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Rhythm Thief and the Emperor's Treasure Review

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Despite its occasional problems, it delivers an intriguing mix of adventure and rhythmic challenges

One of Sega's first efforts on the Nintendo 3DS, Rhythm Thief and the Emperor's Treasure, though completely original in its content, is not entirely new in its structure. Much like the Professor Layton franchise, that dressed up a puzzle game in a grand storyline and point-and-click exploration segments, it is a game that embraces one genre – in this case, rhythm-based mini-games – and complements it with a delightful universe, a solid plot, and plenty of cinematic cutscenes.

Taking place in modern-day Paris, it makes full use of numerous visual cues, not to mention major architectural and cultural staples. That French charm ends up naturally leaking into every aspect of the game, including the dialogues, soundtrack and script. The developers did a fantastic job in bringing the city to life, and they have achieved it through the blending of realistic settings with happenings that are as outlandish as the looseness of its cartoonish visuals allow for.

Raphael is a boy with a curious hobby. As Phantom R, one of the cities most wanted criminals, he sneaks into the museums of Paris at night, takes major works of art, and – for unknown reasons – returns them on the following days. Left behind by his father, who disappeared around the time the casket of Napoleon was stolen from Les Invalides, Raphael gets thrown in the midst of a treasure hunt around the city when, one day, after trying to get away following his latest theft, he bumps into a man who claims to be Napoleon as he attempts to abduct a girl.

The adventure shown in Rhythm Thief and the Emperor's Treasure mostly takes place during a treasure hunt around the streets of Paris as the characters involved on the plot scour the place in search of key relics. As a consequence, players will frequently be tapping on the screen, traveling between locations, and engaging in conversations with city dwellers.

The city has plenty of secrets to be found through the touch screen. Sounds, when recorded, can be used to help players solve puzzles and even unlock some extra secrets; musical notes – once fully gathered – also unlock extra content; and coins can be spent on a local shop in exchange for cutscenes and other items.

The game's progression is pretty straightforward, as a handy map on the upper screen constantly indicates where to go next. To some, that aid will undoubtedly come off as severe hand-holding, and it does indeed harm the experience to some degree, for the whole exploration component of the game requires so little effort that it is hard to get fully immersed in the nicely written investigation that occupies pretty much half of the game's main story length.

The real meat here, though, as the game's title indicates, are the musical sections that punctuate the entire journey, and on that regard Rhythm Thief is almost flawless. The title comes packed with a whopping 50 rhythmic gauntlets that vary in theme, musical style, difficulty, and controls, offering a very wide array of mini-games that will please almost everybody while also providing a great challenge even to those who have played a large share of games of the sort.

Whether they are mandatory to the continuity of the main story, or optionals that are only accessed through interaction with minor NPCs, the activities Raphael and his friends must perform are, mostly, perfectly integrated into the plot. Seldom do they feel forced or lazily tacked on; they have been carefully designed to match what is going on at the moment, and on that regard the game is a resounding success, for it has a large number of truly visually and rhythmically exciting mini-games.

If characters are attacked by an army of baddies, Phantom R will have to beat them down to the rhythm; when making a glorious getaway, players will have to tap as platforms appear to the beat of the music; if a song must be played to unlock the secrets of a cathedral, it will be necessary to swipe the stylus right on cue with the movements of the violin; the wonderful list goes on and on.

The controls implemented for each of the songs are greatly varied, but they generally fall into three camps, either utilizing the touch screen, the system's actual buttons, or its gyroscopic detection. The first two work wonderfully and it is an absolute joy to play mini-games that make use of them. However, the very few ones that require the 3DS to be tilted sideways can be painfully frustrating. The game sometimes will fail to recognize that the required movement has been made, and as a consequence it is not rare to fail a challenge or simply lose a combo due to one of those miscues.

Getting to the end of the story mode is relatively easy, and newcomers to the genre should not feel intimidated by it; the game welcomes them with a great and smooth difficulty curve. To those who want to get more out of the title than simply getting to the end of a very compelling plot, it is possible to attempt to get better scores and ranks on cleared songs that appear tightly organized into a practical menu. Hence, a ten-hour adventure can offer many more hours of gameplay to enthusiasts of the genre who want to face the daunting challenge of perfecting it the whole way through.

Unfortunately, in spite of its high replayability, Rhythm Thief possesses a scoring system that is a bit uneven as the rank it awards players after a performance is not influenced by the score. The rank is, actually, determined by a bar that slowly fills up as movements are made with the right timing, and any mistake will automatically make players lose almost one entire rank.

If that sole mistake is done during the early part of the level, the rank is easily recoverable. However, if the slip-up is committed on the very last moments of the dance, someone who has racked up one long combo and made just one mistake will likely have to be happy with a B rank in spite of the very high score. It is possible then to face a situation on which a performance with five mistakes made during its first phase might receive an A rank while one with a single fault on the waning seconds gets a B. It might sound like a silly flaw, but it can be an awfully frustrating development when struggling for a better grade.

The fact that the excellent rhythm sections punctuate exploration segments that are a little bit lackluster due to their simplicity means that the game has some problems with its pacing. While some of its chapters are loaded with mini-games, therefore bringing a good balance between the two faces of Rhythm Thief; others are heavier on the walking-around factor, which while being supported by an interesting plot are just not enough to hold one's attention throughly.

Aside from static dialogue, the plot is also developed by a large number of cartoon cutscenes filled with details, special effects, and style. And although the writing sometimes stumbles on lines and moments that are far too cheesy, the twists and turns the script takes make up for a very pleasant ride filled with surprises, making players truly grow attached to the game's great characters.

Rhythm Thief and the Emperor's Treasure is, unquestionably, a little rough around the edges and it makes some mistakes in important areas. However, the overall package is highly recommendable. It turns what would have otherwise been a simple music game into something much bigger, and it is able to pull off an incredible integration between its rhythmical challenges and its plot.

It is accessible due to its difficulty curve, but brutally challenging to those who want full completion, and – consequently – Sega crafts an experience that will certainly be able to please both those who love the genre and the ones that are a little bit reluctant to get into it. It is a charming and lovable world, and – when the adventure is done – it is hard not to wish for an improved sequel.

