a mermaid factory, a magic carpet race, a thrilling escape from a giant worm in the ruins of a tower, and much more); and the whole adventure is sprinkled with Shantae’s signature self-aware humor and many of the iconic sidecharacters players have grown to love.

half_genie_hero4Yet, the new format clearly holds the game back. Backtracking through a sequence of action-based levels is not as fun and natural as doing it through a structure that resembles a maze, even considering the fact they are slightly changed after being cleared and how Shantae can quickly wrap between the stages that compose a world. More gravely, though, is the fact such configuration makes the incredible eight transformations borderline insignificant. Instead of being the main stars of the show, their use is merely punctual, because the abundance of action-platforming levels and the absence of dungeons do not create enough opportunities for their use. One can, for instance, clear the game without ever using the spider transformation and its main skill, which is disappointing to say the least.

If it were a game from a brand new franchise Shantae: Half-Genie Hero could be easily called great. It is not overly lengthy, clocking in at about eight hours if players go for full completion, but it has a satisfying duration nevertheless; it is beautiful to look at; it packs a solid soundtrack; and it has charm, humor, and level-design prowess. However, as the fourth installment in a series that has always excelled in the way it borrowed elements from Metroid and Zelda, and stuck them in the shoes of a platformer, it ends up falling short of that status. Newcomers are far more likely to thoroughly enjoy it than longtime fans, for while the former will see it as a truly delightful action-platformer with some notable quirks, the latter are bound to view it as not just a missed opportunity, but a step back, one that apparently fails to materialize half of what made its prequels so beloved in the first place.


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Strength of Strings

kubo2Moviemaking in all its formats and flavors is impressive in itself. However, as magical as it is to lock actors and directors inside a huge studio and have them come out of there with a film roll containing journeys into outer space or voyages into impossible worlds, the field of animation may be even more impressive, for its starting point is a nothingness of white that needs to filled up from ground zero. And, as far as animated features go, none are as mesmerizing as those using the stop-motion technique; after all, it takes unmeasurable heights of patience and dedication to build a world out of clay models and produce a full-length picture by moving them inch by inch and capturing each shift in motion as a photograph before putting it all together.

On the heels of the widely embraced Coraline, ParaNorman, and The Boxtrolls, the minds inside the American studio Laika deservedly became the kings of that production style. Kubo and the Two Strings is the fourth entry in their filmography, and – for all effects and purposes – it might as well be the best of the bunch; an undoubtedly heavy statement considering what came before it.

Kubo is a one-eyed boy who lives with his ill mother inside a cave that lies tucked away from any contact with civilization. He daily visits the local village to tell stories using a magical shamisen that breathes life into sheets of paper, turning them into origami that recreate the tale that is being narrated. Kubo, however, always cuts his stories short, leaving the gasping audience without their coveted ending, as he rushes home to get there before it is dark, as his mother has forbidden him to stay out after the sun sets.

kubo3One day, though, after witnessing a ceremony in which people get in touch with their deceased loved ones by lighting up lanterns, Kubo tries to communicate with his dead father, fails to do so, and ends up staying out after dark. Right as the sun sets, he discovers the reason why his mother was so adamant about him avoiding the nighttime and sees himself forced to go on a journey in which he will discover not only the truth about himself and his missing eye, but also the backstory of his family.

In its heart, Kubo and the Two Strings is a straight-up action-adventure movie. Kubo and his traveling companions must collect the three pieces of a legendary armor that will grant its owner impressive powers. Naturally, such a journey will send the hero through breathtaking scenarios that are adorned with computer-generated backgrounds and effects, and have him in a collision course with ominous dangers that are occasionally so big and complex it is hard to fathom they were actually physically built and animated inside a massive warehouse.

However, there is much more to Kubo and the Two Strings than sword battles, daring escapes from devilish creatures, and the traversing of obstacles that seem impassable; although the movie does do those elements as spectacularly well as it possibly could, delivering it all with an uncannily smooth blend of stop-motion and CGI (employed only punctually) that had never before been attempted by the studio. Kubo and the Two Strings’ main thread is actually its story, for it is what keeps viewers engaged and lends depth to its flashy happenings.

kubo4As Kubo is on the village’s square telling his story, he states “If you must blink, do it now. Pay careful attention to everything you see and hear, no matter how unusual it may seem” and that could apply to the picture as a whole. As Kubo sets out on his quest, he is unaware of the story of his family, as he has only received vague explanations from his ailing mother regarding his dead father, her two sisters, and his grandfather. However, the closer Kubo gets to acquiring the armor, the more he learns about the strings that tie all the pieces together; and the more it is revealed, the darker the movie gets, which is a progression that walks hand in hand with the flick’s increasingly somber visual tone.

If Pixar movies cleverly appeal to both adults and children by presenting levels of strong messages under the visual sugarcoating, Laika – here – does something somewhat similar. The difference is that the line they choose to walk is a far more dangerous one, because not only does Kubo and the Two Strings carries its heaviest themes more blatantly on its sleeve, it also deals with emotionally charged subjects; at times, even feeling like a Studio Ghibli work, one that is an adult movie disguised as a beautiful and appealing animation.

The film’s greatest achievement, though, is how it refuses to play down to its younger audience; as it chooses to take a more elevated ground and carefully guide children through its toughest subjects. And Kubo and the Two Strings gets to the other side of that road successfully, delivering a message of how family bonds – or any links created upon the foundation of pure love – can overcome all and survive the harshest hits; and effectively proving, even if it is through fantasy fiction, that the strength of those strings that unite people have character-building and healing powers.

kubo5Kubo and the Two Strings, therefore, is not just a work of art and love that dares its viewers to wonder how such a magnanimous picture could have been created out of physical character models and hand-built scenarios. It is actually a movie whose lesson is handled so delicately and landed with such positive power that questions regarding its making fall to the wayside when the lights are turned back on. Kubo and the Two Strings goes to emotional depths Laika had barely touched with its previous efforts, and by doing so in such a spectacular way, it takes the studio to a whole new level. We can only lie in wait to see where they will take us next.


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Advance Wars 2: Black Hole Rising Review

It may feel far closer to an expansion pack than to a true sequel, but its deep strategic values painted with a charming cartoonish look are still a blast

black_hole_rising4Save for considerable overhauls that are absolutely necessary every once in a while, Nintendo – and its closest partners – have been successful in producing sequels to their greatest franchises by sticking to one solid formula. The bases that garnered critical praise and commercial glory are preserved, and developers proceed to focus on the addition of punctual new features that will significantly alter the overall experience. Therefore, games that are simultaneously more of the same – which is what most fans want following a remarkable effort of great originality – and fresh are born destined to earn accolades to match, or come close to, those of its predecessor.

In a way, Advance Wars 2: Black Hole Rising does follow that blueprint. The original Advance Wars was, for gamers of the West, the discovery of a new niche that merged war and strategy: players moved their troops and vehicles around a grid-like map in order to achieve a predetermined goal, usually routing the rival army or conquering its headquarters. Black Hole Rising, then, uses that very same premise as its starting point and builds up on it through the addition of new gameplay elements. Naturally, powered by such an incredibly strong setup, the game easily qualifies to stand beside its prequel as one of the best Game Boy Advance efforts; sadly, it is highly questionable whether or not the novel twists it brings to the table are enough to make it a worthy new installment.

Black Hole Rising sees the titular evil faction of unknown origin come back to haunt the four countries of Wars World. This time, however, instead of resorting to pulling the strings from behind the shadows, Black Hole has opted for a more direct approach. Four of its commanding officers, the underlings of the threatening Strum, have been sent to directly conquer the world’s four countries: Orange Star, Blue Moon, Yellow Comet, and Green Earth. It is up to the COs of those nations, then, to defend their homes, retake the lands that have fallen under Black Hole’s command, and join forces to take the battle to the baddies’ own territory.

black_hole_rising2Advance Wars 2 thrives for the exact same reasons its predecessor did. It is a game of astonishing complexity and difficulty that reaches brutal heights, requiring players to really think and analyze all possible outcomes before they make their moves; however, it is, at the same time, a title that dresses up its daunting nature in extremely charming cartoonish visuals and that knows how to make all of the elements that form its deep strategic fabric accessible and easy-to-learn even to the most inexperienced players.

Its nineteen ground, naval, and air units are entwined in a wide web of rock-paper-scissors that needs to be learned to some degree: reckon vehicles, for example, are extremely effective against regular infantry; while fighters easily dispose of bombers and helicopters of the battle and transport kinds. Moreover, each of them has its own attack and movement range, the latter of which is affected by the battlefield’s terrain; specific kinds of units it can attack; ammo;  fuel, in the case of vehicles, which can be recovered – just like their HP – if the unit is parked in a conquered city; defensive stats that are dependent on the ground it stands on – with forests, for example, providing extra coverage and plains and rivers leaving units vulnerable; and a specific range of vision that comes into play on maps where there is fog blocking players’ view of enemy battalions.

All of that information, however, is not only covered and clearly explained in brief and efficient tutorials that take place in the campaign’s early missions, but also readily available during battle, as players can go through menus or look at indications on the screen to remember, or discover, all they need to succeed. Due to the game’s didactic nature, then, newcomers will be able to learn the basics and rusty war veterans will be capable of slowly recovering their existing knowledge.

black_hole_rising3As Nintendo’s sequel-making recipe dictates, with those pillars in place, Advance Wars 2 sets out to add its own flavor to the mixture, and therein lies the problem. The game does pull off a number of improvements. Even though it inherits the repetitive soundtrack and simple but suitable graphics of the original, the game’s presentation is far superior, both in terms of interface and storytelling. The menus are slick; the single-player world map now allows players to choose which mission they want to tackle, a welcome addition that lets gamers that are tired of failing on a map look for a new fresh challenge somewhere else before returning to it; and the game’s plot development feels far more full-fledged even if it still restricts itself to using straightforward dialogue boxes with clever dialogue and static sprites, as each mission has its background explained in a more satisfying way than in the original game.

When it comes to gameplay itself, however, Advance Wars 2 does very little to topple its prequel. Truthfully, the main campaign feels much thicker, as there are far more missions. Moreover, given players will take control of the armies of all four countries, the number of available commanding officers with unique abilities and CO Powers – temporary special skills that are activated after a bar has been filled by destroying some enemy units – is far bigger, and opportunities for players to choose with which CO they want to tackle a mission are much more frequent, a fact that certainly increases the game’s strategic component.

Yet, there are no new modes whatsoever, and – most importantly – in-combat additions are restricted. There is just one new unit, the mighty Neotank; one terrain feature, missile silos that can be used by infantry to deal a little bit of damage to all units standing in the area in which players choose to fire; a handful of weapons that are used by Black Hole, such as cannons, that nicely require some new strategic considerations by players and that provide new goals to the campaign’s missions, like breaking a pipe that is feeding a factory or destroying all cannons protecting a fortress; and the fact each Commanding Officer has a Super CO Power in addition to their standard CO Power.

black_hole_rising5To complement the campaign, which can be beaten in twenty hours but that can last far more given players are awarded a grade after each mission according to certain criteria, there is also a fun multiplayer mode that supports up to four players, a great tool for map creation, and the excellent War Room, where two armies that start with no units need to conquer land and use factories, ports, and airports to build up their power and defeat one another. Sadly, as an extra disappointment that further shows Black Hole Rising is often too comfortable with resting on its prequel’s laurels, the majority of the War Room maps were already present in Advance Wars and are merely reused here.

Advance Wars 2: Black Hole Rising is still a blast, though. It is a fun, engaging, and challenging game whose value is a sight to behold. It may feel far closer to an expansion pack than to a true sequel, but it is a must-buy to either those who greatly enjoyed the original and are looking for more missions of deep strategic values painted with a charming cartoonish look or to those that want to get to know the franchise and feel like starting with its most complete and well-presented installment.


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Albums of the Month: February 2017

wowee_zoweeAlbum: Wowee Zowee

Artist: Pavement

Released: April 11th, 1995

Highlights: Rattled by the Rush, Black Out, Grounded, Father to a Sister of Thought

If Pavement were a major league pitcher, its repertoire would not contain a single fastball; it would only launch the nastiest stuff, the curveballs that start their trajectory waist-high and finish their journey by touching the dirt by the catcher’s mitt. As the beautiful melodies he comes upon by the dozens reveal, Stephen Malkmus – the group’s songwriter – does have the ability to write a straight-up pop rock song; he, however, simply chooses not to, whether because he is a punk rebel that was born a little bit too late or because he is just overly lazy. Even the sweetest and most likable Pavement tunes reach a point when the wheels come off, making them deteriorate into either a mass of noise or random jams, as if the band could not bring itself to conclude a number without letting their psycho blood get the best of them.

Out of all curveballs the group threw during its career, “Wowee Zowee” was unquestionably the most wicked one. Musically, it is not considerably different from its two predecessors – the noise-dominated “Slanted and Enchanted” and the poppier “Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain”. It, after all, still combines the alluring and clean jangly guitars of R.E.M., the impossible guitar distortions of Sonic Youth, and the indifferent and careless vocal delivery and lyric-writing that only Malkmus could pull off. However, “Wowee Zowee” seems to be the first time ever Pavement was given carte blanche to do whatever they pleased while in the studio, and the result – apparently – was a productive creative section in which the band threw everything they could at the wall to see what would stick, and then proceeded to burn songs onto the record regardless of whether they were still attached to the surface or forgotten on the floor.

The result is an eighteen-track beautiful mess that sees Pavement achieve fantastic pop rock victories (“Rattled by the Rush”), go through one-minute tunes that exist for the sake of rocking maniacally and serving as inside jokes nobody will ever understand (“Serpentine Pad”), perform thrilling operas of noise (“Half a Canyon”), and build tunes that are so utterly gorgeous (“Father to a Sister of Thought”) it is hard to decide whether Malkmus’ intentionally careless lyrics and singing turn them into wasted opportunities or amazing displays of subversive attitude (the latter option is far more likely). The opener “We Dance”, for example, has a piano and acoustic guitar combination that is so sweet most artists would kill for, but Malkmus chooses to use it as the background for his melodic and ethereal ramblings about the expiration date of the Brazilian nuts one has bought for their engagement.

Surely, many will see “Wowee Zowee” as indulgent, as if the band got way too enamored with their embedded recklessness; and, in a way, it is true, for a couple of tracks should have never made it. However, the album is ultimately fun, because by giving its fans eighteen tracks to pick from, Pavement allows us to choose to focus solely on the over a dozen remarkably great tunes contained within the package or just push the play button, sit back, and bask under all crazy twists and turns “Wowee Zowee” takes. As the nastiest curveball from a wicked pitcher, the record is not an easy one to grasp; those who spend a good time trying to wrap their minds around this madness will certainly be generously rewarded, though.

amAlbum: AM

Artist: Arctic Monkeys

Released: September 9th, 2013

Highlights: Do I Wanna Know?, No.1 Party Anthem, Fireside, Knee Socks

Gearing up to the release of “AM”, Arctic Monkeys’ leader Alex Turner famously stated that, to his ears, rock had become rather dull, as he found himself unable to be moved by legends of the past and stars of the present alike. According to him, the only music he listened to during the period in which “AM” was being produced was rap and Black Sabbath, and that those two geographically distant poles worked as his guiding lights during the album’s construction. Given how heavy metal and rap are two ingredients of such different natures it is hard to imagine how they would mix, one could easily have looked at Turner’s claims as musical trash talk; eye-catching remarks purposely built with the goal of luring people’s attention towards the album. As it turns out, though, the quotes were not empty: “AM” is a weird spot in which modern hip-hop trends meet heavy guitars that seem to come out of the depths of hell.

That concept is displayed, and masterfully proved, right on the opening track: “Do I Wanna Know?”. Like most songs on the record, it is guided by steady and slow drum beats and a heartbeat-like bass line that are more Dr. Dre than British garage rock; over those, Jamie Cook summons a low guitar tone that delivers a riff that would make Tony Iommi himself rather proud and a weary, yet resolute, Alex Turner addresses a potential love interest, wondering whether or not the feeling flows both ways. “AM” spends its running time alternating between songs that lean more heavily towards hip-hop (“Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?”) and tracks that revisit the Arctic Monkeys’ fast-talking hard rock (“R U Mine?”), and on the way it even finds time to deliver a remarkable layered ballad that John Lennon himself could have written (“No.1 Party Anthem”); however, through all its shifts in tonality, it remains musically cohesive.

The album is uniformly dark, but not in the same way as The Cure’s “Pornography”, as it does not feature the cries for help of one who has given in to depression. Its darkness is that of the night, one where a group of friends goes club hopping for the sole sake of chasing girls, and “AM” paints that picture so vividly in its lyrics and music it almost plays like a movie. There is the indecisive girl the singer truly pines for; the various shallow and potential catches he bumps into during the night; and the alternation between moments in which they succeed in making him forget about the pain in his heart and occasions when all he wants to do is give her a call and escape the emptiness of those clubs. There is the sweet excitement of hope, the nervous tension of approaching a target, and the sadness of sitting by the bar and wondering what in the world you are doing.

In theme, “AM”, although thoroughly impressive because of its unity, is not surprising; as even though Alex Turner is one of rock’s most talented lyricist, boy-and-girl troubles have always been his sole subject of focus. Therefore, what takes it over the top is not Turner’s gift for analyzing that storm of feelings with a lot of words and clever sentences, but the group’s ability to merge heavy rock and hip-hop so seamlessly and take their creation to its most natural habitat: the night. Few albums in rock history are able to join theme and music so well, and by conjuring all the thrill, anxiety, and frustration of the sexual chase in all their contours and dilemmas, “AM” is a contemporary work of art.

fables_of_the_reconstructionAlbum: Fables of the Reconstruction

Artist: R.E.M.

Released: June 10th, 1985

Highlights: Feeling Gravitys Pull, Driver 8, Life and How to Live It, Green Grow the Rushes

R.E.M. is a band that is historically associated with the American South. Its origins, which can be traced back to the depths of the state of Georgia, have always played a major role in the image they put forth and in the music they wrote. The mystery, the murkiness, and the idiosyncrasy of a rock group that crawled out of the swampy ends of the country and navigated the waves of minor radios to a level super-stardom that did not fit well with their quiet demeanor are part of their legend and legacy, and nowhere is it better exposed than in “Fables of the Reconstruction”. Ironically, though, their most southern album – one whose title makes a reference to the reconstruction the South had to go through after the American Civil War – was produced far away from the United States, under the cold embrace of the foggy London.

Still, the central subject matter of “Fables of the Reconstruction” is not surprising. R.E.M.’s second record, “Reckoning”, focused on being away from home, as the band wrote most of its tunes while out of Georgia on their first nationwide tour, a fact that is quite revealing regarding their affection for their roots and the feeling of being out of place that certainly took over many of the group’s members during the long journeys musicians must undertake. Therefore, with an ocean separating them from the simple confines of their hometown of Athens, R.E.M. changes their sound not by moving away from the gloomy brand of jangle pop rock they had established in “Murmur”, but by sinking further down into the abyss of the South. If “Murmur” and “Reckoning” felt like listening to a post-punk band in a watery swamp, with its sound being muted by the mist; “Fables of the Reconstruction” kidnaps its audience and takes it to a dark cave where southern myths are engraved on the walls.

“Fables of the Reconstruction” comes off as thematically stronger than its predecessors because it marks the point when Michael Stipe started writing lyrics that, instead of being a stream of consciousness soup of words, had meanings – even if obscure. Therefore, the album plays like a kaleidoscope (sans the bright colors) of southern tales and images. “Maps and Legends”, “Life and How to Live It”, and “Old Man Kensey” talk about curious old men the band had met during their college days; “Driver 8” references trains, railways, and people who work by traveling away from home; “Can’t Get There from Here”, “Auctioneer”, and “Good Advices” nod towards a rural way of life; “Feeling Gravitys Pull”, the band’s most sinister song, conjures in five minutes the darkness of the most remote places of the South; and “Wendell Gee” attempts to build a disturbing folk tale that could only have come out of the region.

Musically, “Fables of the Reconstruction” sees R.E.M. stretch their arms past the relatively standard, albeit played quite characteristically, rock arrangements of their early works, as the group toys around with strings (“Feeling Gravitys Pull”), a banjo (“Wendell Gee”), and even a horn section (“Can’t Get There from Here”). Still, this is a record of slow-to-mid tempo tunes that are in equal measures gloomy, alluring, and catchy – the latter quality being highlighted by Stipe’s great melodies. As R.E.M. would move on to a more mainstream sound with its next releases, “Fables of the Reconstruction” easily stands out as their darkest and foggiest effort.

muswell_hillbilliesAlbum: Muswell Hillbillies

Artist: The Kinks

Released: September 24th, 1971

Highlights: 20th Century Man, Acute Schizophrenia Paranoia Blues, Alcohol, Muswell Hillbilly

Like two siblings that became estranged from one another due to simple twists of fate, American and British rock have historically developed like two separate entities with no contact with each other whatsoever save for a few brief exchanged letters. While grunge was blowing up in the United States, for instance, the British youth remained entirely aloof towards the phenomenon and embraced the Britpop heroes that appeared as a reaction to a brand of music whose flannel shirts and loud guitars were quite unappealing to most of them. Similarly, numerous other major rock acts were only able to achieve success on one side of the Atlantic, remaining as obscure blips on the radar to folks across the pond. Still, truth is, British rock would never have existed if a pack of teenagers from the United Kingdom had never gotten in touch with the music produced by American musicians, and as such, the queen’s serfs own quite a bit of gratitude to their English-speaking brothers.

Alongside The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and many others, The Kinks were on the leading edge of the wave of groups that listened to blues, rockabilly, rock and roll, and R&B in order to forge music of their own. And out of all members of that gang, they were certainly the most British: being sarcastic and dry in their humor; dealing with traditions and behaviors that only made sense to British ears; and incorporating vaudeville, music hall, and other British musical traditions into their songwriting. It is rather ironic, and somewhat beautiful, then, that the point in history in which British and American rock came the closest to fusing together to form one musical monster would come to be through their hands: “Muswell Hillbillies”. The title says it all. A mash-up between Muswell Hill, a traditional London suburb in which the Davies brothers inhabited, and “hillbilly”, the American word to designate those who live in the rural and mountainous areas in the United States, it is a nod by four British lads to the country, folk, and blues musicians that made them who they were.

“Muswell Hillbillies” achieves its status as a musical bridge across the Atlantic by being positively British in its themes and absurdly American in its sonority. In “Muswell Hillbilly”, Ray Davies proclaims that even though his home is Muswell Hill, his heart lies in Old West Virginia and he pines for New Orleans, Oklahoma and Tennessee despite the fact he has never been there; and in the folk-tinged ballad “Oklahoma U.S.A.”, he speaks of a girl that is utterly bored by her working-class British life and wishes to travel to Oklahoma to become a star. Such a tone permeates the entire work: the words, paranoia, sarcasm, and problems of modern life contained within the package have been clearly written by British hands; but the music is composed of unfiltered American influences, extracted directly from the source and not changed by any transformation process.

Ultimately, “Muswell Hillbillies” is spectacular for it captures Ray Davies, one of the greatest composers and lyricists of popular music, working at the peak of his powers. His acute observations on the troubles of modern life are carried by witty humor and remarkable melodies, as he dissects the 20th-century man of the album’s opening track with all the sharpness and derision his spirit as an entertainer possesses. The fact it brings together two universes that are so distinct ends up being the artistic cherry on top of this fantastic work, which easily ranks among the band’s best albums.

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Mega Man 2 Review

Mega Man 2 rises on the horizon like a lighthouse: a point of reference that has guided the uncountable sequels of the series and all games that have tried to emulate its formula

megaman2_1As the number attached to its title indicates, Mega Man 2 did not mark the inception of what is now a long-standing franchise that is so popular and recognizable its name and main character are integral components of gaming as a whole. However, despite the fact it is not the Blue Bomber’s first adventure, Mega Man 2 rises on the horizon like a lighthouse: a point of reference that has guided not only the uncountable sequels of the series but all of the games that have tried, fully or partially, to emulate the remarkably iconic structure and gameplay the saga coined. More than a blueprint and a source of inspiration, though, Mega Man 2 is the bar against which all those efforts are measured, and it is easy to see why.

Mega Man 2 is so tightly built around the bones set up by its predecessor that even its plot is similar, as it features one helper robot turned fighter – the titular Mega Man – having to deal with an army of evil bots that are trying to take over the world. Differently from what happened in the original, however, when the ill-intentioned Dr. Wily stole and reprogrammed the once helpful humanoid machines Dr. Light had created to aid humans in civil construction, Mega Man 2 shows Dr. Wily reemerging from the wreckage in which Mega Man had left him with a horde of robots of his own.

Despite that distinction, the formula here is the same: the eight Robot Masters, versus the original’s six, lie in wait for Mega Man at the end of stages whose themes are perfectly lined up with its boss’s personality, meaning that, for example, Wood Man lurks inside a base constructed in a forest and Air Man takes the action skyward. Once more, after making it all the way to the end of the level, facing its leader, and destroying him, Mega Man inherits the subject’s weapon, allowing him to use it against both regular enemies and other Robot Masters, something that can be quite helpful given each boss has a specific weakness in relation to a certain weapon.

megaman2_2Since players are free to choose the Robot Master they want to face, such vulnerability creates what is perhaps the game’s most well-known twist: the invaluable importance of figuring out the best stage-clearing order. The delight of such freedom is closely related to how hard Mega Man games are: getting through the levels is brutal, as they are filled with tough enemies and mean obstacles that can degenerate into trial-and-error; and having to defeat a boss that has powerful attacks and high resistance against most weapons after overcoming a real gauntlet is no easy task. Therefore, given once Mega Man runs out of lives – which are scarce – players lose the mid-stage checkpoint and are forced to start the level from scratch, knowing how to easily dispose of bosses can be the difference between beating the stage and having to restart.

Mega Man 2, then, like all games in the franchise’s main line of titles, is a grinding exercise of slowly figuring out how to make one’s way through the stage, as its hard platforming challenges will cause numerous deaths and require that levels be learned piece by piece; and testing acquired weapons against its boss to see if any of them will work, or simply tackling the daunting – but doable – task of learning the Robot Masters’ frantic patterns and trying to take them down with the standard blaster. It sounds frustrating, and indeed it can be so punctually, but it is thoroughly engaging and fun.

These qualities appear because Mega Man games bring a feeling of constant progress, as every part of the stage that is learned and every weapon that is tested on a boss (successfully or unsuccessfully) moves players one step closer to their ultimate goal of stopping Dr. Wily. In Mega Man 2, though, they are noticeably pronounced – more than on any other point in the series, perhaps – for three reasons.

megaman2_4Firstly, there is how Mega Man 2 improves on what was established by its prequel. Energy Tanks, which allow the hero to recover his health, are not abundant enough to turn the game into a walk in the park but do show up often enough to make it more manageable; the adjustable difficulty that is present in the game’s American version (gamers can choose between Easy and Difficult) goes a long way towards making the title more accessible; a password system, which produces a specific code whenever a Robot Master is defeated, allows players to save their progress; unlockable weapons, which produce different sorts of platforms and are given to Mega Man after beating a certain number of bosses, are rather useful; and controls and physics are noticeably better.

Secondly, Mega Man 2 turns the Robot Masters’ weapons into a more vital part of the game, making them important outside boss encounters. Crash Man’s bomb, for example, blows up walls that block easier paths or hide extra lives and energy tanks; meanwhile, Flash Man’s time stopper and Wood Man’s leaf shield can make tight scenarios, either in terms of platforming or enemies, into much easier affairs. Pretty much all eleven weapons, including the three awarded to Mega Man by Dr. Light, are helpful at certain points in the game, a fact that adds yet another layer of strategy to the order in which players will tackle the levels, as items can be missed or situations can be especially brutal if Mega Man has yet to defeat a specific Robot Master and acquire his weapon; and that gives the game good replay value.

Finally, there is how, for the most part, Mega Man 2’s levels are brilliantly designed – balancing demands for tight jumps and fast reactions with lots of action and shooting – and visually distinct from one another, as the eight Robot Masters support the creation of very nice scenarios that while not as good as those of Super Mario Bros. 3 or Kirby’s Adventure, come very close to the best ones the NES offered during its lifetime. Truth be told, Capcom does occasionally take its design of traps to ridiculous extremes (as it happens in Heat Man’s disappearing platforms above deadly lava; in Quick Man’s deadly lasers that require absolutely perfect reaction times; in Bubble Man’s spikes that seem to come out of nowhere; or in some of the six final stages, which take place inside Dr. Wily’s Castle and that must be beaten linearly). However, the good and impressive far outweighs the bad.

megaman2_3Mega Man 2, therefore, stands as a point of reference not because it is the best game in the saga (as such a ranking is especially subjective in a series whose entries are similar to one another). It achieves that status because it marked the first point in time when all of the franchise’s qualities – its untouchable and uncannily perfect soundtrack, its great 8-bit visuals, its signature structure, its brutal difficulty, its constant sense of progress, and its balance of platforming and action – came together to form one spectacular product. Future installments, such as Mega Man 3, may have polished up a few edges to a finer degree, but it was in Mega Man 2 that these delightful pieces first formed a complete and compelling picture.


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Super Mario Bros. 3 Review

It rises so far above its predecessors, which were great games in their own right, that it is hard to even imagine they came out for the same console

smb31Context is everything. It is the frame that allows us to put facts and occurrences into perspective, helping us give the proper weight and understand the reasons to whatever it is we are seeing. Given context is ever-shifting, like the window of a high-speed train rolling through time, it is easy to lose sight of how utterly shocking some events of our past were to their contemporary audiences: the landing on the moon, the first television broadcast, the invention of the airplane, the initial batch of bits that were sent through the internet, or that time in 1988 when Super Mario Bros. 3 became available to a Japanese market that was eager to play a new adventure by the world’s most famous fat plumber.

It seems ridiculous to put Super Mario Bros 3. alongside such historic events that have defined human beings as well as their capacity to break new ground, but exaggeration is often the only way to try to make one understand what it must have been like to witness major happenings. And to a bunch of young gamers living in the twilight hours of the 80s, turning on an NES and watching as the colorful and unimaginably huge world of Super Mario Bros. 3 came to life must have certainly hit with a high enough magnitude to make them never forget about it.

In Japan, Super Mario Bros. 2 was a humble evolution of its prequel; a borderline expansion pack with minor graphical tweaks. In the United States, meanwhile, that game came in the form of an adventure that, due to the fact it was a re-skinning of another title, stripped the still young franchise off all its defining features. Then, depending on the way one looks at it, Super Mario Bros 3. was either the arrival of a real meaningful sequel or the rescuing of a gameplay style that seemed to be lost. Regardless of the perspective, though, Super Mario Bros. 3 was magnanimous.

smb32The justification, and proof, for such high praise is none other than how every single Mario platformer that has followed it has been nothing but a reshuffling of its ideas. The game shuns the dull transition screens between levels that appeared in the interludes of its predecessors’ stages for overworlds through which Mario can navigate, giving him – occasionally – the chance to choose which obstacle course to tackle, and tightly placing all levels under a thematic umbrella in the shape of a scenario that must be traversed from its first level to the castle in which a cursed king needs to be saved.

The thematic variations, differently from all of those in Super Mario Bros. and from most of the ones that appeared in its sequel, work because Super Mario Bros. 3 taps into the very limits of the NES’ hardware. The catalog of catchy songs the humble cartridge carries is greatly augmented, and so are the visual assets and colors the game has at its disposal. Therefore, as Mario travels between the game’s eight kingdoms (Grass Land, Desert Land, Water Land, Giant Land, Sky Land, Ice Land, Pipe Land, and Dark Land) the transitions are more than noticeable: they are vivid and obvious.

The eight maps are not mere eye-candy. They go beyond superfluous decoration by progressively growing in size and complexity as the game moves forward; by holding a good number of secrets, including hidden paths towards a warp zone that lets players skip a portion of the quest and travel as straight towards Bowser’s Castle, and Peach’s rescuing, as possible; and by having a horde of bonus activities, such as memory games and skirmishes against Hammer Bros., that give Mario power-ups that aid him in his journey, adding a strategic component to the game, as players can manage an inventory of power-ups so they can start the hardest levels with some advantage.

smb33The constantly changing themes meet incredible level design creativity to transform Super Mario Bros. 3 into a game that is always surprising its players. New clever ideas pop up from every corner, and whether gamers are facing the mid-world fortresses, the daunting airships that serve as the home for the Koopalings that have cursed each world’s king, or standard levels filled with tricky platforms and devilish enemy placement, Super Mario Bros. 3 is invariably engaging.

Consequently, Super Mario Bros. 3 is not brilliant merely because it throws an uncountable amount of new concepts that survive until nowadays (including a mind-boggling amount of power-ups) into the screen. Surely, giving Mario the ability to fly or to turn into a frog produces huge amounts of joy, especially the former, which is not only quite amusing but that also reveals many secret areas scattered around the levels. However, the game’s greatest victory is how it balances creativity, challenge, and accessibility.

The levels, which are numerous and will demand at least ten hours of gameplay in order to be cleared, are smart and delightfully short. That last quality is especially important because Super Mario Bros. 3, like its two prequels, is not ashamed to rise to brutal heights in terms of difficulty; yet, given stages are brief, failing over and over again never gets too frustrating even if Mario is always sent to the beginning of the level, as checkpoints would only come to exist in Super Mario World. That way, although the game does carry a considerable punch, it is a title that opens itself up to a much wider audience, which – along with its charm – may be the ultimate explanation behind why it went on to become so popular and widely loved.

smb4To a whole lot of people, then, Super Mario Bros. 3 had the sound of a door being blasted open right inside their brains and revealing the vast, colorful, and enchanting universe that lied within the realm of gaming. It rises so far above its predecessors, which were great games in their own right, and surpasses pretty much everything else that called the NES its home, that it is hard to even imagine they came out for the same console. It is one of those rare instances when a game can be called both an evolution and a revolution; Super Mario Bros. 3 has served as the basis upon which all Mario sidescrollers have been built, and the fact they remain undeniably successful and astonishingly fun should give anyone that was neither alive nor playing games back in 1988 an idea of how gigantic it was, and it still is.


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Super Mario Bros. 2 Review

If Nintendo’s ultimate plan with the American version of Super Mario Bros 2. was to create a game that was accessible and different, they succeeded resoundingly

super_mario_bros_2_1With more than two decades elapsed since its original release, Super Mario Bros. 2 remains quite an oddity within its franchise. The explanation is quite simple: the title was not developed as a Mario game, but as a totally different adventure dubbed Doki Doki Panic. In it, an Arabian family comes into the possession of a magical book about a land where the dreams of its inhabitants determine the quality of the weather on the following day, and that gets suddenly overtaken by the devious Wart when he turns their recently built dream machine – constructed to guarantee clear skies – into a nightmare-producing apparatus. Therefore, it is no wonder the game is so completely different from its prequel and from all Mario platformers that came after it.

Doki Doki Panic starts when the family’s youngest children, a pair of twins, get absorbed into the book, leading the four remaining members of the household to fearlessly jump into the story. Only, given its transformation into a Mario game, the captive siblings are written out of the plot and the four people who tackle the adventure, this time to rid the book’s magical land of evil, are Mario, Luigi, Princess Peach, and Toad.

This strange entry in the series came to be because the original Super Mario Bros. 2, which did indeed hit store shelves in Japan under its intended format, was visually very similar to its prequel: playing like a slightly updated and much harder version of Super Mario Bros., only with all new levels. Fearing the title would be too difficult and fail to provide enough new features for American audiences, Nintendo opted to re-skin Doki Doki Panic and sell it as a Mario game in the United States.

super_mario_bros_2_4For all intents and purposes, if Nintendo’s ultimate plan with the American version of Super Mario Bros 2. was to create a game that was accessible and different, they succeeded resoundingly. As far as challenge goes, Super Mario Bros 2. is still particularly brutal: 1-Ups are hard to come by, stages offer obstacles that are tough to overcome and that were blatantly designed for cruel murder, and running out of continues means having to start back from the first of the game’s twenty levels. However, not only is it easier than Super Mario Bros., especially because of its continue system that gives players extra chances to beat a level, it is certainly a relative breeze when compared with its Japanese counterpart.

When it comes to its uniqueness, Super Mario Bros. 2 stands out in pretty much every way, starting with the absence of blocks to be broken, coins to be collected, and power-ups, which are replaced by an HP system that has characters begin all levels with two points of energy and that allows that bar to expanded by picking up mushrooms located in secret areas. Graphically, it is far more vivid and colorful than its prequel; and it holds a bigger amount of visual assets, which give the limited range of scenarios within which it works – grassy plains, deserts, and caves – a great, albeit somewhat fake, feeling of variety. However, even though it is an aesthetic improvement over the original, the soundtrack remains limited and lacks the famous tunes of Super Mario Bros.,  and the gameplay twists that Doki Doki Panic brings to the table make playing Super Mario Bros. 2 a mixed experience.

The fact that, whenever starting a stage, players are free to choose between the four brave heroes is unquestionably great, especially because the quartet of characters are not mere sprite swaps of one another, but actually behave quite differently. Mario has average speed and decent jumping skills, which make him easy to control and adaptable to all kind of situations; Toad is incredibly fast but an ineffective jumper; Luigi reaches incredible heights with his leap but is slightly slow and hard to control; and Princess Peach is the slowest character but has the useful ability to hover in midair for a little while, making her the perfect choice for beginners and those who want to land their jumps perfectly.

super_mario_bros_2_3By joining forces, Mario, Luigi, Peach, and Toad will need to overcome seven worlds, each with a mighty boss awaiting at the end, and clear twenty levels that are structured very differently from those in Super Mario Bros. While, in the original, stages were a simple trip from the left of the screen to the right, where the coveted flagpole was located; Super Mario Bros. 2 navigates more complex waters.

Not only are the levels multiphased, usually being composed of various screens and landscapes accessed through doors and openings in the scenario, they also scroll sideways as well as upwards and downwards, hence allowing the game to take some small turns towards some non-linearity and lean on a kind of progression, and rhythm, that is far more meticulous than that of Super Mario Bros. And therein lies the main problem with Super Mario Bros. 2: where its prequel was sheer thrill and a rush of adrenaline, it is a far more cerebral game that suffers from pacing problems, which become rather noticeable in a few levels that stretch for far too long without going anywhere clever.

Much of that stems from how Mario and his partners are unable to get rid of foes by stomping on their heads. It seems ridiculous to strip a character off the form of attack around which his first original home-console adventure was built, but that is what Super Mario Bros. 2 – thanks to its origins – does. Instead, the heroes are forced to resort to either landing on top of the enemies, lifting them up, and throwing them on other critters; or picking up vegetables, bombs, or shells that are planted on the ground to use as weapons. Needless to say, such an attack strategy, which is less exciting than simply jumping, makes the fluidity of Super Mario Bros. go up in flames.

super_mario_bros_2_2In all fairness, though, Super Mario Bros. 2 is a good game. Most of its flaws are only unearthed when it is directly compared with its predecessor, which is not fair considering it is actually an entry from another franchise dressed up as a Mario title. Although its gameplay is not as entertaining as the one featured in Super Mario Bros., it is a game that – thanks to a long gap between releases – has a number of resources at its disposal, either purely technical or related to level design, that did not exist back when Super Mario Bros. was being produced.

As a consequence, Super Mario Bros. 2 has many nice tricks up its sleeve – such as flying carpets, breakable walls, locked doors, boss arenas, maze-like areas, and the ability to backtrack through the levels – that are nicely used and end up making it worthwhile. It may be seen as the black sheep of the main Mario platforming line, but, within the context of the NES’ library, it is easily one of the most charming and fun games the system had to offer.


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