Albums of the Month: September 2017

villainsAlbum: Villains

Artist: Queens of the Stone Age

Released: August 25th, 2017

Highlights: The Way You Used to Do, Fortress, Un-Reborn Again, The Evil Has Landed

Hips. “Villains” has hips, and they shake, swivel, bop, bounce, and hop. That swaying quality is not exactly news for Queens of the Stone Age. Ever since their self-titled debut, their songs lived in the beautiful dichotomy of pounding listeners into the floor with heavy riffs that landed mightily and mercilessly, but also giving fans the irresistible desire to move and dance to the rhythm of guitars and drums that would, if used by any other band, generate some serious head-banging. It is as if Josh Homme, in his writing and performing, channeled the sexually free spirits of the prehistorical female royalty his band is named after and combined them with the hip-shaking of Elvis Presley. As such, perhaps it is not all that surprising that “Villains” makes people sway as well as it makes walls rattle; it is, nevertheless, the Queens of the Stone Age album that – so far – wears that quality most blatantly on its sleeve.

In fact, there is a party-like vibe that runs through the record, somehow recalling the loose reckless aura of Josh Homme’s side-project: Eagles of Death Metal. However, links between “Villains” and the fun-loving garage rock duo stop there, because the celebration “Villains” throws is a dark one; and the songs that are its soundtrack seem to always be striving to be epic, either in length (as the nearly seven-minute-long “Un-Reborn Again” indicates); in reflective sorrow (as the closing ballad “Villains of Circumstance” does); or in careless abandon (as “Head Like a Haunted House”, the album’s fastest and wildest track, which is so hyperactive its shape is hard to identify amidst the blur of its passage, reveals). “Villains” is the sound of band that has written two decades of history and that has been, through a great portion of that period, one of the world’s most respected and critically acclaimed hard rock acts.

Here, Queens of the Stone Age come off as a group that is fully aware of their status within the musical landscape, and they pour that unshakable swagger into the tracks: most of the songs in “Villains” are excellent, and the band knows it. “Feet Don’t Fail Me” gets the show underway as Homme declares, full of confidence, that he and his gang – moving with urgency between agony and pleasure – have come to bust listeners loose. And that is precisely what they do: they boast, and they deliver, as the following track (“The Way You Used to Do”, written to his wife) is the poppiest and most danceable piece of music the band has ever produced, and they reach for accessibility without losing an inch of their violent, daring, and sexual edge. As a more mature musician, though, Homme is not afraid to show vulnerability (as he had already done in “Like Clockwork”), and in “Villains” that frail side appears in both “Fortress” (a gorgeous ballad dedicated to his young daughter, which explores the hardships she will have to face on her own and how he will always be there for her) and “Villains of Circumstance” (which concerns the weight of being distant from home and family).

However, at its heaviest moments, which comprise most of the album, “Villains” is a lot like the devil on its cover: it is mean and lean. It jumps around incessantly, with evil speed, and just when listeners think they have captured it, it makes such a sudden unexpected motion that it turns the table: it is the audience that ends up being caught. Resting easy on its slick sinister grooves is asking to be surprised and taken down by a quick guitar outburst, a sexual lick that comes out of nowhere, or a cunning change of tone and tempo (as the one that happens towards the end of the multi-phased “The Evil Has Landed”). With the aid of producer Mark Ronson, a daring choice by the band since he had previously worked with pop stars such as Lady Gaga and Bruno Mars, Queens of the Stone Age bring the danceable aspect of their sound to the forefront. Still, the production of Ronson, and his synthesizers (which are nicely integrated into the mix and add special flavor to both heavier tunes and lighter ones), never take over or act against the band’s evil punch. Instead, they reveal an incredible variation on the always remarkable theme of the sound of Queens of the Stone Age.

sleep_well_beastAlbum: Sleep Well Beast

Artist: The National

Released: September 8th, 2017

Highlights: Day I Die, The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness, Carin at the Liquor Store, Dark Side of the Gym

Matt Berninger, the singer and lyricist of The National, is – in theory – not a man one would expect to be affected by a mid-life crisis. As he gets closer to the end of his fifth decade on this planet, not only is he happily married, but he also leads a pretty solid career fronting one of the United States’ most important modern rock bands. Yet, by listening carefully to his lyrics, whether they are from “Sleep Well Beast” or from most of the group’s previous six records, it is easy to conclude he must be quite miserable. Rarely does The National dabble into happiness, and moments like the roaring and jubilant “Mr. November”, from the classic record “Alligator”, are rare. Maybe it is just that the music the Dressner brothers compose for the band has the type of moodiness that makes gloomy feelings come to mind, or perhaps Berninger simply finds his artistic groove when he takes himself to some dark contemplative places. Regardless of the reason behind the unshakable sadness, in “Sleep Well Beast”, The National continue to explore misery and decadence, and – as it has been the norm – they do so very well.

Where “High Violet” and “Trouble Will Find Me”, the two direct predecessors of “Sleep Well Beast”, sometimes failed or took to long to gain traction, this latest work comes off as more direct and immediate. The hooks are more apparent and omnipresent, and with the exception of the title song, which closes the album by revisiting the beat from “I’ll Still Destroy You” and placing a nearly spoken vocal over it, not a single track goes by without a remarkable melodic moment. Armed with his unmistakable baritone, Berninger sings about relationships that have either failed or are in the painful process of falling apart. “Sleep Well Beast” nods to couples who have grown distant (“Empire Line”), partners who cannot seem to bring themselves to break up with one another even though that is obviously the right course of action (“Nobody Else Will Be There”), and marriages in which one part feels inferior to the other (“Born to Beg”).

Those issues, however, are not the sole focus of Berninger in “Sleep Well Beast”. The National has never shied away from politics, and the group has been an active voice in all of the American presidential elections that have taken place ever since they rose to prominence. As a consequence, the album – in more than one track – reacts negatively, and with precise subtlety, to Donald Trump’s victory. In fact, the combination of relationship troubles with worldwide social and political turbulence (“The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness”) leads characters to substance abuse and self-medication to alleviate the psychological pain (“Walk It Back” and “I’ll Still Destroy You”). The future envisioned by Matt Berninger, yet, is not entirely bleak; there is a glimmer of hope, and that light lies on the up-and-coming youth (the beast of the album’s title), which is hibernating, waiting for the moment to wake up and give life to their incubated dreams.

Musically, The National immerses itself on those themes anchored in electronic beats and a lush soundscape (perhaps a courtesy of Bryce Dessner’s orchestral work) that permeate the whole record. Sometimes, those elements guide the songs on their own, with the standard rock instruments serving as precise ornaments; in many of the album’s most beautiful tracks, though, a huge-sounding piano leads the way, smartly highlighting the stunning melodies Berninger comes up with. The exception to that rule is “Turtleneck”, a wild rough barn-burner that could have been written by Nick Cave during his “Henry’s Dream” and “Let Love In” era. Independently of the approach, though, “Sleep Well Beast” shows The National firing on all cylinders and producing their best work since the stellar duo of “Alligator” and “Boxer”.

spitting_imageAlbum: Spitting Image

Artist: The Strypes

Released: June 16th, 2017

Highlights: Behind Closed Doors, Grin And Bear It, Great Expectations, A Different Kind of Tension

Initially, The Strypes caught the eyes of the likes of Elton John, Dave Ghrol, and Noel Gallagher not only for being a group of four lads that paid homage to the pub and blues rock of Dr. Feelgood and The Yardbirds by bringing it to the 21st century, but also for being able to do so pretty well. Sure, there was nothing particularly original about neither their songs nor their first two records, but among a crowd of pop musicians that dominate the charts and indie rockers that rule over the rock subculture, they stood out for looking back onto an era that is often ignored by teenagers of the 2000s. With two complete albums and a strong set of songs that gravitate around blues behind them, the time had come to either move on or run the risk of being stuck in the same subgenre for a good portion of a decade, and “Spitting Image” makes it very clear right on its cover that the boys found new music to be infatuated with and proceeded to write tunes with new influences in mind.

Bands that approach blues rock have grit; and that is not an adjective that is suiting for the colors and clothes “Spitting Image” features on its art, and it takes about three seconds into “Behind Closed Doors” for listeners to realize the change is not merely aesthetic: it is musical. What connects “Spitting Image” to its predecessors is that it is not modern; it is absolutely old-school. The difference is that instead of looking up to Jimmy Page, they pray at the altar of Elvis Costello. “Spitting Image” comes straight from the late 1970s, with all the love for strong melodies, light guitar riffs, and clean production that existed during those days. And, surprisingly, what The Strypes uncover with the move from the pub to the concert hall (a path that British music itself followed during that decade) is their best record up-to-date.

“Spitting Image” is fun, unpretentious, and loose. Despite his young age, Ross Farrelly delivers his lines with the utter confidence of someone who has a handle on life and that just knows better than everyone else. And with that air, he smartly talks about characters whose lives have taken a turn for the worse: there is the father who lost his family due to alcoholic vices (“Behind Closed Doors”); the couple that loses a part of their youth because of an early and unexpected pregnancy (“Grin and Bear It”); and the aimless youngsters that alternate between enjoying life to the fullest and wondering if what they are doing is right (“Black Shades Over Red Eyes”). The fact the grim nature of those situations and others that pop up along the album gives birth to tunes that are jovial speaks volumes about the kind of energy with which The Strypes wrote and performed these tracks. It feels like they are either too smart to be caught up in those binds or too self-assured to fret over those problems.

The true reason behind such cool smoothness, though, probably lies in how the songs of “Spitting Image” are just overloaded with sugary hooks; The Strypes unabashedly abandon a ship that was mean and rough, and out of that confinement they find acoustic strums, jangly guitars, and replace technical flair for infectious simplicity. “Spitting Image” does have space for some of the aggressiveness of previous albums, which surfaces in the form of a few strong tracks where a punk aura shines through (“A Different Kind of Tension” and “Turnin’ My Back”), a fact that bodes very well for a rock record – where a certain edge is essential. But, as a whole, “Spitting Image” is a delightful pop rock work that shows the lads will find success away from the nest of pub rock into which they were born.

innerspeakerAlbum: Innerspeaker

Artist: Tame Impala

Released: May 21st, 2010

Highlights: It Is Not Meant To Be, Lucidity, Expectation, I Don’t Really Mind

Given the absolute peak of psychedelic rock came about in 1967, when the waves of the Summer of Love were powerful enough to sweep through the United States and have its outermost ripples reach far beyond the country, it is only natural that every single release inside the genre be compared to the legendary masterworks that were being produced in that era. And since the happy vibes of psychedelia were quick to succumb to the harshness of reality and to the heavy drug abuse of its musical leaders, works that attempt to recapture the magic of that era run the serious risk of either sounding like caricatures of the past or playful oddities that have arrived out of time. With those pitfalls in mind, it is a gorgeous miracle “Innerspeaker”, the first album by Tame Impala, does not end up being a bloody victim of the circumstances that surround it, especially when one considers how much it borrows from the inescapable pillars of acid rock.

Firstly, there is how Kevin Parker – the man responsible for writing, singing, and playing pretty much all of the material contained within the record – sounds a whole lot like George Harrison. However, instead of singing of mind-altering experiences over a plucked sitar, as Harrison did on some of the most experimental tracks by the Fab Four, Parker does so over a lush soundscape that has soothing waves of effect-laden guitars that wash over listeners in the same way as the ones from Jimi Hendrix’s “Axis: Bold as Love”, while not overlooking the whimsical hooks of The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and “Magical Mystery Tour”, and the daring yet approachable experimentation of the whole of Jefferson Airplane’s “Surrealistic Pillow” or of the most welcoming moments of Pink Floyd’s “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn”.

With all of those influences in his mind, Parker strives to create psychedelic songs that he can call his own. And although there is nothing revelatory about the record, “Innerspeaker” is certainly good enough to be loudly praised and worthy of the foundations on which it is sitting. Its verses are often quiet and contemplative, as if listeners are invited to look into a natural setting – as the one depicted on its cover – to ponder upon decisions, relationships, and habits. Its choruses, meanwhile, are the moment of transcendence, when enlightenment is unlocked and Parker is sucked into a colorful vortex of wisdom. And “Innerspeaker” brings that concept together in both music and lyrics. In terms of the former, there is a frequent repetition of melodic patterns that seem to be stuck in search of a getaway, and the path out of that vicious circle comes in sweet explosions of effects. As for the latter, Parker employs conflicted and indecisive inner dialogues that find relief and direction when the pop choruses come around.

Even if it does not abandon that neat musical architecture for a second, save for in the instrumental “Jeremy’s Storm”, “Innerspeaker” never comes off as an album that is treading on the same ground aimlessly, because under every somewhat similar stone that he upturns, Parker finds a track that is noteworthy and distinguished. When his melodies are not utterly gripping, they are – like the mind of a classical romantic poet – wandering amidst nature in search of a great discovery, and they are invariably able to locate and expose the coveted treasure. “Innerspeaker”, therefore, uses its pieces to form one cohesive piece that is tightly constructed under a defined conceptual umbrella. The Summer of Love may be long gone, and psychedelic rock may be no longer a cultural phenomenon, but their children and grandchildren are still holding tightly to their message and spreading it through excellent music.

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Sonic Mania Review

Sonic Mania was born with the intention of being a celebration, a simple gift to the hedgehog and his fans on the 25th birthday of the release of the saga’s first game, but it ends up being much more than that

sonic_mania6Fans always know what they want. Sadly, from a creative standpoint, their wishes tend to fall inside a very limited spectrum; after all, as much as they hate to admit it, the object of their desire is never a new idea or an outrageous concept, but a retread onto ground that has already been plowed. Fans crave for the good old days to make a glorious comeback, for a product that recreates the magic of the gemstone that captured their hearts; that is why, regardless of the medium, the greatest moments in the history of entertainment came not when fans got what they wanted, but when they were surprised by an artistic turn towards a landscape whose existence they had never even conceived. That is why creators thrive in subversion; awards and accolades are not given to those who walk with a checklist of expectations that need to be fulfilled, but to the ones who overthrow hopes and amaze despite not giving the audience what it was anticipating.

In general, that rule works. In the case of Sonic and Sega, though, it most certainly does not. When the creator spends twenty full years fumbling attempts to satisfy its fans, and tries to find hundreds of ways to subvert expectations only to fail in almost every single one of them, there comes a point when playing it safe and giving fans precisely what they want may be a valid option. Sure, the final result may end up not being revelatory or earth-shattering, but not every excellent product of creative thinking needs to reach those marks. Moreover, sometimes recovering pride and honor can work as some sort of midway step on the path that leads from hell to heaven, and getting out of the fiery furnaces might be more vital than reaching the summit of Olympus. More importantly, after a certain point where everything is rather dire, an excellent but safe delivery may on its own succeed in being might blowing, because it will subvert expectations by simply being great.

All of that needs to be said because Sonic Mania is frighteningly good. Following two decades of unsuccessful attempts to recreate the magic of the original Sonic the Hedgehog trilogy, Sega decided to do the unthinkable: hand the series over to a group of fans. Truthfully, those fans in particular happened to be talented developers who had proven their worth by working on remakes of Sonic classics; nevertheless, in a way it felt Sega had finally broken the barrier that separates creators and consumers, allowing enthusiasts to take the reins of a project of their greatest star. Unsurprisingly, those Sonic addicts, alongside Sega, proceeded to build a game that is so perfectly close to what fans wanted that it looks, plays, sounds, and feels like a Sonic game of the first half of the 90s.

sonic_mania4The old-school production values are, by all means, planned and deliberate, for Sonic Mania was intended as a celebration of the character’s 25th birthday and of the trilogy that launched him into the world. What is neither devised nor predicted, however, after all such a thing cannot possibly be sketched, is how absolutely fantastic the game is. As the universe had, by now, grown used to expecting Sonic games to be lackluster, Sonic Mania subverts those hopes. Its mesmerizing value, though, does not exist just because it is a good game that shocks due to catching everyone off guard; it is flooring because it constructs a very solid argument that supports it deserves to be put on the same level as the Mega Drive games by which it is clearly inspired.

