Mario Party 3 Review

Even if it does not do as much as Mario Party 2 did for the formula, it is able to – through the punctual polishing it gives to the visuals, boards, and mini-games – take the franchise to its Nintendo 64 apex

mario_party32The original Mario Party built the formula, but with so much time and effort devoted to putting together a board game that would work within the confines of a console, it ended up leaving the overall structure a bit too stripped down. Mario Party 2, then, swooped in and took advantage of the vast room for improvement left by its predecessor to make matches wilder, more eventful, and give players strategic options that allowed them to have more control over their destiny on the board. Given all good additions made by its prequel, Mario Party 3 had pretty solid ground on which to stand: it did not really have to bring much to the table in order to deliver a remarkable party experience; instead, it could focus on polishing up the franchise’s rough edges and address its frequent targets of complaints, and in the process of doing so it created not only the Nintendo 64’s definitive party game, but the favorite Mario Party of many who see the first three titles of the series as untouchable.

Anyone who has spent a good amount of time with the game’s two prequels and decides to sit down and play Mario Party 3 for the first time will most likely be surprised by the title’s graphical style. Where Mario Party and Mario Party 2 were visually lackluster, Mario Party 3 is actually full of personality. During the game’s opening scene, which exposes a plot that is downright silly and only serves as an excuse for all of the dice-rolling and board-roaming, the starring characters are transported to the interior of a toy box, and Hudson Soft takes advantage of that new setting to give the franchise an artistic overhaul that does wonders for its presentation.

Perhaps inspired by Paper Mario, which had come out one year earlier, Mario Party 3 decorates its boards and the setting of its mini-games with numerous paper assets. Chilly Waters, an ice-covered and Christmas-themed board, has igloos, cabins, pine trees, snowflakes, and mountains that are made of sheets that have been brightly colored and painted to look delightfully cartoonish. It is an artistic decision that yields three benefits: giving the game have a distinctive look and feel when compared to its predecessors; freeing more of the system’s processing power to worry about the character models and their movements; and allowing both boards and mini-games to feature more detailed visuals, therefore making them far more appealing.

mario_party33Speaking of the boards and mini-games, these are two areas in which Mario Party 3 greatly thrives. Boards are still centered around the same goal: in other words, for every turn that goes by all players will roll the dice and move the designated number of spaces looking to reach the place on which the star, which costs twenty coins, is currently being sold. However, even though the six stages offered by Mario Party 3 are mostly constructed with the same elements found in Mario Party 2 (in other words, the very same types of spaces; and important locations such as item stores, Boo’s house, and banks), they manage to be more interactive and action-packed.

For starters, on most boards, the happening spaces – designated by a question mark – trigger different events depending on their location, a fact that lends each board an extra dose of character. On Deep Bloober Sea, for example, landing on happening spaces found near a chasm on the ocean floor will cause a giant Blooper to grab players and take them to the other side of the crack; meanwhile, happening spaces placed close to an enormous open-mouthed fish will make it try to suck in whatever characters are in front of it, and players will have to desperately press the A-button if they wish to stay where they are.

Additionally, all boards also have one or more events dubbed action time, which are triggered either by happening spaces themselves – as it is the case with the aforementioned water-sucking fish – or when players arrive at specific locations. On Spiny Desert, for instance, a key junction that can serve as a major shortcut has two cacti standing on the way, and if players are to make it through they need to press the A-button right on time so that their character can successfully jump over the plants; the punishment for failing is being sent jumping away, presumably with a few thorns stuck on the body, towards a random direction.

mario_party31When it comes to the mini-games, Mario Party 3 tramples on its predecessors both in terms of quality and quantity – as the game features a whopping seventy-one of them. Mini-games where luck defines the victor are, with very few exceptions, completely removed from the equation; and item and duel mini-games, which in Mario Party 2 were board specific, making the experience of replaying the same mini-game over and over again during the match’s twenty turns somewhat boring, are now defined by a roulette just like the free-for-all, 2 vs. 2, and 3 vs. 1 affairs that happen at the end of every turn. Mario Party 3’s set of mini-games is especially remarkable due to its simplicity, variety, and great design, as all of its pieces are easy to learn and will – regardless of the level of the players that are involved in the match – provide a tight competition that is rather fair.

Where Mario Party 2, somewhat wisely, recycled and revamped the very best mini-games of Mario Party, the third installment goes for a fully original group of challenges. There is hide and seek; racing on mini waterboats; a quiz competition; a few memory tests; a pizza-eating duel; a vine-swinging race; a wild catch-the-chicken bout; a mad relay in which one player takes the skies on a hang-glider while the opposing team pilots different water vehicles; a unique and rather tense take on snowball battles; a golfing approach challenge; a face off on bouncing balls while standing on top of a slowly crumbling platform; an epic dogfight; a simplified take on Tetris; a Super Mario 64 inspired Bowser tossing joust; and far more.

With the basis of its multiplayer matches firmly in place, and with a spectacular collection of mini-games that makes both board-playing and mini-game-only competitions extremely alluring and fun, Mario Party 3 sets its eyes on fixing the franchise’s most glaring weak spot: the overwhelming dullness of its single-player experience. Mario Party 3 tries to do it by introducing a campaign mode in which one must play, and win, all boards in order to collect stamps and earn the rank of Super Star. As the description implies, other than the fact that clearing boards allows gamers to get a stamp and move onto the next challenge, there is nothing that is really different about Story Mode when compared to sitting home alone and playing random boards by oneself against three CPUs. Therefore, the introduction of the mode does not really fix the fact that Mario Party is only truly remarkable when at least two people are playing it, for it is a game that relies on human interaction as much as it does on the actual playing.

mario_party34What the single-player mode does that is indeed different from what other Mario Party games had done is the introduction of duel boards, which – naturally – can also be played outside of that mode and against one friend. After winning a free-for-all board, and just when they are about to receive the stamp that will represent that victory, players will be challenged to a duel by one of the playable characters. The goal on a duel board is not earning stars or coins, but emptying the adversary’s five-piece heart gauge; something that is done by running across them on the boards (which are naturally much smaller and simpler than the free-for-all ones) and attacking them with a partner.

Partners are secondary characters from the Mario universe – such as Toad, Baby Bowser, Koopa Troopa, Goomba, and others – who have their own statuses (attack and defense power; one special ability; and a salary, which when not paid causes the partner to go away and makes players unable to attack and more vulnerable) and are randomly earned when the duel starts or whenever players walk by the starting point of the boards. Duels are much briefer than free-for-all matches, and move at a much faster pace given there are only two players, less events, and due to the fact mini-games do not take place every turn. They are a quite different experience when compared to normal boards, even though both are basically built using the same materials. And although they fail to capture the magic and madness of Mario Party to the same level as four-player skirmishes do, they are a fun addition that adds some degree of variety to the table.

Although it takes a fair shot at fixing the series’ lack of an engaging single-player experience, Mario Party 3 fails in that regard, just like all of its sequels eventually would. However, even if it does not do as much as Mario Party 2 did for the formula, it is able to – through the punctual polishing it gives to the visuals, boards, and mini-games – take the franchise to its Nintendo 64 apex. Some of the Mario Party games may have done one or two things a little bit better – such as the orb system introduced on Mario Party 5 or the boards governed by different rules of Mario Party 6 – but Mario Party 3 was the very last time (to those who have been following the series since its inception )in which it felt like the franchise took a good step forward, consolidating what had been done before it and propelling the package to a new level of quality.

