Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door Review

A playable storybook in the form of an RPG that reveals outstanding characters, sharp writing, inventive story scenarios, and fantastic humor with every page that is turned

ttyd2Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door is one of those games that understands what fans want, and then proceeds to give them exactly what is expected. Acknowledging the overwhelming success with which the original Paper Mario was met, Intelligent Systems and Nintendo set out not to reinvent the wheel, but to replicate that experience with punctual improvements and the ambition to make it bigger; goals that are certainly not as straightforward as they sound given how Paper Mario often flirted with perfection and, in the process, came off as Mario’s most epic adventure up to that point and also one of the very best.

Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door, then, is a game with a whole lot to live up to. However, it is greatly aided in that task by the fact that while its prequel was forced to mostly fly blind, having to be constructed without the support of Squaresoft and consequently being forced to look for a brand of role-playing gameplay that stepped away from the tradition built by Final Fantasy, The Thousand-Year Door stood on solid well-defined ground. Therefore, with the title’s bases established, writers and developers alike were free to focus on coming up, respectively, with new scenarios and gameplay elements; which explains why The Thousand-Year Door manages to, during the course of its forty-hour quest, achieve what its prequel had masterfully done, only in a much larger scale: be relentlessly entertaining, fun, and engaging.

The first statement such freedom produces comes in the game’s story. The Thousand-Year Door shuns Mario adventures’ usual setup of Bowser-kidnaps-Peach for something far more intriguing and intricate. Truthfully, Peach does still get taken away – not by Bowser, but by the X-Nauts, a goofy-looking race of aliens. However, below Peach’s latest abduction lies a relatively unique premise. 1,000 years before the game’s events, a town was destroyed by a dark cataclysm of unknown origin and it sunk into the earth. Later, a new port town – Rogueport – was built on top of it. Unaware of said history, Peach visits that town, purchases a treasure map after being approached by a mysterious hooded woman, sends Mario the chart, and gets taken away.

ttyd7Much of the plumber’s quest, then, deals with discovering the lines that join those seemingly unrelated dots: the X-Nauts, the cataclysm, Rogueport, Princess Peach, and the titular door. As it happens in Paper Mario, though, the greatest gems of The Thousand-Year Door’s writing are not found in its core plot, but in the underlying chapters that make up the game’s meat. Mario, once more, will be tasked with gathering a set of seven stars – this time around, dubbed the Crystal Stars – and in order to do so he will have to travel to different locations of this strange land that lies far away from the Mushroom Kingdom.

Each chapter, then, holds a standalone story arch that must be followed until a boss is defeated and the Crystal Star is acquired; and each one of them is absolutely bursting with brilliancy. On one hand, The Thousand-Year Door does do some recycling: case in point, two of the chapters involve storming a fortress and reaching a tropical island (settings that will certainly ring a bell in the minds of those who went through the original Paper Mario). On the other hand, even in those two instances when it is reusing rough structures, The Thousand-Year Door is able to infuse so much creativity, originality, and charm into what it does that every chapter feels like a completely different monster.

In perhaps what is the most unexpected setting to ever appear in a Mario game, for example, the plumber will visit a cursed town whose inhabitants are turning into pigs whenever a bell tolls; a situation that gets creepier and weirder the deeper Mario delves into the riddle. In other chapters, the hero will be forced to become a fighter in a wrestling-like arena where something blatantly fishy is occurring; spend seven days inside a train where what was supposed to be a leisure trip will be disrupted by mysterious occurrences; and much more.

ttyd5The Thousand-Year Door, as a consequence, is constantly bent on motivating players to keep on going, whether it is to figure out why in the world the X-Nauts need Princess Peach, what the cataclysm was all about, or why there is a dragon terrorizing peaceful a meadow. In terms of gameplay, the title uses its fantastic stories to create situations in which Mario needs to perform a surprisingly creative mixture of platforming, puzzle solving, exploration, and investigation. Once more, he will be accompanied by some partners – six of them this time around – who have distinct powers to help him in his quest, such as Admiral Bobbery’s ability to blow things up, or Flurrie’s capacity to create small bursts of wind.

Those skills are complimented by the fact that Mario, besides being able to jump and use his hammer both in battle and outside it, can now take advantage of his paper-cutout look to explore the environment. The game’s signature art style, then, is more than an aesthetic element this time around; it interferes directly with gameplay. It is a feature that adds another layer to the game’s exploration vein, not to mention that it is quite amusing to watch Mario become a boat, a plane, turn sideways and sneak into places as if he were a sheet of paper, or roll himself up.

Gameplay variety is further augmented due to the brief light-hearted intermissions that happen between chapters. In addition to the Peach segments that are responsible for a great deal of the main plot’s development and like those of Paper Mario have the princess sneaking around the place in which she is being help captive, players will now also take control of Bowser. The Koopa King spends a good portion of the game tracking down Mario and being absolutely flustered with the fact he was not the one who kidnapped Peach, and he channels much of that anger to wreck havoc in brief easy, yet entertaining, sidescrolling levels that transit between making a homage to Super Mario Bros. and mocking it, an ambivalent nature that is pretty much perfectly aligned with the self-aware aura of Paper Mario.

ttyd6In battles, the delightful simplicity of Paper Mario has been kept. Mario still fights alongside a partner against well-designed enemies and bosses. Action commands add a flavor of action to the turn-based affairs given they allow players to, with timely button presses, diminish the effects of incoming blows or enhance the attack power of their own moves. Mario’s simple arsenal is complemented by the incredible variety of attacks that his six partners carry and the power of the Crystal Stars, which can be summoned to deliver special moves of their own; meanwhile, his lack of deep stats is compensated by badges of varying effects, which can be equipped to give players a degree of customization over the plumber.

The one change that battles do bring is the audience. During The Thousand-Year Door, all encounters take place in a theater; the better Mario fights, the more inhabitants of the Mushroom Kingdom show up to watch. Rarely, the audience will throw items or harmful objects towards the stage; its main role, however, is – whenever players do well – helping fill up the energy bar that allows Mario to call the Crystal Stars, making it critical – especially during the moments leading to confrontations with bosses – that the audience be packed an pleased.

Technically, The Thousand-Year Door retains much of the simplicity that characterized Paper Mario, but has considerable visual improvements. Although the art style is, as a whole, inspired, some of its moments are particularly noteworthy. While sprites are as great as they could have possibly been, a few scenarios could have used a little more work. The music is also slightly improved, even if truly outstanding tunes are rare and, in particular, the battle theme gets quite repetitive after a some time.

ttyd4Similarly, The Thousand-Year Door also slightly topples Paper Mario in terms of extra content. The few sidequests that do exist still suffer from a general lack of significant rewards despite their fun nature, and the same applies to collecting all Star Pieces scattered around the world. However, it is the addition of a Bestiary to be filled with all of the game’s enemies and The Pit of 100 Trials – a 100-battle challenge that ranks as the hardest task in the whole saga – that puts the game, which is quite lengthy on its own, over the top in that regard.

With minor improvements, and powered by a wheel of creativity that puts Mario in a series of situations that are absurd, engaging, and intriguing, Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door is not only one of the Gamecube’s finest titles, but also one of Mario’s best adventures. It is a playable storybook that reveals outstanding characters, sharp writing, and fantastic humor with every page that is turned, and complements those elements with a great battle system and smart level design. It takes advantage of the fact it stands on ground that was firmly prepared by its predecessor, and uses it to fly towards an incredible set of ideas whose coexistence in the same tight package is the proof that lighting can indeed be captured in a bottle.


Posted in Gamecube, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , | 15 Comments

Albums of the Month: November 2016

back_in_blackAlbum: Back in Black

Artist: AC/DC

Released: July 25th, 1980

Highlights: Hells Bells, Shoot to Thrill, Back in Black, You Shook Me All Night Long

“Back in Black” is an oddity. There is no other way to put it. After six years on that elusive long way to the top, an already successful band produces their masterpiece – “Highway to Hell” – only to, during the same year, lose its vocalist and lyricist, Bon Scott, the man responsible for the melodies that stood on the incredible riffs of the Young brothers and a singer who was the dirty visual representation of the group’s thematic of sex, booze, and music. The band could have easily contemplated putting an end to their wild run; or, even worse, they could have opted to continue their high-speed journey to Satan’s fiery furnaces only to fall apart with a shameful post-morten release. Instead, AC/DC quickly hopped back to the studio with a replacement singer and came out of it with a record that besides surpassing its predecessor, climbed to the pantheon of the greatest albums of all time.

Appropriately, “Back in Black” opens with ominous echoing bells. What could be seen as a sign of mourning, though, quickly shifts towards an apocalyptic scenario. As “Hells Bells” reaches its two-minute mark, it is as if the gates of hell have been blasted open and the deceased Bon Scott has walked right out of them, promising to take listeners to some devilish after-life rock and roll party. That is because Brian Johnson, his replacement, shrieks and hollers with a high pitch that makes him sound a lot like Scott – albeit without much of the inborn filthiness that characterized the latter. In fact, Johnson, mostly due to that scarily similar vocal style, steps so comfortably onto his predecessor’s shoes that it feels as if AC/DC never stopped speeding at all, and “Back in Black” comes off as a mighty continuation – as its title implies – rather than a restart.

Of course, the fact that the band’s music heavily relies on its riffs – skillfully forged by Angus and Malcolm Young, who heavily drink from blues and rock and roll – also has a lot to do with that continuity. And “Back in Black” is ultimately lifted sky-high because, here, the duo seems to be more inspired than ever, pulling off remarkable rhythms, stellar choruses, and simple solos that invite listeners to enjoy the party and let go off their worries. It is feel-good, high-energy music that does not just make it seem as if having fun is the most important matter in the world; it actually reveals that there is nothing more relevant and critical than believing in that old cliché, and AC/DC leads by example, for they overcome a tragic death and go back to having a blast and creating some of their finest songs.

Perhaps no other line defines what the band does here better than one found in the album’s closer “Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution”, as Brian Johnson wisely sings “Rock and roll ain’t no riddle, man / To me it makes good, good sense”. Although rightfully accused of being a group that has never changed its sound, AC/DC embraces the lack of riddles and mysteries to their music, and that transforms a weakness into a shield. They might be a band whose songwriting skills operate under a rather tight umbrella, but no other group embodies the youthful spirit of rock as well as they do through their simple songs and numerous lyrics exclusively concerned with drinking, women, and music. And “Back in Black” is the defining example of that formula; an enormous historic statement of mindless rock and roll. It makes great sense.

revolution_radioAlbum: Revolution Radio

Artist: Green Day

Released: October 7th, 2016

Highlights: Bang Bang, Outlaws, Still Breathing, Too Young To Die

During the twelve years that preceded the release of “Revolution Radio”, Green Day worked in two gears: one of operatic grandeur, seen in full display in the theatrical guitar statements of “American Idiot” and “21st Century Breakdown”; and one of bloated prolificness, exposed in 2012 when, over a period of four months, the group put out three albums of original material that, in total, held thirty-seven songs. Therefore, in a way, “Revolution Radio” is mundane: a brief focused package of twelve songs that proves Billie Joe Armstrong has a ridiculously unbelievable ability to adorn punk riffs and rhythms that are somewhat similar with melodies that are catchy and unmistakable. At the same time, it manages to come off as pleasantly refreshing, because given 2000’s “Warning”, the album that came before that run of extravagance, had a knack for unexpected eclecticism, it is possible to say the last time the group sounded this fierce and immediate was in 1997’s “Nimrod”.

The version of Green Day that emerges from that lengthy musical voyage may carry a no-frills-all-thrills philosophy that relates to their early years. However, their recent experiments and successes have certainly changed them. For starters, in many of the tracks – like the opener “Somewhere Now”, which begins with a gentle acoustic picking; and “Still Breathing”, the poppiest tune they may have ever recorded – the group plays around with transitions from quiet moments to loud explosions, one of the main musical motifs of their two rock operas. From those works, Armstrong, Dirnt, and Cool also borrow marching rhythms that lead to anthemic choruses, as it happens in “Say Goodbye”, a song that would be right at home in “American Idiot”; and lengthier compositions that border on being multi-phased tracks, such as “Somewhere Now”, “Outlaws”, and “Forever Now”, the latter of which is broken up in three distinct pieces.

Thematically, “Revolution Radio” also owes a whole lot to the pair of “American Idiot” and “21st Century Breakdown”, as it is drenched in political and social ideas. The lead single, the vicious “Bang Bang”, explores the mind of a mass-shooter, and many of the record’s other tracks tackle similar issues related to the violence that seems to permeate modern society as a whole. The title cut was inspired by the riots of the Black Lives Matter movement, bringing a positive take on the fact people are inclined to fight for what is right. Similarly, but also contrarily, “Say Goodbye” looks at all that social unrest with a drop of fear and concern, wondering about how awful a world in which actions like those are necessary is. Given he is free from overarching concepts and scripts, though, Armstrong also finds the time to veer away from those themes and write about the boredom of life (“Somewhere Now”), the rebellion of youth (“Outlaws”), and his young wife (“Youngblood”).

“Revolution Radio” neither pushes any boundaries nor presents any musical surprises; with a few rare exceptions, Green Day never really aimed to be the sort of band that dabbles in that. It is, however, an album that rocks with loud passion, is filled with great tunes, and packs remarkable melodies in every one of its corners. After a long detour that yielded two excellent rock operas, with one of them ranking as one of the few rock albums of this century to achieve widespread popularity and have impact beyond the musical spectrum, it is good to have a leaner version of Green Day back.

night_thoughtsAlbum: Night Thoughts

Artist: Suede

Released: January 22nd, 2016

Highlights: Outsiders, No Tomorrow, I Don’t Know How to Reach You, Tightrope

With the unfair benefit of hindsight, it is easy to claim “Night Thoughts” is the album Suede was always destined to make. Although they were not the only Britpop band to play around with theatrical elements, as Blur – more specifically Damon Albarn – had an incredible knack for composing sarcastic character studies that belonged to the stage, they were certainly unique in the fact their musical plays were dramatized tales of sex, drugs, depression, suicide, and other experiences dealt with by those who lived in the moral outskirts of society. It was a look-at-me approach that only found a parallel in glam rock; only, the rock and roll rhythms were replaced by the hooks and guitars Britpop called for, even if the themes exposed, much to the discomfort of the petty, remained subversive.

It is not surprising, then, that “Night Thoughts” feels like a fifty-minute rock opera. It, however, replaces the spotlights of a stage for the projections of a movie theater, and it is not just a matter of perception: the album is actually accompanied by a film about a man drowning on a deserted beach and the remembrances that play inside his mind as he fights for life while preparing for death. It is hard to know which of the concepts came first, the motion picture itself or the album’s construction as something that transits between a soundtrack and a record packed with great tunes, but from the first minute of “When You Are Young”, which begins with a full-blown orchestra that is followed by a guitar-and-drums stomp, it is clear “Night Thoughts” aims for grandeur, both thematically and musically. Such tendencies also become apparent in “When You Were Young”, which – as the title implies – revisits the opening number; and the pair of “Pale Snow” and “Learning to Be”, two atmospheric pieces with a heavy focus on lush instrumentation.

Still, “Night Thoughts” is not one of those albums that naively succumbs to its bold aspirations, and that is not just because Suede has always had a built-in aura of extravagance – albeit far more subdued than how it is shown here. For every intriguing track with conceptual inclinations, there are at least two straight-up classics. “Outsiders”, “For Tomorrow”, and “Like Kids” have sweeping and snaking guitar lines that were so frequent in the band’s early works, and – in traditional Suede fashion – even though they are rockers, the three tracks feature gorgeous powerful choruses that could be easily transported to dramatic ballads. “What I’m Trying to Tell You” follows suit in that regard, but opts to build its momentum on a dancy riff that is a clear link to the days of the group’s poppiest records: “Coming Up” and “Head Music”. Where “Night Thoughts” truly comes together, though, is in the quartet of “I Don’t Know How to Reach You”, “Tightrope”, “I Can’t Give Her What She Wants”, and “The Fur and the Feathers”; tracks that balance pop rock and theatrics (two elements the band has always utilized) with their new-found love for cinematic spectacle, as they combine plenty of atmospheric value with bountiful hooks.

