Albums of the Month: May 2016

btbAlbum: Back to Black

Artist: Amy Winehouse

Released: October 27th, 2006

Highlights: Rehab, You Know I’m No Good, Back To Black, Tears Dry On Their Own

“Frank” was, before everything else, an album rooted in jazz. Its eventual nods towards other rhythms, such as when Amy Winehouse’s backing band tackled soul grooves, toyed around with bossa nova acoustic guitars, and dabbled in hip-hop and R&B beats, were detours that added some flavor to the music. “Back to Black” does not completely abandon jazz: the looseness of the playing, with occasional turns towards sober improvisation, and the horns are still here. However, as if “Frank” was an unpretentious display of Winehouse’s vocal prowess and musical taste and “Back to Black” was intended to break her into the market in a big explosive way, the latter chooses to take the jazz inclinations of the former and present them with the twists of modern rhythm and blues, a genre that is no stranger to dominating contemporary music charts.

Stylistic shifts aside, “Back to Black” comes as a more focused and better-written work than “Frank”, which should come as a resounding statement to anyone who sat down and listened to Winehouse’s fantastic debut. “Frank” was sprawling and relaxed; “Back to Black” is tight and delivers numerous punches, even if it still often swings and sways like its predecessor. Those differences are quickly announced by “Rehab”, the opening track about the singer’s relationship troubles and how they led her to alcohol addiction, which mixes soul and R&B to create a modern classic with a remarkable chorus that is written to stay in the listener’s head and verses that are carried by a thumping bass and horns, producing a groove that is absolutely irresistible.

Although her well-documented vices are not often revisited during the rest of the album, her turbulent love life is essentially omnipresent, which – given how “Rehab” spends its time building an unbreakable link between those two themes – makes both of those elements the gravitational center of a work that is absolutely personal. “Back to Black”, possibly the record’s best song, depicts – on top of a dark soundscape that has hints of pop music from the 50s – how Amy was abandoned by her then-boyfriend, who left her for somebody else; “Tears Dry on Their Own”, a stellar soul track, touches on that very same situation, but presents it through sunnier, more mature and optimistic lenses; and “You Know I’m No Good” talks about an inconsistent relationship that alternates intimacy with hurtful distance and indifference.

“Back to Black” ends up being, like numerous other classics that have come out across the years, a musical example of Newton’s famous quote, in which the scientist claimed “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”. Amy climbs onto the backs of her idols – Marvin Gaye, The Ronettes, Ella Fitzgerald, and many past black music stars – and, instead of lazily sitting up there, she uses those influences to reach higher grounds. “Back to Black” plays like an old-school R&B album that pays homage to those invaluable artists but it also presents itself as a work that knows how to grab those elements and take them somewhere else, whether it is via its lush production – which features strings and other rich arrangements – or through Amy’s voice and lyrics. It is, by all means, a modern-day classic.

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hope_sixAlbum: The Hope Six Demolition Project

Artist: PJ Harvey

Released: April 15th, 2016

Highlights: The Community Of Hope, A Line In The Sand, The Orange Monkey, The Wheel

“Let England Shake”, the 2011 masterpiece that gave PJ Harvey her second Mercury Prize, was drenched in politics. It was a record that looked at the two World Wars of the past and, from the distance of a handful of decades, hauntingly analyzed their effects on the world as if they were ghosts rising from their graves to remind people of the horror, the bloodshed, and all the lives that were wasted. It evoked the dead and made listeners look straight into their traumatized eyes and broken souls. In a way, “The Hope Six Demolition Project” comes off as a sequel to that album, for although it does not approach the same theme, it still uses sociopolitical issues as its source of inspiration. Sadly, while “Let England Shake” was completely brilliant, “The Hope Six Demolition Project” falters more often than it should.

As it turns, it is easier to romanticize and, consequently, write poetry about the past than the present, because our proximity to the latter forces us to react to it, giving us little to no time to reflect on its nature until some time has passed. It is from that situation that most of the problems with “The Hope Six Demolition Project” rise. Harvey wrote the album as she was traveling through Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Washington D.C. with photographer Seamus Murphy, and due to that much of the record’s lyrics read like a scene-by-scene description of a documentary. Polly Jean talks too much about what she sees (ravaged cities, poverty, and people – especially children – that the state has failed to protect), and little about what she feels. It is arguable that such approach to songwriting could be a way to let listeners get a glimpse of what she saw and reach their own conclusions, but it is hard to deny that lines like “And here’s the one sit-down restaurant / In ward seven, nice / Okay, now this is just drug town, just zombies / But that’s just life” sound awfully clunky and uninspired.

Despite its overly literal content, “The Hope Six Demolition Project” does deliver its message. Taking Washington D.C. as its starting point, where the titular Hope VI project that aims to revitalize areas of the city by tearing down old housing and building new homes is accused of fomenting gentrification, Harvey leaps to Kosovo and Afghanistan to highlight how the United States, which is unable to solve major problems inside its own turf, has also failed in its often questioned attempts to fix the issues plaguing other nations around the world. Because of the lyrics, those ideas do not always resonate, but when they do, they hit home hard and get close to the poignancy of the spiritual “Let England Shake”, such as it happens in “The Wheel”, which broaches the subject of children that are either missing or dead; and “A Line In The Sand”, a song about the murdering ways of the human race.

“The Hope Six Demolition Project” sees PJ Harvey returning to the swamp-dirty rock of her early records, albeit without the same aggressiveness. She is backed up by a full-fledged rock ensemble that usually plays like a military marching band, in heavy contrast with the odd instrumentation of “Let England Shake”; and prominently features saxophones that frequently accompany the songs, occasionally even providing some extended jazz-like solos in numbers like the closer “Dollar, Dollar”. Although the instrumentation is stellar and the melodies are often good – albeit too simple and jingle-like at times, the apparently rushed lyrics seriously hold “The Hope Six Demolition Project” back, stopping it from gaining the same emotional resonance achieved by “Let England Shake” and making it come off as too heavy-handed.

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ltcAlbum: Pretenders

Artist: Learning to Crawl

Released: January 9th, 1984

Highlights: Middle of the Road, Back On the Chain Gang, Show Me, 2000 Miles

In the current music business, two years and a half is not an incredibly lengthy lull between studio releases; most bands, in fact, take far more than that to release a new album. For the Pretenders, though, who were cruising through the early 80s and leading the way of the New Wave movement on the heels the chart-hitting “Pretenders” and “Pretenders II”, such interval could have caused a severe loss of momentum. That absence, though, was more than justified, for following “Pretenders II” the band led by Chrissie Hynde had been hit by the deaths of both its guitarist and its recently dismissed drug-addled bass player. Faced with the choice of breaking up the band or moving forward, Chrissie opted for the latter, and “Learning to Crawl” is the gift the world received from that choice.

Knowledge of the record’s background makes it impossible to see the songs outside the context of the passing of James Honeyman-Scott and Pete Farndon; although the lyrics are pretty ambiguous and could be used in a number of situations, it is hard not to think that Chrissie is singing about and to them. Perhaps, nowhere is that feeling, and Chrissie’s brave attitude, more epitomized than in the hit “Back On the Chain Gang”, where the singer says “I found a picture of you / Those were the happiest days of my life / Like a break in the battle was your part / In the wretched life of a lonely heart / Now we’re back on the train / Back on the chain gang”. Courage, reminiscences on the past, decisions, and losses are frequent themes approached on the album, all underlined by Chrissie’s inherent defiant attitude towards life; with that daunting soul, the subjects gain resonance.

The victories of “Learning to Crawl” are not merely attached to its context, they also happen to come forward in a musical sense. The Pretenders continue to explore the punk edge of their nonchalant New Wave sound in incredible tunes such as “Time the Avenger”, “My City Was Gone”, “I Hurt You”, “Watching the Clothes”, and “Middle of the Road”, the latter of which is drenched in pop sensibility; however, what takes “Learning to Crawl” over the top is its brilliant shots at balladry. In its mellower tracks, Hynde unlocks a level of melodic beauty she had yet to reach as a songwriter: “Back on the Chain Gang”, “Show Me”, and the blatantly dedicated to James Honeyman-Scott “2000 Miles”, in their mixture of vulnerability and braveness, are some of the most gorgeous tunes ever pressed onto a rock record. In the midst of that guitar-powered emotional hurricane, Chrissie finds the time to take jabs at rockabilly and R&B, with – respectively – the original “Thumbelina” and the fantastic cover “Thin Line Between Love and Hate”.

“Learning to Crawl” winds up being far more than a comeback album or the start of a new phase for the Pretenders. Indeed it is the product of a band pulling itself back together, or almost starting from scratch, after the death of half of its members. However, it is not just a timely recovery; it is the very best album the Pretenders have ever put out, and a testament to the strength of Chrissie Hynde as a human being and her skills as a songwriter.

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chompAlbum: Chomp

Artist: Pylon

Released: February 14th, 1983

Highlights: K, Crazy, No Clocks, Gyrate

Born in the same pulsating and creative college rock environment of Athens, Georgia, that gave the world both R.E.M. and The B-52’s, Pylon certainly never made it as big as those two acts, failing to rise above its local cult status like many of its peers had succeeded in doing. In a way, it is easy to see why: although the New Wave sound and the American underground scene of the early 80s had been directly influenced by the British punks and their pioneering American counterparts, especially The Stooges and MC5, the links to that movement were blurred in the music itself. R.E.M. took a turn for the folk and Gothic; The B-52’s explored dancy beats; The Replacements and Husker Du turned to a garage sound; and the Talking Heads embraced world music. Pylon, meanwhile, retained a rough and noncommercial soul that was inherently punk in its spirit.

It is not that the band lived in an isolated bubble into which no outside influences managed to enter: “Chomp”, their second album and the last one released before their breakup, is filled with mannerisms extracted from the alternative scene inside which the group existed. “Crazy” and “No Clocks”, for example, are perfect representations of the murky jangle pop that drove R.E.M.’s first albums, with the former featuring an impressive melody that walks the line between beauty and threat. Meanwhile, tunes like the weird “Yo-Yo” and the energetic “Beep” are filled with a kind of weirdness and aggressive awkwardness that could only be found in a Talking Heads record, as the former could easily fit among the synthesizer-led wackiness of “More Songs About Buildings and Food” and the latter being blatantly inspired by the utter classic “The Great Curve”.

Despite the fact that connecting Pylon to its muses is an easy task, the group nevertheless emerges with a thoroughly unique sound in its hands, and much of that is derived from the ferocity of its leader: Vanessa Briscoe Hay. Vanessa, as if feeding off the restless bouncy beats with sharp teeth created by her bandmates, sounds like a caged animal that alternates moments of tense calm in which, like a suddenly quiet maniac, she is able to control her instincts, and instances in which she is shouting wildly while throwing her body against the iron bars that keep her locked in. The foggy mystery created by R.E.M. in its early days, then, gains dark and menacing contours – as it can be seen in “Buzz”, “Spider”, and “Reptiles”, as if The Cure, instead of choosing to explore melancholic slow dirges, had opted to express the sadness of Robert Smith through bleak revisions of the catchy post-punk music they forged in “Three Imaginary Boys”.

Although it works as the ultimate document on Pylon, “Chomp” was clearly not designed for massive exposure, which is far from a bad decision, given the band that created it is incredibly idiosyncratic. It is a raw, edgy, punky, and true album, one that captures a group of musicians that is led by untamed instinct and that chooses to play whatever it is that comes to mind instead of polishing its musical ideas to an alluring state. It might not be universally moving, but it sure is a lot of fun.

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Star Fox Zero Review

Even in the face of its many flaws, in the long run Star Fox Zero is a game that endlessly yields a constant rush of excitement that is hard to match

star-fox-zero7Created and handled by a company that thrives in the production of properties that are unlike almost anything else within the gaming realm, Star Fox is – itself – quite a pleasant oddity even when standing side-by-side with the likes of Mario, Zelda, and Metroid. While most Nintendo franchises emerged bound by the restrictions of the early days of gaming, only to then grow up into modern revisions of the basic gameplay they originally featured; Star Fox was born an outer space arcade shooter and, in its most successful renditions, remained attached to those origins. Following a ten-year lull, during which many heavily questioned the franchise’s relevance inside the industry’s current state, Star Fox Zero comes to show that a title that is old-school to its bones can still produce a genuinely awe-inspiring experience.

Perhaps as a recognition that, on the property’s latest installments, Nintendo and its partners had failed to understand and capture the essence of what makes Star Fox spectacular – with Star Fox Adventures coming off as a watered down Zelda game, Star Fox Assault failing to offer alternative paths and trying to implement on-foot segments, and Star Fox Command lacking on-rails action-packed sequences – Star Fox Zero is a reboot. More importantly, though, it is a fresh start that knows exactly where to look for inspiration: Star Fox 64, the game that is considered by most to represent the franchise’s peak.

Star Fox Zero is, then, in its heart, the rebirth of the thrilling brand of rail-shooting gameplay – with enemy and friendly ships flying, firing lasers, and blowing up all over the screen – that players learned to love during the 90s. As it was the case in the Nintendo 64 classic, Star Fox Zero’s focus is accumulating as many hits as possible during the course of a stage; its final goal is the halting of the evil Andross’ – an evil banished monkey scientist – plan by a gang of hired bounty hunters composed of Fox McCloud, Peppy Hare, Slippy Toad, and Falco Lombardi; its journey takes place on the numerous planets and sectors of the Lylat System, as the four heroes travel from Corneria to Andross’ base in Venom; and its fuel is the sheer excitement of its levels and the dialogues and interactions between its characters.

star-fox-zero3Although its choice to drink from the Star Fox 64 source is a wise one, since it allows Star Fox Zero to gravitate around a structure that is solid and that represents everything that is great about the franchise, it also occasionally causes Star Fox Zero to appear overly rehashed. Many of its dialogues, plot details, settings, enemies, supporting characters, and even bosses are extracted straight from Star Fox 64, therefore making some of its moments way too familiar for longtime fans even if, ultimately, the sum of the game’s parts forms a somewhat unique image thanks to the originality of the whole of its missions.

The parallels to Star Fox 64, however, are more positive than negative. The twenty missions that comprise the game are entirely vehicle-focused, with the Arwing taking center stage on most of them, and offer a pleasant mix of on-rails journeys through alien landscapes and all-range mode segments, where the characters are free to fly around a specific arena-like area in order to engage in awesome dogfights to take down minor foes or dismantle huge bosses. Some levels even mix up those distinct gameplay styles, such as the opening chapter that takes place in Corneria, which starts with an on-rails flight through the planet’s capital city, moves on to an arena where a certain number of foes must be defeated, and concludes with a very good boss battle.

From Star Fox 64, Star Fox Zero also borrows the franchise’s traditional tricks to extend its value. It will take around five hours for players to complete an initial run from Corneria to Venom, which is longer than usual for the series but certainly not quite enough to warrant the purchase of a full-priced game. Part of the greatness of Star Fox, though, lies in the fact that its old-school roots prompt anyone with a love for epic battles in space to play it over and over again in search of new discoveries and, especially, high scores, and Star Fox Zero knows how to incite that urge quite well, extending its gameplay time way over the twenty-hour line.

star-fox-zero6For starters, there are the seventy medals to collect. All of the game’s major planets hold five of them, one for achieving a certain score threshold – which can often be quite challenging; and four awarded for the completion of an assortment of goals, such as simply finding out where exactly the medal is hidden to destroying all instances of a certain enemy on the stage or performing specific actions. Given Star Fox’s levels are traditionally brief – holding between five and twelve minutes of non-stop thrills – replaying them numerous times in order to acquire all medals is more than painless, it is a whole lot of fun, especially because players will constantly feel highly motivated to beat their own best score.

Aside from the medals, Star Fox Zero also has plenty of alternate paths – and thereby hidden stages – which are reached by accomplishing certain goals during missions. The standard path that leads from Corneria to Venom has ten levels total, meaning that another ten missions are unloackable.

Sadly, while in Star Fox 64 those missions are full-fledged planets with settings of their own, in Star Fox Zero they – with the exception of the spectacular natural beauty of the borderline psychedelic Fortuna – feel half-baked, as they are: standalone boss battles that while quite fun and challenging would have worked better sitting at the end of full levels; combats against subsets of Star Wolf; and trips to previously visited areas with a few twists. The result is a group of extra levels that feels shallow and incomplete, as many of them could have easily been grouped together into some sort of Challenge Mode tucked away from the main game’s experience.

Even if it borrows profusely – mostly for the good, Star Fox Zero also does a good deal of creating. Firstly, it smartly separates the core of its content into two modes: Main Game and Arcade Mode. Such decision is a major improvement over Star Fox 64 for it allows players to use the Main Game, which lets them choose to tackle any one of the unlocked missions, to freely collect medals and go for high scores in whichever area they feel like playing. Meanwhile, Arcade Mode plays like a more brutal version of the main adventure of Star Fox 64: it gives players no continues whatsoever and forces them to travel any of the possible routes from Corneria to Venom and only considers the total score accumulated if the game is cleared, keeping track of the best score achieved for each of the dozens of possible paths.

star-fox-zeroSadly, in a baffling kind of way, given the game’s focus on high scores and the fact it keeps track of hits for both the levels individually and for the roads taken to defeat Andross, Star Fox Zero features no online leaderboards. Such addition, more than further boosting the game’s incredible replay value, would have been more than natural for a title of this kind, but Nintendo once more shied away from implementing such a basic and heavily beneficial online feature.

The second change implemented by Star Fox Zero, and certainly its most divisive characteristic, is its control scheme. While the TV displays a third-person view of the action, the Gamepad shows Fox’s perspective from inside the cockpit, from which players can have more meticulous aiming. Managing both views is, most of the time, optional, as players can feel free to look solely at one of them and succeed. However, the game punctually forces gamers to learn how to switch between the two smoothly by putting them in situations where optimal performance is only achieved via a combination of both views.

The lack of a radar and the attack patterns of certain bosses, for example, make players have to press the L button on the Gamepad to switch to a cinematic perspective on the TV screen, which will show the vehicle controlled by Fox sideways and focus on a nearby target. Such shift, naturally, turns aiming via the TV into an impossible task, therefore making it imperative that one keeps track of enemy movement on the TV while shooting via the Gamepad. That attitude is also vital in the achieving of high scores in certain levels.

star-fox-zero5Additionally, moving the reticule, both on the TV and on the Gamepad, can only be done through gyroscopic controls, which while undoubtedly more precise than the dual-analog setup also feature a far more daunting learning curve and face the resistance of many gamers that will certainly be frustrated with the absence of the option to turn them off. As if all of that was not enough, simple important actions like breaking, boosting, barrel rolls, bombs, and tight turns are all mapped to different actions done via the right control stick; and the series’ traditional evasive maneuvers are triggered through simple, but exaggeratedly complicated nevertheless, combinations of the left and right control sticks.

Unquestionably, Star Fox Zero’s controls are not for everyone and will possibly make many give up on the title. They are convoluted and both newcomers and veterans alike will be fumbling with them through a great part – or through most of – their first run in the game, which goes to show how absurdly lengthy their learning curve happens to be. However, it is also true that, to those who stick with the controls, the entire setup eventually clicks, coming to feel – after many hours – as something natural, necessary given some of the game’s design choices, and even good.

Star Fox Zero’s final attempt to add new flavor to the saga is also one that comes with mixed results. Besides the traditional Arwing and Landmaster, the game introduces two brand new vehicles to the Star Fox arsenal: the Walker, a ground transformation of the Arwing; and the Gyrocopter, a slow hovering vehicle used for stealth missions and hacking into computer terminals. The former is relatively fun, even if the sections in which it is used are not bursting with creativity and if its controls are occasionally cumbersome; the latter, on the other hand, is outright dull, with its slow and meticulous movement and low firepower bringing the game’s pace to an awful halt.

star-fox-zero4Given those problems, it is satisfying to know that their appearances are limited, with the Gyrocopter being restricted to one entire mission and a small portion of another, and the Walker usually being employed in brief stints when Fox needs to infiltrate enclosed spaces inside major enemy ships.

In the end, the magic of Star Fox is that it is always exciting. When first stepping into the game, the challenge of its missions make up for an adrenaline-filled ride to even the most experienced gamers. After a while, when clearing the missions becomes automatic, the thrill lies in the fact that players will delight in pushing themselves to maximizing the number of downed enemy ships so that absurdly high scores can be reached.

In Star Fox Zero, that first wave of excitement is diluted because it is sometimes overwhelmed by the initially convoluted control scheme. But the fact remains that it is hard to find a gaming experience this invariably thrilling. Even in the face of its many flaws, in the long run Star Fox Zero is a game that endlessly yields a constant rush of excitement that is unparalleled and that is bound to keep players coming back for more. Star Fox Zero stumbles in some of its attempts to introduce new elements to the property, and although its soundtrack and voice acting are well-done, its graphics occasionally leave something to be desired, but the bottom line is that it is a fantastic restart to a space saga that more than proves that its old-school soul has a place in modern gaming; one that cannot be filled by anything else.

Star Fox Zero

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Viewtiful Joe Review

Comic books, actions movies, and a whole lot of ridiculous self-awareness come together in one of the most enduring and best beat’em ups of all time

viewtiful_joeBeat’em ups were once the main reason for gamers to hold on tight to a pile of quarters. After all, those shiny little treasures were keys that would unlock many hours of virtual beat downs in the local arcade. Sadly, as gaming evolved past the confines of those shops and into ever grander expanses, the genre was mostly left behind. It is true that a few quality beat’em ups have emerged within modern gaming, but it is also a fact that none of those games have added much to the genre as a whole; they felt like nothing but more polished 3-D carbon copies of the arcade hits of past decades.

Powerful heroes, though, have a tendency to appear in times of dire necessities and that seems to be the case with Viewtiful Joe, a caped crusader with a chip on his shoulder that stars in Capcom’s brilliantly refreshing take on the genre. The game brings the many qualities that made gamers undertake a daily pilgrimage to their local arcade place right into home consoles while adding a few gameplay mechanics that lift its gameplay to a unique and fresh height.

Viewtiful Joe starts by sending players a strong message about its tone: one that is loose, wild, satirical, humorous, and completely self-aware. The protagonist, Joe, is sitting in a movie theater with his lovely girlfriend, Silvia. On screen, a battle between Captain Blue, an old and glorious hero, and a giant robot is taking place, and when Captain Blue seems to fall in battle, the evil mecha breaks the fourth wall – and also the chances that the game will take itself seriously – and kidnaps Silvia, taking her into Movie Land. Captain Blue, then, proceeds to also drag Joe into the screen and, in order to aid the newborn hero in his quest to save his love, he gives Joe a watch which grants him special powers.

viewtiful_joe2Throughout the game, the plot’s development, which happens to be surprisingly interesting, follows suit with the high quality standard set by its opening sequence; it takes place in nice cutscenes that, when joined by the game’s unique presentation, deliver a cell-shaded visual experience that blends the flow of a silver screen action movie with artistic cues taken from the traditional comic book presentation.

In order to save Silvia, Joe must traverse seven different chapters that are absolutely infested with enemies of different types and strengths, each culminating in boss battles that are extremely tough and creative. The game progresses on a side-scrolling manner even though the scenarios are fully tridimensional. Such setup means that Joe will sometimes make one or two turns while exploring a certain area and the camera will rotate in place in order to keep a side-scrolling perspective, which makes up for some very amusing moments of very clever and unique level design, not to mention smooth visual goodness.

Joe has pretty much the same set of moves an average action hero does: he can punch, kick and even dodge attacks, an action that will leave enemies stunned for a short while. Still, Joe’s greatest abilities – and the game’s most remarkable features – are slowing down time or speeding the action up. When pressing the L-button the game will suddenly move at a much slower pace, allowing Joe to see and avoid ultra fast attacks such as gunshots, or automatically perform Matrix-like acrobatic moves to escape hits, making him pretty much invulnerable to all blows. Pressing the R-button, on the other hand, will have the same effect as pressing the fast forward button of a media player, giving the character the opportunity to deliver powerful combos in the speed of light, but leaving him extremely vulnerable to incoming blows.

viewtiful_joe3Fortunately, as otherwise the game would be an unbalanced mess, both of those moves are only available for a limited amount of time. A bar on the top of the screen indicates for how much longer players can stay on the super fast or super slow modes, and the gauge is automatically filled up when one stops using the special moves.

The destruction of enemy forces, however, is not the only reason gamers will be using those special moves. Viewtiful Joe is packed with clever puzzles and most of them are solved by the proper timely use of one of the skills, or the combination of both. Not only do those puzzles offer a break from the game’s insane combat-focused pace, but they also stop the constant brawling from reaching the point where the whole adventure gets repetitive, which is a major relief because despite solid combat systems most games of the genre lean towards repetitiveness after some hours.

Another valuable factor that keeps Viewtiful Joe away from growing stale is its battle system. Instead of betting on an oversimplified combat scheme, the game rewards skilled players via a very satisfying combo system. Killing an enemy by normal means will earn Joe a few V-points – the game’s currency – but beating many of those down by slowing or speeding time means his gains will vastly increase. The V-points can be used on the game’s shop to give the character more HP, new moves, extra lives, or even upgrade some already existing powers. As a way to motivate players into fully exploring the combo system, many of those upgrades are very expensive an require that gamers learn, and pull off, impressive barrages of attacks.

viewtiful_joe4Maximizing Joe’s stats and moves is also vitally important due to the game’s impressive difficulty. Like the great arcade titles of old, Viewtiful Joe is never tired of beating players down to the point where they will cry for mercy, and even though the game as a whole is a little bit on the short side – after all that is the nature of beat’em ups – the adventure ends up lasting for quite a long while because being stuck on an enemy-ridden gameplay section or on a boss that seems impossible to beat is not unusual.

Unfortunately, it is from that quality that Viewtiful Joe’s main flaws derive. The game offers a nice set of difficulty choices for players to pick from, but even the easiest one of them – humorously named “Kids” – happens to be tough, a fact that is certain to drive some people away from the title. The game’s biggest sin, though, is its inconsistent spread of checkpoints. In some chapters, they are properly found after brutal segments, but in others the save points are just poorly placed, a reality that makes players go through enormous sections repeatedly in order to get back to their point of defeat and even – sometimes – watch unskippable cutscenes that while filled with great visuals and hilarious dialogue still get boring after the fifth or sixth time.

In technical terms, Viewtiful Joe is a modern masterpiece on its very artistic approach to both the scenarios and characters. The game looks stunning with its cell-shaded visuals that perfectly translate into the screen the sheer excitement of old-school superhero comic books, and the music and sound effects just add up to the feeling that Joe is the videogame equivalent of Batman or Superman. The fact that the daring, fearless, and insane vibe emitted by its graphics and music permeate the game as a whole – from its gameplay, character design, and action to its dialogues and plot development, turns Viewtiful Joe into a very special and idiosyncratic piece of gaming.

viewtiful_joe5The bottom-line is that Viewtiful Joe is an absolutely spectacular game. When it is all said and done, its seven chapters and ten hours of gameplay may not feel like they are enough to satiate players’ hunger for thrilling beat downs, but its harder unlockable difficulty levels are so challenging and offer so many amazing extras that it is hard not to feel compelled into giving them a try. The game conveys everything that was great about arcade brawlers, mixes it up with a visual style extracted from comic books, and adds dashes of platforming and puzzle solving to spice up the recipe. The result is, without any bit of exaggeration, one of the most enduring and best beat’em ups of all time.

Viewtiful Joe

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The Return of the Fantastic Mr. Fox

sfzFor most of the past decade, following a series of three games – Star Fox Adventures, Star Fox: Assault, and Star Fox Command – that failed to grasp and, thereby, implement the soul of Nintendo’s outer space shooting franchise, Star Fox fans were left to wonder whether the mercenary crew had been left for dead by a clueless Nintendo, or if it was merely resting in stasis somewhere in Kyoto. Thankfully, especially given how unique the property is within the entirety of the gaming realm – a blast of old-school gaming concepts channeled through modern waves – the latter option was correct: Nintendo, despite their blatantly failed attempts to keep the ball rolling after the great Star Fox 64, had not given up on Star Fox; they were just waiting for the right opportunity to bring it back.

Star Fox Zero is intended as a reboot, a fresh start that seems to recognize the franchise had taken a wrong turn on its latest releases. As a new beginning, it knows which blueprint to follow, that of the peak of the saga, Star Fox 64, something that fans had known all along, but that Nintendo took quite a while to realize. Consequently, in spite of the fact that its references to Star Fox 64 are way too frequent, Star Fox Zero aims for the right target, and even if it does not land all of the shots it fires right on the bullseye, it stands as an equal to Star Fox 64 in terms of quality.

Unlike Star Fox: Assault, which threw poorly executed on-foot missions in the mix, therefore seriously dampening the overall experience despite its great air combat quests, and that locked players on a predetermined path of levels, Star Fox Zero is vehicle-based maneuvering and shooting from Corneria to Venom, taking detours through unique settings if players clear certain requirements. Unlike Star Fox Command, which tacked on strategic elements that diminished the focus on the action and was based on dull missions with similar design and objectives, Star Fox Zero adds elements that enhance the thrill of the dogfights and features a set of varied stages with equally unique goals.

sfzero2Star Fox Zero, however, is not exclusively built of victories; it actually has its share of shortcomings. Leading to its release, the game’s most heavily debated element was its control scheme, and it is easy to see why. The TV screen is reserved for a third-person perspective of the action, while the Gamepad will always display a cockpit view that offers more precise aiming. Additionally, aiming must be done with the gyroscopic controls; breaking, boosting, barrel rolls, bombs, and tight turns are mapped to the right control stick; evasive maneuvers are performed through combining both analog sticks; and, in order to make up for the absence of a map and add a few twists to some stage segments, the TV screen can show a cinematic view of the action when the L button is pressed.

It is a lot to take in, and both experienced gamers and newcomers alike will unquestionably be fumbling with all of those commands during the first few hours of the adventure, a situation that creates a learning curve that is lengthy and that might be too frustrating for some. Eventually, though, the controls click, and when that happens the lack of a traditional option makes sense, because Star Fox Zero is built around its unique control setup and some of its finest moments would not have been possible without it.

The arduous learning process that surrounds Star Fox Zero is not the sole issue holding it back although its other problems are far more punctual. While the missions found on its regular path to Venom are mostly exciting and extremely well-designed, almost all of its alternative stops feel poorly fleshed out, with many of them being boss fights, which despite their undeniable awesomeness should have come at the end of actual stages; and retreads to already visited areas with new twists. Moreover, even if the Walker version of the Arwing is a welcome and wisely used addition to the set of vehicles Fox and the crew have at their disposal, the Gyrowing – whose use is luckily restricted to one level and a small portion of another – is dull, with its appearance slowing the game’s pace to a boring halt.

sfzero3Star Fox Zero’s problems and its lack of creativity to develop a full package of settings, dialogues, and bosses of its own instead of borrowing a lot of elements from Star Fox 64 are blatant. However, it is unquestionably a game with far more qualities than virtues; a title that fully understands what is the essence of the series and then tries to implement it as well as possible. Its new ideas do not uniformly succeed, but its structural overhaul – with a Story Mode where players can, after unlocking the levels, freely select which one they want to tackle; and an Arcade Mode where the Star Fox 64 joy of aiming for high overall scores in individual runs from Corneria to Venom is recreated – show that this simple formula, when correctly captured, still works quite well in contemporary gaming.

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Metroid Fusion Review

It may dilute some of the franchise’s key elements, but Metroid Fusion more than makes up for that by cleverly building its own character

fusionSometimes, the enduring of a whole lot of suffering can yield glorious rewards, and by 2002 Metroid fans had certainly gone through more than enough bad times to earn some sort of jubilation. Super Metroid had come to the Super Nintendo in 1994 and not only did it present the peak of the franchise, but also one of the finest gaming experiences Nintendo had ever delivered. A critical and commercial success that could have been used as some sort of trampoline to keep the franchise moving forward at a good pace turned out to actually be a title that preceded a lengthy drought, for Samus – due to Nintendo’s difficulty to figure out how to exactly put the character in a 3-D environment – had skipped the Nintendo 64 altogether.

Eight years into that lull, as if repaying a huge debt with a good deal of interest rates, Nintendo gave fans of the space bounty hunter not one, but two reasons to celebrate. While Metroid Prime succeeded spectacularly in translating the lonely and eerie Metroid universe to a tridimensional realm, Metroid Fusion literally picked up where Super Metroid had left off and kept the legacy of the series’ sidescrolling non-linear exploration very much alive.

After saving the Metroid hatchling from the evil clutches of the Space Pirates, Samus heads onto another mission that leads her to SR-388, the planet that serves as the lair of the Metroids. While exploring the place, she encounters a parasite called “X” and is inadvertently infected by the virus. While returning to a space station, she loses consciousness and her ship hits an asteroid belt, nearly killing her. During a very dramatic surgery, doctors discover that she is deeply infected and choose to inject her with a vaccine created with the cells of the infant Metroid she had rescued during Super Metroid, given those creatures are natural predators of the X parasite.

fusion2The procedure works, but the hunter is affected by it. Her suit fuses with the cells, and not only does she gain the ability to absorb X parasites – like a preying Metroid, but she also acquires the creature’s vulnerability to cold. Not one to lay in recovery for too long, upon reawakening, Samus discovers that a big explosion has happened on the nearby B.S.L. Laboratory, a space station that perfectly recreates the different environments of SR-388, and Samus is sent there to investigate. That’s when Metroid Fusion takes off.

When going through the game, it is probable that the first remarkable feature players will notice is how, differently from Super Metroid, this sequel is far more colorful. While that game tended to use a very sober palette of colors, even in its more organic environments, Fusion is not afraid to employ shades that would be right at home in some of Nintendo’s more accessible franchises. Even Samus herself, who now dons a suit that is mostly bright blue with light yellow spots, has gone through that transformation.

fusion6That graphical change is completely positive. The art style serves the game well for it makes it stand on its own among the other installments of the space saga. Moreover, the different natural settings that exist inside the massive lab spring to life thanks to that design approach, with their colors and lines making each of them impressively remarkable and unique inside the Metroid canon.

A lighter and brighter visual tonality does, however, have the potential to act against Metroid’s key feature: that ominous and lonely vibe the games of the series exhale so effectively. Metroid Fusion, thankfully, does not suffer one bit from that issue. In fact, it is arguable that when it comes to tension it tops all of its peers. Samus is the sole human presence inside the whole facility, a location in which an obscure dangerous situation is taking place and that emits a haunting air from every one of its set-pieces, rooms, enemies, shafts, and settings; a feeling made even stronger by a minimalistic soundtrack composed of simple beeps, low hums, and a whole lot of silence.

This time around, however, she is not exactly alone. Firstly, there is her new ship’s computer, an impressive artificial intelligence that helps her by pointing out locations of interest that need to be visited or where suspicious activity is happening, which makes the hunter nickname it “Adam”, after her former officer. Secondly, there is the point from which most of the tension comes from: a sentient Samus doppelganger, formed by the X virus’ ability to copy those it infects, that roams the facility.

fusion4The presence of “Adam” makes the game far more linear than Super Metroid: a relief to those who have a problem with backtracking, and a potential source of disappointment for more traditional fans of the saga. Samus will still traverse a huge map broken up into different environments looking for equipment upgrades that will allow her to reach new locations, and extra missile and energy tanks to increase her firepower and resistance. However, given the computer’s omnipresence, she will always be directed to the room she needs to get to, with a marker highlighting the target location on the map.

Surely, there is still the thrill and amusement of figuring out how in the world to navigate to that location, but that guidance, along with a level design that is brilliant but far more straightforward, transforms the experience into something that is far more linear, focused, and concise. If on one hand such features cause Metroid Fusion to be thoroughly enthralling in every one of its seconds; on the other hand they produce a relatively short game, one that can be cleared within eight hours.

The presence of the Samus doppelganger, named SA-X, meanwhile, is by far Metroid Fusion’s most amazing, distinctive, and thrill-inducing feature. As it turns out, the entity is far more powerful than Samus, which makes encounters with it positively deadly, and the computer will occasionally warn the hunter that the SA-X is roaming around the area she is about to explore.

fusion7Truthfully, meetings with the creature are scripted; they happen in specific rooms during specific portions of the game’s plot development, when Samus is forced to quickly find cover somewhere so that she is not seen by the walking juggernaut, moments that will send all players to the very edge of their seats trying to figure out just exactly where to hide. Still, the fact that the creature is always around and it is possible to hear it opening doors and walking, and even to see it in adjacent rooms, makes exploring the facility all the more exciting and going into dark places an action that is worthy of being featured in a good horror movie.

If Metroid Prime is a masterpiece of the first-person genre, Metroid Fusion is its equal on the sidescrolling universe, making the eight-year wait fans had to endure for the next installments of the franchise almost seem worth it. Although the depth of exploration and environmental puzzle-solving of Super Metroid is diluted by a more prominent linearity, Metroid Fusion more than makes up for that, for it builds its own character through very sensible additions and shifts. Its colorful visuals are glorious, and both “Adam” and the Samus doppelganger make the title the most tense and storyline focused entry in the franchise’s history. Metroid Fusion was not merely a rebirth of 2-D Metroid, it was also a very positive reinvention.

Metroid Fusion

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Albums of the Month: April 2016

nebraskaAlbum: Nebraska

Artist: Bruce Springsteen

Released: September 30th, 1982

Highlights: Nebraska, Atlantic City, Highway Patrolman, Reason to Believe

In the music business, especially after an artist transcends the halls of mortality and becomes a legend, song demos turn into little pieces of treasure. However valuable they might be, though, they are merely seen as items that will only catch the eyes of the most dedicated fans; curious novelties that are put out in the market after the vault of finished songs has run dry. That reality makes “Nebraska” utterly bold, for it is an official studio album by a major recording artist at the peak of his chart-topping powers that is entirely composed of demos recorded at home with a simple 4-track cassette recorder. Some might call it lunacy, others might claim it is an attempt at commercial suicide, but the bottom-line is that “Nebraska” clicks. More than that, it envelops listeners in a world of despair and darkness with enough power to strike their soul like an incandescent branding iron.

Legend has it that Springsteen recorded the demos as a way to flesh out the songs before teaching them to his group and finding the right full-blown energetic arrangements that only the E Street Band can pull off. Upon listening to the tape, though, he noticed that the album was ready: the stripped down voice-and-guitar approach and the fact that the recording setup had made it seem like he was singing from the bottom of a dark deep well were perfect matches to the tunes that had been composed. As it turns out, his perception was right. Whereas Springsteen’s previous albums featured characters who faced their working-class lives like relentless wrestlers that refused to go down and wished to break free; “Nebraska” was concerned with people that sunk under the same circumstances, the ones that became soulless, resigned, broken, corrupted, and alienated due to the issues they had to face.

The title cut, which narrates in first-person – with accurate coldness and distance – the murdering spree of real serial-killer and his eventual capture and judgment, sets the tone for the bleakness present in the rest of the record. The track’s closing line, “Well, sir, I guess there’s just a meanness in this world”, is a poignant summary of the tales told throughout “Nebraska”, as the album shows people dealing with, and often being consumed by, the evilness that haunts humans both internally and externally. “Atlantic City” shows a man turning to organized crime to escape a dire financial situation; “Mansion On the Hill” and “My Father’s House” are bittersweet reminiscences on better times that are long gone after being hurtfully shattered; “Highway Patrolman” is an analysis of a conflicted sergeant who has to deal with the crimes committed by his brother; “Used Cars” is a sad picture of poverty; and “Johnny 99” and “State Trooper” are tales on criminals.

By embodying the soul of the characters he created, and doing so in a basic setup, Springsteen turns in a mature full-fledged singer-songwriter folk record, a fact that becomes even more impressive when one takes into account its release date. Much has been said about how “Nebraska” might be overrated due to its unique and courageous nature; however, truth is this is a record that features an impressively cohesive atmosphere during the entirety of its running time, and that is powered by incredibly sad and remarkable melodies. Its closure on a positive note, the hopeful “Reason To Believe”, is the final brilliant touch on this bleak, moody, and haunting masterpiece.

five


 

postpop

Album: Post Pop Depression

Artist: Iggy Pop

Released: March 18th, 2016

Highlights: Gardenia, American Valhalla, Chocolate Drops, Paraguay

With Lou Reed and David Bowie gone, Iggy Pop stands as the last rock ‘n roll rebel; the final bastion of the proto-punk generation of musicians that, through their looks, attitude, themes, and – most importantly – musical prowess, displayed to countless other talents that tackling the music business and consequently bringing that giant down could be done without losing one’s authenticity. From his maniacal presentations with The Stooges; going through the life-threatening addiction that followed the breakup of his legendary band and the subsequent start of his solo career with the help and support of Bowie himself; and including his most recent artistic endeavors, Iggy Pop has always been a man willing to live and die on his own terms. “Post Pop Depression” is not different from that mindset: it is loose, dirty, weird, passionate, energetic, reckless, and incredibly genuine; and it might also be Pop’s best work in well over a decade.

Joined by Josh Homme (Queens of the Stone Age), Dean Fertita (Queens of the Stone Age and The Dead Weather), and Matt Helders (Arctic Monkeys), Iggy sounds as reinvigorated and as close to being back on track as his persona allows him to. Whether consciously or not, in “Post Pop Depression” Pop pays homage to his two deceased companions. From Bowie, he borrows the feel and sound of both David’s Berlin Trilogy and of his own albums produced in Germany alongside the British star, the classics “The Idiot” and “Lust for Life”. Meanwhile, from Reed, he takes the distant and dry delivery of poetry concerning the deranged, the outcast, and the emotionally disturbed; subjects that, truthfully, have always been Iggy’s main theme given his identification with such people.

In fact, such recognition runs so deep that while Reed was firmly attached to the description of third-party characters, Iggy’s lyrics here seem more personal than ever. There is little to no doubt that Iggy Pop is talking about himself when he sings “I’ve shot my gun, I’ve used my knife / This hasn’t been an easy life” and “But if I have outlived my use / Please drink my juice”, in American Valhalla; or “I followed my shadow / And it led me here / What is the problem / If I disappear?” in “In the Lobby”. It is as if, by looking at himself and the world that surrounds him, Iggy was so unnerved by the incompatible values, lifestyle, and way of thinking that he used it as fuel to power one final grand statement as an artist. It is no surprise, then, that the album concludes with the epic “Paraguay”, whose coda is a hilarious, lengthy, and angry rant where Iggy shouts “I don’t want you” and “I’ve had enough of you” at the listener before exclaiming  “I’m gonna go to Paraguay / To live in a compound under the trees / With servants and bodyguards who love me / Free of criticism / Free of manners and mores”.

Under that wild thunderstorm of words, Josh and the band lay thick grooves and textured beats all over the record, setting the table for Iggy to shine, understanding who the real star of the show is here. Although pounding riffs and spiraling guitars do occasionally show up, the instruments never overpower the vocals. Instead, they complement them with accuracy either in the album’s poppiest moments (“Gardenia” and “Chocolate Drops”); in its most inscrutable tracks, like the Nick Cave inspired “Vulture”; or in its borderline hard-rock numbers, like the heavy opener “Break into Your Heart”, which is as close to Queens of the Stone Age as this excellent album gets.

five


 

soundcolorAlbum: Sound & Color

Artist: Alabama Shakes

Released: April 21st, 2015

Highlights: Don’t Wanna Fight, Dunes, Future People, Gimme All Your Love

After getting a strong hold on the garage brand of blues their early career success was built on in “Boys & Girls”, a record that alternated many blissful compositions with a few rather mundane tracks, the Alabama Shakes quickly moved onto new territory with “Sound & Color”. Perhaps not unintentionally, the way the titles of the two records mirror each other is rather telling of the distinctions between both works. “Boys & Girls” was grounded, a record done by regular people who got together and wrote songs sustained by the black-music sources upon which their taste had been built; “Sound & Color” looks to transcend those earthly confines of concrete musical pillars and easy-to-grasp subjects and land on an abstract plain of feelings and nuances.

It is unquestionable that, in terms of soundscape and experimentation, “Sound & Color” successfully travels through a realm where Pink Floyd would have roamed through if blues musicians had been their primary influence, and had Waters, Gilmour, Wright, Mason, and Barrett had access to the modern-day electronic witchery that exists in a recording studio. In its heart, this is the very same blues that was present in “Boys & Girls”; the difference is that, here, it is not tackled by a four-piece band in the same stripped down way. Therefore, a genre that is often simple and emotional gains contours of weirdness, trippiness, and idiosyncrasy.

At its best, the new presentation found in “Sound & Color” makes the compositions penned by Brittany Howard seem fresher while retaining their incredible power, a feature that is almost always evident in the Alabama Shakes’ sound thanks to her incredible voice, which is a flooring combination of a more technical Janis Joplin with a  whole lot of Otis Redding. Tracks, like the opening sequence of “Sound & Color”, “Don’t Wanna Fight No More”, “Dunes”, “Future People”, and “Gimme All Your Love”, are a spectacular example of that effect. At its worst, though, the new outfit these blues numbers put on ends up taking them down meandering paths that either drain them of that same power which is such an integral part of what the Alabama Shakes do or simply unnecessarily lengthen the path that some tunes take to get to somewhere significant.

Fortunately, none of the twelve tracks that make up “Sound & Color” are totally undermined by that issue; they are simply held back from realizing their true potential. Consequently, “Sound & Color” ends up being more praise-worthy than a magnet for criticism. This is a bold career move by a group that could have spent at least another two albums cooking the same recipe inside the same tried-and-true caldron, but that opted to – instead – steer their relatively successful ship onto new waters to see what they could find there. What they wind up discovering is brand new sound that is derivative of their original work but still widely original and that could, with a few refinements, yield a modern-music masterpiece down the line. Until that moment does not come, “Sound & Color” should be interesting enough to keep listeners satisfied.

five


 

beadyeyeAlbum: Different Gear, Still Speeding

Artist: Beady Eye

Released: February 28th, 2011

Highlights: Four Letter Word, The Roller, Kill For a Dream, The Beat Goes On

Although his voice lent relentless defiance to the songs that served as the soundtrack for the teenage years and early adulthood of a generation, Liam Gallagher never really was Oasis’ greatest talent, as all melodies and lyrics that propelled the group to super-stardom had come from his older brother’s brain. That is the reason why Beady Eye is such an utterly intriguing concept, as the group’s line-up can be described as Oasis without Noel Gallagher, the man responsible for – even in the band’s more collaborative final two efforts – creating most of the tunes. The question that arrives attached to “Different Gear, Still Speeding”, Beady Eye’s debut, then, is whether the remaining bits of the Britpop phenomenon would drown or float without their former creative leader, and it does not take long into the album to realize that neither answer is thoroughly correct.

“Different Gear, Still Speeding” has little to none of the pop-rock subtleties that marked most of Oasis’ numbers; as it turns out, Liam Gallagher is way too driven by instinct to have the time to stop and pay attention to any of that. That is why even though “Different Gear, Still Speeding” is not an album comprised exclusively of loud straight-up rock tracks, it feels like a record done with feeling rather than one created through an extensive thoughtful approach, a tactic that has the benefit of making the music sound almost unanimously fun, but whose downside is the quality slips it causes. In a way, it is “Be Here Now”, Oasis’ loosest and most overblown work, without the absurd indulgence of a modern rock mammoth that has run out of control, but with songwriting that is far more irregular.

“Different Gear, Still Speeding” has its shining moments: the violent riffs of “Four Letter Word”, which support a Liam Gallagher that comes off as the vocal representation of a mighty force of nature; “The Roller”, a perfect bubblegum piece of pop-rock music that could comfortably sit, even in terms of quality, in either “Definitely Maybe” or “(What’s the Story) Morning Glory?”; and the gorgeous balladry of “Kill For a Dream” and “The Beat Goes On”. Its lesser moments, some of which are plain bad and others that are merely average, tend to be saved by the fact that the album shows a band that is surprisingly flexible, albeit one that never truly transforms its influences into something completely fresh or remarkable.

“Millionaire” is a decent swing at writing a song built on a variation of traditional blues’ progressions; “Beatles and Stones” is a fun rock track that name-drops the boys from London and Liverpool, but that actually borrows its angular riff from The Who’s “My Generation”; “Bring the Light” has enough Rockabilly blood in it to make Jerry Lee Lewis climb on top of his piano; and “For Anyone” could be a mid-tempo acoustic song from one The Beatles’ first five records. “Different Gear, Still Speeding” is not excellent and might not have enough juice in it to even qualify as a great album, but it is a fun, honest, and energetic attempt by Archer, Bell, and Gallagher to keep on rolling following Noel’s abandoning of the ship.

five

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New Super Mario Bros. U Review

Its overall cautiousness holds it back, but in its level design New Super Mario Bros. U stands proudly beside the best sidescrollers

nsmbuAfter a lull of two generations, Nintendo decided to go back to its roots and release, alongside a brand new system, a fresh Mario game. However, differently from what other Mario adventures that came before it and that kicked off a new Nintendo generation, New Super Mario Bros. U is by no means a glorious display of what more powerful hardware can do. Instead, it opts to safely bet on the gold mine that the sidescrolling Mario series has become in recent years and decides not to shake things up in any significant way or form.

Such matter-of-fact description may seem inherently negative, and indeed – for most studios – that choice would be a recipe for disaster, especially considering that, upon its release, New Super Mario Bros. U was the fourth New Super Mario Bros. game to come out during an eight-year interval. Yet, what surfaces from that path is a game that, through all its more than sixty stages, pulls off exciting and unexpected tricks using the same old mechanics that have been established decades ago, hence giving birth to an effort that – while certainly neither original nor groundbreaking – was certainly worthy of being the opening note for a new console.

First, it is important to get the bad stuff out of the way: there is nothing incredibly mind-blowing or impressive about the bricks with which New Super Mario Bros. U is built. The series’ art style has not received any tweaks, neither significant nor minor, which means that it is still mostly generic and ordinary; the songs and sound effects remain as unchanged as they can be; the enemies and bosses are all incredibly familiar in their behaviors, looks and weak spots; princess Peach is once again kidnapped by Bowser and his offspring; and even the themes used for the worlds are commonplace, not only in their nature, but also in their order, as Mario will start his adventure on some calm plains, move on to a desert, to a snow-covered land, and a few worlds later, wrap it all up among waves of magma.

nsmbu2Nintendo is so aware of the repetition that they do not even attempt to conceal it; they, instead, choose to resign themselves to those constraints while attempting to thrive on them. Those issues, save for the reused story, which is more of a humorous staple than a flaw, are undeniable. Yet, it is arguable that, when everything is said and done, the mundane nature of pretty much everything about the game works in favor of one true king: the stage design. After all, extracting so much greatness from general dullness only serves to highlight the sheer glorious brilliancy of the courses contained within the package, which stand like a beautiful diamond among a sea of sameness.

In its core, that is what New Super Mario Bros. U is all about: stage design. The tricks Nintendo is able to land with a limited set of tools, which has the return of the raccoon suit as the only real difference in relation to its Wii predecessor, is utterly flooring.

As usual, things start slowly and simple in the first world, but as the plumber moves on towards the desert, New Super Mario Bros. U starts picking up speed, and – before one realizes it – the game becomes a train of fun going downhill at full-speed with nothing in sight that could possibly stop it. Within the same world, or even inside the boundaries of the entire game, Nintendo barely re-utilizes or recycles any mechanics, making every single stage an entirely different creature and turning the adventure into a big chain of impressively engaging obstacle courses, which reach an overall level of quality the sidescrolling series has not seen since its 16-bit days.

nsmbu7If there is a noteworthy change in the game’s structure, it is its overworld. While not being a new concept – it was, after all, introduced in 1988 by Super Mario Bros. 3 and greatly improved a few years later by Super Mario World – the game features a single overworld map that presents the individual worlds in a fully connected manner. Players can, literally, walk from stage one to Bowser’s place continuously, without any screen changes or apparent seams.

Though that construction is equal to what Super Mario World brought to the table, it is plain to see that – here – the map is better designed. As players clear courses, especially the secret ones, the scenario will creatively shift its shape to open the way to new places that are truly hidden, often unveiling paths that will leave one world, go through a nearby one, only to end up in some remote location found on a third distinct place. It is even possible to argue that a big part of the joy of finding a secret stage is seeing how the world map will transform to accommodate it.

For those who have been rightfully complaining about the ever diminishing difficulty of Mario games, New Super Mario Bros. U is an oasis. Though simply finishing the stages isn’t exactly painfully hard, going after the star coins will almost invariably lead to the need to perform complicated maneuvers that require both skill and timing. And, as a good sign that the game stays on the right side of the line separating frustration from difficulty, it does not matter how many times Mario falls to his death, players will always feel the urge to try once more. If looking for full completion, newcomers to the series will find one daunting task whereas veterans will encounter a great deal of challenge, especially on the secret and special stages, which are worthy of their fame for being brutally tough.

nsmbu3New Super Mario Bros. U might not be an impressive display of the Wii U’s technical capabilities, but – as the first Nintendo-made title on a new console – it worked as a solid blueprint of how games can interact with Miiverse in an effective and game-improving way. Whenever players clear a stage while performing any significant achievement such as collecting all star coins, not taking any damage, or getting to the flag really fast, the game will automatically prompt them for comments on the stage so that they can be posted on the game’s community on Miiverse.

The same will happen in frustrating situations; for example, when Mario loses a number of lives on a stage and said value goes over a predetermined threshold, the text box will also pop up, allowing gamers to spill their anger. In cases like this, the game will humorously ask players to send out warnings or angry letters to Bowser on how tough the stage is. Not only are those interruptions brief and seamless, therefore not disturbing the game’s pace, but the manner with which comments are integrated into the game (either being shown in the overworld or while the stage loads in-between attempts) adds to the experience.

The stages are astonishing, the graphics are smoother than ever (something that does not completely make up for the dull art style), the multiplayer can range between cooperative (with two players) to maddeningly chaotic (with four players), and the disc is packed to the brim with extras such as time-centered, coin-collecting, and enemy-defeating challenges that extend the game’s twenty-five hours of adventure into a package that can last for over forty hours of fun. Nonetheless, from a freshness standpoint, all of those aspects are trumped by the novelty of the game’s social factor.

Although such interactions have become increasingly commonplace and even deeper as the Wii U has progressed through its life-cycle, New Super Mario Bros. U was the game that established the starting ground for those features. Sharing achievements, failures and angry outbursts will be entertaining to many, and the constant reminder that there are tons of people around the globe going through the same ordeals somehow makes the whole game more fun, and it will certainly motivate some players to look into every corner of the game for every secret or achievement that is possible to find or accomplish.

nsmbu4At first glance, New Super Mario Bros. U does not seem to do justice to the past Mario games that debuted alongside new Nintendo systems, as it is devoid of any visual leaps or visible gameplay improvements. In the end, though, it is certainly worthy of carrying that legacy forward, not only because, in a way, it set the parameters for how the Wii U’s social components could be integrated into a game, even one belonging to a genre in which such a connection is hard to establish; but, most importantly, because of how ridiculously fun it is.

As it is usual for a Mario sidescroller, New Super Mario Bros. U shows gaming at one of its purest and funnest states, where everything exists for the sake of gameplay, and the outcome is the strongest game of the New Super Mario Bros. saga; one whose design goodness is comparable to the heavenly course-creation art achieved by Super Mario World and Super Mario Bros. 3 even if some of its safe decisions keep it from being a true masterpiece.

New Super Mario Bros U

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