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Helping Hands - Part I

A lie that is repeated a hundred times over and eventually propagated to a large group of people is bound to become an accepted truth. Last generation, when the Nintendo Wii took the gaming market by storm, a common label that quickly got attached to the console was that it lacked third-party support. Although most avid Wii gamers did not fall for such claims, since they experienced first-hand the content those companies were delivering, many did buy into that reality.

While it is a fact the console did not receive many of the big-shot titles produced by third-parties, which explains why most outsiders believed the console lacked in that area, it got a good number of fully exclusive software that took advantage of the system's hardware, some of which were up-to-par with what was offered on both the Playstation 3 and the Xbox 360.

Given that – sometimes – we only learn the true value of something after we lose it, the state of the Wii U's landscape in relation to non-Nintendo titles, which is unquestionably bleak, makes its predecessor's lineup of games much brighter. Therefore, there is no better time to take an opportunity to look back on some of the Wii's finest third-party moments and celebrate them.

A Boy and his Blob

A Boy and his Blob follows a pattern used by many of the Wii's best games: sidescrolling action coated in gorgeous hand-drawn animation. The brand of platforming explored here is, however, very unique. The title is basically a giant puzzle gauntlet that takes places in mesmerizing locations on which the titular human must use the different powers of his cuddly friend in order to traverse many dangers. The progression is unquestionably slow-paced, and the visuals move with uncanny smoothness.

The stages and bosses are brilliantly built around the vast array of abilities of the flexible blob. By feeding him distinct beans, he can turn into a balloon, a hole, an anvil, a ladder, a rocket, and many other objects. The game's core flaw is the fact that it is a bit excessive on its hand-holding, as it basically tells players what transformations must be used to get by nicely designed conundrums. However, that does not stop the game from succeeding and providing a heartwarming tale of unlikely friendship that is a blast to play through.

Boom Blox

If the generally trustworthy Mario Party series failed to deliver a solid family experience until late into the console's lifetime, Boom Blox and its sequel filled that void masterfully from the get go. It is not, by no means, an exaggeration to dub it the life of any party centered around videogames. The game manages to bring together both expert gamers and casual players into a balanced playing field full of laugh-out-loud moments, which – in a way – turns out to be the perfect translation of the concept that drove the Nintendo Wii.

The title achieves such a feat due to three factors. Firstly, there is the simplicity of the Wiimote. Secondly, there is the fact the game only requires simple and intuitive motions in order to be played. And, finally, its varied modes involve activities – such as bringing down towers of blocks, shooting moving targets, and carefully dismantling grand structures – that are purely straightforward. Boom Blox hits that recipe out of the park and cooks up the Wii's most accessible and potentially hilarious multiplayer experience.

De Blob

A dictatorship that pushes a literally black-and-white ideology on a world that was once full of color paves the way to the creation of a rebel group that plans to paint life back into the land. Taking control of the leader of the association, it is up to players to infuse themselves with ink and lead a polychromatic uprising. The psychedelic coup d'état is as fun as it sounds. The different blank scenarios are a canvas on which players must wreak vibrant havoc to free citizens from the dull slavery under which they have been placed and bring life back to the streets.

It is an indescribable joy to slowly color the town and watch it turn from a white landscape into one beautiful and lively location. The music gets progressively louder and groovier, people slowly fill the streets, state propaganda is replaced by works of art, and major buildings that were once enemy headquarters turn into impressive sights. It is hard to find, whether it is on the Wii or on any other platform, a game that produces a feeling as good as the one found on De Blob and its sequel once, after an hour of exploration, you look at a once dead scene and see an effervescent setting.

Little King's Story

Little King's Story might as well be the Wii's best third-party game. Its visuals – a perfect fit for a game centered around the life of a child who wakes up to find himself crowned as king of an unknown land – give off a whimsical air. That fairytale vibe, however, is punctuated by moments of considerable darkness. What looks like a playful quest to conquer some wacky kingdoms and become ruler of the world presents some serious undertones as the game explores some possibly polemic grounds, such as authoritarianism, and the brutality of war, while also touching upon religion and hinting at polygamy.

The game is certainly bold, but that is far from its greatest quality. Little King's Story is, ultimately, fun, deep, engaging, challenging, and lengthy. The classes of citizens that can be created are varied and useful; the social fabric and decisions that power most of the game are satisfyingly complex; the options for kingdom upgrades are numerous and resource-demanding; dangerous and creative boss battles lurk at every corner; and an amazing cast of funny characters is nicely developed through an adventure that extends for over forty hours. Little King's Story is the finest example of an unfairly overlooked gem that would have garnered much more praise and attention had it been released for any other console.

LostWinds: Winter of the Melodias

LostWinds: Winter of the Melodias is one of those little treasures that would not have existed if Nintendo had not opted to build a system around the concept of the Wiimote. Toku, a simple boy with no special skills, is aided by Enril, a wind spirit, in his quest to find his lost mother. The game matches up Metroid-like free exploration with smart puzzle solving that orbits the pointer-controlled gusts of wind.

What really takes Winter of the Melodies to another level, and makes it the system's best exclusive downloadable game, is its attention to detail. In its relatively small scope, LostWinds does everything remarkably well. Its world and atmosphere are impressively immersive and the adventure is accompanied by a feeling of danger and loneliness that captures all gamers, creating a tale that is both visually mesmerizing and gripping.

Albums of the Month: November 2014

Album: Psychocandy

Artist: The Jesus and Mary Chain

Released: November 18th, 1985

Highlights: Just Like Honey, In a Hole, Taste of Cindy, My Little Underground

Out of all albums that have ever deserved the moniker of immediately likable, “Psychocandy” is certainly the most subversive. Those two concepts might seem completely alien to one another; lacking a common thread or an intersecting inch. Weirdness, after all, is never readily accepted; it is slowly grasped. However, that is precisely what makes The Jesus and Mary Chain's debut so formidable. The band somehow discovers that there is indeed a point where those two extremes converge, and they go on to explore the realm where unusual noise meets pop beauty.

As it turns out, “Psychocandy” is the ideal title for the whole affair. At their core, all of the fourteen songs that compose the album have the sweet and easy-to-digest hooks of 60s pop-rock. However, that nucleus is surrounded by the thorny and psychotic waves of feedback that The Velvet Underground tackled on their first two albums. Here, all of the numbers could have easily been approached in a way that would make them commercially appealing, but the band simply chose not to go down that path, and – consequently – transform “Psychocandy” into something that is pleasantly weird.

Such decision might have sounded forced in the hands of any other band, but it is clear to see that The Jesus and Mary Chain opted for that road not because they felt like it, but simply because that is who they were. The result is, naturally, very candid. Jim Reid delivers songs with considerable emotional weight in a distant way that would make Lou Reed proud. He is blatantly disconnected from what he is doing; he does not give a damn, and neither does the rest of the group, whose tempos and walls of noise are relentlessly steady.

Drowned in such carelessness, stranded in the middle of loud static and feedback, beauty finds a way to break through, and it rings resoundingly. By itself, “Psychocandy” is undeniably special. Its context, though, makes it even more impressive. The record would eventually echo in both the shoegazing and madchester movements – with the former borrowing its nonchalance, and the latter inheriting its spacious and mildly concealed pop vibe. Yet, it was never quite replicated, not even by The Jesus and Mary Chain themselves. “Psychocandy” is, therefore, literally one-of-a-kind, and there aren't many examples in rock history of major records that stand so far removed from everything else.

Album: Our Love to Admire

Artist: Interpol

Released: July 10th, 2007

Highlights: Pioneer to the Falls, No I in Threesome, The Heinrich Maneuver, Rest My Chemistry

Interpol began their musical journey as the heirs to Joy Division. The comparison bothered the band, but it was inevitable: all the ingredients were there. The wide and dense atmosphere that could be cut with a knife; the melodic rhythmic section; the depressive lyrics; and the borderline bass vocals. Perhaps unintentionally, the band began to move away from that mold on “Antics”, dressing up their sound in angular guitars and danceable grooves that their New York City peers, The Strokes, had already tackled to great results.

“Our Love to Admire” is nothing but a continuation of that process. It doesn't differ greatly from its predecessor, which is not an unexpected turn since Interpol navigates through a relatively narrow sound palette. It, however, does bring forth some interesting experiments where the band attempts to stretch its wings. Those growing pains are particularly evident on the songs that bookend the album: the grand “Pioneer to the Falls”, which includes an orchestral segment that adds to the drama; the beautiful and spacious “Wrecking Ball”; and “The Lighthouse”, where atmospheric guitars perfectly portray waves crashing against rocks.

The rest of the material is, mostly, Interpol being Interpol. They can either strike solid gold when finding pumping melodies that take Paul Banks' maniacal vocals to another level, or fall into predictable and undistinguished patterns. The former case applies to “No I in Threesome” with its sweeping chorus, and “The Heinrich Maneuver” with its chiming guitar. While the latter plagues numerous tunes like “The Scale”, “Mammoth”, and “Who Do You Think”.

In the end, “Our Love to Admire” is neither as immersive as “Turn on the Bright Lights” nor as solid as “Antics”. The group still exhibits an interesting mix of Joy Division's flair for the ultimately depressive and early 2000's indie rock guitar punches. They continue to sound as if they are performing at the edge of a ledge, and although the theatrics are not exactly wearing out, they certainly come off as much less engaging. Thankfully, the problem here is not attitude; it's just diminished inspiration, which means the future still held plenty of opportunities for recovery.

Album: A Day at the Races

Artist: Queen

Released: December 10th, 1976

Highlights: Tie Your Mother Down, Long Away, The Millionaire Waltz, Somebody to Love

“A Day at the Races” is not the brother to “A Night at the Opera” in name alone. Following any record of the magnitude of Queen's 1975 release is invariably a daunting task, but here the band pulls it off with grace by not straying too far away from the territory touched by its predecessor. As evidenced by the one-minute intro to “Tie Your Mother Down”, which sounds as a hard rock orchestra tuning up for a major performance, and the multi-phased “The Millionaire Waltz”, the grandeur of “A Night at the Opera” is still very much present, and it is tied up together by great music and the band's signature extravaganza.

The fact Queen housed four songwriters (out of which May and Mercury were unquestionably the more prolific and talented) that worked individually meant the group was always able to pack an impressive amount of varied styles in a single album, and here it is no different. May, aside from the gentle “Long Away”, brought in two of Queen's heaviest songs: the anthemic “Tie Your Mother Down”; and “White Man”, whose lyrics concerning the exploration, extermination, and supposed civilization of other races gained a lot of weight when sung by Mercury due to his African origins.

Freddie, meanwhile, kept on exploring the possible arrangements and styles of piano-led tunes with multi-vocal tracks. “You Take My Breath Away” is a ballad that is simple in structure but reaches for complexity on its harmonies and sound effects; “The Millionaire Waltz” is the heir to “Bohemian Rhapsody”; “Somebody to Love” is an energetic gospel; and “Good Old-Fashioned Lover Boy” carries echoes of music hall. The record is neatly complimented by “You and I”, a straightforward and honest love song that only John Deacon could write; and Roger Taylor's hypnotic “Drowse”.

Although it is not as highly regarded as “A Night at the Opera” - perhaps due to the lack of a long list of chart-sweeping singles – song-by-song, “A Day at the Races” is able to stand side by side with it. From “Tie Your Mother Down” to “Teo Torriatte”, Brian May's nod to the band's huge Japanese fanbase, there is not anything that comes remotely close to being a dud. It never really charts new ground, but since such trailblazing spirit is not a requirement for a stellar album, “A Day at the Races” fits and extrapolates that bill with ease.

Album: Use Your Illusion II

Artist: Guns 'n Roses

Released: September 17th, 1991

Highlights: Civil War, 14 Years, Estranged, You Could Be Mine

The self-destructive tendencies of Guns 'n Roses were not evident exclusively in their attitude and lyrics, it was also pretty clear in their irregular productivity. After bursting out of the gate spectacularly with “Appetite for Destruction”, it took the group over four years to put together a new full album. A result of the excesses of fame and inner turmoil, the lull saw, at its end, the release of two records that hit stores on the same day. That simultaneous birth generated a pair of works that shared the same gene pool of exciting qualities and staggering defects.

Double albums are always followed by the question of whether the material was good and vast enough to warrant such indulgence. The answer here is an intense nod. “Use Your Illusion II”, like its Siamese twin, is a spawning explosion that clocks in at nearly 80 minutes. It is loaded with epics that go over the six-minute mark, like the political “Civil War”, a pleasant break from the band's usual sex-and-drugs thematic; the funk-metal tour de force of “Locomotive”; “Estranged”, a multi-section track in the vein of “November Rain”, only electric and loud; and the crescendo of “Breakdown”.

Other notable tunes are “Pretty Tied Up”, a tongue-in-cheek take on sexual bondage which bumps into rock 'n roll with its groovy piano; the dangerous “You Could Be Mine”; the melodic “So Fine”; and “Shotgun Blues”, whose riff-centric melodic lines would be at home on an AC/DC record. In spite of its many victories, both “Use Your Illusion” records fall into a trap that keeps all great double albums from being masterpieces. Although the band had enough quality material to divide it into two pieces, some of it should have been left on the cutting floor.

Out of the fourteen songs, four should have never made it. “Don't Cry” is great, but since it had already appeared on “Use Your Illusion I”, there was no need to put it here with different lyrics; Dylan's “Knockin' on Heaven's Door” sinks due to Axl's poor interpretation and embarrassing attempt to sing with a baritone; “Get in the Ring” is musically and lyrically putrid; and “My World”, inserted by Axl into the album at the last second unbeknownst to the rest of the band, has got to rank among the worst songs ever put on an official album. Nevertheless, “Use Your Illusion II” remains greatly enjoyable. It would have, however, worked far better – and neared perfection – had it been trimmed down to ten tracks.

Hyrule Warriors Review

Although Mario and his peers have starred in a great share of spin-offs, Nintendo seems to be far more protective when it comes to its other major franchises, for rare have been the occasions in which the likes of Samus and Link have appeared in games that are far removed from the usual script their adventures adhere to. That is why Hyrule Warriors, the all-out war take on the Zelda universe, arrives as such a big and unexpected effort that aims to deliver a great doses of Hylian magic onto the hands of Nintendo fans before the next actual epic of the series takes place.

The game bears elements that are well-known by anyone who has ever played through a Zelda adventure. Not only are the characters, both primary and secondary, mostly present and ready to do battle, the title does a wonderful job in encompassing other minor details under this unique umbrella. Rupees serve as currency, extravagant Great Fairies can be summoned to help the heroes get out of grueling situations, and assets such as treasure chests, heart pieces, and skulltulas are abundant.

However, in spite of its look and visual cues, Hyrule Warriors' intentions are so clear they are stamped right on its name. The joining of both The Legend of Zelda and Dynasty Warriors inside the same software results in a game whose title merely nods towards the former via the use of the moniker of its usual setting, while blatantly referencing the latter by using the “Warriors” tag. In other words, at heart, this is far from being a Zelda game. It is, in fact, a Dynasty Warriors installment whose building bricks, such as its setting and history, are borrowed from the Zelda universe.

There are no puzzles, no dungeons, and no overworld. Across some of the most famous locations that have served as the proving grounds for the hero garbed in green, large-scale medieval battles occur by letting loose enormous armies consisting of low-rank soldiers and mighty generals against one another. With those pieces set in place, the table becomes set for flashy mass destruction carried out by blades, staffs, harps, spears, and other weapons.

Hyrule Warriors is a game determined to combine as many Zelda references into a package as possible. Therefore, its plot cleverly finds a way to summon characters and places from different games of the saga into the very same point in time. Ganondorf, bent on yet another resurrection, finds a way to corrupt the spirit of a powerful sorceress that protects the balance of time. Possessed by him, she opens up portals to different Hylian eras in order to give servants of the darkness access to the fragments of the demon's body that have been sealed in distinct periods in the timeline.

Needless to say, calamity ensues, and Princess Zelda suddenly finds her kingdom swarmed by hordes of foes. Desperate, she seeks the help of Link and other major characters to erase the threat. Even if the time portals do feel like a forced tool used to bring together the worlds of Skyward Sword, Ocarina of Time, and Twilight Princess, the plot is surprisingly satisfying and, with each passing chapter of the main quest, it receives a nice deal of attention, which constantly keeps events unraveling at an engaging pace.

On its surface, Hyrule Warriors frequently runs a serious risk of coming off as a mindless hack and slash, but that is not entirely true. Sure, most of the enemies faced on the battlefields are nothing but brainless food to a hungry weapon; they fall as easily as a sheet of paper and offer no resistance. Their sole purpose seems to be inflating the number of kills one can get with a single blow.

However, punctually placed here and there, are army leaders and other gargantuan bosses that demand a bit of the patient pattern-solving approach (not to mention the use of certain pieces of equipment) commonly required by the cleverly designed monsters of the Zelda series. Though some of them can still be defeated by hacking away like a mad man, they break a bit of the intense meat-grinding pace of the most mundane battles.

What truly manages to stop the game from being a series of totally empty-headed brawls are its strategic undertones. The moderately sized maps are filled with keeps and outposts from which enemy forces will respawnendlessly. Therefore, in order to truly and slowly gain terrain, it is absolutely necessary that those important locations be taken one-by-one in a planned fashion. Acquiring control over those points is nothing special, all that it takes is mowing down a bunch of enemies, but there is a large strategic value in the ruling over those places and, most importantly, maintaining them safe from eventual reinforcements.

The management of those major positions, not to mention the aid that is frequently requested by friendly captains, is what will keep players busy through most of the missions, smartly diverging their attention from the fact that all they are doing is bringing down groups of enemies over and over again.

Surprisingly, it works fantastically well. Hyrule Warriors is irresistibly fun, and although long playing sessions will eventually reveal the repetitive nature of the game, most players will keep coming for more. The game winds up being a weird kind of guilty pleasure due to the fact it is impossible not to be aware that you are hypnotized by what is mostly brainless battles.

There is a certain untouchable joy in the killing of thousands of bad guys with such ridiculous ease and the game makes it even more fun by providing a great assortment of characters, each with their own combos, weapons, and quirks. It is possible to customize weapons by transporting the abilities between them, and each character has three skill trees (offensive, defensive, and assist) that must be unlocked by the gathering of material that is dropped by enemies.

It is important to note, though, that there is a certain level of shallowness to both the combos and the skill trees. Given the difference between characters, and the clear possibilities that arise with each of their natures, it is slightly disappointing that the combos are, in terms of button-presses, the same for all warriors, and that the set of skill trees is also identical regardless of the character.

That superficiality is, actually, something that plagues the experience as a whole. Hyrule Warriors is unquestionably entertaining. Unfortunately, it is a game that has a very limited set of tricks. The mission structure that is used on the very first scenario is the same one that will support the final battle. There are no great gameplay twists and turns; the game never truly grows. And the only thing that changes during the progress of the entire adventure is that bosses begin to appear more frequently and in greater numbers.

At the same time, it is also a game of very clear successes. The amount of content packed into the software is commendable. Those who fall victim to the title's addictive nature – and that is much more likely than the game's various flaws might indicate – will easily spend over one hundred hours with Hyrule Warriors before revealing all of its secrets. The main story, with its adjustable difficulty levels and collectibles, already packs quite a punch, but Adventure Mode increases the game's value to unbelievable heights.

On a grid-like map taken straight from the original The Legend of Zelda, players must explore each square (which is a mission with special rules and goals) to acquire items that will allow an 8-bit Link to unlock new areas until he vanquishes evil from the land. It is a pleasantly altered version of a very large challenge mode where new tests are only retrieved through actions performed on an interactive and old-school overworld.

The seemingly interminable amount of challenges, as well as the lengthy main campaign, end up bringing forth Hyrule Warriors' greatest mystery. There is a whole lot to do here, but while most titles that fall into repetitive patterns would not motivate players to keep on going until they have seen everything, Hyrule Warriors manages to keep players coming back for more, whether it is for another quirky mission (where one will, once again, blast through enemy armies with ease) or an attempt to clear a harder level of difficulty.

To top it all off, the game also has an effective cooperative mode where while one player sees his character on the Gamepad screen, the other uses the TV, giving each warrior a great degree of freedom as to where to go next, and allowing players to create their own battle strategies on the move.

Hyrule Warriors ends up being a game of contrasts. Although its graphics are nothing special, its music never does justice to the usual Zelda soundtrack greatness, and its gameplay is limited, the game finds a way to be incredibly addictive and justifies that desire for more by giving players a whole lot of content to play through. In the land of Hyrule, Dynasty Warriors finds a famous and highly beloved skin to wear, and – in return – leaves Zelda fans with a little treat to play while Link prepares to face the forces of darkness once more. This time, in his usual style.

Bad Moon Rising

Claiming Majora's Mask is the darkest installment on the Zelda series would be correct, but it would also be a major understatement. Its darkness does not just stand out among all of Link's adventures, it remains pretty noteworthy even when the most twisted and devilish games ever made are also considered.

The title's most impressive achievement is that whereas the average ominous software will muster an eerie atmosphere through the use of a generally pale color palette, Majora's Mask does it while being colorful. The assets used here, from character models to textures, are almost completely extracted straight from its predecessor – Ocarina of Time. Yet, as if through some wicked sorcery, the developers were able to, by using the very same bricks, build a totally different creature.

Its lighthearted visuals, which transit somewhere in-between cartoonish and fairytale-like, are in fact so utterly out of place that the game ends up feeding off of them. Everything, from the inhabitants of Clock Town to the dwellers of the regions on the outskirts of the world of Termina, gives off a charming tone that is in no way compatible with the gigantic disaster that is about to strike this place.

The angry moon constantly looms large in the sky as a reminder that, within three days, life will come down to a calamitous end save for a herculean miracle. Still, despite the impending and clear Armageddon, these people continue to go about their daily business without expressing the concern that such a disaster would warrant.

Link, the hero of time, seems to be the only one that gives the matter any sensible thought, which makes all occurrences in Termina mutually bizarre and unsettling. The weight of the journey that must be taken ends up being even heavier due to the fact that, instead of aiding you, these soon-to-be-annihilated beings are not shy to block your advances and send you on fetch quests.

And while Link goes out of his way to help them, the clock never ceases to tick down to the scheduled apocalyptic hour. The sands of time wash away very quickly, and although Link knows that the playing of a powerful song will reset the countdown, the sense of urgency is huge since going back to the beginning of the maddening cycle means losing all progress that has been made.

Most games fail to broadcast desperation. Characters may shout “Hurry and rescue the princess!” as loudly as they want, but there will always be time for the savior of the world to drop by the nearest potion shop or sleep in a nearby inn. With Majora's Mask, though, there is no kidding around; when one tells the hero to rush, he had better do so, or punishment will arrive swiftly and brutally in the collision of the moon against this odd universe.

All those feelings and weirdnesses experienced by a legion of gamers back in 2000 will be resurrected next year on the Nintendo 3DS. The long-awaited and often-rumored remake of this sometimes overlooked classic will hit the system and be a must-buy to all Nintendo consumers. Those who loved the original game will have a great excuse to replay it, those who didn't will have the opportunity to re-evaluate it, and younger fans will be given the chance to tackle a game that is completely unique both among the Big N's canon and the history of the Zelda franchise.

If the Nintendo 3DS release of Ocarina of Time turned that tridimensional version into the game's definitive outing, the same is bound to happen for Majora's Mask. There is a bad moon on the rise, and soon enough three days will remain between us and the end of the world.

Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright Review

Chemistry dictates that oil and water do not mix; their molecules just do not get along with each other. Professor Layton and Phoenix Wright, however, are a match made in heaven. Though different in their execution, both series were fruits of the same tree: a line of games centered around their script and punctuated by engaging gameplay that would gain notoriety in the shape of the point-and-click adventures masterfully chiseled by Lucas Arts.

Although completely unexpected, the combination of the two franchises on the very same cartridge makes a lot of sense. They each feed on mystery in order to deliver a plot that is constantly progressing and that is bound to feature more unpredictable twists in a few dozen hours than a long-running televised drama is able to pull off in a dozen seasons. They, however, unlock the secrets of their scripts in totally different ways.

While the professor's saga hides the answers to its numerous question marks behind mind-bending puzzles, the truth of the attorney's cases is often found through sweat-inducing court battles ridden with details, cold evidence, and false testimonies. Capcom and Level-5's decision to join them is mutually brilliant and daunting. We are, after all, talking about two incredibly successful franchises whose alternation between investigation and and action is very similar, but whose universes and storytelling quirks are awfully hard to tie under the same umbrella.

Smartly, it is through the story that the two companies start creating a rather elegant and alluring frankenstein. Following a rather surprising and exciting turn of events in London, both Layton and Wright are thrown into a medieval town called Labyrinthia. To its bones, the place is a signature Layton setting: it is cozy and charming, but there is something distinctively unsettling about it.

Here, that unshakable feeling that there is something very strange taking place is produced by the fact that a quiet but beloved man who carries the title of Storyteller is believed to have the power to write the fate of every single citizen and of the town itself. In addition, not only does magic exist, it is also strongly looked down on, as this seemingly quaint setting is home to brutal witch trials where those accused of using magic are burned to death if found guilty.

Such mixture fits like a glove for both Layton and Wright, aided by Luke and Maya, can use their respective skills to work together and get to the bottom of what exactly is happening. Phoenix, naturally, is frequently called to court in order to defend those who are wrongly charged and point out the identity of the real magical culprit. Layton, meanwhile, mostly focuses on exploring the town, solving the eventual puzzles, talking to the townsfolk, and using his intellect to reach conclusions that support Wright's judicial struggles.

A great part of the fun surfaces from the fact that it is common for the characters to alternate their roles. In other words, sometimes Layton's interventions in court are more significant than Wright's, while Phoenix is occasionally the one that goes to town to explore, Luke and Maya also follow through with the same logic. That strong bonding and mutual support between the characters make the script much stronger and the cooperation far more palpable. This is not fan-service for the sake of fan-service, it is fan-service held together by a plot created to let these two distinct worlds collide and work as partners.

Although they are definitely joined in the great script and in the amazing dialogues, the same does not happen in the gameplay front. The puzzle-solving and the trials never truly mix, the game is – instead – neatly divided in chapters that focus on each of the styles. It is not exactly a flaw, for the game works wonderfully within its segregated structure, and – most importantly – that separation makes sense in light of the storyline. However, those who come in expecting the two franchises to borrow each other's quirks to add some spice to their established and well-known gameplay will be certainly disappointed.

Truthfully, the constant switching between gameplay styles, which occurs as one chapter transits into the next one, benefits the game in two very important ways. Firstly, the adventure never really stagnates because it often feels – in spite of the smooth transitions – that players are tackling two different games located in the same setting and dealing with shared problems. Secondly, the brilliant writers have taken advantage of the numerous perspectives of the same world to create some fair cliffhangers as it moves from the outside world to the court and vice-versa.

Whether players are scratching their heads trying to answer the riddles correctly or going through testimonies looking for false affirmations, the game is endlessly entertaining. Overall, the set of puzzles fails to measure up to extremely high bar set by the other Layton games, but they remain amusing nevertheless and always perfectly adhere to the context on which they are found.

The star of the show here, then, is – unquestionably – the witch trials. The revelations uncovered within them tend to have some considerably big ramifications within the overall scope of the plot, making the navigation through all the witnesses something utterly fascinating. Moreover, given this is a world where magic exists, sometimes logic that is completely out-of-the-box and outrageous on the average Phoenix Wright courtroom can make a whole lot of sense Labyrinthia.

Lifted some miles above reality, the judicial system allows for some delightful wackiness that includes the use of a book with various spells as evidence, the chance for members of the audience to jump straight to the witness box whenever they have something important to add, and even the cross-examination of up to ten people at once – allowing the defendant to scan the whole group for suspicious reactions while one specific member is talking.

Both the Ace Attorney and Professor Layton series are known for their stellar writing and fantastic humor, with the former being more extravagant and the latter much drier. Through the adventure, which lasts for well over thirty hours, the game gets plenty of chances to display and merge each element, and it does so remarkably well. The distinctions in humor and art style of the two worlds are handled and stitched up together with grace, giving birth to a pairing that looks and sounds impressively natural.

The plot's construction has blatantly gained a lot from the joining of the talents of Capcom and Level-5. The game keeps the ball rolling at all times, with the characters progressively and constantly making discoveries about the world that surrounds them. That constant sense of discovery, not to mention the fact that it is seemingly impossible to reasonably explain everything weird that happens in Labyrinthia, make the game very addictive; having to put it down for a few hours, hence delaying further reveals, is a sad exercise.

The good news is that, despite the uncanny nature of Labyrinthia and the borderline impossible events that occur through the game, the whole package comes – via a series of shocking twists – to a very satisfying conclusion when the dust settles. Sure, there are some plot-holes here and there, but the fact that both companies were able to build a story this ambitious and with so many obscure corners that are eventually illuminated by bizarre turns, and deliver it without major damage is flooring.

The whole act acquires an extra flash due to its extremely high production values. The visuals are incredible, and so is the music. The locations that are visited are infused with the amazing and distinguished art that is characteristic of the Professor Layton universe. And beautiful and decently frequent cutscenes adorn the smooth storytelling.

All in all, though some will certainly argue that Professor Layton vs Phoenix Wright is not exactly a blend of both series, just the placing of the two characters inside the same case, the game is a great success. The division between exploration segments and trials does wonders for the pace of the adventure, and seeing Layton and Luke interact with Phoenix and Maya is an amazing feeling to those who know both franchises.

In the end, though, regardless of whether one comes from the Layton camp or the Ace Attorney corner, one thing is hard to deny: it is hard to find a game that is so incredibly rich on its story while being balanced on its gameplay. Professor Layton vs Phoenix Wright delivers in those two fronts, and although – like water and oil – both gameplay styles never really mix, the combination they create here leads to some astonishing results.

A Mean to Two Ends

How to Train Your Dragon 2, the sequel to what has arguably been – up to now – DreamWorks' finest animated hour is not a mere continuation. It is a resounding expansion. The considerable enlargement of the cinematographic universe was a rather natural step when one considers the very nature of the movie that opened up what is bound to be, alongside Toy Story, the finest example of a full-fledged and completely satisfactory cartoon trilogy.

The franchise's opening chapter displayed Berk, the wondrous Viking village precariously set between rocky hills and the foam of an angry ocean, as being inhabited by uninformed and extremely likable barbarians. Dragons were effectively portrayed as a murderous threat, until – after a long struggle – the barrier separating perception from reality was brought down. The movie could not go far from the general vicinity of the village because it was, wisely, concerned with building a great tale about how ignorance is a powerful foe that can lead to a world of trouble if not combated.

With that out of the way, and humans living in perfect harmony with their former winged-enemies inside the confines of Berk, How to Train Your Dragon 2 sets its sights on much bigger prey. Its foundation is, therefore, solidly built on what has been established by its predecessor.

Coming over four years after the original movie, this follow-up represents a giant technical leap, and also marks the first time in which DreamWorks' visuals match-up with the usual Pixar greatness. Totally conscious of its graphic exuberance, the movie opens up with a mesmerizing and fun dragon race in Berk, and then cuts to a glorious sequence of shots of Hiccup and Toothless blasting through the air.

The abundance of quality is not present just in the big flashy scenes, it is also oozing in every dialogue – with incredibly believable and detailed facial movements, and in every relatively fast-paced take – as the characters move with uncanny naturalism.

The movie is literally filled with breathtaking action scenes and flying segments, but unlike most modern flicks, on which special effects are futile fireworks, here they are used to move the plot chains forward. Nowhere is it clearer than on the opening segment, where – with more stylish motions than dialogues – the film is able to, in about ten minutes, say a lot about the current state of life in Berk and the situation of its main characters.

While most Vikings are happy to merely go about their daily lives, now with the aid and company of the world's greatest pets, Hiccup – ever the nonconformist and now a young adult in his early 20s – flies around the land mapping new islands and locations. It all goes extremely well, until, after being attacked by stranded dragon trappers, he catches word that a known mad man – Drago Bludvist – is amassing a powerful dragon army.

His goal is a simple one: with the fire-breathing military force, he plans to set fear loose in the world in the hope that people, who massively still believe in the non-existent aggressive demeanor of the dragons, will run towards his protection once they believe he is the sole savior who can control the mighty beasts.

Although the movie does get its main point across with brilliancy, and if not for “Frozen” it could have been easily called the greatest animation of the last half-decade, it stumbles a bit with its expansive ambitions. The world it successfully paints is a very broad one and, as a consequence, it is packed with people, motives, and plots that collide with stellar results.

However, this abundance of threads meant that – with the goal to keep the film's running time manageable – the development of a couple of new major characters, especially Drago himself, had to be edited to a certain degree. In spite of the fact his motivation and background eventually surface, it is hard not to feel like he – and a few of the movie's other main players – would have been better served had some of their deeds been portrayed on-screen.

Yet, ultimately, the worst effect those slip-ups have is that the ripples of some scenes and actions are only fully felt and understood a little bit later than they should have. It is a sin, but one that is somewhat mild and will not affect the emotional impact the movie's core is bound to deliver.

With their world expanding, the people of Berk – especially Hiccup and his loved ones – come to discover that while their use of the dragons is powered by a strong partnership built on trust and friendship, there are others who build such relationship with fear. In order to get the curious and pacific creatures to obey him, Drago tortures and harasses them into submission; turning them into war machines instead of trusty helping hands.

The conflict around which the movie gravitates is, then, the battle between dutiful – and poorly constructed – obedience versus unbreakable loyalty. Although the means that are used are the same – dragons – the goal is vastly different. Some plan to spread a word of peace and union to other tribes that may have a wrong understanding of what dragons are actually like, whereas others intend to foster the force of a threat that is actually inherently harmless.

The message here is that, like so many tools and animals that exist in our world, dragons are born as a white page that will be slowly filled up by the environment that surrounds them, and even if, deep down, they are able to retain their original good-will, it can be easily buried by years of insensitivity. Hiccup explores the lands away from Berk only to discover what we already know: that the same “how” can pave the way to many different “whats”.

Painting in the Blanks

Out of all companies that have ever set foot in the gaming market, not a single one has been able to build a portfolio of franchises that could match Nintendo's. The first reason behind that fact is relatively obvious: longevity. Being around since the dawn of gaming, and holding a big part of the credit for its popularization, has given the Big N numerous opportunities to craft characters, worlds, and gameplay styles with a great deal of appeal.

However, perhaps the biggest culprit behind that assortment of signature assets is the harsh reality that, since the Nintendo 64 days, the company has had to support its systems basically by itself. A tough outlook tends to bring out the best of human creativity, and Nintendo's case is a perfect example of that correlation.

The decision to stick with cartridges during that generation drove third-parties away, a scenario that has not changed in over two decades, and that getaway put pressure on the shoulders of their internal developers to guarantee that users of its consoles would have their basic gaming needs covered. Consequently, both first and second-party studios started to branch out into new territories seeking to address most of the industry's mainstream genres.

Therefore, a set of franchises that on the NES and SNES days seemed to heavily focus on platformers – a natural tendency once one considers that such breed of games utterly dominated the 2-D days – began to expand rapidly. Fast-forward through many years, and we arrive at the current landscape of abundant quality properties.

Nintendo's home consoles deservingly get a lot of flak for failing to allure multiplatform third-party releases that, if mixed with the unmatched quality of the company's first and second-party efforts, would give its systems – generation after generation – the overall best library of titles with ease. Yet, on account of the flooring variety found within its collection IPs, those machines remain as the market's safest option to anyone looking to get games that are among the best of almost every conceivable genre.

It is a statement that might sound absurd on these days of endless Nintendo-bashing. Still, once we choose to focus on the metric of quality while throwing quantity out the window, it is reasonable.

For starters, nobody does platforming better than Mario, and lately he has been stellar both on the 3-D front (Super Mario 3D World) and on the sidescrolling realm (the sadly overlooked masterpiece that is New Super Mario Bros. U). As a nice addition, Donkey Kong has gone through a stellar rebirth in recent years with two Retro Studios efforts that leave nothing to be desired in relation to the Super Nintendo works of art that built a name for the character.

Looking for some racing action? It is hard to find something as wild and insanely fun as Mario Kart, not to mention the futuristic beauty of F-Zero that has been sadly absent as of late. Want to punch enemies to oblivion? Super Smash Bros is the most amusing fighting game there is. What about taking a break and relaxing on a virtual life without specific goals? Animal Crossing's charm is pretty hard to resist and its time-consuming nature is uncanny.

Zelda and Metroid are nearly unreachable staples of gaming adventures, the former centered around puzzles and the latter sprinkling immersive exploration with shooting. Meanwhile, strategic undertakings can be enjoyed in Pikmin, with its real-time demands, and both Fire Emblem and Advance Wars, touching upon medieval and modern war respectively. The latter, however, has yet to see a home-console release.

If all of that is not enough, Star Fox delivers some fast-paced shoot'em up madness either in space or on amazing alien worlds. Paper Mario tackles the RPG world with accessible, yet deep, mechanics and lighthearted scripts, whereas Xenoblade – or whatever Monolith Soft decides to spin next – deals with more traditional grounds. Punch-Out has an unthinkable brand that mixes fighting and puzzle-solving. Kirby and Yoshi provide even more platforming goodness. Finally, WarioWare and Mario Party – each in their own unique way – tend to be great mini-game collections.

Even when it comes to sports titles, which to other hardwares usually come in the shape of yearly EA releases, Nintendo is able to do quite well through the Mario sports games and the Wii Sports fever. Though they are far from being technically perfect, any multiplayer session with titles belonging to those two lines is undeniably fun.

It is a group of works that, aside from being genre-spanning, tends to have its members sitting either on the throne of a niche or working as pleasant counterparts to what is generally offered by the industry.

Although Nintendo's throughput of new franchises has diminished, they are not exactly just sitting on their laurels, and they are still trying to expand their hold towards other genres. In fact, one of the reasons the company has failed to deliver a constant stream of new IPs is that its fresh properties tend to try to explore different grounds instead of simply mining terrain that has already been handled.

The latest example of such lack of complacency came in the shape of Splatoon, one of the highlights of Nintendo's E3 presentation in June. Shooters with a multiplayer focus and goofy visuals are nothing incredibly new, the Team Fortress games have gone down that alley with excellence, but Splatoon – as a title that will carry the Nintendo brand – is naturally expected to have its own kind of charm, unique gameplay elements that set it apart from its peers, and a boatload of creativity.

The fact it is being developed by a team of younger developers than those usually allotted to other major Nintendo studios gives this new franchise a hint of intrigue. After all, it will be the result of the work of a crowd that, reportedly, plays Call of Duty and Battlefield for love and inspiration, and that has to fuse those influences with the Big N's traditional sugarcoating.

More than that, if it is successful, Splatoon might be added to the hall of IPs that are continually updated with the release of every new hardware, and – consequently – Nintendo will infiltrate one of its creatures in yet another genre.

Splatoon might end up shinning brighter than its light-hearted shooting brothers and become a trailblazer that sets up new tendencies that go on to become the genre's standards; or it might just turn into a pleasant deviation from the norm – a break from the usual action. Nevertheless, regardless of the result, Nintendo will have filled another niche with some of its attractive signature paint.

The Great Hylian Destruction Derby

There is something uncannily liberating about Hyrule Warriors. Wildly running through well-known Hylian scenarios while mowing down hordes of enemies as if they were made of paper is not a revelation, and neither is it earthshaking. It is, however, undeniably fun. And that right there is the redeeming quality of every flawed game that has ever existed. Hyrule Warriors is problematic, but – ultimately – it delivers timely doses of excitement to anyone who is willing to look past the fact that, in spite of looking a whole lot like a Zelda game, it is no such thing.

The polemic spin-off is a Dynasty Warriors title dressed in the vivid colors of Nintendo's adventure opus. It contains the power of the Gorons, the grace of the Zoras, a Princess Zelda that looks more like a battle-ready veteran than a damsel in distress, and a Link that still plays the role of the silent hero in green with the added twist of – just like his fellow army-commanders – having the power to blast through an entire platoon with a single combo.

Stripped to its bare bones, the gameplay here has the complexity of the puzzles contained within The Great Deku Tree. Sure, each of the uncountable playable characters has its own strengths and weaknesses, the warrior-building options – which include the forging of badges and weapons – are vast, the unlocking of new combos adds variety to the combats, and playing the game on its highest difficulty setting requires more than button mashing.

Yet, despite it all, at the end of the day, you are still selecting a character-and-weapon combination in order to brutally murder thousands of foes on your way to victory. The game is an endless meat grinder, but it dresses up its merciless massacres with some strategic touches. All of the maps are decently big and – scattered across them – are keeps and outposts that need to be conquered and protected in order to stop enemy advances. Win them, and evil armies will stop spawning endlessly; lose them, and within some minutes you might have a new wave of platoons coming at you, turning the battle into madness.

To relatively good players, the management of those positions will come off as window-dressing on the easiest levels of difficulty: victory can be achieved in spite of it. However, on the hardest setting, controlling the field and worrying about where to go next – forward to attack a new location, or backward in order to protect something that had already been won – becomes very important.

It is that tactical undertow that pulls Hyrule Warriors, and the whole Dynasty Warriors franchise, away from the tedious pit of mindless hack-and-slash, and into the safe haven where constant action meets strategic values. And here, that is in display under the signature Triforce sigil.

The problems with Hyrule Warriors are shortcomings that are inherent to Koei's franchise. Firstly, there are the brainless enemies that, with the exception of some bosses, are nothing but fast-food to the characters' hungry weapon of choice. Then, there are your beloved – yet dumb – allies whose only purpose seems to be getting into trouble.

However, the game's biggest sin is that, from the first to the last battlefield of the main adventure, there are no signs of gameplay evolution. The scenarios change, traditional Zelda pieces of equipment are found, new enemies are introduced, and awesome characters are unlocked, but never does the game attempt to branch out and truly surprise the players. The quirks and mechanics that are presented on the introductory map are the very same ones that will power the final challenge.

There are no wild turns or clever tricks, Hyrule Warriors is what it is. At least, the game is candid enough not to hide anything and show all of its secrets – which are not many – from the get go. It does not pretend to feature impressive depth, and it wears that reality on its sleeve at all times, which makes it nearly impervious to the damage of those issues.

Still, regardless of its monochromatic ways, Hyrule Warriors manages to be a solid game that, supported by a good amount of distinct modes, entertains greatly. It is a one-trick pony that performs its lonely trick well, and it is an enjoyable encounter with the Zelda world in the lull that separates one giant adventure from the next Hylian epic.

Albums of the Month: October 2014

Album: Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain

Artist: Pavement

Released: February 14th, 1994

Highlights: Silence Kid, Elevate Me Later, Cut Your Hair, Range Life

Pavement built their debut upon song fragments that often came off as charmingly unfinished efforts and low-fidelity sound drowned in guitar distortion. “Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain” does not veer off of that path: it still features unpredictable song structures and astonishing unorthodox guitar work. Moreover, Stephen Malkmus continues to deliver his lyrics in a distinctive careless manner, as if he is utterly unconcerned as to whether his verses and rhymes will soar or fall to the ground.

The difference between “Slanted and Enchanted” and their sophomore album is that while on the former the group's fantastic melodies were frequently buried amidst the noise – only punctually jumping above the overall soundscape, on the latter they are far more pronounced. It is not that the band lost its edge or chose to adopt a standard pasteurized sound; they, by all means, as their strident feedback is bound to state, retain a strong market-defying demeanor. “Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain” just pictures the band making their music less abrasive.

Hardly does a track go by without putting forth some remarkably catchy hook that could have easily been an integral part to a hit. However – as if deliberately stating that they had the talent and songwriting skills to make it big, but chose not to – no song makes it completely unblemished through the group's performance. Sometimes they just begin too abruptly or switch the tempo way too quickly, on other occasions Malkmus murmurs for too long, the words are frequently too awkward, the instrumentals too convoluted, and the music is overwhelmed by powerful noise pretty much everywhere.

Pavement was hardly the first band to purposely sabotage their own greatness. In fact, the indie movement of which they were such an integral part was inspired by musicians that brilliantly refused to live up to fixed expectations. Still, throughout rock history, it is hard to find a statement as subversive as this one. “Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain” is the construction of twelve masterful tunes and their subsequent destruction through execution. Only, like any mighty beasts, they do not go down easily, and that is exactly why their fall is so spectacular.

Album: Le Noise

Artist: Neil Young

Released: September 28th, 2010

Highlights: Angry World, Hitchhiker, Peaceful Valley Boulevard

As far as appropriately titled albums go, “Le Noise” sits on a very high position. It is more than a pun on the name of its producer, Daniel Lanois, who is known for spinning big soundscapes with a lot of reverb. It is a nod to the fact that, more than any other Neil Young album, this is the result of a partnership. Although Lanois is not the composer of any of the eight tracks present here, his influence is felt in every passing second.

Lanois was able to work his magic to a great extent due to a simple fact: there is no backing band in any of the songs. Two numbers, “Love and War” and “Peaceful Valley Boulevard” are purely acoustic, while the remaining six are electric attacks. The instruments used here are always two: Neil's voice and his signature loose guitar playing. Within the wide-sounding atmosphere traditionally created by the producer's style, that leaves a lot of room to be filled, and Lanois does not waste such opportunity: he makes the lonely guitar thicker, and infuses the rest of the space with amplified sounds.

Young also plays his role remarkably well. He takes advantage of the reserved mood of the album's production to deliver lyrics that often tread on confessional territory, and goes on to approach them accordingly during the songs. He is, through most of the record, seemingly spilling his guts out in the open. The greatest example of that attitude is “Hitchhiker”, in which he openly describes his adventures with drugs, shamelessly name-dropping a few substances.

Despite the record's mostly angry tone, accentuated by the power Lanois' echoing musical chambers give Young's guitar, there is also opportunities for Neil to tackle more emotional themes. There is depression (“Someone's Gonna Rescue You”), eternal love (“Sign of Love”), partnership (“Walk with Me”), and even a seven-minute environmental dirge (“Peaceful Valley Boulevard”). “Le Noise” rounds up as a fantastic musical experiment that is made stronger by solid songwriting and plain honesty. It is far more than a gimmicky, it is worthy of sitting close to some of Neil's finest work.

Album: Candy Apple Grey

Artist: Husker Dü

Released: March 1st, 1986

Highlights: I Don't Know for Sure, Sorry Somehow, Hardly Getting Over It, No Promise Have I Made

Sitting near the end of one of the most brilliantly prolific runs in rock history, which saw the release of six flooring records – including two double albums – in a span of four years, “Candy Apple Grey” is – unquestionably – Husker Dü's darkest effort. It shows the group veering slightly, not completely, towards a more balanced production that would later fully flourish on “Warehouse: Songs and Stories”, hence starting to abandon the hardcore roughness of their first five works.

Even if the sound is more polished, it does not really lose its rawness. Husker Dü still comes off as one of the world's loudest and dirtiest bands, and the record kicks off with four massive attacks. “Crystal” is yelled all the way through, and would have been right at home on the group's early EPs; “Don't Want to Know If You Are Lonely” and “Sorry Somehow” are fantastic and typical Grant Hart tunes, on which vicious music is fronted by sentimental lyrics and borderline bubblegum hooks; and “I Don't Know for Sure” is yet another Bob Mould anthemic punk gauntlet.

What really sets “Candy Apple Grey” apart amidst the group's catalog, though, is mostly what comes after that grand opening act. Out of the remaining six songs that are committed here, three are quiet ballads, something that both Hart and Mould had never attempted to tackle despite the fact their blatantly emotional songwriting was always a perfect fit for balladry. Given the band's track record, those three numbers exhale an experimental aura, but they manage to land like stunning pieces around which the rest of the album gravitates.

“Too Far Down” is a despairing and haunting song where, accompanied by an acoustic guitar, painful lyrics are delivered by Mould, who comes across as if he is singing from the bottom of a well. “Hardly Getting Over It” is a six-minute exercise in misery held high by a gorgeous instrumental section. And “No Promise Have I Made” features a tearful Grant Hart over a piano that sounds gigantic. Where other Husker Dü albums are an endless flood of energetic anger, “Candy Apple Grey” seems bent on showing the sorrowful hangover that follows the emotional violence, and it does so extremely well.

Album: Let It Be

Artist: The Replacements

Released: October 2nd, 1984

Highlights: I Will Dare, Favorite Thing, Androgynous, Sixteen Blues

As the band's leader himself would come to declare, The Replacements' initial brand of sound consisted, mostly, of “banging out riffs and giving them titles”. It was not exactly original, but the group did it with such originality, humor, energy, and honesty, that it became remarkable. “Hootenanny”, their second full record, showed the band attempting to branch out their songwriting to various genres, but – despite the promise of growth – it lacked the focus to make it a truly solid work. The blossoming of the band was, clearly, yet to come.

That moment arrived one year later with “Let It Be”, where Paul Westerberg finely stitched up his bursts of teenage demeanor with grappling melodies and distinct song structures. Here, the wild experimentation of “Hootenanny” bears its fruits that go far beyond garage rock. “I Will Dare” kicks things off with bouncy guitars carrying a tempo that rovers around the territory of R.E.M.'s early fast-paced songs, and “Favorite Thing” follows with punk rhythms that come to a halt on the chorus.

It is only on the album's third song, “We're Coming Out”, that the band bumps into an aggressive guitar-attack covered with shouts that comes close to the shape of their first works. But now, tunes of this sort, along with the tongue-in-cheek humor found in “Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out” and “Gary's Got a Boner”, are no longer the meat of the record. Rather, they are downright awesome songs that add dynamism to the listen. And they work much better like that.

The key performances here, the show-stoppers that stood as their best songs up until that point, are others: the piano-led “Androgynous”, the hard-rocking Kiss cover “Black Diamond”, the painful “Unsatisfied”, the two-minute instrumental “Seen Your Video” that suddenly culminates on an explosive chorus, the beautiful “Sixteen Blue”, and “Answering Machine” – a guitar-and-vocal closer. It is that mixture of inconsequential silly humor, garage spontaneity, and surprising maturity that make “Let It Be” one of the strongest and most fundamental supporting bricks of alternative rock. After listening to it, one cannot be surprised by the countless brains it inspired.

From Plumber to Bear

As far as the gaming universe is concerned, there are two kinds of progress. Firstly, there are the advances that have taken place in the field of technology. Those were the changes that have allowed us to – in the blink of an eye – watch this industry go from pixels to polygons, from chiptunes to full-fledged orchestras, and from button presses to motion-capture. In a way, they are the backbone that supports the endlessly creative minds of our most beloved developers; they are the wings that lift dreams off of the ground.

As undeniably impressive as that kind of leap might be, it is far less exciting than the second group of transformations: the ones that happen in the field of ideas. The crafting of new technology is responsible for the birth of a wild assortment of tools, but those tools would have an empty purpose if nobody put them to good use. And that's when the magic of ideas steps in: it polishes a mountain of scattered bytes, processors, and code into a gorgeous diamond.

Compared to pure technology, ideas are much more unpredictable. It is widely known that the power of machines will keep on growing at a steady rate with a lot of research and intellectual effort, but whether or not those new elements will be put to good use is a never-ending mystery because inspiration is harder to come by than sheer effort.

As the pieces fueling the industry evolve, so do its countless genres, and every once in a while those niches will take major steps forward either powered by the pure force of hardware, or by the influence of brilliant ideas. As a statement on how the latter tends to be much more significant and moving than the former, one of the biggest and most unexpected in-genre leaps took place within the same hardware and in a short window of less than two years.

That story begins back in 1996, when Super Mario 64 hit the market alongside the Nintendo 64. The game, aided by the unlocking of 3-D environments due to the hardware, was an enormous departure from Super Mario World and its sequel, Yoshi's Island, the latter of which arrived some meager eleven months before the plumber wrote the book on how platforming was meant to be done within the confines of this newfound technology.

The concept of traveling from left to right, a nearly unshakable rule on the NES and SNES days, was deposed. Mario was put in the middle of wide environments and it was up to him to navigate through them and locate the elusive stars. What was once about performing jumps that progressively demanded more precision was now centered around exploration that had some ledges and platforms mixed in.

Super Mario 64 was, by all means, a revolution. Playing it back in 1996 was utterly overwhelming and borderline unbelievable. Yet, by looking back on it with different eyes, it is possible to see that much of it was still grounded on the quirks of sidecrolling, which is completely understandable given how it was the first step down an unknown path.

Some of its moments, usually its finest hours, could have never existed back in the 16-bit days: the iconic Bowser battles, the unforgettable slides, the magical flying challenges, and the fantastic immersion found in the hallways of Peach's Castles. However, despite the infusion of exploration, most of the game could have been easily replicated if Nintendo only had access to more archaic technology.

Moreover, the game's structure was still closely tied to its 2-D past. Whenever entering a painting, players would be greeted by a selection screen on which – one by one – new stars were unlocked as Mario progressed through the world. Although some could be picked up out of order, a large portion of the time – given the fact most stars demanded some changes to occur on the scenario – players were restricted to finding the one that had been chosen.

It is a tiny detail, but one that – often – worked against the sense of freedom the game tried to achieve. More significantly, it preserved the hierarchy of one world encompassing an ordered series of levels (stars), which dated all the way back to Super Mario Bros. It is not a flaw; rather, it is a characteristic that Nintendo decided to carry over from the franchise's huge legacy and that has, in recent years, given us great fruits in the shape of the delightfully linear Super Mario Galaxy games and Super Mario 3-D World: games that have launched that old-school structure into the stratosphere.

Still, its links to the past and the fact that many of its mechanics had yet to fully mature meant that Super Mario 64 left a lot of room for tweaking with the foundation it had built. Two years later, they would be rocked to the core and improved in some aspects by Banjo-Kazooie. Rare's brainchild, and a game that still stands tall among the greatest platformers of all time.

Where Super Mario 64 could have existed in a world devoid of 3-D, Banjo-Kazooie would have never come to be. The bear and the bird inherited a lot from Mario: the encompassing overworld that was slowly unlocked, the wide open worlds, and the sense of adventure. But, truth is, with the advantage of having arrived after the stage was built, Banjo-Kazooie did much more than Super Mario 64 ever hoped to achieve.

There were the technological achievements: the enhanced and considerably less blockier graphics, the steady camera, the tighter physics, and the more predictable controls. There were the artistic triumphs: the vivid details and colors of the environments, the smoothness of the scenarios, the humorous sound effects, and the flooring soundtrack – which included musical transitions between in-land gameplay and underwater moments.

The game also took a very distinct path in relation to the setup of its gameplay. Super Mario 64 slightly guided the players in where to go next by the order and title of its stars; it was linearity in disguise. Meanwhile, Banjo-Kazooie simply threw the heroes in the middle of a location – be it a haunted mansion or a forest with changing seasons, gave them a pat on the back, and asked them to fetch 10 jigsaw pieces and 100 musical notes.

After that, it was up to players to explore, talk to the wacky characters, and figure out where to go next. There were no chains dictating the order on which events had to be followed. There was no automatically exiting the world after a major goal was achieved. Players could remain in there for as long as they wished to do whatever they wanted, and that looseness played into the hands of the astonishing settings, which invited players to dig deeper and deeper into what the environment held.

Banjo-Kazooie's worlds were, in the end, massive playgrounds that embraced a grand variety of challenges to be cleared so that the bear and bird could obtain their golden prizes. Sometimes the game demanded great platforming skills, such as the engine room of Rusty Bucket Bay. In other occasions, the searches ended in fun mini-games, like the wild sled race against Boggy the polar bear on Freezeezy Peak.

At other times, pure exploration was all that it took for one to reach their goal, like getting to the lighthouse on Treasure Trove Cove. And that all goes without mentioning the RPG-like item-gathering quests, which reach their peak as Banjo and Kazooie, on the platforming masterpiece that is Click Clock Wood, must hatch and raise a little bird through the four seasons until he turns into a majestic eagle.

How could so much variety be packed inside a single game? It all begins and goes through the ridiculously big assortment of moves the titular duo can perform. While in Super Mario 64 the plumber was restricted to some acrobatics and a couple of power-ups, the bear and bird could join forces to unleash more than a dozen different abilities which, within the simplicity of the game's setup, delivered a great deal of complexity.

Consequently, the weight of keeping things new and fresh did not fall solely on the shoulders of level design. Banjo-Kazooie was absolutely masterful when it came to landing big worlds loaded with details and inspiration, but none of them would ever materialize if the characters could not do everything from farting eggs to flying, and be turned into a variety of beings that included a pumpkin and a termite through shaman sorcery.

Many years later, the question that is replicated by everyone who had the honor of playing Banjo-Kazooie when it came out is whether its magic can be recreated. It is arguable that the Galaxy games did platforming better, but as titles mostly concerned with doing tricks while toying with their linearity, they belong to a niche on which there is no room for Banjo-Kazooie's free-roaming antics.

The 1998 game was a product of its era: a time when 3-D platformers where still crawling and there was still a lot to be done and enhanced. Rare took advantage of that scenario to kick things off with Banjo-Kazooie and then went on to produce a string of brilliant titles of that kind with Donkey Kong 64, Banjo-Tooie – the peak of the chain, and Conker's Bad Fur Day. Linked by subversive and somewhat dark humor, they were the sequential output of a company that was on an unparalleled creative roll.

The sad reality about the legacy of that set (by definition the legacy of Banjo-Kazooie itself, since it was the game that lit that wick), is that – as time moved on – the more explorative line of platforming has been forgotten. Mario has recently moved even closer to his level-based origins and abandoned the Super Mario 64 style of gameplay, whereas other major platforming series have completely reconnected themselves with sidescrolling action.

Going from Super Mario 64 to Banjo-Kazooie was not just a leap forward, it was a lateral jump into brand new grounds, but that territory has been mostly abandoned. Replaying Banjo-Kazooie is remembering how platformers were able to change so much so quickly, but it is also coming to realize games of its kind are close to being extinct.

All that it might take for the industry to go back to exploring that path is inspiration. After all, it was a great idea – joined by a good deal of effort – that allowed us to, in two fast years, go from plumber to bear.