Forgiving the Unforgivable

brokenheartRelationships are an awfully complicated matter. By managing to affect our emotions in ways we sometimes did not even know were possible, they make us feel like heaven even when the slightest details click together, but – at the same time – a tiny mishap may cause a hurricane of emotions that, when not properly handled, can create a big deal of hurting. It is roller-coaster ride full of ups and downs beyond compare, and while some of those adventures last for a lifetime, others end before one is able to notice. One of the main differences between everlasting rides and short ones comes down to people’s ability to – when reaching the bottom of the steepest slopes – gather up all broken pieces and start climbing up together towards another peak. Doing so takes time and, most importantly, forgiveness, which can be brought by the sweet remembrance that those great moments that built the relationship in the first place can still happen many times if the disappointment or bitterness is forgotten.

Even though that mostly applies to human relationships, anyone who has ever been passionate about a sports team or devoted to a rock band can relate to those feelings quite well. As it turns out, videogames are no exception. It is hard not to find a gamer who did not once claim that they had the greatest day just because another great-looking installment of their favorite series was announced; or that was sulking in disappointment when a highly anticipated title got a harsh reaction from a media outlet. Whenever there is passion, time, money, or dedication involved, there will most likely be intense emotions, and to most gamers watching a company that is a personal favorite do well is similar to watching one’s team win a championship, a beloved rock group walk into the Hall of Fame, or even patching things up with someone they care for.

With over thirty years of gaming on their backs, Nintendo and their fanbase have been through as many crises as a couple who has been married for the same amount of time. How could fans possibly forget the day Nintendo decided to dump Sony and their CD add-on to the Super Nintendo? Firstly, it led to the creation of the Playstation brand, which would go on to take away most of the third-party support that made the Super Nintendo so ridiculously great, a heist to which Nintendo itself lent yet another helping hand when it opted to embrace cartridges (which were more expensive and limited than the CDs used by the Playstation) during the Nintendo 64 era.

wand_of_gameleonSecondly, Nintendo’s break-up with Sony would also cause the Big N to strike a deal with Philips for the creation of another CD add-on. If things were not already bad enough, Nintendo would also dump Philips and, through some sort of bizarre loophole in the contract, the company would gain rights to produce three The Legend of Zelda games. Nintendo’s failure to see that CDs were the future made the company lose its software support, and – to top it all off – put a big stain on the Zelda franchise, whose fans will forever be haunted by The Faces of Evil, The Wand of Gamelon, and Zelda’s Adventure.

Ever since landing on the gaming market, that has not been Nintendo’s only corporate decision to hurt their fans. In fact, due to how immediately its effects were felt, the Rareware debacle possibly caused much more heartbreak than the Super Nintendo and its CD add-on. Alongside Nintendo, Rareware carried the Nintendo 64 on their backs, taking it to good gaming standards. In less than a decade, Rare made shooters relevant on consoles with Goldeneye 007 and Perfect Dark, beat Mario on his own platforming domain with Banjo-Kazooie and Banjo-Tooie, crafted the only racing game that was able to compete against Mario Kart with Diddy Kong Racing, made the biggest game of the system with Donkey Kong 64, dared to manufacture a space opera when systems could barely dream of supporting something so large with Jet Force Gemini, and built a theatrical comedy dressed up as a platformer that went against all political correctness one expects from games published by Nintendo with Conker’s Bad Fur Day.

That stellar track record on the Nintendo 64, paired up with the company’s past successes on the Super Nintendo – which included, among others, the inauguration of the Donkey Kong franchise as a platforming series in Donkey Kong Country – were not enough to stop Nintendo from, instead of treating the company as one of their most valuable assets, dealing it to Microsoft as if it were a cheap commodity. Fans could do nothing but sit and watch as some of their favorite franchises sailed into the sun.

super_metroidFor a company known for its consistently amazing franchises, it is surprising to see that Nintendo’s poor decisions extend past the business realm and occasionally reach their own characters. In 1994, Nintendo released Super Metroid, a game that is often considered to be the best title on the Super Nintendo – a system packed to the hull with amazing software – and the best sidescroller of all time. Undoubtedly, the character of Samus was at the peak of her popularity and the ground was more than set for the start of an incredible series of releases. However, instead of following Super Metroid with a sequel, Nintendo proceeded to keep Samus away from the spotlight for almost a decade. It is the gaming equivalent of an actor following an Oscar-winning performance by going nuts, deciding to live inside a cave, and making everybody wonder if we would ever see him again.

On the list of characters – and fans – who suffered the pains of Nintendo’s baffling decisions, Link and Samus are, unfortunately, not alone. After a successful string of glorious platforming gems – including the flawless Donkey Kong Country 2 – Nintendo seemed unable to know what to do with the simian. And since the answer “more platformers” apparently lacks controversial and heartbreaking potential, Nintendo decided to hand him and pair of Bongos and make the Kong family’s most notable member star on Nintendo’s unappealing response to Guitar Hero. A similar fate fell on Fox’s head, when instead of producing more space shoot ’em up masterpieces to follow Star Fox 64, the character was taken out of his Airwing to star in Star Fox Adventures, which felt like a The Legend of Zelda imitation; Star Fox Assault, whose on-foot missions were closer to dull than to thrilling; and Star Fox Command, whose focus on strategy and all-range-mode combats stripped the franchise off its traditional frantic missions.

Even the company’s biggest superstar is not safe from being a source of frustration and conflict in the relationship between Nintendo and their fans. Anyone who is able to recognize the names Mario is Missing, Mario Clash, Mario’s Time Machine and Hotel Mario knows that while the plumber does have the ability to turn unpopular genres into quality best-sellers – Mario Tennis and Mario Golf – his presence alone does not make a broken game good. With the exception of Mario Clash, which was featured in a system whose concept was simply too far ahead of current technology, those titles are the fruits of an era where Nintendo was licensing Mario to other companies as if the character did not have a legacy to protect, and the results were embarrassing at best.

wii_uSpeaking of hardware mishaps, such as is the case of the Virtual Boy, most recently Nintendo made yet another mistake with one of its platforms: the Nintendo Wii U. Trying to surf on the Wii’s success, the company opted use the name of the platform’s predecessor in an attempt to boost sales; however, the choice of using a letter to designate the evolution between the systems rather than a number left a whole lot of casual fans confused as to whether the machine was a new platform or an overhauled version of the Nintendo Wii.

Moreover, outside of the branding scope, the Nintendo Wii U was born fueled by the concept of asymmetrical gameplay, which was allowed by the Gamepad’s screen and the fact it could show a different view than the one that appeared on the TV. What seemed like an alluring idea, though, was left completely unexplored not only by third parties, but also – shockingly – by Nintendo itself. The Gamepad’s screen, alluded to as the system’s key feature, was so poorly utilized that it failed to add new twists to Nintendo’s franchises – differently from what had happened with the Wii’s motion controls and pointer; and by the end of the console’s life cycle it was either being used to show the exact same view that appeared on the television or was left turned off altogether during gameplay.

Through so many years of so many letdowns, it is clear that some fans turned their backs on Nintendo either due to one of those doubtful moves or because of the sum of all parts. However, the number of people who decided to forgive, wait and develop – once more – trust in the company’s abilities were fairly rewarded. For every appealing Eastern game that was not localized to the West there was an incredible RPG; for every year that Samus stayed in the limbo there were five hours of gameplay in the fantastic trilogy that followed the lull; for every horrible Mario game there was an adventure featuring the plumber that blasted into historical greatness; for every ridiculous song in Donkey Konga there was a stage exploding in creativity in Donkey Kong Country Returns and its sequel; for every CD-i Zelda game there were many unforgettable Hylian adventures; for every inadequate Star Fox game there was a new IP or a fun adventure starring a reborn Kirby; for every botched up relationship with third-parties there were unexpected partnerships that resulted in incredible titles; and for every disastrous system there were more than plenty of successful ones.

galaxyThe energy that it takes to forgive is directly proportional to the emotional distress that brought harm. Thankfully, by realizing that some relationships are worth rescuing, humans are totally capable of finding, in the potential of a partnership and in the good memories of the past, the will to let bygones be bygones. The reward is powerful: though past adventures are sweet, the best might still lie ahead and it might remain forever undiscovered if the ability to forgive is not achieved. If everything still goes wrong, there will always be old pictures to look at every once in a while, or that old dusty Super Nintendo with cartridges full of bits of gaming greatness.

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Albums of the Month: July 2017

big_starAlbum: #1 Record

Artist: Big Star

Released: June 1st, 1972

Highlights: Feel, The Ballad Of El Goodo, In The Street, Thirteen

The history of rock music has been partially paved with the tales of a number of bands that while critically acclaimed and tremendously influential, never got their dues on a commercial level. Surely, it would have been too much to expect that all remarkable groups be widely remembered and revered on a scale similar to that of giants like The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. Still, it would certainly be nice to see the unsung heroes of the genre be more than a bleep on the radar that is only uncovered by those who dig far into its rich musical well. While some groups, such as The Velvet Underground and the Pixies got the respect they deserved down the line, for the banners of their glories were hoisted by acts that made it big – David Bowie and Nirvana, respectively; others never got there, for their greatness was praised by those who were, themselves, outcasts who embraced the existence on a rung below the mainstream.

Big Star falls into that second group. The brilliancy of Alex Chilton, Chris Bell, Andy Hummel, and Jody Stephens was alluded to by both R.E.M. and The Replacements, bands that were too true to a non-conformist essence to break their musical principles and hang onto the radio waves by bending the knee to the industry’s wishes. And so, the three classic records that form the cornerstone of their legend have become secluded and unexplored stops along the rock music highway. “#1 Record” captures the group exploring the purest essence of their sound: Big Star may have been an American band formed almost a decade after the British Invasion, but anyone listening to “#1 Record” without any external knowledge would easily put the album’s release somewhere around 1967, as it stands somewhere between The Beatles’ sonic experiments and chamber pop explorations, and The Kinks’ hard rock days and pastoral period.

The first half of the album sees Bell handling vocal duties on vicious rockers whose simple yet powerful riffs share their DNA with The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me”, a link that becomes even clearer due to how Bell’s shrill voice is close to that of Dave Davies; while Chilton brings delightful innocence to the gorgeous acoustic tracks of “The Ballad Of El Goodo” and “Thirteen”, which carry the peaceful sonority of The Kinks during their “The Village Green Preservation Society” era, moving low-key melodies which can be traced to McCartney’s “Yesterday”, and the angelic harmonies The Beatles had perfectly mastered. “The India Song”, a piece of psychedelic pop rock, and “When My Baby’s Beside Me”, which would have been right at home on one of The Beatles’ first four albums alongside other straightforward and sweetened rock and roll reinterpretations, serve as a pleasant interlude before “#1 Record” unleashes a moving onslaught of five peaceful pastoral ballads that take the album, floating on clouds of harmonies and melody, all the way to its conclusion.

Truly, it is not a fully original mixture; however, it is remarkable for when it happened, as by 1972 the British Invasion had already left its mark on the general cultural spectrum and sailed straight onto the pages of rock history books. Big Star came out to show that someone in the Southern United States had paid great attention and developed a profound love for what The Kinks and The Beatles had done in their primes; and such infatuation ran so true and deep inside the hearts of songwriters Alex Chilton and Chris Bell they wanted to create their own take on those classic sounds. The outpour of that confluence of admiration and talent found its way onto “#1 Record”, an album clouded by the fog of time and obscurity, but that is nevertheless a treasured and highlighted spot on the maps of all musical sailors who ventured into the little-visited waters surrounding it.


licensed_illAlbum: Licensed To Ill

Artist: Beastie Boys

Released: November 15th, 1986

Highlights: Rhymin & Stealin, Fight For Your Right, No Sleep Till Brooklyn, Brass Monkey

To put it quite simply, the Beastie Boys – as portrayed in “Licensed To Ill” – could be the classroom jerks of any average high school out there. It is easy to picture the 1986 versions of Adam Horvitz (Ad-Rock), Michael Diamond (Mike D), and Adam Yauch (MCA) sitting in the back of a classroom and cracking the world’s most obnoxious jokes while thinking highly enough of themselves to look at their classmates with a boatload of swagger and superiority. Surely, those kinds of folks do have their moments of victory, such as when they make the entire room burst out laughing or succeed in poking fun at someone who is universally despised by the whole class. Ultimately, however, unbeknown to them, but not to teachers and students, the classroom jerks are more pitied than beloved, because deep down it is universally known the jokes and annoying behavior are a shield or a life-vest that allows them to either protect themselves or stay afloat in the general misery of their losing lives.

How is it possible, then, to explain the brilliancy of “Licensed To Ill” as well as the musical genre-transcending legend that the Beastie Boys have become if the album and their career were built with the very same tools used by classroom jerks around the world? The clueless superiority is there: the Beastie Boys are the sort of guys who think getting thrown out of the local fast-food joint is the ultimate sign of badassery, and they will broadcast such a feat by rapping it onto the vinyl. The unjustified swagger is absolutely present: Ad-Rock, Mike D, and Adam Yauch think they are better than you and the rest of the world, and they will let you know about it (most likely while running away with your and everybody else’s girlfriends). And the ridiculous jokes are constant: this hip-hop ensemble does not use punchlines, because such a comedic tool requires a build-up, and the Beastie Boys are not developed enough for such subtlety; their attempts to deliver burns and climaxes are relentless.

The explanations behind why everything clicks in place are simple. Firstly, there is the gift of self-awareness. Classroom jerks are unconscious of the fact they are losers; the Beastie Boys, meanwhile, embrace it. They know how goofy it is that three white dudes think they can walk the streets of New York with the sway and style of black rappers, and they jump so fearlessly towards the silly stereotype it is borderline satirical, yet not blatant enough to make listeners sure they are not being serious about it. Secondly, there is the sheer smartness of the lines: where classroom jerks are occasionally witty, the Beastie Boys pack more references and jokes into their lyrics than one is able to identify after many dozens of listens; and save for “Girls”, whose sexist remarks come off as offensive under the light of the 21st century, they all still hold up.

Finally, there is the sheer musical and vocal talent. “Licensed To Ill” unites tracks built around sampled classic rock riffs and songs with simple turntable beats and scratches, and all numbers gain power due to the vocal exchanges between the three remarkable and unusual voices of the trio. Whether they are pillaging and plundering while leading a mutiny on a ship (“Rhymin & Stealin”), first meeting while robbing a saloon (“Paul Revere”), recklessly ignoring the need for rest while going wild on tour (“No Sleep Till Brooklyn”), or just fighting the good fight for our unalienable rights to party (“Fight For Your Right”), the Beastie Boys deliver the goods in “Licensed to Ill”. It is hard to shake the feeling they are classroom jerks after all; but if they are, they are made of a damn fine and special material. One that is good enough to make anyone want to join them in whatever antics they are planning on pulling.


riotAlbum: Riot!

Artist: Paramore

Released: June 12th, 2007

Highlights: For a Pessimist I’m Pretty Optimistic, Misery Business, When It Rains, Crushcrushcrush

For most pop punk bands, either those that emerged from the ashes of the punk rock movement at the end of the 70s or those that took the genre to the mainstream radio waves at the turn of the century, achieving maturity was always a problem. Most of those acts became so deeply entrenched inside the niche they had initially built that they seemed to refuse to get out; tackling teenage angst over angry guitars ended up turning into a shackling comfort zone that, ironically, ended up trapping musicians that were – seemingly – nonconformists. Consequently, as they grew older, those bands had a tendency to transform into caricatures of themselves, for there is something inherently fake and forced when adults write about topics that afflict adolescents, especially in a tone of repressed frustration that is most common to those under the age of twenty.

As it turns out, Paramore is one of the groups that was smartly able to get out of that hole before it ate them alive. “Riot!”, however, is not the record in which they made that jump, which is perfectly understandable when one considers Hayley Williams and Josh Farro – the group’s two main songwriters – were, respectively, eighteen and nineteen when they put it together. “Riot!”, though, is when the signs Paramore would be able to break out of their cage began to show. In a way, those indications were always there: not only was the band ridiculously young when they assembled their debut (“All We Know Is Falling”), but Hayley – in her singing, lyrics, and behavior – always put forth an image that was sweet and honest rather than calculated and engineered by the marketing sector of a major label, which made the relationship issues described in her lyrics come off as genuine and the arrival of maturity to be looming on the horizon.

Through most of its running time, “Riot!” employs the same formula established in “All We Know Is Falling”, which means crunchy guitar riffs on the verses and sudden kicks into overdrive for sweeping anthemic choruses, a somewhat commonplace duality for the genre, but one that – in the case of Paramore – allows Williams to, respectively, show her power of interpretation and her stunning vocal talent. Singing, however, is not her sole prowess. By being centered around the same song structures, Paramore’s first works could have easily become meandering efforts that lack defining traits. Yet, that does not happen, because – melodically – Williams hits the nail on the head almost every single time, and it is not only because she has especially gifted lungs and vocal chords; it is also due to melodies that are truthfully good and effective.

What makes “Riot!” stand out as a more confident effort than its predecessor, though, is how – in four of the eleven tracks it contains – the band is shown stretching their wings past pop punk standards. “When It Rains” and “We Are Broken” are two gorgeously wonderful ballads, the former being highlighted by Josh Farro’s tasteful ringing guitar tone and the latter featuring a beautiful piano that gives William’s voice the spotlight it always deserves; additionally, “Crushcrushcrush” uses a steady synthesizer that lends the song some rather unique dynamics when compared to the group’s other heavy tunes, and “Fences” swings like a rockabilly track, which makes it a fun, loose, unpretentious, and unexpected presence in the album, giving it some much needed levity. In spite of still displaying many of the quirks of pop punk, then, “Riot!” – given the paths Paramore would follow in its future – is a first consistent and strong step out of the genre’s often inescapable cage. And the fact the band started that process when they had yet to reach twenty speaks volumes about their talent and the authenticity of their devotion to music.


the_age_of_the_understatementAlbum: The Age Of The Understatement

Artist: The Last Shadow Puppets

Released: April 15th, 2008

Highlights: The Age Of The Understatement, Calm Like You, My Mistakes Were Made for You, The Meeting Place

Understatement is not a word that is exactly suiting for the Arctic Monkeys’ Alex Turner. He is, after all, a man that – from an early age – built a songwriting career out of talking about emotions, ideas, thoughts, and desires as blatantly and directly as possible while exhaling the suave demeanor of someone who is not one tiny bit concerned about regretting it, as if he knows (or thinks) there is no way he can lose. It is not surprising, therefore, that about two minutes into the debut record of his side-project, The Last Shadow Puppets, when the opening song is reaching its apex, “The Age of the Understatement” gains a somewhat sarcastic meaning. Alongside Miles Kane, of The Rascals, Turner uses the term to refer to a woman who rents her affection to anyone who is willing to pay the price, and she does it so naturally and frequently he states that even saying something like that is a massive understatement in the description of her behavior; his apparently bold and exaggerated words are not quite enough.

And, quite frankly, that comes as a massive relief, because there is something unshakably uncomfortable about the mere thought of watching Alex Turner operate in a low-key manner. There is absolutely nothing restrained about the first record of the trio, which also includes James Ford; in fact, it is lush, lavishing, and extravagant to the point it is a miracle it does not hit as overly pompous music. It rescues baroque pop – the mixture of rock music and classical orchestration – from the grave it had been lying in by pairing it up with the fast-pace and frantic marching beats of the Arctic Monkeys, albeit with guitars that appear far more subdued than they are in Turner’s original group in order to allow the string arrangements to be displayed in equal footing with the standard rock instrumentation.

Consequently, where The Beatles and The Beach Boys forged baroque pop as a bed for angelic melodies, heavenly harmonies, and soothing lyrics to rest on, The Last Shadow Puppets create an unexpected, subversive, and punk version of the style. The melodies are mostly aggressive, as if Turner and company are always aiming a finger (or a weapon) at someone while exposing their target’s weaknesses and flaws; the harmonies are almost non-existent, for Turner and Kane’s shared vocals are better defined as singing together than harmonizing; and the lyrics talk of affection not by dressing it up in beautifully crafted words, but via the expression of that feeling in its rawest, sincerest, and – thereby – most brutal manner, an approach that undoubtedly allows Turner to unleash his machine-gun mouth, spitting out smart phrases at faster rates than one can follow.

Smartly, though, The Last Shadow Puppets do not explore baroque pop for the sole purpose of tackling, by using a rather distinct approach, tunes that could have appeared on an Arctic Monkeys album. They, in fact, unearth a couple of gems that are products of trying something new and drinking from different sources: “The Meeting Place” and “The Time Has Come”, which are so relaxingly laid-back they could have been bossa nova songs written by the masters of the genre at Ipanema Beach. As a result, although “The Age of the Understatement” may justifiably seem like an Arctic Monkeys work that has been hijacked by Phil Spector’s orchestrated walls of sound, it is an intriguing take on baroque pop that revives the style – if not definitely at least briefly – and holds an impressive number of strong tunes with a few interesting detours along the way.

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Oceanhorn: Monster of Uncharted Seas Review

Had it opted to carve out a feature it could call its own, Oceanhorn could have easily excelled; as it chooses, however, to be a pretty blatant clone, it merely entertains while it lasts

oceanhorn4Originally born back in 2013 as a game for mobile platforms, Oceanhorn: Monster of Uncharted Seas was pretty clear in its intentions. Coming one decade after the release of the masterful Nintendo classic The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, and an equally fair number of years following the launch of that title’s seafaring sequel, Phantom Hourglass, Oceanhorn wished to sail on the winds of nostalgia straight into the hearts of gamers who missed cruising mysterious seas, uncovering the secrets of various islands, and navigating through the fog in order to get to the core of some unspeakable evil that threatens to destroy the peaceful life inhabiting a delightfully colorful world.

Greatly aided by the fact there are plenty of people out there who are just dying to anchor themselves to an adventure that has the potential of triggering feelings of discovery and grandness similar to those touched upon by The Wind Waker, Oceanhorn did succeed in being rather appealing and somewhat close to Link’s quest out in The Great Sea. After all, it features a protagonist who – armed with a sword and shield – must use a boat to hop between islands, enter dungeons, find treasure, help people, and ultimately vanquish an enemy that has been tormenting the land for quite a while. And that is why it is quite suiting and pleasant to see it arrive on the Nintendo Switch, a platform naturally owned by a great number of Zelda fans, even if four years have passed since the Oceanhorn’s original release.

There is quite a lot of undeniable charm to be found in Oceanhorn. Its visuals have the bright colors and inherent cuteness Nintendo proudly infuses into its works; the isometric perspective in which it is played sensibly places the game somewhere between the classic vein of A Link to the Past and Zelda’s DS outings, Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks, the only two efforts in the franchise’s history to make use of that camera angle; its dungeons feature the enjoyable blend of puzzle solving and combat that has marked The Legend of Zelda series since its inception; and the whole quest is punctuated by light storytelling and dialogues that, while in no way even remotely close to the astonishing heights reached by The Wind Waker, put together a mythology and an atmosphere that keep the ball rolling through the eight-to-ten hours Oceanhorn’s core adventure should last.

oceanhorn3Beginning with an imposing narration that nicely hearkens to Bastion, even if sans the wit and omnipresence of that game’s voice-over, the father of our hero gravely tells of the day Oceanhorn – a living fortress of a creature that has been active for thousands of years and is the only remaining representative of three machines once created to defend humans against an evil threat – attacked their home and took his wife (the hero’s mother) away. Setting out to track down the monster and unearth the reason for its behavior, the boy’s father leaves behind a message to let his child know that one day he would also have to go after Oceanhorn.

The path towards the ancient creature goes through the recovery of three magical artifacts, each held by a different tribe living on distinct islands, and as anyone who has ever played a The Legend of Zelda game would expect, these items are located deep within heavily guarded dungeons and are watched over by mean bosses. Consequently, Oceanhorn is a constant process of figuring out which island to go to; getting there; finding and opening the dungeon; clearing its puzzles; killing the boss; and moving onto the next one. Taking advantage of the charm of its world and visuals, that fixed road is invariably not that simple, for reaching the island where the dungeon is located often entails traveling to other secondary pieces of land to acquire either intel about the place or a valuable piece of equipment that will allow players to get there.

As one would expect, and borrowing a good page from The Wind Waker, not all of Oceanhorn’s islands need to be cleared in order to reach the end of the game. And that means the title holds plenty of extra content to those who will feel compelled to further sink their teeth into the game’s meat, including a couple of full-fledged mazes, a long list of achievements, a lot of treasure chests, a dozen heart pieces, and numerous bloodstones that – when collected – will grant the hero an optional, yet quite powerful, spell.

oceanhorn2Oceanhorn’s overall feeling of exploration takes three considerable hits, though. Firstly, and similarly to a handful of The Legend of Zelda installments that have trouble giving players incentive to go the extra mile and explore some more, the game fills most of its treasure chests with money, which is not that valuable given the game does not feature many worthy items that can be purchased. Secondly, and most aggravating, is how – differently from what happens in The Wind Waker – Oceanhorn’s islands are not fully available from the start, but appear either as the game goes along or as the hero comes across information about them. And while there is a touch of mystery and joy about finding a bottle with an odd message concerning an island and watching it appear on the map, there is also the nagging feeling it would have been much better to have it there since the adventure began so that players could head to the place whenever they felt like it.

As far as freedom goes, though, the biggest problem is definitely the sailing. Distances in the game are short, much to the relief of those who found The Wind Waker’s water-based sections to be awfully dull. However, those trips are incredibly boring, because players cannot do anything but shoot at obstacles; even moving the boat around is not an option, because the route to be taken is defined by the island that is selected on the map as the destination. Not only is such an implementation annoyingly restrictive, as it goes against the refreshing freedom that made The Wind Waker the classic it is, it also makes the ocean devoid of any interesting detours and surprises.

And that issue right there may reveal what truly is Oceanhorn’s biggest problem: the fact it will be inevitably compared to one of the greatest games of all time even though it is a humble mobile title with a great heart and excellent intentions. It chooses to navigate so close to The Wind Waker, and it does so little to stand out on its own as a completely different product, that putting them side-by-side is as inevitable as it is unfair, and nowhere are such inevitability and unfairness more obvious than in the level-design.

oceanhorn4As a mobile game, even if it is one that has boldly decided to take a leap to the brand new Nintendo Switch (a home console) a whopping four years after it first came out, Oceanhorn is rock-solid: its dungeons are engaging, the exploration of its islands is a lot of fun, its bosses are decent, its combat is respectable and simple (as it is the case of all 2-D and handheld Zelda games released up to this point), its world is very likable, and the only serious complaint one could make against it is how the map system could have been better implemented, as it only shows the area close to the hero and does not allow gamers to have an overall view of the entire location. Equipped with a bow, a pair of boots for jumping, bombs, and spells that can freeze, burn, heal, and make rocks fall out of the sky, the hero will take on interesting challenges that will keep most gamers happily going all the way through the end while he slowly learns the truth about Oceanhorn, his family, and his world.

However, as a title that clearly intends to be a The Legend of Zelda clone, it suffers the same fate as Star Fox Adventures: namely, it fails to compare in all aspects, especially in the cleverness of design and in the storytelling, only living up to that grand standard in its spectacular soundtrack. When standing beside The Wind Waker, Phantom Hourglass, and A Link Between Worlds – to mention a few – Oceanhorn’s puzzles feel simplistic, as they involve way too much block-pushing, switch pressing, and target-shooting, offering almost no moments that will inspire true awe; likewise, its bosses come off as too straightforward, as the process of beating them features no smart tricks and twists, and its plot as not engaging enough.

It is clear, therefore, that Oceanhorn: Monster of Uncharted Seas exists in a rather tight balance. If on one hand it is indeed an enjoyable game that will hold the attention of kids and adults alike throughout its duration, even luring some of them into tackling all of its secrets; on the other hand it is clearly far from the best experience of its kind, as it chooses to neatly follow in the footsteps of a franchise that simply cannot be beaten at what it does. Had it taken a more subversive approach to some gameplay aspects or opted to carve out a feature it could call its own, Oceanhorn could have easily excelled. But as the path it takes is that of a pretty blatant clone, it merely entertains while it lasts. Nevertheless, the Finnish Cornfox & Bros. are able to pay a decent enough homage to The Legend of Zelda and give one friendly nod to one of its most remarkable outings, the unforgettable The Wind Waker.

Oceanhorn

 

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ARMS Review

It does not achieve universal appeal by a mindless dumbing down of the fighting genre, but via its reconstruction with small bricks, amounting to a structure that is far more than its individual parts let on

arms1Turning originally inscrutable gaming genres into items that are appealing for a general audience. It may sound like an overly minimalistic way of putting it, but that is precisely the recipe Nintendo has been using for many of their historical successes. The Paper Mario saga, and Super Mario RPG before it, did it for role-playing games; Super Mario Kart transformed racing from a landscape filled with scenarios and vehicles that tried to be realistic into a madhouse that took place in unbelievable settings amidst flying shells and tricky bananas; Advance Wars employed a simple interface, cartoonish visuals, and a good deal of didactics to make the depth of strategic gameplay navigable; Mario Golf and Mario Tennis took niche sports and made them into the stars of various gaming parties; and, most recently, Splatoon turned the world of multiplayer-centered shooters upside down by replacing bulky men and women with humanoid squids and bullets with ink.

By putting it into those terms, the work of the folks inside Nintendo may look simple: after all, just grab a genre one’s non-gaming relatives would never touch, do something quirky with it, add a few colorful characters (especially those who are already widely popular), and consumers will put down their hard-earned cash. It is an obvious recipe, but one that does not specify its most important secret: the fact that a whole lot of creativity must be burned for a truly remarkable concept (both on paper and in practice) to rise; and that an immeasurable quantity of effort must be consumed so that the game is fine tuned to the point where its basics are easy enough to learn literally anyone can pick them up while its gameplay retains depth that is sufficient for the title to last for endless hours.