Following a hiatus that lasted twelve years, which included a messy breakup, 2013’s “Bloodsports” showed Suede operating on a level that could only be compared to the groove the band was in during their first two albums. “Night Thoughts” builds on that reconnection with quality songwriting and takes the group to previously uncharted waters where the emotional distress Brett Anderson was made to sing about is amplified. Veteran bands that are either returning from the dead or surfing on the waves of a lengthy uninterrupted career are supposed to be unable to make music that stands side-by-side with the golden material of their glorious era. Yet, the astounding quality that unites “Bloodsports” and “Night Thoughts” seems to indicate that such a rule can be broken; even if it is only on rare occasions.

heart_of_saturday_nightAlbum: The Heart of Saturday Night

Artist: Tom Waits

Released: October 1st, 1974

Highlights: New Coat of Paint, San Diego Serenade, Fumblin’ With the Blues, Drunk On the Moon

Tom Waits’ debut, 1973’s “Closing Time”, was a trip to a charming poorly lit bar in the middle of a frantic metropolis. The journey, however, was one that took place a little bit too late: by then, the night was not young and full of promises; sunrise was already around the corner, and a miserable bartender was counting the minutes until he could escort the last few drunk patrons out of the establishment and call it a night. A young man sat by the piano singing of melancholy, nostalgia, and lost love to the ears of those who had nothing better to do than to be there. “The Heart of Saturday Night” does not get away from that setting: it is the same bar, the same bartender, the same metropolis, the same young man by the piano, and – maybe – even the same night. What it does do is move its starting time to a few hours earlier; to when promises and expectations still exist, and people are looking for the heart of the action rather than at the bottom of an empty glass.

“The Heart of Saturday Night”, then, in a way, follows the mold of its stellar predecessor. Tom Waits gives his small audience a glimpse of his talent as a singer-songwriter, which here is comparable to that of Neil Young and Bob Dylan, by – like those two men in their early days – dressing his melodies and lyrics in simplicity. The difference between them is that while Dylan and Young did it with folk and country, Waits aims for jazz and blues, with his piano-playing taking center stage in all but two of the record’s eleven tunes, usually accompanied by lush orchestration or by a full-blown jazz ensemble with horns, drums, and bass. Meanwhile, the similarity between them is their uncanny ability to unearth remarkable melodies with every passing song, something that transforms “The Heart of Saturday Night” into a work that is invariably moving.

Waits, perhaps due to his constant touring through small clubs and bars that suited his material, shows he is a skilled architect of nighttime exuberance both in music and lyrics. The former element, by itself, would be more than enough to evoke images of a bright moon shining high above dark streets populated with the noise and lights of all kinds of joints and their customers; however, it is the wishfulness and strength of Waits’ voice, joined by his beautiful lyrical imagery, that take “The Heart of Saturday Night” over the top. Lines like “And I’m blinded by the neon / Don’t try and change my tune / Cause I thought I heard a saxophone / I’m drunk on the moon” and “You know the bartenders / They all know my name / And they catch me when I’m pulling up lame / And I’m a pool-shooting-shimmy-shyster shaking my head / When I should be living clean instead” paint gorgeous pictures by themselves, and, when backed by music that is blissful and evocative, they form a synergy that is almost unmatched.

Given the delightfully odd detours he would take later in his career, “The Heart of Saturday Night” – along with “Closing Time” – are a showcase of Tom Waits at his most accessible and immediately likable state. Few albums out there are as cohesive in the thoughts and images they paint, and even fewer feature such an incredible level of songwriting prowess. Whether he is tackling more energetic numbers (“Diamonds on My Windshield”, “Fumblin’ With the Blues”, and “New Coat of Paint”) or dabbling in melancholy (“Please Call Me, Baby” and “San Diego Serenade”), Waits is always hitting his mark, and “The Heart of Saturday Night” is bound to fill with joy – even if it is of the contemplative kind – the most miserable drunkards, the greatest admirers of nighttime life, and all of those with a strong love for good music.

Posted in Albums of the Month, Miscellaneous | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Paper Mario Review

Supported by creative writing, engaging exploration, and simple yet deep RPG elements, Paper Mario topples its legendary predecessor 

paper_mario2Before Paper Mario, the titular plumber had already gone through quite an experience in the role-playing realm, albeit in a much less flat state. By the hands of Squaresoft, masters of the genre, Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars transformed the Mushroom Kingdom from the curious background scenario of platforming antics into a fully explorable place packed with talking characters, towns, turn-based battles, stats, and leveling up opportunities. Still, even if Paper Mario did not set out to navigate through uncharted waters, it was a challenge; after all, without Squaresoft to take the reins of the project, it was up to Nintendo and Intelligent Systems to jump into the RPG format – a new undertaking for both companies – and produce a worthy successor to the Super Nintendo classic.

As beginners in the design of RPGs, one could expect both companies to play it safe; the bases established by Squaresoft were certainly strong enough to sustain yet another game. However, developers took the opposite path and decided to, perhaps guided by the knowledge they had acquired from working alongside the crew that birthed the Final Fantasy franchise, create an adventure that certainly acknowledged its main inspiration point, but that also carved its own very unique identity.

The first visible link between the two titles is the plot. Like Super Mario RPG, Paper Mario is a quest for seven missing stars. Bowser acquires the Star Rod, a magical artifact that grants wishes, and proceeds to storm Peach’s castle and lift it high into the sky. Mario, who was in the princess’ home for a royal party, attempts to stop the obsessed Koopa but fails to damage him, realizing that the Star Rod has made the villain borderline invincible. Mario is thrown out of the castle, falls back onto the Mushroom Kingdom, and is summoned by a mysterious spirit to Shooting Star Summit, where he learns of how Bowser succeeded in stealing the Star Rod and is told that the only way to defeat the villain is by rescuing the seven Star Spirits that lie in the power of his forces.

paper_mario3While the story connects both games, it is in the visuals that they start being set apart. Paper Mario replaces the tridimensional isometric view of Super Mario RPG with a signature aesthetic that gives the game its title: whereas the scenarios themselves and other major pieces such as buildings are 3-D – being appropriate but not spectacular; numerous assets – like characters, items, and minor visual elements – seem to have been drawn on a piece of paper, cut out, and placed in the middle of big detailed settings. More than absolutely unique, the game’s look is quite a sight, oozing charm from every detailed cleverly designed corner and being the perfect complement to a game that, through moments of wackiness and tension, never loses sight of its quirkiness.

As a smart touch, the paper look transcends the status of an aesthetic choice and influences the game’s setup as a storybook. The adventures that take place in Paper Mario occur in a fully connected world that slowly reveals itself to players. However, the whole quest is neatly divided into eight independent chapters that unravel in certain locations of the map, starting with the exposition of a problem and culminating with a boss battle of invariable challenge and delightful creativity.

The greatest gift such configuration yields, and possibly Paper Mario’s defining characteristic, is how it allows the game’s writers to run free. Under the overarching plot of Bowser kidnapping Peach once again and Mario having to look for something that will help him defeat the tyrant, lies a series of plot-lines that are amusing, creative, wonderfully developed, and that will have players bursting with curiosity to discover how everything will turn out. Mario will have, then, to deal with an invincible creature that haunts a village of Boos; handle the rivalry of a group of flowers that refuse to cooperate even though the fields on which they live face the mortal danger of mysterious clouds; locate legendary ruins that are buried in the middle of a desert; and more.

paper_mario7These stories, and every single moment of the adventure, are powered by writing that is distinctly clever and sharp. All characters, major or minor, have something interesting to say, be it a snarky remark, a desperate plea for help, or a comment that displays great self-awareness. Even though its quest is immense in size, stakes, and length – the whole affair can last up to thirty hours – Paper Mario is one of those games that is in equal measures self-deprecating and hilarious.

It is not just the writing that makes Paper Mario endlessly engaging. Its gameplay is also absolutely spectacular. In relation to battles, Nintendo and Intelligent Systems manage to simplify and improve the traditional party and stats-based combats of Super Mario RPG; when it comes to exploration, the straightforward platforming of the Super Nintendo classic is enhanced and joined by interesting puzzle-solving segments. In both cases, the responsibility for the leap forward can be attributed to the game’s best new feature: partners.

As chapters go by, Mario will be joined by eight characters that will aid him in battles and out of them. When out exploring, each partner has a specific skill that needs to be used in order to clear obstacles or go through perilous situations. Goombario hands out advice; Kooper uses his shell to reach distant items and switches; Bombette blows up fragile walls; Parakarry uses his wings to lift Mario for a short while; Bow makes Mario temporarily invisible; Watt acts as a lantern; Sushie traverses bodies of water; and Lakilester carries Mario on his cloud. With those tools, rather than simply walking around and talking to characters, Paper Mario’s exploration segments are filled with a variety of situations usually not found in RPGs, giving the game a distinct and fun platforming flavor in-between battles.

paper_mario6During combats, Mario battles foes alongside one partner – which can be switched whenever players feel like it – in turn-based matches. Mario’s actions are relatively simple: he can jump, hit enemies with his hammer, defend, and use items. His arsenal, however, considerably expands when one considers that all partners arrive with two different moves and can, by being powered-up during the game, acquire another two. Moreover, each Star Spirit that is rescued can be summoned during battle by using a specific percentage of the Star Power bar, which is filled up as attacks land, to deliver a variety of moves that go from putting enemies to sleep to creating a mighty star storm.

Therefore, from simple building blocks that can be grasped by anyone, Paper Mario builds battles that are challenging and offer plenty of room for players to build their own strategies; matching Mario’s moves with his partner’s skills, which are incredibly varied and can be attack-oriented or stat-inducing, and the Star Spirits’ powers in order to find the best way to defeat enemies of exquisite design and that have an impressive assortment of moves. Additionally, much like it happened in Super Mario RPG, battles gain action contours thanks to the fact players can diminish the effects of incoming blows and augment the damage from their attacks by timely presses of the A-button.

Another step taken towards simplification is that Mario is the only character that effectively levels up, upon which gamers can choose to upgrade his HP, FP (which is burned when special attacks are delivered by partners), or BP. The last of which, in particular, is what gives players the opportunity to customize the character: BP stands for Badge Power and, with it, it is possible to select which badges (each with a specific BP cost) to activate. Every badge has a specific effect, which can go from giving Mario new moves, improving offensive or defensive power, or even decreasing attack in exchange for recovering 1 unit of HP every turn. Consequently, while the stats that were prominent in Super Mario RPG are gone and character-specific enhancements are limited, Paper Mario still packs a punch when it comes to battle options.

paper_mario4Aside from a soundtrack that fails to leave a mark, Paper Mario’s sole blatant shortcoming is how – as it has sadly become the norm for Mario RPGs – it is slightly thin on the sidequest department. With a world that is vast, rich and charming, and a plethora of characters of high appeal, it is a shame there is not much to do after the long main adventure concludes. Truthfully, it is possible to wander around the Mushroom Kingdom to collect star pieces, which can be traded for badges; or even deliver letters and fight a couple of optional bosses, but those tasks lack in significance and rewards, two qualities that are vital to extra content.

By its curtain call, Paper Mario will have proved itself to be an improvement over its predecessor; certainly not an affirmation to be taken lightly given the classic status of Super Mario RPG. Supported by three strong pillars of unquestionable quality – its creative writing, its engaging exploration, and its simple yet deep RPG elements and battle system – the game shows that Nintendo and Intelligent Systems used the knowledge acquired from their partnership with Squaresoft to build a work that is utterly original, from its visuals to its gameplay, and that is not afraid to abandon the more traditional approach of Super Mario RPG for something that feels fresher and even more aligned with the aura of the Mario franchise. Legends are not easy to topple, but Paper Mario does it.


Posted in Nintendo 64, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 17 Comments

Donkey Kong 64 Review

Donkey Kong 64 does not aim for immensity for the sake of being big; it does so to make room for the insurmountable amount of ideas it explores

donkeykong648By late 1999, more than one year after the release of Banjo-Kazooie, Rare had already perfected the gameplay focused on item collection that dominated early tridimensional platformers. The bear and the bird had covered a considerable amount of terrain with great success, tackling everything from mini-games and tight jumping challenges to quests whose structure bordered on what would regularly be found in role-playing titles. As a company that was not looking to perform the same trick twice, as it is evidenced by the surprisingly varied lineup of excellent software that it put out during that era, when Rare had as its task Donkey Kong’s transition from his sidescrolling universe to the newfound freedom of the big worlds of the Nintendo 64, it did not merely choose to safely recreate what had been done with a new coat of paint: it opted to try to push the gameplay it had mastered to its limits of grandeur and variety to see what would happen. Donkey Kong 64 is the result of that experiment.

Following three straight defeats in the Donkey Kong Country games, King K. Rool decides to take a slightly less delicate approach to foil his nemesis. Instead of stealing the gorilla’s banana hoard, he aims to blow up the DK Isles to pieces. The failure of his laser canon, however, and the fact that his floating headquarters ends up, following a series of humorous acts of incompetence, facing Donkey Kong’s home just a few yards from its shore, forces him to buy some time while the weapon is repaired, upon which he kidnaps four members of the Kong family and, to preserve tradition, steals the banana hoard.

Donkey Kong 64 is, in equal measures, bold and big. And in its particular case, both qualities are intimately connected: much of its audacity is employed on making everything as huge as possible. Starting with only Donkey Kong at their disposal, players will explore seven immense worlds and an intricate overworld that are visually impressive and exploding with secrets, unique locations, and a great range of amusing challenges.

donkeykong642Cleverly, both the overworld – which nicely alternates the sunny nature of Donkey Kong’s home with the ominous menace of the area around K. Rool’s base – and the levels themselves alternate references to the Donkey Kong Country saga with brand new themes and concepts. In thematic terms, that means the classic Jungle Japes, now a gargantuan set of hills, trees, and caves, shares space with other nods to the sidecrolling games – such as the desert world of Angry Aztec, and the oceans and lagoons of Gloomy Galleon – and fresh settings infused with charm and creativity, like Frantic Factory, which produces toys that come straight from a child’s nightmare; and Fungi Forest, a place of natural exuberance.

That same mixture of old and new is felt in terms of gameplay, enemies, and bosses. Transformations into animal buddies, mine-cart challenges, vine-swinging segments, and blasting out of a series of barrels to clear nerve-wrecking mazes where one mistake sends Kongs to their doom all make a return, albeit with nice little shifts in implementation. At the same time, the tridimensional world gives birth to plenty of original ideas that turn Donkey Kong 64 into its own creature not only within the franchise itself, but also among other 3-D platformers.

The most noteworthy of these fresh elements, and the one that is most responsible for the game’s epic scope, is certainly the fact that there are five controllable characters, each with its own abilities, physical attributes, and collectibles. Donkey Kong is joined in his quest by Diddy, Tiny, Lanky, and Chunky, all of which need to be rescued before they can be summoned into action, which can be done in Selection Barrels placed around the levels.

donkeykong646As one would expect, such a varied cast gives players, and developers, a mighty arsenal of tools to work with, and Donkey Kong 64 certainly takes advantage of that abundance. All characters have a specific weapon and musical instrument; moreover, worlds are packed with pads and barrels that are assigned to each, unlocking their special abilities in the process. Donkey Kong, for example, can pull levers and become temporarily invincible; Diddy Kong can use his tail as a catapult and go for a thrilling jetpack ride; the nimble Tiny Kong can warp between pads, hover with her ponytails, and shrink to the size of an insect; the elastic Lanky Kong can inflate like a balloon and use his handstand to achieve high speeds and climb steep slopes; and Chunky Kong can break metal gates, grow in size, and turn invisible.

With five golden bananas, the game’s main collectible item which is used as a currency to open the door to new worlds, awaiting each of the Kongs in all of the eight levels, Donkey Kong 64 features a boggling amount of 201 prizes. It is a lot but, given the flexible nature of its protagonists, it is the right quantity to exhaust all of the available possibilities, and the game does it with style. It mixes exploration activities with puzzle-solving, combat and platforming, creatively throwing everything but the kitchen sink at the adventure, including races, talking characters desperate for help, mini-bosses, mini-games, and much more.

Developers, then, end up coming away with a quest that lasts over thirty hours and that, as far as ideas are concerned, never runs out of steam. That is certainly its most stunning achievement, more than its other defining characteristics, like its gigantic settings, immersive locations that trigger feelings that go from wonder and awe to tension and terror, a flawless soundtrack composed by Grant Kirkhope, or its visuals, which stand side-by-side with those from Banjo-Tooie as the best ones in the Nintendo 64.

donkeykong644Donkey Kong 64’s knack for collection does not stop at its 201 golden bananas, though. It is as if Rare set out not only to explore the limits of how big platforming worlds can be, but also of how much players are willing to collect. All worlds hold, for each Kong, 100 regular bananas, 1 banana medallion, 1 blueprint, and bunches of coins; and that goes without mentioning 2 banana fairies, 1 golden crown, and other minor collectibles like gun ammunition, crystals that are used when Kongs activate certain special powers, and more.

Truthfully, all of the major items have an application: a certain amount of regular bananas must be collected to unlock the door to each worlds’ boss, whose defeat – in turn – opens the way to the next level; a few banana medallions, which are acquired when 75 regular bananas are gathered for a Kong, are necessary to unlock Jetpack – a Rare arcade title that must be cleared to allow access to the final boss; the blueprints, meanwhile, extend a critical countdown that takes place towards the end of the adventure; a couple of crowns are minimally required to beat the game; coins are used to purchase new abilities; and, finally, fairies unlock extra content that can be reached through the game’s menu.

While some of those obstacles are acceptable, such as the banana-count requirement to enter the boss’ room or the coins needed to buy abilities, many of them push the envelope in a bad way. In fact, it is impossible to beat Donkey Kong 64 without going through some hardcore level of item-collection, meaning that a serious degree of dedication – one that is sometimes reserved to those who go after full completion – is required to watch the end credits roll, something that will certainly frustrate many.

donkeykong647The most critical ramification of that mountain of items, though, is that, joined by the fact there are five characters to control, it ends up entailing a whole lot of exploration and backtracking. Worlds, therefore, need to be traversed numerous times during gameplay so that each Kong can tackle their specific challenges and collect the items assigned to them. It is worth noting that, as another display of the exquisite level design the game offers, items are arranged in a thoughtful way: bananas, coins, blueprints, switches, and barrels destined to a Kong are placed in locations that will be visited by them as they look for golden bananas. However, the fact remains that constant switching between characters and back-and-forth trips through the same areas with different Kongs are frequent, and it will certainly be too much for some.

Another area that is bound to exhaust a few players is Donkey Kong 64’s numerous mini-games. Many of the adventure’s golden bananas are only acquired after the finding and clearing of a mini-game barrel. The fifteen different mini-games are fun and varied, providing some unexpected twists on the Donkey Kong gameplay – including a brilliant assortment of shooting-based tasks that would be right at home in a carnival. Sadly, the difficulty reached by some of them – especially towards the later worlds – can be anger-inducing, especially considering how finding the barrels themselves is sometimes challenging enough and will undoubtedly cause some players to think the effort was already worthy of a golden banana.

As a pleasant little complement to its lengthy and demanding regular quest, Donkey Kong 64 also packs an entertaining multiplayer mode that centers around fighting other Kongs either in a circular arena or in a large map. Although fun for short bursts, and carrying quite some setup options, it does not hold much value in the long run, getting a tad repetitive after a short while.

donkeykong643It is hard to deny the greatness of Donkey Kong 64. As a game that, even before release, wore on its sleeve the intention to be as big as technologically possible, it delivers in every single way. Given games of its kind would sadly fall out of favor during the generations that followed, it has remained as the largest and most demanding collection-based platformer ever since then, with no palpable contestants in sight. It is a game that may occasionally go overboard in its quest for scope and challenge, an exaggeration that will alienate many souls that will drown in backtracking and frustration. But the bottom-line is that it is fun. It does not aim for immensity for the sake of being big; it does so to make room for the insurmountable amount of ideas it sports. It is not a hollow behemoth, but a juggernaut exploding with spectacular moments.


Posted in Nintendo 64, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 14 Comments

Advance Wars Review

Led by gameplay that is astonishingly complex but presented in a way that is accessible and charming, Advance Wars is a masterpiece of game design

advancewarsAdvance Wars was not Nintendo and Intelligent Systems’ first venture into the world of tactical warfare. Before the game’s release on the Game Boy Advance, the two companies had already joined forces in three titles of the kind: Famicom Wars, Super Famicom Wars, and Game Boy Wars, which – as their titles indicate – could be played on the NES, SNES, and Game Boy, respectively. Advance Wars was, however, a debut of sorts, as never had the franchise been released out of Japanese borders given Nintendo felt the series’ complexity would not be universally accepted by American gamers. Wisely, due to the existing cultural differences between both gaming markets, developers understood that taking a leap towards the West could only be done successfully if sensible changes were implemented. As it turns out, much of the greatness of Advance Wars comes from that precious insight.

The first big shift, one that is supported by much stronger hardware, is aesthetic. Advance Wars abandons the somewhat straightforward visuals of its predecessors and goes for a full-blown cartoonish approach. Nell, Orange Star’s senior commanding officer, and her three pupils – Andy, Max, and Sami – could have been extracted right out of a Saturday morning cartoon. The same goes for their adversaries of neighboring countries, which start a war by accusing Orange Star of invading their territory, therefore launching attacks on that nation, which in turn denies any involvement with the reported strikes.

Such a colorful and light-hearted visual tone permeates not only the title’s general presentation, maps, and deployed units and vehicles, but also the dialogues that power its narrative. Although the plot’s development has some issues related to depth, as some of its twists and turns could have been better explained, all of the battles – and the occurrences that are reported during the interval between them – are carried by well-written dialogue and a good deal of banter between the characters. It is not uncommon for opposing officers or friendly generals to tease one another in the midst of combat, even if they acknowledge the graveness of the situation, hence alleviating the tension and conjuring an atmosphere that is amusing despite the fact there are tanks blowing up and soldiers being killed by the minute.

advancewars2Advance Wars’ second appeal-widening action, and certainly the most important one, is how it does not move away from its built-in complexity: it actually runs straight into it. There is no dumbing down or simplification going on; in spite of its child-friendly look, the game is packed to the brim with strategic nuances and alternatives that must absolutely be understood if players want to succeed. The trick is that the game carefully explains all of them in tutorial missions of growing intricacy that need to be cleared – at least the last one of them – before gamers can set out to defend Orange Star and prove its innocence.

Through them, players will learn about the different kinds of ground, naval, and air units they will come across during battles: their weaknesses, strengths, and what can be done with them. They will understand how anti-air units make bombers and fighters seem like they are made out of paper; how units with long-range shooting can be easily destroyed if left unprotected; how tanks and fast-moving reckon units easily do away with soldier platoons; how infantry can move effectively through mountains and forests while other vehicles suffer on that kind of terrain and are best-served being deployed on the road or plains; how to manage the fuel and ammo of motorized units; how submarines can dive to avoid detection by other vessels; how to use defenseless transport helicopters, ships, and tanks to take parts of the army across the map and surprise the enemy; how leaving units in a conquered town heals them and improves their defense; how damaged platoons can be joined to form a healthier one; and a whole lot more.

It is a lot to take in, but Advance Wars turns what could be a turbulent ride into a smooth trip. The eighteen missions that make up the central campaign form a curve of difficulty and complexity that achieves great heights by going up slowly and steadily. Moreover, at any time during the battle, while players face enemies and take turns moving the components of their army in grid-like fashion through the field while thinking and calculating what the best possible position for each unit is, whether to focus on attacking or defending, and choosing which units to deploy, all that information is readily available to be consulted.

advancewars3Selecting any unit, friendly or not, will show their range of movement and fire. Moving the cursor through the pieces of the terrain will display the added protection that each one provides, with mountains, conquered cities, reefs, and forests being quite effective in that regard. Selecting to fire will, before the attack is activated, display the likely damage that will be inflicted on the enemy. Additionally, menus with brief – but complete – descriptions of the behavior of each unit can be quickly accessed. In other words, Advance Wars certainly challenges players with the war scenarios it puts together and with the amount of details that need to be remembered to achieve success, but it gives gamers more than enough tools to support the achievement of their goals.

Most of the campaign missions are beaten by doing one of the following: either destroying the entirety of the rival army or conquering their base, whichever is achieved first. Nevertheless, the game hands out enough variety via the situations it puts players in. Sometimes, only a limited number of units is available, and gamers need to figure out how to properly employ them; on other occasions, factories, ports, and airports can be conquered, and with each property yielding some cash and allowing players to construct new units, battles become a struggle for resources and territory, as both sides can summon new platoons and vehicles at will as long as they can pay for them.

To top it off, some missions are affected by fog of war, in which it is only possible to see what lies in each portion of the map if the army has a unit deployed nearby and that turns forests and reefs into useful covers that are only blown if the rival army positions a unit right next to them. Therefore, such setup adds a hide-and-seek component and a considerable extra layer of strategy to a few battles .

With so many elements surrounding its gameplay, Advance Wars’ level of balance is perhaps its most impressive feature. Among its eighteen units, there is not a single one that is universally overpowering; all of them can be brought down one way or another. Likewise, none of its maps invalidate the use of a certain unit, even if, in some situations, only a few strategic options are viable. The balance gets even more astounding when one considers that each commanding officer that can be selected to lead the army has different characteristics – with Max, for example, being excellent in direct combat but poor in long-distance shooting – and a unique CO Power – such as Andy’s ability to fix all his units – that can be activated when its meter has been filled by the destruction of enemy platoons.

advancewars4The fine-tuned equilibrium of all the game’s elements is accompanied by a blinding amount of content. Besides the campaign, Advance Wars has a fantastic multiplayer filled with maps, configuration possibilities, and the option to play by sharing one system or with each player using their own Game Boy Advance and cartridge; an easy-to-use yet incredibly complete map creator; purchasable maps; commanding officers that are unlocked by the meeting of certain conditions; and a War Room with more than twenty engaging extra missions where players and CPU start with zero units deployed and need to slowly conquer terrain, acquire resources, and build an army. The fact that gamers’ performances on both campaign and War Room missions are graded according to speed, units defeated, and units lost is just the icing on the cake and the ultimate challenge to those who aim for perfection.

Although it is technically simple, with its visual presentation lacking any considerable fireworks and its limited number of short songs quickly becoming repetitive, Advance Wars is a masterpiece of game design. It is a strategy title that absolutely excels in all areas that truly matter, offering gameplay that is astonishingly complex presented in a way that is accessible and charming. Given its sheer amount of missions, maps, units, and commanding officers, it is hard to fathom the degree of effort that Nintendo and Intelligent Systems put into making everything the title offers be as balanced as it is. However, even in the face of so many eye-popping victories, which are rarely found in such a cohesive conjunction in a single game, its greatest achievement is how it seamlessly brought a new franchise to new territory with so much quality and personality that the results could not have been different from absolute success and millions of enamored fans.


Posted in Game Boy Advance, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , | 13 Comments

Paper Mario: Color Splash Review

Color Splash shows Nintendo working at the peak of its creative powers, and at the lowest depths of its unshakable stubborn nature

color_splash3Paper Mario: Sticker Star was, as far as all existing evidence suggests, a game made by people who were utterly oblivious to the components that were essential to the saga on which they were working. The Paper Mario games had, since the franchise’s inception on the Nintendo 64, been built around clever storytelling drenched in unusual wacky humor, as our brave hero was placed in situations that were in equal measures odd and entertaining; and light RPG elements that were implemented in accessible ways. Sticker Star tried to move towards new places, but – displaying a level of forgetfulness that would have been comical if it had not been tragic – simply left behind everything that had made its predecessors so special.

Where Sticker Star was the downfall, Color Splash is the fair shot at redemption: a game that tries to reconnect itself with what its prequel lost. However, it is visible its heart is not quite fully dedicated to that honorable quest. While it does, to an astounding degree, recover the spectacular funny writing over which the glory of Mario’s role-playing outings has been constructed, it holds onto failed ideas that were introduced by Sticker Star and that ended up receiving the universal panning they deserved. Therefore, Color Splash is frustratingly ambivalent, as it shows Nintendo working at the peak of its creative powers, and at the lowest depths of its unshakable stubborn nature.

On a rainy night, Mario and Luigi are hanging out at their cozy cottage when two hooded figures knock on their door: Peach and Toad. They are carrying a piece of paper that is curious and creepy: shaped like a Toad that has been drained off all its color, it carries no message save for the address from which it has been sent. Port Prism, located on Prism Island, is that place, and when Mario and the princess arrive they find that a town that was famous for its warmth and hospitality is now deserted. As they discover, Prisma Fountain, which served as the source of the island’s colors, had been destroyed; and the six Big Paint Stars that powered it had been taken away by an army of Shy Guys that vandalized the town and much of the island, sucking the color from its inhabitants and locations. Mario, then, alongside Huey, a talking bucket that gives him the power of paint, journey after the stars and the truth behind what transpired.

color_splash4Like Sticker Star, Color Splash completely ditches the neat division into chapters that guided the first three Paper Mario games, opting – instead – to bet on a series of short levels scattered around an overworld taken straight out of a Mario sidescroller. Unlike Sticker Star, though, Color Splash drowns each of its thirty-two stages in storytelling. Some of them are encompassed by one grand tale that needs to be figured out, while others place their focus on exploration and battling and choose to develop punctual encounters with minor characters as ornaments to the core gameplay. Nevertheless, all of them are united by the fact they feature dialogues that are undeniably charming and characters that are packed with personality even though their design is plain: in other words, they are all Toads with no distinguishing visual traits.

The smart writing, in fact, is one of the factors that plays a role in making the game’s segmentation into smaller morsels one of its strongest features; a reality that is light-years away from that of Sticker Star, in which that structure was one of its biggest flaws. The huge assortment of stages allows Intelligent Systems and Nintendo to go all out in the exploration of various crazy gameplay scenarios and settings, and the game soars because of that. Walking into a new level is an act that becomes similar to starting a new chapter from a great book: there is an unbridled curiosity as to what comes next. Players will constantly wonder where the action will take place and what will happen, and developers will invariably deliver.

As a pleasantly unexpected turn, the overworld setup turns Color Splash into a delightfully open-ended game. All levels culminate with the finding of either a Big Paint Star, which will cause some major alteration in a specific level thanks to its painting powers; or a Mini Paint Star, which will open a path leading to a new stage. Players will, at all times, have more than one choice regarding which place to go next; however, like a Metroid game dressed in Paper Mario attire, some stages will lead to dead-ends that can only be surpassed once certain items have been found or specific actions have been executed somewhere else. That intricate knitting joins many of the stages together under one cohesive puzzle (and sometimes under one tight storyline), forcing players to think about what their next destination should be and causing some light backtracking, which is done by simply moving Mario around the map and choosing a stage, as it is often necessary to revisit old locations to find precious items or unlock new places.

color_splash2Exploring the stages themselves is fun. Color Splash’s conjunction of gorgeous graphics (with its paper sprites and vivid colors being visual perfection), a spectacular soundtrack, and charming characters is the perfect recipe to lure players into an engaging journey, and the top-notch level design does not disappoint. Due to that, dealing with its action-platforming challenges, finding ways to solve its puzzles, and locating the white spots or blank characters from which color has been drained and restoring them to their former beauty by giving them a good whack with the hammer is almost therapeutic, as peace and happiness are slowly brought back to locations that are in disarray.

In face of all those qualities, it is painfully sad Color Splash is almost burned down to a cinder due to design choices that are baffling and amateurish. Sticker Star was bashed because of its lousy meaningless combats; in Color Splash, instead of listening to the valuable feedback that was given, Nintendo decided to ignore all complaints and, as a serious aggravation, build a battle system that manages to be even worse.

Firstly, there is the fact that Mario’s attacks are still limited to the battle cards he carries. Given each one of them is only usable once, players are forced to constantly replenish their set. Truthfully, cards are plentiful: they are sold in shops for reasonable prizes, are given as a reward to players after battles, can be found inside blocks, and pop out of white spots that are painted. Still, the possibility of running out of a certain ability at key moments always looms large and is simply unnecessary.

color_splash6Secondly, battles are still mostly pointless, as Mario gains no experience points upon defeating his foes. He only receives more cards, some coins (which are used to buy even more cards), and upgrades to his paint tanks, the latter of which are indeed useful but not significant enough. Nintendo does try to alleviate that issue by placing some enemies around the levels in a way that makes battling them necessary to proceed – hence giving actual meaning to the turn-based affairs; however, they remain a very empty and problematic aspect of the game.

As if throwing players into combats that will yield minimal rewards were not enough, the battle system is so slow and convoluted it should actually be called a battle process. Players need to navigate through a deck of up to 99 cards to select the ones they will use on that turn, employ paint – if necessary – to increase their power, and – only then – flick them to trigger Mario’s attacks. Although there is some good strategic component in choosing the order of the cards that are deployed and managing Mario’s level of available paint, not only does the system drag in its rhythm, it is also poorly balanced. Throughout most of the game, one or two turns will be all that it takes to defeat most parties of regular enemies; an easiness that, in the end, might come in handy, as most players will be looking to get out of the torture chamber that is the battle system as fast as possible.

color_splash1Another annoying feature that Color Splash astoundingly inherits from its predecessor is the Thing Cards, which come in the form of real-world objects that can be summoned in and out of battle. In the levels themselves, characters and other clues make it pretty obvious which Thing Card needs to be used and where the object that is necessary to produce that card is located (usually in other levels). However, with two exceptions, all of the game’s boss battles are literally impossible if players do not have the exact Thing Card that each one requires, meaning that if gamers do not know where to seek the information that lets them know the card they need to have in their deck, they will meet bosses only to find out they cannot beat them. Moreover, given they tend to hinge on Mario having a specific Thing Card, the boss encounters are far from being cleverly designed.

Color Splash’s examples of bad game design are, unfortunately, not limited to its battles. Most of the levels are pretty scarce as far as save points go; Mario cannot use mushrooms outside battles, which is an absurd omission considering the game has plenty of action sequences that deal heavy damage if players make mistakes; and some inventive gameplay scenarios are poorly implemented, resulting in some frustrating backtracking, ridiculous instant deaths, enemies whose weak point is not clear, punctual pacing issues, and other shortcomings.

Two instances in particular highlight how the game sometimes cannot tell smart ideas from frustrating ones. Kamek – on rare occasions – makes an appearance when minor battles begin, proceeding to curse Mario’s deck, either flipping it completely so that players cannot see what they choose or leaving them with only a handful of cards. Shy Bandit, meanwhile, occasionally pops up on the overworld and rushes to a level that has been completed; if players are not fast enough to catch and defeat him, he will make all painted spots go back to their colorless original form, essentially completely erasing players’ progress in that stage. Those features are neither entertaining nor smart, but like many of Color Splash’s problems, their blatantly poor design did not stop them from making it into the final version of the game, as if nobody was brave enough to shout against ideas that were clearly bad.

color_splash5Given all of those problems, it is a miracle Paper Mario: Color Splash can be qualified as a good game. The fact such a myriad of issues is unable to destroy its charm speaks volumes about the level of creativity that was employed in the construction of its levels, gameplay scenarios, and – especially – in its writing, which only stumbles in a core storyline that is somewhat shallow despite the unique way in which it is presented. In twenty hours, or more if gamers are willing to try to paint all of Prism Island’s colorless sports, the game summarizes what is best and worst about Nintendo. In the end, though, its incredible charm, level design, and the smartness of its intricate overworld walk out as the ultimate victors. Color Splash will certainly not please everyone, but it brings the Paper Mario franchise closer to actually getting back on track.


Posted in Reviews, Wii U | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Albums of the Month: October 2016

head_carrierAlbum: Head Carrier

Artist: Pixies

Released: September 10th, 2016

Highlights: Head Carrier, Talent, Tenement Song, Um Chagga Lagga

In 2014, after a hiatus of thirteen years, the Pixies released their first album since 1991’s “Trompe Le Monde”. As a band whose flawless legacy of four excellent records and one legendary EP grew to unforeseen heights after their breakup, “Indie Cindy” was – in a way – destined to be looked down on as an effort that did not live up to the greatness of that original run. The fact that the album was merely good, with decent to great tunes that failed to capture the group’s essence, certainly helped that cause. Two years later, “Head Carrier” emerges as proof that the Pixies, minus the departed bassist Kim Deal who is replaced by Paz Lenchantin, are pretty serious about their return to being productive musicians. It indicates that, just like fans are still wrapping their minds around the idea of receiving new tunes by the band, Black Francis, Joey Santiago, and Dave Lovering are relearning how to write and perform like the Pixies, for “Head Carrier” is much closer to the idiosyncrasy that turned them into alternative symbols than its predecessor.

Truthfully, “Head Carrier”, like “Indie Cindy”, presents something the early albums never did: unapologetic straightforward pop-rock songs. However, not only does it tackle that spectrum with far more success, turning in a good range of great tunes like the sweet soft ballad “Might as Well Be Gone” and the catchy rocker “Classic Masher”, the album also features an element that was mostly absent from “Indie Cindy”: a wild punk edge. The Pixies were masters in disguising excellent immediate hooks with all manners of curve-balls, such as mad screaming, unexpected guitar explosions, surrealistic lyrics that drank from obscure references to art and the Bible, changes of tempo, weird singing, and more. The disguises are by all means back, save for the use of Spanish words, but this time around they are not so thick, causing the band to sound somewhat more conventional – even if they are still quite unique – and making the pop inclinations of the tracks rise more prominently to the surface.

The title song kicks things off with an evil heavy guitar crunch previously unseen in the group’s discography and counters that power with a blissful melodic chorus, a reversal of the quiet-and-loud dynamic they coined. In “Baal’s Back”, Francis plays the role of the titular Biblical demon and shouts maniacally throughout the song, which has echoes of “Rock Music” from “Bossanova”. The sequence of “Talent”, “Tenement Song”, and “Bel Esprit” forms the album’s pop-rock core that is united by great catchy melodies: the first being about Jack Palance, or at least a dude that looks like him; the second balancing soft verses with a hard-rocking chorus; and the last offering an exquisite alien guitar texture that only Joey Santiago could execute. Meanwhile, “Um Chagga Lagga”, which depicts a frantic chase in lyrics and music, could be a lost heavier cut from “Come On Pilgrim”, featuring weird voices by Black Francis, a fast menacing pace, and an unusual melody.

“Head Carrier” shows the Pixies coming back into touch with much of what made them fantastic, even if it is slightly more sugar-coated than their early material. Even the mellow female backing vocals that contrapose Black Francis make a return; in fact, never have they been so frequent. Paz Lenchantin does incredible work, and she even gets to lead a song by herself (ironically, the letter to Kim Deal “All I Think About Now”, which has a loud ringing guitar backing an acoustic strum similar to that of “Where Is My Mind?”), and share vocals with Black Francis in “All the Saints”, which closes the album in much the same fashion as “Brick Is Red” from “Surfer Rosa”, by putting together a brief tune that is divided into an instrumental section preceding a short sung segment. Still, they are not merely reconnecting with the past here: they are writing and performing great songs that are worthy of their name and fame.

ash_iceAlbum: Ash & Ice

Artist: The Kills

Released: June 3rd, 2016

Highlights: Doing It To Death, Days of Why and How, Siberian Nights, Echo Home

The Kills built their career around exploring the darkest and most minimalistic spectrum of modern garage blues; one where post-punk gloominess, albeit done with much less emotional strain and drama than the norm, leaked into the straightforward guitar tunes. With Jamie Hince’s brief guitar riffs, which often consisted of a single strum that was punctually repeated; and Alison Mosshart’s voice and demeanor, flawless vehicles for the transmission of feelings such as lethargic desperation and bitter subdued pain, the band traveled to places that were far more obscure than those that served as the destination for other contemporary blues duos, such as The White Stripes and The Black Keys, and for the pioneers of the genre as well. As a group that did not change much with each record, choosing to – instead – merely attack the different tonalities that exist under their umbrella of menacing and blindingly cool garage blues, “Ash & Ice” – their fifth work – keeps that tradition intact.

The tonality of “Ash & Ice” is, for the band’s standards, clean. Jamie and Allison still sound utterly basic, as if every song is the result of a contest to see how many elements and sounds could be removed from it without making the track crumble under its own weight. However, “Ash & Ice” has the sleekness of an album recorded in a well-furnished studio rather than in a big empty garage. For a couple of musicians that have always relied so heavily on careless slow-to-mid tempo rawness, such a move could strip them from their most defining traits, but, as it turns out, Jamie and Allison are too down-to-earth to get caught up in a more polished sound. They still come off as a genuine pair that does whatever comes to mind without much regard for external perception – they, for example, like The Jesus and Mary Chain, use a drum machine and probably could not care less about comments on its mechanical nature or on how they lack dynamic due to it. They thrive on that nonchalance, and in “Ash & Ice” that feeling is broadcast through melodies that are better than ever.

“Doing It To Death” features one of Jamie’s greatest guitar lines and Allison matches that quality with a chorus that is equally fantastic. “Heart of a Dog” abandons that traditional structure in favor of a flatter composition in which, under Allison’s misery, Jamie’s riff slowly builds up from a two-note call-and-response setup into a whopping four-note call-and-response setup, which might as well be progressive rock for The Kills’ standards. In “Hard Habit to Break”, “Bitter Fruit”, and “Let It Drop” the band explores a slightly poppier vain without leaving behind its inherent mean side, while “Impossible Tracks” and “Whirling Eye” offer fans a glimpse of what the group would sound like in a more full-bodied approach, as their guitar lines are thicker and their aura more aggressive than those present in the other tracks of the album.

The most remarkable moments of “Ash & Ice”, however, appear when The Kills find a way to stretch themselves inside the constraints in which they work, and stumble upon unexpected gems. “Hum For Your Buzz” is borderline gospel, thanks to the rare sight of Allison’ powerful outward singing; “Siberian Nights”, which changes in tone so much it could be considered multi-phased, has a bridge that is beautifully breezy; “That Love” is a sad piano ballad that would be vulnerable if Allison did not use an expletive to qualify the broken relationship of the couples she seems to be addressing and remind listeners that this is a The Kills song; and “Echo Home”, with its echoing guitar and electronic beats, is genuinely gorgeous. In the end, although it does not represent a considerable stylistic shift or a huge breakthrough, “Ash & Ice” is quite simply, on the heels of strong songwriting, The Kills’ best work. It is a suitable discrete peak for a band that is basic and low-key.

deja_vuAlbum: Déjà Vu

Artist: CSNY

Released: March 11th, 1970

Highlights: Carry On, Teach Your Children, Almost Cut My Hair, Helpless

CSNY – the super-group consisting of David Crosby, of The Byrds; Stephen Stills, of Buffalo Springfield; Graham Nash, of The Hollies; and Neil Young, also of Buffalo Springfield – is one of those ensembles that seems destined to fail. Each of those four men, after all, was quick to abandon the groups that launched their respective careers, for a myriad of turmoils, in order to embark on solo endeavors that would allow them to have fruitful lives writing and performing music on their own. “Déjà Vu”, then, is a special record not solely because of its quality as a folk rock work that showed the relevance of the genre five years after The Byrds had coined it, it is also highly treasured because, even though the super-group would go on to release a few other albums, this is the record that captures this boiling cauldron of egos and personalities at its most balanced moment; where music, not internal politics and conflicts, was standing in the spotlight.

However, although “Déjà Vu” is labeled as a group effort, the fact the band housed four somewhat individualistic songwriters means that each of its mostly excellent tracks is the product of one brain. Stephen Stills contributes with “Carry On”, a song packed with angelic harmonies that are always accompanied by his signature magnificent swirling guitar, and “4 + 20”, a simple honest guitar-and-voice ballad. David Crosby brings in “Almost Cut My Hair”, which despite its silly lyrics emerges as the record’s most rousing moment thanks to the energy of David’s singing and the electricity of its instrumental parts, and “Déjà Vu”, a failed experiment in psychedelia not unlike many of the baffling tracks Crosby would create and push for inclusion in The Byrds’ classic records. Graham Nash pens two of the album’s best numbers in the country of “Teach Your Children” and the folk ode to a peaceful domestic life “Our House”. And Neil Young is responsible for the timeless classic “Helpless” and the catchy mini-suite “Country Girl”, two songs that display the uncanny ease with which he unearths memorable melodies.

The two remaining tracks are “Everybody I Love You”, co-written by both Young and Stills, and that – not coincidentally – is a straightforward, slightly silly, rock and roll number reminiscent of Buffalo Springfield; and a historic cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock”. The latter is particularly noteworthy, for besides reportedly being the only tune that was performed by the four members in the same session, it also drastically transforms the Joni Mitchell original, taking her stripped-down approach centered around an electric piano, and turning it into a rock number. The classic line “We are stardust / We are golden / And we’ve got to get ourselves / Back to the garden”, then, just like the rest of the track, abandons its contemplative sorrowful beauty and embraces a highly celebratory tone.

Despite the individualistic nature of its creation process, “Déjà Vu” still manages to come off as a solid cohesive artistic work, which might as well be its most improbable and pure victory. Its introspective moments are simple and honest; its more energetic tunes are injected with the naiveté of the departing 60s; and the album is nicely punctuated by the instrumental prowesses and quirks of its members, and the incredible harmonies that rise from the junction of their vocals. Its historical relevance and the timely nature of its release, marking the end of a glorious musical and cultural era, might inflate its greatness to some degree, but it is nevertheless a strong work by a great quartet of musicians.

grindermanAlbum: Grinderman

Artist: Grinderman

Released: March 5th, 2007

Highlights: Get It On, No Pussy Blues, (I Don’t Need You To) Set Me Free, Man in the Moon

By 2006, Nick and the Bad Seeds were at a place where none of those who had followed the band since its early years could have possibly foreseen they would reach. The group whose music hanged on the verge of chaos during the early 80s, toying with components of avant-garde rock and walking through the most self-destructive brand of punk rock, had slowly transitioned into an act that drenched gospel, balladry, and hard rock in blood, exploring the darkest and most despairing corners of the human mind. After a handful of albums in which they tackled all possible variations of that unique combination, it seemed Nick Cave was desperately missing making music like he had done in the dawn of his career: wild, untamed, violent, brutal, and free of ambition. In Grinderman, which he formed alongside three members of the Bad Seeds – Warren Ellis, Martyn Casey, and Jim Sclavunos – he found the outlet for that animal urge.

“Grinderman”, then, is a record that somewhat aims to recapture the aura that was present in the work of The Birthday Party – the band that would later become Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, and the raw songwriting and out-of-control performances of the first few Bad Seeds’ albums: “From Her to Eternity” and “The Firstborn Is Dead”. This is mean unfiltered rage and primal instinct in the form of tunes carried by frantic drum beats; unorthodox instrumentation, which is highlighted by mad distorted guitar playing and deafening organs that seem to have come out of The Velvet Underground’s proto-punk classic “Sister Ray”; and Nick Cave’s flat melodies, standing on a rope between talking and declamation. The album is not thoroughly consistent in terms of quality, as some of its tunes come and go without leaving much of a mark; however, as far as energy and raw power go, it is relentless like a bulldozer with a rocket for a an engine.

Appropriately, Nick Cave, sounding like a preacher of mad rock and roll, starts “Grinderman” with a brief speech in which he claims “I had to get up to get down to start all over again / Head on down to the basement and shout / Kick those white mice and black dogs out / Kick those white mice and baboons out”. Following it, the band kicks into overdrive in “Get It On”, a tense song that threatens to explode at any minute – with no drums and a muffled guitar – but that never quite does it, exhaling a messy angry soul in the process. Amidst all the insanity of electricity-charged tunes like “No Pussy Blues”, “Depth Charge Ethel”, and “Honey Bee” – in which Nick Cave humorously attempts to reproduce the sounds of the titular animal during the instrumental breaks, the band finds the time for some lighter material, such as “Go Tell The Women” (a tongue-in-cheek cry of independence where Nick Cave announces he is no longer going to be ruled by women), and “Man In The Moon”, a surprising brief ballad.

All in all, “Grinderman” is a pleasant listen that shows an artist that is daring by nature work away from the confines and expectations that surround his main band. Rather than break into new territory, though, it looks back towards the past and approaches, with a modern perspective, a kind of sound that had been long gone. Such regression, however, is by no means negative; it is simply a time Nick Cave wanted to revisit, and instead of taking the Bad Seeds back to that place, he formed a new ensemble to take the trip. The result is mostly very good.


Posted in Albums of the Month, Miscellaneous | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment