The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker Review

A game whose adventurous heart and spirit transcend the realm of words and adjectives

wind_waker2On a tiny remote island, a boy comes of age and – as tradition dictates – must garb a green tunic that pays homage to a legendary hero of ages past. The celebration has a reason: a tale told through countless generations speaks of a long-vanished kingdom where a brave young man dressed with the colors of the forest sealed an immense demon after a hard-fought battle between the powers of good and evil for the control of the mighty Triforce ravaged the land.

What was meant to be a day of joy, however, turns to sadness when a gigantic bird who had been flying across the seas kidnapping blond girls with pointy ears mistakes the boy’s sister for a female pirate he had been carrying. As he decides to abandon his peaceful life and journey with the pirates towards the ominous fortress where all missing girls are reportedly being kept for mysterious reasons, the wheels of one of Nintendo’s greatest and most epic adventures are set in motion; the Wind Waker sets sail.

The first thing one takes notice of when playing the game is obvious: its famous cell-shaded visuals. The artists responsible for the game struck on a look that set this particular entry in the series far apart from anything else that had come before, and – more than that – from any other game to ever employ the very same cartoonish technique. Its vivid colors are used in ways that match both the quest’s highest peaks, conjuring feelings of adventure that are unparalleled in the history of the saga; and the hero’s darkest and most dangerous hours, portraying threats and forebodingness in their full glory.

wind_waker5That overflowing prettiness sometimes, though, obscures the two greatest victories found within that stellar art style. The first one is that, even over a decade after its release, when many games of the Gamecube era are starting to show wrinkles, the Wind Waker has simply not aged; as if preserved inside a time-proof bubble, it looks far better than many first-party games that came after it. The second one, meanwhile, lies in how full of expression the characters look. Paired with the huge eyes, which – in the case of Link – can serve as pointers to important items in the scenario, the very distinctive lines of each and every one of the hundreds of characters that populate the game’s universe clearly broadcast endless feelings, thoughts, and intentions with flooring ease.

Looks are not the only road the Wind Waker utilizes to set itself apart within a franchise with such a rich history of unique installments. Its gameplay is also distinctive, and it all starts and goes through the sailing. Set in a world where a gigantic ocean separates forty-nine islands of different shapes, sizes, and purposes, the hero will eventually acquire a talking sailboat – royally named The King of Red Lions – which he will use to travel across the vast water expanse.

True to the rupture it causes in the Zelda fanbase, the sailing has both a bright side and a negative one, but the former outweighs the latter so categorically that its flaws become negligible. Given the nature of his vessel, depending on his next destination, the protagonist must often change the direction of the wind, which breaks the pace of the exploration and does become annoying quickly. However, differently from other Zelda games, on which the focus is on locating the dungeons and tackling them, the Wind Waker feeds on adventure, and that is precisely what the sailing provides.

For starters, as soon as the boat is acquired – which happens very early, players are free to head to wherever their hearts desire. Many of the smaller optional islands are filled with puzzles and treasures that can only be accessed with certain equipment, but whether or not the hero has what is necessary to reach them, it is still rewarding to know what is out there and plan future explorations.

wind_waker4In a way, to those who truly become enchanted by Wind Waker’s explorative nature, the unveiling of the game’s secrets will play out like a Metroid game set at sea: new terrain is easy to find, but most of it requires that Link backtrack there once he is properly equipped.

To those folks, even traveling through relatively long space that separates each island will feel like an exciting activity due to the game’s constant vibe of discovery. The ocean is far more than a huge expanse of blue emptiness punctuated by islands, as its waters are brimming with submarines, aquatic monsters, observation towers, and fish that – when fed – spill out gossip, rumors, and other tales that, aside from making the ocean come alive with personality and activity, often serve as key clues in the finding of items and locations that are either necessary to the completion of the quest or entirely optional.

That incredible sense of freedom serves as fertile ground for what is perhaps Wind Waker’s greatest prowess: its sidequests. They are ridiculously abundant and fun to go through, especially since many of them feature some of the game’s finest moments of puzzle-solving, writing, and exploration. Those become exceptionally engaging due to the fact Wind Waker has interesting rewards to give away. Other than the traditional heart pieces and rupees, the game is loaded with valuable charts that – pirate style – mark the resting place of chests lying on the ocean floor with a cross.

wind_waker3It is true that most of those maps, namely the dozens of ones that are not mandatory, lead to chests packed with rupees, but the exploration is fun nonetheless; in this case, the means are more interesting than the ends. The sheer amount of cash players will collect, though, comes in handy late in the game when a specific portion of the storyline will require unbelievably fat pockets.

Some might feel such demand is a very cheap method Nintendo unearthed to pad the game’s length and force players into taking missions that are otherwise facultative, which is a fair assumption; but most who balance doing sidequests with clearing the main plot will not have much trouble getting by that undoubtedly onerous portion of the quest.

Besides its great degree of exploration, the Wind Waker moves forward much like any other Zelda game; it intercalates investigation and good doses of dialogue with lonely dungeons. The former portion is remarkable. As far as the Zelda franchise goes, no other game nails plot development like Wind Waker. The script has mysteries whose scope is on par with the game’s gigantic ocean, and the storyline unravels constantly, always finding ways to reward players with new tidbits of information or stunning plot twists as major goals are achieved.

wind_waker6To go along with that amazing tale, Nintendo has crafted a set of characters to match. Whether they are involved directly with the inner workings of the plot, or are just part of the peripheral peoples that inhabit the sea (which includes the fantastic Windfall Island, a sort of nautical version of Majora’s Mask Clocktown where civilians with their own secrets and urges go about their daily business in timed and synchronized fashion), remarkable likable characters – perhaps aided by the lovely visuals – surge from every corner.

Sadly, the dungeons just do not follow the same level of superb quality. While none of them are decidedly bad, they fail to be awe-inspiring, often succumbing to tiny design flaws. One of them, for example, which could have become a creative gauntlet focused on sneaking, has the annoying habit of sending Link back to his starting point whenever he is caught.

