When the Same is Different

mkBoth the Mario Kart and Super Smash Bros. franchises – two of the most financially and critically successful series of all time – looked very different in their respective original shapes. Those lines of games, known for infusing established genres with scenarios and characters made iconic through some of Nintendo’s greatest products, shared – during their embryonic states – the characteristic of featuring completely unknown personages and settings.

In hindsight, it is absolutely impossible to conceive that there was a point in time when the wacky go-kart and fighting sagas existed without insane stages bursting with nods to classic games, an armada of fate-changing items, and stars that – more than famous – are symbols whose many efforts helped define gaming as we know it. We unconsciously think of them as having been born as Nintendo-themed ventures into the racing and fighting niches, but the engineering was actually the other way around: first came the naked concepts, and only then was the Nintendo charm added.

Mario Kart and Super Smash Bros. would eventually gain their current themes in different ways. The former was almost accidental: occurring when developers – while executing a test – decided to place Mario on a kart, an action that immediately fostered endless ideas of a Mushroom Kingdom racing game. The latter, meanwhile, was an intentional choice made by Sakurai – the game’s creator – who feared his new fighting game, despite its inventive mechanics, would do poorly in commercial terms.

smashIt is hard to predict the fate those two projects would have had if they had not received such blessing, but Sakurai’s fear regarding his brainchild would probably turn out to be correct: they would not have been nearly as successful. Regardless of the differences in how each game eventually got their visual cues (and, most importantly, their very souls), the fact their once generic coat of paint was eventually replaced by an extremely recognizable layer speaks volumes about Nintendo’s strategy in the use of their world-known franchises.

The company is sometimes accused of going overboard in the exploit of its immense array of weapons, and some even go as far as claiming it has been quite a while since the Big N last sent a group of brand new creatures out into the world. However, such a line of thought happens to sail right past Nintendo’s biggest and most impossible-to-replicate gift: the uncanny ability their developers possess of, such as exposed by the examples of Mario Kart and Super Smash Bros, smoothly transport some of their most familiar faces into environments that greatly differ from their game of origin.

It is a skill of very precious value that works in two different ways. Firstly, it turns sometimes unusual formulas that might have had trouble succeeding on their own into products that are extremely appealing and very easy to market. Secondly, it empowers the company’s most important franchises with great degrees of longevity; after all, the fact that the very same universe can be represented in so many unique ways works as a fountain of youth of endless depth.

Numerous are the games that could have easily been the starting point for a brand new franchise, but that, instead – to the delight of many fans – received a well-known facade later on, naturally instilling those works with an irresistible allure.

lmLuigi’s Mansion, for example, is as far from the green plumber’s native grounds as possible. There is no jumping, no stage-to-stage progression, and almost no foes commonly found on the Mushroom Kingdom. Luigi is, alternatively, tasked with investigating a dark and haunted enclosed territory, and using a flashlight and vacuum cleaner combo to bust ghosts. It is a structure that could have been used as the bones to either a serious thriller or a goofy new intellectual property featuring a clumsy ghost hunter, but that ended up being graced by Luigi’s quirkiness.

Inside the very same Mario universe, it is possible to find a pair of titles that also falls far from the nest of the iconic platforming tree. The Paper Mario, and Mario and Luigi lines share the same silly humor, but both their role-playing mechanics and exploration styles are diverging. In battles, while Paper Mario puts a heavy emphasis on the plumber’s cast of unique partners, the Mario and Luigi games are fueled by the interaction between the brothers, which produces attacks of devastating effects. Outside the turn-based goodness, a similar difference is felt, as the former presents puzzles to be solved by the abilities of Mario’s party whereas the latter challenges Mario and Luigi to work together.

mlThose games also serve as great examples of how showing the same universe through different perspectives can end up generating efforts that are so distant from the source material they feel like completely independent franchises. Paper Mario, and Mario and Luigi could have easily been painted with original characters and a new universe; their critically successful fate would not have shifted. However, by presenting the Mushroom Kingdom in a manner that is far deeper than the approach taken on the Mario platformers, these series gain a thick layer of lovely charm and marketability.

Mario’s greedy rival, Wario, has also gone through a metamorphosis of the same kind. His core series is a platforming saga of immense qualities, but when not busy on the exotic journeys of Wario Land, he runs the micro-game producing technology giant WarioWare firm. The originality of the game’s structure, a marathon of fast challenges; and the nature of its five-second activities, which range from trashy to absurd, could have carried the title by themselves regardless of its setting. Yet, the addition of Wario, and the idea that he had decided to earn money not by going on dangerous adventures, but by making games, made WarioWare instantly recognizable to the general public.

Another platforming hero that has starred in experiments that were unlike anything he had ever done before; so disparate – in fact – that they could have been new franchises, is Kirby. Differently from Mario and Wario, though, the pink puffball did not even have to leave his home genre. The character’s calling card has always been his ability to copy the powers of his enemies and use those skills at will to great destructive effects. Two of his most well-received efforts in recent years, however, lacked that very trick, which was the equivalent of making a Mario platformer where he cannot jump.

rainbow_curseThrough evil magic, Kirby is stripped of his greatest trait on Kirby’s Epic Yarn, Kirby Canvas Curse, and Kirby and the Rainbow Curse. On the former, trapped inside a world of cloth, he uses a whip made of fiber to down his foes; and on the latter duo, he becomes a limbless pink ball, forcing the hero to rely on the player’s guiding hand in order to fulfill his quest.

While it is known that, for Mario Kart and Super Smash Bros, the concept came before the coat of paint, the same cannot be said for sure about Luigi’s Mansion, Paper Mario, Mario and Luigi, WarioWare, Kirby’s Epic Yarn, Kirby Canvas Curse, Kirby and the Rainbow Curse, and many other Nintendo games where famous franchises are taken out of their habitat.

Nevertheless, regardless of the process, those are titles that show Nintendo’s failure to deliver a stream of new franchises is, to say the least, very deceiving. The company is constantly pulling off concepts of great originality, but often employing them as creative means to present their well-known characters in never-seen-before ways.

warioIt is a strategy that aids in the longevity of their already long-running characters and guarantees that inventive ideas, which rightfully deserve a great deal of applause, will get their due reward. It is a luxury the Big N has earned after accumulating so many remarkable personages and worlds, and one that is used to the delight of fans and the company’s vaults alike.

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Albums of the Month: August 2015

monsanto_yearsAlbum: The Monsanto Years

Artist: Neil Young & Promise of the Real

Released: June 19th, 2015

Highlights: People Want to Hear About Love, Big Box, A Rock Star Bucks a Coffee Shop, Monsanto Years

Neil Young is not one to step down from a political debate. A man of the protest singer-songwriter era, he has – differently from Bob Dylan, who got tired of being called “the voice of a generation” – never abandoned the fight for what he thinks is right. As he has gotten older, though, the once gifted subtlety he had to approach those themes has disappeared: where once were poetical, yet fierce, tunes like “Ohio” and “After the Gold Rush”; 21st century Neil has, when his will strikes, devoted entire albums to matters that bother him. “Living with War”, from 2006, was written within nine days after Young noticed nobody in the musical business would step up to confront George W. Bush through songwriting; and “Fork in the Road”, released three years later, was a conceptual garage rock work against fossil fuels and in favor of alternative energies.

“The Monsanto Years” is yet another album with that same approach. All of its songs are blatantly aimed towards the same target: the titular agribusiness giant. Through the tracks, Young accuses Monsanto of damaging people’s health (“People Want To Hear About Love”), being perverse to nature (“Wolf Moon”), breaking the law without being punished due to their size and lobbying power (“Big Box”), joining forces with Starbucks to veto a law proposed in the state of Vermont that would force all genetically modified food and derivatives to feature a label indicating their nature (“A Rock Star Bucks a Coffee Shop”), crushing small independent producers in court (“Workin’ Man”), patenting – with the aid of a corrupt judicial system – seeds (“Rules Of Change”), and scheming to monopolize the market (“Monsanto Years”).

As a testament to Neil’s unmatched level as a songwriter, “The Monsanto Years” is great. Backed up by Promise of the Real, a group led by Willie Nelson’s son Lukas, he forges a dirty, angry, distorted, and loose rock sound inside the same furnace from which the guttural wails of Crazy Horse came from. The melodies are catchy, and even though most of the album has a vitriolic vibe, it is clear to see the old man had a blast recording it. Conversely, as a testament to Young’s recent rushed approach to composing, the lyrics are problematic. Some might argue they are purposely obvious so that the issue is clear, but their overly literal nature makes them sound awkward.

There are a few great moments here and there, such as on “Big Box” when – through a Crazy Horse inspired mix of country harmonies over a viciously loud and mean instrumentation – Neil and crew sing “Too big to fail / Too rich for jail” as they point the finger towards every huge company or wealthy businessman who knows they can break the law without consequences thanks to their power. However, despite the fact its lyrics come off as being quickly put together by a marvelous artist who wanted to get his message across as fast and directly as possible, “The Monsanto Years” is worth a listen due to its incredible melodies.

pink_moonAlbum: Pink Moon

Artist: Nick Drake

Released: February 25th, 1972

Highlights: Pink Moon, Place to Be, Which Will, Things Behind the Sun

Nick Drake’s third album, and the last one he would release before his unfortunate death, is far more intimate than anything that preceded it. Here, the folk legend who would only get his due admiration years after his passing chose to replace the lush and elaborate production of both “Five Leaves Left” and “Bryter Layter” with stripped down melancholy. The strings and arrangements that added size to his guitar-and-voice tunes are gone; and, other than a simple piano on the title track, the record’s brief twenty-eight minutes gravitate around Nick’s playing and his remarkable voice.

When stripped off its studio ornaments, weak songs fall to the ground; however, on “Pink Moon”, as proof of Drake’s songwriting, the tracks soar to some blissful landscape. His deep affecting singing is that of a man whose wisdom transcends his young age; he delivers lines with the humility of a folk singer, and with an insightful weight that could only be achieved by a very attentive observer. Nick’s learning, unfortunately, had been painful – a condition derived from the sensitivity that gifted him with an incredible talent, yet placed a heavy emotional burden he had trouble carrying – and his lyrics show it.

“Pink Moon” announces the coming of the satellite as an omen for bad luck; “Place to Be” shows the resignation of a man that had learned to live with the darkness he absorbed from the world around him; “Road” depicts the choosing of a path that will allow survival instead of one that leads to greater things; “Things Behind the Sun” paints, through a web of words, a contrast between honesty and pretending to be someone you are not; “Parasite” is a haunting take on depression, one that could only have been written by someone who had been through it; and “From the Morning” wraps it all up by using the briefness of the day as an allegory for the shortness of life itself.

Like the two works that came before it, “Pink Moon” emits a sinister vibe, and – from a place embedded in gloominess – Nick Drake delivers his sung poetry in an impressively effective and moving way. It is not a perfect record; “Horn” – a short instrumental that goes nowhere, and “Know” – which begins with over a minute of humming before moving on to a average melody are both a bit lackluster. In spite of that, it stands as one of the finest examples of the singer-songwriter genre and it features a foreboding aura of despair that folk music has failed to reach either before or since its release.

marquee_moonAlbum: Marquee Moon

Artist: Television

Released: February 8th, 1977

Highlights: See No Evil, Venus, Marquee Moon, Torn Curtain

Out of the door of the legendary CBGB – the notorious and historic New York club that was partially responsible for ushering in a fantastic musical era – came various shapes and styles of punk artists. The Ramones were basic and straightforward, Patti Smith joined rock with poetry, Blondie bridged the gap between the roughness of punk and a multitude of other styles, and the Talking Heads touched on bouncy rhythms and awkward melodies. Then, there was Television and their debut “Marquee Moon”, the precise point on which the stripped down energetic recordings of punk, not to mention the lovable-outcasts vibe emitted by the genre’s musicians, met arty and avant-garde terrain formerly explored by another mammoth New York act a decade earlier: The Velvet Underground.

“Marquee Moon” is, above all, a guitar record. Although Tom Verlaine’s production and creative control over the album’s sessions do plenty of justice to all instruments, which are homogeneously wonderfully recorded, the guitars reign superior over the soundscape. Their sound is pure, precise, and clean, but that neatness never strips “Marquee Moon” of its punk rock air; the eight numbers contained here are ragged, edgy, and so messy – adjectives that also apply to Verlaine’s singing – one frequently wonders if the quartet will make it unscathed to the end of the song. However, the reason the album is so unique and revolutionary is due to its blend of those rough elements with progressive quirks, jazz-like improvisation, and cryptic lyrics inspired by French Poetry that travel between confusion, stream-of-consciousness thoughts, and enlightenment.

Yet, despite its daring mixture, “Marquee Moon” is utterly accessible. The opener “See No Evil” has a delightful hooky chorus, while “Venus”, which contains the stand-out line “I fell right into the arms of Venus de Milo”, is gorgeous and is constantly accompanied by a beautiful soloing guitar. All of the eight songs present here have plenty of lures to draw listeners in, but what truly takes them to legendary territory is the remarkable omnipresent interplay between Verlaine and Lloyd’s guitars, which ends up culminating on the album’s key tracks: the ten-minute titular song and its long instrumental segment; and “Torn Curtain”, a seven-minute dark and obscure look at traumas of the past with a haunting piano-accompanied chorus and a blistering closing guitar solo that makes the song earn its position as the closer.

“Marquee Moon” wisely separates those two lengthy and more demanding efforts with shorter – but still long for punk standards – tunes that still house plenty of complexity whereas featuring blatant hooks, including the borderline ballad “Guiding Light”; “Friction”, the record’s wildest cut; the menacing “Elevation”; and the detective story of “Prove It”.  With those pieces set in place, “Marquee Moon” stands – easily – as one of the greatest records of all time, and it is no surprise its astounding quality and unique sound make it a mind-blowing musical revelation to most that listen to it.

remain_in_lightAlbum: Remain in Light

Artist: Talking Heads

Released: October 8th, 1980

Highlights: Crosseyed and Painless, The Great Curve, Once in a Lifetime, Listening Wind

Quirky. That’s an adjective that is easy to associate with the Talking Heads; a quality that was ever present in all of their releases. “Remain in Light”, the fourth of their eight studio records, marks the point on which that peculiar unpredictability ran so delightfully rampant it transcended the invisible barriers of the rock genre. Where “Talking Heads: 77”, “More Songs About Buildings and Food”, and “Fear of Music” were mostly centered around punk riffs played to dancing beats and bouncing melodies, “Remain in Light” was guided by the fresh encounter of wild energetic African rhythms and electronic elements.

Considering the Talking Heads were always masters in the craft of coming up with remarkable grooves, that blend does not come too far out from left field; it feels like a natural step forward, as the quartet fully embraces the unrestrained wackiness of their sound. Yet, the fact their musicality has gone through an evolution that comes off as organic does not diminish the brilliancy of the progression; the sound that is found here is absolutely unorthodox, and it would be no absurd to claim that only the Talking Heads could use all the pieces available to put together immediately likable and irresistible numbers.

Some songs, such as “Seen and Not Seen” with its spoken vocals and the beautiful “Listening Wind”, which features one of the album’s best choruses, rely on African percussion and Brian Eno’s beats. “Remain in Light”, however, is at its peak when those items collide with the group’s frantic guitars. “Crosseyed and Painless”, for example, is led by intersecting and highly rhythmical riffs; the urgent six-minute “The Great Curve”, meanwhile, presents shredding solos that divide the song’s chaotic body; and “Once in a Lifetime” reaches for anthemic grounds when its electronic verses culminate in a guitar-based chorus whose melody is downright catchy.

Truthfully, even though it is generally regarded as the Talking Heads’ greatest work, “Remain in Light” falters a bit on its second half, which lacks a bit of the maniacal energy present in the album’s first four tracks. The bottom line, however, is that by turning jams into the fuel for their material and by adding beats and percussion to their propensity to write danceable numbers, the band greatly multiplied their already impressive originality and turned in an absolutely mesmerizing work.

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Rayman Origins Review

Slide to the side, Mario; Rayman just got a piece of your throne

rayman_originsThere are many reasons for which the Wii, Playstation 3, and Xbox 360 generation might be remembered down the line: high definition graphics, the growing significance of online play, and the advent of motion controls. By digging a little deeper, though, it is possible to notice that, on the software side of things and in the midst of an arms race towards ever more realistic graphics, that gaming era saw the rebirth of 2-D platformers as a mainstream genre.

It was a movement that started in the technically limited realm of downloadable games, moved into the Nintendo Wii, and squeezed itself into the HD twins. With Rayman Origins, the widespread sidescrolling fever gained even more force, because in the midst of Mario going back to his roots with New Super Mario Bros.; Donkey Kong reappearing in great shape on Donkey Kong Country Returns; Kirby reaching his cutest level on Kirby’s Epic Yarn; and indie developers being more artsy and creative than ever; Rayman managed to outdo them all.

With this multiplatform release, the limbless hero was crowned the 2-D platforming king of all of that generation’s systems, achieving what is gaming’s version of the unification of a boxing belt.

rayman_origins1The first thing players will notice about Rayman Origins is its immature nature, but that is by no means a negative statement. Rayman Origins is not immature like that young cousin of yours who cries whenever he loses a videogame match; it is immature like a Saturday morning cartoon from the 90s. It is silly and wacky without worrying about consequences or impressions. It will not hesitate in throwing a one-ton anvil on its dearest friend’s head, and, after that, proceed to put an arm around him and laugh it off into the sunset.

The insanity is not restricted to its bright colorful vivid visuals, it is in how the characters move, how they act after clearing a stage, how music seems to pour into the stage design, and how even the mightiest fire blowing monsters have a “let’s go out there and have some fun while slaying a huge angry beast” vibe to them. Rayman Origins is one extravagant party wrapped into platforming goodness.

Like all good Saturday morning cartoons, our beloved heroes get in big trouble quickly and by accident. Rayman, Globox and two Teensies (the four playable characters in this adventure) are relaxing in the friendly Glade of Dreams when their symphony of breathing and snoring gets broadcasted through the inside of a hollow tree into the underground world where a bitter old lady – maddened by their constant loudness – unleashes an army of devilish underground beings into the once peaceful world. With chaos established, Rayman has to go out there beat down some foes and release his friends from cages hidden within the game’s stages.

rayman_origins3True to its insane humor, there is a lot of variety to be found in Rayman Origins, and it all starts with its unique worlds. Sure, one will find the traditional jungle, the dark underwater caves and the sunny shore, but due to the game’s artistic personality, players will never feel like they are being dragged through more-of-the-same platforming scenarios; on the contrary, the colors, lights and lines of the background will more often than not wow even the most experienced gamers.

However, it is not rare to see Rayman Origins step out of the ordinary and venture into new territory with a world centered around musical instruments in the sky, a fiery kitchen filled with pepper and fire-breathing chefs and a factory with delirious machines. There is no shortage of amusement.

Rayman Origins is accessible and, at the same time, it achieves a great degree of challenge. That balance is struck thanks to the alluring Lums, which – aside from the big clueless smile they carry – look pretty much like the fairies from the Zelda series. Each stage has about 400 of them to collect, and depending on the amount of Lums Rayman has by the end of the stage, he will be awarded a certain quantity of pink smiley medals that unlock secret stages.

Ignoring the Lums means stages will be cleared fairly quickly and relatively easily, even if it is done with a certain degree of trouble due to enemies and obstacles. However, attempting to collect as many Lums as possible during a run through a stage will lead to a lot of deaths, because getting all of them requires speed, ridiculously precise jumps, and amazing skills. As worlds go by, the intensity with which those qualities are needed gets higher.

rayman_origins4That constant progression in challenge is closely tied to how Rayman Origins’ gameplay is invariably moving forward and how there is an ever-present feeling that – with every passing second – the game is getting better; Rayman Origins is constantly renewing and reinventing itself. The character starts with the abilities to jump and hit enemies as his sole weapons; even the signature helicopter move is initially absent. However, as each world begins, Rayman releases a fairy that teaches him a new skill – such as swimming, using funnels to grow smaller or bigger, and running on walls.

Consequently, each set of levels focuses on one of those abilities, and – with the support of other previously learned skills – as worlds progress, the way in which the stages are designed changes radically due to the new unlocked possibilities. As a consequence, not only does the game slap players on the face with glorious scenarios as the story progresses, but it also throws new designs on the screen with amazing consistency. All moves, being critical to achieve success in collecting a good amount of Lums, work wonderfully and are very responsive, and the controls are as tight as the room for error found in the hardest parts of the game.

Rayman Origins’ challenge reaches its pinnacle on its ten secret stages, where players must chase a fearful treasure chest through obstacles, tumbling scenarios, and jumps that demand fine accuracy. Everything is done with no checkpoints and without being able to acquire extra hearts, turning the whole stage into a one-hit KO machine that forces players to go as fast as possible because of their collapsing structure. It is as tough as nails, and more rewarding than pretty much all gaming experiences out there.

rayman_origins2In spite of its challenge, Rayman Origins never really gets frustrating, because – due to the abundance of checkpoints – the stages are divided into small segments, making them feel like a series of wacky obstacle courses. Therefore, significant progress is never lost when players try a radical maneuver to catch a trickily placed 25-Lum coin. Even though gathering Lums is optional, the game warmly invites players into the challenge, and the invitation is hard to decline.

As the curtain closes, most players will come to very same conclusion: Rayman Origins is the best 2-D platformer of its generation. It lands in Kirby’s Epic Yarn territory with its stunning art, it pulls off old-school moments that had only been achieved by New Super Mario Bros Wii, it holds as many level design surprises as Donkey Kong Country Returns, it features puzzle elements absent from those titles, and it manages to be more challenging than all of them. The fact that it features the option to play with another 3 friends works as the icing on the cake.

Rayman Origins is beautiful, features a good soundtrack that ranges from catchy to gorgeous, has over fifteen hours of gameplay, tons of extras, ten worlds, many bosses, stages that play like space-shooting arcade games, and much more, all packed into one hard-to-surpass package of platforming goodness. It is absolutely glorious.

Rayman Origins

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Kid Icarus: Uprising Review

Pit successfully finds his place among the cast of modern videogame heroes

kid_icarusDeciding which way a gaming series should head next is a pretty tough process for most companies, even if said series has been going through a reasonably long stretch of constant releases that have been achieving both commercial success and critical praise. Things become even harder, then, when a long period of time passes while the series lies dormant. After all, so much water will have passed under the bridge that all gaming concepts that served as basic pillars for a once strong gameplay will have aged to the point of being useless and outdated. Such is the case of Kid Icarus.

What was once a refreshing clash of surprising up-scrolling levels with occasional Zelda-like dungeons has, during the course of twenty years, had its novelty factor washed away many times over by the merciless creative impetus of the industry, hence being made completely useless and precarious. For Project Sora, then, bringing a franchise back to life after such a long while became not a matter of picking up the pieces and organizing them in a new way, but of basically transplanting elements from an ancient environment and building a modern ecosystem where all of those pieces can peacefully coexist, creating a new franchise with old characters. The result is a considerably original software that is successful in merging two unique and contrasting types of gameplay into one cohesive adventure.

In a way, Kid Icarus Uprising’s two gameplay patterns differ so greatly that the package could be considered as two distinct games in one cartridge tied up by the same conductor: its plot. All of the game’s twenty five stages are divided into two different parts. The first one takes place high up in the air. By making use of an on-rails shoot’em up progression that harks back to Star Fox, Pit will fly over mesmerizing locations while shooting hundreds of baddies that pop out on the screen with frantic frequency.

kid_icarus4Those segments are the gaming definition of thrilling, as it is barely possible to breathe calmly when there is so much happening at the same time: enemies must be defeated, their attacks have to be avoided, items must be collected, and eventual environmental traps need to be properly identified before they can harm the angel. It is almost unfair that the flight parts of the game leave so little time for players to be mesmerized by the gorgeous open environments that the 3DS is able to render, but everything comes together – heavily aided by the game’s impressive soundtrack – to create one exciting experience.

Palutena’s gift of flight for Pit does not last forever, though, so about five minutes into each stage Pit must descend onto the ground to complete his missions by exploring generally linear dungeons that culminate with a boss battle. On the ground, the amount of enemies to defeat is significantly smaller, but that is compensated by the fact that Pit’s attacks are somehow much weaker when he is not soaring.

All dungeons are pretty well-constructed and boast a nice balance between exploration, battles and puzzle solving, because while clearing a dungeon might only be a matter of going from one room to the next one while beating down foes, each one of them hides lots of treasure chests with weapons and other collectibles.

While being on the ground is not half as great as flying, it still serves as a very nice way to wrap up each of the levels, and it obviously offers a pleasant change of pace, moving the focus from insane shooting to slower battles and meticulous exploration. The boss battles are not overly creative in their design, and not as challenging as they should be – considering that dying to hordes of enemies is more common than losing to a boss – but the fact that the game packs one cool-looking boss with a unique set of attacks for each of its 25 levels is a major positive feature.

kid_icarus2Whether he is flying or walking, Pit is controlled in pretty much the same way, with the L-button being used for shooting, the analog stick for moving, and the touch screen for aiming. The core difference is that while on the ground, the touch screen also accumulates the function of spinning the camera around.

The control scheme is certainly quite singular, but it is the right set-up to achieve the full implementation of the game’s gameplay proposal. Given how different it is, getting a full grip on the controls can only be achieved after players face a long learning curve, but while the setup is not intuitive, it becomes pretty natural after half a dozen levels, not giving players too much trouble aside from the punctual occasions when the joint functionality of controlling the camera and aiming with the touch screen ends up not being completely effective during ground battles.

It is worth noting, though, that as a game from a portable device, whose natural goal is to be played anywhere, Kid Icarus Uprising’s control scheme has the problem of making it uncomfortable to hold the Nintendo 3DS when the stand that comes packed with the game, and that requires the presence of a flat surface in order to be utilized effectively, cannot be used.

One of the game’s most intriguing aspects, surprisingly, happens to be its storyline, not only because of how it develops, but also because how Project Sora decided to tell it. The game starts when, after twenty years, Medusa mysteriously come backs to life and starts attacking humans with the Underworld Army, forcing Palutena to step in by summoning Pit and lending him some of her powers to deal with the forces of evil.

However, that straightforward premise that tends to remain static until the tail-end of most light-hearted Nintendo games is actually thoroughly developed here, as the plot branches out to a number of unexpected paths, eventually involving a big cast of characters both evil and good, with a vast number of interests.

kid_icarus3Even though there is a lot of story in Kid Icarus Uprising, the game refuses to stop the action and invest in long cutscenes; instead, the plot moves along as stages are explored and battles are fought, because while the action takes place in the upper screen, the bottom screen will always display character sprites interacting with each other through great dialogues and constant voice acting.

The storytelling, as a consequence, becomes as frequent of a component of the game as gameplay itself, as all twelve hours of the adventure tick away along with characters chatting and new plot details being revealed. Despite the heavy story development, Uprising is never a game that takes itself too seriously, as the characters are always making silly comments about what happens on-screen, villains usually alternate evil threats with friendly chit-chat with the heroes, Palutena is always finding a way to pull Pit’s legs with witty remarks, and the entire cast occasionally acknowledges that they are in a game.

It is a path that tends to thread the dangerous line between vomit-inducing cheesiness and funny, but the game manages avoid any dangers and, although the voice acting falters in some places, the result is a heart-warming tale on which one truly comes to like and care about the characters, and, when the game comes to a close, the friendly conversations are one of the things players will miss the most.

The blend of silliness and epic, in addition to the menus that look a whole lot like what is seen in Super Smash Bros. Brawl, are not the only things that remind players that this game was captained by Masahiro Sakurai, as the designer also left his mark in the amount of content that Kid Icarus Uprising carries with it.

For starters, the game features about one hundred weapons to collect, and even though the same weapon can be acquired twice, no two weapons are quite the same, because two instances of the same weapon will almost always have different stats (melee attack power and long-range attack power) and skills (such as granting Pit more speed, attack power, or boost his shield).

Weapons are all divided into nine types (bows, clubs, palms, orbs, and etc.) and each of those types drastically changes Pit’s behavior during battles, making it possible for players to freely experiment with different approaches before they can decide which combat pattern suits them best. As if all that customization was not enough, Pit will also acquire certain skills during the game. Those can be neatly arranged, as if they were Tetris blocks, into a pre-determined space so that players can power-up the angel as they see fit and use the skills granted to him as their unique strategy to tackling the stages. All those combinations make it plausible to say that chances are no two players in the world will equip Pit with the very same weapon and skills.

kid_icarus5Finding a good combination of weapon and special abilities becomes vital due to the fact that Kid Icarus Uprising can become a merciless game very quickly. The title has nine different difficulty settings, ranging from so-easy-it-makes-you-yawn to so-hard-you-had-better-wrap-your-3DS-in-foam-before-you-play-it, but picking between one and another is not as simple as it usually is. The game implements a gambling system where the hardest levels can only be played if the player is willing to bet a very high number of hearts – the game’s currency.

If players succeed in clearing the stage at high difficulties, they will be rewarded with tons of hearts, a positive result for the extreme gambling; however, if they fail miserably and die a lot, the game will happily burn away all those hearts, which makes it possible for rich players to become quickly poor due to daring to play at extremely high levels when they do not possess the skills to do so. The system is an interesting one, but it can make losing at high levels extra frustrating due to the mandatory entry payment for those levels. Losing at level 9 might mean that, in order to try again, a very skilled player will have to play a few stages on lower levels – with affordable heart fees – just to acquire the amount of hearts necessary to once again get a chance at tackling the hardest difficulty setting, which is downright annoying.

With all that in mind, Kid Icarus Uprising undeniably is a game with an impressive amount of replay value. Its engaging gameplay is divided into 25 relatively short bits, each chapter takes about twenty minutes to clear on a first playthrough, and its overwhelming amount of collectibles (weapons, power-ups and trophies, just like the ones from the Smash Bros. series), highly adjustable difficulty settings, and 360 achievements – some of which are ridiculously tough – mean that only the most dedicated and skilled gamers will be able to fully complete the game, but at the same time Kid Icarus Uprising presents itself as a game that is accessible for all, in spite of the long climb required to master its control scheme.

kid_icarus6In addition to its fleshed out single-player, the game also includes a very good multiplayer mode. In it, up to six players will battle it out in a variety of nicely designed arenas, by using their weapon and powers of choice, in two distinct modes: free-for-all and team battle. The former is as straightforward as one might expect, but, as an extra twist, in team battles the more powerful is the weapon carried by a certain player, the more damage he will cause to his own team’s energy meter upon his death.

It is a feature that evens out the playing field, which can be awfully uneven in free-for-all battles, and makes things interesting to all players regardless of their skills. Due to how frantic, fast-paced and thrilling Uprising’s multiplayer mode is, playing it either locally or online is basically seeing the materialization of a 3-D Smash Bros. wild battle. It is fun, and it will keep players coming back for more.

It is safe to say that Pit has successfully found his place among the strong cast of modern videogame heroes. The days of up-scrolling levels might be sadly over, but by combining addictive shoot’em up segments with meticulous and slow exploration, the character has encountered a restarting point for his adventures that, while not extremely original in neither of its two instances, still manages to be unique.

Kid Icarus Uprising easily stands out as one of the defining moments on the 3DS’ lifespan, both for the good and for the bad. If on one side it shows that the addition of a second analog stick could have easily made the game more playable without the packed-in stand, it also makes a statement on how great its hardware is and how much content one can pack into a tiny cartridge. In being reborn, Pit breathes more life into a great system, and, by the time Kid Icarus Uprising bows out of the stage, players will greatly miss its delightful characters, but will, at the same time, be excited for what is on the horizon for this old – yet new – series that Nintendo has just put back on its belt alongside so many of gaming’s greatest franchises.

Kid Icarus Uprising

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Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. Review

Intelligent Systems’ attempt to step out of the conventions of the strategy genre is a mixed, yet pleasant, bag of successes and issues

codenameAn evil alien force is attacking the planet and it is up to President Abraham Lincoln to lead a team of agents on a mission to drive the intergalactic menace away from our home. That is a premise that, by itself, is already sufficiently outrageous and over-the-top, but Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. takes it a few steps further. Intelligent Systems, the incredibly talented company behind the strategic masterpiece that is the Fire Emblem franchise, tries to make it blatant that its new property is meant to be an opportunity for developers to step out of any constraints imposed either by the traditional bones of the genre or the expectations attached to long-standing beloved lines of games, and they do get their point across.

The journey of Lincoln’s force – appropriately called Strike Team Eliminating the Alien Menace – is depicted through comic book lines presented via cell-shaded graphics portraying a steampunk universe. The influence of the superhero magazines is omnipresent; the whole plotline and all cutscenes are shown via panels, with extravagant onomatopoeias and word balloons included, and they develop as if strips were being read and pages were being turned. Moreover, the action scenes and mission introductions exhale an urgent epic air that is closely attached to that sort of media.

As if that impressive blend – which is sure to put a few gamers off especially due to the shaky quality of the art style – was not enough, the work throws even more ingredients into the boiling pot of its thematic mixture. The President’s secret agency, which starts out as having a sole available combatant and eventually branches out to include other members that are found along the way, is made up of characters taken from American literature and folklore. Henry Fleming, from The Red Badge of Courage, is the leader of a group of agents that includes personages taken out of The Wizard of Oz, Peter Pan, Moby Dick, and a few other famous tales.

codename3While commendable and intriguing (there is an incredible joy in watching Tom Sawyer interact with the likes of Dorothy and Peter Pan’s Tiger Lily) the general fabric, occasionally, feels disjointed. The references it makes are so broad – even going as far as including historic figures such as Queen Victoria and Ulysses S. Grant, not to mention numerous nods towards the oeuvre of H. P. Lovecraft – that sometimes the overall package comes off as random and unfocused, as if throwing various clever elements inside the same universe was all that it took to make it soar.

As a result, although its setting is indeed effective in making players get pumped to tackle a set of missions and watch the story unravel – which are its most important goals, by far – it does not succeed in pulling gamers into its grasp; its capacity to fully immerse is inconsistent.

Irregularity also hits the title’s gameplay. In order to deviate from the top-down turn-based strategy that the company deeply explores through Fire Emblem, Intelligent Systems opts – perhaps inspired by Sega’s Valkyria Chronicles – to keep the same grid-based progression of their main long-running saga and pair it up with a third-person perspective. Therefore, instead of having a full vision of what is going on around the map so that an optimal approach to defeating the enemy can be reached, players are restricted to working with what their characters can see from their current position.

codename5Undoubtedly, some will be bothered by the lack of a map or overhead view, but the limited vision does wonders for the experience. Firstly, moving around becomes an engaging game of cat-and-mouse where Lincoln’s agents must advance towards a certain goal while trying to figure out how exactly foes are positioned so that they are not caught off guard by surprise attacks or traps. Secondly, the design of the terrain comes heavily into play as finding high vantage points and other safe corners from which a large part of the battlefield can be scanned becomes key. In a way, it could be said the third-person view gives Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. a whole new dimension – literally – to its strategic undertones when compared to Fire Emblem.

In theory, all those elements set the table for one rousing strategy game. In practice, the execution is uneven. Some of the stages are utterly brilliant and put the team in situations that require a great level of reasoning and planning from players. Others, which are fortunately the minority, feature little cleverness in their setup and choose to, instead, achieve challenge by endlessly throwing waves of enemies towards S.T.E.A.M.

The quartet of agents chosen for each mission moves through the scenarios via the steam generated by their equipped boilers, with one cloud of steam allowing a character to move one space. In order to attack, the enemy must be targeted and – provided that the unit in sight is within the weapon’s range – shot down, an action which will require a certain amount of steam clouds depending on the gun. As a twist, all aliens have glowing weak spots that, if hit, deal increased damage. Therefore, positioning becomes crucial because sometimes those critical regions can only be hit from certain angles. Moreover, given some foes have protected weak spots, it is critical to calculate whether the process of uncovering those and then taking the enemy down can be achieved in one turn since attacking a rival unit will invariably draw their attention towards your team.

codename2It is not all about spending steam madly, though. Not only does conserved steam in one turn carry over to the next one, saving a few puffs makes agents go into overwatch mode while the enemy is moving. Thanks to that ability, if an alien crosses the line of sight of one of the characters they will fire away, which gives players the opportunity to set up traps and defensive schemes. However, the mode goes both ways, so moving around requires an extra level of care due to the fact that aliens on overwatch can fire and even stun one’s soldiers.

The battles’ greatest flaw is the length of the enemy’s turns. Although a post-release patch has reduced that time by a certain margin, players must wait between fifteen and thirty seconds to take control once more, depending on the amount of units the opposing side still has and on the model of the 3DS on which the game is being played. Even though there might be a certain tension in hearing aliens move around without knowing exactly where they are, the bottom line is the whole process of waiting that long to play again is bothersome and breaks the gameplay’s flow in a terrible way.

On the other hand, one of the game’s greatest aspects is its difficulty. It is far from being ideal for sometimes brutal levels that occasionally become hard in cheap ways, but whose brutality is alleviated by the presence of in-battle save points, are followed by challenges that are relatively a walk in the park. Still, since characters do not level up, players can never grind their way towards clearing a mission via sheer brute force; they must think about what went wrong and map out a new plan.

codename4Coming to a different strategy goes far beyond distinct approaches in battle, as Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. features a total of twelve characters with very unique quirks. Each of those has a set-in-stone main weapon and special move, and an adjustable secondary gun. While some handle standard fire power (Henry Fleming has a riffle and The Fox has a long-range gun with pin-point precision) or bombs (John Henry launches grenades and Califia throws explosives that follow a straight trajectory), others go for a far quirkier arsenal, such as Tom Sawyer and his weak yet far-reaching Punch Gun, The Scarecrow and his stun-pumpkins, Tin Man’s steam-regenerating assist weapon, Queequeg’s Penguin Launcher, Tiger Lily’s healing gun, and Randolph Carter’s baits.

With that incredible assortment of options and setups, Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. features a good replay value that is further supported by collectible gears that unlock more powerful boilers, which can make some battles even harder to those who are looking for all of them ; missions that can be replayed with special restrictions; additional sub-weapons unlocked via coin-collecting; and best scores.

Although not as easy-to-recommend as a masterpiece of the caliber of Fire Emblem, Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. is certainly better than average. Not all of its experiments click, and some of its flaws have the potential to completely alienate a considerable audience, but to those who are fans of the genre and are willing to try something drastically different and that packs quite a punch when it comes to challenge, giving it a try might prove to be the unearthing of an unsung little pleasure.

Code Name STEAM

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Half-Genie, Full-Genius

shantae2What if Metroid and The Legend of Zelda had a baby? What if that baby happened to sport the colorful and goofy presentation of the best games of the 16-bit era? What if that title played like a gorgeous and inventive combat-centered platformer of the early 90s? Better yet, what if that game existed and could be played right now by anyone who owns either a Nintendo 3DS or a Wii U and has a few bucks to spend on an eShop effort?

Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse – the third installment on WayForward’s beloved franchise – is that product, and as I sit on the early portion of its quest it is easy to tell it safely ranks among the finest products on both current-generation Nintendo platforms.

Its Metroid influences are seen in its structure. Here, one hub island serves as the gateway to other pieces of land that are slowly unlocked as Shantae – the title’s half-genie protagonist – finds sea charts. Much like Norfair, Brinstar, and Maridia – signature areas explored by Samus Aran, those islands are setup like fully-connected mazes that house different neatly sewn together environments and that must be carefully explored, sometimes with backtracking, so that Shantae slowly makes her way to a dungeon.

shantae3And that is precisely where the game’s The Legend of Zelda touch comes in. In those dark grounds, The Pirate’s Curse sheds its skin and becomes a whole new creature. While its outdoor segments that make up the islands play like combat-based platformers, where the challenge derives more from enemies than wild jumps and maneuvers; its dungeons are side-scrolling puzzle-focused gauntlets that include bosses, and – of course – items that grant Shantae new skills that, aside from being thoroughly tested, also help her access new locations and items that were previously inaccessible out in the overworld.

The game blends all of those influences to produce something relatively unique: a platformer whose levels are tied up in a continuous world and that must, sometimes, be traversed back and forth as players look for collectibles and try to aid charming characters with their troubles.

Moreover, true to its Super Nintendo look-and-feel, its cartoonish looks, silly character interactions, and humorous dialogues disguise an adventure that packs quite a punch; Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse has a considerable level of difficulty that reaches pleasant spikes inside its dungeons. If on the islands themselves the numerous, varied, and well-designed foes are placed with a care and precision that require players to map out their moves; when within a maze that brilliant placement is paired up with dashes of platforming tricks that demand attention, fast reactions, and reasoning.

shantae4Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse is a precious gem developed with a lot of love and inspiration that is lying on the eShop just waiting to be discovered and conquer the hearts of platforming fans that crave for charm and simplicity, Metroid followers who have been dying to play something that offers exploration and a bit of backtracking, and anyone who loves an adventure with a bright creative spark.

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Klonoa Review

With a unique progression and spectacular stages, Klonoa is yet another glorious sidescroller to grace the Nintendo Wii

klonoa4Cuddly characters that could star on any Saturday morning cartoon, ridiculously silly plots that are there to just serve as an excuse to do some jumping around and enemy-whacking, and stages that are so bright and colorful that young children can only look at them through prescription sunglasses: platformers are gaming’s sacred Wonderland.

However, even with the simple premise and straightforward design, those games fail more often than not, as they constantly try to emulate successes of the past and end up forgetting to look into the future and build an exclusive character to distinguish themselves from the average platforming mold. But not Klonoa. Originally released for the Playstation in 1998, the game was rightfully showered with praise, and, eleven years later, it landed on the Nintendo Wii to prove that, like any great masterpiece, the years did not wash away its greatness.

What Klonoa does to mark its own territory in the platforming realm is progressing in quite a unique way for a sidescroller, producing an interesting blend of 2-D gameplay with stage design and story development that would be most commonly seen on a 3-D platformer. Klonoa tells the tale of a rabbit-like boy who has constant dreams of witnessing a ship crashing into a nearby hill until, one day, while wondering about what it is that makes dreams so hard to remember, he does see the ship colliding with the mountain. He, then, decides to go out and investigate. From that moment on, it is time to beat down enemies, perform tricky jumps, and explore beautiful worlds.

klonoaWhat is so special about Klonoa’s story development is that it does not follow the usual script of clearing one uniquely-themed world only to, then, head onto the next land. Instead, the stages taking place in different areas are intercalated, but that is not done in random fashion. At one point, for example, Klonoa wanders into a forest where he must find the chief of a tribe. Unfortunately, when he reaches the end of the stage he finds out, during a cutscene, that the water flow that would allow him to continue his travel has been interrupted.

Therefore, before proceeding further into the forest, Klonoa finds the need to travel to the game’s watery world to discover what exactly is going on with the land’s water source. Little happenings like this occur all throughout the story, and while it might seem like a little detail, it does wonders to stitch together the game in a cohesive manner and allow developers to jump from one world to the other seamlessly.

When it comes to the stages, and that is the area where the game truly shines, they reflect the story’s tendency to join aspects of 2-D with 3-D platforming. Klonoa takes place in a 2-D perspective, with the character only being able to move from left to right. However, its environments provide beautiful 3-D depth, and that depth is not there simply for the value of looks, as it frequently comes into play, interfering with the gameplay itself.

klonoa3Sometimes Klonoa must use his enemy-grabbing abilities to throw a creature as a projectile onto an item container that is located away on the horizon and, on other occasions, the horizontal extension of the scenarios will end up revealing alternate paths and secret locations that players can reach.

While a few of the game’s stages are absolutely linear, some of them are set up like dungeons or explorable environments that are presented in a sidescrolling axis. That curious configuration leads to some very impressive stage design along the way, and – for the very short time that it lasts – Klonoa is a game that is always pulling off surprises that keep the game engaging and enchanting all the way through.

The character may not have a very vast arsenal of moves – his actions are limited to jumping, picking up enemies with his wind gun, throwing them at other foes, using grabbed enemies to perform tricky double jumps, and floating in midair for a little time – but they are very well-used to create interesting platforming situations.

It is certainly a disappointment that the game only features twelve different stages across four different worlds, but a few of those stages are long enough to warrant at least six hours of gameplay for beating the game. To those who are looking for something extra to do once the main action is over, the game does offer some options.

klonoa2On each stage players can encounter six friends who have been locked up by enemy forces, and while some will be naturally found, others require nice investigation of the game’s occasionally complex stage setup. If all creatures are rescued, the game will open up new character costumes, the ability to reverse the stages – greatly increasing the challenge – and even fun little time trials that will delight speed runners. In addition, it is a challenge of its own to get the perfect gem count of 150 on each stage.

Technically, Klonoa is nothing short of impressive. The graphics are as bright and colorful as it gets and some of the visual effects, like the wonderful water, are some of the best on the Wii. The character models are extremely smooth and beautifully animated, and the reworked cutscenes add a lot to the game.

Some may be bothered by how frequent they are, as Klonoa puts some focus on storytelling; or how childish they may often be, as they were clearly written with children in mind. However, the fact that the plot does have some quality to it, including some surprisingly dramatic moments, and the ability to skip the scenes right away make them much more bearable. Musically, Klonoa offers very nice tunes and the added voice acting is a nice plus, even if the traditional – and optional – gibberish is preferable and suits the game better.

When it is all said and done, the remake of Klonoa: Door to Phantomile reaffirms game’s status as one of the best platformers of its generation – a generation that included Super Mario 64, Banjo-Kazooie, Banjo-Tooie, Conker’s Bad Fur Day, and Rayman 2 – and shows its structure is as timeless as that of any great classic, because even many years after its release, it still manages to be quite impressive.

Klonoa

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