The DLC Dilemma

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Downloadable content is, conceptually, a blessing. Even after the game has been put on store shelves and gamers have explored every single one of its nooks and crannies, developers can still deliver brand new levels, items or challenges. It has the power to augment a title's value to unsurmountable lengths, creating software that – instead of getting old – gets fresher every time something is added to its catalog of DLC.

However, in reality, those things have a price for companies. After all, a developer that could have been working on a new game has to spend his working hours thinking of new ways to please customers who have already acquired a product. Naturally, that cost is passed over to players, who have to pay extra cash to play something on which companies need to spend a few more bucks. It is simple math, and on paper it is a very fair deal: those who want to get more than they acquired for the game's initial price tag have to dispose of some money.

While extra content is universally applauded, the minute it gets priced marks the point on which a barrage of comments accuse companies of being merciless money-hungry tyrants. Case in point, the recent announcement that the upcoming Mario Golf: World Tour will have courses that can only be downloaded if players pay for them, which caused many of those who were anticipating the game to accuse Nintendo of ripping players off.

Games, like any project, have a limited budget and the content that gets put into a title is always limited by whether or not there is enough cash left to cover it. It does not take the knowledge of an insider to claim that Mario Kart courses, Zelda dungeons, Super Mario Galaxy stages, and Metroid bosses have been left out of the final version of the game because time and money had just run out, and the game needed to be put out there so that the company could start collecting the laurels of its hard work.

Nowadays, that upper limit budgets have is undoubtedly more loose. Extra ideas that would have otherwise not made it can materialize due to the fact companies can now allocate extra money on projects and expect good returns over it because of paid downloadable content. In other words, if gamers are paying extra cash for features that would have been non-existent in a world without DLC, then they are most certainly not being ripped off.

Still, players' complaints are not all that unreasonable. Companies do like money, and the world is – sadly – crowded with unscrupulous people that are not ashamed to take advantage of others in order to make some more money. Hence, to us outside the process of gaming development, there is one huge dilemma surrounding DLC: it is just impossible to know whether a certain piece of downloadable content is really an extra, or something that was originally part of the full game that got removed just for the sake of squeezing extra coins out of our wallets.

Gaming development is a dark box to gamers, and in the full knowledge that businessmen – like any other kind of human being – can be bad, we have naturally come to suspect every additional bit of gaming goodness for which we are charged after we paid for the full game. It is a problem to which there is no fast fix, for it relies on something extremely abstract: the relation of trust between a company - a faceless entity - and its fans.

Though by no means quick, that solution is certainly achievable. The one way through which companies can make players start looking at DLC with more positive eyes – even if the negative comments will never cease to exist – is to consistently deliver games that are exploding with gameplay hours. In that sense, the issue of paying more money for extra content can be positive to gamers since companies will have to make sure their titles feel like really full packages from the very start, potentially increasing the value of the average game.

Staying on the Nintendo side of things, one stellar example of a game that reaches such balance is Fire Emblem: Awakening. Its downloadable content is gigantic, featuring new missions and units that are linked to unlockable classes, skills and items. Awakening has, literally, a full game's worth of DLC. However, its single-player campaign is so lengthy, its features so configurable, and its production values so exquisite that its very well-priced load of pay-to-play content is a very pleasant sight once the end of the game is reached. It is like finding a treasure chest full of gems when the loot seemed to be all taken.

The bar against which World Tour must be measured is, obviously, its predecessors. Both the original Mario Golf and the Gamecube's Toadstool Tour had six courses to be enjoyed, and the Gameboy Advance game had five, which were complemented by a strong and high-value RPG mode on which players could slowly build up their characters. If World Tour can deliver a number of courses equal or above six and pack a strong RPG gameplay, then its extra content will undoubtedly be seen with very positive eyes by media and fans alike, as the game would be bound to get a very good reception.

Nintendo does not have a strong tradition of placing DLC in its games, but it can use Mario Golf: World Tour to keep improving its credentials on this field. In turn, that might – one day – back up the inclusion of downloadable elements on even bigger games such as Mario platformers, Mario Kart, Star Fox, or F-Zero.

In spite of the understandable negative reactions that happen at first, everything might turn out to be very positive. After all, who in the world would not love a Mario Kart title that gets updated with new packs of courses every two months or a Star Fox title that receives new thrilling space missions on a weekly basis?

Professor Layton and the Azran Legacy Review

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It wraps up an an everlasting saga in a magnificent way

After six years and six games that made up two fantastic trilogies that blended incredible storytelling with challenging puzzles, Professor Layton and the Azran Legacy marks the end of the very successful handheld series developed by Level-5. As the point on which the prequel trilogy ties itself to the final three games, which – in Star Wars fashion – were released first, the title carries the emotional weight of the ending of many partnerships, setting up a new beginning for the beloved heroes.

The Azran Legacy, unsurprisingly, does not operate major shifts in gameplay. However, due to its placement in the timeline, it feels grander and more important than the two games that preceded it. That grandeur ends up materializing nicely, for the game provides great closure both in terms of character development (especially to personages that are nowhere to be seen on the sequel trilogy), and it fantastically wraps up a storyline that, sometimes discretely, permeated both the Last Specter and the Miracle Mask, and even the franchise's silver screen outing: the Eternal Diva.

The game succeeds marvelously in connecting all the loose threads, and it does so in a very sensible way. Although the plot of the game itself can be perfectly understood by those who have not come in touch with all of the franchise's media, it carries extra rewards, and a great deal of satisfaction and fulfillment to those who have been around long enough to be able to catch all subtleties of its plot. In that sense, the Azran Legacy is a major storytelling achievement.

The adventure beings when Layton receives a letter from a fellow archaeologist. The professor and his assistants – the young and good-hearted Luke and the energetic Emmy – are then invited to the chilly town of Froenberg, where a frozen mummy with active vital signs has been discovered. The mummy, it is believed, has ties to the ancient and technologically gifted Azran civilization. Layton, having great interest in the studying of that people due to previous games' events, quickly travels to the site of the discovery. He, however, is not the sole person with an interest on the case. Targent, an agency with dark intentions, looks to unearth the ancient power tied to the Azran, and they will do anything to stop him.

In traditional Layton fashion, the story is told through a mix of static dialogue with character models appearing on screen and a bunch of cutscenes featuring hand-drawn animation that are saved for the game's climaxes. With numerous twists and turns, the plot is highly engaging. The development is continuous and very well-paced, which keeps players motivated to continue playing through the game's pleasantly lengthy course.

Adding to the feeling that what is at stake is pretty big, the journey takes on a unique structure. Instead of taking place at one big specific location, the Azran Legacy sends the characters all over the world in a treasure hunt for relics. As a consequence, the individual sites are smaller, and Layton must travel between them on a charming zeppelin – the Bostonius.

Such layout has two direct consequences on the game, one that produces mixed results and another that is a fantastic delight. The first is that the game works like a storybook. Therefore, under the large encompassing main plot, there are independent mysteries that unfold on each of the locations scattered around the world. While the quality of the core thread is unquestionable, these smaller riddles are irregular. Some are downright brilliant, offering thrilling moments and mind-blowing discoveries; others are rather mundane, adding up to a somewhat lopsided package.

The second effect of the dismemberment is one that plays right into the hands of one of the series' best features: its art. Since the many towns visited by Layton and his friends have distinct geographical features, the artists at Level-5 were allowed to go absolutely wild with their talents. Whether characters are exploring a tropical paradise, a locale of western inspirations, a jungle, or an area with medieval lines, there is no other way to put it: the game is absolutely gorgeous. Every scene is filled with beautiful details, and the characters that inhabit the different regions have very unique designs. Never has a Professor Layton game been this visually varied, and the Azran Legacy does not fail in constantly awing.

Inside that different structure, the game operates in the same manner as its predecessors. Players touch the screen to walk around the locations, talk to the many characters, and scan the screen in search of hidden puzzles, items, or hint coins – which serve as a pleasant aid to younger players throughout the adventure and to more experienced puzzle solvers on riddles that offer brutal challenge.

During the adventure, players can come across a whopping 150 puzzles that are nicely integrated into the context on which they are found. In addition, upon solving the three clever multi-leveled mini-games the game traditionally offers, another 15 specially challenging conundrums are unlocked. As if that bundle was not big enough, over 300 enigmas are set to be delivered daily through the next year, bumping the grand total of puzzles to the north side of 500. Consequently, an adventure that can last for over 30 hours to those who act like true gentlemen and decide to solve every puzzle gains even more value as a new riddle is delivered daily .

The daily puzzles are neatly divided into 20 styles, a few of which have been migrated from the previous game (the Miracle Mask) with added twists. Meanwhile, the ones scattered along the adventure are greatly varied, offering mathematical challenges, purely logical problems, and some that use twisted wording to try and trick players into giving the wrong answer. Although not all puzzles feature the same high level of quality, the biggest part of the package is great.

Professor Layton and the Azran Legacy is, in the end, a remarkable exclamation point that brings the series to an end with a very positive note. Its fresh structure might bring mixed results, but this is still the Layton most portable gaming fans have come to adore. It tells a tale with efficiency that is rarely seen on the gaming world, it stars characters with which is extremely easy to fall in love, and uses all sorts of storytelling techniques to get players deeply engaged. And then, it tops it all off with a seemingly endless amount of good puzzles, great art, incredible music and marvelous voice acting.

As Layton tips his hat and heads towards a well-deserved break, it is impossible to know whether we will ever see him return in a game of this kind. One thing is for sure, though: he and Level-5 leave, more than many fans, an everlasting saga that will surely remain alive in the hearts of those who played it and enchant future generations of gamers.

A Smashing Direct

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Ever since the inception of the Nintendo Directs, never has a presentation caused this much anticipation among fans. The hype, of course, was completely warranted. After all, differently from the shows that occur close to E3 – when there is a fog of mystery surrounding what will be shown – this one had a clear focus revealed from the get go: Nintendo was going to deliver more details about the upcoming pair of Super Smash Bros. games.

In that sense, this week's show fulfilled expectations. Fans got to know the release window for both titles, Summer for the 3DS version and Winter for the Wii U game; plenty of new characters, items, and assist trophies were revealed; and gameplay details that are bound to please different kinds of Smash Bros. fans were made known.

Masahiro Sakurai – the series' director – if fully aware of his audience's diverging mentalities when approaching his most famous brainchild. He knows that while some view the franchise as a realm on which the wackiness of party games meets a delightfully simple, yet deep, fighting gameplay; others view it as a competitive arena that is occasionally hampered by random elements, such as items and stage effects that interfere with the fighting.

In a way, he has always tried to make both camps happy by making a game that is as customizable as possible, allowing gamers total freedom in setting up the battle style and the items that would appear. This time, though, that flexibility has been taken to a whole different level, hence practically guaranteeing that the two sides of the coin will be satisfied.

On a simple masterstroke, Smash Bros. will now allow all of its stages to be configured either to a madhouse full of traps, or to a standard single-platform arena with no quirks. That division will be extended to the game's online, on which a simple menu click will separate those who want an item-free battle on static stages from those who feel like getting the full insane extent of the Smash Bros. experience. The rift on the fanbase is, then, materialized on its online community, pretty much creating two distinct sides that will fight with their preferred set of rules.

In terms of character announcements, the Smash Direct left a little to be desired. Having characters such as Charizard, Sheik, and Zero Suit Samus star on their own slots is certainly deserving, for all of them present original movesets and great designs, and the announcement came as a pleasant surprise. At the same time, though, the only real new character to appear was Greninja, from the Pokemon X/Y versions.

The new Smash Bros. versions are, naturally, expected to bring numerous additions to the roster of characters they inherited from Brawl. However, as we stand a few months from the release of the Nintendo 3DS version – which will knowingly have the same cast as the Wii U game – the roster additions remain thin.

A positive outlook indicates that such fact means future updates to the game's site and Nintendo's eventual E3 Direct will probably be packed with new characters, whereas a more gloomy perspective will lean towards the confirmation that the existence of the 3DS version has severely limited the potential for expansion of the cast, which would be a terrible shame. Sakurai has already stated that such a problem does exist, but the extension of its effects remain to be seen.

From a business standpoint, Nintendo's decision to produce two versions of the game, hence taking away the home consoles' exclusivity over the franchise, remains questionable. The Nintendo Wii U undoubtedly needs a boost in sales, and that push could have come with it having a firm grip over the next Smash Bros. game.

Now that it is known that the 3DS game will be released a few months before Wii U version, that decision becomes even more confusing. The 3DS game was already bound to rob the Wii U of numerous hardware sales due to the fact 3DS owners would not need to buy Nintendo's home console to play the game. With an earlier release date and a fully exclusive mode, the allure of the 3DS Smash Bros. has greatly gone up, while the Wii U version will come as an afterthought to the greater part of gamers out there.

With at least eight months before the Wii U version of Super Smash Bros. comes out, Nintendo has a good amount of time to build up hype and announce sweet morsels of exclusive content. Still, though there is not really much to criticize when it comes to today's wonderful Direct (greatly presented by a humorous Sakurai that displayed great knowledge on the audience he is dealing with), Nintendo's business strategy in handling these two Smash Bros games remains utterly confusing.

Hole in One

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With the platforming gameplay as his immaculate headquarters, Mario has been able to leap out of those boundaries to reach new gaming landscapes. Fully aware that competing directly against the traditional juggernauts of genres on which he is a mere visitor - and not the main attraction - would be a major folly, Nintendo and their partners have taken measures to avoid eye-to-eye combats, and the results have been mostly successful.

By simplifying the mechanics of many genres and sprinkling the recipe with a whole lot of Mushroom Kingdom charm, Mario has starred on numerous family-friendly and highly engaging titles that involve little jumping and Goomba-squashing antics. Starting with Super Mario Kart, eventually extending all the way to RPGs with Square's Legend of the Seven Stars, and going wild by exploring pretty much every major sport practiced around the planet, the plumber has, more often than not, garnered great critical reception and entertained millions of young and experienced gamers alike.

Although both the go-karting series and the Mario RPGs have nearly perfect track records in spite of their high volume of installments, the same does not apply to Mario sports games, which have sometimes fallen victim to rushed production, poor controls, and a wish to gain easy money that surpasses the desire to deliver a consistent product. In 2012's Mario Tennis Open, the Nintendo 3DS has already been home to one of those hollow mixed bags, but two years later the system seems to be about to redeem itself with Mario Golf: World Tour.

It would be no hyperbole to say that World Tour belongs to a somehow noble line of Mario sports games. After all, it was back in 1999 - on the Nintendo 64 days - with Camelot's Mario Golf, that Nintendo opened up the floodgates to allow Mario to explore, simplify, and make more fun the experience of playing sports simulations. Though that pioneering award has, in the eyes of many, lost some of its nobility due to some uninspired pieces of software that such experiment birthed, the fact that it also catapulted gems like the original Mario Tennis or the hilariously brutal Mario Strikers makes it all worth it.

Besides, the Mario Golf branch of the Mario Sports tree has yet to house a game that sits below great. The original 1999 game featured tough courses and a deep, yet simple, gameplay schema that, despite the fact that it shows its age nowadays, was certainly a commendable achievement at the time. The Gamecube's Toadstool Tour made ideal adjustments to that structure, introducing elements that would be borrowed by traditional golf games, and painted absolutely gorgeous scenarios by using the system's magnificent hardware. And finally, Advance Tour came around in 2004 and blended the standard Mario Golf gameplay with RPG elements that took the game's value and length to unsurmountable heights.

Mario Golf: World Tour arrives with all that legacy solidly laid, and even though it is the heir to arguably the best Mario Sports game of all, Toadstool Tour, it seems poised to make a run towards the top. It might sound like a extremely bold claim, but it is one that is backed up by one simple word: time.

First of all, there is the time of development. Mario Tennis Open, the most recent sports game produced by Camelot, was simply decent. Though it is hard to pinpoint, from the outside, the cause for its failure to achieve the greatness of the series' Nintendo 64, Gameboy Advance, and Gamecube outings, the game seemed rushed. The absence of an RPG mode made its single-player content too thin, hence forcing the title to fully rely on its multiplayer virtues.

Given how greatly received that mode had been on the GBA outings of both the Golf and Tennis games, not to mention the fact that it was also included on the latest Mario Sluggers title, the most reasonable explanation for its apparent removal has to fall on utter lack of a lengthier development schedule.

World Tour was set to release on the second half of 2013, but - perhaps due to how Nintendo perceived the average reception of Mario Tennis Open to have affected its sales - it was delayed by nearly one year. As we sit one month from the game's release, information on the title is still relatively slim, but not only do we know that World Tour will feature RPG-like gameplay, in the shape of Castle Club (a hub from which players will access tournaments, shops, training facilities, and who knows what else), but a quick glimpse of videos released by Nintendo unveils what seem to be greatly designed courses, creative use of items, gorgeous visuals, and good gameplay options, all of which have been undoubtedly expanded and improved during the one-year delay.

In addition to the extra period of development, time also plays a role in increasing the game's level of freshness. When World Tour releases, almost ten years will have passed since Advance Tour, the most recent game of the Mario Golf series, came to be. For starters, that lull means that countless young gamers will get in touch with the franchise for the first time, whereas veterans will feel like a lifetime has passed since the last time they sat down to play a round of golf on the Mushroom Kingdom.

More importantly, that decade-long retirement means that Mario Golf will enter a gaming scenario that is far different from what it encountered back in 2004. The 3DS' hardware is, by leaps and bounds, superior to what the GBA had to offer, meaning that course elements, the RPG gameplay, and everything else will reach new levels of detail and depth.

Besides, the rising of online gameplay will allow the game's multiplayer to be much more dynamic. It will permit the seamless connection of players from all over the world in tournaments that will – probably – encompass a pleasantly large number of competitors, and the fact that each player has their own system means that, instead of playing in turns (which can cause the match to drag), they will be able to tackle the course simultaneously. If Nintendo and Camelot manage to come up with, and support, a large number of tournament options, leaderboards, and other network features, World Tour's online mode could have the legs to match the company's multiplayer kings: Mario Kart and Super Smash Bros.

In spite of all those promising tidbits, Mario Golf: World Tour has been flying under the radar. Once it releases, though, it will have a great shot to show that Camelot has learned from the stumble called Mario Tennis Open and, to reward fans of the Mario sports games, has created one of the finest titles to hit the Nintendo 3DS.

Albums of the Month: April 2014

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Album: Kick Out the Jams

Artist: MC5

Released: February 1st, 1969

Highlights: Ramblin' Rose, Kick Out the Jams, Motor City is Burning

In the midst of the energetic Detroit garage rock scene, two of its main players - The Stooges and the MC5 - rose to prominence in 1969 when each published their debut albums. The former opted for a studio record, which would end up concealing the raw power they displayed on staged and that was such a relevant component of their greatness. The latter, though, smartly decided to take advantage of the rebellious force of their performances on “Kick Out the Jams”, a fierce fiery document that accurately depicts the wild punk sound coming out of Michigan at the very height of its power. It is not a work that tries to amaze on technical fireworks or tight songwriting; it is fully aware of the band's greatest prowess and it uses it as its calling card.

Starting with a rousing speech, the band proceeds to burn the venue down with a sequence of four breathtakingly vicious numbers whose speed and delivery would create tidal waves that would bring punk rock to life. “Ramblin' Rose” has verses sung in a careless falsetto and a rhythm that comes off as louder and more aggressive rock and roll. It is followed by the glorious riff of “Kick Out the Jams”, and the blatantly sexual “Come Together” and “Rocket Reducer”. The second half shows the group's ability to tackle other palettes, culminating with the blues progression and vaguely political lyrics of “Motor City is Burning”, and “Starship” a psychedelic journey written in conjunction with the poet Sun Ra that describes in haunting feedback and words an outer space trip. “Kick Out the Jams” is an explosion of music that perfectly conveys the powerful force of nature that MC5 was when at their best.

Album: Monster

Artist: R.E.M.

Released: September 26th, 1994

Highlights: What's the Frequency, Kenneth?, Strange Currencies, Bang and Blame, I Took Your Name

Coming on the heels of a massively successful duo of records - the pastoral “Out of Time” and the acoustic masterpiece of “Automatic for the People”, “Monster” is undoubtedly one of the most unexpected and bold turns any band has ever taken. A band once centered around the low-key emotions of Michael Stipe and the jangle of Peter Buck's guitar decides to return to their early rocking days and ends up turning up the guitars and distortion to unforeseen lengths for the group. The sound here is overpompous and ridiculously garish, and Stipe wisely covers it with characters that are sexually and psychologically disturbed. “Monster” is like a decadent glam star, it tries to sound glorious and fabulous, but its inner psyche reveals a human being that is dark, obscene, obsessive, selfish and dangerously wild. It is a psychological work of art.

With echoes of the grunge movement, the album opens with the sweeping “What's the Frequency, Kenneth”, a mockery of an old man who tries to connect with youth in ridiculous ways. From that point on, “Monster” emerges in sexual tension. When it is hopeful, such as in “You” (a creepily obsessive dirge), “Crush With Eyeliner”, “Star 69” or “Tongue” (a cabaret ballad sang from the perspective of a woman), it sparkles the tunes with disturbing eccentricity. When it is desperate, it becomes threatening and aggressive in songs like the musically dirty “I Took Your Name”, the explosive “Bang and Blame” and “Circus Envy”, which is by far the heaviest song on the group's thirty-year catalog. “Monster” might not be as consistent in its songwriting as the band's masterpieces. Tunes like “You” and “King of Comedy” overstay their welcome due to their monochromatic delivery. However, not only does it hold a handful of gems, it is also thematically engaging, presenting a number of delightfully dammed characters at the very bottom of human nature: passioned and troubled lust.

Album: The Velvet Underground

Artist: The Velvet Underground

Released: March 1st, 1969

Highlights: Candy Says, What Goes On, Pale Blue Eyes, I'm Set Free

After a debut that integrated avant-garde rock and an array of dark subjects with sensible dashes of pop music, and a second record that threaded the line between noise and music with uncanny brilliancy, the sound of The Velvet Underground's self-titled third record comes as a shock. Gone are the distorted guitars with weird tuning, the murky production, and the twisted lyrics, and in comes a clean sound explored by calm songs that often wear country and folk influences on their sleeves. Where their two first records were perhaps the less derivative albums of the early rock days – as if they had been written and recorded in a mad isolated bubble - “The Velvet Underground”, without being an inch less incredible than its predecessors, cooks a safer yet beautiful palette that, for the band, was quite a bold move. In spite of its more standard sound, the album manages to maintain a sharp edge.

The band is out to prove they can produce easy-to-listen songs like their financially successful contemporaries, but they cut the tunes in ways that still get away from the norm. In its quietness, the album presents a remarkable variety of songs, most of which could have easily been major hits of the 60s. There are the discretely electric ballads (“Candy Says” and “Pale Blue Eyes”), the groovy and energetic guitar-centric tunes (“What Goes On” and "Beginning to See the Light"), and the astonishing crescendo of “I'm Set Free”. Despite the relative simplicity of most compositions, all of them have creative structures. And that inventiveness culminates on “The Murder Mystery”: a nine-minute piece backed up by a haunting organ and featuring - on the choruses and verses – dueling simultaneous vocals that make the lyrics one unintelligible riddle. That contrast between straightforward songs and a lengthy anthem to weirdness makes the record's title incredibly appropriate, for it manages to perfectly define the band during its course: a group that could have spun numerous hits like so many other bands, but one that preferred to push the boundaries of early rock music instead.

Retro City Rampage DX Review

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As a homage to an era when great pop culture was born, it is a resounding glory; as a game, it is playable, yet forgettable

It is easy to qualify Retro City Rampage as a self-aware 8-bit ripoff of the Grand Theft Auto franchise. After all, both take place in large cities on which players are free to roam around, star characters whose purpose is to set the place on fire with maniacal actions, and progress by giving gamers the chance to either take on missions of the main storyline or partake sidequests that introduce new personages and situations. The similarities, both for the good and for the bad, end there though.

Grand Theft Auto is a game grounded in reality. Its happenings are not extremely outlandish, and the behavior and actions of its characters follow certain psychological patterns. In spite of its interesting premise of putting players on the shoes of a criminal, its realism paints a serious picture. Retro City Rampage, fully aware of its position as an indie parody, decides to take advantage of outrageously far-fetched scenarios. It is extremely careless and loose on the missions it delivers to players who may - in one moment - pair up with Death itself to slay civilians randomly only to, later, vandalize a laundromat to collect some loot.

The meeting of so many ridiculous tasks in a single game starts being set up by its over-the-top storyline. During a heist lead by crime lord “The Jester”, a man aptly named “Player” runs into a time-machine and decides to take it from the hands of its owners. When arriving in the not-so-distant future (the year of 20XX), the machine breaks down. Luckily, a scientist witnesses the scene, and – believing the thug to be a time-traveling hero – decides to help him gather the pieces to fix his destroyed machine.

From that point on, players are sent all across the city to track down the pieces needed to repair the machine. As they navigate through the inner workings of Retro City, players will come across a fantastic cast of characters with great quirks, dirty mouths, shocking bluntness, and despicable attitudes. Due to the game's wild and reckless nature, organically supported by its wish to explore the extravagant ridiculousness that exists in the life of a criminal that runs people over on the street for no reason whatsoever, each mission comes with the intriguing expectation of what exactly will happen next and who will be responsible for giving you such baffling tasks.

Aside from that, the grand allure present in Retro City Rampage is how it is able to make blatant references to pretty much every single pop culture icon that existed between the eighties and early nineties. The game is not old-school merely on its pixelated appearance. Every tiny brick that builds the web of relationships that exist in the city can be traced back to that time. Some scenario details are carbon copies of Super Mario Bros and The Legend of Zelda; characters of generation-defining movies have been transported in satirical versions and thrown in the middle of this insane city; and even billboards, location names and dialogues are adapted nods to remarkable pieces of entertainment of that era.

Much like knowing which unpredictable turn the story will take next, locating the hundreds of references Retro City Rampage makes to icons of that era is more than an extra pleasure: it is the very heart and soul of the experience. This is a game that is out to make fun of what it believes to be ridiculous (in a positive kind of way), and pay homage to the popular pillars of a generation that have – in many cases – transcended the eighties and found respect and admiration on the hands of many generations that followed.

It works hard to keep that legacy alive, fresh and relevant, and – for the most part – that is what it achieves. Adults who were youngsters during those times will laugh and nod in recognition of the throwbacks; while teenagers will pick up some links to those days with relative ease while cautiously remaining on the lookout for more obscure hooks.

In its essence, though, Retro City Rampage is a game, not a book of references to a great decade. Therefore, it must be attentively judged by its gameplay, and on that regard the game is not a big success. In spite of their creative premises, the missions are often dull and repetitive. They mostly involve driving to a certain point in the city in order to do away with enemies or having to go on a mad killing spree for random reasons. Their structures are rarely surprising and fresh, and it is hard not to feel like you are pretty much doing the same task over and over again.

To be fair, there some tasks – very few of them – that are indeed creative, but they either come on the final stretch of the game or are too sparsely scattered to give the adventure any sort of great momentum. In addition, the game's difficulty curve is staggering uneven, which serves to increase the overall feeling that, differently from its brilliantly scripted and thought of nods to 80s, the design of the main game was put together way too quickly for its own good.

Still, Retro City Rampage is fortunate to be supported by a very solid control scheme. Within the limitations of its perspective and 8-bit presentation, the game found a way to incorporate some modern quirks to its interface, such as a helpful and informative map, and a display to show which item of your character's incredibly varied arsenal is currently being used by Player to murder his victims. However, the finest feature here is certainly how, by holding the shooting button, it is possible to lock onto a nearby enemy in order to easily circle around him while avoiding all the projectiles crowding the screen.

Despite its irregular gameplay, Retro City Rampage is undeniably packed with content. The main quest, with its good level of challenge, can take around eight hours to be completed, and the city is also filled with side missions. Like the ones from the core storyline, their structures are not very varied. However, the fact they are presented as timed mini-games on which players must score loads of points by destroying everything on their sight transforms them into short bursts of fun. Besides, players are awarded medals according to the score amassed, and since the gold prizes are usually hard to get, those little explosive activities have high replay value.

Another area on which the title is excellent at are its technical features. The 8-bit graphics are amazingly used, and they are able to build scenarios, buildings and characters with a lot of variety and charm, crafting a game that thrives on its purposed graphical limitations instead of suffering because of them. The same applies for its stellar soundtrack, which offers a large number of chiptunes that are catchy and fit the mood of the game very well.

When it is all said and done, Retro City Rampage DX is a game that is extremely successful in a great number of areas. Everything that is old-school about it - its mélange of references to the 80s, its bit-built graphics, and its music - is unquestionably remarkable. Sadly, it fails on the area on which must-play titles are separated from merely decent ones: gameplay. As a homage to a long-gone era on which great popular culture was born, Retro City Rampage DX is a resounding glory; as a game, it is playable, yet forgettable.

The Contenders

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Every gaming genre has a king. Some of those reigns last for quite a while and are boosted by incredible creative streaks that take a franchise miles away from its closest competition. Others are able to hold that crown in the public perception even when constantly surrounded by worthy competitors that give it a legitimate run for its money. Meanwhile, some monarchs lose their sovereignty as quickly as they get it, which is not only a natural happening on a market that moves quickly, but also a blessing to gamers who watch - and benefit from - how companies are consistently trying to top each other.

One genre, though, does not fall under any of those categories. Ever since it was inaugurated in 1992, it has been explored by an unimaginable number of franchises. They try to extract the very same simple gameplay of the genre's progenitor and transfer it to new worlds with a few added twists, but after twenty two years of many attempts - some excellent, some mediocre - the very same franchise that gave birth to the original concept remains, generation after generation, the one against which all other games of its kind are measured.

The franchise is none other than Mario Kart. In 1992, Super Mario Kart broke new grounds by using the revolutionary Mode 7 chip to render seemingly tridimensional environments. And, more than that, it introduced a wacky blend of gameplay that mixed the challenge of traditional racing games, the simplicity and charm of the Mushroom Kingdom, and insane items that could turn a regular Grand Prix upside down. It was colorful, it was fast, it was wild, and its multiplayer mode established brand new bars for family entertainment.

Since then, seven installments have hit pretty much every single console Nintendo has released. Even if not all of them have received overwhelming critical acclaim, there is not a single version of Mario Kart that has not provided the ones that bought it with exciting, and sometimes frustrating, moments.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Mario Kart is the most complimented game of all time, for every game that ever came to inhabit its genre has copied not just a part, but pretty much all of its gameplay elements. Race-changing items, courses that are magnificent and outlandish fan service, battle modes on which karts become war tanks that expel vicious blasts, and beloved colorful characters racing against each other. Even if through most of those twenty two years its competition has been weak or nonexistent, the truth is Mario Kart has been challenged a few times.

Mickey took a decent shot at racing with Mickey's Speedway USA. Naughty Dog, it could be argued, beat Nintendo at their own game when Playstation's Crash Team Racing showed incredible racing prowess against Mario Kart 64. More recently, Sony crafted another worthy contender in ModNation Racers, a game that lacked the charm of being based around a famous franchise, but that made up for it in the form of highly customizable features. And, finally, Sonic, after a few irregular yet fun go-kart outings, achieved full maturity with the gorgeous Sonic Racing Transformed.

However, as the world prepares for the arrival of Mario Kart's eighth Grand Prix of insanity, it is more than worthy to remember the game that came the closest to stealing that crown: Diddy Kong Racing. Coming close to the beginning of an era during which Rare would go on an astounding streak of game design (perhaps the best one in history), it announced something that would become clear during the Nintendo 64's lifespan. Rare, as it turns out, did not want to just help Nintendo make their system attractive, they wanted to beat Nintendo in game development. And Diddy Kong Racing indicated that not only did they want to do it badly, they also had the talent and ability to do so.

Rare came to the realization that simply doing what Mario Kart did would never take their title over that gigantic hump. Their game had to do more than present neatly organized assortments of tracks constituting a Grand Prix. Consequently, Diddy Kong Racing was a game that tore down all the walls that limited the scope of what a racing game should be. Those barriers were not clear to the untrained eye, but once they were noticed by the Rare team and went down they - like a wall segregating people from a world whose existence they were totally unaware of - revealed something so natural that it made most gamers beg the ultimate question: “Why hadn't anybody thought of this before?”.

The recipe was extremely bright, but very simple - the perfect combination for a game of its kind. Do away with the standard concept of a four-race grand prix on which racers are awarded points according to their finishing position, and separate the courses into five themed worlds connected by a nice overworld filled with secrets, challenges and that invited players to explore it in order to experience everything the game had to offer. A genre that was only go-karting morphed into a intriguing mixture of racing-adventure, and the result was beyond spectacular.

Instead of handing gamers the courses on a silver platter, the game made you earn the opportunity to race in each of its 20 courses, 5 battle stages and face its six bosses in frantic and very challenging races filled with traps and attacks to avoid. Each had to be unlocked by locating hidden items on the courses, winning the races, or exploring the overworld in search of golden balloons.

More than introducing brand new layers of challenge, the game's manner to present its main attractions - the circuits - built up excitement. Instead of being just another stop along a grand prix, each course was anxiously hyped up by players as they tried to find a way to collect the right number of balloons to unlock it. Each numbered door hid something special behind it, and the sheer joy of clearing the previous challenge ended up combined with the happiness of finally being able to move on to the next treat. Each competition was much more than a race, it was a discovery; a fulfillment of finally being able to move on only to discover something utterly amazing.

Featuring groups of tracks that gravitated around specific themes could have had possibly bounding effects on their design, but the brains at Rare did not allow that to happen. The fact the game featured three distinct vehicles made the possibilities much more flexible, and unique venues were born out of that sandbox. Players flew through a volcano full of lava and a frozen tundra, used boats to explore a paradisiac bay and a medieval castle, drove through the mist near a frosty village and sped through the depths of a haunted one, and ended up on some weird space station where the future was colorful and vibrating instead of dully gray.

However, perhaps Diddy Kong Racing's greatest magic trick was finding a way to make a game starring Diddy Kong and a bunch of an unknown characters into something fascinating and full of personality. In fact, being free from whatever conventions and expectations would have come tied to a famous franchise was maybe Rare's greatest weapon in trying to create a racing game that was completely unique and transformed its obvious Mario Kart influences into something bigger and fresher.

More than serving as a way to connect worlds and tracks, its adventurous side leaked into many of the game's core features. The battle stages featured varied objectives, some of which demanded a great level of exploration; major items were sometimes expertly hidden in tracks that had to be combed down by players over and over; and the boss races felt like creative boss battles you would find on a great adventure game, but with the added twist that your character was on a kart and you had to beat the bad guy to the finish line.

Diddy Kong Racing wore its inspirations on its sleeve, and it did so without many worries because it knew it was different. Out of thin air, and a few basics wonderfully laid down by Mario Kart, the geniuses at Rare built a game that - many years later - still stands on its own in terms of sewing two incredibly different genres into one experience so seamlessly and successfully. Rare did it by employing a lot of creativity on the gameplay and putting together glorious graphics and an unforgettable soundtrack.

Most importantly, they did it by understanding that in order to beat what had come before it, they had to do more than recycle. They had to grab the formula that had been established and take it to new places. Like the invisible walls that limited the racing genre before Diddy Kong Racing came around, that strategy is surprisingly easy to grasp, especially when it has been proven to be true over and over again. However, just like Diddy Kong Racing's mixture of racing and adventuring has barely been repeated, the understanding that in order to push forward we need to do more than up a console's processing power seems to have been lost in time.

If more games had the philosophy employed on Diddy Kong Racing, the gaming world would be a better place.

Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze Review

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Immensely challenging, invariably creative, and fully packed with great content

When it came out in 2010, Donkey Kong Country Returns had a pretty tough challenge to face. Not only was it supposed to revitalize a major Nintendo franchise that had been trying - and failing - to find a direction in which to follow after the gargantuan Donkey Kong 64, but it also had to live up to the natural juxtapositions it would draw to its mother series: the stellar sidescrolling trilogy of Donkey Kong Country. As it turns out, in spite of a few hiccups, Returns rode its consistently exquisite and occasionally frantic level design right towards greatness, delivering the ultimate 2-D platforming experience on a generation that saw a fantastic rebirth of the genre.