Mario Party 3

Posted in Nintendo 64, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Mario Party 2 Review

Mario Party 2 is a game that gives players way more tools to mess with their dearest friends than its predecessor did, something that will inevitably work, at some point, both for and against all players regardless of their level of expertise

mario_party21Given the original Mario Party was, for the gaming world, one remarkable first, the primary instance in which a video game was capable to capture the joy of board games; its sequel, released one year later, had it easy. Mario Party 2 did not have to reinvent the wheel: all it had to do was pick up the formula forged by its predecessor and build upon it, implementing ideas that were originally left on the cutting floor due to a lack of time and resources, and coming up with ways to improve the partying experience based on external feedback. And that is what it did, for Mario Party 2 preserves its prequel’s uncanny ability to gather gamers of different levels of experience around a console while making the franchise’s first installment seem like bare bones in comparison. More than an improvement over what came before it, Mario Party 2 marked the first appearance of many great features that would become staples in the series, and for that reason it easily ranks as one of its finest outings.

When it comes to the ultimate goal of Mario’s line of partying games, Mario Party 2 does not alter it one tiny bit. This is still a game in which players must, during a configurable number of turns, roll dice, move around the board, and collect coins in order to buy the coveted stars, which will determine the winner of the match. Likewise, the end of each turn sees gamers facing one another in addictive and simple mini-games of various formats (free-for-all; 2 vs. 2; and 3 vs. 1) that will reward victors with ten coins. It is easy to explain, simple to understand, and engaging enough to keep aficionados and casual players alike glued to the chairs for the one hour the shortest board battles take to reach their end.

The magic of Mario Party 2 is how it adorns that experience with elements that, in general, have two positive effects: the creation of strategic layers that the original title did not present; and the increase of the importance given to reasoning and skill, with the luck factor becoming much less prominent than it was in Mario Party, where chance reigned supreme. However, Mario Party 2 is able to do that without sacrificing the franchise’s accessibility and balance, as not only can inexperienced players grasp its ideas quite fast, but they can also feel like they have a shot at beating their more veteran peers after spending a few minutes with the game.

mario_party22Mario Party 2’s most noteworthy addition is certainly characters’ ability to buy and use items on the board. Either found in stores (which are placed in fixed positions around the levels) or acquired through item mini-games (which are one-player affairs triggered whenever a character lands on an item space), items have varied helpful effects. Regular mushrooms allow gamers to roll two dice during the same turn; skeleton keys open doors that lock the entrance to specific areas of the board; magic lamps take its users straight to the space where the star is currently being sold; warp blocks randomly let characters swap positions with one of their rivals; and more.

Items are a great addition because besides giving players another asset on which they can spend their hard-earned gold, they – given their price – serve as a competitive advantage to players who win many mini-games and have, therefore, plenty of cash at their disposal. Moreover, deciding which item to purchase or to aim for when playing an item mini-game, and figuring out the best time to use it adds a good deal of tension to matches, as – for example – players approaching a star will tremble in fear one of their foes will activate their magic lamp and swoop in to take it away; and those with much to lose – such as an absurd amount of coins or stars – will certainly worry when they see someone acquire a Boo bell, which lets its user summon the ghostly figure so that it can rob someone’s goods.

When the potentially devastating effects of items are taken into account and summed with the residual luck factor from Mario Party that still stands – as tragic and somewhat random events around the boards still happen, and Bowser and chance time spaces still exist to disturb the peace of mind of anyone sitting on a comfortable lead – Mario Party 2 becomes a big bomb that is always on the verge of exploding. Although it gives skilled players more tools with which they can gain an edge, it also has the capacity of producing great swings within a few rolls of the dice.

mario_party24Those swings get even bigger when one considers the addition of two new kinds of mini-games: battle and duel. The former kind takes place whenever a character lands on a battle space (designated by a lightning bolt) and has the form of specific free-for-all mini-games in which competitors fight for a jackpot that consists of coins taken from players themselves, with first place getting 70% of the lot and second place taking home the rest of the pile. The latter kind is a board-specific mini-game, which happens either when someone uses a dueling glove or when two characters happen to land on the same space; duel mini-games can have especially high stakes as it is up to the player who initiated the duel to determine how many coins will be put into the jackpot, and the only limitation regarding that reward is that both players have that amount of coins to bet.

The inclusion of battle, item, and duel mini-games – and of the usage of items themselves – makes Mario Party 2 much more eventful, thrilling, and action-packed than its predecessor. At the same time, even if most of those mini-games favor skill over luck, a few battle and item mini-games – and one specific duel from one of the boards – leave the door slightly open for fate to come in and determine the outcome of the tightest matches, something that will leave those who were infuriated with the original’s randomness pretty dissatisfied, once more, with what the game has to offer.

That eventfulness and those tight windows through which aleatory elements can sneak in are also present on the boards themselves. The levels are better designed and more complex than those of Mario Party, and although there is little to nothing that is really original about their themes, it comes as a pleasant surprise that characters dress in costumes that match the scenario of the boards. For that reason, when traveling to Western Land, Mario and company will roam the board as cowboys; while their time on Horror Land will be spent inside a wizard’s outfit.

mario_party23The boards’ greatest improvement, though, is that in addition to being far more visually appealing than their Mario Party counterparts, the events that happen on them are also far more entertaining. Horror Land, for example, has a day and night cycle that alters how some locations around the level work; Western Land features both a milk bar, at which players can splurge to invite all of their friends for a round as an excuse to draw them away from the star, and a train that can be boarded to reach the following station while running over everyone that is standing on the way; and Space Land includes police patrols and a deadly laser, activated when a countdown reaches zero, that will make anyone it hits lose all of their coins.

In other words, Mario Party 2 is a game that gives players way more tools to mess with their dearest friends than its predecessor did, something that will inevitably work, at some point, both for and against all players regardless of their level of expertise, as even though experienced gamers will have more control over their fate here, they will still be quite vulnerable to the turns destiny loves to take. And that factor will make its skirmishes far more fun, hilarious, exhilarating, and infuriating; making Mario Party 2 quite easy to recommend to anyone who has neither a weak heart nor a short temper.

Even though it carries all of its predecessor’s shortcomings (namely, a single-player experience that is awfully dull; a bland soundtrack; unimpressive graphics; and an always looming luck factor), Mario Party 2 is a far better game due to all the features it adds and a collection of mini-games that is vaster and more solid. Mario Party will always stand as the franchise’s true ground zero, but thanks to all elements it introduces – pieces that are still key components of the series many years later – Mario Party 2’s fuller overall experience feels like the true beginning of a lot of what was to come.

Mario Party 2

Posted in Nintendo 64, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

Albums of the Month: May 2017

damage_joyAlbum: Damage and Joy

Artist: The Jesus and Mary Chain

Released: March 24th, 2017

Highlights: All Things Pass, The Two Of Us, Mood Rider, Can’t Stop The Rock

To most bands, two decades is a long period; there are enough days in twenty years for a musician to change his style and way of thinking a half dozen times. That truth, however, does not seem to hold for The Jesus and Mary Chain, as “Damage and Joy” proves. Maybe it is the fact brothers Jim and William spent a good portion of that period away from one another (as the band was inactive between 1999 and 2007), or maybe it is the fact they have always been cold-faced rebels (and true rebels, as it is known, never change their ways); but one thing is for sure, “Damage and Joy” – their first album since 1998 – does not feel like a record made by two guys halfway into their fifties. It comes off, instead, as a continuation of its distant predecessor, “Munki”; it is an album that does not push any envelopes that have never been pushed before, and therein lies the reason it is reasonable to either like it or dismiss it.

It is important to remember that The Jesus and Mary Chain have never been rock and roll chameleons. Their debut, the noisy and violent “Psychocandy”, hit the world hard due to its audacity in the merging of The Velvet Underground’s feedback with The Beach Boys’ melodies. It was a daring move that yielded great results, and the group was so fascinated by it that they went on to produce another five albums with that very same mixture, in which the only variation came in how some of them were noisier while others were poppier. “Damage and Joy”, therefore, roams inside that clearly delimited spectrum, and given the number of stoned ballads it holds, it is fair to say it leans more heavily towards the pop. In fact, it seems to be so enamored with the band’s knack for producing soothing melodies that it is almost too soft for its own good (and soft is not exactly an adjective that one wants to use when referring to the work of a band whose shows produced violent riots in its heydays).

Certainly inspired by “Sometimes Always”, the gem in 1994’s “Stoned & Dethroned” that centered around a duet between Jim and Hope Sandoval, “Damage and Joy” features a whopping five tracks in which vocals are shared with a female singer; a number that speaks volumes in relation to how the band seems to be retreading rather than moving forward. Meanwhile, “Amputation”, the opening track, has the synthetic beats that marked much of “Automatic”; “Black and Blues” seems to look back on the catchiest moments of The Jesus and Mary Chain’s poppiest record, the noise rock masterpiece that is “Darklands”; and “Simian Split”, in which Jim proclaims he was the one who killed Kurt Cobain, recalls the mentions to Jesus Christ and JFK made in 1992’s “Reverence”.

That is how all of “Damage and Joy” is constructed: its bricks are references to the past. They, however, are mostly good, because if there is something these twenty years have not been able to change – besides the group’s approach to songwriting – is William’s ability to produce excellent riffs and Jim’s nose for good melodies. “Damage and Joy” may be hurt by a sound that is too clean (which is a shame given a dash of repugnance has always been key in making the group sound dangerous and subversive rather than plain and accessible); lyrics that are occasionally too dumb for their own good; and by Jim’s forced vocal delivery (as he clearly has to stress his voice to sound like he did in the past), but it is a fun listen. Even if it is a bit too neat for the band’s standards.

humanzAlbum: Humanz

Artist: Gorillaz

Released: April 28th, 2017

Highlights: Saturnz Barz, Andromeda, Busted And Blue, Let Me Out

A party taking place right before the end of the world, in an alternative reality in which Donald Trump had become president. It is the instruction Damon Albarn, the leader of Gorillaz and the singer of Blur, gave to the sixteen collaborators that would give birth to “Humanz”, the fifth album by the virtual band and the first since the 2010 pair of “Plastic Beach” and “The Fall”. Back when handing out those instructions, little did Albarn know the parallel dimension he envisioned would materialize; and, given the world’s political state signals the apocalypse is indeed right around the corner, “Humanz” could have come off as the work of a visionary, an album that captures the atmosphere of the context in which it was released, like some self-shaping sponge. Sadly, that does not happen, for while “Humanz” delivers the party – as it consists of fourteen dancy tunes (discounting all interludes and the intro) of electropop and hip-hop – it fails to conjure the apocalypse.

The album’s concept, therefore, was left shattered on the ground somewhere in between its planning and execution, and it is relatively easy to see why: it is just too hard to pull off any kind of coherence when all tracks feature at least one collaborator both in writing and performing. Albarn’s experimental soul, and his wish to work alongside others, yielded excellent results in “Demon Days” and “Plastic Beach”, so it is not that the Gorillaz formula is inherently bad; it is just that something did not quite click this time around. That is why “Humanz” ends up being a record in which great tunes like “Ascension” and “Strobelite” (which do represent Albarn’s original concept – the former by pleading a love interest to give in to desire because the sky is falling and the latter by posing questions about the frailty of existence over a pulsating beat) share space with “She’s My Collar”, a song about relationship angsts in the digital era.

If the inconsistency of “Humanz” existed in thematic terms only, it would be rather negligible; after all, numerous are the great albums that do not gravitate around the same subjects. Likewise, the same could be said about the fact “Humanz” feels more like a compilation by various artists than a work by musicians working together, as the unifying elements of the Gorillaz sound (such as 2D’s voice) are more absent than present. The problem here, though, is that such irregularity leaks into the quality of the tracks. “Saturnz Barz”, in its alternation of Popcaan’s rapping and 2D’s nonchalant singing, has the makings of a Gorillaz hit; and the dreamy electropop duo of “Andromeda” and “Busted and Blue” is equally brilliant. Sadly, “Humanz” has just way too many tracks that are either downright terrible or unremarkable.

“Momentz”, with its grating beat and high-pitched vocals, is a disappointment given the previous collaboration with De La Soul had birthed the classic “Feel Good Inc.”; “Charger” is devoid of lyrical meaning and musical purpose; “Sex Murder Party” and “Carnival” meander without going anywhere; “Hallelujah Money” has powerful lyrics but, with its lack of melody, is too close to pretentiousness for comfort; and “We Got the Power”, the long-awaited product of the partnership between two Britpop geniuses (Albarn himself and Noel Gallagher) is a cheesy conclusion with an empowering message that could have been penned by someone in primary school. In the end, even if it has moments that will go down as some of the finest by the band, “Humanz” is too fragmented to rate as anything higher than an average and disjointed apocalyptic party.

audioslaveAlbum: Audioslave

Artist: Audioslave

Released: November 19th, 2002 Highlights: Cochise, Show Me How To Live, Like a Stone, I Am The Highway

How do you replace a singer whose voice had been compared to a weapon? It seems like an impossible task, especially when one considers such voice was responsible for uttering – with the utmost fury and anger – leftist ideas supporting a revolution and a total dismantling of the system. Yet, it was that very same challenge the instrumentalists of Rage Against the Machine had to face when Zack de la Rocha left the band. Morello, Commerford, and Wilk found the new voice to their music in Chris Cornell – the former vocalist, guitarist, and main songwriter of the grunge group Soundgarden. And through his impressive use of the belting technique, which makes his screams come off as the sound high-pressurized air makes when it finds a breach through which it can escape into a rarefied environment, he lent them anger and anguish to match the pounding sound of their playing.

Qualifying Audioslave as Rage Against the Machine with a different singer is, at the same time, accurate and misguided. The precision of that statement rises via the fact a lot of the songs on their debut feature the blueprint that guided Rage Against the Machine through their three records of original material: in other words, many tunes are carried by rhythmic riffs that land somewhere in between Black Sabbath and AC/DC and that culminate in explosive choruses in which the singer lets his voice loose. The mistake of seeing Audioslave as a mere renaming, though, is ignoring that even though the dynamics of numerous songs are certainly grounded on what Rage Against the Machine did (perhaps a reality that stems from how the four members had yet to gel as a unity here), Chris Cornell is not Zack de la Rocha: neither does he rap nor is he politically engaged enough to use his lyrics to express his ideas.

That means “Audioslave” is a record that replaces social matters with existential ones. And although Cornell’s lyrics are not exactly brilliant, they approach those subjects in a more mature way than in which they were treated inside the grunge movement. Moreover, the fact that he puts melody and singing – rather than rhythm and rapping – over Morello’s fantastic riffs means Audioslave is more hard rock than alternative rock; they sound like a heavy metal band from the 70s would have sounded if they had come to be after the turn of the century. The final dimension Cornell adds to the group comes in the form of balladry: where Rage Against the Machine only worked in one gear (the most vicious one available), Audioslave knows how to mix up guitar attacks with introspective moments, and the record’s quietest tunes (“Like a Stone”, “I Am the Highway”, “Getaway Car”, and “The Last Remaining Light”) are uniformly moving.

“Audioslave”, though, has flaws that go a little bit beyond irregular lyrics and being the product of a group that had yet to come together. Like many albums released during the early 2000s, it tries to fill up the length of a CD when it clearly does not have enough material to do so. With fourteen tracks that produce sixty-five minutes of music, the record falters at some points either because there are certain tunes that are simply lackluster (namely, the entire sequence of “Exploder”, “Hypnotize”, and “Bring Em Back Alive”) or due to not having enough stylistic flexibility to justify such a length. Nevertheless when it clicks, and it does so more often than it stumbles, “Audioslave” is an immensely enjoyable fix of adrenaline punctuated by powerful beauty. Unlike what Rage Against the Machine produced, it does not aim to change the world; it, instead, alternates the wish to set it on fire with the sinking into its dark depths.

make_yourselfAlbum: Make Yourself

Artist: Incubus

Released: October 26th, 1999

Highlights: Stellar, Drive, I Miss You, Pardon Me

Good music must be written with a purpose; it needs to be fueled by genuine intentions and, most importantly, it requires a clear target. Songs that are composed for everyone usually end up striking no one in particular, standing on a weird middle ground that separates universal adoration from total indifference. In “Make Yourself”, Incubus seems to be stuck on that island: there is little to nothing about the album – save for few tracks – that is truly remarkable; likewise, almost none of it – with the exception of occasionally embarrassing lyrics and “Battlestar Scralatchtica”, a four-minute instrumental starring turntables – is downright awful. Its strongest songs (which include the notable ballads “Drive”, whose acoustic setup was a first for the band; and “I Miss You”, with its swirling delicate guitar and a brief touching chorus on which the title is sung with heart) will still move those who grew up listening to them; however, save for that understandable nostalgic beauty, the record falters under a contemporary light.

And that is because “Make Yourself” does not seem to be willing to make the effort to get to the place where it wants to go to. It is quite obvious what Incubus wanted to do here: the band was bent on surfing the radio-friendly nu metal waves of the turn of the century. It is quite unmissable, though, that the group did not make it, for “Make Yourself” is still stuck on the funk rock wackiness of the two records that preceded it, and trying to pair up the extravagance and tongue-in-cheek humor of that genre with mainstream aspirations – which are evidenced in the album’s clean production and blatant hit singles – can only be done when one has the flexibility of the Red Hot Chili Peppers during their “Blood Sugar Sex Magik” era, and there are not many groups that can make that claim.

Despite the fact it is walking on a tightrope between the Red Hot Chili Peppers (sans the self-awareness), Jane’s Addiction (minus the delightful debauchery), and ensembles from the nu metal scene (with a prominent DJ included), without the bravery to jump straight into any of those pools, “Make Yourself” manages to hold some good moments in addition to the pair of calmer tunes that propelled it to stardom. “Stellar”, for instance, is a great exercise in dynamics, with a quiet verse that explodes into a chorus backed up by a wall of guitars Linkin Park would ride to the top of the charts one year later; “The Warmth”, meanwhile, has a chorus that – melodically – might be the album’s finest hour, and – as a bonus – it has a perfect merge between turntable effects and distorted guitars; and the title track sends a message of self-reliance and independence with a vocabulary that is aggressive enough to justify the tune’s loudness.

Three records into their career, Incubus attempted to grow out of their funk rock beginnings; and, while such a move was definitely commendable, its conduction was definitely a bit misguided, because “Make Yourself” lacks purpose and audacity, trying to move to new grounds and simultaneously making sure its roots are still attached to the place it has just left from. Thankfully, though, such a period was not in vain, for it was a change that – down the line – would yield positive results in the shape of “Morning View” and “A Crow Left of the Murder”. That, however, does not save the album from being, at best, average and inoffensive.

Posted in Albums of the Month, Miscellaneous | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Mario Party Review

Mario Party works because it mixes the concept of having a group of friends sitting around a table and reacting to each other’s moves and actions with the craziness only a video game could provide

mario_partyCheckers, Chess, Monopoly, and Clue all have something in common. Firstly, and most obviously, they are all board games; and despite their variety in terms of complexity and intricacy, they are widely beloved and undeniably entertaining, as if they tapped into some sort of pure transcendental form of fun that is impossible to resist and impervious to the effects of time. Likewise, all of them have, at some point, been translated to the world of electronic entertainment only for gamers, critics, and developers alike to notice that regardless of effort and hard work, there are intangible values these board games hold that just cannot be captured and sent to a television screen. It is a reality that has made their virtual counterparts fall somewhere between downright lousy, and decent but not as a great as the real deal.

Although pinpointing what exactly was missing in those video games is hard, singling out the reason behind such absence is easy, and it has a whole lot to do with the word adaptation. The process of adapting something entails modification; it requires adjustment. And it is in those slight shifts that the untouchable values escape between one’s fingers. For a video game of a board game to succeed – for it to be more than a simulation of the true act of playing – it had to be neither a translation nor an adaptation: it had to be built from the ground up with the thought that it would be played by groups of friends sitting around a console instead of a table. As it turns out, Nintendo was the one to figure it out before everyone else did, and the original Mario Party – the first installment of a lengthy franchise that has received more flak than fanfare – is the product of that realization.

Mario Party is not perfect; and it will never be. For starters, there is little to no value to be found in its single-player experience, as it makes as much sense (and it is supposedly as much fun) as playing Monopoly against oneself. Secondly, its reliance on luck, with boards that hold random traps that can send one towards disaster in the blink of an eye and a few mini-games that are as fair as a casino roulette, will certainly leave many players angry once they see a solid lead become dust. Finally, it has no desire to be technically flashy, as it features graphics that are far below standards and a soundtrack (save for a few remarkable tunes) that is more elevator music than worthy of a video game orchestra.

mario_party2However, Mario Party is fun, and its first outings are especially noteworthy because the formula was still fresh, as its gameplay was quite a finding by the partnership of Hudson Soft and Nintendo. In it, four characters from the Mario universe take turns rolling dice and moving through the number of designated spaces around boards. As it happens in all games of the sort, the boards are packed with different kinds of spaces that trigger distinct events, and it holds one ultimate goal: reaching Toad and purchasing a star, given that by the end of all turns the player with the biggest number of stars will be declared the victor (with coins serving as a tiebreaker).

Despite the fact there is a great deal of satisfaction to be found in moving around the boards while trying to reach the coveted star and attempting to avoid passing in front of the villainous Bowser, who is not embarrassed to force players to buy absolutely useless items for a steep amount of coins, the real highlight of Mario Party comes at the end of each turn. That is when the game adds an explosive component to the board game format; one that could only be done in an electronic medium: the series’ famous mini-games.

These brief activities (which are divided into free-for-all; 2 vs. 2; and 3 vs. 1) are, quite literally, the life of the party, as winners get ten coins as a prize while losers leave the arenas empty handed and likely distant from the twenty coins that are required to buy a star. Mario Party has a solid collection of fifty mini-games, and although some are clearly better than others, the overall quality is spectacular, for the challenges are able to join simplicity, competitiveness, fun, and addictiveness into tiny packages.

mario_partyWhat is most impressive about these mini-games, though, is how stunningly varied they are. There is basketball, bowling, bobsled racing, rope jumping, limbo dancing, instrument playing, mine-cart racing, mimicking, balloon bursting, hot potato, tug of war, diving for treasure, fishing for gold, block smashing, skateboarding, musical chairs, platform jumping, avoiding bombs on a tiny floating platform, trying to bump adversaries into the water while standing on a ball, and much more, all sprinkled with Nintendo’s charm and the wackiness of the Mario universe. Mario Party’s take on basketball, for instance, involves a bob-omb; and its skateboarding takes place over fiery lava with a collapsing floor and Thwomps that stand on the way.

Mario Party’s mini-games work because, in their simplicity, they allow even the least experienced players out there to get a hang of them quite easily; it is casual gaming before such an expression became a marketing fad. Moreover, even though the fact that the commands that must be used on each of them are limited – at most – to a couple of buttons, the mini-games mostly rely on skill. Therefore, although there is a certain leveling of the field of play (which is excellent because it makes parties and multiplayer sections thrilling beyond compare), practice and dedication will – most of the time – come out on top, which makes Mario Party one of the few games out there that can be simultaneously enjoyed by rookies and veterans, because the former group will feel like they have a shot pretty quickly (and that is indeed true because the mini-games’ learning curve is short) and the latter will never feel cheated.

The problem is that while the mini-games do a fantastic job in setting up the grounds for fair competitiveness, the boards tend to act against it, because on them randomness is the overwhelming ruler. For example, chance spaces, which are few, trigger a twisted game show in which players will roll three dice to determine the exchange of a specific amount of stars or coins between two players; similarly, happening spaces activate events on the board that can easily send someone who is well on their way to reaching the star right towards the beginning of the board or – even worse – to the clutches of Bowser.

mario_party5Moreover, all of the game’s eight boards, which feature varied scenarios and clever themes, have built-in encounters with chance; and those encounters will most likely determine if one will be sent towards the star or towards Bowser. On Peach’s Birthday Cake, for instance, players need to plant seeds at a crossroad, and the fruit the seed bears will indicate the path that must be followed; on Wario’s Battle Canyon, which is formed by five separated circular platforms, moving between these islands can only be done through canons and the direction towards which they will shoot is chosen by a roulette; meanwhile, on Mario’s Rainbow Castle, Bowser and Toad stand on the very same tower at the end of the cloudy road, and every time somebody reaches it – or steps on a happening space – the character who inhabits the tower changes.

All of that means there is plenty of room for frustration in Mario Party. Instead of taking the path traveled by the mini-games (one in which parity between players is achieved through simplicity), the boards rely on devious methods to level the field. And even if they leave some room for strategy and reasoning through their design, luck remains the biggest player on this stage. Fortunately, to those who are way too annoyed by the random tendencies of the boards, Mario Party is kind enough to let players tackle a mini-game-only mode in which all that matters is coming out on top in those skill-based activies.

In spite of the punctual anger that will occasionally afflict some players when they see fate take a bad turn, and despite all conflicts that may arise when someone openly hires the devilish Boo to steal coins or even a star from one of their friends, Mario Party is mostly a bliss. Its casual value and its incredible simplicity make it – more than any game that came before it – capable of gathering people around a console. Mario Party does not quite capture what it is like to throw a party around a video game system because such a concept did not exist prior to its release; Mario Party invented the very idea of throwing a party in which a video game system was the main star, and the straightforward nature of its mini-games and – yes – the outrageous twisted evil tricks its boards play on gamers were the fuel for that fire. And that fun still stands even if the original game feels a bit archaic and stripped down given all good additions its successors would make.

mario_party3Mario Party works as a virtual board game because it mixes the concept of having a group of friends sitting around a table and reacting to each other’s moves and actions with the craziness that only a video game could provide. By building something that leans on human interaction as much as it relies on the interface between players and machine it successfully makes the magic of Checkers, Chess, Monopoly, and Clue materialize in the electronic gaming world. It makes it clear that these games do not simply work because they are addictive or well-designed, but because they pair that prowess with the ability to gather people so that they can laugh, get angry, and shout together. That is the beauty of board games; that is the beauty of Mario Party.

Mario Party

Posted in Nintendo 64, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Punch-Out Review

Bringing a franchise that basks under its arcade simplicity to a modern home console is both bold and challenging; however, Little Mac was never one to run away from a big adversary

punch_out2Out of all old-school Nintendo franchises that spent an obscene amount of time inside the company’s merciless limbo, Punch-Out was not among those that were likely to make a glorious come back. While the game’s first two home-console versions, released for the NES and the Super Nintendo, were packed with fun and challenge, the latter being a feature that is not exactly prominent in modern gaming, its mechanics were extremely simple; perhaps way too straightforward to warrant a full-fledged sequel in a scenario where most games need to have huge scopes to be successful.

However, all rules have their exceptions. And, maybe by feeling that, with the emergence and praise garnered by smaller indie games, the market was becoming warmer towards titles with arcade-like simplicity, Nintendo was brave enough to believe Punch-Out could once again achieve greatness. The responsibility to deliver on that promise was, then, given to Next Level Games.

In a superficial analysis, the Wii version of Punch-Out could easily be described as more of a refurbishment than an overhaul; it is a bright new coat of paint put over a structure that was left mostly unchanged when compared to its arcade origins. Therefore, it would not be surprising to catch one singling it out as a lazy effort that does little to update a franchise that had been dormant for fifteen years. However, playing the game’s Wii version is realizing that the formula still works remarkably well, even when used as the core of a full-fledged console title; and, in that sense, Punch-Out knocks out all accusations of complacency to reveal its true nature: that of a game which is, in equal measures, the product of boldness and sensibility.

punch_out3Those two concepts come into play because Punch-Out never runs away from what it is: a boxing game that plays more like a puzzle than an actual fighting effort. Players step into the ring as Little Mac, an underdog boxer from New York who needs to climb up the ranks of three circuits (Minor, Major, and World) in order to become the world champion. Punch-Out, though, exists in a parallel universe in which boxing is, to put it in mild terms, weird: moving around the ring is not an option; there are no weight categories; and psychological evaluations of athletes are certainly not performed, because such an absurd cast of lunatics would never be allowed to step into the fray in normal conditions.

Due to the limitations of movement, in Punch-Out players have two main concerns: dodging and punching. Button 1 performs a left hook while button 2 executes a right hook; when combined with the D-pad’s upward direction, these buttons are used to land jabs. Avoiding attacks by the adversary, meanwhile, can be done by dodging to the sides, ducking or blocking. Finally, it is possible to unleash a special punch with the A-button; the move, however, is only activated once three stars – which are earned by punching adversaries at very specific moments – are gathered.

Given it is a Wii game, developers did not miss the opportunity to utilize the system’s motion controls. They exist here as an option in which the Wiimote and Nunchuck represent the character’s left and right hands respectively, and although there is some excitement in watching Little Mac punch faces and bellies as one recreates the same motions in their living room, the novelty is bound to wear out with time. The standard NES configuration of the Wiimote, with the device turned sideways, proves to be ideal for the intense gameplay of Punch-Out, which requires brutal timing and absurdly precise responsiveness.

punch_out5Such need for accurate response stems from Punch-Out’s incredibly unique, borderline inimitable, brand of gameplay. Little Mac’s way to the top will be paved with the tears, and invisible blood, of thirteen boxers. And, for each one of them, the general process for the achievement of sweet victory will be the same. All boxers follow a blatantly predetermined pattern: every one of their attacks is preceded by cues that will let players know what is coming, and dodging them successfully is the only way to land blows on the opponent, as they become temporarily vulnerable.

It is all easier said than done, though. As matches go on, cues become briefer, attacks come in at a faster place, and new surprising moves are thrown into the pattern to catch Little Mac off guard; and, naturally, as Little Mac climbs up the ranks, adversaries with larger sets of techniques, smaller vulnerability windows, more powerful blows, and faster gaps between cue and punch will show up. Punch-Out, then, is one constant delightful grind that requires memorization and rhythm; it is a dance in which one wrong move does not end with a toe that is stepped on, but with a cheek hitting the cold floor.

The total number of rivals – thirteen – may not seem like much, but Punch-Out’s approach to boxing makes each encounter last considerably, as players need to learn the behavior of opponents to perfection. Moreover, the game’s legs grow considerably once one takes into account how after winning it all, Little Mac will go through a title defense that includes rematches against all of his defeated rivals, who will reappear with more complicated patterns, stronger attacks and new ways to defend themselves. It all sounds brutal, and in a way it is, but Punch-Out’s lengthy uphill climb is smooth, satisfying, and rewarding: battles get progressively harder all the way through the game, but – with so much sweat and tears involved – players’ agility, perception, and endurance also improve as Little Mac advances.

punch_out6To those who are looking for even more content and to have the limit of their skills tested – and Punch-Out is a game that will bring out such desire for many, thanks to its addictive simplicity – there are the challenges of the exhibition mode. Once boxers are defeated in the career mode, it is possible to face them in friendly combats, which would not have been truly special save for one sweet detail: the fact that each of the two forms of the boxers, the regular one and the one that is encountered during Mac’s title defense, comes with three challenges to be met.

These sound, at first, downright impossible, such as beating a mighty boxer without dodging or taking one down with just one punch. However, not only are they doable with clever tricks and absolutely impeccable timing, they are also incredibly fun to perform, as players will slowly find new ways to beat their opponents down and uncover all twisted little secrets hidden within their attack patterns.

Speaking of Little Mac’s rivals, they have been – historically – one of Punch-Out’s signature and most appealing features, and the Wii version of the game retains that quality. Coming from different nations around the world, Punch-Out’s main stars are built around stereotypes related to those countries: there is the fragile croissant-eating Frenchman; the Spanish Don Juan who doubles a bullfighter; the vodka-drinking Russian; the drunk, and positively psychotic, Irishman; the Canadian bear-loving lumberjack; and more. Although such brand of humor has fallen out of favor with many, those who are not offended by it will be absolutely thrilled with Punch-Out’s over-the-top depiction of the boxers and their habits, a quality that makes each adversary an immediately likable and undoubtedly iconic character within the Nintendo canon.

punch_out4Due to having its home in a console that is significantly more powerful than the one that had housed its prequel, Punch-Out gives the franchise a big update in presentation and sound. All of its characters are voice-acted, and those who are born in non-English speaking countries have plenty of lines in their own language, which is a nice detailed touch; additionally, the game is supported by very solid sound effects and songs that, albeit a little repetitive, get the job done. Moreover, the break between fights is usually adorned by cutscenes that show Little Mac training beside his mentor, the legendary Doc Louis. It is a shame, however, that the introduction of Little Mac’s adversaries is done via slideshows of pictures that portray the boxers’ hobbies and personalities, as cutscenes would have been far more effective and welcome.

The star of the show, in the presentation department, though, is certainly the game’s cell-shaded look. Not only does it work towards alleviating a lot of the violence that happens inside the ring, it also fits like a glove when it comes to Punch-Out’s general humor, which turns the fights into extremely light-hearted affairs thanks to the characters’ dialogues and reactions. The game takes advantage of its simple setup, as only two characters appear on screen, to present their moves and models with as much detail as possible, turning the whole package into an incredible sight for the eyes.

In the end, Nintendo’s brave decision to bring a game that was born in an arcade to the arena of modern gaming without altering an inch of its core structure pays off in a big way. Punch-Out’s inborn simplicity has not made its gameplay age one tiny bit. In a world where games are becoming more complex and bloated by the hour, its straightforward ways actually highlight the brilliant charm of its design and augment the addictive nature of its setup. Through punches, dodges and a whole lot of hard work, Little Mac proves he can stand side-by-side with all of the industry’s giants. They may be bigger than him, but – as Punch-Out shows – taking down adversaries of a much larger stature is what that humble boxer does for a living.

Punch Out

Posted in Reviews, Wii | Tagged , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Okamiden Review

For the good and for the bad, Okamiden heavily relies on its prequel

okamiden2Okami was an overlooked masterpiece that came out during the twilight days of the Playstation 2 and, therefore, was unable to gain a level of commercial recognition that matched its critical acclaim. Sensing its greatness deserved a second shot at success, Capcom took the game over to the Nintendo Wii hoping its highly artistic visuals and its gameplay based on brush motions would find not only a welcoming audience but also a hardware that would leverage the title’s core features. Sadly, the sales numbers of the Nintendo Wii entry still failed to do the game any sort of justice; fortunately, though, they made Capcom feel confident enough in the software’s performance to fund a handheld sequel to the game. And so, Okamiden was born.

In Okami’s central plot piece, the main character – Amaterasu, the sun Goddess – returned to earth not only to defeat the demons that had suddenly spread distress and darkness throughout the land, but also to regain her former power, which had vanished as people’s faith in the gods had diminished over time. Any parallel between that script and the story of a game that had to garner a big enough group of followers in order to keep on going as an amazing action-adventure franchise is certainly unintentional, yet poetically delightful.

Okamiden starts exactly nine months after Okami’s blissful conclusion. Amaterasu defeated the mighty Yami, supposedly ridding the land of Nippon of all of its demons. For achieving her goal and regaining people’s faith, she had her power restored and was able to return to the Celestial Plain, from which she looked after the world below. However, as Okamiden begins, demons mysteriously make their way back to curse the landscapes of Nippon and its gentle citizens alike. Sakuya – one of the continent’s guardian spirits – notices trouble rising and calls upon Amaterasu to save Nippon once again. However, her pleas are, instead, answered by Chibiterasu, Amaterasu’s son, who comes clueless into Nippon and stumbles upon the Celestial Envoy, and Amaterasu’s former traveling companion, Issun. After showing the little puppy the basics and having fond memories of Amaterasu awake in his heart, Issun tells Chibiterasu he should find a partner to help him in his quest; it is then that the lonely wolf departs towards adventure.

okamiden4One of Okami’s greatest qualities was its strong writing, which backed up all of its fantastic characters and the many plots that surrounded them. Unsurprisingly, then, Okamiden manages to keep the ball rolling in that regard. Aside from the intriguing scenarios, occurrences, and dialogues that appear as Chibiterasu dives into the demoniac problems of Nippon, Okamiden deftly takes advantage of the young wolf’s search for a partner in his journey and uses it as a trampoline for astonishing character development.

As the game goes by, Chibiterasu will come into contact with five children who will eventually, at distinct points in the adventure, mount on his back and aid in his quest. Each one of those partners will have stories, troubles, and motivations of their own, which means that Okamiden has a very strong set of main characters that will – along with Amaterasu’s son – learn a lot about themselves and mature right in front of players’ eyes as a result of the challenges they will undertake.

It is extremely hard not to develop strong connections to all these central playable characters, who will start as insecure kids and leave Chibiterasu as stronger humans that are aware of their responsibilities. Playing Okamiden is witnessing their development, and as they grow so does the game’s fantastic plot. It is extremely rare to find such quality writing in a game that focuses on adventure and exploration, but Okamiden does it to such a high degree that even the overall absence of Issun – and his humorous and naughty tone – is not felt. The great aura he lent to Okami is replaced by one of a more touching nature, which goes a long way towards defining Okamiden as a separate entity from its predecessor, even if – thankfully – the humor is certainly still there.

okamiden5Okamiden follows the same basic structure of Okami, which is excellent considering how great and unique the latter was. Players will explore huge areas that have been torn apart by the demons and their curses, and try to restore them to their former beauty. The culmination of that exploration comes in the form of puzzle-filled dungeons or battles against mean bosses that have taken over one area and harmed its inhabitants. Many of the places present in Okami will be revisited, and while some of them will still look exactly the same, which is slightly disappointing; others will have changed with time due to natural disasters.

The fact that the Nippon explored in Okamiden is pretty much the same one that was visited in Okami is a bit of a double-edged sword. On the bright side, it is something that makes a whole lot of sense given both titles are just nine months apart; additionally, it brings a great sense of unity and connectivity between both games, as Chibiterasu will come across numerous characters that met his mother, be able to see how their lives have changed, and hear various references to her glorious adventures. On the negative side, however, going through the same scenarios once again can be a tad boring, and it reveals that developers spent more working hours towards successfully translating a huge world from the Wii to the DS (which is indeed a magnificent achievement) than aiming to create an entirely new region.

And therein lies Okamiden’s greatest strength and weakness: it is just way too close to its prequel for comfort. While in a way that is utterly fantastic, because an extra doses of the Okami gameplay is exactly what gamers who went through the original wanted; it is hard not to walk away from Okamiden feeling that developers could have done a little bit more to embed the game with its own character.

okamiden6Not only is the world the same, but Chibi also has the exact abilities his mother possessed. He can slash enemies with his weapon of choice, and use the Celestial Brush – and its many powers – to bring them down or to solve puzzles on the environment around him. The brush techniques found in Okamiden are pretty much the same ones that players mastered in Okami. It is possible to make plants bloom, manipulate elements (such as water, fire, and thunder), restore broken artifacts, slash objects and foes, create bombs at will, and perform a few other nifty tricks. The difference, naturally, is that – on the Nintendo DS – these skills are activated by drawing with the stylus, which is far more effective and precise than the Wiimote, even if some symbols will occasionally not be recognized despite the fact they were drawn relatively well.

The really big change, gameplay-wise, that Okamiden features is that depending on the child that is accompanying Chibi at a certain moment in the game, the wolf will gain a new ability as a consequence of a special skill possessed by his partner. When the young Kagu is on his back, for example, Chibiterasu will be able to see objects that are invisible to most. This characteristic allows for every segment of the game to be considerably distinct from the others, as the design of the dungeons will be inspired by the abilities of the partner Chibi will be carrying at that point in the game. That way, the over twenty hours of Okamiden always bring something very fresh with them, and while the game copies its predecessor a little bit too much, it never really repeats itself.

Another ability that comes with the addition of partners is that it is possible to control Chibi and the kids separately. All players have to do is press the X-button, and the child will get out of the wolf’s back. With such a move, it is possible to guide the children so they can use their skills to reach places that Chibi cannot. However, despite being a very unique characteristic to Okamiden and the source of very clever riddles that could not have been done in Okami, having to control both characters to get through a simple puzzle sometimes breaks the pace of the game, especially because the children are quite vulnerable when they are by themselves.

okamiden7The game’s pace is also harmed by some forced battles against minor enemies that players will find along the way. Battles were never the most exciting aspect of Okami, as they are basically hack and slash affairs that occur in the midst of very compelling exploration. Therefore it was always a good thing that it was simple to avoid battles against regular enemies in the original. Okamiden, though, will often throw mandatory battles at players, especially inside dungeons, which is quite disappointing.

By being in a system that is not as powerful as the Playstation 2 or the Nintendo Wii, most would expect Okamiden to suffer due to being unable to reproduce the artistic goodness and visual candy of Okami. However, Capcom achieved quite a bit with the title, because Okamiden genuinely feels like Okami in a handheld, and there is not a single moment in the game where one could possibly think that visuals or characters could have been done better. The game still looks like a moving watercolor painting and its scenarios are absolutely gorgeous, even though they are broken down into smaller zones with short loading times in between them. Okamiden is huge, there is a lot to do, discover and explore, and in those categories it is not matched by any other game available for the Nintendo DS.

Okamiden, then, is a very good game that both lives and dies by its heavy inspiration on its predecessor. On one side, flying so close to the sun yields very positive results, for it is an epic adventure filled with cultural and artistic references to Japanese folklore, astounding boss battles that are almost way too big to fit in a portable console, amazing abilities that are used to construct inspired puzzles and dungeons, breathtaking scenarios, abundant sidequests, and remarkable songs. However, on the other side, when it comes to being original, it really does not do much aside from he partnership system and the character development style that stems from it. Nonetheless, Okamiden is one of the best titles in a system that is widely know for its strong library and certainly one of the grandest adventures to ever be put inside a Nintendo handheld. It is a precious gift to a world that, for a little while there, ran the risk of never again playing a new Okami game. We should all be thankful Amaterasu blessed us with yet another journey into the world of Nippon.


Posted in DS, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

Albums of the Month: April 2017

i_see_youAlbum: I See You

Artist: The XX

Released: January 13th, 2017

Highlights: Say Something Loving, Performance, I Dare You

Progression is key to all kinds of good music; after all, artists who get stuck in the same place for way too long end up metamorphosing into caricatures of themselves: people who try to recapture a moment that is long gone in the past and that end up sounding like bad cover versions of their initial material. If there is something that can be said about the first three albums of The XX is that there is a good deal of progression to them; better yet, it is a kind of evolution that is cohesive. Their debut record was filled with lyrics that portrayed the tension and excitement of young love; meanwhile, their sophomore effort carried feelings of loss. Hopefulness was gone, and so was love. And in their place all that was left were ashes, scattered pieces awaiting to be picked up, and disappointed broken hearts. Given such context, it is only natural “I See You” is the step that comes after that: the search for new love; one that is done in the attempt to balance lessons learned from hurtful experiences with joyful new hope.

Whether the smoothness with which the band has traveled through that arch is part of an artistic plan or merely a reflection of their own lives is up in the air. However, one thing is for sure: Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim nailed it both in terms of writing and performance, for in “I See You” they sound like two people who are trying to move on but that have punctual trouble escaping the vines of the past that are holding them back, and freeing their hearts to love again. Nowhere is that idea best encapsulated than in “Say Something Loving”, in which Oliver sings “I just don’t remember the thrill of affection” and “I do myself a disservice / To feel this weak, to be this nervous”. It is intimate; it is vulnerable; and it aligns itself perfectly not only with the subdued singing of the duo but also with the band’s sound, which in “I See You” moves forward without losing its core identity: minimalism.

What the group does here is move its minimalism between scenes: if the two predecessors of “I See You” were rooted in the post-punk of Joy Division – albeit a brand of post-punk that adorns its beats and bass with electronic trickery; “I See You” runs full speed towards the indie electronic landscape. Consequently, the record almost completely does away with the organic sounds of Romy’s guitar and Oliver’s bass, and tips heavily towards the synths and the turntable of Jamie Smith. Beats and samples, then, tower over all other elements, turning “I See You” into a delicate electronic work that knows how to use silence and introspection in its favor, which are the two main characteristics that connect it with everything else the band has done.

“I See You”, however, falls short in the hard task of matching its precursors. Given the limited area and emotional scope in which they operate, The XX had always sounded like a band that ran the risk of producing an album that is a little too monochromatic for its own good. And “I See You” seems to have been the one to have fallen into that trap. The duets of Romy and Oliver (whether they are singing simultaneously and through each other, or tackling different lines of the same song) remain as overwhelming as ever. Yet, the fact the band digs itself into a mostly electronic corner here makes the tracks, with the exception of the anthemic “I Dare You”, almost merge into one another. Still, “I See You” is a touching and beautiful album with a large degree of cohesion both within itself and inside the band’s oeuvre, and that is an impressive feat.

The Birthday Party

Artist: The Birthday Party

Released: November 1st, 1980

Highlights: Mr. Clarinet, Riddle House, Happy Birthday

Transitional. It is a term that gets thrown around too frequently when it comes to records as a whole, but it also happens to be an adjective that perfectly describes The Birthday Party’s self-titled debut. Using such a word to qualify a group’s first effort may seem weird, but it is understandable once it is taken into account that The Birthday Party is nothing but the renamed incarnation of The Boys Next Door, the Australian post-punk band that was the launching pad for the career of one of the world’s greatest songwriters – Nick Cave, and an incredibly gifted multi-instrumentalist – Mick Harvey, who would go on to become one of the major cogs in the juggernaut of alternative rock Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. In that sense, “The Birthday Party” is the second of the four records that would be released by The Boys Next Door and The Birthday Party and, for that reason, it stands in a weird middle ground between the blatant inexperience of former and the boundless experimentation the latter would go on to tackle.

The musical parable that describes the four-piece oeuvre of the group is one in which things get progressively wilder. The Birthday Party was, from the get go, driven by a maniac spirit and it seems that, the older they grew, the more confident they were in letting themselves be carried by their most savage instincts. Therefore, there is nothing controlled or restrained about “The Birthday Party”: it is post-punk at its rawest most visceral state. However, it is not the apex of the insanity; it is a compromise between a ravaged soul that came out of the ashes of punk rock and a desire to write palpable tunes. Rarely is the guitar the leading instrument of the tunes. Such a role is given to the bass of Tracy Pew and the drums of Phill Calvert, which create threatening rhythms that awaken some sort of tribal fire in the hearts of the guitarists – Mick Harvey and Rowland S. Howard – and of the poet of the damned who wields the microphone, Nick Cave.

Harvey and Rowland play their instruments as if possessed by a spirit of chaos and destruction: the guitars do occasionally ring like the bible of post-punk calls for; but, mostly, they are scratched to an inch of their death, punctually decorating the rhythmical core of the songs with vicious sounds. Over that borderline cacophonous symphony, Nick Cave half-sings and half-pleads like a demented preacher who, instead of urging his followers to strive for salvation, paints horrifying pictures to force them to face life at its most brutal. The result is music that is somewhat jubilant, hence more than justifying The Birthday Party’s aptly chosen name; however, it is a celebration that is happening inside one dark asylum, where the most dangerous patients have crawled out of their cells and killed everyone who has a drop of sanity running in their bloodstream.

“The Birthday Party” is a record that is more interesting than good. There are a great deal of things that make it appealing and amusing; after all, it is rare to see a band so shamelessly – or perhaps naturally – be as lunatic as possible, and then proceed to take that madness through a spectrum that goes from frightening (“The Hair Shirt”) to hilarious (“Hats on Wrong”). However, it does not have enough songwriting quality for most of its tunes to rise above the status of curious amusing items. Nevertheless, it is worth a listen, as a whole lot of its artistic aura explains where elements of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds came from.

tom_petty_heartbreakersAlbum: Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers

Artist: Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers

Released: November 9th, 1976

Highlights: Breakdown, Hometown Blues, Anything That’s Rock ‘n’ Roll, American Girl

One of the greatest qualities of rock and roll is the fact it is so adaptable. The rhythm originally propelled towards the stratosphere by Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley has grown and mutated through the years either by borrowing from other genres it has no relation to or by shifting its focus in the direction of one of the many styles whose mixture started all the hip-shaking and guitar-breaking. And, by 1976, it had already lived long enough to be made poppier by The Beatles; blown up to new proportions by psychedelic progressive bands; deconstructed by the punk movement; turned into soothing music by folk and country rockers; and much more. Given this never-ending inflow of different ornamentations and arrangements, the playing of basic and straightforward rock and roll becomes – in its simplicity – utterly remarkable, and that is precisely where Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers come in.

There is absolutely nothing new about the set of ten songs that make up the now-legendary group’s self-titled debut, nor is there anything shockingly inventive about the numerous records that would follow. However, that is the beauty of it; Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers never aspire to be more than they are, which is a fantastic rock and roll ensemble, and Petty works hard with a guitar, a notebook, and a pen to give his musical machine the material that will serve as fuel for the combustion that is The Heartbreakers’ brand of rock and roll.

In “Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers”, just like he embraces the rhythmic characteristics of the genre, he also throws himself into the pool of the style’s usual themes: girls and partying, be it separated or joined together in the same song. In the infectious and positively danceable “Hometown Blues”, there are girls who leave town to chase their dreams of becoming rock stars; in the ballad “The Wild One, Forever”, there is the girl who is an impossible catch and the one that – naturally – the singer desperately pines for; in “American Girl”, by a wide margin the album’s strongest cut, there is the girl who strives for a new life away from the constraints and heartbreaks that surround her; and in the brief opener “Rockin’ Around (With You)”, there is the girl who cures the composer of his pain by accepting to be with him whether for a couple of dances or for a while longer than that. Petty, however, finds the time to take some thematic detours during the atmospheric “Strangered in the Night” and “Luna”, which take advantage of Benmont Tench’s keyboards to approach a sinister and almost supernatural story – in the case of the former; and an unexpected introspective take on loneliness – in the case of the latter.

Although Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers would go on to produce better records, their self-titled debut stands as one of the strongest points of their output because of its humility, sincerity, and – of course – its songwriting. Petty was never a Dylan, nor was he ever a Springsteen; and in knowing that he sought not to replicate their grandeur, but to aim for a different market and goal. As one of the album’s most energetic cuts says, “Anything that’s rock and roll’s fine”, and Tom Petty knows how to conjure that feeling better than everyone else.

triplicateAlbum: Triplicate

Artist: Bob Dylan

Released: March 31st, 2017

Highlights: I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan, I Could Have Told You, Once Upon a Time, The Best Is Yet to Come, Day In Day Out

Bob Dylan has never been shy to do the exact opposite of what the expectations around him look forward to. He did it in 1965, when he shunned his folk followers – and angered them deeply – by picking up an electric guitar; he did it in 1969, when he chose to become a country crooner even though his voice had always been a point of contention among his critics; and he also did it in 1978, when he released the first of what would be a trilogy of albums containing originally penned Christian music. Fast forward through four decades, and here we are again, sitting – possibly – in the end of yet another trilogy in which Dylan did not give one drop of attention to what his fans wanted and proceeded to do whatever it is he wished to, which – in this case – was singing covers of classic American songs that were once done by Frank Sinatra.

It is unquestionable such free will and disregard for outside opinions have been key in making Dylan the artist he is – one that recently earned the Nobel Prize in Literature via his songwriting. And in “Triplicate” he multiplies – and flaunts – the liberty he has by putting together a whopping three records – containing ten songs each – in which he squeezes most of the juice that was left in the American songbook. Aggregated with “Shadows in the Night” and “Fallen Angels”, then, “Triplicate” – if it indeed turns out to be Dylan’s last effort in the field – is the final brick in the construction of his statue as one of the most important interpreters of the genre; someone who has dared to bring these old treasures into the modern music world. Although such journey was neither as well-documented nor as resounding as it would have been had it happened decades ago, it is still a pretty remarkable achievement to fall alongside his medals of folk bard and rock and roll legend.

“Shadows in the Night” was nocturnal and moody. “Fallen Angels” was more energetic in its balance between ballads and numbers with faster tempos. Given “Triplicate” carries thirty tunes, one would expect it to be one of those traditional lengthy albums that carry a little bit of everything. That, however, is not the case. “Triplicate”, save for rare exceptions that never quite reach the swinging pace of the most exciting moments of “Fallen Angels”, is uniformly built of slow songs. And in such a massive set, that is quite a problem, because anyone who is not familiar with these tracks will have an awfully hard time telling them apart. Through most of its ninety-five-minute running time, then, “Triplicate” is not about emoting its listeners to high degrees, but luring them into the web of its atmosphere, and it does a great job in that regard.

It all works because even though “Triplicate”, like its two predecessors, is a homage to a time that is the antithesis of the singer-songwriter model that Dylan himself – along others – made popular, it is clear Bob and his band are having a blast playing these tunes. The arrangements are true to those of the originals, but they are masterfully executed; and over this musical bed Dylan captures the heart of these songs with his scruffy voice and an endearing delivery that tries to reach notes it knows it cannot get to. Due to the size of its content, “Triplicate” is not as immediate, likable, and easy to get into as “Shadows in the Night” and “Fallen Angels”, and a greater variety of tempos would have done it a big favor. Nevertheless, it is a finely produced music set.

Posted in Albums of the Month, Miscellaneous | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments