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Shovel Knight Review

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A testament to the relevancy old-school games can still have today, and proof it is possible to reinvent the genre by nodding to the past while carving its own identity

In a time when numerous indie developers have, on the heels of Mega Man 9, decided to choose an 8-bit art style and purely old-school gameplay as means to craft engaging and low-cost games, it is hard to stand out. Not only has that fad lost a huge part of its novelty value, but also – given how many 8-bit classics the gaming industry has already manufactured – producing something remarkable and new by following that pattern becomes an awfully tough task to pull off.

Yacht Games' Shovel Knight is yet another one of those titles, but instead of lazily relying on nostalgia alone, it feeds off of it in order to put together an unforgettable adventure. It does not hide its influences; it wears them plainly on its sleeve and uses that assortment of inspirations to create a solid structure upon which its designers cooked up some downright fun sidescrolling gems. It is a recipe that works to astounding levels.

Shovel Knight and Shield Knight were tight partners that traveled through the land gathering treasure until they fell victims to a cursed amulet inside the Tower of Fate. Shield Knight mysteriously vanishes, and Shovel Knight – depressed – becomes a recluse. Sometime later, when a dark Enchantress rises to power and unlocks the once sealed tower, Shovel Knight decides to journey back to the place where disaster had struck him.

The journey there, however, is not an easy one. Aiming to stop the hero's advances, the villain unleashes the Order of No Quarter, a mighty group of knights that seek to destroy the blue warrior. The fact that the devilish team is composed of eight foes whose names all end with the distinctive title of “Knight” makes it blatant that the game is built around the bones of a Mega Man adventure: creative bosses lying in wait at the end of each the game's stages, which – in turn – are thematically designed to go along with the boss' element.

King Knight sits on a throne at the end of a castle level; Specter Knight's home is a dark graveyard; Polar Knight awaits on a stranded ship in the middle of a frozen lake; and the others follow suit with that rule. One of the game's finest qualities is that, frequently, the association between the nature of the boss and the stage where he is found is not necessarily obvious, but the folks at Yacht Games have done a great job in forming those links and making some really creative relationships between the knights and their respective headquarters.

Mole Knight, Treasure Knight, Tinker Knight, and Plague Knight – for example – do not produce any direct connection to a specific theme, but the game nails it on the head with a lot of ingeniousness. The ultimate consequence is that some levels are able to visually tell an interesting story related to the background of these characters.

The stages are both challenging and long, and in the vein of the finest sidescrollers they throw numerous challenges at the player, focusing on one specific trap and making it progressively tougher until it is time to move on to the next gauntlet. They are also packed with secret rooms absolutely loaded with treasures and even new equipment that causes Shovel Knight to gain some clever optional abilities.

Instead of embracing the Mega Man philosophy of sending players right back to the beginning of the stage whenever they lose all of their continues, Shovel Knight – in a twist of modernity – does away with lives altogether and places a great number of checkpoints in each stage, which is a thankful sight considering how long some of them can be.

Even though players do not lose continues when they fail, the game still finds a way to punish them severely. Shovel Knight has a heavy focus on treasure-gathering, which is ridiculously useful in order to purchase all of the game's items and upgrades. Therefore, when the warrior dies, a portion of his gems is lost. They can be recovered if players are able to reach the location of their previous death, though, but they are lost for good if the knight dies on the attempt to reach them.

Removing does not make the game any easier, for challenge is derivative of the level design itself and not of the number of times one must replay the level from the start, clearing away the frustration of having to go through everything all over again. Still, in a smart attempt to please all gamers, those who want to rid themselves of the checkpoints can do so by simply smashing them to pieces.

In place of following in Mega Man's footsteps by neatly displaying all of the knights on an easy-to-navigate menu, Shovel Knight – showcasing its prowess to draw the best from each of its 8-bit peers – implements a nice overworld that harkens back to Super Mario Bros 3. It is split into three different regions, which are unlocked as knights are defeated, hence allowing players to choose – to some degree – how they advance.

In addition, the map will also display a few pleasant bonus stages that gravitate around the use of optional equipment and treasure-harvesting, a handful of wandering knights that are thirsty for battle, and even a couple of towns that add a spice of RPG elements into the recipe.

The free-roaming sidescrolling style of the villages is a direct nod towards The Adventure of Link, and they feature interesting inhabitants, some secrets, and – most importantly – various shopping opportunities.

For a simple platformer, Shovel Knight offers an amazing wealth of options to upgrade the character's powers, such as health and magic upgrades, relics that grant him abilities that go beyond his shovel-based moves (such as temporary invincibility, projectiles, and even a fishing rod), chalices to carry potions around, and different armors with distinct quirks. The game, consequently, puts all the shiny stones that are found on the stages to great use.

Aside from its many greatly-designed stages, challenging boss battles against foes with great movesets, and stellar use of worthy influences, Shovel Knight has a nice level of extra content. At least a couple of music sheets are hidden in each of the game's levels, making up a lengthy and alluring collection for completists, and a list of nearly fifty achievements is available for anyone that is willing to tackle the ordeal.

The tasks range between relatively mundane, such as finishing the game or buying everything; to random, like using all of the game's potion or performing a circus act with a hula hoop; and brutal, for instance, beating stages without being damaged or clearing the game without the use of checkpoints. In other words, there are achievements for all gamers regardless of age and skill level.

To top it all off, and put the last touches on a must-buy package, Shovel Knight is also pretty respectable on the technical front. The game is powered by incredibly catchy chiptunes that are up-to-par with what the Mega Man series offers in that area – which is usually the gold standard to which all songs of the sort must be compared, and its visuals make great use of the 3-D effects of the Nintendo 3DS, which highlight the layers of the scenario and the effects flashing across them.

In the end, Shovel Knight is not a game that shies away from the stellar 8-bit competition it faces. Even when compared to the classics, it stands up remarkably well, and it finds a way to mix its inspirations to shape an adventure with a personality of its own and that joins the best of what was brought by the 8-bit era with dashes of modern gaming. More than a testament to the fact that old-school games can still be relevant today, it is proof that it is still possible to reinvent the genre by nodding to the massive masterpieces of the past while carving its own brilliant identity.

Stray Star Fox

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The Star Fox franchise delivered, right out of the gate, a string of two magnificent titles during a five-year span. The original game, powered by a technologically impressive chip, featured intriguing 3-D visuals that brought the traditional arcade flying shoot'em ups to a whole new level of gameplay. Its fast-paced concept of shooting everything in sight while avoiding barrages of lasers was far from revolutionary. However, the leap provided by its perspective still stands as one of the biggest evolutions any gaming genre has ever gone through.

Its sequel, Star Fox 64, which came four years later on a much more powerful console, took advantage of the strong hardware to render fantastic outer-space and urban scenarios and fill them with exciting dog fights. The arcade nature of its predecessor was maintained: the missions were highly replayable and short points-based affairs. And a certain degree of complexity was added by creating a web of levels that could be navigated in numerous ways in order to reach the game's final destination.

The two games held a similar attribute: both were commercially and critically praised. Yet, perhaps due to the incorrect assumption that such arcade-like gameplay could not sustain itself in a world where games were getting bigger, Nintendo kicked off an era in which Star Fox got outsourced to various companies in hope that it would go larger due to the addition of different gameplay elements.

Instead of simply updating a winning formula with a few tweaks and natural graphical advances – something the company does quite well – the Big N opted to follow a far more radical path. Fans greatly diverge on whether or not the results of such an a venture were positive – perhaps a testament to how the franchise took on many distinct faces during that time – but one thing is for sure: the greatness of the two original games was never replicated.

The nearly fail-proof Rare gave us Star Fox Adventures, a visually stunning title that almost crumbled due the watered-down Zelda gameplay that supported it. Namco trekked back to the series' origins with Star Fox Assault, which made the commendable attempt to introduce on-foot gameplay and new mission structures, but failed to polish the former's gameplay and to connect the many levels in multiple ways like Star Fox 64 had done. Finally, Q-Games turned the series to interesting strategic grounds, but forgot to build compelling missions on Star Fox Command; crafting a game with great bones but poor content.

Now, after being absent for a whopping eight years, Fox and his crew are now set to make a comeback on the Wii U. Although Nintendo's outsourcing measures have given us quite a few gems – such as Punch-Out Wii, Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon, and Mario Strikers – fans cannot help but let out a sigh of relief to see that Miyamoto is apparently taking charge of the project.

It is true that the master game designer has stumbled on a few occasions during recent years, as it is evidenced by the lackluster Wii Music or in his blatantly negative influence on Paper Mario: Sticker Star, which stripped the game of all the elements that made that series fun. Still, even though he is human, the track record indicates that when he and Nintendo EAD deal with a Star Fox game, they tend to hit it out of the park.

Although, naturally, not unanimous what fans want – and have been wishing for during all these years - is a Star Fox game in the vein of the first two glorious titles. They crave for short missions with lots of scoring opportunities, thrilling dogfights against nameless enemies or remarkable foes that get under one's skin, multiple levels that can only be unlocked by meeting certain criteria or finding a secret exit, quotable epic or goofy dialogues, and that massive empowering feeling one experiences when manning an airwing.

The truth is the table seems to be set for yet another very good game. In its favor, the game has all the technological advances that have taken place since its last outing. The Wii U's hardware will allow the creation of absolutely mesmerizing alien scenarios. Meanwhile, a strong online infrastructure is bound to support various kinds of leaderboards, downloadable missions that will extend the game's already considerable value, and – for the delight of all fans – a stellar multiplayer mode with tons of options.

Besides, Miyamoto seems to be greatly inspired with his new project. The announcement of gyro controls and a cockpit view that is constantly displayed on the Gamepad, not to mention side-missions with lots of alternative gameplay methods, indicates that he aims to make intense use of the system's most unique – and underused feature – the tablet controller. Though such news may be despairing to those who prefer a traditional approach to gaming, it is important to note that, recently – after Super Smash Bros Brawl, Nintendo has sought to produce games with as many control options as possible.

More importantly than all of that, though, is that Miyamoto has seemingly noticed that the times in which we live are perfectly suited for a game like Star Fox. If back in 1997 the world of technology was looking for complexity and size – a factor that might have influenced the franchise's bumpy detour - it now aims for simplicity.

A website with just one button is the gateway to all information in the world, and the most important pieces of news are broadcasted in 140 characters. As Miyamoto said it himself, people do not have much free time anymore, so an episodic game packed with short missions could be a sensible option in times like these.

The world urges for the simplicity of good-old arcade titles, and Star Fox will look to deliver it in beautiful and frantic dogfighting glory.

Albums of the Month: August 2014

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Album: Parklife

Artist: Blur

Released: April 25th, 1994

Highlights: End of a Century, Parklife, Jubilee, This is a Low

If The Kinks' Ray Davies' was the great musical chronicler of British life during a portion of the 60s and most of the 70s, then Damon Albarn kept that heritage rolling when the Britpop movement came around. While “Modern Life is Rubbish”, Blur's stellar second record, had already proved he could – armed with humor and wit – write about curious blokes masterfully, “Parklife” retained the same character-centric songwriting but was more consistent.

Parklife is, during its sixteen songs, driven by social commentary. Blur's blend of punky fast-paced songs sprinkled with delightful hooks, and beautiful weary ballads were the perfect ingredients to fuel Albarn's satirical spirit. His relationship with his country mirrors what every average citizen thinks of his homeland: he loves it and is proud of some cultural quirks, but at the same time he can't help making fun of lingering customs and attitudes that bother him.

He attacks what displeases him through nearly cartoonish characters. There is Tracy Jacks, who bulldozes his house after being driven mad by social pressures. There is Jubilee, a perfect picture of the doomed lazy youth. And the title track, which features a parade of bizarre people going about their daily business. Simultaneously, he seems to be bothered by how American culture was slowly “corrupting” the British ways – perhaps a reaction to Blur's struggles to break into the US – and he makes it clear in Bill Barrett, who sees America as an immaculate paradise of malls, TV and opportunity.

Although “Parklife” was not the original Britpop record – that distinction belongs to either “Modern Life is Rubbish” or Suede's self-titled debut – it represents a lot of the cultural pride the movement was partially responsible for resurrecting during the early 90s. It is an album that looks inward to find something to hate light-heartedly and love dearly, and it reveals the value and style of being British. From its greyhound racing cover to the last moments of “Lot 105” it is a whimsical, and sometimes gorgeous, journey through the ups-and-downs of UK life.

Album: Animals

Artist: Pink Floyd

Released: January 23rd, 1977

Highlights: Dogs, Pigs (Three Different Ones)

Squeezed between the sonic lush of “Dark Side of the Moon” and “Wish You Were Here”, and the theatrical hit-ridden “The Wall”, lies Pink Floyd's angriest record: “Animals”. Based on George Orwell's “Animal Farm”, which portrayed classes of society around different groups of animals, the album follows the same recipe with a twist. Whereas the book was an attack on communism, by stating that all men – regardless of political affiliation – were equally corrupted once they achieved power; the album was an acid take on capitalism.

Bookended by two parts of the same short folky song, “Pigs on the Wing”, are three lengthy Floydian epics: “Pigs”, “Dogs”, and “Sheep”. Waters makes use of those numbers to spill his hatred towards the injustices caused by greed. “Pigs” are those who sit on top of the social ladder – politicians and businessman, growing richer through the hard work of others. “Dogs” are their loyal soldiers – bosses who seek to perpetuate the insane desires from their leaders in order to gain their favor. And “Sheep” are the numerous workers who are restlessly explored.

Deriving from that contempt is a vicious sound that was not replicated on any other Pink Floyd album. “Pigs” and “Sheep” are particularly belligerent. Both gravitate around heavy riffs, the former more sludgy and the latter brutally fast-paced, and Waters delivers his vocals with challenging despise. Gone are the velvety harmonies that had starred the band's three precedent records, and in comes distilled violence.

The signature bluesy quiet Pink Floyd groove is only present in the middle section of “Dogs”, the only song penned by both Gilmour and Waters and where the guitarist delivers one of his finest solos. But even in its low-key country aspirations, “Dogs” - a seventeen-minute tour de force – still presents a rebellious edge, culminating with a mad vocal attack against the song's titular beasts. Despite its demanding structure, “Animals” stands tall as one of the band's finest works (it's certainly the most unique of the bunch) and, as a concept album, it is more consistent and engaging than the very good “The Wall”.

Album: Preservation Act 1

Artist: The Kinks

Released: November 16th, 1973

Highlights: Sweet Lady Genevieve, One of the Survivors, Sitting in the Midday Sun

At some point during The Kinks' legendary career, Ray Davies' storytelling ambitions corroded his incredible songwriting skills. “The Village Green Preservation Society”, “Arthur”, “Lola Versus the Powerman”, and “Muswell Hillbillies” were records that presented a perfect balance between music and story – mostly achieved via a plot that served the songs, and not the other way around. However, such equilibrium would eventually become one-sided to lengths that would cause the ship to capsize spectacularly.

“Preservation Act 1” is not the moment on which the boat sank, but it marks the occasion when the sea started to become angry. Here, the plot is still loose enough to allow Davies to freely manufacture his trademark tunes, melodies, intriguing characters, and funny remarks, and although they are not as stellar as fans were used to seeing during the band's peak, they are are still pretty damn good.

By painting the outline of life in a peaceful village green, and the greedy forces seeking to demolish the place and turn it into something more profitable, he is able to explore the group's many facets. There is the pleasant and laid-back pop/rock of “Sweet Lady Genevieve”, an overlooked masterpiece of British music; the hard rock riffs (something that The Kinks pioneered) that are made even more aggressive by Dave Davies' guitar playing on “One of the Survivors”; and the theatrical vibe of “Demolition” and “Money and Corruption”.

In a way, “Preservation Act 1” is the album Ray, a vaudeville lover, had always wanted to write. After all, its plot development is very sensible to be shown on a stage, making it a true rock opera – whereas the other classic Kinks albums play more like collections of thematically cohesive songs. Its legacy is somehow tarnished given that its sequel “Preservation Act 2”, and a couple of Kinks albums that would follow, lacked in songs and drowned in plot; however, given the quality of its numbers and its bright humor mixed with social commentary, it should be more fondly remembered.

Album: Stage Fright

Artist: The Band

Released: August 17th, 1970

Highlights: The Shape I'm In, The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show, Daniel and the Sacred Harp, Stage Fright

“Stage Fright”, The Band's third record, is frequently overlooked when most rattle off what they consider to be the group's classic output. However, such oversight turns out to be glaringly unfair when one weighs the album's outstanding qualities. It is, by all means, just as good as its two predecessors and the legendary “The Basement Tapes”; the works that are often used to define the musicianship presented by the group. In fact, it would not be absurd to call it slightly more consistent than its more popular brothers.

It is a concise work: ten original songs and thirty-five minutes. Consequently, from beginning to end, it does not present a single weak link. The ethereal value that is infused in The Band's efforts remains strong here. These are simple folky songs alternating between beautiful and catchy that could have been written anywhere at anytime. In an era where rock bands were looking to expand their horizons, The Band trimmed theirs down to the most basic and organic elements, and “Stage Fright” is the third display of that heavenly straightforward approach.

The simplicity of the compositions also meant they would have sounded marvelous regardless of how one decided to tackle them; whether it was with a brass band or with just a guitar. But they are lucky to find – in the voices of Helm, Danko, and Manuel – gifted interpreters that truly put their souls into their singing, not to mention Robertson's precise guitar-playing and Hudson's layered – but never exaggerated – pianos and organs, which come together to produce a traditional and roots atmosphere.

The ultimate magic of “Stage Fright”, just like The Band's other great works, is how it mixes influences that are common to most rock groups (blues, country, folk, and R&B) and turns them into songs that are seemingly protected in resistant time capsules. It is impossible to file them under a time or genre; they simply exist away from all kinds of erosion. They were tunes made in a bubble – unaware of the market and shifting trends that surrounded them – and there they remain. It is music at its purest form performed by geniuses that know how to treat a masterpiece.

Pure Pink Power

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Kirby games are ridiculously easy. That is one of the main accusations Nintendo's pink puffball needs to contend with, and – in a way – it is true. Compared to the brutal platforming heights reached by Mario, the historically insane difficulty of the Mega Man series, and the challenges faced by players when they tackle the average Donkey Kong adventure, Kirby's journeys through Dreamland are a breeze.

The problem with such a statement, though, is that it is often said negatively. It is as if there is no fun in smashing through enemies as if they were made out of paper, or if developers are to blame for the fact Kirby can deal with most situations without breaking a sweat. There is, and they are not.

It all boils down to this: Kirby is a force of nature. Behind that cuddly little face of his lies one of the universe's greatest powers, and no matter what designers throw at him, he will be able to overcome it easily. For foes, he is a weapon of mass destruction; he is biologically engineered to survive in the harshest conditions and surpass the most hostile obstacles. He is unstoppable.

That is why controlling that bouncy blob of cotton candy is such a joy to those with a passion for virtual annihilation. It is like carelessly waving a wrecking ball dangerously close to the most glorious Minecraft structures; unleashing a massive UFO attack paired up with a chain of tornadoes over a perfectly built Sim City metropolis; or building a roller-coaster that launches its train high up into the air on the brilliant theme park simulator created by Chris Sawyer.

To be fair, the level designers do attempt to detain his progression through the levels. Sometimes they do it through smart platforming tricks and ideas, and sometimes they have to resort to extravagantly exaggerated methods. However, for the former, Kirby can count on the aid of players to navigate around the troubles; while, for the latter, there is always the obscenely powerful transformations that multiply the character's atomic power.

In the end, that is one of the funnest aspects found within each of the franchise's titles: witnessing how developers desperately attempt to block his advances, and how they fail miserably as Kirby either merely shrugs off the ordeals or blows them up spectacularly.

For Mario, Sonic, and Donkey Kong, bottomless pits are death. Not the kind of death that is cruel and final, but it is tough enough to take away one of their lives. Not only does Kirby mostly ignore the concept of a life counter – apparently, he is immortal – but he can escape the clutches of most pitfalls by inflating himself and floating away.

When he does fall from grand heights, there is no gory ending; no loss of energy. Where his peers are made of flesh and blood, Kirby's elastic consistency causes him to drop like a feather. To him, gravity is a minor inconvenience.

And then there is water, the nightmare of most platforming stars. Mario is such a poor swimmer his underwater levels have become infamous. Sonic's aversion to it has turned the seemingly mundane substance into his kryptonite; his deadliest foe. The Kong family, meanwhile, is pretty average on those scenarios without the help of Engarde.

As for Kirby, he seems to be rather comfortable when taking a swim. Water is so pleasant to him he carries a pair of goggles to better enjoy it. The casual look adds a vacation vibe to the whole deal, giving off the impression that he is simply relaxing in some tropical resort instead of saving the world. And that goes without mentioning the instances on which he turns into a dolphin or into a submarine, which further extends the mockery towards his peers' inability to deal with water.

Actually, his freewheeling underwater-wear might indicate that, to him, all that occasional fuss around Dreamland, and his subsequent adventure is like a bizarre annual hobby. It does not look like he is on vacation, he is – by all means – on vacation.

When it comes to enemies, Mario can be rather clumsy when dealing with them – especially when he is not equipped with a power-up. To Sonic, they are speed bumps, if speed bumps could get one killed quite effectively. To Donkey Kong, they often mean instant death; therefore, they must be dealt with through extreme caution.

To Kirby, on the other hand, they are a silly formality. Armed with only his fists, feet, and mouth, he can mow them down like there is no tomorrow. Since it takes a ton of hits to bring him down, Kirby can face them with nothing but his own arsenal. However, in order to make things interesting – and more sadistic – there is always the option to suck away their powers and use them to bring armies of bad guys into submission with a large array of techniques.

Sometimes, more powerful entities with a larger set of moves will show up trying to showcase their force, but resistance is futile. All of their fireworks are for nothing, because Kirby cannot be defeated and will find a way to humiliate them. It is the gaming equivalent of that iconic Raiders of the Lost Ark sword fight scene that shows that efficiency always trumps flash, only it is repeated a hundred times through the course of a game.

If course, there are also the mighty bosses. Whether it is the goofy Dedede, the mysterious Meta Knight, the signature Whispy Woods, or other menacing demon-like combatants, Kirby can come out as the victor by simply mindlessly attacking. Mario would have to pull off major acrobatics to avoid incoming attacks while waiting for the opportunity to strike, and even Link would need to carefully find the creature's soft spot.

Kirby has the option not to wait. He can just punch the boss until he cries fro mercy, turn into a magnificent fireball, slash him to pieces, freeze him to death, or drop on his head like a destructive anvil. Heck, he might even just doze off in order to flaunt his natural supremacy. He is not a killer with a defined working method; he can get frighteningly creative.

Hence, the next time you are going through a Kirby game and come to the erroneous conclusion that things are too easy, just remember: you are looking at it from the wrong perspective. The challenges he faces would have been hard for any other platforming star out there, but, for Kirby, they are nothing but a minor pushover.

Playing a Kirby game is watching as this cute little being turns all stage hazards and enemies that dare face him to cosmic colorful dust. You are in control of a massive galactic power that nonchalantly brings everything to the ground. He might dance, laugh, enchant, and act carelessly, but – perhaps unbeknown to him – he is a machine of utter obliteration. There is nothing that can be done about it.

Mario Kart 8 Review

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All competitors are left barely visible on the rear-view mirror

Mario Kart games have grown to be the main staple of every new Nintendo console. Though other major franchises are a lock to appear whenever a new generation comes around, absolutely none of them are as consistent as the Mushroom Kingdom's go-kart competition. The Legend of Zelda and Super Mario series have unshakable qualities, but their shifts in progression and structure add a twist of unpredictability to every new installment.

With Mario Kart, on the other hand, fans know what they will get: three-lap races around incredible venues with calamity-inducing items lying at every corner, and that is precisely what Mario Kart 8 delivers. This is business as usual for the plumber and his crew, and that means expectations attached to the game are that it present, aside from a considerable evolution in relation to its direct predecessors, the pinnacle of this generation's kart racing. And, in that regard, the game is a resounding success.

The first thing players will notice when experiencing Mario Kart 8 is that, visually, it is an enormous leap in relation to the Wii game. Never has a title in the franchise squeezed so much out of its console's power, and it is awfully hard to find a Wii U game that looks this impressive. The colors are vivid, the environments ridiculously detailed, and – in the midst of explosions, lightning, and chaos – the game runs as smoothly as possible.

While on both the Gamecube and Wii outings of the series Nintendo cut corners by employing cell-shaded techniques in the scenarios and, especially, in the character models, Mario Kart 8 goes the other way. The visual elements that add flavor to the racing tracks are gorgeous and truly come alive. Meanwhile, the models are so utterly polished most of them would be right at home on a Pixar flick. Everything is mesmerizing.

But a great Mario Kart game is not just made of technological advances, it needs to provide something that tweaks the races themselves. Mario Kart 8 goes beyond tweaking: it adds an element that makes most of its races quite unique as far as the franchise goes. If Double Dash had racers working in pairs to achieve victory, Mario Kart 8 has them turning upside-down.

All of the courses, at least the sixteen new ones, feature anti-gravity segments where tracks often twist and turn like a coiled snake. That quirk is far from being a merely aesthetic trick; though it does manufacture some flooring visual effects, its impact is felt directly on the gameplay. While on anti-gravity mode, colliding against another racer awards both parts with an extra boost, paving the way for in-race cooperation between two competitors trying to reach another one that is further ahead.

However, the most fantastic consequence of that zero-gravity nature is not the occasional extra speed, but how it allows the track designers to be free of any earthly bounds. Racers will go up waterfalls, travel through a mansion of impossible engineering, ride a storm, slide on a dam, and go through many other absurd obstacles. If Mario Kart courses are already known as being irremediably wacky, then Mario Kart 8 takes the insanity to a whole new level, and the overall quality of the racing venues is so high it is hard to find a slightly bad apple in the bunch.

As tradition dictates, aside from the sixteen new courses, Mario Kart 8 features other four cups filled with tracks taken straight from previous installments. Thanks to the game's blatant graphical leap – not to mention the gravity-based segments, and underwater and gliding powers introduced to the karts on Mario Kart 7 – those retro maps will feel relatively new even to expert players. Some of them are downright unrecognizable given the amount of pleasant changes implemented.

The game also messes around with the item distribution system, and the results are quite positive. Instead of handing out items based on the player's current position, the quality of the weapon one receives is now determined by how far they are from the lead. Consequently, someone who is in 2nd place might get triple shells if the leader is distant, and if everybody is packed together it is possible – but not likely – everyone will receive bananas.

That clever implementation keeps the fun randomness that always surrounds races in a Mario Kart game. At the same time, it makes climbing up the leaderboard much harder given how the last-placed player might not get an item that is much better than that of the leader if everyone is close. It highlights the importance of skill without forgetting about giving everyone a chance to win, and that is a great thing.

That change, however, does not stop CPUs from being absurdly lucky when it comes to picking up and using items. Those who are willing to try to get three stars on every GP will face the same frustration encountered on previous installments, as losing races due to sheer bad luck is not a rare occurrence. Skill and, mainly, patience are a must.

When it comes to controller options, Mario Kart 8 sports quite a variety. It is possible to use the Wiimote, the Wiimote and Nunchuck, the classic controller, or the Gamepad. The Wiimote, especially when paired up with the Wii Wheel, works perfectly, precisely mapping the motion that is done with what happens on the screen. It is an amazingly immerssive setup that is fun, features a lengthy learning curve, and is very competitive even on the online modes. The other options are very good as well.

Regardless of the option chosen, the Gamepad will be used to display the current race ranking, the items all competitors are holding, and the track's map. While that is a smart decision, considering how it clears the screen of any cluttered graphics, it is completely baffling that it is impossible to choose to have some of that information shown on the TV. Therefore, if one wants some of that info, they have to go through the huddle of glancing at the Gamepad, an annoyance that becomes bigger if the player is not using it as their control scheme.

Even if that is a considerable – yet basic – flaw, the biggest slip-up committed by Mario Kart 8 involves its battle mode. There are no battle arenas here. Instead, the item-centered clashes take place on the racing tracks themselves. The matches are definitely fun; they are highly configurable and mix survival with a point-based system on which the winner is the one that is able to track down and hit the biggest amount of people. However, the courses were obviously not made with battles in mind, and – naturally – the affairs end up not being as fun as they could have been.

Before getting into the racing or battling action, one must wisely choose the character and kart setup that will pave the way to victory, and Mario Kart 8 has a great array of choices. In total, there is a excellent cast of 30 characters to choose from, and although there are some pleasant surprises – such as the introduction of the 7 Koopalings – it is slightly disappointing to see some popular racers such as Birdo, Dry Bones, Funky Kong, among others, be left behind when the unexplainable Pink Gold Peach, Baby Daisy, and Baby Rosalina make it.

In addition, as it happened on Mario Kart 7, players must assemble their karts by choosing one chassis, one set of wheels, and a glider. The different parts are unlocked as coins are accumulated, and the high number of components – there are over fifty parts to be picked from – means that rarely will two players climb aboard the same vehicle and use the same stats to try to achieve victory.

To top it all off, the final glorious touch is brought by the game's stellar online mode. It is possible to take part in races with random groups of up to twelve players in order to win or lose VR (the game's instrument to measure how good a player is and with whom he should be matched up), play frantic battles, and either create or partake in tournaments (both public and private) on which players must accumulate points to climb up the ranks.

Like the local versus races, those tournaments can have options such as vehicles allowed, items, team play, control methods, and CPU presence configured supporting the setup of a good range of different kinds of competitions

All in all, Mario Kart 8 is one fantastic game. Its anti-gravity mechanics are a clever way to add new gameplay elements to the series while giving developers the chance to express all of their creativity in the crafting of various flooring tracks and in the reinvention of old courses. It is with these little steps into new directions that the franchise is able to keep itself fresh after so many years, growing strong instead of stale, and taking an ever firmer grip on the kart-racing genre. As far as it concerns Mario Kart 8, the table is set for the plumber to remain king of party racing for quite a while. All competitors are barely visible on the rear-view mirror.

Ragged Beauty

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For an acclaimed director who built his career on the portrayal of strong female characters, choosing the story of Jiro Horikoshi – the Japanese plane designer responsible for the creation of important World War II fighters – as the basis for his swan song is certainly an oddity. However, that is precisely how Hayao Miyazaki, the head of Studio Ghibli, puts an exclamation point on his life's astounding body of work.

With “The Wind Rises” he displays, in glorious and lush animation, a slightly romanticized view of the life of a man who, like many others, dealt with the conflict of watching his passion be turned into a killing machine by the powers that be. Horikoshi once famously stated that “All I wanted to do was to make something beautiful”, and – with that sentence as his source of inspiration – Miyazaki put together one of his most thought-provoking creations.

It all begins at the point when a teenage Jiro, who dreamed of becoming a pilot, realizes he will never be one due to his poor eyesight. Instead, moved by an utopic dream in which he sees the creation of planes as something purely beautiful and liberating, the young boy sets out to be a designer. The movie, then, chronicles his life up to the moment a devastated Japan tries to recover after an utterly catastrophic war that left the country in hopeless ruins.

The movie's complete arch is rather telling of its nature: it begins with a naive colorful delirium that gives birth to a slightly idealistic human, and ends with the confrontation of that purity with the cold bitterness of reality. Jiro is so overwhelmed by his desire to make a plane that matches what is being produced internationally that he frequently overlooks what the objective of these machines are. However, he is often being put face-to-face with the poisonous power struggle that is so prominent in the real world.

“The Wind Rises” does not solely focus on Jiro's legendary professional career, though. Miyazaki takes some liberties with the designer's biography in order to add a layer of romance to the story. That extra element, however, is perfectly tied together with the movie's overall theme. Jiro meets and marries a woman afflicted tuberculosis, and even if her very delicate condition requires special care, she often willingly neglects it in order to get to spend time with her beloved husband.

Jiro, in turn, as an extremely driven professional, occasionally lets his work get the best of him, failing to come home on time, or be there when she is in need of his presence. It creates an interesting contrast, for while at work he is the one that compromises the ideal beauty of flying due to the final purpose of the planes he designs, at home his wife sacrifices herself so she can support him entirely and they are able to create beautiful memories while they can.

“The Wind Rises”, therefore, is not unique in the director's canon only as a movie that stars a male character. It is also rather distinctive in the fact that it is firmly realistic. Dreams of lovely aviation get shattered by wars on which both sides waste human lives; promises of love that are genuine end up being sometimes broken by dull and gray duty.

It is not, by any means, a sad movie. The couple gets to live a relatively happy and beautiful marriage, and the wide-eyed boy does watch the plane of his dreams take off in its full splendor. Yet, none of those achievements are as unblemished as they were supposed to be. They are dented by the vicious claws of reality, and that might make them even more beautiful, for nothing that comes too easily is as gorgeous as something created in the midst of daunting difficulties.

By far, the largest triumph achieved on “The Wind Rises” is that it does not make any points. As a movie that gravitates around the life of a man who created machines of war, it obviously touches on some extremely delicate questions. Still, it does not take any sides.

It approaches its more sensitive matters extremely loosely, a delicacy that is often the main calling card of all the masterpieces ever done by Studio Ghibli; and it raises a lot of questions, both political and personal, only to leave them floating in the air so that each viewer – with their backgrounds and points of view – can decide what to think of what they are seeing. Its themes remain low-key throughout the movie's running time, which showcases impressive movie-making maturity.

In spite of all that depth, “The Wind Rises” is far from perfect. By going through a great part of the life of a complex character in two hours, the movie skips around a little bit too much. A few times, it cuts from one situation to the next, which might happen five years later on a totally different location, without providing a smooth transition between the two scenarios.

Consequently, some of the scenes feel – for some minutes – a little bit disjointed from the previous happenings, which can slightly harm the emotional effects or thematic value some occurrences are meant to have. In some cases, that lack of unity can cause some of the movie's minor relationships to feel quickly put together, making some supposedly major scenes either come off as slightly awkward or fall completely flat.

Hayao Miyazaki may not have ended his journey as a director by assembling his greatest work, but he does leave the spotlight with a good round of a applause. “The Wind Rises”, without abandoning a dreamy atmosphere, is far more realistic than any of his other works, and it shows a strong prowess in dealing with and developing a major male character. More importantly, it is a film that lifts so many questions up to the air, demanding further thoughts and analysis, that it doesn't matter what lesson one will take from this movie, it will certainly be imprinted in one's mind for years to come.

How Green Was My Valley

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Nowadays, with the digital distribution platforms provided by many of the industry's giants, groups of indie developers with low budgets and bright ideas have found a great entry-point to the gaming market. Given the financial limitations and small personnel of those companies, most of them – wisely – set out to build titles of straightforward structure and presentation.

Frequently, the path chosen in order join simplicity and charm is one: 8-bit graphics. It is hard to pinpoint when that visual revival started, but by looking back on the recent history of videogames, one old-school landmark in particular stands out: Mega Man 9.

By 2008, the year of the game's release, the state of that franchise was not very distant from the situation in which Sonic finds himself ever since 3-D graphics became the norm. Although the Blue Bomber never reached the embarrassing low points hit by Sega's hedgehog, a considerable amount of time had passed since the character had last starred in an adventure of remarkable quality.

Capcom's solution to the problem was simple. In order to push the franchise forward, they would look into its past by producing an 8-bit game – with all its graphical, musical, and control boundaries – in the 21st century. Six years later, when the amount of games of the sort that have appeared since then is counted, that move does not look like such a big deal. However, back then, it was somewhat bold.

Nobody was really sure whether or not there was still a market for that kind of software. Capcom was playing a low-risk and high-reward game; after all, it was a massive company investing in a low-budget title featuring its most beloved mascot. Still, nobody likes to see a product sink in failure, and Mega Man 9 was the simplest of games launched in the midst of a battle of high-definition graphics. It was, by all means, an ant – albeit a popular one – among titans.

Mega Man 9 hit it out of the park. In fact, it did so well that it warranted a sequel, which would be released two years later to equal commercial and critical accolades. It proved that experienced players craved for brutal and bare-bones games in the middle of all complexity found in modern efforts, and that a new generation of gamers was willing to discover and enjoy the industry's legacy.

The greatest testament to the success of Mega Man 9, though, was the huge amount of 8-bit and old-school titles that would flood the online marketplaces to the delight of fans and critics alike. Super Meat Boy, the Bit Trip series, To the Moon, Cave Story, Fez, La Mulana, and the recently released Shovel Knight are just some of the examples of works that, perhaps, would not have gained the deserved attention had Mega Man failed to open up the gates.

Games of that sort have to contend with a factor that can be both helpful and perilous: nostalgia. It is no secret that all 8-bit titles try to bet on that fondness towards the past with the goal to charm players who lived through that romantic era. Almost invariably, it works; throw in some nice chiptunes, a few references to old treasures, and well-crafted blocky visuals and the game will produce a good bunch of smiles on an older audience.

In spite of that, relying on nostalgia alone to build a quality game, a strategy used by Retro City Rampage, is a recipe for underwhelming results. A few moments of feel-good remembrance of old times do not make a good game by themselves. Actually, tackling the production of an adventure of the sort is not taking a shortcut to greatness carried by the wheels nostalgia; it is the killing of a dragon full of old tricks. Acknowledging that is the first step developers involved in such a project must climb on their way to positive results.

All in all, there are two types of audiences that must be charmed: youngsters who are used to flashy new visual standards, and players that – through hours of gaming spread across numerous generations – have seen and experienced quite a lot.

Charming the former group usually demands the crafting of old-school games with touches of modern gaming. Developers and companies alike have learned a lot during all these years, and polishing the simple 8-bit gameplay with the knowledge acquired on those failures and successes is vital.

Meanwhile, alluring the more experienced audience goes through the finding of a way to make surprising design choices to create inventive levels. That is a tough path to take considering the amount of 8-bit classics out there that have fully explored bags of ideas, which goes to highlight how hard it is to produce a game of that sort on this day and age. Another easier, yet still daunting, option is using 8-bit graphics as a platform for some brand new gameplay ideas.

It is in the merging of all those characteristics that most of the recently created 8-bit classics inhabit.

Super Meat Boy, while drowned in its brutality, made its gauntlets ridiculously short, which shows a great degree of awareness towards the frustration most 80s gamers went through when playing long levels with no checkpoints whatsoever. It added modern ideas in a purely old-school cauldron of gameplay.

Mega Man 9 tried to emulate the masterpiece that was Mega Man 2. And, confined within the use of a structure that was identical to that of its much older brother, it found brilliant ways to put out a set of incredible levels and abilities that displayed great creativity.

The Bit Trip series invented multiple gameplay scenarios of ancient simplicity but newly found concepts that gave birth to a contemporary game dressed in the looks and easy-to-digest spirit of long-gone arcade titles.

And then, there is the incredible and very fresh Shovel Knight. It is a game that draws clear inspiration from the Mega Man blueprint. Its levels are uniquely themed, clever bosses await at the end of each stage, and the titular character can master many useful abilities.

In order to keep things interesting to both newcomers and long-time players, it employs great level design ideas, scenarios with multiple beautiful 8-bit layers, an overworld in the vein of that of Super Mario Bros 3, and towns filled with intriguing NPCs and tons of shopping opportunities that are a clear nod to Adventure of Link. It is old-school 8-bit gaming made stronger by ideas that came during or after that era.

It goes to show that even though there will always be various games that will try to gain notoriety only by relying on nostalgia, the only ones that will be praised enough to stand side-by-side with the blocky works of art of yesteryears are those that seek to bring something new and remarkable to the table.

Swift Law, Steadfast Logic

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The Nintendo DS – arguably the best handheld system of all time – gave the world a library of titles containing innumerable quality games that covered all of the industry's core niches. Its dual screens and touch commands nourished the creation of software that either used those functionalities to power complex gameplay scenarios, or took advantage of the hardware's clever simplicity to craft games that were fun and easy to pick-up and play.

Straightforward works like Meteos, Brain Age, and Elite Beat Agents flourished beautifully with the aid of the stylus and the support of stripped-down concepts. Meanwhile, more complex efforts like Grand Theft Auto, The Legend of Zelda, and Advance Wars had their engines oiled by quick and easy commands.

However, amidst all that gaming goodness, the system's largest contribution was, perhaps, the fact that it allowed the rebirth of a genre that stands nicely between the humble structure of the former group and the intricate bones of the latter.

Point-and-click adventures had been virtually dead – at least from a mainstream perspective – ever since LucasArts, the creative mother of that gameplay style, abandoned the ship it had built in order to focus on highly-profitable Star Wars epics. The fact that the power of computers rose to a point on which the static-scene anatomy of those games started being seen as aged had seemingly put the final nail on that digital coffin.

But that corpse blasted right through that casket when the Nintendo DS came around. Its portable size was the perfect trampoline for storybook games with heavy amounts of text, and the smoothness of the stylus appeared to be suitable for a exploratory kind of gameplay on which players had to investigate the screen by touching certain points of interest.

Numerous titles were the offspring of that ideal scenario, such as the wonderful Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective, or the mysterious Hotel Dusk: Room 215. Still, no games were able to garner as much critical and commercial appreciation as the ones starring a goofy attorney and a wise scholar. Phoenix Wright and Professor Layton read the book written by Monkey Island, Maniac Mansion, Full Throttle, and Grim Fandango, and updated it with great style.

Wright replaced the item-based puzzle-solving with crime investigation that culminated on exciting trials, while Layton approached riddles in a different way: by betting on more traditional and logical problems. In spite of their difference in style, the two games were united by common threads that had always permeated the genre: fantastic storytelling that served as the main fuel to the gameplay through incredible well-written twists, and interesting environments whose lines were determined by great art.

As it turned out, the updated point-and-click style found a very receptive audience. The four Layton games released on the DS ranked among the system's highest sellers, with all of them selling over 1.9 million copies worldwide. And although Phoenix Wright did not achieve the same extreme numbers, it did well enough for Capcom to spin a series of five games packed with cases, trials, and mysteries.

Given the similarities between both franchises, and the fact they were the most prominent catalysts of the rebirth of a beloved but long-forgotten genre, it is only fitting that Layton and Wright join forces in the same game. Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright, released in Japan almost two years ago and in Europe early this year, will arrive in the Americas – and in the arms of a fanbase that has been waiting for a really long time – next month.

It is one of those too-good-to-be-true concepts that border on fan-fiction, but it is about to become real due to the joint efforts of Capcom and Level-5. To those who enjoy both Layton's logic-defying puzzles and Wright's courtroom attitude, it will be the gaming equivalent of being a superhero fan and going to the movies to watch The Avengers in full-blown silver screen glory. It is the joining of different universes into one cohesive realm, and watching the different factions interact and work together will be a sweet scene to many.

If the gameplay style the game will feature is already familiar to those who have enjoyed both series, the greatest expectations end up falling on the shoulders of its storyline. The Professor Layton and Ace Attorney series are among the finest storytelling achievements in gaming, creating stellar characters, situations, and surprises through brilliant narratives and dialogues.

The union of forces behind the scenes (the Level-5 and Capcom writers) and on the screen (Layton and Luke paired up with Wright and Maya) will likely create some astounding developments during the adventure.

And, when it is all said and done, Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright could, through the display of a great tale, pay a great homage to the line of games that inspired both characters. After all, what truly made the family of LucasArts adventure titles so universally beloved and culturally relevant were its delightful scripts, which proved how powerful a great plot can be when it is employed on a game that claims for it.

Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright could make that point resonate almost two decades after point-and-click adventures were seemingly left for dead. And that would be the greatest favor it could do for Monkey Island, Maniac Mansion, Full Throttle, and Grim Fandango. As Layton and Wright head towards retirement, they could come together to give the genre one more boost and inspire a new generation of games of its kind.

Then, the LucasArts gaming legacy could be kept alive and kicking, showing that the power of great tales is indeed everlasting.

Mario Golf: World Tour Review

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Though they have explored many sport venues, the golf course is where the Mushroom Kingdom crew feels most comfortable

If games, like humans, hold the ability to inherit the qualities of its predecessors through some sort of electronic gene pool, then Mario Golf: World Tour was born to be a winner. In the midst of the mixed – but generally fun – bag of Mario sports titles, the Mario Golf franchise has never failed to deliver a great and challenging experience. As the line of games that kicked off the plumber's sports fever back on the Nintendo 64 days, it has nailed it time and time again, whether it was in the form of the extremely refined Toadstool Tour or on the deep role-playing of Advance Tour.

World Tour continues that tradition in a remarkable fashion. Given that Toadstool Tour had already brought the series' mechanics to absolute perfection, this 3DS installment chooses not to overcomplicate things. The implementation of its gameplay is a dead ringer to that of the great Gamecube outing; veteran players will feel right at home when performing long shots and putts alike, and newcomers will get the basic hang of it quite quickly due to how simple – yet deep – the game is.

When out on the course, players will have more than enough information in order to perform great shots. The velocity and direction of the wind, the distance to the target, the ball's flight path, the slopes on the green, the current club, and the difference in altitude between the character's current position and the pin are all clearly displayed.

Even with all that input, pulling off the perfect shot and learning how to weigh all those variables is quite a challenge – especially when the conditions are brutal. And so, Mario Golf lures all kinds of players into its claws. It makes you feel like making an excellent shot is possible, but the many environmental conditions turn landing the ball on the desired location into a thrilling and fun challenge: every stroke works as a tiny little puzzle.

Making the right calculations and approaching the hole with the best strategy is useless if swings are poorly performed, and World Tour's shot mechanics work wonderfully. By using the A-button (or just the touch-screen), a bar will move through the gauge and players will have to press buttons (or touch icons) twice: first to determine the power, then to actually impact the ball. Mistakes on the former can cause the ball to either fall short or go beyond the target, while screwing up on the latter can generate disastrous sideways hooks.

Inexperienced players can opt for an automatic swing, which makes the second part of the motion be controlled by the game itself. However, doing so will not allow them to put spins on the ball: a considerable downgrade to balance out the extra precision. Spins, which are performed via simple two-button combinations, can help balls stop or move forward once they hit the ground, and are of incredible value either when devising a strategy for the stroke or compensating for a mistake that was made when pressing the button to determine the distance.

World Tour pulls ahead of the pack formed by other Mario sports games in the massive amount of content it offers. Whether it is offline or online, the game has a lot of muscle and is able to provide value, variety, and challenge. When it comes to single-player, it is possible to set up rounds of stroke play, speed golf, points play, and match play at will. However, the core of the solo experience undoubtedly resides in the Challenge Mode.

Each of the game's ten courses hosts a whopping twenty tests each: ten that range from easy to hard, and another ten that are downright brutal. Match play battles against designated characters, stroke play rounds where players must reach a certain score, three-hole time trials, and challenges on which players must either go through all rings or collect all coins in a hole and save par are all ridiculously engaging and will test an endless set of skills from all players.

Meanwhile, through Nintendo's network, players will be able to enter a huge amount of tournaments. Regional and Worldwide opens, which are only playable with Miis and award the 60% best-positioned players with the right to play on upcoming Majors, are posted every few weeks and offer exclusive rewards to any who participate and trophies for the top-ranked rounds. The company also frequently publishes Mario Open tourneys, which have wilder rules that may include the obligation to use certain characters or items.

In addition, players themselves can set up their own tournaments by messing around with configurations that include the position of the tees, the wind speeds, the characters and items that can be used, enabling or disabling the flight path, and much more. Those tournaments can either be made public or only available to friends via the use of a code. To top it all off, players can also engage in nine-hole foursomes against random challengers where everybody tackles each hole simultaneously.

The online implementation is extremely smooth, and little details such as the ability to express reactions through audiovisual effects and the markers that show what other players did when taking on the tournament add a great deal to the experience.

The only shortcoming present in the game's online modes is the fact that, in tournaments, it is possible to play an unlimited number of rounds in search of the best score. It is a system that rewards those who grind endlessly, makes all top scores impossibly high, and takes away part of the excitement. A one-and-done implementation would have been far better and fairer.

In spite of all its qualities, World Tour's greatest flaw is bafflingly primary: its content is very poorly structured. The game is split in two main modes: one on which players use their Mii – dubbed Castle Club, and one where all characters can be used. Castle Club is visually charming; its activities are found by walking through a country club filled with Mushroom Kingdom characters, a store loaded with unique pieces of equipment, and a trophy room.

Unfortunately, all that visual candy is wasted for Castle Club is extremely thin. It features a meager three stroke play tournaments that can be cleared within a few hours, three fun training mini-games, and the entry point to the Regional and Worldwide tournaments. The rest, and most, of the game's meat is actually found on the other main mode, on which the content – over 200 challenges, single-player rounds, and other online features – are neatly organized in menus.

That configuration makes it hard to find all the content the game has to offer. Besides, once the three stroke play tournaments are done, the only reasons players will have to go back to Castle Club is buying equipment and entering the Regional and Worldwide opens. Hence, the worst offense of such structure is creating the hassle of having to move between the modes just so that those two features can be accessed. The game should have either opted solely for the use of menus, or made the Castle Club into a huge and appealing hub for everything the game offers.

World Tour's main stars are undoubtedly its courses. They are, after all, where the game's action takes place, and Camelot has delivered a nice package. The game contains four 18-hole venues, including one consisted exclusively of par 3 holes, which have traditional layouts. Additionally, six 9-hole fields located around the Mushroom Kingdom and loaded with gimmicks and traps serve as the wacky counterpart to the more straightforward maps.

Those include Peach's Castle and its pink fairways filled with boost pads, an underwater club, Bowser's Castle, Donkey Kong's Jungle, a giant garden, and a Yoshi course with visual cues taken straight from the character's colorful games. The courses are quite good, and all of them have the ability to put up a challenge even to experienced players if harder tees and stronger winds are configured.

Ten courses and one hundred twenty-six holes are plenty, and all gamers will be satisfied with that initial set. However, it is also possible to purchase a reasonably priced DLC package that will add a handful of characters to the game's already incredible roster, and another six 18-hole courses to the game and, consequently, one-hundred and twenty new challenges to clear.

Those DLC courses are visually enhanced versions of the ones that starred the Nintendo 64 outing of the series, and – even if the fields original to World Tour are very good and varied – most of the DLC ones are better. Some of them are virtual golfing masterpieces that test every stroke, strategy and approach players have on their sleeve, and they end up working as the crowning jewel of World Tour for the ones who acquire them.

Although some of its structural shortcomings may keep it away from being the unquestionable peak of the entire Mario sports franchise, one thing is indisputable: even without the DLC, World Tour packs far more content and value than any of its peers. Regardless of one's thoughts towards the sport, it is an engaging must-buy that can provide hundreds of hours of fantastic gameplay. Even if the Mushroom Kingdom crew has performed quite well on tennis courts, baseball parks, and soccer arenas, their preferred venue seems to be the golf course. It is great to see them back out there smacking balls down the fairways.

Albums of the Month: July 2014

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Album: Lazaretto

Artist: Jack White

Released: June 10th, 2014

Highlights: Temporary Ground, Would You Fight For My Love?, Just One Drink, Entitlement

“Lazaretto”, Jack White's second solo record, does not take grand deviations from its predecessor “Blunderbuss”. Jack does not break into any new sonic grounds. He does, however, continue to guide us through the varied hall of influences he has been drinking from since the early point of his career. Where the White Stripes served as an output for his blues love, his solo albums are a mean for him to tackle other sources, and “Lazaretto” is the second step on that journey.

Differently from “Blunderbuss”, here it is harder to find direct links to The White Stripes, which seems to indicate Jack has dived deeper into his country and folk roots. While that record had “Sixteen Saltines”, a riff-centric song that could have been right at home on “Icky Thump”, “Lazaretto” only comes close to that garage vibe on “Three Women”, the album's opener and an inventive Blind Willie McTell cover; "Would You Fight for My Love?", a dynamic quite-and-loud tune; and “High Ball Stepper”, a great quirky instrumental with distorted guitar screams and wacky shifts.

Everywhere else, Jack toys around with a width of instruments and textures that are beyond what he could achieve alongside Meg due to the restrictions the duo imposed upon themselves. The title song and “That Black Bat Licorice”, for example, flirt with funky beats as a mad Jack shouts a quick succession of words over the microphone, while “Just One Drink” drives forward like the Velvet Underground's “I'm Waiting for the Man”.

The album's greatest strengths, though, lie in the incredible melodies White is able to spin, and nowhere do they become more clear than in the acoustic tunes. The unplugged trio of “Temporary Ground”, “Entitlement”, and “Alone in My Home” are among the catchiest songs he has ever written, which goes to show that, aside from being a wonderful entertainer, Jack White remains a stellar and resourceful composer. “Lazaretto” brings that overwhelming prowess to an engaging display.

Album: Turn Blue

Artist: The Black Keys

Released: May 12th 2014

Highlights: Weight of Love, Fever, In Our Prime, Gotta Get Away

Coming on the heels of “Brothers” and “El Camino”, two albums of extreme commercial and critical success, “Turn Blue” marks the fourth straight time on which Danger Mouse takes on the role of producer for The Black Keys. Like it happened on “El Camino”, aside from manning the board he also shares songwriting credits with Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney on all of the album's eleven tunes. Yet, despite presenting the same formula as its successful predecessors, the results here are far more mixed.

“Brothers” and “El Camino” worked well for they achieved a perfect balance between the producer's electronic soulful sound and The Black Keys' pop-infused blues. “Turn Blue” shows that equilibrium shifting into a more digital spectrum, leaving the guitar and drums either absent or buried in a mix of keyboards. Consequently, while “Turn Blue” does take the band to new grounds – an achievement that is always remarkable, the land they find here is not completely beneficial to the duo's compositions.

The record does work quite well in some points. Sometimes it is because the combination just clicks, such as on “Weight of Love”, where The Black Keys reach into lush and psychedelic Pink Floyd territory, with Gilmour-like solos included; or “Fever” and “Turn Blue”. In other occasions, it is because the group abandons the bells and whistles for stripped-down efforts, like the energetic album closer “Gotta Get Away”, and “In Our Prime”, a weary bluesy number filled with angst.

It is hard to determine why “Turn Blue” is not completely satisfying, but the group – maybe due to trusting their producer too much – occasionally comes off as comfortable, as if they were resting on past laurels. Nowhere is it more evident than on the sequence of five songs that begins with “Year in Review” and ends with “10 Lovers”, where the group turns on their musical autopilot. In spite of its enjoyable moments, “Turn Blue” shows that the great partnership between the group and Danger Mouse might have run its course.

Album: Indie Cindy

Artist: Pixies

Released: April 28th, 2014

Highlights: What Goes Boom, Greens and Blues, Indie Cindy

For any band, producing a record some twenty-three years after their last work is a daunting challenge. For a group whose original run was a flawless seven-year period that yielded four classic records and one historic EP, it is even harder. If any rock act was to pull off something of the sort with great success, the Pixies would have to be a safe bet. After all, they achieved notoriety by defying conventions with mind-twisting dynamics and lyrics of intricate symbolism. They could sure do it, right?

“Indie Cindy” is a tough work to assess. After two decades, it is natural to expect that Francis, Santiago, and Lovering have greatly changed both as people and musicians, so expecting a straight follow-up to “Trompe le Monde” would be downright wrong. At the same time, it is impossible not to compare it to the ridiculously high bar set by the group between 1986 and 1993. That is why it warrants two distinct evaluations: in a bubble it is a good fun album, while as a Pixies record it falls flat.

It is fun because Francis knows a great rock hook when he sees it, as it is evident on the pleasant poppy “Greens and Blues”, which includes a signature Santiago wizard guitar, the sunny surfer “Another Toe in the Ocean”, and the beautiful chorus of “Ring the Bell”. At the same time, it lacks those fall-out-of-the-chair punk moments that were generally caused by the early tunes' mad progression and the quick swapping of random shouts for blissful quietness.

Truth be told, Francis does achieve – to some level – that kind of flooring magic. The opener “What Goes Boom”, the title song “Indie Cindy”, and the threatening “Magdalena 318" have that unique Pixies edge. But, at the same, the album falls short of the Pixies greatness on good but pedestrian tunes like “Andro Queen” - which would have been great on a Francis solo record, "Blue Eyed Hexe" – an attempt to rewrite the classic “U-Mass”, and “Bagboy” - whose great chorus is wasted on a song with awkward verses.