Drill Dozer Review

Drill Dozer’s plan to replace the platforming centerpiece of jumping with the thrill and might of drilling like an angry girl inside a mean machine is a success

dd1Game Freak is, understandably so, known as the company that churns out Pokémon installments at an uncanny pace. However, while the projects of the lucrative pocket monster saga are certainly constant, the developer has also found enough time and resources to devote to endeavors that give its teams room to stretch their creativity. Drill Dozer, released in 2006 for the Game Boy Advance, is one of those games; a title embedded with the kind of wacky charming creativity that could only come out of Japan, and an adventure that, despite its occasional missteps, manages to be one of the system’s most unique and universally appealing efforts.

The Red Dozers are a band of thieves led by Doug. One day, he is attacked by a rival gang, the Skullkers. Doug is left temporarily incapacitated in bed and his precious Red Diamond, a treasured and powerful relic that was a gift from his deceased wife, is taken away. Determined to recover it, his daughter – the young and spirited Jill – steps in as the gang’s boss and mounts the vehicle that supports their thefts: the titular Drill Dozer, which serves as the basis for all of the game’s clever and refreshing mechanics.

The simple plot, surprisingly, ends up revealing a couple of intriguing layers of deception and a handful of memorable characters. That happens because Drill Dozer, unlike most platformers of its kind, gives a good degree of attention to its story. Those who want to quickly tackle the action instead of being bombarded by cutscenes and dialogues will be happy to know, though, that everything is done quite soberly. All the stages of the game’s quest are preceded by introductions that mix both elements, but not only are they pleasant and give some background to the levels, hence setting the table for what is to come, they are also ideally brief.

dd4Drill Dozer is broken up into eleven stages, a number that certainly seems to be on the small side, and – as it can be beaten within seven hours – the game could have indeed used a little more content. However, that issue is alleviated by the seven secret levels – which are cleverly designed and quite challenging – to be unlocked by acquiring maps in the game’s shop, the thirty one treasures hidden throughout the locations, and the considerable length and intricacy of the eleven courses that comprise the title’s main quest. Although their individual sizes might go against the game’s nature as a portable software, that problem is nullified by the fact that players can save their progress at any time and the abundance of well-positioned checkpoints.

Aboard the Drill Dozer, Jill tackles platforming challenges that are pleasantly original. The machine’s powers are limited, as it can only jump and spin its drill either clockwise or counterclockwise, but Game Freak takes that last element and explores it beautifully. Enemies and bosses, then, instead of being eliminated by the traditional blows to the head, need to be taken down with the drill; while the obstacles that populate the stages usually require the timely pairing up of jumps and drill usage.

Some of those enemies and obstacles are straightforward: a simple spinning of the drill will kill the former and overcome the latter, as it frequently happens with fragile walls and other objects that are lying around. As it is the case with most platformers, regular enemies never rise considerably in complexity, which is far from a sin: at most, Drill Dozer summons members of the police force that are only vulnerable at certain places or occasions, such as a strong robot guarded by electric fields that has a loose screw over its head as its only weaknesses, therefore forcing Jill to land a precise drilling move from above. When it comes to combat, the game’s creative energy is highlighted by its great and numerous boss encounters, some of which brilliantly stray away from the one-on-one physical confrontations that such meetings tend to entail.

dd3Where Drill Dozer truly shines, though, is in its exploration and level design. The first one is excellent because the game’s levels are usually complex in their construction, allowing players to go back and forth between areas and occasionally featuring a dash of backtracking. The second item soars because of the amount of cool devices with which Jill’s drill can interact. There are catapults that launch her into the air at heights that depend on the speed of the drill, tunnels – ideal for thieves – that need to be traversed by spinning the drill in a specific orientation and at a specific gear, moving sockets that need to be latched onto with the drill, and more. Game Freak even takes some chances by, on two specific stages, transforming the Drill Dozer into aquatic and flying vehicles. Sadly, those experiments end up with mixed results given how the controls and physics of these two contraptions are more bothersome than they are practical.

The game’s cleverest design choice is the fact that although the Drill Dozer has three gears, it – due to the weariness of usage – reverts back to only one at the beginning of each level. Therefore all of them progress naturally from simpler challenges that have to be surpassed with a weak drill to situations in which the unstoppable menace that is the Drill Dozer at full speed is required. Additionally, it allows developers to create backtracking scenarios that force players to, after acquiring the extra two gears, go back to a certain portion of the course to gain entrance to a new area.

Speaking of returning to previously visited areas, Drill Dozer’s biggest problem may be how it does not let players collect all of its hidden treasures on their first way through the stages. Besides extra energy tanks and maps that unlock extra levels, the shop players can access whenever they are back at the Red Dozers’ headquarters also carries super resistant drills that only become available late into the adventure. Those drills are able to break through steel blocks that are strategically placed throughout all of the levels, and they are often hiding areas with rewards such as the elusive treasures or some cash. Due to that, collecting everything the game hides can only be done if all stages are played more than once, something that comes off as a cheap measure to extend gameplay time.

dd2That problem, along with a soundtrack that is sometimes way too busy, a few scenarios that are slightly dull, and the control shortcomings that exist when the Drill Dozer is in the water or airborne (two scenarios that are limited to two stages), do not – in the very least – undermine the game’s value as a platformer that is charming and clever. Drill Dozer’s plan to replace the commonplace platforming centerpiece of jumping with the thrill and might of drilling like an angry girl inside a mean machine succeeds through very good level design and spectacular boss battles. It is an overlooked Game Boy Advance gem that sparkles amidst the shining constellation of fantastic titles the system had.


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Metroid: Zero Mission Review

Zero Mission gives the original Metroid the biggest gift it possibly could: it makes that title’s legacy reverberate loud and clear through the gaming universe

zm1There is little to no doubt that the original Metroid is a classic. Its revered status, however, is far more closely related to the masterful series it would spawn and to its concept than to its execution. Like its generational peer – The Legend of Zelda, also released in 1986 – it was a game that carried an intriguing and wall-tumbling idea: in its case, taking the left-to-right sidescrolling gameplay and placing it inside a maze that had to be traversed back and forth numerous times in order to be cleared. As it was the case with Link’s first quest, Samus’ debut mission had ambition whose weight could not be handled by the available hardware at the time; unlike it, though, Metroid, due to the incompatibility between its overwhelming grandeur and the NES, sank far more often than it found ways to stay afloat.

Consequently, if there was a game in the Nintendo lore that claimed for a remake, that game was Metroid. In 2004, amidst a rather bountiful period that saw the franchise gain four new installments in the span of just two years, Nintendo delivered that overhaul under the appropriate moniker of Metroid: Zero Mission. Metroid, then, supported by hardware whose strength was more than appropriate to house an undertaking of its stature, got its second chance to prove itself. The opportunity was not forfeited: the series got one of its strongest and purest outings, and the Game Boy Advance became the home to one of Nintendo’s greatest portable titles.

As the reinterpretation of Metroid’s inception, Zero Mission naturally stands alongside Super Metroid as the titles that feature the franchise’s signature gameplay at its most unaltered state. Samus is dropped on Zebes with nothing but a mission to exterminate the planet’s Metroids and Space Pirates, a pat on the back by the Galactic Federation, and a suit that allows her to perform simple jumps and shoot beams that only travel a short distance. In order to achieve her goal, she must, alone, explore locations that are brimming with dangers, both in the form of enemies and environmental hazards, and slowly acquire new equipment that will allow her to get to previously unreachable places.

zm3That basic Metroid recipe, which was finely established by the original title as far as level design intricacies go, works astoundingly well. Samus’ journey from a limited soldier to a bounty hunter capable of dealing with the universe’s greatest threats, which will appear in the form of great action-packed boss battles, is thoroughly engaging. There are no dull moments to be found here. Zero Mission is a constant stream of exploration and puzzle solving where the fully connected maze-like world map is the greatest riddle. It is a relentless immersive act of finding a new piece of equipment – such as the classic Morph Ball, the fire resistant Varia Suit, or the arsenal-enhancing Power Bombs, missiles, Screw Attack, and beams – and figuring out where that new power can be used to open the path to an undiscovered place.

Zero Mission takes the bases and the world built by Metroid, paints them with beautiful art, and improves them in every aspect. It is clear that Super Metroid served as a great source of inspiration in numerous areas: the visuals, which are as involving and alluring as the Game Boy Advance allows; the color palette, which is somber and alien; the controls, as Samus’ movements – including the much needed crouching that the original game surprisingly lacked – behave and are the same as those of the Super Nintendo classic; and the rather efficient map system, the greatest absence felt by the brave souls that tackled the NES title, which marks important locations, hides secret spots, and is easy to navigate.

From Super Metroid, Zero Mission also borrows its minimalistic storytelling approach. Within seconds from starting the game, following a brief text message coming from the Galactic Federation explaining her task on Zebes, Samus will have landed and started her exploration. Zero Mission, however, takes things one step further in that regard by adorning a handful of the adventure’s major moments with short, but sweet, cutscenes carried by gorgeous pixel art, adding hints of modern gaming to a classic structure.

zm4Zero Mission certainly benefits from the natural evolution of hardware that transpired in the eighteen years that passed since the debut of its source material. Its interface is rich, including tutorials explaining how each of the pieces of equipment works and what their benefits are; its visuals and music are magnanimous, with classic Metroid tunes being smartly reused; and assets such as maps, save points, and even Chozo Statues that when activated make a glowing orb appear on the map to indicate to players where to go next – which does not ruin the fun given getting to the locations is still quite puzzling – all conspire to make an experience that was originally brutal turn into an accessible, yet still challenging, game. Zero Mission makes a further commendable effort to welcome all kinds of players by offering three difficulty settings, including a hard mode that is unlocked when the game is beaten.

Zero Mission’s best new features, however, run far deeper than that. Brand new items and mini-bosses have been included. Moreover, and most importantly, besides the classic locations of Norfair, Brinstar, and Tourian, the game adds a whopping three new full-fledged settings that come into play and must be explored during the quest. Such additions are responsible for turning the game into a masterful remake, one that is not merely satisfied with unearthing the greatness of the original Metroid, as it also looks to reinterpret and extend it – thereby creating a fresh adventure that should last six hours, or even more if players decide to look for the dozens of missile, bomb, and energy tank expansions scattered around Zebes.

Nintendo, in fact, tackles the quest of implementing punctual changes to the game with so much dedication that one particular new area offers an intriguing brand new take on the Metroid universe. In it, due to a series of unfortunate events, Samus becomes so vulnerable she is forced to use stealth to avoid her enemies and desperately run and hide whenever she is seen. Undeniably, the setup is well-done, as is its integration into the Metroid fabric, and the engaging segment produces moments of absolute thrill and tension. However, the fact that some specific portions lean too closely on trial-and-error, forcing players to go back to the last save point only to try numerous different strategies again and again until something works, is a tiny smudge on a game that has, otherwise, flawless level design. The same applies to some rare, but existing, poor save point placements, which incur the replaying of relatively lengthy segments when Samus dies.

zm2With these two exceptions, Metroid: Zero Mission is a perfect and ideal remake. It reveals, and makes accessible to many, the flooring intricacy in level design that the minds at Nintendo were able to put together in 1986, one that is perhaps only paralleled – as far as 2-D games go – by the giant that is Super Metroid. More than that, it dares to build upon that recipe with numerous additions and comes out of it almost unscathed and with plenty of well-deserved accolades. Consequently, it creates the definitive narrative of the events that transpired on Samus’ first quest on Zebes, and turns the original Metroid – a game that deserves utter respect and admiration for the formula it coined, and that is charmingly included in the package as an extra – into an item for collectors and avid fans. Upon taking that throne, though, Zero Mission is kind enough to give the original game the biggest gift it possibly could: it makes Metroid’s legacy reverberate loud and clear through the gaming universe.