Sonic Mania begins when Dr. Eggman as well as Sonic and Tails track a major energy source coming from a dimensional breach. Eggman’s robotic henchmen make it to the place of the event first and unearth a gemstone called Phantom Ruby, which immediately gives them freewill. Having lost control of his subordinates, Eggman appears and steals the stone from them to harness its power. All of a sudden, then, Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles – who was just hanging nearby – see themselves against not only the traditional villain of the franchise but a bunch of rogue robots. And their journey starts in Green Hill Zone; not coincidentally, the first zone from the original Sonic the Hedgehog.

As a celebration of the franchise, and also perhaps secretly as an attempt to revalidate it and appeal to the audience’s nostalgic bones, Sonic Mania borrows quite a bit from classic games of the saga; namely, from the original trilogy as well as from Sonic & Knuckles and Sonic CD. Out of the twelve zones that make up the adventure, eight are extracted from those five titles, with the remaining four being completely original to Sonic Mania. A superficial glance might, therefore, cause some to accuse the game of being more of a rehash than an original work; such claims, however, would be inaccurate, for Sonic Mania does quite a bit to use the pieces it gets from its sources to put together a quest that feels fresh even to those who have been through the original material quite a few times.

sonic_mania7The first act of Green Hill Zone, for instance, is exactly the same as the one from Sonic the Hedgehog; its second act, though, is completely new, incorporating elements that would only appear in future Sonic games and using a few different quirks. Chemical Plant Zone, meanwhile, employs a somewhat similar strategy; the difference is that where the first act combines the two levels of that zone that appeared in Sonic the Hedgehog 2, the second one builds it all from scratch, deploying a distinct background, and amusing traps such as pools of bouncing water and walls covered in a substance that lets characters stick to them. This pattern that matches the recreation of what has been done with invention – the latter of which is achieved either via entirely new gimmicks or the combination of old fan favorites in different ways – is always present in the two acts that make up all eight re-used zones, and it makes the ride through them be quite a joy.

What is bound to impress the most, though, is how amazing the four new zones are. Studiopolis Zone has so many outrageous devices (such as satellites that transmit Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles to different places) that it is hard to choose a defining trait for the level; while Press Garden Zone presents two acts that are so different from one another (visually and gameplay wise) it is incredible to see how so much was packed into a single zone.

Truthfully, those compliments serve for any of the levels of Sonic Mania. There is a ridiculous abundance of clever ideas, surprising moments, and genuine awe to be found in the race to the end, and although the frustration of bumping into enemies that seem to have been devilish placed just to cause Sonic to lose rings still looms, the mixture of speed segments with tight platforming challenges is perfect. Sonic Mania manages to be thrilling like a roller coaster ride in one second and as tense as a bomb-defusing in another, and by doing so it recaptures the aura that made the franchise the 90s juggernaut that remains alive in the minds of all of those who went through the classic games.

sonic_mania3While not fully original in its levels, Sonic Mania brings in a brand new set of bosses. And given there is a total of twenty-five of them (with the two acts of all zones culminating in an epic duel plus a secret final boss that is only unlocked when a certain requirement is met), it is quite amazing the team behind the game was able to make them so consistently fun and creative. Even the big bad guys that are clearly inspired by classic bosses are significantly different from the source, and the fact the battles alternate between skirmishes against Dr. Eggman’s machines and the wacky robotic henchmen that are under the control of the Phantom Ruby makes them quite varied.

As it is already traditional for the series, Sonic Mania is not just about getting to the end of the journey: it holds plenty of awesome secrets. Firstly, there are the Chaos Emeralds, which transform the heroes into their mightily powerful super versions and unlock a secret ending; they are acquired by finding hidden giant rings in the acts and then engaging in a fun and exciting mini-game (adapted from Sonic CD) where characters chase a UFO on a Super Mario Kart-like racing track, collecting blue orbs to increase their speed and golden rings to feed the ever-decreasing timer. Meanwhile, bonus stages, taken from Sonic the Hedgehog 3, are accessed by reaching checkpoints with twenty-five rings or more; these have the heroes running around a spherical planet while collecting blue orbs and avoiding red ones, which cause players to immediately fail if touched. As usual, these mini-games are not enticing just because they lead to full completion of the game, but because playing them is genuinely fun, challenging, and addictive.

The high replay value of Sonic Mania is not solely attached to the seven chaos emeralds and the thirty-two bonus stages, though. The wish to replay the game also stems from the intricate level design, which makes each act have a handful of paths. In terms of how it balances straightforward get-to-the-end platforming goodness with complex and branched stage setup, the Sonic franchise stands on its own in the realm of sidescrolling platformers, and Sonic Mania – both in its new and remixed stages – validates the hedgehog and his peers deserve that throne. It is literally mind-boggling how Sega and the other teams were able to pack so much into such a restricted space and keep it all approachable.

sonic_mania2Therefore, even though a relatively experienced gamer can get to the end of Sonic Mania within four hours, playing through it once is barely scratching the surface of its content. Moreover, plentiful extra modes extend playing hours to a considerable degree. There are time trials with online leaderboards, one-on-one matches in which the victor is the one who reaches the end of the stage first, and the possibility to play through the adventure cooperatively. For hardcore gamers, a mode in which no saving is done is also included, which means that instead of being sent back to the beginning of the first act of the zone they are in upon losing all lives, players are instead forced to start it all from Green Hill Zone if they run out of continues.

Sonic Mania was born with the intention of being a celebration, a simple gift to the hedgehog and his fans on the 25th birthday of the release of the saga’s first game, but it ends up being much more than that. From its visuals, which pay homage to the 16-bit days by bringing slightly improved character models and glorious multi-layered backgrounds, and its music, which mixes old themes with new tracks that are by all means just as good as the classics, to its gameplay, it deserves to stand side-by-side – with no caveats whatsoever – with the games that made the franchise so popular. By handing talented Sonic aficionados control over the game, Sega gives the character’s fanbase exactly what they had been craving for since the late 90s: an utter classic, a title that makes – after quite a while – Sonic have one of the best games of the current generation.

Sonic Mania

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Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle Review

A product of Nintendo’s recent tendency to be less protective of its franchises, it is a sign that – when handled by other parties and with the proper oversight – those properties can be taken to remarkable places

mario_rabbids7For the most part, courageous ideas live on a dangerous tightrope. When they leave the imaginary realm and are pushed towards reality by one daring mind, the tightrope snaps and they fall: the place where they land inevitably determines the way they are perceived by pretty much everyone else. If the idea succeeds, it is considered to be brilliant; if the idea fails, it is condemned as plain crazy. There is no middle ground; there are only extremes, and it is this lack of a safe balanced landing zone that causes most thoughts to never materialize. They are afraid to be because being entails judgment, and sometimes that is simply too much to bear, and one cannot help but wonder about the different futures that never happened because someone somewhere was reluctant to take a leap and the door of opportunity proceeded to be slammed shut.

At one point of a not-so-distant past, one of those someones that are somewhere was a Ubisoft employee who dared to envision a game where Mario (him, of the understandably overprotective Nintendo) was paired up with the Rabbids (them, of the average mini-game collections and often criticized platformers) in a strategic turn-based adventure that took place in the Mushroom Kingdom: an idea so absurd that upon hearing rumors regarding its existence the gaming world almost universally chose to slam it to the ground even though absolutely nobody had ever seen the game in motion.

Thankfully, though, whether due to a complete disregard towards what others think or thanks to a sudden surge of courage (induced by external substances or natural chemical reactions of the body; it does not matter), that employee went ahead with their vision and dared to pitch it not only to their bosses but also to the masterminds at Nintendo. Fast forward in time, like the Rabbids do with their Time Washing Machine; and avoid the flames of creatures that are angry for no valid reason, like Mario does as he walks the halls of Bowser’s Castle, and that someone somewhere, through some process that was certainly somewhat tortuous and occasionally awkward, has managed to make their courageous idea come to life. And anyone who plays it is certainly to be thankful that Ubisoft developer did not succumb to fear of judgment or lack of attitude; the door was not slammed shut, it was blown open.

mario_rabbids3Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle is excellent. Despite how his genre-spanning nature has led him to cover numerous areas of the gaming palette, Nintendo’s plumber had never tackled the turn-based strategy style, which makes it quite smart on Ubisoft’s part to take the partnership between Mario and the Rabbids in that direction. After all, it is easier to generate positive reactions when direct comparisons to the stellar Mario platformers and RPGs are avoided. However, Mario + Rabbids is not great because there is an absence of a bar against which it can be measured: those bars exist. Not only is it among the best Mario spin-offs, but it is also a pretty strong effort inside its genre. And although it is true that Mario could have explored gun-based tactical gameplay without the Rabbids, the wild creatures do a good job showing they are great additions rather than unnecessary extra elements.

They come into play when they pop up, aboard their Time Washing Machine, in the room of an inventor who is working on a device that has the capability to merge objects. Given the girl is taking a rest due to frustrating technical problems, the Rabbids recklessly grab a hold of the invention and start wreaking havoc around the place. As her room is filled with Mario-related objects, a couple of Rabbids are soon merged with Mario and Peach. And when the Time Washing Machine is accidentally hit by the Rabbid using the device, all of the creatures (alongside a Mushroom Kingdom poster; the girl’s electronic assistant, Beep-O; and numerous objects) are sucked into a vortex that spits them out in the middle of an inauguration ceremony for a statue of Peach.

With both corrupted and regular Rabbids spread around the kingdom, a giant vortex in the sky threatening to swallow the entire place whole, and the innocent Rabbid that has the dangerous merging device on the loose, the heroic quartet of Mario, Luigi, Peach, and Yoshi are joined by their Rabbid versions and Beep-O in a journey to stop the madness via a good deal of shooting, explosions, and light-hearted humor.

mario_rabbids4Speaking of the latter, one of the greatest characteristics of Kingdom Battle is how nicely the Rabbids were integrated into the Mushroom Kingdom fabric. The Rabbid versions of the main characters are not blank copies of the originals; they have personalities of their own. Rabbid Mario has, for some unknown reason, a mandolin; Rabbid Peach is selfie-obsessed and seems to strongly suspect Peach wants to take Mario away from her; Rabbid Luigi merges Luigi’s friendly and clumsy attitude with the Rabbid’s love for madness; and Rabbid Yoshi is, even by Rabbid standards, a mad lunatic. Those traits, obviously, are used through the course of the game to produce some humorous gags that walk hand-in-hand with the kinds of jokes often used in Mario RPGs.

Moreover, the Mushroom Kingdom itself has been altered by the Rabbids’ presence. As the worlds are explored, many regular Rabbids can be seen around the scenario engaging in utter nonsense: such as relaxing on a lava pit or acting out a pistol duel in the middle of the desert. Those scenes add a special flavor to the adventure as by pressing the A-button players can watch those actions unfold and read an amusing comment by Beep-O on the whole situation. In addition, given the Time Washing Machine has sucked into the vortex all assortments of objects that lay in the inventor’s room, the Rabbids were quite effective in using them to vandalize the Mushroom Kingdom with pieces of underwear waving like flags in the wind and much more, giving the traversed scenarios a psychedelic surrealistic touch that had yet to appear in a Mario game.

Although the adventure is condensed into four worlds, which may not seem like much but that do produce a regular quest that lasts for about twenty hours, the scenario variety is quite extensive, for each world presents very interesting and natural mutations in the environment. The first world, for example, starts out on green fields, goes through a thick jungle, and ends on top of a block tower; while the third one holds a vast deck of creepy-looking haunted settings, including a farm, a swamp, and a cemetery. All of those scenes, including the character models and animations, are remarkable both from a technical and artistic standpoint; and the accompanying soundtrack, composed by Grant Kirkhope, who is not quite as inspired as he was when he produced his musical masterpieces, does a good job at tying it all together.

mario_rabbids6As a game, Mario + Rabbids can be divided into two clear pieces: exploration and battling. All of the worlds are broken into nine chapters (marked by scrolls that appear on the scenario), which usually contain between one and three battles, exploration segments that separate them, and occasional cutscenes that move the plot forward. The exploration portion of the experience is solid, but never remarkable. Although there are plenty of puzzles that do grow nicely in terms of complexity as the game goes on, their block-pushing and switch-pressing ways never feel like more than little intermissions between the real meat of Kingdom Battle, which comes in its strategic skirmishes.

Still, Ubisoft does go out of its way to reward that exploration. The worlds are bursting with treasure chests containing music, art pieces, and – most importantly – weapons; moreover, each world has a secret chapter that can only be found after its boss has been defeated. Two little issues hold back the exploration, though. Firstly, the game features no maps, which would have been helpful given worlds two and three have a complex structure. Secondly, the clearing of each world, including the last one, rewards characters with a new context-sensitive ability (such as breaking blocks, or carrying statues), which can then be used in previous areas to open the way to chests; that optional backtracking feels, unfortunately, quite unnatural as it is pretty blatant some areas have been blocked off just to force players to come back to them later.

The stars of the show, by all means and ways, are the battles; and, on this front, Mario + Rabbids delivers the goods. It is a simple setup: in a restricted area, which is fully integrated into the world’s map, Mario and two companions must either defeat some of or all of the Rabbids in the place, escort a character, or survive for long enough to reach a specific zone. With each turn, all members of the team can use their main or secondary weapon, move, and trigger one of two special skills. The scenarios are packed with pipes that quickly allow characters to move between distant places, hazards, opportunities to obtain high ground, and covers (both of the destructible and indestructible kind) that give a certain level of protection according to how tall they are, diminishing the chance of an accurate shot by 50% or 100%.

mario_rabbids2Mario + Rabbids, therefore, requires thinking and planning. A tactical camera allows players to analyze the stats and range of movement of all enemies, and going headlong into a battle without taking those variables into consideration – especially late in the game or when facing a boss – is a recipe for disaster. The game has a surprisingly good level of challenge and, knowing it will draw in not only an experienced audience but also a lot of younger gamers attracted by the colors and charm of the Mario universe, it features the option to activate, before the start of all battles and with the simple press of a button, an easy mode.

Kingdom Battle succeeds in keeping battles engaging all the way through in a number of ways. The scenarios where the shooting takes place are incredibly varied, some support different kinds of strategies while others force gamers to play in a specific way, therefore presenting many gameplay facets. Alongside the battlefield changes, sets of enemies are always being renovated both in-between chapters and worlds, as well as being mixed and matched in different ways.

There are ghosts that teleport, support Rabbids that use grenades and that can heal their partners, maniacs that wear machine guns on their chests and that can jump with the help of their peers, smashers that move whenever they are shot, shielded monsters that need to be shot at from certain angles, enemies that are clever blends of Rabbids with Mushroom Kingdom staples like Piranha Plants and Boos, and more. Mario + Rabbids has no shortage of creativity for spitting out foes; it is worthy to mention, though, that it is a tad frustrating that bosses – as smartly designed as they may be – have the annoying tendency to rely too much on minions to produce challenge rather than doing so by virtue of their own skills.

mario_rabbids1When it comes to the gang of heroes, battles gain life due to the amount of actions they can perform. All of the eight playable characters have their own skill trees, which can be unlocked as orbs are obtained from battles or hidden chests, and although there is some overlapping between the trees, with some abilities or similar weapons being featured for two characters, all combatants turn out to be unique. Among other abilities, Mario, true to his origins, can be catapulted by his partners into the air to land on top of foes; Luigi is a long-ranged specialist; Peach throws grenades; Yoshi packs a rocket; Rabbid Mario has an explosive dash; Rabbid Luigi recovers energy when attacking enemies; Rabbid Peach has healing powers; and Rabbid Yoshi has a main weapon whose damage range is unpredictable.

Given such an incredible variety of strategies, it is very disappointing Kingdom Battle does not allow players to assemble the trio of fighters they are going to use during a battle in whichever way they see fit. Some of the characters are unlocked way too late into the game. Additionally, there are rules that determine how a team can be constructed; namely, Mario always needs to be on the team and at least one Rabbid has to be used, which means that only deploying the folks from the Mushroom Kingdom is completely out of the question.

Surely, those issues are slightly annoying to a certain degree; however, neither do they hold the game back from excellence nor will they stop players from feeling like sinking their teeth into the full extent of the title’s content, which is quite impressive. All worlds hold ten challenges, of varying types, that can be tackled once an area’s boss is defeated. All missions can be replayed at will from a simple menu so that players can try to perfect their score (calculated by number of turns that were used and total of surviving characters); although it is a bit disappointing those missions are tackled with the team’s current equipment, which makes getting perfect scores way too easy most of the time. And a cooperative mode with special missions is also available, which alleviates the lack of a two-player option for the battles of the main campaign.

mario_rabbids5Simply put, Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle is a fun, unexpected, unlikely, and very welcome addition to the Nintendo Switch’s catalog. At this point, it is unknown how many years the console’s lifespan will last and how much support it will get from third-parties; regardless of the value of those variables, though, it is pretty clear Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle will stand as one of the console’s finest overall entries. A product of Nintendo’s pleasant recent tendency to be less protective of its franchises and to open up its business model, it is a sign that – when handled by other parties and with the proper oversight – those properties can be taken to interesting places. If Mario + Rabbids is the first of numerous unforeseen partnerships, Nintendo fans are in for a treat. All that it takes is for those someones who are somewhere to step up to the plate with their courageous ideas; may the doors of opportunity be forever blown open.

Mario Rabbids

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Sonic Colors Review

Although it does not reach the earth-shattering quality levels of the best platformers of its generation, it shows there is hope for 3-D Sonic games, which may be far more significant

sonic_colors1Watching Sonic struggle through the 3-D gaming era is a lot like watching an aging professional sports player go through the twilight of their career: the world watches the athlete’s performance start to fall apart to a point where everybody thinks there is no turning back, but a few believers still see some potential in there that could signal towards a sudden outburst of brilliancy in the near future. Differently from a sports player who has no protection against the unstoppable insatiable hunger of this overpowering force called time, though, Sonic can – whenever Sega feels like it – push a magical restart button and attempt to jump towards original platforming challenges with the same energy and impact of a brand new and youthful videogame character.

All that it takes for that to happen is the springing of a bright concept inside the head of a game producer and the spreading of a whole lot of common sense on how to build a good Sonic platformer among the developers responsible for the game. The coming together of those two factors is, unfortunately, easier in theory than it is in practice, which makes it somewhat unsurprising (even when considering the weight that the names Sega and Sonic hold) that until Sonic Colors’ release point that recipe had almost always failed to be recreated. Sonic 3-D games were, therefore, always lacking either in one specific aspect or in all of them at the same time (which was the most common occurrence). Sonic Colors does have its flaws, which makes it arguable its coming did not end the character’s run of substandard efforts and marked the point where Sega was able to join an interesting idea with a nearly spotless execution, but what exists here is a balanced and solid gaming experience far better than the average Sonic 3-D adventure.

If there is one thing that has not been improved with Sonic Colors is the unnecessary amount of attention put into the storyline. The game does start with a reasonably controlled quantity of storytelling; that is, it gives players a background into why in the world they are going after the villain, showing how Eggman has apparently turned into a nice guy and decided to build an intergalactic theme park made up of several different planets connected by a central hub. Sonic and Tails head to his shiny facility to investigate, as the duo does not believe in the doctor’s good intentions. Not shockingly, they learn from a strange alien creature – called a Wisp – that the planets linked to his theme park were actually their homes and that Eggman is kidnapping their entire race for unknown evil purposes.

sonic_colors4It would have been fine if the storytelling stopped there, as that is pretty much all players need to know on a classic platformer until they beat the final boss to watch a concluding video. Sadly, Sega decided to throw a few cutscenes in-between stages and worlds to further develop the plot, which would not have been so heavily aggravating if they were not plagued by extremely cheesy dialogues and predictable jokes, which contrast with the decent level of the voice acting. Fortunately, they are all easy to skip with the touch of a button, making the clumsy plot if not forgivable at least ignorable.

Mostly, Sonic Colors features an exhilarating combination of 3-D and 2.5-D sections. Sega discovered the perfect formula that balances exciting fast-speed maneuvers through loops, slides, corkscrews and other extremely well-designed level layouts with slower segments that require timely jumps, planned out attacks, and even some thinking outside the box. Sonic Colors and numerous of its many stages are the modern equivalent of the sidescrolling brilliancy that graced the early Sonic games, with courses that branch frequently and where all paths are filled with fun secrets and thrills.

Sadly, some issues in terms of consistency emerge. While most stages have been given major attention, others are completely lackluster in their construction, meaning that, as a whole, the game’s level design is irregular. The gap in quality between levels is so big that sometimes it is hard to believe they belong to the same game and were developed by the very same team. Another issue that harms some of the courses is that some traps are more frustrating than fun, and the fact that players may have to repeat them many times in order to finally be able to move on just magnifies the problem. Losing all lives and facing a game over screen just because of pure frustration stemming from an annoying segment is not an uncommon occurrence.

sonic_colors3What makes Sonic Colors stand out among other titles starring the hedgehog that have been released since the industry shifted its focus to the tridimensional realm and featured that same blend of 3-D and 2.5-D is the Wisps. The little colorful aliens that have escaped from the grasp of Eggman join Sonic to help him free their peers, and each one of them will give the hero a little bit of their power for a limited amount of time. Activated by the shaking of the Wiimote, the abilities coming from the Wisps add a lot of variety to the game, allowing developers to create a range of obstacles that open up the gameplay considerably.

With the aid of the Wisps, Sonic can turn into a laser that bounces off walls, gain the ability to float, drill through dirt, eat everything in his path, become a spiked ball that sticks to walls, blast through the air as a rocket, and turn blue rings into blocks and vice versa. Another interesting aspect about the Wisps is that some of them are only unlocked in the last worlds of the game, which means that by going back to the first stages of the game and replaying some of them players will be able to use their newly acquired powers to explore new routes, improve their time, and their rank. Those looking for full completion will have, then, many reasons to smile, since replaying the levels is mostly a fun exercise due to all new twists that are irremediably uncovered.

However, the biggest change that Sonic Colors brings when compared to all of the games that preceded it is that, from a gameplay standpoint, Sonic Colors is very good. There are no major camera hiccups, players see everything they need to see all the time in an incredibly natural fashion that does not even require any kind of manual adjustment. The game also controls in a remarkably accurate manner, including all the transformations that could have potentially caused some instances of poorly implemented controls. In Sonic Colors, everything is fluid, seamless, and beautiful, including the framerate that does not suffer at all even though the game displays dazzling extensive visuals that blast by the screen at incredibly high speeds.

sonic_colors2Sonic Colors is not an extremely long game. Its six worlds have seven levels, including a boss battle, which means that one playthrough – without looking for all items contained on each stage – will take players less than five hours to complete. However, the game has plenty of options for those looking to spend some extra time enjoying the title. Players can improve their rank in all the levels in an attempt to get the flawless S, collect all hidden red coins by exploring all possible paths within each stage in order to unlock cooperative challenges on the Sonic Simulator (a multiplayer mode comprised of twenty-one arcade-like stages), or simply improve their score.

Sonic Colors brings a lot of the magic of the old Sonic games to the 3D environment with some twists along the way that make this adventure rather original and remarkable. There are a few punctual issues, but nothing really tarnishes the fact this is a rare instance of a 3-D Sonic game turning out better than passable and actually being quite good. It has great visuals, fast exciting moments, slow segments that show a lot of care with the level design, a nice collection of songs to power up the fun, and solid gameplay. Sonic Colors will not change anybody’s concepts on great platformers, or set new bars for the genre, but showing that modern-day Sega can still find ways to get in touch with reality and realize what makes a great Sonic game (and make that untouchable quality materialize in a 3-D setting) is much more important than any earth-shattering productions.

Sonic Colors

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The Wild, The Innocent and The Mushroom Kingdom Shuffle

mario_rabbids2For some reason that is certainly somehow connected to the demeanor of a caveman who roamed Africa millions of years ago and Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, human beings have a tendency to be quick to judge. As creatures who live in a supposedly civilized society, people do try to fight that instinct with certain consistency; still, as much as most like to think otherwise, reason cannot always overcome nature. When it loses that battle, our judgmental ways shine through. What both our prehistorical ancestor and the British naturalist did not know, though, is that such a negative behavior would manifest itself quite strongly when Nintendo and Ubisoft decided to join Mario (one of the world’s most beloved characters) with the Rabbids (one of the planet’s most disliked videogame entities) into one game.

Under the direction of Kimishima, Nintendo has been quite clearly much less protective of their properties than it used to be in the past. In just a couple of years, the company has taken their franchises to mobile platforms, green-lighted the construction of theme parks, and hinted at future movie projects. In a way, therefore, Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle is a reflection of that strategy; as it would be hard to imagine the Nintendo of a not-so-distant past allowing another studio to take the reins of a Mario adventure and much less letting that studio pair the plumber’s gang up with an unpopular set of characters. Yet, this is where the gaming world stands: as Mario and the Rabbids walk hand-in-hand into the living rooms of millions in a partnership that, a few months ago, sounded like sheer lunacy to almost everyone.

Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle is interesting for a number of reasons. Firstly, because it shows the Rabbids are not inherently bad characters. They are just unreasonably disliked due to how, besides starring in average games, the world looks at them as having displaced Rayman, a major gaming institution that tended to take part in excellent adventures, when Ubisoft is actually the one to blame for the lack of new games with the limbless hero. Secondly, because as much as Mario has branched out to other genres, the turn-based strategy field was an area he had yet to explore. And finally because despite all the initial unfounded and unnecessary reactions, it is hard not to be intrigued by the title’s concept.

mario_rabbids1More importantly than being interesting, Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle is great. The madness of its plot and of the way through which both universes are joined works because Mario and the Rabbids exist in worlds where events do not need to make sense. Moreover, the concept is supported by solid gameplay. Alternating exploration segments where Mario and his two partners of choice need to solve puzzles in order to progress through one of the four worlds; and strategic and challenging shooting affairs where alternatives need to be analyzed if players are to succeed, the game clicks and finds a way to embrace newcomers to the genre, which its charming presentation and colorful characters are bound to attract, and veterans too, who will flock to it once they hear of the tight design of its strategy gameplay.

Truth be told, there is nothing particular remarkable about the exploration portion of the game. The puzzles are simple block-pushing or button-pressing activities, but walking around an innocent and beautiful Mushroom Kingdom that has been extravagantly corrupted by the Rabbids’ wildness and uncovering its many secrets makes the experience be engaging enough. The star of the show, needless to say, is the battles themselves, for besides having nicely programmed AI that will not miss the opportunity to take advantage of gamers’ mistakes, they are also constantly evolving challenges that are always requiring new ways of thinking: be it by introducing new menacing enemies to the mixture or by shifting the focus of the battles through the construction of the arenas. That means that while some put emphasis on finding higher ground or looking for solid covers, others force players to survive or take a more offensive approach.

Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle is a welcome and unexpected addition to the catalog of the Nintendo Switch. Ubisoft has done an incredible job in uniting two totally disconnected franchises; more impressively, it has done so by sewing them together on a ground (that of strategy gaming) that is completely alien to both. Therefore, instead of capturing gameplay elements of both sides and putting them together, the core of Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle rises pretty much out of nowhere, and perhaps that is what makes it so completely alluring. If the game is indicative of what Nintendo’s more open approach to their main franchises will yield, fans of the company might be in for a quite productive and fun new era.

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Albums of the Month: August 2017

everything_nowAlbum: Everything Now

Artist: Arcade Fire

Released: July 28th, 2017

Highlights: Everything Now, Creature Comfort, Electric Blue, We Don’t Deserve Love

Bands change. The only groups that never had to hear their fans complain about how they should go back to writing songs such as those of their good old days were those that limited their careers to one release, such as the Sex Pistols and The Heartbreakers. The fact that Arcade Fire has abandoned the indie rock brand they explored during their first masterful three albums has to be accepted. However, the fact the grounds they chose to explore in the two releases that followed their initial golden trilogy have yielded little to no significant results cannot be ignored. Following “Reflektor”, which tackled music from the disco and new wave era as well as Caribbean rhythms without doing them justice, the band leaves the sunny drumbeats of calypso behind and opts to further sink their hands into the synthesizers and keyboards that ruled over pop music through a portion of the 80s. “Everything Now” is the result of that move.

It is impossible to deny Arcade Fire has always thrived in making their albums thematically cohesive. The wonderful “Funeral” was about loss; the powerful “Neon Bible” gravitated towards a criticism of mass media; and the spectacular “The Suburbs” longed for a not-so-distant past. “Everything Now”, like “Reflektor”, leans in the direction of isolation. The difference is that while in “Reflektor” loneliness rose because of technology, in “Everything Now” the subjects of the lyrics find themselves alone due to consumerism (as exposed by the title track) and the self-centered Internet culture that makes people desperately strive for approval (as highlighted by “Creature Comfort”). The point the band makes is solid: not only because the hollow happiness found in purchases and likes does indeed lead to empty lives that hit the floor of depression quickly when the frailty of that joy is revealed, but also because these contemporary troubles speak to the hearts of a considerable part of their audience.

The problems, here, lie elsewhere. Firstly, they exist in the lyrics. There was levity and poetry to the four records that came before “Everything Now”. In this fifth work, however, the message is delivered through a ham-fisted approach. There is no space to read between the lines, which would be fine if there were some cleverness to the verses, but the smartness of “Everything Now” is summed up by the pun between “Infinite Content” and “Infinitely Content” the two tracks that divide the album in two halves drop. Secondly, there is the music. The album does hold redeeming moments: the title track has a catchy chorus and a warm instrumentation courtesy of a simple inspired piano riff and a precise keyboard; “Creature Comfort” is a decent shot at synthesizer-driven rock; “Electric Blue” is a good piece of synthpop, wonderfully sung by Régine Chassagne, that recalls Blondie’s ventures into the genre; and “We Don’t Deserve Love” is genuinely gorgeous, serving as the album’s clear peak.

Elsewhere, though, the band appears to be completely uninspired. The melodies are dull or non-existent, the tracks lack interesting dynamics and emotional appeal, and there seems to be such a shortage of ideas that concepts that could have been interesting as elements of a song end up being the cornerstone of most of the tunes. All of these complaints apply to “Peter Pan”, “Chemistry”, “Good God Damn”, and “Infinite Content”, which easily rank as some of the worst songs the band has ever put out. The good news that does come with “Everything Now” is that, fortunately, bands change, which means the Arcade Fire detour into new wave is likely closer to its ending than to its beginning. Therefore, a journey that has produced just a few gems worthy of being kept and two terribly irregular albums may soon give way to a more promising path, one in which Win Butler and company may hopefully put their musical gift to better use.

berlinAlbum: Berlin

Artist: Lou Reed

Released: July 1st, 1973

Highlights: Men of Good Fortune, Caroline Says II, The Kids, The Bed

Much of the rightful praise earned by The Velvet Underground, the band that introduced the musical and songwriting talent of Lou Reed to the world, comes from how the group was able to balance aggressive rock and roll with a knack for bold experimentation that verged on avant-garde. And that mixture always had a clear source, Lou Reed and John Cale, the act’s two creative driving forces during its first couple of albums; artists who represented, respectively, those two veins that guided The Velvet Underground through their pioneering trail in the back alleys of rock music. It comes as no shock, then, that without Cale, Reed would take the band into a more straightforward – yet brilliant – path during their final two releases (“The Velvet Underground” and “Loaded”) and start his solo career with a pair of works of stripped down rock and roll. That stream of borderline mainstream music, though, would come to an end with “Berlin”, his third solo project following the departure from the legendary band he had birthed.

Upon its release, “Berlin” was unique within the Reed canon for many reasons; first and foremost, though, its distinctive vibe originated in its theatrical nature. It is devoid of tracks that have the pop appeal of “Satellite of Love”; likewise, it lacks the thrilling rock of “Sweet Jane”. Instead, it tells a sordid tale that, save for its modern setting, would not be out of place on a Shakespearean stage; and it does so with music that comes off far more like accompanying pieces to a scene that plays out under the spotlights than regular tracks found on an album from its decade. Through the ten songs, listeners view Jim and Caroline meet and start their love story (“Berlin”); watch their relationship deteriorate (“Caroline Says I”); get a glimpse into the couple’s drug addiction (“How Do You Think It Feels”); contemplate Caroline’s journey into prostitution and Jim’s fear of losing control over her (“Oh, Jim”); become witnesses to brutal domestic violence (“Caroline Says II”); see the children be taken away from them (“The Kids”); and gaze as Caroline kills herself and Jim is left to think about his past and future (“The Bed”).

Reed tells that brutal story as if he were reading the classifieds of a New York newspaper, which makes the awfully sad tale sound completely commonplace. In a way, Lou is telling his audience life is like that for some people, and there is nothing that can be done about it. Such a mundane tone creates an intriguing dichotomy: it makes listeners passively accept what is being portrayed, connecting with the conformist nature human beings have programmed into their genes; at the same time, by doing so, it amplifies the sorrow found in the plot, for only in a disturbingly twisted world and in the mind of a disgustingly cold person would such a fate as the one of Caroline trigger indifference. “Berlin”, therefore, is psychologically masterful, and the conversational tone of Reed’s lyrics and singing is an artistic statement.

“Berlin” is Lou Reed exploring an experimental side he had lost when Cale left The Velvet Underground, and in a way it is Reed finding a distinguished style of songwriting and singing he would tackle through his career. “Berlin” is Reed reaching a new level of idiosyncrasy he had yet to find on his own. It is not thoroughly brilliant, as its instrumentation alternates between tracks that are too busy and disjointed (“Lady Day”) and songs that are monotonic acoustic dirges (“The Bed”) that while emotionally poignant do not present enough shifts and hooks to remain engaging through their running time. However, it is entirely powerful and invariably thought-provoking. For the good and for the bad, it is impossible not to have a strong opinion about it, which may have been Reed’s goal when he chose to talk about the sordid lives of those who live on the fringes of society; those who succumb to the harshness of the world.

ziggyAlbum: The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars

Artist: David Bowie

Released: June 16th, 1972

Highlights: Five Years, Starman, Lady Stardust, Ziggy Stardust

Ziggy played guitar. And it was with the electrical instrument in his hands and a message of hope in his mouth that the rock-superstar-turned-alien-messenger quickly conquered the world; surfed the waves of stardom to a life of love, promiscuous sex, fame, and drug-related issues; and retired as suddenly and unexpectedly as he rose to prominence. Ziggy’s story is brilliant because it blurs the line separating fiction from reality. By dressing as the androgynous glittery figure he created, Bowie and Ziggy became one. After all, how could anybody possibly tell them apart when the life and fate that was written for Ziggy was pretty much the same one that is reserved to rock stars such as Bowie? Through Ziggy Stardust, Bowie chose to make a mockery out of the blind adoration people have for musical artists. And, seeking to prove his point with the witty sensitivity that makes artistic geniuses, he became the messianic figure that is universally worshiped and idolized. He turned into what he aimed to criticize.

In the universe Bowie paints, Earth has fallen to the exploitation of its resources and humanity is given, on the record’s opening number, five years to live. Society, then, collapses: adults lose their grip on the responsibilities of reality; while kids, because of the degradation of the folks who are supposed to make them walk the line, gain access to everything they had always thought they wanted. In the midst of the chaos, Ziggy Stardust (a regular and decadent rock star, as the genre was on its way down) receives a message of hope from outer space. In his garish clothing, alien makeup, and red hair, Ziggy, advised by a managerial figure, takes it upon himself to sing it to the world. Desperately looking for a thread of relief to latch onto, the youngsters blindly flock to Ziggy, take him as an untouchable flawless idol, and the fabricated artist gains access to the debauched excesses of life successful rock and rollers sink into.

More than a clever and biting criticism whose layers of sarcasm are ingeniously hidden below the shiny fabricated stardust, Bowie’s fifth record works as a flashy farewell. With the death of the myth he constructs and destroys during the course of thirty-eight minutes, Bowie would abandon the rock music into which he was born and expand his experimental boundaries, a road that would culminate with his legendary Berlin trilogy. And he leaves the rock and roll ship not just by using Ziggy to bring down the heavenly aura that surrounded those who built it, but also by excelling in the genre. The eleven tracks of the album are utterly perfect exercises in rock music, as if Bowie opted to – before moving on – do everything he possibly could as well as humanly possible.

The theatrical “Five Years”, with its sweeping piano-based crescendo, is one of the finest opening tracks in musical history. “Starman”, “Lady Stardust”, and “Ziggy Stardust” tackle rock balladry in all its shapes, the first existing in a purely pop spectrum; the second swinging sweetly in the sway of its piano; and the third alternating melodic verses and an angry chorus. “Star”, “Hang On To Yourself”, and “Suffragette City” pay worthy homages to the purposely clumsy and out-of-control protopunk of The Velvet Underground. While “Soul Love” and “Moonage Daydream” are so embedded in the outrageous ways of glam rock that they could have been tracks written by Marc Bolan (who gets a respectful nod from Bowie by being the subject matter of “Lady Stardust”) for the genre’s seminal album: T. Rex’s “Electric Warrior”. At last, in “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide”, after singing praises to his heroes, bowing to their greatness, and thriving in the styles they forged, Ziggy disappears into the cosmic darkness as he succumbs to the weight of stardom that certainly must have hurt those he idolized. With Ziggy’s death, Bowie finds an escape hatch out of the empty and destructive rock and roll lifestyle. Ziggy would live on as a tragic legend; Bowie would soon be reborn.

the_idiotAlbum: The Idiot

Artist: Iggy Pop

Released: March 18th, 1977

Highlights: Funtime, China Girl, Dum Dum Boys

When one thinks of Iggy Pop, the first image that comes to mind is certainly that of a muscled and shirtless maniac fronting a reckless and dirty rock and roll band while dressed in impossibly tight jeans, stage diving with a certain frequency, emitting wild animalistic grunts, and – in his most insane years – smearing his chest with meat and cutting himself in public. Four years after surviving the implosion of The Stooges – the punk rock pioneers that went down in flames with the intensity and speed most expected them to – Iggy Pop emerged from the wreckage with “The Idiot”; however, unknowing fans who walked into the record found none of the bloody, violent, and sweaty environment that Iggy tended to feed off from to trigger the raw power of his instincts. Like a record by The Stooges, “The Idiot” is frighteningly menacing, meaning that Iggy is still effectively able to spook; unlike the three classic albums produced by the band from Detroit, though, “The Idiot” does not achieve such menace through brutality.

“The Idiot” is like wandering through the darkest part of town, finding the courage to enter one of its most poorly-kept alleys, and stumbling upon a creepy nightclub. There is this odd nearly mechanical music coming from within, and its conjunction with the odd-looking characters that come in and out of the establishment creates such an intriguing atmosphere one cannot help but go in. In there, amidst the smoke and the almost total lack of lights, visitors discover Iggy Pop – once the godfather of punk – has suddenly transitioned into a ghost-like figure whose deep voice floats over layers of electronic beats and sparse guitar riffs let out by his new band. Instead of tackling the stripped down aggressive somberness of the post-punk exposed by groups such as Joy Division, Iggy dresses the genre up in industrial noise and weird beeps while penning slow-tempo songs that retain the style’s tendency to let rhythm instruments lead.

The unexpected setting, aura, and experimentalism the album broadcasts are not without reason. Its alternative electronic nature is distinctively European, and it is no wonder its nucleus was put to tape in Berlin, perhaps the continent’s most avant-garde city. After falling to the bottom of the well of drug addiction following The Stooges’ breakup, Iggy Pop was lifted from the shadows by David Bowie himself – one of his biggest admirers. Therefore, it was under the influence of Bowie and guided by David’s restless artistic spirit that Iggy Pop put “The Idiot” together, and it is no accident much of the album’s musicality nods to the legendary Berlin Trilogy of records Bowie would construct shortly thereafter. Its dark electronic vibe stems from Bowie’s interest and first experiments in the genre, making “The Idiot” as much of an Iggy Pop record as a David Bowie work, and both artists gained a lot from the encounter.

“The Idiot”, however, is not just about collaboration, atmosphere, and experimentation. Great records need great songs; and the album is solid in that regard. Built around cyclical and restlessly repeating hooks (like the beat of “Sister Midnight” and the piano of “Nightclubbing”) and often opting for thinly structured tracks that do not present significant changes between verses and choruses, the music serves as a bed for Iggy Pop to spin his most obsessive lyrics yet and sing free of constraints, which he does wonderfully on “Dum Dum Boys” (a seven-minute epic about his old band-mates and whose constant and unchanging guitar riff is a highlight of the record), on the poppy “China Girl”, and on the closing “Mass Production”, an industrial beauty that alternates chaos and noise with bliss. “The Idiot” may not be truly representative of who Iggy is as an artist, but it is certainly the album that allowed him to move on with his life and give the world the wonderful music his solo career has yielded; Bowie must be thanked.

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Hey! Pikmin Review

Instead of being filed along franchise detours that took characters out of their comfort zone only to reach spectacular and worthy results, Pikmin’s journey out of its original realm ends up being rather unimpressive

heypikmin2Taking iconic characters out of the comfort zone into which they were born is not a new strategy for Nintendo. Mario has experienced great success in that regard, be it through the acclaimed role-playing sagas in which he has starred or via the mad kart-racing he and his peers have conducted; similarly, his alter ego, Wario, reached comparable glory when abandoning his treasure-chasing platforming quests and opting to make money in a less physically demanding way when he opened his own gaming company. In fact, nowhere is the widespread power of that approach more blatant than in the Super Smash Bros. franchise, in which virtually all members of the company’s stellar cast were removed from the coziness of their original genres and put on suspended platforms in order to blast one another out of the ring by using their own signature moves.

This branching out works in numerous levels. The major series are able to not only gain constant releases but also reach a wider audience through the different facets of those universes that are exposed in the distinct games. Their fans, meanwhile, can sit back in satisfaction, as they receive multiple chances to be in touch with the characters they love so deeply. Finally, Nintendo gets the opportunity to give a shiny and easy-to-market coat of paint to weird concepts and new gameplay ideas that would have otherwise run a serious risk of going unnoticed by the market. Sadly, though, as titles such as Star Fox Adventures (in which one member of the winged titular squadron is put on the ground) and Donkey Konga (Nintendo’s bongo-based response to Guitar Hero) prove, not all trips properties take out of their comfort zone are met with the same accolades.

And that is where Hey Pikmin comes in. Through the first three installments of its main series, the franchise showed how tiny humanoids would crash-land onto a planet and have to enlist the native and always helpful Pikmin on a quest to either recover the necessary items to get their ship back in orbit and on its way to their destination, or to acquire resources that are much needed back home (in the case of Pikmin 3). Those games excelled in a fine balance between the real-time strategy required to deploy and manage an army of Pikmin in fights against enormous creatures; the exploration that finding key items and more Pikmin demanded; and the puzzle-solving brought by neatly crafted natural scenarios. Hey Pikmin, however, shifts the focus of the experience to a certain degree.

heyikmin3In a way, Hey Pikmin is not that different from the games that preceded it from a contextual standpoint. Captain Olimar – the saga’s recurring, humble, quiet, and secretly hilarious hero – is returning home from a mission when an imprecise warping operation causes him to, once more, fall to his doom on the surface of an unknown planet, a situation that seems to be ridiculously common in his life as a professional pilot and whose irony is not lost on him. Needing to locate enough fuel and an important missing piece of the ship to finally make his way back to Hocotate (where his wife, kids, and greedy boss await him), Olimar is lucky to discover yet another Pikmin colony that will gladly help him go through dangerous terrain, take down potentially mortal enemies, and collect the items he needs. The difference comes in the perspective in which the task is accomplished.

Hey Pikmin is a sidescrolling platformer, meaning that it trades the handful of explorable and wide open worlds of the original trilogy for a set of forty levels broken up into eight thematically cohesive worlds. Smartly taking advantage of the 3DS’ hardware, the game is controlled in a quite simple manner, as the control stick is used to move the character, and the other actions are reserved to the touch screen, for it features buttons that let Olimar use his whistle to call Pikmin towards him and employ a jetpack to float in the air for a little while and reach high places; and makes it possible to throw Pikmin by simply tapping a location on the screen.

Resembling what happens in Kirby titles, getting to the end of the stages of Hey Pikmin is not particularly challenging . Olimar and his Pikmin are a resistant bunch and save for a few bottomless pits that appear on occasion and for the pools of poison of the last world, there are not many instantly deadly traps along the way, which gives players plenty of room for error. Intelligently, though, Hey Pikmin is not about just progressing through worlds, as getting to the end of the line will only make Olimar overcome one of the two problems he has to solve: locating the missing piece of his ship. The remaining issue locking the captain to the ground, the fuel, can only be resolved via a careful exploration of the stages, for it is either found in plants and pieces of fruit scattered around them or in objects that were left by a long-dead human civilization and whose collection is not mandatory to clear the levels.

heypikmin4Truth be told, the fuel threshold that must be reached is, fortunately, not exceedingly high, meaning that even youngsters will be able to get to the end of the adventure and return to Hocotate. Still, the fact the game’s final goal is not intimately attached to the clearing of the levels brings a lovable quality that defined the saga’s previous entries to the platforming genre: the freedom of being able to only do and explore what one sees as necessary. And indeed that is perhaps Hey Pikmin’s strongest point, as it uses a feature that was found in its original gameplay style in a setting that is usually quite stiff when it comes to what needs to be achieved.

The game is, unfortunately, held back by shortcomings, both big and small, that stop it from achieving the levels of quality that are to be expected from games that are stamped with the seal of Nintendo’s most popular franchises. Firstly, there are the punctual issues, including Pikmin occasionally getting inexplicably stuck in places that are easy to navigate or not answering Olimar’s whistle, which makes the optional task of clearing each of the levels without losing any Pikmin a nightmarish ordeal; the general lack of challenge found in the bosses that mark the end of each world, which contrasts with their smart design; the frame-rate drops that occur when there is too much action on screen, a disappointing problem since the game’s natural environments and character models look so spectacular; the exaggeration of cutscenes that take place mid-stage that show Pikmin in cute situations, which would have been an excellent little detail if they did not occur so frequently; and the absence of mid-level checkpoints, which causes falls into pits or lakes of poison to send Olimar all the way back to the beginning of the level.

The biggest shadow that hovers over the game, though, is how – not too differently from what had happened in Yoshi’s New Island – Arzest is unable to create awe-inspiring levels. The transplant of the Pikmin concept to the bones of a platformer is not a lost cause, as it could have indeed opened some great doors in terms of game design; as it is portrayed in Hey Pikmin, however, it is certainly not as appealing as it could have been. That is not to say the game is devoid of great moments, as the different characteristics of the distinct Pikmin species give birth to nice gameplay variations, as red Pikmin get to deal with fire; blue creatures tackle watery scenarios; the slim yellow kind serve both as a current for electricity and a means to reach higher places; the brute stone purple beings do away with rock-solid obstacles and enemies; and the tiny pink fliers carry Olimar through shafts.

heypikmin5The problem is that genuine cleverness and ingenuity are mostly missing in action, which makes the chart that marks the excitement of playing Hey Pikmin be a little bit on the flat side. It never quite drops into extreme dullness, but it also never rises above pedestrian. The traditional bridge-building ability of the Pikmin, for example, as they carry pieces of the structure to the assembling point in order to put it back together, is never used in a way that forces Olimar to actively seek out the missing pieces and uncover new parts of the scenario, as it occurred so often in original trilogy. Instead, pieces of the bridges are always located right beside them, making constructing them a matter of throwing Pikmin towards the pieces and watching as they work. Likewise, signature franchise puzzles that involve the coordination of various types of Pikmin to perform an action are mostly absent, as, in place of that, the game focuses on series of punctual obstacles that require Pikmin of different colors.

Because of all of that, Hey Pikmin comes off as a big missed opportunity, with the only point in which it achieves thorough success being in its writing, as it is an utter delight to read Captain Olimar’s honest and funny contemplations about what in the world the human objects he comes across must have been used for, which does wonders towards building his character and the universe he inhabits. Other than that, Hey Pikmin is mundane, falling short of delivering the creativity and inventiveness the public expects out of such an important property that carries the Nintendo brand of charm and cleverness. Therefore, instead of being filed along franchise detours that took characters out of their comfort zone only to reach spectacular and worthy results, Pikmin’s journey out of the confines of the real-time strategy realm its exploratory nature thrived on ends up being rather unimpressive. Captain Olimar and the adorable Pikmin that guide him through numerous devastating dangers deserved far more, and – hopefully – they will get another shot at the genre in the future; crash-landings have never stopped them from coming out on top, after all.

Hey Pikmin

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