ARMS, the first big Nintendo-made exclusive release for the Switch, is yet another proof that while other companies – lured by how easy the recipe seems to be – try and often fail to reproduce the alchemy of turning something niche into something universal, Nintendo nails it time and time again. One could easily say that, as far as genres go, ARMS is a bit redundant, because fighting games already have in Super Smash Bros. their family friendly representative. However, while that star-studded brawler makes a party out of fighting by throwing rules out the window, ARMS is more dedicated to respecting the genre’s tropes, a quality that makes it far more traditional and forces – on purpose – the game to operate under a tighter umbrella.

arms2In fact, within Nintendo’s canon, ARMS’ closest peer is not Super Smash Bros., but Splatoon. And given how big of an unexpected hit that title was, such inspiration is not only understandable, but also obvious and justifiable. Like Splatoon, ARMS does not lean on Nintendo’s established cast of heroes and villains to reach stardom, betting – instead – on a fully original set of characters that are varied and instantly likable; moreover, similarly to the Inklings’ wacky take on shooting, the game hinges on its multiplayer gameplay, with the caveat that – unlike Splatoon – it features a local multiplayer component that is as strong and full-fledged as its online counterpart.

What makes ARMS a true Nintendo product, though, is neither its colorful palette nor its charming characters, but the unusual concept around which it is built. In the world of ARMS, fighters are equipped with spring-powered weapons that extend for lengths big enough to cover more than half the size of almost all of its arenas. In practical terms, such devices mean that where most fighting games are close-range affairs with a lot of body contact, ARMS is focused on mid-to-long-range battles, which in turn demand good aim and excellent timing; moreover, the fact characters’ weapons reach so far away causes fighters to always be in danger of being hit, making tension and action constant, and turning firm attention into a valuable asset.

Additionally, ARMS also carries the signature of Nintendo in its simplicity. Like Super Smash Bros., the game shuns the complex commands and combos of most fighting games, choosing to rely – instead – on straightforward movements that together create a complex web of strategy and depth. Fighters can jump, dash sideways and forward both on the ground and while in the air, charge their arms for extra power, block incoming blows, punch (with the option to curve arms by tilting the control stick), grab, and throw a special move when their energy-meters (which are filled as punches land) are full.

arms3Without exception, all of those moves are delivered with either the press of one button, or two at the same time (in the case of grabs and the special move); or a intuitive movement (if players choose to use the game’s responsive motion controls). It is incredibly easy to learn, and within a dozen rounds most players will have all of those actions down. The complexity and learning curve of ARMS come in slowly mastering how and when to use each of those puzzle pieces, and in coming to grips with how to react to what the adversary is trying to do, all while dodging weapons that come in swooshing close to the fighters’ heads. Nintendo, then, uses simple building blocks to construct a game that is deeper than its surface indicates.

The elements that make ARMS a strong game do not stop there, though. Although it has a set of characters that is undeniably limited, featuring a total of ten fighters, Nintendo put a lot of thought into their design and quirks to make each one of them unique, giving them special traits that support distinct fighting strategies and approaches. Ribbon Girl can quadruple-jump and drop to the ground quickly; Twintelle has the power to slow down punches that are close to her; Spring Man gains a power boost when his energy is low; Master Mummy regains health when blocking; Mechanica uses the hover rockets of her robot suit to float in the air; Min Min can kick punches away; Helix can use his jelly-like flexibility to extend his body or duck below arms; Ninjara disappears and reappears quickly; Kid Cobra can charge his dash to move at impressive speeds; and Byte & Bark fight as a duo, with the latter being controlled by the CPU and occasionally serving as a jumping board for the former.

Besides experimenting with all of those different fighting styles, learning their intricacies, and eventually choosing the one – or the ones – to which they will adapt better so that they can beat down their friends online and offline, players will also have a lot of arms at their disposal. All characters start with three distinct weapons, but as the game goes on and players accumulate coins, that collection will increase to a whopping thirty non-exclusive arms per fighter. Given only three can be taken into battle and since each of the characters’ two arms can have a different weapon equipped to it, the strategic possibilities are basically endless.

arms6Therefore, even though thousands of gamers will choose the same character to master, it is unlikely they will play the same way, a statement that becomes even truer when it is considered how different some arms are from one another. There are standard gloves, boomerangs, birds, dragons, missiles, guns, umbrellas, shields, hammers, objects that cannot be qualified, and more, each having – according to their type – side effects when charged, which can include paralyzing electricity or freezing ice.

Sadly, though, the collection of arms is one of the game’s few glaring problems for the sole reason the whole process is too slow. In order to acquire them, players are required to play a target-hitting mini-game that has an entry fee. Albeit relatively simple, with arms wrapped as gifts dropping every time a certain point threshold is reached, the mini-game is not exactly productive, as the coins used to access it are not easy to come by (winning a battle will earn players either four or six of them).

According to the coins that are spent (thirty, one-hundred, or three-hundred), gamers will be given a predetermined amount of time to hit the targets and collect arms; however, not only are arms gained not that many (with the one-hundred-coin clock yielding an average of eight arms if players do very well), but the weapons acquired are absolutely random, meaning that if gamers want to try the combination of a specific character with a certain arm, they will have no option but to use the power of wishing. Even more aggravating is the fact that given how weapon variety is a key element in the game’s strategies and depth, Nintendo has essentially locked a whopping ninety percent of them behind a wall that comes down so slowly most players will never be able to bring down half of it.

arms4Luckily, ARMS is built on a foundation that is strong enough to overcome that shortcoming. The Grand Prix (a series of ten fights for the championship belt) that players can tackle either by themselves or alongside a friend (in which case they will be joined by a rubber-band and will be forced to work as a team against pairs of CPU-controlled fighters) packs quite a challenge and beating it at the highest of its seven difficulties is brutal enough to have the most skilled players pulling their hairs out. However, it is worth noting the AI sometimes comes off as cheap, executing reactions that are so fast and precise one has to wonder if it was not programmed to occasionally read the button that has been pressed by gamers.

To escape that frustration, players can hop online either for sheer fun, in which case they will be placed in a lobby with another twenty fighters and be randomly placed in battles against up to three of them, or in mini-games of basketball, target-hitting, or volleyball; or for rank, where one-on-one battles are a constant. Moreover, keeping true to their traditions of offering a strong local multiplayer, Nintendo delivers the goods by allowing players to set up LANs of various consoles with two players being able to share each Switch; or go old-school and gather up to four people around a single console for battles or mini-games, which are fun for a short while but in no way carry the depth and enjoyment found in regular fights.

ARMS, therefore, is a game that succeeds both in its single-player and in its multiplayer fronts. There is challenge, variety, complexity, and fun to be had whether one plays it on their own or alongside friends. Even though it operates inside a scope that is far more limited than that of the likes of Super Smash Bros. and Splatoon, it is able to come through in the delivery of a lasting experience that will welcome and draw newcomers that would never think of touching fighting games, and keep avid gamers entertained for long periods of time, whether it be by giving them vast combinations of fighters and weapons to try and master, hooking them with the competitive online scene, or offering an impressive single-player challenge.

arms5Ultimately, ARMS is Nintendo’s purest take on the fighting genre, mostly respecting the essence of one-on-one combats but doing so by adding a clever twist that makes it unmistakably a Nintendo product. And true to the tradition of the games that have walked out of the company’s Kyoto studios, it does not achieve universal appeal by a mindless dumbing down of a gaming style, but via its reconstruction with small bricks that amount to a structure that is far more than its individual parts let on.

ARMS

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Snake Pass Review

It breaks away from the mold by forcing players – quite literally – to think and move like a snake, altering the way with which problems that are nearly as old as gaming itself need to be approached

snake_pass1Ever since a frustrated Mario traveled between castles in which his princess could not be found, the world of platforming games has featured a quite obvious bias: namely, the fact that – like a cool roller coaster ride that eludes the bravest children out there due to height restrictions – it sends away creatures who cannot stand on two legs. With the exception of Spyro, who certainly must have burned whoever told him he could not access his own adventure because he was walking on all fours, it is clear there is some kind of established segregative policy. Nothing else could explain how characters like Sonic (a hedgehog), Croc (a crocodile), Aero (a bat), Banjo (a bear), Conker (a squirrel), Gex (a gecko), and Crash (a bandicoot) are seen nonchalantly moving around like bipeds when their genes were clearly not programmed to perform such an action.

Given that fishy reality, Snake Pass is, in concept alone, quite exciting. Regardless of the methods used by Noodle (a snake that – shockingly – moves around exactly like one would) to get his game approved by the platforming police, one thing is for sure: by placing the unlikely hero in settings that have all staples of the genre – like gaps, moving pieces, water, tall structures that need to be climbed, fire pits, deadly spikes, and small platforms – the folks at Sumo Digital unearthed an incredibly original concept with such an inborn simplicity that it is sort of uncanny nobody had ever thought about it (or maybe someone had done so but ended up being stopped by mysterious dark forces).

To most characters of the genre, most of the obstacles put on Noodle’s path would be easily transposed: a smug Mario would likely eat a mushroom and laugh them off, while a sly Banjo would certainly make use of Kazooie to fly over them. With no arms and legs, though, Noodle’s life is a lot harder than that, for the simplest climbs and gaps need to be negotiated carefully; after all, it takes more than the press of a button that activates a jumping motion to get to the top of a totem as a snake. For that reason, Snake Pass is as much of a platformer as it is a puzzle game.

snake_pass4Sure, players will be exploring large natural scenarios that are as stunningly beautiful as they are colorful while being accompanied by a gorgeous soundtrack that – composed by the genius David Wise – matches and flawlessly captures that organic beauty. However, the usual action rhythm of platformers is replaced by a slow and meticulous pace, as Noodle will be constantly slithering across structures made up of wooden cylinders, forming jungle-gym-like set pieces that let him reach his goals.

Since Snake Pass is so blatantly unorthodox, it is to be expected that its controls be equally unusual, and that is undoubtedly the case. By pressing the R-button, players make Noodle go forward (and if they wish to be faster, all that it takes is performing constant sideways moves); meanwhile, the A-button is responsible for lifting the snake’s head, the control stick offers full 360-degree of that motion (which is what allows Noodle to curl around all sorts of cylindrical structures), and the L-button causes the character to tightly grip the object it is currently coiled around. The commands, therefore, are not numerous; moreover, they are able to take care of pretty much the entire motion one would expect from a snake. Still, in spite of the sensibility with which they grasp the idea of being a creature that is sheer crawling muscle, they are quite tough to learn.

The four worlds and fifteen levels that form the six-hour quest of Snake Pass, which can be greatly extended if players aim to collect all items scattered around the stages, are set up in a way that makes difficulty perfectly progressive. That means the game is able to remain challenging all the way through, starting with stages that are set up so that players can adapt to the controls and wrapping it all up with a trio of levels that are nothing short of brutal, a pleasant detail that makes Snake Pass a game whose challenge goes way beyond what its cuddly looks indicate. Yet, even though the levels are organized in a neat constantly rising difficulty curve, that hill is not perfectly aligned with the one formed by the learning curve of the controls.

snake_pass2What that causes is that at some point – which will appear earlier or later, depending on how experienced whoever is playing the game happens to be – Snake Pass will seem to ask more of players than what they are able to do, especially regarding the collecting of some optional items. Truth be told, if gamers keep at it, they will eventually be rewarded with getting their minds completely around the idea of how to make Noodle move through the twisted paths and climbs that Snake Pass will throw their way. Ascending that mountain, though, requires perseverance and patience, and – like all ordeals of the sort – mastering Noodle and acquiring the confidence that all of the game’s daring collectibles are within one’s reach is amazingly rewarding.

Speaking of collectibles, Snake Pass – borrowing a page from the collectathons on which its visuals and music were certainly inspired – has plenty of them. All stages require that Noodle amass three colorful keystones so that the gate to the next level is unlocked and he can proceed with restoring peace to Haven Tor, the realm in which he lives and whose tranquility has been destroyed by an unknown intruder. Additionally, each level holds twenty-five blue orbs and five golden coins. Sadly, differently from the keystones, those two collectibles have no specific purpose other than being necessary to achieve 100% completion.

Ultimately, what differentiates them, is that the golden coins tend to be either well-hidden or positioned in places that require a whole lot of skill to get to without causing Noodle to fall to his death; while the blue orbs, as more abundant items, tend to be easier to acquire (even if some of them are still quite hard to get to). Despite that lack of actual use, players who work hard to master the game will most certainly be drawn to the huge challenge that is getting them all, not only due to how Snake Pass is bursting with fantastic and never-seen-before level design, the latter of which being a quality that comes naturally for a game that is so original; but also because it is one of those titles that the more one plays it the better and more fun it gets.

snake_pass4As a game that holds lots of rewards for those who keep going for long enough, it is a shame Snake Pass does not make the learning process of players an experience that is devoid of frustration. In platformers, it is absolutely common to fall from the top of a tall structure that is hard to climb and have to start again; likewise, all of the greatest gems of the genre are filled with portions that need to be replayed if characters drop to their doom. Snake Pass is not different from those games; in fact, because of its unique concept and the novel controls that stem from that, it features more of those situations than the average platformer; however, much of the retreading could have been greatly minimized had the game offered more abundant and well-placed checkpoints.

The fact losing larger-than-ideal chunks of progress is common has ramifications that go beyond making the learning of the controls more frustrating, it affects the gathering of the collectibles itself, as the challenge of getting to coins and orbs that are harder to reach becomes more daunting than it already is. Snake Pass, thereby, could have gone a long way towards being far more accessible and pleasant if it had been more generous and thoughtful regarding that issue.

Given that matter, Snake Pass is a game that is easy to recommend, but as long as there is a large caveat attached to its back. By moving away from the bipedal characters that dominate the platforming landscape, the game is practically the discovery of a hidden subgenre, one that seamlessly mixes the challenges of getting across chasms, gathering items, and climbing to high places with the reasoning involved in puzzle games. It breaks away from the mold by forcing players – quite literally – to think and move like a snake, altering the way with which problems that are nearly as old as gaming itself need to be approached. Without its checkpoint-placement shortcomings, Snake Pass would be a game that could embrace all kinds of players, regardless of the paradigm-breaking it requires; with it, though, it becomes a title that asks for more patience and perseverance than it should. Those who endure, however, will be in for quite a treat.

Snake Pass

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Born Under Punches

arms1Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. As much truth as that maxim holds, however, it becomes far more genuine when its usually forgotten second half is considered, the one that claims imitation is flattery coming from mediocre sources. When the origin of the compliment does not dwell in mediocrity, but swims in talent instead, flattery comes in the shape of inspiration. In that case, the original material is not used as a mold that needs to be copied, but as a general blueprint that serves as an example of what can work; a bomb that is attached to the once unmovable block that stood as the lid of a deep well, and whose explosion opens the way to a trove of goods that would have otherwise been unreachable.

When it comes to Nintendo’s first major exclusive release for their new system, the Nintendo Switch, that analogy becomes quite clear and suiting: the bomb was Splatoon; the blocked and possibly undiscovered well lay in the depths of the minds of Nintendo’s talented developers; the lid was whatever biological block stands in the way of fresh ideas, one that is destroyed when we come into contact with new concepts; and the first treasure rescued from that recently opened path is ARMS.

ARMS does for fighting games what Splatoon did for third-person online-centered shooters. In other words, ARMS does not really revolutionize the genre; it just adds a charming Nintendo twist to it, magically turning a kind of gameplay that was undeniably niche into a universally appealing asset. It is not exactly an unprecedented idea; after all, it is the very same road Nintendo took with both Mario Kart and Super Smash Bros. However, ARMS walks hand-in-hand with Splatoon because besides not using popular characters to make that leap easier (thereby creating a new franchise), it also uses online gameplay as its cornerstone.

arms2Surely, similarly to Splatoon, ARMS does have a single-player component as, like all other fighting games, it puts players on the ring to face a series of fighters until they are crowned champions. Still, though, multiplayer modes are the star of the show here. And ARMS achieves success in that area in two ways. Firstly, the twist it adds to the fighting gameplay is creative and produces excellent results: the extandable arms that characters use create a totally unique scenario of mid-to-long-range punching that gives players time to block, dodge, and counter incoming blows; and requires that they aim carefully in order to land attacks. Secondly, it implements that idea in a way that makes it easy for newcomers to learn how to play but maintains quite a load of depth for avid gamers to unearth.

ARMS, consequently, is one of those Nintendo efforts that simplify a concept that is usually presented in rather complex ways throughout the industry without dumbing it down to the point where it becomes uninteresting and shallow. Where most fighting games rely on baffling combinations of buttons, ARMS leans on actions (punching, blocking, rushing, moving, jumping, grabbing, and dashing) that demand the execution of a simple move or the press of a sole button (depending on the control scheme of choice). And where those game thrive in complicated combos, ARMS just asks its players to study the quirks of each of its characters, dive into the effects of its dozens of arms, pick the set that suits them best, and use creativity and fast-thinking on the rings to employ the simple actions the fighters can perform in ways that are appropriate to the situations they will find themselves in.

Like all games of the increasingly lengthy line of Nintendo titles that bask under multiplayer glory, ARMS is constructed of simple building blocks that amount to a product that is deeper than its surface indicates. Given it operates on a much tighter umbrella than Splatoon, as it still exists within the constraints of the fighting genre despite all its novelties, it remains to be seen whether ARMS will have as much lasting appeal as the Inkling’s masterful take on paint-ball. The package for that to be reached is here, though; the rest is up to ARMS and time itself.

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Albums of the Month: June 2017

the_suburbsAlbum: The Suburbs

Artist: Arcade Fire

Released: August 10th, 2010

Highlights: The Suburbs, Ready To Start, Modern Man, City With No Children, Suburban War

As harsh as it may sound, rock stars are – mostly – lousy storytellers. Surely, they are capable of telling a coherent tale during the amount of time it takes for a pop song to run its course; however, when they try to stretch the plot over an entire album, one ends up with an item that may be musically appealing – as are “Tommy”, “Quadrophenia”, and “The Wall”, to mention a few – but whose script does not hold under scrutiny. And that is why “The Suburbs”, by Arcade Fire, is so utterly brilliant. As a concept album that builds all of its songs around a firmly defined idea but chooses not to construct a tale on top of it, it understands the pitfalls musicians who embrace their operatic aspirations too tightly fall into and avoids them altogether. “The Suburbs”, therefore, does not sacrifice quality songwriting with the purpose of moving a story forward; and neither does it fret over putting together a narrative to take place in the world it assembles.

The beauty of that approach is that not only is every single one of the record’s sixteen songs good at worst, and excellent at best (an absolute rarity for concept albums), but also that, by not dwelling on intricacies and events, “The Suburbs” makes its message universal. And it is hard not to understand and relate to what Win Butler and his group are expressing concern over, for it is a feeling everyone who has stepped out of adolescence and into adulthood has felt: the somewhat haunting notion that the place where one grew up has changed; and that the environment that gave birth to one’s generation is now different and will, thereby, produce human beings older folks will fail to comprehend. It is about reminiscing on a past that is long gone, worrying about the new kids, and being fearful of the world into which your own children will be born.

It is all there, neatly encompassed in incredible tunes that take Arcade Fire’s often expansive indie rock to new realms: the title track dives so much into music hall, with its dancing piano, The Kinks’ Ray Davies might as well have written it; “Ready to Start” sounds so gigantic every bass note and guitar strum hit listeners like a hammer; “Empty Room” matches punk guitars with Régine’s angelic voice, which buried in the midst of the overwhelming chaos tries to find calm inside a hurricane of loneliness; “Suburban War” has a chiming riff that could belong to either R.E.M. or The Byrds; and “Sprawl II”, with its catchy beat, is possibly inspired by the encounters Blondie had with synth pop, only darker, as Régine – once more taking lead vocals – sings of feeling suffocated by the metropolis the once charming suburbs have turned into.

It is in that mix of joy and concern “The Suburbs” exists. “But in my dreams we’re still screaming and running through the yard”, sings Win Butler in the opening track, only to, a few verses later, fall back into the reality where such a past does not seem to mean much, as it is being erased and replaced, “And all of the houses they build in the seventies finally fall”. And what he sees rising is a generation with empty values (“Rococo”), that is broken by economic and social issues (Half Light II), controlled by technology (“Big Blue”), and living incarcerated inside private condos that destroy nature, restrict freedom, and pasteurize life (“City With No Children”). It is a concern all human beings have held, and it is quite remarkable to hear it so clearly broadcast through music that is excellent and varied. “The Suburbs” is the perfect concept album.


stone_rosesAlbum: The Stone Roses

Artist: The Stone Roses

Released: May 2nd, 1989

Highlights: I Wanna Be Adored, She Bangs The Drums, Made Of Stone, I Am The Resurrection

As the end of the 80s was approaching, British rock was surely in need of some palette cleansing. Through the biggest part of that decade, British youth had been served a brand of music that, while of unquestionable high quality, was also uniformly sulky. The Cure, The Smiths, Joy Division, and The Jesus and Mary Chain produced numerous classic albums that allowed teenagers and young adults to sink into their misery, with only the latter band providing some sort of way out of that dark deep well – in that case, indifference and anger – but they had locked their listeners into self-pitying patterns. It is hard to know if being tired of wallowing in despair was what caused those youngsters to quickly flock towards the Madchester movement – which merged rock, acid house, psychedelia, and 60s pop. But when the late 80s came around, musical trends indicated the British had abandoned poorly lit rooms and awkward social demeanor and opted to send their demons away via pop songs and dancing.

The Stone Roses’ debut is the biggest landmark of that movement and not just because nearly all of its thirteen songs (in the album’s American version) have deservingly grown into classics. “The Stone Roses” succeeds because it manages to encompass and display Madchester’s various influences and facets in the tracks it brings together. “Fools Gold”, for instance, with its funky bass line, scratchy guitar, and focus on rhythm, is pure irresistible dance rock; meanwhile, “Don’t Stop”, built over a rewinding tape of the track that precedes it (the beautiful ballad “Waterfall”), has so much of acid house in the trippiness that stems from its construction that it would not feel out-of-place in a rave. Mostly, however, “The Stone Roses” is an album of jangle pop.

John Squire’s guitar rings in the same fashion as those from the great players of the genre: Johnny Marr (The Smiths), Peter Buck (R.E.M.), Roger McGuinn (The Byrds), and Tom Petty. However, differently from those, The Stone Roses play inside a soundscape that is as wide as that of British post-punk bands and as bright as that of the American bands of the Summer of Love. It sounds as if the group is unleashing poppy sweet anthemic choruses and impossibly catchy melodies from inside a coral cave located deep underwater, with the soundwaves gaining new colors every time they bump onto the rocky walls. It is a sensory delight, and Squire – like Marr – works like a guitar orchestrator, filling up all that vast expanse with entwining riffs that form a rainbow-like rock symphony. In that beauty, Ian Brown spins brutally acid lyrics, as if he is trying to conceal overflowing bitterness in sugary pop, and it works.

There is the wish to see a former lover die in horrific fashion (“Made Of Stone”); the joyful contemplation of the ending of a relationship (“Shoot You Down”); the ironic mocking of someone who is never satisfied with what they get from their partner (“Sugar Spun Sister”); the desire to hurt oppressing policemen (“Bye Bye Badman”); an open threat to the queen (“Elizabeth My Dear”); the act of painting himself as a messianic figure for being able not to violently hate someone who broke his heart (“I Am The Resurrection”); and the haunting clairvoyance of “I Wanna Be Adored”, which boldly anticipates the importance their debut, which would serve as a major cornerstone of the Britpop movement, would have for British rock. It is all so powerful and delivered with such confidence that, even many years later, it is hard not to believe Ian when – in “She Bangs The Drums” – he claims “The past was yours but the future’s mine”. There are not many albums that can make such a statement without seeming clueless and arrogant, and “The Stone Roses” is certainly one of them.


never_mind_bollocksAlbum: Never Mind The Bollocks Here’s The Sex Pistols

Artist: Sex Pistols

Released: October 28th, 1977

Highlights: Holidays In The Sun, God Save The Queen, Anarchy In The UK, Pretty Vacant

Whether or not one considers “Never Mind The Bollocks” to be the classic the mass music media claims it is usually hinges on how one perceives the punk rock phenomenon. If the album is seen as the starting point of the movement, and therefore as a mind-blowing new kind of music, it will receive the accolade of being the musical equivalent of discovering a new continent (one inhabited by infuriated and wild youngsters). On the other hand, if it is analyzed as yet another punk rock record in a line of albums by various groups that were taking a page from the MC5 and The Stooges and revolting against overly pompous music, it is bound to be anointed as average or rubbish. As it is often the case, the most balanced way to look at “Never Mind The Bollocks” lies somewhere between those two extreme poles, and through that view it is possible to see that while it is indeed a rather derivative work, it is easy to understand why it is seen as so revolutionary.

Musically, there is absolutely nothing new about “Never Mind The Bollocks”. The Sex Pistols are, through the eleven tracks contained here, emulating – whether they admit it or not – punk bands from the United States that had come before them. The reckless fast pace in which the tunes are played, the constant and uniform guitar-strumming that is virtually the same in all songs, and their bare-bones construction with few chords that are played in a never-ending cycle until the band runs out of things to say had already been forged – and rather well-explored – by both the New York Dolls, in their 1973 debut and 1974 follow-up, and the Ramones in their self-titled 1976 record. Moreover, by the time “Never Mind The Bollocks” was released, other groups in Britain itself (The Clash, and The Damned), in Australia (The Saints), and in the United States (The Heartbreakers) had beaten the Sex Pistols to the punch by publishing albums that ran head-first into that formula.

The difference is that the Sex Pistols broke into the mainstream in a way none of those groups did, and they achieved so by not only having a pretty efficient marketing machine spinning behind the curtains, but also by producing tracks that were as catchy as they were angry. “Holidays in the Sun”, “God Save the Queen”, “Anarchy in the UK”, and “Pretty Vacant” have more hooks in their repetitive melodies and guitar riffs than one can count, and it is no wonder each of them have become timeless classics. Additionally, similar to what The Clash did, the Sex Pistols were original in putting politics into punk; however, where Joe Strummer was a political activist with a clearly leftist program and a goal in mind, Johnny Rotten and the Sex Pistols were unapologetic nihilists: they did not give a damn about anything, and they wanted to watch the world burn for the sake of it.

That is why, throughout the album, the Sex Pistols aim a cannon of vitriol towards pretty much everyone, and their goal is clear: to offend as much people as possible (the queen, the conservative British society, their former label, the New York Dolls, futile teenagers, Londoners, politicians, those who were afraid of discussing sex and abortion, and more). And by doing so they garnered the attention of teenagers and young adults who saw, in that relentless venting, the escape valve to their frustrations and anger. In the voice of Johnny Rotten and in his mad singing, the musical highlight of the album, those people found a way out of whatever hole they were stuck in and even if “Never Mind The Bollocks” features more average tunes than it does great ones, it is quite hard not to notice it and be somewhat entertained by its shameless madness.


brand_new_eyesAlbum: Brand New Eyes

Artist: Paramore

Released: September 29th, 2009

Highlights: Ignorance, Playing God, Brick By Boring Brick, The Only Exception

Punk rock and the numerous subgenres that have the movement as their root and stem require some level of anger in order to be good and genuine. Therefore, it comes as no surprise the musical highlights of those styles are born through the hands of bands that are pretty young; after all, there is no point in life when one carries as much resentment inside themselves as when they are transitioning from their teenage years to adulthood. There is anger at the world for making it particularly difficult for them to find their place; there is anger at friends for sometimes not being there when necessary or for being unable to understand their feelings; there is anger at parents and family for the failure to recognize them as responsible and capable human beings; and there is anger at themselves for not living up to the ideals they held when they were younger. It is a complicated mess, but if an artist is able to navigate through those messy waters, they will most likely be able to strike gold, delivering a work filled with words and feelings that connect to an audience that is going through the same painful motions but that is unable to articulate them as effectively and beautifully.

Whatever kinds of anger she may have been feeling when she wrote “Brand New Eyes” (probably all of the above), one thing is for sure: Hayley Williams – Paramore’s vocalist and lyricist – is pretty pissed off. With the exception of “Looking Up” and “Where The Lines Overlap”, celebrations for the fact the band is still going strong and surviving it all, and “The Only Exception”, which takes a pretty positive and hopeful look at love, “Brand New Eyes” qualifies as sheer emotional vitriol. “Careful” is a wake-up call to anyone who thinks the world will give them what they want for free; “Ignorance”, “Feeling Sorry”, and “Playing God” are anthems on independence, the former two directly addressed to friends and lovers who do not accept the changes a person goes through, and the latter aimed at a controlling partner; “Brick By Boring Brick” uses fairytale references to talk about the end of innocence that comes with the hardships of life; “Turn It Off” and “Misguided Ghosts” paint a sad picture of being faithless, hopeless, and friendless; and “All I Wanted” closes the record on a sour breakup that happened because the relationship did not meet initial naive expectations.

The tornado of feelings inside “Brand New Eyes” is interesting and too strong for one to look away, and that is not only because Hayley suddenly decided to spill her guts in public. What takes it over the top is that her bitterness seems to be – most of the time – directed towards other members of the band, for they are the ones who made her go through that emotional roller-coaster. And even though “Looking Up” and “Where The Lines Overlap” try to indicate the group found unity after the mess, the events that would follow the album’s release – which included public negative comments and the departure of some key members – would reveal “Brand New Eyes” is actually the sound of a band falling to pieces in front of their fans’ eyes.

Thankfully for them, though, before the Farro brothers went looking for brighter shores away from Paramore, they closed the group’s initial cycle with an album that is as strong as possible. “Brand New Eyes” feels more dynamic than its predecessors, and not just because it presents the first few instances of Paramore going acoustic in “The Only Exception” and “Misguided Ghosts”, but due to the fact even the louder tracks have more room to breathe. The band no longer operated solely in the alternation between heavy verses and heavier choruses, and the more sparse guitar arrangements – including ringing tones and silence in-between the riffs – give more power to Hayley’s melodic choruses, which rely on hooks that – here – are as great as they have ever been. Therefore, although the relationships among the original members of Paramore did not survive their troubled transition from adolescence to adulthood, at least they were able to keep the ship together for just about long enough for them to find, in “Brand New Eyes”, the treasure that lay beyond the storm of that period.

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