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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Super Mario Bros. Review

Super Mario Bros. may not have invented a genre, but its quality and cultural weight changed the gaming landscape

super_mario_bros2Super Mario Bros. is so iconic – and its characters, visuals, music, gameplay, and charm are so deeply ingrained into the world’s popular culture – that there is not much left to say about it. At the same time, though, its existence is something that people, whether they are gamers or not, have grown so much used to that it is easy to take the title’s impressive quality and revolutionary values for granted. Although platformers whose scenarios scrolled across the screen did exist before it, hence making it a game that followed a previously explored path instead of one that created its own road, Super Mario Bros. took advantage of its starring character’s major fame and, of course, its great level design to popularize its genre, turning it into the gameplay style that would rule the landscape of gaming through the 8 and 16-bit eras.

Before Super Mario Bros., the fat plumber had already caught the world’s attention in the arcade shops with Donkey Kong and Mario Bros.; however, Super Mario Bros. was the game first responsible for bringing an original Mario adventure into people’s homes. From his previous outings, the hero inherited his outlandish jumping and running skills, but upon choosing to transport the character into a world, the glorious Mushroom Kingdom, of thirty-two levels with varying enemies and obstacles, Nintendo added thin layers of complexity on top of the inborn simplicity of Mario’s arcade origins; the result is a game that is addictive, fun, and that manages to stand the test of time.

Items that have become commonplace in the franchise have their first appearance in Super Mario Bros. The mushroom, which makes Mario bigger; and the fire flower, which gives him the power to shoot fireballs at enemies, are necessary additions that give players the right to make one mistake without dying right away. Likewise, the green mushroom, which grants one extra life; and the coins, which have the same effect once 100 of them are gathered, help players extend their gameplay sessions and increase their chances of getting to the end of the game.

super_mario_bros3All of those aids, including the mighty star that lets Mario steamroll his foes and ignore whatever obstacles he encounters (save for the bottomless pits, which kill him without mercy regardless of his status), are welcome due to the simple fact that Super Mario Bros. is a gauntlet. The game does not take its time upping its difficulty considerably, as by the end of the first world gamers will start dying with a certain regularity. At its best, Super Mario Bros. treats its players to a fair kind of challenge that is built upon tricky platform placements combined with devilish enemies; at its worst, though, the game will sometimes resort to level design that requires trial-and-error.

Such level of brutality is, undoubtedly, bound to turn some younger gamers away from the title, especially considering that once Mario runs out of lives he is sent all the way back to the game’s starting point – a rather common punishment employed by games in the 80s. That reality gets even more dire when the rarity of green mushrooms and coins is taken into account. The former are rather elusive; moreover, a handful of levels, and some brutal jumps, need to go by before one can gather 100 coins and gain an extra life, as they are smartly and sparsely placed. In fact, those items are so treasured and valuable that finding the secret spots that hold one green mushroom or a bunch of coins is one of the allures, and biggest victories, one can have in Super Mario Bros.; and the same goes for locating the shortcuts that let Mario skip entire worlds and take the shortest route to the castle in which Peach is being kept by Bowser.

The new features and relatively fresh gameplay style, which is brilliantly explored via the setting up of thrilling obstacle courses, are the characteristics that made Super Mario Bros. so special back in 1985. Yet, despite them, when compared to its numerous successors, even the ones that would also find their home on the NES, it is easy to see Super Mario Bros. as somewhat bare-bones; a prototype for the greater installments the series would have in its future.

super_mario_bros4First of all, its scenarios and the elements that compose its stages are very limited. The visual changes between the eight worlds that must be traversed to rescue Princess Peach are marked only by color-palette swaps. Additionally, the game’s thirty-two stages take place in a mere five scenarios: the traditional Mushroom Kingdom overworld; dark underground tunnels; an underwater landscape; high up in the air amidst tall mushrooms and floating platforms; and Bowser’s lava-ridden castles that always wrap up the game’s eight worlds. Those tight boundaries are also found in the game’s soundtrack, which is catchy but ultimately contains only a few tunes; and in the level design twists developers were able to pull off, although in that case the tight chains that bound them are not so noticeable, as they were able to do a whole lot with a little.

The final aspect in which Super Mario Bros. would be greatly surpassed by its direct sequels is its controls. Platformers, especially those that focus on precise jumps, live and die by their controls, and Super Mario Bros. stands on a particularly weird middle ground between quality and oddity. Quality because it is a major step up in terms of physics and general responsiveness in relation to Donkey Kong and Mario Bros. And oddity because the control of the character while in midair is too rigid; Mario is slightly too slippery in the split-seconds following landing (something developers take advantage of by placing Goombas and other enemies right after long jumps); and his forward and upward momentum is mostly lost if he catches a mushroom while jumping.

Hindsight, especially the one that is offered by the masterpieces that Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World are, reveals that Super Mario Bros. is off the mark on some of its features. However, for a platformer that was released in 1985 – when much of the NES’ power was still untapped – it still stands up shockingly well; certainly much better than other games of the kind that were released either before it or shortly after. Super Mario Bros. may not have invented a genre, but its quality and cultural weight changed the gaming landscape, essentially becoming the lighthouse that would guide the development of various games that followed it. The fluidity of its adventure and the excellency of its level design still make the ripples of its impact be felt by most who play it.


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Albums of the Month: January 2017

pinkertonAlbum: Pinkerton

Artist: Weezer

Released: September 24th, 1996

Highlights: The Good Life, El Scorcho, Pink Triangle, Butterfly

The unwritten manual of good songwriting dictates that it is the artist’s job to transform the storm of feelings that lies within the human soul into digestible phrases. Songwriters must filter primal, brutal, and intense instincts and turn them into poetry – it doesn’t matter if it is abstract or straightforward. “Pinkerton”, Weezer’s second album and the successor to a brilliant collection of heavy pop rock tracks, is unusual in how it shuns those rules; there are no barriers between what has been put onto paper and what Rivers Cuomo, the band’s creative leader, was feeling at the time he forged these songs, which makes it as honest of a record as the rock genre has produced. The result of a self-pitying insecure geek that was suddenly thrown into musical stardom, “Pinkerton” is in equal measures awkward and messy; it is frank, absurdly specific, and intense, as if it were produced and published without much consideration, making it the rock and roll equivalent of a message sent by a rejected lover in a drunken stupor to the one who broke their heart.

Considering its context, it is not surprising “Pinkerton” is best described as embarrassing. Likewise, it is not shocking to discover that Cuomo himself regretted, and avoided, the album in the years following its release. In the self-explanatory “Tired of Sex”, he rattles off the name of his daily dates and laments he cannot find true love; in “Across the Sea”, he talks about an eighteen-year-old fan from Japan with whom he had been exchanging letters, proclaiming he wishes he could touch her and blatantly stating he thinks about how she gets intimate with herself; and in “Pink Triangle”, he openly discusses the disappointment of discovering the target of his affection is a lesbian. Cuomo shows absolutely no restraint in revealing to listeners the ghosts, fears, anguishes, and failures he faces, and the language he uses is so direct, that cringe-inducing lyrics such as “I asked you to go to the Green Day concert / You said you never heard of them / How cool is that? / So I went to your room and read your diary” are the norm rather than the exception.

All of those characteristics make “Pinkerton” an utter unmitigated disaster. This is an artist having a complete mental breakdown; only, instead of doing it in private or while running away from paparazzi, he decided to burn it onto a record. And that is precisely why it is so fantastic; the album could have easily come off as the shallow ramblings of a young adult who remains an adolescent in numerous matters, but it – for some miracle – lands like a punch to the stomach. “Pinkerton” is punk in how it constantly baffles listeners and gives a middle finger to the controlled emotional mindset society expects, and in that sense it is incredibly courageous. Meanwhile, it is also somewhat emo, but not in the derogatory sense the word acquired during the turn of the century. It does not wear eyeliner and carry sad songs because it is commercially viable, Rivers and his band-mates are too nerdy for those two acts; it talks about its feelings because they are just too overwhelming.

On top of that, “Pinkerton” climbs to the upper echelons of music because it rocks with vengeance in its heart. Save for the beautiful “Butterfly”, the acoustic and introspective closer, the album is accompanied by guitars that are played loudly and distorted to the limit that separates music from noise. Its instrumentation, thereby, lives up to the raw intensity of its lyrics, and every single track is populated by more than one inescapable hook, such as “El Scorcho”, which has a wandering and weird guitar riff; an orgasmic chorus; and a bridge played at top speed and delivered with furious anger. In later years, Weezer would – sadly – become a caricature of its former self; in “Pinkerton”, though, they were as true as a band can be, and – as a consequence – they gave the world their messy masterpiece.

his_hersAlbum: His ‘N’ Hers

Artist: Pulp

Released: April 18th, 1994

Highlights: Joyriders, Lipgloss, Babies, Do You Remember the First Time?

It is strange to think “His ‘N’ Hers” is not Pulp’s actual debut. That is because before its release, in 1994, the band had spent a whopping eleven years, and three albums, meandering through an assortment of songs that, despite being original in the way they transited from folk introspection to acoustic balladry adorned by keyboards and electronic elements, did not go anywhere. “His ‘N’ Hers” is, in fact, so different from what came before it, even though it has hints of being a consolidation of previous experiments, that Pulp might as well have changed its name altogether, like Marc Bolan did with his legendary group, Tyrannosaurus Rex, between “A Beard of Stars” and “T. Rex” when he transformed from a folk bard into a glam rock god. It is hard to pinpoint exactly what led Pulp to undertake the magnificent metamorphosis that finds consolidation in “His ‘N’ Hers” (although its snake-like guitar lines indicate that Suede’s early output, namely their initial singles and their self-titled debut may have been a strong influence), but, as soon as it hit, the group was rightfully propelled to Britpop royalty.

Where Suede’s Brett Anderson wrote about those who were seen as deranged, whether sexually or emotionally, by society; and Blur’s Damon Albarn revived The Kinks’ character studies; Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker deconstructed human passion, looking at love as nothing but an urge for sex, and he did so by looking at that subject in the most bare-bones and cynical way possible. He, therefore, stripped sex of all its emotional attachments, dealing with it in all the awkwardness of two naked human beings facing one another in a poorly lit room, and seeing all the romance that precedes it as uncomfortable preliminaries. Pulp’s magic, and the ultimate gift of “His ‘N’ Hers”, is turning all of that cynicism into something completely sexy and making it seem as if nothing in the world could possibly matter more, or carry more weight, than that sexual chase; and the album does indeed sound huge and dramatic.

There are two keys for that immensity: the beats of Jarvis’ synthesizers and the overwhelmingly colorful waves that wash over the listeners whenever Candida Doyle presses the keys of her keyboards. Pulp’s music stands between a jam-packed stadium and a crowded dance floor without truly belonging to any of them: it is big yet intimate; dancy yet way too decadent to make people forget about the mess that life is. The verses are half-spoken and half-sung by a whispering Jarvis Cocker, and when the choruses hit it is as if some cosmic musical dam has been blasted open: the music booms, the guitars come in with ringing sinuous lines, the keyboards and beats combine to drown listeners in their layers, and a barrage of pop hooks is unleashed. The formula may be reused too often, but the melodies are so great, the lyrics so witty, and the rhythms so irresistible that it does not really matter; and even though a couple of tunes fall flat, “His ‘N’ Hers” is almost always operating at the peak of its powers.

Whether it is rocking in full force in “Joyriders”, where a group of teenage vandals rides around town in a car damaging private property and looking for girls willing to join them on their trip to the local reservoir; being playful and delivering punchlines in “Babies”, where a girl and a boy hide inside a closet to spy on what the girl’s sister is doing locked in the bedroom with her male friend; or reaching for anthemic electronic heights in “Do You Remember the First Time?”, where the desperate singer pleads his lover not to give in to her ex-partner’s advances; “His ‘N’ Hers” is always a fantastic listen, alternating sexual tension with witty resolutions and representing, with style, the most awkward and sexy side of the Britpop movement.

peace_trailAlbum: Peace Trail

Artist: Neil Young

Released: December 9th, 2016

Highlights: Peace Trail, Terrorist Suicide Hang Gliders, Glass Accident

Unquestionably, there is a certain beauty to the fact Neil Young, currently seventy-one years old, is still an extremely productive musician. While most of his generational peers have retired from music altogether, lived the past few decades comfortably sitting on the catalog they amassed during their heydays, or released new works at a sluggish pace, Young gave the world a whopping seven records of original material between 2010 and 2016. Detractors claim those releases are mostly lackluster, saying many of the songs and lyrics could have used more time and attention, and condemn Young for focusing on silly gimmicks, such as recording with a full-blown orchestra (“Storytone”) or inside a restored Voice-o-Graph from the 1940s (“A Letter Home”). Whereas fans admire Young’s restless spirit and browse through the numerous songs in search of gems, which in some records are sparse (“Storytone”) but in others appear in enough numbers to lift the album that houses them to greatness (“Psychedelic Pill”).

“Peace Trail” is the latest link added to that chain of productivity, and, unfortunately, by all imaginable measures, it gives fuel to those who see Neil Young as an old man whose idiosyncrasy has been amplified to extreme lengths due to the passing of time. Quite simply, very little about it is redeeming. Never has Young’s recently developed philosophy of recording albums within a few days been more blatant. Lyrically, “Peace Trail” is so undercooked it feels like much of what is sung was improvised on the spot; there is no poetry whatsoever, just a collection of sentences that could have been put together by anyone else in the world. In “Cant’ Stop Workin”, where Neil apparently tries to justify his invariably active persona, he sings “Well I can’t stop workin’ cause I like to work / When nothing else is going on”; and in “My New Robot”, he delivers a heavy-handed warning about how we are being controlled by technology by saying “My life has been so lucky / The package has arrived / I got my new robot / From amazon dot com”, and one cannot help but wonder if this is indeed the artist that talked about that same theme twenty-four years ago in the brilliant, disturbing, robotic, and poetic “Sample and Hold”.

The biggest crime committed by “Peace Trail”, though, does not lie in its lyrics – anyone closely following Neil Young knows he has been struggling with them for a while. The true disappointment comes in the songs’ arrangements and their melodies. The former are bare and simplistic, making it quite obvious Neil Young did not give his musicians and producer enough time to work on these songs, turning the album into a continuous fog of standard drumming, simple guitar strums, and shy bass lines. Such stripped-down setup could be forgiven if it served to highlight the beauty carried by the songs, but in supporting material that is weak (with the exception of the title track and “Terrorist Suicide Hang Gliders”) it actually reveals how poor the melodies are: they exhale the same laziness found in the lyrics, coming off as repetitive, uninspired, and hastily assembled.

For many years, “Landing on Water”, released in 1986 and in the midst of a decade when Young was sued by his own label for not sounding like himself, was considered to be, by many, the nadir of the artist’s career; a point in which the worst side of his freewheeling artistic behavior, which had also taken him to musical heights only achieved by a handful of human beings, came to the surface. It is hard to say if “Peace Trail” owns that dubious honor from now, but one thing is for sure: like a rant from a lovable grandparent who is losing touch with the world, it is strange, weird, awkward, and terrible. The old-man version of Neil Young can still do much better than this, as recent releases (such as 2015’s “The Monsanto Years”) have shown.

fun_houseAlbum: Fun House

Artist: The Stooges

Released: July 7th, 1970

Highlights: Down on the Street, Loose, 1970, Fun House

Although The Stooges’ self-titled debut is gigantic in historical terms, for it is usually appointed, along with the MC5’s “Kick Out the Jams”, as the albums that spawned punk rock and all kinds of music that are played with more focus on instinct and anger than technique and calculations, it is a flawed product. The Stooges became notorious for their ferocious live performances and, when taken into the studio and produced by The Velvet Underground’s John Cale, much of that energy was lost. The problem was not the quality of the songs (they were pretty excellent for the most part) or the fact Iggy Pop couldn’t smear meat on his body, attack the audience, or stage dive on record. The issue lay in how the band seemed to be just going through the motions when locked up in a room, as if they were so far out of their natural environment that they were too bored to care. Less than one year after that album came out, though, The Stooges would redeem themselves, and allow those who could not go to their shows to witness their might, in “Fun House”.

The line that would define Iggy’s persona (“I’m a street walking cheetah with a heart full of napalm”) would only appear in the successor to “Fun House”, the impressive “Raw Power”, but it is here that such a character was fully forged and first shown to the major public. Iggy and the band sound like caged animals trying to break free, and it is not just because the vocalist emits animal growls and howls like a maniac in all of the album’s songs. The Stooges’ rage is palpable; the guitar riffs are so threatening they likely walk with a concealed pocket knife; and listeners who turn on their stereos in a volume that is worthy of the record will likely find themselves jumping around their living rooms punching the air while secretly hoping they will hit something, or at least they will wish doing so were socially acceptable. “Fun House” hits like a ton of bricks, and despite its dark contours, it is ridiculously alluring; one can easily picture Iggy Pop himself standing in front of a decrepit garage door with a worn out sign that reads “Fun House” while inviting passer-byes in with a wicked smile on his face.

Iggy Pop may be the Grand Master of the party, but the only reason he is able to come off as an impossible-to-tame combination of man and animal is because The Stooges are a train that threatens to come off the tracks at any second due to its uncanny momentum. Few riffs in the entire discography of rock music pack as much menacing energy as the one from “Down on the Street”. The double guitars of “Loose”; the circular pounding riff of “T.V. Eye”; and the mad eight-minute jazz-rock jam of the title track – which combines a thumping bass, cutting guitars, and a wild saxophone – are bound to make those who bear witness to their power lose all control of their senses; and the perfectly recorded drums, which appear to be in the same room as the listeners, are heartbeats that feel like powerful punches.

By being the album in which The Stooges are finally let loose, “Fun House” also contains incredible bits of improvisation, and although the group is not exactly technical, it is their impeccable primal instincts that take over in these occasions. Both “Dirt” and “Fun House”, which run past the seven-minute mark, are classic examples of shining gems that emerge because the guitars and the saxophone, in the case of the latter, are allowed to run free; however, even tunes that are more straightforward, such as “Down on the Street”, offer opportunities for improvised guitar licks and shouts that lend uniqueness and wildness to each riff repetition. The extreme culmination of all of that is “L.A. Blues”, the album’s closer, and an instrumental about chaos that sends its message by producing a cacophonous rock symphony. The Stooges wrap up their wild party by tearing down the garage, and the ending is suitable, for – after this one – no other celebration could live up to such greatness and be worthy of the location.

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Magic in the South Pacific

moanaThe Walt Disney Animation Studios built its storytelling legacy upon the rewriting of traditional fairy-tales; re-imagining folk stories as appealing works of art drenched in color and magic. It comes as a rather pleasant turn of events, then, that the company’s current period – which started in 2009 with The Princess and the Frog and has been dubbed the Second Disney Renaissance thanks to the high quality of the flicks being produced – has had a good share of completely original scripts. A characteristic that was once almost exclusively reserved to the revered The Lion King has come to the forefront once more with movies such as Wreck-It Ralph, Zootopia, and Moana showing that Disney is perfectly capable of releasing animated features powered by stories that have not been put onto paper anywhere else.

Even though Moana shares that link of originality with those other Disney classics, their similarities stop right there. The Lion King, Wreck-It Ralph, and Zootopia, more than being written from scratch, were remarkable because they walked away from the company’s traditional mold: although they did carry many of Disney’s signature traits, the tales they told were not enchanted fables. Moana, meanwhile, runs the other way: it is a deliberate attempt by the studio to write their own fairy-tale and to create, through their own hands, the kind of magic they used to merely borrow from European narratives.

In a way, such a decision may lead to some quite troubled waters. After all, Moana runs the risk of coming off as a cookie-cutter production; one that, instead of subverting the expectations of its audience, chooses to dance to the sound of its music. On the other hand, though, if its directors become aware of the rock they are about to sail this vessel into, then the movie may steer towards a brighter horizon, for the attempts to make it truly unique despite its mundane spirit may pay off considerably. And that is precisely why Moana is so interesting: because through its running time it is constantly finding a way to juggle both its desire to be original and the fact it is locked into the pattern of a traditional fairy-tale.

moana2The movie starts with the telling of a legend of how the demigod Maui stole the mystical heart of the goddess Te Fiti, an item that had the power to create life. Due to this impulsive act, darkness starts to slowly spread through the islands of the Polynesia, scaring animals away and draining life off the vegetation. Moana is the daughter of the chief of one of those islands, and nearly 1,000 years after Maui’s theft, the curse reaches her home, threatening the life of her people. Chosen by the ocean to be the one to recover the mystical heart of Te Fiti, find and convince the stubborn Maui to help her, and restore peace to the region, Moana must face both the ordeals the journey will throw her way and the resistance of her father to find her true self and mature.

Given the premise, it is easy to see why Moana may feel like a movie one has already seen way too many times. The conflict between Moana and her father, who refuses to let her sail past the reefs and that thinks staying on the island is the best course of action, serves as the trampoline that launches her towards a journey in which she must move out from under his wings and discover who she is. Moreover, the fact the movie is a musical (with thoroughly excellent songs crafted by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of the Broadway hit Hamilton) in which a great deal of plot exposition and character development is done through singing makes it a close sibling to many other features that are a part of the Disney canon.

However, despite that proximity, Moana ultimately stands out. It does not completely get away from the structure within which it exists, but it does succeed in being enjoyable and emotionally moving. The reason for that, mostly, is related to its setting. John Musker and Ron Clements, the movie’s directors, embarked on a massive journey of learning and researching in order to bring life to a world that is unknown to many, and the results are visible.

moana3The design of the boats, the legends that are told, the languages that are punctually used, the expressions of the characters, and the region’s way of life are all either partially or completely grounded on reality, a quality that lends the setting a great deal of believability. And the movie uses that solid platform as a starting point to a sea adventure that merges realism with the crazy kind of fantasy that could only exist in an animation, including extravagant coconut-shaped pirates that behave like the lunatics from Mad Max: Fury Road, a voyage to the depths of a psychedelic Realm of Monsters, and absolutely jaw-dropping visuals – which nod towards both Life of Pi and Polynesian art – that make Moana Disney’s most beautiful movie up to date.

Still, the greatest step Moana takes in the direction of differentiating itself from other great Disney standards is neither artistic nor related to its setting, but in how it completely shuns the idea of featuring one main villain. Therefore, the movie becomes not a battle between good and evil, but a story that revolves around characters. Additionally, given how a huge portion of the quest is spent with Moana and Maui traveling through the ocean, the plot’s sidecharacters – although masterfully developed and poignant in the messages they send, with Moana’s grandmother, the heroine’s moral compass, being the clear highlight – fall by the wayside. That way, Moana aims its spotlight towards the titular character and Maui, and it reveals two of the best and finely developed personages to ever appear on a Disney animation, making their turbulent relationship into the plot’s guiding thread.

Consequently, the key to Moana’s greatness as a movie does not lie in its general format. Its excellence is actually found in the construction of its setting and in how it uses the hearts of two characters, with all their beautiful qualities and weaknesses, as the main roadblocks that separate total doom from the coveted goal. It is, therefore, the Disney fairy-tale with which it is the easiest to connect, because although it does deal with the supernatural in many occasions, the ultimate problems that need to be solved are those that exist within ourselves, and no amount of magic can help us overcome them. In the end, then, Moana’s journey and growth may be a tad cliched, but the way in which it is rolled out is absolutely fantastic, and transforms the movie into yet another great entry in the hall of Disney animation.


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SteamWorld Heist Review

By transforming technological ships in outer space into saloons of the wild west and replacing human cowboys with metallic heroes, SteamWorld Heist manages to be a fantastic mixture of genres and styles

steamworld_heist4While some gaming franchises are perpetually stuck inside the confines of the same genre, something that is certainly not inherently negative, SteamWorld has built its reputation on a series of titles that are completely different from one another. The self-explanatory SteamWorld Tower Defense introduced the world to a desolated future Earth inhabited by steam-powered bots that tried to protect their loot from a degenerated and zombie-like species of humans, while SteamWorld Dig sent players towards the core of the planet as they uncovered the secrets of a deep mine that was set up like a big maze. Appropriately, and keeping such tradition intact, SteamWorld Heist ditches all elements from its predecessors – save for their universe and robots – and bets on turn-based gameplay that is centered around shooting, an unusual mixture that besides working wonderfully also lends the game a great deal of originality.

Being original is not exactly new to the SteamWorld saga, but Heist comes off as the culmination of a process in which Image & Form’s developers slowly gained more confidence in their product and, therefore, progressively felt more comfortable to tackle new ideas. Tower Defense approached a style that is frequently explored by smaller developers, but with a few curious twists in setting and gameplay; Dig used Metroid’s general structure as the starting point for the construction of something relatively new; and Heist dares to throw most influences out the window to create its own sandbox.

Just like the events portrayed in Dig occurred long after those of Tower Defense, Heist also takes a considerable leap through time. Hundreds of years after Rusty explored his uncle’s mine with a trusty pickaxe, the Earth has broken into thousands of pieces which have become mining colonies floating amidst the stars. Among the Steambots that have taken the role of space cowboys – struggling for resources, protecting those that are oppressed by an authoritarian government and dangerous outlaws alike, and looking to make ends meet – is Captain Piper Faraday and her crew. Thrown into illegality after refusing to complete an official mission that would have killed numerous rebels, she roams the outskirts of space in her ship, trying to hide and survive.

steamworld_heist1Naturally, as it happens in all games, Piper’s regular life of boarding the vessels of criminals in order to acquire much needed water gallons – which are essential for the Steambots – eventually stumbles upon a much greater thread that sends her on a collision course with the rulers of the galaxy. And so begins the action. Heist is curious not just in its merging of shooting – which requires that players find the correct weapon inclination so that the shot will hit foes – and turn-based movements, but also because it does all of that in a sidescrolling perspective. As Piper and her teammates enter hostile ships, then, a game of cat and mouse ensues: players must simultaneously move their units onto positions that will give them an advantage (and hopefully a clean shot at the enemy) during the next turn, and that will provide some sort of cover from foes’ lines of sight.

Smartly, Heist breaks up its big ships into various rooms of different sizes; a solution that makes battles extremely tense for two reasons: firstly, because its conflicts will happen in tightly enclosed spaces; secondly, due to the fact unvisited rooms appear as black shadows on the map, leaving players completely in the dark regarding their structure and how many enemies are in there until they actually dare to open the doors and enter them.

Moreover, the strategic value is greatly amplified thanks to the intricate design of most rooms, as they are usually multileveled – with lots of catwalks and ladders connecting them – and offer plenty of cover opportunities, explosive barrels, and other assets. That reality becomes even more impressive when one considers that most ships are randomly generated, a feature that causes some difficulty inconsistencies (as some setups, particularly related to the starting position of enemies, are easier than others), but that compensates such a punctual problem by considerably boosting the game’s replayability.

steamworld_heist5Broken up into three sectors and split into over thirty missions, Heist is a pretty lengthy game, especially when its price is taken into account. The twelve hours it takes to clear its campaign, though, are expanded not only by the randomized nature of its level generation, but also by a whopping five levels of difficulty – which can be adjusted at any time – and a rating that is awarded to players after each level is complete, with the number of stars received depending on how many team members made it out of the ship without being blown to pieces and on the full collection of all the loot scattered around the level.

Within the realm of its simple hide-and-shoot gameplay, Heist is able to find a good degree of complex undertones. As Piper advances through space, she comes across bars in which she can buy weapons (such as machine guns, simple revolvers, rocket launchers, and more), other useful items, and also recruit new Steambots. In total, there are nine unique playable characters, which belong to a number of different classes – hence being able to carry specific weapons, gain unique abilities when leveling up, and offer available slots into which utility tools like armor that increases HP, special grenades, and etc. can be equipped. Gamers, then, have, at their disposal, a flexible army that allows the construction of an incredible range of strategies.

SteamWorld Heist, however, does not soar solely due to its gameplay. Under that solid fabric, the game is able to build a world that is utterly fantastic. Image & Form combine various styles and artistic influences into one remarkable and cohesive setting. Most of the title’s visual elements have blatant steampunk inclinations, with that technology having great prominence in the post-apocalyptic scenario that is described. That look, however, pleasantly contrasts with the fact that these robots are still cowboys, as their demeanor is firmly attached to that of the wooden towns in the middle of the desert that served as the background for its two prequels. All of those pieces are, then, complemented by a vintage aura that is exhaled by Heist’s music and cutscenes, which seem to have come out of the 40s, giving birth to an awesome old-school wild-west story supported by steam-powered technology and starred by cowboy robots.

steamworld_heist3Still, SteamWorld Heist is held back by a few problems. Missions, despite being extremely tense and fun, have little variety to them, with most being focused on going into the ships, killing enemies or destroying a certain structure, and evacuating with gathered treasured. Likewise, boss battles suffer from some lack of creativity, as all of the bosses are more focused on summoning hordes of minor enemies than on presenting some sort of creative challenge that is considerably different from what is seen on a regular level. Finally, the limitations of the crew’s inventory and the harshness of the punishment for failing missions or choosing to abort them once one realizes their situation is hopeless are a bit extreme. The former is simply too small, and forces players to buy extra slots one by one for steep prices, therefore greatly reducing the variety of tools and weapons one can carry. The latter, meanwhile, eats half of Piper’s wallet, causing those who have been saving to buy the more expensive items to lose absurd amounts of cash just for making a mistake or wanting to restart the mission from scratch right away.

In spite of those issues, though, SteamWorld Heist absolutely nails its turn-based sidescrolling shooting. The unlikely combination of seemingly heterogeneous genres is matched by the equally wild mixture of artistic and visual influences the game drinks from, and – in both cases – the outlandish combinations are successful. Piper and her crew of Steambots are amazing characters, and the world in which they exist is as alluring as the tension-filled shootouts they constantly find themselves engaged in. Image & Form transforms technological ships in outer space into saloons of the wild west, replaces human cowboys with metallic heroes, and comes away with one astonishing game.


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