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Rainbows and Dark Clouds

color_splash1From the moment of its announcement, it was pretty obvious Paper Mario: Color Splash walked on a tightrope between dark disastrous stormy clouds and bright rainbows of success, with high chances of being struck by lightning. Coming on the heels of the dreadful Sticker Star, which in one swift stroke was able to strip the Paper Mario franchise off all elements that made it great, early signs indicated Color Splash was heavily leaning towards being a sequel to that game. The cards that turned all of Mario’s attacks into disposable one-time-use items were back, and so were the stage-selection map that transformed what was a fully connected world in the previous installments into an assortment of levels harking back to Mario platformers and the lack of experience points that turned battles into pointless encounters that were there to merely waste players’ time.

If it were taken to court and placed on the defendant’s seat, Color Splash would not be able to summon a single alibi to escape the accusation of carrying those features: the verdict would be quick, and the game would be sent to the prison where all offenders of good game design rot for all eternity. However, differently from Sticker Star, an endless lifeless slog in the form of a game, Color Splash is actually fun. Undoubtedly, it does have its share of annoying vices – for example, specific Thing Cards are still a must to make boss battles manageable and to help Mario clear certain obstacles. Nonetheless, in the fixing, or in the minimal shifts in implementation, of many of Sticker Star’s dull mechanics, it finds a way to be successful and entertaining.

color_splash2Shockingly, after being the target of a downpour of criticism, battles remain rather empty: Mario does not gain any experience or levels through them. In other words, the mindless cycle of battling to acquire cards, or coins which will then be spent to purchase more cards, in order to use them in combats that offer no extra reward but more cards and coins still exists. Fortunately, though, thanks to the smart placement of a bunch foes, some battles become meaningful, as going through them becomes imperative for Mario to advance through the levels; a sensible alteration that does the game some good by giving more relevance to its turn-based moments.

Additionally, the game’s division into small stages accessed through a map inspired by that of Super Mario World, another fair point of disappointment among fans and journalists, is a valuable asset rather than a frustrating hindrance this time around. Color Splash is a surprisingly open-ended game; at any time, as portions of the overworld are unlocked, players can choose to explore more than one level. Many of them have over one exit, each revealing a new path to either a previously visited location or a new place; moreover, Mario will discover that exits will sometimes be blocked by obstacles, either physical or plot-related, that will require that he travel to either another unexplored stage or to one that has already been cleared.

color_splash3Such structure is beneficial in a number of ways and is perhaps the main reason the game is successful. It makes the map useful and necessary, for quickly traveling between faraway points becomes a must; it unites the whole overworld under a mighty web of puzzles and quests that feels like it belongs to a Metroid game; and it powers the creation of a thick plot that ends up giving Color Splash important elements that Sticker Star did not have: writing, character, charm, humor, and a heart. Items that are in full display in the dozens of crazy situations Mario is thrown into, as most levels feature their own mini storylines, and that materialize in the many lovable and usually charmingly quirky characters he meets. Paper Mario: Color Splash, then, uses the building blocks from Sticker Star to produce an adventure that is truthfully engaging and that is actually worthy of the Paper Mario name, even if some blatant issues still stand.

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The Great Circus Mystery Starring Mickey & Minnie Review

Oozing with charm and packing a great atmosphere, The Great Circus Mystery can be a good experience for youngsters and Disney aficionados

tgmc2Nowadays, Disney often struggles to transport the quality of their animated properties into their playable versions. In fact, the company’s efforts in that translation seem frequently more focused on making money solely on the famous names attached to the software than delivering an engaging product. Regardless of the causes behind that phenomenon – sheer laziness, the comfort of knowing the titles will yield good profit no matter what, or the fact that the complexity of game-development has skyrocketed – one thing is undeniable: Disney has dropped a long way down from its glorious gaming days, which lasted through the first half of the 90s.

The Great Circus Mystery Starring Mickey & Minnie, the second installment of Disney’s Magical Quest series, is the product of the successful partnership between Disney and Capcom that birthed many of the best titles of that golden era, including Duck Tales, Aladdin, and The Lion King. In this particular outing, however, the Japanese gaming giant is unable to do for Mickey Mouse what it did for those other three franchises; that is, it does not succeed in producing a fantastic classic that is good enough to be revered by gamers and Disney fans alike. Still, The Great Circus Mystery remains an enjoyable and original take on the Mickey universe.

It all begins when both Mickey and Minnie decide to spend a day at the circus. Upon arrival, though, they are warned by Goofy that something had gone awry: everyone that was in the tents disappeared, including Donald and Pluto. Naturally, the pair sets out to investigate the situation, having to go through a sequence of six unique stages to get to the bottom of the mystery.

tgmc1At heart, The Great Circus Mystery is a standard platformer of the Super Nintendo era. Players can tackle the adventure solo, in which case they are forced to choose between one of the characters, or alongside a friend, which is by far the best way to experience the game. The difference between Mickey and Minnie, however, is merely aesthetic: both of them move, jump, and throw enemies that have been stunned in the same way. If it were restricted to this simple set of movements, The Great Circus Mystery would have to perform some considerable tricks to deliver an experience that is sufficiently varied and clever to stand out from its platforming generational peers of mediocre quality. But – luckily – the game avoids that trap by being smart enough to borrow its predecessor’s finest feature: the costumes.

At a relatively early moment, the midway point of the first stage, Mickey and Minnie will come across the first of the game’s three costumes, which means that just a very small portion of the adventure’s short running time is spent with both mice in their standard form. The Sweeper Outfit, the first one to be acquired, lets the couple suck enemies with their vacuum cleaners, consequently turning them into coins that can be used to purchase outfit upgrades and extra lives or hearts from shop locations scattered around the levels. The Safari Outfit, meanwhile, gives Mickey and Minnie the ability to use hooks to swing from blocks, slide down vines, or latch onto walls and platforms. And the Cowboy Outfit gives them a gun to shoot corks at enemies and blocks, and a prancing broomstick horse that performs high jumps.

With the exception of the Cowboy Outfit, whose jumps are somewhat annoying to perform given the button press needs to be timed with moments on which the always-hopping horse touches the ground, all of the four Mickey and Minnie setups control and behave very well. Due to all of those skills, some stages are designed with obstacles aimed towards a specific outfit, while others demand that players switch between them constantly. The same goes for the mini-boss and boss of every stage, as some of them need to be beaten through the use of one costume, whereas others can be defeated with any of the available outfits, with the caveat that one of them is usually certain to make the combat easier.

tgmc4Despite the fact that the six stages hold a nice amount of personality in their visuals and colors, as The Great Circus Mystery is a game that undeniably looks great and is well-animated, their design just does not reach those heights. Actually, The Great Circus Mystery occasionally comes across as mundane and uninspired, alternating solid platforming challenges with segments that feel like they were put together without much thought. The game’s failure in being constantly engaging is baffling not only because the costumes and settings explored gave developers plenty of level-creation opportunities, but also because the short nature of the adventure – one that only contains six stages – should, in theory, have allowed for more time to focus on each level.

Still, The Great Circus Mystery is able to carry enough redeeming features to keep it interesting. Playing it alongside others is fun, and its soundtrack is filled with great tunes, even if the fact most of them are pretty brief means that they loop a little bit too frequently for their own good. Moreover, its twelve boss encounters are creative; and its level of difficulty is good although its continue system, which takes players back to the mid-level checkpoint once all lives are lost instead of making them return to the stage’s start, comes off as not adequately punishing.

Released during Disney’s golden gaming era, The Great Circus Mystery Starring Mickey & Minnie is definitely not as great as the best games based on the company’s properties that came out back in those days. In fact, it is not even Mickey’s finest outing. However, given it is oozing with charm and it packs a great atmosphere – which alternates between adventurous, urgent, and mysterious – it can be a good experience for youngsters and Disney aficionados, especially if they are playing it beside someone else.


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The World Ends With You Review

The World Ends With You is a one-of-a-kind flawed masterpiece, and its incredible qualities are more than enough to explain the passionate cult that surrounds it

twewyFor companies like Square Enix – which are sitting on top of a considerable number of franchises that, if used, will most likely bring in huge amounts of profit and attention regardless of the level of quality achieved by the fresh entries – recycling and retreading, with a few added twists, is always the easy way out. All the developing team needs to do is to use most features and characteristics that make those critically acclaimed series amazing and transport them to a game that will present a new world, a different group of enemies, a handful of new characters, and a nice storyline. The result, more often than not, will be a great package that unfortunately will contribute neither to the growth of the industry nor to the development of a genre.

The true challenge behind the developing process is taking the risk to create something so new and authentic that even people who are supporting the project will occasionally have doubts regarding its success. And when Square Enix, a company that is often criticized for overly exhausting its key properties, is willing to take such a leap, chances are, given their track record in creating signature franchises, fans all over the world will hold high hopes and expect to be amazed. The World Ends With You is one of those treasures: a game overflowing with original daring ideas, backed by a team of respected developers, and that, instead of stumbling on its boldness, uses it match the level of quality one would expect from such a combination.

The game takes place in Shibuya, one of Tokyo’s wards and a place filled with many young people, where big brands and fashion centers are the most popular subjects among the local dwellers. The hip and youthful vibe exhaled by Shibuya is not limited to its concept as a setting; it actually permeates the whole game, from its character and scenario design to numerous gameplay mechanics, making all of the parts that form The World Ends With You come together under an urban, street-smart, fashionable, young, and highly stylized umbrella.

twewy3It is in this vivid and vibrating place where we first encounter the main character of the story. Neku Sakuraba is a teenager that initially carries the mopey and moody attitude that often serve as a caricature for people around his age, something that will unquestionably turn some people away from the character, as he rejects both the world around him and the people who live in it with a nonchalant attitude. Thankfully, though, it is worthy to point out that – as a game underlined by great writing and character development – The World Ends With You makes Neku evolve considerably past his initial stubborn indifference.

Neku wakes up in the main area of the district unable to remember anything about his life besides his own name and a couple of minor details. He has no idea how he got there; however, a few minutes later, his whole world changes dramatically, and is given purpose, when he discovers that he is part of a game controlled by The Reapers – a mysterious organization – where, in order to survive, players have to accomplish each one of the missions that are received via a cell phone on a daily basis during an entire week. Failing on a mission will lead to erasure.

In The Reapers’ game, survival requires that players team up in duos. Neku quickly meets a young girl named Shiki and both of them form a partnership despite the fact that Neku somehow refuses to befriend anyone. The World Ends With You is smart in initially disclosing very little of its plot and universe, for nothing about the nature of the game, the Reapers, and the players is revealed at first; all Neku and his friends know is that they must play the game or face erasure, leaving numerous mysteries to be unveiled as the story progresses.

Therefore, questions like: “Who are the Reapers?”, “What is the game’s goal?”, “Who is Neku?”, and “What is the backstory of the characters that Neku encounters?” will be constantly hovering over players’ heads as they progress through the game. The storyline, then, is extremely compelling, because getting to the bottom of the mysteries the game presents as soon as it kicks off will be one of the main reasons gamers will not be able to put The World Ends With You down.

twewy1To avoid erasure, Neku and his partner will have to advance through Shibuya to solve the given missions. Most tasks are pretty straightforward, as players will be battling their way to certain locations until they reach a big bad boss. However, a few of them require some investigation and exploration, which, unfortunately, could have been implemented slightly better, as The World Ends With You is sometimes stuck in JRPG mannerisms, such as giving players the solution to posed puzzles and leading them towards a restricted path. Consequently, in certain occasions, gamers will feel like they are simply moving from one place to another while fighting enemies, making the adventure feel awfully linear.

The implemented battle system is one of the highlights of the game. Players who dislike random enemy encounters will be glad to know that they will only face enemies in Shibuya when they want to. This is accomplished by using the player pin, which is displayed on the screen as an icon. By touching it with the stylus, Neku will use his senses to scan the area where he is located. When he does so, he will be able to read the minds of people who are nearby – except for those of other players – and also locate the so-called noise, which are the game’s enemies. Touch the noise icon, and battle will ensue.

In battle, Neku will take the bottom screen while his partner will fight on the top one. To succeed, players will have to control both of the characters. In the beginning, fumbling with the controls will be commonplace, since fighting on two screens at the same time can be confusing at first. After a few missions, though, gamers will naturally climb the learning curve and be able to smoothly perform movements with the two characters. For those who are not able to master the dual battles, though, there is an option that allows the CPU to take control of Neku’s partner automatically.

twewy4Both of the characters have distinct battle controls. Neku uses different pins for attacks, each one of them having a different function, such as sending bullets towards the noise, generating an earthquake, or dragging objects on the screen to attack the enemies. There is an endless variety of moves and all of them are activated by different actions executed with the stylus, such as tapping the enemies, slashing Neku, or scratching the ground. Sometimes, though, the system will not identify those actions properly, causing the character to perform the incorrect move or no attack at all, which can be frustrating.

Another minor flaw, which is partially inherent to the moves’ implementations, is that when players equip two pins that are activated by the same action, the game will randomly choose one of them to use first, and Neku will only be able to trigger the other attack once the first pin has already been used to its limit and is recharging its power for another go.

Meanwhile, Neku’s partner faces the same enemies on the top screen, attacking them with moves initiated by pressing one of the D-pad’s directions. Once players choose one of them, a combination of arrows will appear on the screen, and by following them correctly the character will land a combo. By successfully performing many combos, players will activate the fusion move, which is a powerful attack performed by the duo that will heavily harm the enemies and recover a little bit of the team’s health.

Another noteworthy detail regarding the battle system is a green puck of light that is passed between the pair. Whenever a combo is landed, one character will send it to their partner. Such an action will temporally increase the attack power of the character that currently holds the puck, and by keeping the cooperative combo going the puck’s energy will grow, increasing the attack boost that is gained.

twewy5The battle system is great and it creates some truly memorable action-packed battles that will have players on the edge of their seats. Although it has some minor setbacks that could have been fixed, the overall results are battles that are very original and, most importantly, a lot of fun, a fact that greatly alleviates the game’s somewhat lackluster mission design. As it happens in most RPGs, after the battle, characters will receive EXP points and their level will rise, improving a few stats automatically.

Also following the genre’s tradition is how in The World Ends With You characters should be well-equipped to conquer the challenges they face, but in the modern Shibuya there are neither swords nor iron armor. Instead, players will find various stores that sell clothes from numerous brands.

One of the most interesting aspects of the game is the fact that brand charts rule Shibuya. Most of the pins and all clothes acquired during the adventure belong to a certain brand and if that brand is in the top 3 of the current chart, character stats will gain a very good boost – especially if the brand is on top of the chart; conversely, if the brand is the least popular in the area, stats will be halved. So tracking the state of the chart is a must to achieve success, and the feature forces player into expanding their array of clothes and pins rather than staying in the comfort zone of a chosen equipment set.

The bustling and active nature brought in by the brand charts is complemented by The World Ends With You’s soundtrack and presentation, which are absolutely astonishing. Everything here transpires originality, from the graphics to the stylish menus and the rock, hip hop, and electronic songs. The different locations of Shibuya are close to perfect reproductions of the actual place and when playing the game it is possible to feel how alive that corner of Japan is. The character models are very nice and the storyline is shown via text boxes, with a few impressive cutscenes appearing during some key moments of the plot.

The sole issue plaguing the game’s presentation is the lack of a map. During most missions, Neku has to visit certain locations, but since the overworld is somewhat big, sometimes it is easy to get lost while looking for the characters’ destination. Still, a map is nowhere to be found, and a few players will certainly struggle to remember the path they need to take to get to some places.

The World Ends With You, despite the narrowness of its general gameplay, manages to have decent replay value because during the first playthrough – which should last between ten and fifteen hours – players will discover satisfying and unexpected solutions to the questions posed by the plot. However, curiosity about some details of the script and of obscure characters will motivate many to replay the game, since some pieces of information can only be acquired by playing it once again.

twewy2The World Ends With You ends up being a game that is as original as an RPG created by Square Enix can be. It may have its share of problems, coming from both the JRPG traditions it sometimes tends to follow and the bold moves it performs to bring new fantastic elements to the table and take full advantage of the Nintendo DS’ hardware, but none of them will make gamers forget about how big of an accomplishment the game is truly is. Because, as it turns out, adventures with such perfect storytelling and refreshing gameplay do not appear as often as they should. The World Ends With You is a one-of-a-kind flawed masterpiece, and its incredible plot twists, thrilling battles, and unique setting are more than enough to explain the passionate cult that surrounds it.

The World Ends With You

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Albums of the Month: September 2016

skeleton_treeAlbum: Skeleton Tree

Artist: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

Released: September 9th, 2016

Highlights: Rings of Saturn, Girl in Amber, Distant Sky

It is hard, perhaps impossible, to detach “Skeleton Tree” from its context. On July 14th, 2015, Arthur, Nick Cave’s 15-year-old son, died after falling from a cliff near the family’s home. “Skeleton Tree” was mostly finished by the time the devastating incident took place, with just a couple of sessions scheduled past that date. However, the fact the album’s full completion  and release came after Arthur’s death make it seem like a reaction to or a product of the unmeasurable mourning and emptiness that strikes when parents outlive their children; one of those times when an artist seeks, through his work, some kind of healing, or at least an outlet for what lies within. As a sad coincidence, it is quite possible Nick and the band did not have to alter much of “Skeleton Tree” to make it representative of the reality that surrounded the final days of its construction, for it channels a level of sorrowful contemplation of life that is unparalleled within the Bad Seeds’ discography. “Skeleton Tree”, then, carries a tone that alternates between prophetic and desperate.

With his two guitarists and long-time partners, Blixa Bargeld and Mick Harvey, out of the boat, Nick Cave continues to explore the waters of low-key instrumentation of 2013’s “Push The Sky Away” beside Warren Ellis, his main songwriting partner after the duo’s departure. All songs are penned by the pair, with the lyrics falling solely on Nick’s shoulders, and they clearly display Ellis’ appreciation for avant-garde compositions. Truthfully, unusual songs that make a good portion of the world’s population uncomfortable have always been the Bad Seeds’ main exportation product, but here the frantic out-of-control rock band approach is replaced by extreme minimalism. The eight songs of “Skeleton Tree” are built on a web of electronic hums, synthesizers, keyboards, drones, and occasional pianos that seem to only be there to indicate key changes. Cave and Ellis create something that leans towards ambient music; only it is sad, beautiful in indescribable ways, and haunting, instead of unremarkable and dull.

Over that layer, Nick Cave sings lines that are almost stripped of melody. Alongside the simple instrumentation, that singing style causes the tunes to lack any predetermined structure, and the singer takes advantage of that to deliver a mixture of singing and talking that might as well have been improvised. The music is so moving that Nick gets into it deeply enough to produce results that are spectacularly powerful and evocative. He sounds vulnerable, concerned, and a great deal of pain comes through. In “Girl in Amber”, he seems to sing of a dead young girl who survives, perfectly preserved, in the memory of her parents, moving and making noises around the house. The way he sings the line “And if you want to bleed, just bleed”, as the Bad Seeds unleash ghastly unorthodox vocals, makes one wonder if that is one of the parts of the record that was altered following Arthur’s death; the same applies to the heartbreaking chorus of “I Need You”, and some of its other desperately sung lines, like “Just breathe” and “I’ll miss you when you’re gone away forever”.

“Skeleton Tree” is a work that, unfortunately, gains weight because of the context that surrounds it. However, even if the tragedy is not considered, it is by all means a masterpiece. More than thirty years into his career with the Bad Seeds, Nick Cave completely shifts the dynamics of his writing. He replaces wicked storytelling with painful meditation, goes for an audacious level of minimalism not many have been brave enough to tackle, embraces a stream of consciousness straight vocal delivery that is strongly embedded with feeling, and writes songs without any set structure. It is a loud statement on his artistry and on the Bad Seeds’ ability to tackle anything from post-punk debauchery to avant-garde music. “Skeleton Tree” is an impeccable and bold work of art.


midnight_oilAlbum: 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1

Artist: Midnight Oil

Released: November 2nd, 1982

Highlights: Short Memory, Read About It, Power and the Passion, Maralinga

Although breakthrough albums sometimes walk hand-in-hand with artistic boldness of some level, not many of them can be called weird. “10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1”, the fourth record by Australian rock band Midnight Oil, may not have been a worldwide smash hit – it actually landed extremely far from that spot, but it was nevertheless responsible for giving the group the number three position on the charts of their home country. With such a background, it is natural that one would expect the record to sound somewhat conventional and positively accessible; however, even though it does pack a good share of charming hooks and great choruses, the work captures Midnight Oil veering away from their established brand of hard rock infused with punk approach and attitude, and bumping into some rather curious terrain.

The album’s opener, “Outside World”, for instance, is a synthesizer-laden ballad that sounds more like a tune out of a Tears For Fears record than a track produced by four men whose focus often targets political issues. “Scream In Blue”, meanwhile, borders on progressive, opening up with a two-minute rock instrumental before transforming into a piano-and-voice ballad, certainly an odd choice considering Peter Garrett’s singing never ranked among the band’s best features; and the emotional “Tin Legs and Tin Mines” combines those two facets into a song that alternates moving quiet segments with keyboard-led parts that border on cheery. Moreover, the amazing “U.S. Forces”  smartly, and unexpectedly, tackles with acoustic guitars a riff and an acid theme that would fit like a glove on an electric approach, turning what would normally be a punk rock barn-burner into a campfire folk sing-along affair; and “Power and the Passion” closes with the participation of a brass ensemble that would seem awfully out of place in a more restrained record.

Amidst all the oddity, though, it is easy to see why “10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1” succeeded. Quite simply, it is an excellent set of songs that despite some quirks of the awful production techniques that took over during the 80s, such as overly reverberant soundscapes and cardboard-sounding drums, which may turn some modern listeners off, are finely performed with a great deal of passion. “Only The Strong” has the band firing on all cylinders, with Peter Garrett screaming at the top of his lungs and the guitars of Martin Rotsey and Jim Moginie kicking with uncontrollable fury; “Short Memory” is a beautiful jangly ballad that combines verses that rattle off humanity’s numerous crimes with a catchy chorus that will inevitably pop up in the minds of listeners when they come across yet another human-perpetrated atrocity; “Read About It” has a melody that is so infectious and easy-to-grasp that it, alongside its fiery subject matter, could power a riot; and “Maralinga”, which tackles the British nuclear tests in Australia that poisoned and killed aborigines, is sadly haunting.

“10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1” may not always hit the marks it aims for, but none of its tunes are entirely compromised; its issues and stumbles are merely punctual, amounting to an album that is strong from start to finish. During the five years that separated their eponymous debut from “10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1”, Midnight Oil was searching for a musical identity that would lend muscle to their openly expressed political ideas, and although they did not quite find it here, as the record is still a bit too unfocused, as if its trying to tap into something special by shooting in way too many directions, the album stands as a major step forward and a very strong work.


tenAlbum: Ten

Artist: Pearl Jam

Released: August 27th, 1991

Highlights: Even Flow, Alive, Black, Jeremy

Given their ability to neatly group artists that share some similarities in terms of time, place, or influences, genre labels happen to be quite fascinating and helpful when describing the history of music as a whole. However, often, they work more as a fancy name under which various bands of disparaging styles operate than some actual descriptor of their music. Case in point, the grunge movement and the great disparities between two of its most emblematic children: Nirvana and Pearl Jam. The former was the offspring of the Pixies, borrowing the band’s signature quiet-and-loud dynamics and punk riffs, and employing them in more straightforward songwriting that swapped Black Francis’ weird imagery with teenage angst. Pearl Jam, meanwhile, emerging from the same city – the rainy Seattle – and sporting the same worn-out flannel shirts looked somewhere else for inspiration, and in “Ten”, their well-regarded debut, those sources become apparent.

Where Nirvana’s guitars threw punches, the axes of Mike McCready and Stone Gossard are like steamrollers. As the brutal “Once”, “Even Flow”, “Why Go”, and “Porch” make evident, the lines they deliver are much closer to the elaborate behemoths that Jimmy Page and Tony Iommi unleashed with Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, respectively, than to anything ever put on paper by the punks. The band, however, comes off as original rather than an imitation, thanks to both the combination of technical proficiency with rough extended solos that, like those performed by Neil Young, seem to come from the gut instead of the head and heart; and the idiosyncratic melodies and vocal inflections that Eddie Vedder conjures. With the exception of “Black”, whose timeless melody and sheer sorrowful power more than justify its position in the pantheon of the most remarkable power ballads of all time, rarely does he sound conventional or imitable.

In “Even Flow”, for example, Vedder tackles the confused and depressed mind of a homeless man with singing that, while not failing to deliver a handful of unforgettable hooks, perfectly replicates the erratic behavior of a bitter angry heart. In “Alive”, the disjointed lyrics and fragmented vocals that click together on a sweeping emotional chorus paint a blurry picture of a teenager who discovers his father is not the man who raised him. His most powerful performance, though, is in “Jeremy”, the real tale of a young boy neglected by his parents and rejected by his classmates that ends up shooting himself in front of a crowded classroom, which works as a crescendo that culminates in a couple of minutes of Vedder producing wild groans while the band, especially the guitarists, lay a moving electric companion piece to his vocal outbursts. Although it is true that absolutely none of the record’s remaining seven tracks reach the level of quality of the now-classic quartet of “Even Flow”, “Alive”, “Black”, and “Jeremy”, “Ten” still qualifies as a near-perfect album.

When it aims for straight-up rockers, Pearl Jam sounds as fierce as the mightiest giants who have left their marks in rock history, even if sometimes some of those tunes lack a more creative and engaging melodic treatment. On the other end of the spectrum, the set of ballads presented by “Ten”, which in addition to “Black” includes “Oceans” – a song that stands out due to its beautiful simplicity – and “Release”, is invariably effective, as Vedder has an incredible knack for giving gravity to sadness and Gossard, Ament, and McCready seem to share the same kind of sensitivity when it comes to gloomy slow-paced instrumentation. In the end, “Ten” is a complete work by a surprisingly mature band that successfully explores a decently varied genre of tones with a consistent level of engagement and energy.



days_are_goneAlbum: Days Are Gone

Artist: Haim

Released: September 27th, 2013

Highlights: Falling, The Wire, Go Slow, Running If You Call My Name

Formed by sisters Este, Danielle, and Alana – whose shared last name serves as the band’s moniker – Haim, perhaps as an indication of the girls’ interest in music from a very early age, came to be back in 2007, when Este, the oldest of the trio, was just 20. However, “Days Are Gone”, their very first album, would only appear six years later. For most bands, such an interval is either a sign of the long time it took for the industry to discover them – an increasingly unlikely scenario due to the current benefits brought by the always-present opportunity to release music on the Internet – or of a long period of maturation of the group’s musical creativity and songwriting skills. With Haim, though, that delay simply occurred because the gig only became a full-time occupation for the sisters in 2012. However, anyone who listens closely to “Days Are Gone” unaware of the band’s history will likely think, thanks to the record’s strength, that the eleven tunes it contains had been around for quite a while before they were put on a record; a deduction that might not be wrong as they sound full-fledged and seem aware of what they want to achieve.

Surprisingly, especially for girls who wield a guitar (Danielle), a bass (Este), and keyboards (Alana)  when on the stage and who are part of a generation that leans towards indie music, the target they aim for is the pop of the 80s. Surely, listening to Haim may cause many listeners to think about female stars of the era’s post-punk movement such as Debbie Harry and Chrissie Hynde, but Haim are much closer to an R&B-infused Madonna than to Blondie or The Pretenders. Guitars do indeed surface here and there, but they serve more as the channel through which punctual licks navigate, as it happens more prominently in the fantastic “The Wire”, than lead instruments. With an always excellent bass work in the background, the rulers of the record are – by far – its synthesizers, which are used to produce pop that sounds mainstream and modern while managing to preserve its originality and light old-school vibe.

With the exception of “My Song 5”, Este, Danielle, and Alana succeed in crafting quality pop music that is catchy and has an abundance of hooks. By purposely singing with a voice that is controlled to a degree that it sounds more like an understandable whisper, Danielle is able to deliver the anguish and sadness that the slower and more atmospheric numbers (“Falling”, “If I Could Change Your Mind”, “Go Slow”, and “Running If You Call My Name”) call for, with her voice nicely merging with the beautiful musical background; and also bring the more agitated numbers (“Forever”, “The Wire”, “Honey & I”) to life. Her sisters follow suit in the constant delivery of excellent backing vocals that seem to augment the tracks’ pop prowesses.

Although its production is rather tasteful, “Days Are Gone” – with the luster its meticulous polish causes – can be rightfully accused of somewhat taming the sisters’ honest and likable energy, which is in full display at their concerts. In comparison to what can be seen during the band’s shows, the album – despite its quality – runs the risk of sounding like a canned and overly calculated product to some. However, even to those that happen to have such an impression, it is hard to qualify “Days Are Gone” as anything below “pleasant pop record”, an indication that its production values – intended or not – do not come close to harming the great work Este, Danielle, and Alana did when writing and performing these songs.


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Scribblenauts Review

A unique concept that occasionally suffers due to its ambitious scope

scribblenautsChances are the ultimate dream of every single gamer out there is to witness the creation and release of a game that allows them to solve problems and kill enemies by using any method one could possibly come up with. While open-world games come somewhat close to that premise by giving players freedom of movement, and letting them go wherever they feel like and do whatever they want, they fail in providing a nearly endless array of problem solving methods, limiting players to the use of a handful tools or methods that have been thoroughly thought through and tested.

Scribblenauts is perhaps the game that comes the closest to achieving that utopia. While it may not possess the freedom open-world games feature, choosing instead to focus on straightforward scenarios that have, at most, four or five screens worth of length; when it is time to come out of tough situations, the game’s one and only boundary is indeed the players’ imagination. By itself, that proposition alone is enough to catch the eye of any gamer; however, even if Scribblenauts has a great share of utterly flooring successes, its sheer freedom also partially undermines it.

Scribblenauts is extremely simplistic in its presentation; like a good old-school game. There is no such thing as a plot. There is a boy named Maxwell and his unbelievable ability to materialize pretty much anything he writes on his notepad. And that is basically all one needs to know before jumping right into the many hours of head-scratching puzzles the game throws at its players. A wise design decision, after all, games from that straightforward bloodline demand no explanation or opening cutscenes in order to be enjoyed.

scribblenauts2The game is divided into ten different worlds, with the first one serving as a quick effective tutorial, and within each one of them players will find a set of eleven puzzle levels and eleven action stages, amounting to over two hundred challenges. Each puzzle level presents a problem that players need to solve, such as “Cook a meal” or “Steal the treasure without harming anyone”. Meanwhile, action stages play like standard platformers; in other words, Maxwell’s goal is to go from point A to point B, clearing any obstacles that may appear on the way with a good share of inventiveness.

In order to beat the stages and acquire the Starlites, Scribblenauts’ answer to the poles of Super Mario World and the stars of Super Mario 64, players must use the virtual keyboard in the lower screen and write any word they can possibly think of, with some obvious exceptions such as trademarks, obscene nouns, celebrities, and others.

It sounds outrageous and borderline impossible, but it works like a devious technological magic trick. The game’s vocabulary features over 22,000 words and the AI programmed into the characters that can be summoned is nearly perfect. Place a police officer close to a thief and a fight will certainly begin, put meat close a lion and he will eat it, tie a chain to a helicopter and Maxwell will be able to rescue characters from doom. Mathematically, the possibilities are not endless, but they are so ridiculously numerous they might as well be.

Maxwell is controlled using the touch screen: by touching into a certain direction, he will move; by doing an upwards motion with the stylus, he will jump; and in order to interact with objects all that it takes is a simple tap on their sprites. The camera, on the other hand, is controlled with the D-pad, allowing players to scan through the entire stage without moving the character; and objects can be placed in the screen by dragging and putting them in an area where they actually fit.

Despite being overly simple, the controls will fail more often than not. It is very easy to tap an object just to have the game wrongly recognize the controls, making Maxwell inadvertently move instead – sometimes towards a pit of doom. The same goes for when players try to place an object or character in the stage and the game interprets the command as something completely different. The touch screen command recognition, so well-implemented in a myriad of DS games, is very off and it definitely gets annoying as the game goes by and the stages start to require more precision and good timing.

scribblenauts3Another issue that is easily noticed since the game’s very start is the odd physics of each object. Some objects’ weight and density are far from behaving the way players will expect: ram a car into a larger heavier object and chances are the game’s collision physics will fail badly as you watch the bigger object be dragged across the screen in really weird fashion.

The physics problems become exceptionally troubling when players try to come up with clever solutions for the puzzles and the objects summoned fail to react the way they expect, leading to possible brilliant solutions being washed away by inaccurate in-game calculations that fail to replicate what would have happened in the real world. As a whole, while the behavior of objects and characters that are brought to life is spot-on, their physical properties are very poorly mapped.

While all these problems can make the game transform into a torturous experience, it is really hard not to be completely blown away by what Scribblenauts achieves. A concept that would be called an unreachable dream by many turned into reality through the hands of an ambitious team of talented programmers. The puzzle stages, particularly, are the blissful materialization of that joy, for they are invariably very satisfying and present an endless number of solutions to all conundrums that are posed.

Contrarily, the action stages can become repetitive down the line, as they are so open-ended that many of them can be solved by using a very small number of items. The truth is, though, that very inventive players will manage to look far outside the box and come up with delightfully farfetched solutions to the obstacles that set of levels presents.

As it happens with its gameplay, Scribblenauts’ technical areas somewhat suffer due to its ambition. The quantity of sprites and words that were squeezed into a Nintendo DS cartridge, including the different AIs for every single object that the game allows players to bring into the screen, is undeniably impressive. At the same time, it is easy to note that, visually, the game suffers due to that. The animations of the many different sprites are just average, and the game doesn’t look very impressive despite its great art direction. However, it all comes off as a worthy shortcoming that allowed the title’s complexity, which exists in its vast dictionary and collection of characters, to come to life.

scribblenauts1The game’s songs, meanwhile, are extremely simple and limited in their numbers. Regardless of the world they are visiting, players will hear the same loop over and over again for as long as they are in the stages, which makes the already uninspired tunes even more underwhelming. Musically, Scribblenauts is a surprisingly generic title, a disappointing fact due to the game’s amazing personality and uniqueness in pretty much every other aspect.

On top of its mountain of content, Scribblenauts allows gamers to use a level editor to create their own challenges, but the concept ends up failing to realize its full potential; due to very limited options, players will find that most of their ideas for fantastic levels will not come into fruition. The lacking level editor, though, is compensated by a fantastic title screen, which basically works as a big sandbox where players can summon anything from the game’s dictionary and watch how it will behave.

In the end, Scribblenauts is a very ambitious project that suffers due to its massive scope. Although all of its shortcomings are extremely hard to ignore, the game is still very enjoyable and players with great creative minds will certainly have much more fun than those who are a little short on the inventive side. The game has nearly endless value, as levels can be replayed over and over again thanks to their immense array of solutions: it even awards players with extra points according to certain criteria that maps how inventive and efficient they were. Overall, it is a package that is recommended to pretty much everyone. It is a game that is easy to get into and its concept draws the interest of both gamers and non-gamers.


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