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The Squirrel's Dirty Mouth

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Nintendo's brand is, rightfully so, associated with family-friendly entertainment in the minds of most people. Although the company does occasionally partake in the either development or the publishing of games with slightly more adult content, the inclination towards colorful characters and light-hearted scenarios runs deep within the vein of its developers and producers.

Conker's Bad Fur Day – released more than a decade ago on the Nintendo 64 and produced by Rareware during its incomparable mid-90s and early-00s streak – is one of those games that carries the Big N's stamp but walks right over the line drawn between fun-for-everyone and a darker side of the gaming alley.

In fact, stating that the adventure merely “crosses” that boundary is rather tame – not to mention glaringly unfair. A far more appropriate description would be that it actually pisses right on top of that border, blurring the frontier of what is acceptable and what is borderline offensive. Then, in its attempt to pick on which side of the street it is going to stand, it drunkenly stumbles, falls on its face, and proceeds to throw up all over itself when trying to get up.

From that point on, the game just loses control of where it is morally headed, and spends the next twelve hours of gameplay producing reactions of disgust, joy, horror, incredulity, and laughter that is – at the same time – both childish and honest.

The game starts with the titular character sitting on a throne and donning a crown. He, in a disturbed and deep tone, claims to be king of the world. However, those royal objects could mean something else altogether. Conker's Bad Fur Day was, at the time of its release, the king of disrespectful games. Thirteen years later, it has barely had its abusive glory challenged.

Sure, games with bad words and questionable content are released monthly, but absolutely none of them are able to match Conker's journey. Perhaps the game's British background – Rare's headquarters are in the United Kingdom – gave its outrageous manner a dryness that made it more low-key and sharp while keeping it on-the-nose. It pulls all that off with uncanny brilliancy, and fills the voids in between its moral insanity with gameplay segments that often turn towards the unexpected.

Considering the crude nature of the package, it is delightfully ironic that – as one kicks off the adventure – the first name they are faced with is “Nintendo”. Conker's Bad Fur Day has a cinematographic quality to it, and it acknowledges that fact from the get go by opening its travails with movie-like credits that expose the name of its publisher with a “Presented by Nintendo” projection, only to then mention its developer.

It is the gaming equivalent of going to the cinema, watching the traditional Walt Disney Pictures castle intro, and subsequently be treated to a flick full of profanities, gore, terror, and sex. The audience will likely wonder if they walked into the wrong room, or if the movie's operator has gone mad. But no, Conker's Bad Fur Day is the right movie reel; the operator is not a psycho. It is just that the project's backer has just, delightfully, temporarily lost its mind.

Conker's Bad Fur Day is so fully aware of the entertaining value of its putrid spirit that it builds its journey around cutscenes, which explains its cinema vibe. There are literally hundreds of them, each depicting situations that are increasingly absurd. Not one to lose an opportunity to ridicule someone, the game embraces those occasions to mock a range of movies with either unsuspecting quotes or full-fledged satirical reproductions of major scenes. The icing on the cake is the voice acting – a grand achievement for the era, which is present throughout the game and adds a lot of life to the whole thing.

The game's flood of indecency is exacerbated by its look. Conker is, unquestionably, a cuddly squirrel; one whose plush would cause most girls' brains to go into some state of inertia. Although most of the other characters he encounters do not have such adorable lines – the secondary designs are intentionally rough – this world is happily colorful. Yes, there might be a hill made of rolling poop in the midst of the game's generally vibrant hub, but the palette used here is not one people tend to relate with mutilations, degenerate vocabulary, and various forms of murder.

Despite the fame he has garnered since the title's release, Conker is initially relatively mild-mannered. His starting is sin is pretty common: going out with friends and getting a bit too drunk. The same applies to his journey, as he sets out not meaning to harm anyone: he just wants to get home safely. It is true he does like money quite a bit (who doesn't?), but other than his greed, he begins the game as a straightforward guy.

The problem is that, as he tries to go back to the safety of his place, he encounters situations and characters that are dirty, corrupt, and borderline evil. To make matters worse, he suddenly finds himself as the target of an evil panther king who, in a ridiculously specific turn of events, needs a red squirrel in order to fix the broken table on top of which he rests his glass of milk. The hero, then, has to go back home and contend with the horror of being perpetually turned into the feet of a coffee table.

His interactions with the outside world are not neutral. He expresses his disgust towards some of the cursing, is loathe to perform some of the tasks he is required to do, and even defends a silly pitchfork against the can of paint bully. However, as the titular bad fur day goes on, he becomes less sensitive: he does not mind butchering a few cows after they are done pooping, he explodes an entire prehistorical civilization, helps a vampire in the murdering of some villagers, and mercilessly crushes a newly born dinosaur that sees Conker as his motherly figure. Little by little, he loses touch with what is right and wrong.

It all culminates on the “Its War!” segment, when – after going through hours of psychologically harmful activities – he needs to face a brutally gruesome conflict that pitches gray squirrels against nightmarishly evil teddy bears manufactured by a mad scientist. He is certainly not innocent, for he displays the ability to sarcastically get out of tough situations when the game begins. However, the psychotic demeanor he comes to display can be explained by a disturbing series of occurrences that have him dealing with everything from an opera-singing pile of excrement to the weasel mob.

After thirteen years out in the world, Conker's Bad Fur Day shows some wrinkles – even if its visuals still work fantastically well. However, the game remains astounding due to two factors: its unique structure and the unpredictability of its gameplay. Its non-explicit subdivision into chapters that are tied into one overworld gives the game a unique flow when compared to other titles of its time: the adventure does feel like a series of crazy events that happen across a day.

All of the scenarios in which Conker finds himself are so far-fetched and unexpected that the end of each segment brings a feeling of wonder in relation to what is coming next. More orthodox platforming segments might be followed by transforming into a bat, singing up for a lava-surfing race, riding on top of a dinosaur, pissing all over a night club, helping a bee pollinate a busty flower, massacring enemies with a machine gun, avoiding deadly bazooka blasts, or being thrown in the middle of a heist that includes Matrix-like moves. It is hard to know what is coming.

Conker's Bad Fur Day is a wild trip into a vortex of madness and stinking morality and it is so utterly over-the-top that its finest moments are eternally imprinted into the minds of those who play it. Conker's psychological downward spiral was legendary then, and it remains legendary now. It is unethical fireworks against a naïve white backdrop, and its depraved ways have yet to be matched.

He begins his day as an average Joe seeking a path home, and – twenty-four hours later – he sits, with his mind annihilated, on a throne ruling over everything that is foul and rotten. It is a hell of a journey.

Rebels With Cause and Purpose

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In recent years, a degrading trend has struck modern cartoons. Influenced by parents who want to avoid discussing thorny subjects with their wide-eyed offspring, the bigwigs leading most networks have consciously opted to favor a brand of shows of empty plots, blank characters, and pale humor. While the conservative nature contained within those works makes the hearts of most adults be at ease due to the sanctity of the entertainment their kids are consuming, it also turns children-oriented TV into one dull pasteurized mass.

No channels have been a bigger display of such philosophy than Disney's vehicles. If some eighty years ago Mickey Mouse engaged in animal harassment just for the sake of producing fun sound effects and Donal Duck exposed attitudes of questionable moral values, a supposedly more open-minded society was now being treated with doses of unadulterated clean jokes.

As it turns out, one of the key components of laughter is absurdity, and no remarkable punchline has ever been born out of situations that are not utterly self-mocking or pattern defying. All great humor either has to look inward in order to come up with a concise, precise, true, and ridiculous conclusion; or look society in the eye and dare to do the unexpected. Humor is witty rebellion against defined standards.

A morally sterile landscape is, therefore, not the perfect ground for the birth of anything that is genuinely funny. However, if something truly hilarious is able to bloom in the midst of so much holiness, it becomes all the more extraordinary. Disney's “Gravity Falls”, a stellar cartoon that has just reached its second season, is exactly that: an oasis of hilarity and clever writing amid a wasteland of handcuffed creativity.

The show's premise is rather simple: two twelve-year old twins, Mabel and Dipper, are sent by their parents – at the beginning of summer – to spend their vacation alongside their great uncle Stan. Mabel is sweet, silly, loving, and honest; while Dipper is intelligent, brave, and somewhat self-conscious. The two, however, share a common trait: they are adventurers, and it is that sense of exploration that powers the show.

In addition, differently from most clichéd brother-and-sister relationships, their rivalry is practically non-existent. They are unstoppable partners that love to spend time together, and although natural mockery occasionally occurs, the two are willing to sacrifice themselves to save the other or give up anything they might have obtained in order to favor the other sibling. Their selfless friendship is truly heartwarming.

Unluckily for the pair, and luckily for viewers, the tiny town inhabited by their uncle is far from normal. In fact, its uniqueness often escalates to life-threatening predicaments. Seemingly unbeknown to most of Gravity Falls' dwellers, their home is filled with supernatural events, weird creatures, and mysteries that – apparently – carry world-changing power.

Dipper quickly discovers such truth when, on the first episode, he comes across a diary written by an unknown author that catalogs the many bizarre occurrences and beings roaming through the land. In a sinister twist, the book's text turns increasingly more paranoid, culminating with the warning sentence “Trust No One” inked in huge urgent calligraphy.

The choice of the setting is masterful: a town situated in a real-life geographic location – somewhere in Oregon – and whose paranormal background supports the weirdest happenings. Zombies, gnomes, minotaurs, vampires, leviathans, mermen and other creatures are able to coexist as logically as possible, and – as a bonus – Dipper and Mabel's progressive investigation into the origins of the diary and the truth behind Gravity Falls gives viewers hope that every otherworldly happening on the show will eventually be explained via one glorious series of slowly revealed twists.

Even if “Gravity Falls” ends up like the infamous “Lost”, on which no satisfactory answer could have possibly been given to tie everything up together, fans will still be able to look back on a lot of wild surprising entertainment fondly. And, most importantly, since we are talking about a wacky cartoon, whatever puzzle it will unveil when its ending comes will have more wiggle room to work with and sound plausible due to the more light-hearted and suspended nature embedded in the color-infused animation art.

Even if “Gravity Falls” ends up like the infamous “Lost”, on which no satisfactory answer could have possibly been given to tie everything up together, fans will still be able to look back on a lot of wild surprising entertainment fondly. And, most importantly, since we are talking about a wacky cartoon, whatever puzzle it will unveil when its ending comes will have more wiggle room to work with and sound plausible due to the more light-hearted and suspended nature embedded in the color-infused animation art.

The show is able to use its mystical prowesses cleverly to muster distinctive atmospheres. Some episodes are downright sinister and are bound to send chills down the spines of even its most adult viewers. Those include the twins' encounter with the Trickster, an overwhelmingly creepy being who curses infants who soil Halloween; the Shape Shifter; a couple of poltergeists with a gloomy back-story; and even threatening dinosaurs.

At the same time, other tales focus on more whimsical occult powers, like a gang of gnomes with a habit of kidnapping girls, a gimmicky carpet with body-switching powers, and wax figurines with a dark purpose.

As a statement to the quality of “Gravity Falls” the show is able to pull off both extremes of the mood palette with ease, and it is impossible to say which of its facets tends to be the best one. There are great episodes that are grim, and there are outstanding ones with a much lighter temper.

Dealing with unnatural matters is not the only element on which the show shines, for it also has an incredible knack for stepping well over the line that separates the morally acceptable from the deplorable in order to pull off major stunts. Those moments are mostly achieved through the character of Stan, the kids' great uncle.

Though his affection for the duo and other secondary characters with whom he interacts frequently is palpable, even under his grumpy demeanor, it is a wonder how two responsible parents left their children under his care through the summer. During the show's two seasons, it has been implied that Stan has undertaken in money-forgery schemes, tax fraud, and numerous other financial crimes, some of which with the aid of the twins themselves.

Additionally, it is blatantly shown that he deceives his customers – portrayed as brainless tourists – by tricking them into believing the items he sells in his Mystery Shack are genuine, when they clearly are not; and openly steals other people's property without any remorse. The cartoon also delightfully toys around with other morally dubious subjects in other occasions, such as on Mabel's recurring addiction to forbidden sugary treats that cause her to hallucinate and foam at the mouth.

Touchy subjects are not always approached with humor and sarcasm, though, because the show knows reasonably well to touchdown from its frantic lunacy in order to explore topics of a greater emotional depth. Even if it is not bound to make anyone cry, “Gravity Falls” can – at its finest moments – tug on its audience's heartstrings regardless of their different backgrounds.

Structurally, “Gravity Falls” is also somewhat unique and a pleasant achievement. The cartoon possesses an underlying plot dealing with the origin of Dipper's diary and the mysteries that surround the town that is developed from time to time, with some episodes focusing on it more than others. However, it remains decently accessible to anyone who is not following it closely due to how each chapter is able to stand on its own.

If the general dullness of the Disney Channel was in need of a serious shake-up, then that movement has already found the head of its rebellion. “Gravity Falls” is the best kind of rebel, for it has both a cause and a purpose. Its root is the completely uninspiring and morally pure nature of the network's main offerings, something that has been going on for quite a while, and its goal is to get away with morally dubious situations, add macabre twists to a children's animation, provide deep storytelling in a cartoon, and break away from the mold.

It delivers humor by being silly and bringing down moral walls, crafts a set of lovable characters, and – if successful – might end up ushering in a new era of animations that know how to make people laugh and mix the stand-alone episodes of a sitcom with deeper threads of plot that run across the show's whole extension.

An uprising may be brewing.

Small Ball

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High-Definition graphics, overwhelming amounts of content, huge worlds, voice acting, maintenance of powerful servers to support online gameplay, and increasingly complex structures. All those factors, which are demanded by a large part of the audience, have contributed to make the development of a game a process that is financially draining for any company regardless of its size or the weight of its name.

Not too long ago, on the Nintendo 64 days, a developer like Rare was able to release a whopping 11 games during the course of 6 years. And they were not straightforward titles that required little effort. Banjo-Kazooie, Banjo-Tooie, and Donkey Kong 64 were absolutely enormous and technologically impressive, and the same goes for Perfect Dark, Goldeneye, Jet Force Gemini, and Conker's Bad Fur Day.

Nowadays, such a streak of productivity – especially one boosted by so many original franchises and innovative gameplay elements – seems, to put it kindly, unlikely. Placing a lot of money on a project implies a high degree of risk, which causes companies to play it safe. Sequels to successful franchises, or spin-offs that carry a recognized brand, have become commonplace given that they are a sure bet for companies to get their investment back.

While those sorts of games can be highly entertaining, bring creative new concepts, and provide refreshing gameplay tweaks – something that resounds, for example, in many of Nintendo's long-running franchises – those cash-consuming projects have made most of the mainstream industry become less adventurous. And as much as gamers love to play a new Mario adventure, or an exciting new Zelda, that artistic and explorative vein is undoubtedly missed, for it often produces some spectacular and unexpected gems.

With the advent of digital distribution, and the lower costs brought by the possibility of selling small-scope games without dealing with the bureaucracy of the old publishing system, that intrepid role was filled by indie developers. Games like Braid, Limbo, Super Meat Boy, To the Moon, Journey, Cave Story, LostWinds, World of Goo, La Mulana, Shovel Knight, and countless others have proved that indies are more than capable of producing titles that are up-to-par with what the industry's giants manufacture while creating new franchises that are built upon new smart ideas.

Still, one has to wonder what Nintendo, Capcom, Ubisoft, Sony, Bungie, Blizzard, Retro Studios, EA, and other massive corporations would craft if they did not have to cope with the extreme profit expectations of their shareholders, which is what triggers the enormous expenses on equally large games that are bound to bring home beautiful sales numbers.

They, after all, house incredibly talented developers that could birth countless new franchises if they were given enough freedom; something that is repressed by the need to constantly work on the same old, yet fantastic, industry staples.

But, perhaps, we have to wonder no more, because there already is one game that gives us a glimpse of what a major developer is capable of doing when given the liberty that indies have with the added ingredient of a considerably larger budget. That game is, of course, Child of Light; Ubisoft's gorgeous and simple look at the RPG world with a dash of fairy tale romance.

The game's critical and commercial success is proof that there is a wish among gamers for software of that kind. At heart, Child of Light is an indie game, the only difference is that it is backed up by Ubisoft's hype and marketing machine, something that no independent developer has access to.

The reception it received, and the money that it undoubtedly generated to Ubisoft, may – down the line – prove to be an odd point in gaming history. However, if other companies are watching and taking note, Child of Light could be an opportunity for a fresh start. It is not that companies need to drop their biggest series in exchange for smaller, adventurous, and artistic games – we all need our Mario fix, after all. It is just that the model of a large company producing a relatively small downloadable game has shown to be very rewarding.

It is true that if the world's most famous developers decide to tip their toes on those waters, it might create a tsunami of releases that could drown many indies and their great projects. However, that move could cause the opposite effect if the avalanche is not so heavy: many reluctant gamers could have their eyes opened to the wonderful gems hiding in the digital distribution world, and games like Child of Light could be their entry point into that realm.

Many pessimist analysts claim that the rising game-development costs could eventually lead to an industry that would not be able to support its own weight. If that is so, then Child of Light could be the beginning of a new development model. Yet, if such catastrophe does not occur – which might be the most realistic scenario – it could be a seed that, when sown, will foster brand new ideas.

Maybe other companies will simply not follow in Ubisoft's footsteps. Maybe they will choose to only occasionally gift their fans with such surprising treasures. But the best outcome for gamers, by far, would be if such a model of business became so successful that Nintendo and its peers would opt to form internal studios focused on the development of indie-like games.

It could be a platform to test new professionals, harvest new talent, infuse motivation into experienced developers, and develop concepts that could mature and eventually be used on the companies' main franchises. But, most importantly, it could be the trampoline with which charming epic little games like Child of Light would be launched into the world.

And, as far as I am concerned, that could only be a good thing.

A Thousand Thanks

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This blog started as a relatively humble undertaking. I was about to turn 16 in July 2006 and, after studying English for a few years, I was starting to properly learn how to write paragraphs. As the dedicated student that I have always been, I came to the conclusion that the best I could do in order to practice my writing was, well, writing.

It was then that it struck me: just a few months earlier, I had – with the aid of my cousin – created an account on a gaming website that had a blogging feature. I, therefore, readily decided that it was only natural that I would join my love for gaming and my desire to write better in English, and start blogging.

What followed was an irregular stream of posts and reviews that grew progressively more constant. They were random poorly formed ramblings from a sixteen-year-old with too much time on his hands. They were filled to the brim with punctuation issues, spelling errors, bad use of vocabulary, and the occasional unintelligible sentence. They, however, were pretty honest and straightforward attempts by a teenager to get a hang of this daunting language.

A long time passed (eight years to be precise, which makes me feel awfully old), and even though the frequency of my posts diminished (there was a time on which I would blog once every three days), their quality certainly increased. Yet, I leave all my initial posts and reviews out there unblemished as a reminder of how much it is possible to evolve and get better over time, whether it is on the mastering of a language or on anything else.

Now, aside from being a Database Administrator, which is my full-time job, I also teach English on Saturdays. Although the latter does not pay nearly as well as the former, it is by far my favorite occupation. Sure, students can be tough to deal with sometimes, but trying to teach them everything I know and watching them succeed is far more rewarding than anything that could possibly happen inside an office.

I am not one to toot my own horn and engage in self-compliments. Firstly, because I believe that our opinions about ourselves tend to either be too flashy or too negative depending on our mood. Secondly, because I feel the world is full of people who love to flaunt their supposed greatness, and I dislike such attitude. Hence, I think the best judges of our actions are the people with whom we relate: our friends, our family, and – in my case – my students, my co-workers, and the ones who have read the posts I have made.

Therefore I am awfully glad that, during these eight years and – now – a thousand posts, I have received a great deal of recognition. I have gotten a few criticisms here and there, and they have been greatly appreciated when their nature was productive, but – most of the times – what I have read have been positive comments and praise, for which I am thankful and that lead me to believe I am making interesting and relevant posts.

It has also been a pleasure to, in some occasions, have been featured in community posts, on Gamespot's front page, and have been awarded the Top-100 Reviewer badge and the coveted Soapbox emblem. Back in 2006 I could not imagine I would ever get those (I don't think I even had any aspirations to those awards), but although they are simple online prizes, they have shown me that it is possible to climb any wall – it does not matter how big – as long as you are willing to tackle it with patience and by going up brick by brick.

To wrap things up, I would like to thank all the amazing friends I have made here on Gamespot and every single person that has ever replied to any of my blogs. I would certainly not get this far without any of you.

I am not a big fan of celebrating numerical achievements, but I thought this would be a great opportunity to thank everyone. I will not dare to list any names since I might end up overlooking someone that deserves a nod, but you know who you are. Thank you!

Lastly, as a shameful attempt at self-promotion, I would like to point those who are reading to my WordPress blog. I won't stop posting here, but given how Gamespot's blogs have been going through rough times, I thought I would start a blog somewhere else to try to get some new readers.

So, follow me there if you are interested, and I will follow you if you have a blog!

Once again, thanks everyone!

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.