Meanwhile, the three final labyrinths, which hold top-notch puzzles, fall victim to the fact Link carries allies into them, forcing gamers to constantly have to play a song in order to assume control of the sidekicks, an action that grows dull really fast, constantly stops the exploration on its tracks, and that could have been easily mapped to a button press.

As a more positive turn, though, all dungeons – without exception, are crowned with astounding boss battles that push the game’s graphics to their absolute peak. Even if they are easy, they are positively exciting because of the visual fireworks they provide, which border on cinematic due to their giant smoothness, and the cleverness of their design.

wind_waker7The difficulty issue of the boss battles is also translated to the other combats. The game’s combat system is a slightly refined version of the one present on both Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask. The locking and camera work are flawless. The added twist is that, when the time is right, a loud sound will indicate players that the enemy is vulnerable to a powerful blow, and a timely button press – which is not that hard to pull off – will make Link unleash an effective and visually flashy slash. It is a cool addition, but – for the most part – minor enemies do not pose much of a threat.

A technically perfect game, the Wind Waker complements its visuals and soundtrack, which are the peaks of the franchise in both areas, with a quest whose theme of adventure is executed brilliantly through incredible sidequests, a moving plot, an absurd degree of free-roaming exploration, and a fascinating gargantuan ocean that is populated by easy-to-love characters that give the place life and lore. Its tiny flaws in no way diminish the overwhelming greatness emanating from nearly everything it touches, and the result is a masterfully designed game whose adventurous heart and spirit transcend the realm of words and adjectives. It is something that must be felt either through the over fifty hours of its full content or via the thousands of unforgettable moments that populate its unforgettable quest.

The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker

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Banjo-Tooie Review

In its endless ambition and megalomania, Banjo-Tooie builds the most complex, demanding, and satisfying take on exploratory platforming

Banjo-Tooie2Bigger is not a synonym for better. Banjo-Tooie, however, manages to build a compelling argument to support the joining of those two terms in a thesaurus. Tasked with the goal of topping Banjo-Kazooie, a game that – two years earlier – had ran laps around every single 3-D platformer released up to that point, Banjo-Tooie looks towards sheer megalomania for inspiration, and – in turn – creates one of the most immense, demanding, and fun adventures the Nintendo 64 housed during its run.

With Gruntilda buried beneath the earth under a massive boulder, Spiral Mountain seems to be at peace. Things go awry, though, when on a rainy night, while the titular pair enjoys a card game alongside Bottles the mole and Mumbo the shaman, the now bony witch is freed by her two sisters and seeks immediate revenge by blowing up the bear’s home and wrecking havoc. Able to escape the spell she sends their way, the heroes set out once more to stop the hag, who wants to recover her body by harvesting energy from the land via a huge weapon of cartoonish proportions.

From the outset, Banjo-Tooie is quick to let players know it retains the fantastic mood of its predecessor, where underlying darkness is covered with colorful scenarios and tongue-in-cheek jokes that brilliantly walk the tightrope between surprisingly offensive and clever. A destroyed Spiral Mountain, the geographic link between both games, serves as the starting point of the quest and, backed by sad music that follows death and destruction, the bear and the bird go on their way.

Gruntilda still has knack for ridiculous rhyming. Kazooie, meanwhile, is at the top of her mocking verbal skills and offers no mercy to the huge cast of characters she meets. Much to the horror of the good-hearted Banjo, and to the delight and laughter of players, her scornful ways are as wonderful as ever: she often breaks the fourth-wall by calling out predictable and clichéd occurrences, takes advantage of the innocence of most creatures to spin derisive comments, and employs a harsh sincerity that is brutal and witty. Banjo-Tooie is utterly hilarious, and every one of the game’s interactions between characters serves as an opportunity for Rare to flex their comedic muscles with success.

Banjo-Tooie1The wisest move made by the game, and one that supports its greatness from the very beginning of the first world until the final boss, is assuming that anyone who is playing Banjo-Tooie has already been through Banjo-Kazooie. It is not that the title is unaccessible to newcomers, the reality is far from that: the gameplay is easy to pick up and the plot simple to follow. Banjo-Tooie, however, does not bore those that experienced the first game by retreading to previously explored grounds.

For starters, the incredible abilities that transformed Banjo and Kazooie into a Swiss Army Knife are fully available as soon as it all begins. Launching eggs, flying, performing high jumps, and executing different attacks are all ready for use, meaning that – in order to add new ingredients to the mix – the game chooses to build upon that already impressive arsenal.

Although a good number of the new moves are pulled off as a duo, most skills scattered through the worlds derive from one of the game’s finest new features: the fact Banjo and Kazooie can split-up by using a pad, which allows Banjo to extract versatility out of his empty backpack and Kazooie to gain incredible agility due to not having to carry the bear. It is a nice twist that opens up numerous doors leading to clever level design, and allows the two characters to either work by themselves or collaborate separately to achieve a mutual goal.

The other, and by far the most important, consequence of the assumption that anyone going into Banjo-Tooie is reasonably experienced in the franchise is the difficulty of the eight worlds encountered here. While Mumbo’s Mountain, the first scenario of Banjo-Kazooie, can be reasonably cleared within forty minutes by a relatively good player; Mayahem Temple, the initial Banjo-Tooie level, will require anywhere between one and two hours of exploration and problem-solving.

banjo_tooie6Many are the reasons behind the considerable amount of time each world demands. Firstly, Banjo-Tooie has more collectibles than its predecessor. The ten puzzle pieces, five Jinjos, and one-hundred musical notes placed on every level make a return, albeit with very positive changes regarding the last two items. In addition to those, there are also three empty honeycombs, which are used to increase the pair’s energy meter, and three Cheato pages, which unlock varied cheats, waiting to be found on each new scenario the heroes explore.

Musical notes are now found in groups of five plus a well-hidden special bunch of twenty, as opposed to the meticulous individual collection of Banjo-Kazooie. More importantly, though, while on Banjo-Kazooie notes and Jinjos gathered were lost upon either leaving the world or dying, such annoying anomaly no long occurs here, hence erasing the previous game’s sole source of frustration.

The second reason behind the pleasant inflation of the game’s general length comes from the scope of the worlds. Aside from being enormous, the intricacy of their structure is often mesmerizing; therefore entailing a much more careful exploration. Thankfully, realizing that traversing those expanses multiple times could get boring quite quickly, developers wisely placed a good deal of warp points around the stages, allowing players to travel between major areas in the blink of an eye.

As an improvement over Banjo-Kazooie, whose worlds sometimes drifted into predictable platforming themes, Banjo-Tooie is far more creative in that regard. Starting from a setting of Mayan inspirations, with a rock pyramid as its centerpiece, the game travels through a wonderful land where dinosaurs are not extinct, a theme park of dubious maintenance, a tall industrial building, a mountain split into a fiery and snowy halves, and even a lagoon whose underwater sights are not only gorgeous but also a joy to play through, creating what is perhaps the greatest water level to ever appear on a platformer.

banjo_tooie3The jiggies located on each world require a great deal of effort to be tracked down. Whereas on Banjo-Kazooie getting the game’s ultimate rewards usually involved getting to a place and performing a certain simple task, on Banjo-Tooie most puzzle pieces demand a longer checklist of activities that are only figured out after attentive investigation and sharp reasoning, and the rewarding nature of that ride keeps players glued to the screen for surprisingly long gameplay sessions.

The game’s greatest victory is something that no other platformer of its kind has ever come close to achieving. Like it happens on games of the genre, the worlds are accessed through a large overworld. Banjo-Tooie, however, adds an amazing twist to that structure. The worlds are not fully independent: they are actually linked not only to the overworld, but also to one another. From an atmospheric perspective, that trick makes the adventure’s setting feel like one gigantic world instead of a series of interconnected isolated levels, a sensation that is augmented by the existence of a train that can be used as a mean of transportation between the stages.

Those connections, however, are not there just for show and world-building; they serve a purpose. A minor part of the game’s puzzle pieces are only reached by solving troubles that can only be addressed by transporting items and characters between stages, activating interactions between the worlds, or even taking alternate paths that will allow Banjo and Kazooie to get to places that would have been inaccessible from the very world they are located in. For example, one specific jiggy is only acquired by saving a prehistoric tribe from starving to death, something that can only be achieved by giving them junk food received in another world.

banjo_tooie5As if that extensive collaboration between stages, which had never been done before and has never been replicated since then, was not enough, Banjo-Tooie takes it to a whole new level by sometimes presenting players with riddles and challenges that can only be cleared by an ability found on a future yet-to-be-unlocked world. Naturally, it is a strategy that imposes a good deal of backtracking not to mention the ability to understand that doing the task with the duo’s current set of abilities is impossible. It is the odd meeting between a 3-D platformer and Metroid, and the creature born out of that fusion is gorgeous.

Banjo-Tooie does offer some more straightforward puzzle pieces; actually, most of them do not require such interactions between levels. However, the fact that all worlds, without exception, feature between one and three jiggies that are only acquired either via backtracking or by triggering inter-world exchanges will undoubtedly put off players who like their platformers to be simpler. To the ones who do not mind, though, Banjo-Tooie will be endlessly engaging and astonishing in jaw-to-the-floor ways.

Through the nearly thirty hours it takes to full completion, the game never goes stale. Brand new gameplay ideas bloom from every corner. The transformations, one of Banjo-Kazooie’s best features, but one that only appeared punctually, have been expanded and have grown more important. There is one for every world and the duo will become anything from a TNT detonator to a washing machine. Additionally, while on Banjo-Kazooie they were only useful for one specific goal, on Banjo-Tooie they are always involved in the reaching of more than one of the collectibles; hence making them far more important.

banjo_tooie4Bosses, which are a bit on the easy side, are also frequent and very creative; fun mini-games and a few first-person shooting segments, where Kazooie is held like a weapon, albeit one that shoots eggs, are a pleasant detour and can even be enjoyed separately on an unexpectedly strong multiplayer mode; and Mumbo himself, once restricted to his hut and to turning the heroes into animals or objects via his magic, is now fully controllable and must be used to perform spells around the stage to help the heroes advance. The game has a bag of tricks that matches the size of its unstoppable megalomania.

On the technical front, as a title that came out on the tail end of the Nintendo 64 era, it represents the peak of what the console was able to do without the expansion pack, even matching or bettering games that made use of that device. The models are flawless and surprisingly improved, but Banjo-Tooie’s greatest visual features are undoubtedly its lighting, which includes precise shadows, and its very complex animations. All that ambition combined with the size of the worlds, though, occasionally takes a toll on the game, as the framerate will dip when there is too much going on. However, given the game is short on action and heavy on exploration, that issue is not frequent enough to be irremediably annoying.

Banjo-Tooie7When it comes to its sound, Banjo-Tooie follows on the footsteps of its predecessor by offering a very whimsical and dynamic soundtrack and sound effects that are highlighted by the humorous gibberish spoken by the talkative characters.

In its endless megalomania, Banjo-Tooie tops Banjo-Kazooie by a considerable margin. What was once a stellar game turns – when infused with punctual fixes, the addition of clever ideas, and the expansion of others – into one of the biggest and most ambitious games the world has ever seen. Everything it tries to do is positively enormous, and although some will turn away due to its grandeur, those who fall in love with its desire to build one interconnected all-encompassing world by linking its stages together and sprinkling big amounts of backtracking into the formula will find unparalleled levels of satisfaction on its exploration and puzzle-solving. Banjo-Tooie is one-of-a-kind, and its gigantic and demanding ways have yet to be duplicated.

Banjo-Tooie

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Monstrous Grind

mh41Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate does precisely what is expected of a new installment in Capcom’s stellar franchise; it does not intend to change the minds of those who look at it as an overly demanding title centered around the incessant beating of gargantuan creatures. Instead, it adorns a well-established formula with new appendices that make it deeper, potentially more time-consuming, and – consequently – better. It is, by all means and ends, the definitive version of an addictive series where thrilling action meets the grinding of online multiplayer RPGs while being wrapped by a neat package of relatively digestible fifty-minute missions.

While veterans will initially hit waters on which they will sail smoothly due to accumulated experience that naturally carries over from previous efforts, Monster Hunter 4 is – mostly – a daunting uphill battle to anyone who is willing to climb up that mountain. Starting out as an inexperienced hunter whose shameful equipment deems them worthy of being dubbed a scrub, players must slowly make their way through increasingly difficult quests.

Dull missions that border on being chores are still present; occasionally, one will have to take down small weak monsters, gather a certain number of resources, or steal eggs from a nest. However, after players reach the midway point of the three-star quests – which should happen within fifteen hours of offline gameplay – those will become significantly rarer and the real stars of the show will step towards the forefront: the big bad ferocious creatures whose designs are threatening enough to make them look utterly terrifying even when viewed through a small screen.

mh42Toppling those beings, from the standard Great Jaggi that appears early into the adventure to the mighty forces of nature that will show up further down the line, requires a lot. Their patterns of attack need to be carefully learned, the possible openings their movements create must be explored, and – given there are no visible life bars – identifying their signals of weakness, not to mention the correct balance between attacking and defending, is of the utmost importance.

It is not all about clearing quests and advancing through the list, though. The franchise’s smartest device, and the one reason why there is such a heavy focus on grinding, is that the hunter itself is devoid of anything resembling a level or stats; therefore, beating monsters does not automatically make one stronger. The cash and materials that are awarded for defeating the creatures and carving their dead bodies, though, can be utilized in the forging of new pieces of armor and weapons that will indeed increase the hunters’ defense, attack, and even give them extra abilities.

As a consequence, by means of experimentation, which in this case means trying to defeat new stronger monsters, players must figure out by themselves whether their current equipment is good enough to allow them clear harder quests or if hunting more creatures on previously accomplished missions and gathering additional resources is necessary.

mh44The game’s hands-off approach means it will never even barely hint one is under-prepared to face a certain monster. It is to be expected, then, that aside from fainting three times – which is what triggers the failing of a mission, many hunters will manage to battle a creature for the entirety of the fifty minutes only to have time expire on them, which will lead them to the question of whether they could have performed better during the struggle or if they need to grind for more materials in order to upgrade their current assets.

Intimidating is indeed the best adjective to describe Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate and all of its prequels. However, inside of the borderline maniacal surface lies the fact not many other games are as constantly satisfying and rewarding.

Looking for specific materials to forge new armor and weapons, which are either carved out of the dead bodies of monsters or awarded by clearing quests, can be a multiple-hour task depending on the rarity of those items, but Monster Hunter is a game that constantly makes players feel as if they are advancing even when, in terms of missions cleared, they are not.

Every failure comes with the learning of new tactics that might help in the rematch with that monster that just will not go down, and every bit of material acquired after a twenty-minute fight leads hunters one step closer to that new piece of equipment that will aid them in getting closer to a goal that might have looked unattainable at first. Being a monster hunter is no easy task, and the game makes it very clear.

mh43Through its improved controls and greater hunter mobility; additional weapon types; new brilliantly designed monsters and returning old favorites that make up quite a huge collection; a full-fledged online mode where the difficulty of the offline quests is considerably upped in order to challenge groups that can have up to four hunters; and the fresh expeditions, on which extra missions that may feature unique monsters can be acquired; Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate builds a web of content that can easily last for hundreds of hours and whose distinct rate of challenge and rewards makes it irresistible to gamers who love a tough nut to crack.

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Kirby and the Rainbow Curse Review

A lovely quest that shows why Kirby is one of Nintendo’s most likable, accessible, and versatile characters

kirby_2Hindsight has an astounding influence over some games. Take Kirby Canvas Curse, for example; the game, coming out very early on the life-cycle of the Nintendo DS, was one of the first titles to embrace stylus-based controls as its primary, and only, source of input. Considering the flooring amount of games that would follow that same strategy on their way to handheld glory, the importance of Canvas Curse gains impressive weight. It may not have held a direct influence on all of those works, but it sure represented the ground-zero coordinates that proved adventures centered around touch motions could work with great results.

Kirby and the Rainbow Curse follows that exact path, only – this time – instead of starring as a portable game, the pink puffball’s latest quest lands on a home console. It all begins when Kirby and Waddle Dee are fooling around in Dream Land when a mysterious portal opens up in the sky. Out of it a dark entity pops out, stealing all color and – consequently – all life away. For a second then, it seems Dream Land is utterly condemned to be frozen in time for eternity, but a heroic paintbrush suddenly emerges and gives life back to both Kirby and Waddle Dee, which must now follow her into the ominous portal to restore their home to its former vivid beauty.

kirby_6From the outset one thing becomes obvious: Kirby and the Rainbow Curse is so adorable some players might report the witnessing of rainbows and candy popping out of their TV sets and making their way into their living rooms. The short opening sequence could have come out of an unbelievably masterfully produced stop-motion animation flick where everything is made of very colorful clay, and that art style pours right into the game itself where levels and enemies are seemingly made from that same material. The graphics are stunning. Moreover, the level of detail is so ridiculously high that settings become slightly deformed as Kirby walks over them and all elements feature visual effects that replicate the fingerprints that are naturally left on clay models after they are built.

In order to succeed in their mission, players will traverse seven thematically varied worlds built with the stolen colors from Dream Land. To do so, as it happened on Canvas Curse, lines must be drawn on the Gamepad to guide Kirby – who can neither walk nor perform any of his traditional moves due to the fact he decides to turn into a lovely ball – from one point to another and help him clear the many obstacles that will appear. The whole process is implemented smoothly and intuitively as the game perfectly captures the movements on the Gamepad’s screen.

kirby_3The sole unfortunate consequence of that gameplay choice is that, given the attention, precision, and fast reactions it requires; players will always be looking at the Gamepad, hence completely ignoring their TVs. Given the resolution of the former is greatly inferior to the latter, part of the game’s visual prowess is lost. One will constantly be tempted to look towards the big screen to see the graphics in their full enchanting bloom, but rarely will they be able to do it.

Thankfully, Kirby’s arsenal is not limited to rolling along the lines placed by his paintbrush partner. By quickly tapping the character, gamers will trigger a standard attack that will dispose of most enemies. Meanwhile, for every one-hundred stars that are collected on each level, Kirby can perform a Star Dash, which turns him into a drill that destroys armored foes and unbreakable walls and usually allows the character to reach secret locations or helpful items. Since they are cumulative through the stage, players can opt to save Star Dashes and use them when the situation calls for it.

Sadly, activating Star Dashes, which is done by holding the stylus over Kirby, can be a bit tricky, especially when it must be done quickly. The game requires a lot of accuracy in their triggering and holding the pen even a few pixels away from the character will cause the Gamepad to interpret the input as the drawing of a line, which can be a tad frustrating.

kirby_5Kirby’s set of skills culminates with three transformations that, aside from adding variety to the game, make clever use of the touch controls. When he becomes a tank, stages turn into mad enemy gauntlets where the screen must be tapped so that the destructive vehicle unleashes missiles. Transforming into a submarine, which shoots torpedoes exclusively towards the right, forces players to create lines in order to lead them to their respective targets, therefore creating some nice little action-based puzzles. Finally, the unstoppable Kirby rocket must have its direction quickly altered through drawing and makes up for very thrilling levels where a countdown must be beat while obstacles are avoided.

Those possibilities, alongside the stage design opportunities created by the game’s core concept, keep things interesting and varied through all seven worlds, which feature three stages and a boss each. Rainbow Curse is not packed to the brim with levels, and it is perfectly arguable that despite the game’s reduced price there should have been more. However, all of them are truly enjoyable, especially those after the beginning of the third world, when the title’s generally light difficulty, a tradition of the Kirby franchise, climbs up to a pleasant height.

kirby_7Additionally, one of the nicest qualities presented by the levels is that in spite the fact they are grouped in worlds their theme is constantly shifting, allowing the game to explore a wide range of scenarios. The water-based third world, for example, starts by the shore; moves on to a haunted pirate ship; and ends in the deep-sea, where its respective boss patiently waits for the hero’s arrival.

Speaking of the big bad guys, they happen to be one of Rainbow Curse’s most flagrant disappointments. Centered around a gameplay style that could have supported the crafting of very unique battles, the game sinfully reutilizes the same three bosses on the first six worlds. Sure, that trio of fights is inventive, but facing each one of them twice with slight alterations that are not significant enough comes off as a negative display.

To those looking to squeeze more hours out of Rainbow Curse, it offers plenty. All stages of the regular adventure feature three kinds of collectibles: one diary page with beautiful hand-drawn art; five treasure chests, which can contain great clay figurines or songs that are a part of the amazing soundtrack of either the game itself or of the franchise’s past installments; and a medal that is awarded for collecting a certain amount of stars that are scattered through the levels.

kirby_5The implementation of the first two, however, leaves a lot to be desired and can be the source of some considerable frustration. The problem is that both the diary pages and treasure chests have been deliberately designed in a way that often gives players only one chance to get them; if they are missed, they can only be acquired by replaying the level, which feels like forced and unnecessary padding.

Diary pages spin on a wheel marking the end of each stage; if players miscalculate their move, they have to start things over from the beginning just to get another shot at the item. Meanwhile, treasure is usually located inside fun challenge rooms that give gamers fifteen seconds to do a task; if they fail, the chance to redo them right away is denied: the entrance to those rooms simply vanishes. Instead of building harder challenge rooms and hiding diary pages carefully, developers opted to extract difficulty out of making players start from scratch with every failure, something that is a recipe for disaster.

kirby_4The final collectible, the gold medals, unlocks doors that are part of a full-fledged Challenge Mode. There, forty-eight rooms housing varied tasks await gamers that are willing to have their skills tested to the fullest. Most of them are sequences of four fifteen-second challenges where Kirby must make his way to a treasure chest before time runs out. However, there are also special doors that contain longer strings of rooms and even bosses, which must be beat without taking damage.

Overall, Kirby and the Rainbow Curse is – especially to those who are inclined to tackle both central modes – worth its price tag. It is a game of high production values that, despite a few slip-ups that can cause frustration or disappointment, is extremely creative and makes great use of the Wii U’s control capabilities. Since players barely look at the TV, hence missing out on the game’s fantastic graphics in their full beautiful state, it is possible to argue it should have been a handheld effort. Yet, when confronted with its fun adventure and cooperative multiplayer where player-controlled Waddle Dees step in to lead Kirby through the levels, it is easy to overlook the design flaws it carries. Rainbow Curse is a lovely quest that shows why Kirby is one of Nintendo’s most likable, accessible, and versatile characters.

KIrby and the Rainbow Curse

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Going Mobile

mario_smartphoneFor years, Nintendo had been faced with questions regarding whether or not they would eventually embrace mobile devices and start producing games for both smartphones and tablets. To some, that prompt was rooted on the envisioned future where game-dedicated handlheld platforms, a market Nintendo rules over with astounding efficiency, would succumb to the ever-growing power of multipurpose gadgets. To others, it was a matter of preying on a much wider market that was mostly devoid of truly great titles and whose limitations fit the straightforward nature of the company’s software like a glove.

Last month, after shying away from properly answering any of those queries by giving standard responses devoid of any meaning, Nintendo let the world know that – joined by DeNA, a Japanese giant on the mobile gaming front – it would now work on bringing its worldwide famous properties to those platforms.

Pinpointing the destination of Nintendo’s strategy is impossible, especially since it is a move that will likely be the first of a series of steps the company will take onto that field; a sequence of acts whose final outline will change according to external factors. Down the line, such partnership might give birth to a Nintendo-branded smartphone optimized to serve their games; it might lead to the Big N opening up a virtual shop of their own to provide titles to that gigantic audience; or it could be something that paves the way for Nintendo dropping their handheld line and attacking the tablet and smartphone front. It all depends on how the industry will act during the next years or decades.

mario_smartphoneRight now, though, their plan is relatively clear. With their current format, tablets and smartphones are in no way suited to house Nintendo’s biggest titles. Therefore, their proposal is not to port part of their library, but to create games around famous characters and worlds that will be constructed with the constraints of their target platforms in mind; hence creating a much more pleasant and suitable gaming experience to those who like to pass their time by playing on their smartphones either during a commute or inside a waiting room.

The exact format of those titles is yet to be revealed, but given DeNA tends to operate with the freemium pricing strategy, on which the game itself is free but players must dish out cash to buy extra features or goods, that seems to be the most likely horizon. Regardless of the specificities of the approach that will be taken, though, one thing is for sure: Nintendo is, naturally, bent on making money, so the mobile market will serve as yet another solid source of income, one where the money spent by each user is not as high as on the actual gaming market, but where the bigger user base, reduced development costs, and lower risks and demands make up for the tiny prices.

Things can get better than that, though. The dream scenario for the company and, consequently, for its fans, surfaces if those inexpensive titles with relatively high-quality serve as the gateway many people will take into the Nintendo universe. With those smartphone and tablet titles Nintendo can achieve something better than free advertising: the company will actually receive money from users who will pay to play games that may naturally lead them to urge for more and, henceforth, make them wish they owned a true Nintendo platform.

mario_smartphone2Like Disney, the Big N has built a set of characters whose family-friendly nature makes them instantly recognizable, and with the releasing of smaller-scope games that – literally – almost everyone on the planet will be able to play, their fantastic brand has the chance to spread like wildfire.

If those efforts are cooked up just right and if actual advertisement actions that tie up the smartphone and tablet games with their full-fledged counterparts are executed, this venture into the mobile world may end up not as the day when Nintendo’s proprietary platforms began to die, but as the day on which they started getting bigger than they have ever been.

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Albums of the Month: March 2015

consolersAlbum: Consolers of the Lonely

Artist: The Raconteurs

Released: March 25th, 2008

Highlights: The Switch and the Spur, Many Shades of Black, These Stones Will Shout, Carolina Drama

If sharing creative duties was a part of Jack White’s set of skills, it never really had the chance to surface for during most of his career he was the sole driving force behind The White Stripe’s musical direction. Everything changed in 2006, though, when Jack joined other established musicians – Brendan Benson,  Jack Lawrence, and Patrick Keeler – to form The Raconteurs, where songwriting was done alongside Benson, and White was put under a stronger environment of concurrent ideas and thoughts.

The first output of that experiment, 2006’s “Broken Boy Soldiers” was intriguing albeit not strong; a generally pleasant album whose roughness and irregularity clearly showed a group going through the process of coming together. 2008’s “Consolers of the Lonely” is a different story altogether: a strong collection of fourteen songs that bursts with incredible chemistry, especially between White and Benson; and tackles multiple genres with a unique mixture of Benson’s British pop-rock and White’s love for Americana.

More impressive than the record’s constant loud guitar punches is the dynamism of its tunes. The title song starts out with a dirty bluesy riff before exploding into a rhythmic verse that culminates with a loud chorus and then reverts back to the slow-paced ways of its opening; “The Switch and the Spur” is a mini western multi-phased rock-opera that comes off as something Queen would have written on their “Bohemian Rhapsody” phase if they were American; “Top Yourself” goes from a weary country ballad to a mad guitar attack as if Jack’s anger towards the song’s subject suddenly spilled over; the great “Many Shades of Black” gains tones of decadency from its over-the-top horns; and “These Stones Will Shout” is constructed on a glorious crescendo.

“Consolers of the Lonely” spotlights White finding a flexibility that he could only achieve by working outside of the guitar-and-drums confines of The White Stripes and by joining his talent with someone as brilliant as Benson. It is more than a solid rock record, it is a modern and stellar display of guitar music built on a fantastic array of influences that come together perfectly whether it is on unusual, yet accessible, tracks or more traditional numbers that explore folk, balladry, and straight-up garage aggressiveness. American roots rock is dressed up with the polish of British Invasion music and the result is an album that bridges two continents and finds great beauty in a transatlantic collaboration.

teenagerAlbum: Teenager of the Year

Artist: Frank Black

Released: May 23rd, 1994

Highlights: Thalassocracy, Calistan, Speedy Marie, Headache, Superabound, White Noise Maker

Greatness is not a stranger to Frank Black; a man who captained the Pixies through their historic late-80s and early-90s run. Yet, even when it comes to someone like him, “Teenager of the Year” is simultaneously mesmerizing and surprising; not because its quality is unparalleled to his works as the frontman of the gigantic group, but due to its gargantuan size and relentless quality. His second solo album is, by all means, a massive tour de force; a twenty-two track creative explosion that, differently from most works of such scope, never slows down or drags.

It is true that not all songs bear the same quality, but – to those accustomed to Frank’s quirkiness as a lyricist and vocalist – every single tune falls somewhere between stellar and good, with an impressive quantity leaning towards the former range. As it had already been demonstrated on his eponymous debut, Frank – differently from what would be found on a Pixies record where most songs, in spite of their self-contained dynamics, would eventually feature loud guitars – likes to pair up direct punky electric songs with quieter ones a listener could easily describe as mellow if not for their cleverly odd words.

It is obvious Frank is still enamored with space, and that seems to be his most recurrent theme. On “The Vanishing Spies” he talks about satellites accompanied by atmospheric keyboards that lend the song touches of the Pixies’ “Bossanova” period; “Fazer Eyes” hints at alien abductions; “Big Red” fictionalizes the colonization of Mars, with the melting of the planet’s ice caps turning it into a blue watery planet; “Space Is Gonna Do Me Good” has Frank dreaming of abandoning the mundane confines of earthling adult life and having a blast in space; “Pie in the Sky” celebrates the power of the Sun; and both “Calistan” and the ska-like “Fiddle Riddle” look at a sci-fi dystopian future.

It is not all about stars and planets, though. Black is a weird romantic, and it shows on “Speedy Marie”, a sweet declaration to his then girlfriend; and Sir Rockaby, whose rhythm borders on soul music. And he can also be witty whether it is through pop culture references or historic insights, which is displayed on the two ninety-second loud songs that open the album – “Whatever Happened to Pong” and “Thalassocracy”, and on “Ole Mulholland”, an epic on the achievements of the man who brought water to Los Angeles. With impressively varied subjects and styles, “Teenager of the Year” is a remarkable one-hour musical voyage led by one of the world’s most interesting, unpredictable, and unique songwriters.

pretenders Album: Pretenders

Artist: Pretenders

Released: January 19th, 1980

Highlights: Tattooed Love Boys, Kid, Brass in Pocket, Mystery Achievement

Before the new wave movement got so heavily buried in synthesizers that tracing its origins back to the cinders left by punk rock after it had burned the whole house down became impossible, there were the Pretenders. And before the group themselves – one of the genre’s first and finest examples – succumbed  to that fad, there was their self-titled debut: an album that perfectly captures a moment in music history when punk was moving on to cleaner and less rough grounds, but that – many years after its release – is still able to sound fresh and exciting.

With a few notable exceptions, the songs here follow a clear pattern: simple riffs filtered through a smooth production that meets an odd, yet perfect, match in Christine Hynde’s unique singing. Although she has an unstoppable ability to write pop melodies that could potentially diminish the wildness of her band’s playing (as evidenced in “Kid”), she stops that from happening by singing as irregularly as possible. She cannot bring herself to attack her lines properly. Sometimes it seems she barely tries to pronounce the words written on paper, and on other occasions she is so overtaken by energy that two sentences that should have a similar harmony sound nothing alike.

When the Pretenders are not performing with the power of a garage band, albeit one whose sound has been cleaned up, they are showing decent versatility. Her adoration for Ray Davies, something that is noticeable on her melodies, comes through on The Kinks’ cover of “Stop Your Sobbing”, which might top the original. Meanwhile, the album’s final sequence of numbers holds nice surprises, such as “Private Life”, whose attempt at reggae is so well-done it became a popular cover on the hands of Grace Jones; “Lovers of Today”, a power ballad with painfully slow guitars that convey the singer’s delicate anguish; and the epic “Mystery Achievement”, where a bass-driven verse explodes on an incredible chorus.

The greatness of the Pretenders would not last very long, for after the passing of two of its members due to drug problems and the release of the amazing “Learning to Crawl” the group, despite Hynde’s commendable strength of will to keep the show on the road, failed to achieve the same level of quality displayed here. Still, it is partially comforting to know that, before their peak was up, they delivered one of the most complete, original, and incredible debuts in rock history.

franz_ferdinandAlbum: Franz Ferdinand

Artist: Franz Ferdinand

Released: February 9th, 2004

Highlights: Jacqueline, Take me Out, Darts of Pleasure, Michael

In the writing of a first album, bands have something that will become scarce through the rest of their careers: time. Since it takes a couple of years for most to be given the opportunity to head into the studio and record their debut, chances to write material and test it on the road, with the benefit of not carrying the weight of being a big-name act, are abundant. Such fact explains why many introductory works often sound like greatest hit records of top-notch and fresh quality. The early 2000s gave the world a couple of those records in The Strokes’ “Is This It?” and The Libertines’ “Up the Bracket”, and Franz Ferdinand’s self-titled premiere is yet another example of that phenomenon.

What the band does is adorn the garage rock of the turn-of-the-century in impeccable metrosexual clothing, preserving the genre’s angular guitars, and then taking it out to the most prominent nightclubs in the city. It is bivalent music; working both while being executed on the stage of a festival or as it is blasted by speakers towards a dance-floor, and Alex Kapranos sings the tunes with such an incredible nonchalance that one cannot help but wonder whether he feels superior to everything that surrounds him or if his overwhelming suave is impossible to control.

Not a single track among the eleven presented here falls short of being remarkable. The melodies and riffs form songs that are sexy in their emotional coldness and beats that leave no stone standing still. The profusion of incredible harmonies is, in fact, so great that two of the best ones – perhaps as to further impose the band’s image as being too good for this rock and roll thing – are used as mere intros to “Jacqueline” and “Take Me Out”, getting replaced by maniac guitars a few seconds into their lives. The former begins as a silent and beautiful acoustic number before the group suddenly introduces their signature guitar sound to the world; while the latter starts with a fantastic robotic chord progression that could have supported a huge hit and then diverges into the dancy and delightfully repetitive single that made the group famous.

By switching tempos constantly, going from the fast-paced “Michael” and its irresistible riff, the menacing “Cheating on You”, the catchy “This Fire” and the quirky “Tell Her Tonight”, to the beautiful “Come on Home” and “40 Ft”, but never losing their pose, Franz Ferdinand shows a good deal of versatility. They might sound like the cleaner and better dressed counterparts of their contemporaries The Hives, The Strokes, The Libertines, and The White Stripes, but the talent and heart are absolutely equivalent.

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The Mustard of Your Doom

k_roolThe greatness of heroes is somehow limited. After all, their heroic acts can only be as big as the problems they have to solve. A firefighter will not win many medals if all he does is save kittens from the top of trees in some small town; only the very rewarding gratitude of the pets’ owners. However, put him in the middle of an enormous fire with endangered lives and, thankfully, greatness will rise to the surface.

Villains are different, though. Other than ambitions and eventual resources, the extent of their evil plans knows no bounds. That is why, when transposed to the gaming realm, where nearly everything is possible, we are sometimes confronted with megalomaniac plans that include either world domination or its darker and more twisted counterpart, universal destruction. Although some of the villains that have appeared on Nintendo-exclusive games do hold such goals, the wacky nature of many of those major titles has allowed the creation of some quite extravagant and noteworthy individuals.

bowserBowser has the odd obsession of kidnapping Princess Peach endlessly. His motivations, however, are never quite clear. Does he want to conquer the Mushroom Kingdom? Does he envy that she lives in a gorgeous castle surrounded by lush gardens while he mopes in a fortress of rock surrounded by lava? Is he expressing frustration, a feeling that grew so intense he decided to conquer the universe in Super Mario Galaxy, regarding feelings that are not mutual? Is it a sick hobby? Does he crave for attention? It is hard to know. The fact of the matter is that our inability to understand him, plus his willingness to aid Mario whenever Peach is taken by somebody else, turn him into an angry-yet-lovable goofball.

King K. Rool is another personage of equally foggy motivations. There are no biological researches that link crocodiles (especially those that walk on two legs) to bananas. Yet, he and his Kremling Krew have gone to great lengths in order to steal the Kong family’s hoard. Regardless of the existence of a palpable catalyst, though, watching the reptilian army storm DK Island is a true joy given the amusing ways through which the creatures attempt to halt the simians’ advances, which include using mighty bazookas and turning themselves into helicopters.

warioMeanwhile, reason is not something that is missing on Wario’s radar. His goal is clear: he wants to get filthy rich, and his greed is so unstoppable that, aside from collecting gold and other assets like a mad man – something that put him in a collision course with Mario on his debut, he has also ventured into other fields like sports (even those that are not very suitable to his protuberant gut), gambling on board games, and mini-game designing. The ultimate use of all that cash, however, remains mysterious, and any guess ranging from food to the building of a mighty world-destroying machine is plausible.

Similarly narrow, but more harmful, aspirations are held by the wicked Gruntilda. As a means to mock the standard evil witches that populate pop culture, she is offended by the fact someone could be prettier than she is. Therefore, she constructs a needlessly elaborate plan to capture Banjo’s cute sister Tooty and steal her beauty away. Ironically, the fate she meets ends up making her an even uglier version of her former self.

dededeOf equally colorful, and dubious, nature are the famous bad guys inhabiting the wonderful Dream Land. King Dedede’s good will is certainly questionable, for he seems to be more worried about besting Kirby than ruling, but most of his purely evil deeds can be traced back to him being possessed by malicious spirits.

The furtive Meta Knight has a similar dual role to play. As a noble being that works independently, his feelings towards Kirby can be either positive, leading him to help the pink hero when their goals are the same; or negative, making him engage the puffball in fair duels when their intentions diverge. The fact he is basically a dark version of Kirby clad in armor and sporting bat-like wings makes his awesomeness blow through the roof.

On a not-so-light specter, lie the iconic heads of the Space Pirate army, the grandest enemies of Samus Aran and the most visually threatening creatures on the Nintendo lore. Mother Brain is the sentient machine turned evil that plans to recreate the universe with beings whose intellect she deems worthy. To do so, due to the restrictions being a brain in a bowl (but a very badass one, mind you) naturally carries, she decides to enlist the help of the pirates.

ridleyRidley and Kraid are two of the group’s most prominent leaders, and although their bestial forms indicate otherwise, they are intelligent creatures that are actually highly ranked officials. Ridley is especially remarkable not only because, differently from Kraid, he has not been missing for over a decade, but also because he is directly responsible for the murder of Samus’ mother and indirectly accountable for the death of her father. Such brutality, plus the fact a naïve three-year-old Samus tried to befriend the dragon when he invaded her planet with killing on his mind, make their rivalry and mutual hatred the most intense within the Nintendo canon.

A parallel link is shared between Fox McCloud and the maniac Dr. Andross. A brilliant scientist that engaged in productive and beneficial works, he eventually begins to lust for power and perform dangerous tests. One of them fails badly and triggers massive destruction, causing him to be exiled on the deadly planet of Venon. His surprising survival prompts an intergalactic war that culminates with the death of Fox’s father, James, making the young – and newly appointed – leader of the Star Fox Team wish for revenge. In Wolf, the head of Andross’ own band of ace pilots, Fox finds his greatest dogfight rival; one who will stop at nothing to halt the hero’s progress through the galaxy.

ganondorfThe Zelda franchise has also yielded villains with that same dark demeanor. Ganondorf is the king of the Gerudo; the only male to be born in the desert tribe in a hundred years. As he manages to break into the Sacred Realm and obtain the Triforce, he gains power that further increases his hatred and thirst for destruction. Those feelings are so extreme he finds a way to survive across generations in order to constantly torment the descendants of the original heroes that defeated him, and repeatedly engage in acts of genocide.

Less recurring, but perhaps even more beloved, is Skull Kid. The star of the gloomy Majora’s Mask is inherently good, albeit a bit mischievous, and the touching nature of his backstory resonated loudly among players. Thinking that his four closest friends had abandoned him, he buries himself in so much sorrow that his spirit and will become vulnerable to the influence of the devilish spirit Majora. Completely controlled by the evil inside the titular mask after having stolen it, he provokes an impending apocalypse that is miraculously averted in the nick of time.

As somber as he is, and although the darkness of Majora’s Mask – Nintendo’s most ominous game – derives from him, he is not as bleak as Giygas: a villain so evil and corrupted his attacks cannot be grasped, making him worthy of the title “Embodiment of Evil”. An alien raised by an abducted couple, his race is eventually betrayed by the curious male and Giygas is sent to earth to stop vital information about his people from spreading and, through the possession of Porky, finds a human ally to pave the way to his glory. Conflicted between the deep love he still felt towards his human mother and the need to save his race, his repression of the former in benefit of the latter leads him to a violently broken mental state, mutually turning him into diabolical and tragic.

fawfulFor a company that is known for its quirky family-friendly games, Nintendo sure has built a cast of villains that is impressive and varied, falling under categories that go from silly to disturbing. Heroes and videogame icons would never truly exist without them, and as Fawful, the most completely insane and grammatically challenged bad guy a virtual hero has ever had to face, has gloriously stated, these guys “have fury”, are rarely “beefless”, do not have time to “sample the sprinklies in life’s salad bar”, plan to “fold their enemies like napkins who are crying”, are “high-fived on their faces by power”, and crave to “have victory”. They are “on the TV show of our tears” and want to “spit on our lives that are now but a caricature of a cartoon drawn by a kid who is stupid”. They are the “mustard of our doom”.

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