Due to that resounding success, Tropical Freeze arrives with Retro Studios already fully validated as a company that can create a remarkable Donkey Kong game. However, as the second installment of the Returns saga, it encounters expectations of heights that not even its predecessor had to deal with. After all, if the first games of each series served as some sort of great rehabilitation for the character, the sequel of the original Donkey Kong Country, Diddy's Kong Quest, was a towering peak for the franchise and the sidescrolling gameplay as well. Tropical Freeze, therefore, naturally paves the way for comparisons to Donkey Kong Country 2 on the quality of its gameplay and the leap it represents in relation to the Wii's finest 2-D affair.

In its plot, Tropical Freeze does not stray from the Donkey Kong norm. A group of wild humanized animals invades DK Island to rob the family of their horde of bananas for no apparent reason other than serving as the welcoming trigger to start a crazy adventure. In this case, the beings are the Snowmads, a troupe of arctic creatures that come to transform this tropical paradise into a frozen tundra.

Although the Kong's home island has been turned into a snowy hell, the game switches back and forth between wildly distinct scenarios by making players start exploring nearby islands to clear the threat little by little until they can return to their point of origin, where the Snowmads decided to build their freezing base of operations. Consequently, the adventure takes place in a dense jungle, an autumnal meadow, a expansive Savannah, and in other creative locations.

As Donkey Kong progresses from left to right on the game's stages, Tropical Freeze unveils the extreme detail that was put onto its backgrounds. They are often a flooring technical achievement for featuring so many dynamic layers on which a tridimensional world comes alive, and they invariably amaze due to the fantastic artistic work that was put behind each and every scenario element.

In fact, the work with the worlds and scenarios is so ridiculously meticulous that by paying attention to the backgrounds it is possible to string together a storyline of what exactly are the Snowmads doing on that specific location. In one of the worlds, for example, as players advance from one stage to the next they will witness how the Snowmads have built a complex system of harvesting fruit from the fertile land and processing it into juicy goodness. It is downright amazing, and as far as storytelling through images and animation goes, it is unparalleled.

As great as that is, it is merely the shell of what Tropical Freeze offers. The real meat here is in the gameplay, and it is hard to say Retro could have done it any better. Donkey Kong is now accompanied by three family members: Diddy Kong, Dixie Kong and Cranky Kong. While on multiplayer mode it is possible to control each individually, when playing solo gamers are forced to control Donkey. Wwhenever a barrel holding one of the other Kongs is cracked the companion will jump right onto DK's back, doubling his energy to four hearts and lending him a helping hand.

Diddy's jet-pack will allow players to rover in order to land jumps more safely, Dixie's ponytail also permits for more controlled jumping while also having the added benefit of giving players some extra altitude on the beginning of the “flight”, and Cranky uses his cane to protect the duo from spikes and jump higher. Although clearing the levels can be done with whatever Kong you prefer, or with none of them if you want extra challenge, certain items and locations can only be reached by using a specific ability, so it is important to know how each partner behaves so that you choose the appropriate one when finding a barrel.

The stages themselves offer a grand variety of ideas and platforming concepts, with each presenting a new creative mechanic and taking it to great lengths during their course. The game includes some great Donkey Kong traditions, such as vines, barrels, mine carts and rocket barrels (introduced on Donkey Kong Country Returns), and brings back a few other elements into the mix, like Rambi the Rhino, our good old animal buddy wrecking ball; and water levels, which – contrary to popular belief – are incredible on Tropical Freeze.

The stages mix a small dash of puzzle solving with loads of challenges requiring precise jumps and moves. In spite of the fact that the first world kicks things off a little bit on the slow side, the game is never very easy, and by the time players reach the early stages of the second world they will have already experienced a number of hair-pulling segments that provide incredible joy when surpassed. Fortunately, aside from a few secret levels on which no relief is available, checkpoints are plentiful and well-placed, finding a nearly perfect balance between being too frequent and too sparse. Therefore, even though there is some frustration due to the the brutal difficulty the game achieves down the line, it is rarely directed at the game's design problems, but at our own inability to surpass the challenges.

Tropical Freeze alternates moments of tranquility on which players are allowed to sit back and ponder what to do next with occasions of lightning-fast insanity on which reactions must be instinctive and perfect, and sometimes it spectacularly combines those two elements on the same level. It is not rare for stages to crumble down, explode, suddenly throw hazards at players and even change camera angles to abruptly shift the view of the gameplay and reveal new ways to play the game.

It is a breathtaking thrill; a roller coaster ride, but it is also a habit that causes the game to sometimes bump into trial-and-error terrain, on which it becomes nearly impossible to get through a challenge on a first attempt due to how fast and frantic it is. Much like it happened on the early Megaman games, which thrived on those tricks, those moments will surely drive some players mad, but to those who are not pleased by trial-and-error those insane designs are fortunately mostly tucked away on optional levels, so it is possible to get to the end of the game without facing a big part (but not all) of Tropical Freeze's delightful brutality.

To those who want to be truly tested and extend the game's length to over twenty hours, Tropical Freeze packs each stage with many collectibles. The four KONG letters are generally in plain sight, but reaching some of them requires either great precision or daring platforming skills. Meanwhile, the puzzle pieces offer a different kind of challenge, as they are very well-hidden behind false walls, on bonus areas or only appear after certain banana trails are completely collected, hence requiring a more exploratory approach in order to be tracked down. Additionally, each world has at least one secret exit that will unlock hidden levels. In other words, Tropical Freeze has a load of extra content.

The original Donkey Kong Country Returns had three core flaws that kept it away from being a flawless game: its uninspired soundtrack, generic boss battles and repetitive bonus areas. Tropical Freeze fixes the first two issues in marvelous ways. The boss battles here are hard and have different phases. The big baddies switch between increasingly complex patterns that need to be learned so that the Kongs can survive a barrage of attacks and land blows safely. Not only that, but each battle is preceded by amusing cutscenes that introduce the imposing fiends in epic ways.

As for the soundtrack, the fact that David Wise is back aboard as the composer means that Tropical Freeze has a great collection of songs that is sometimes up-to-par with some of the tunes featured in the original trilogy. They do not simply work as companion to the gameplay; they spin their own web of atmospheric vibes that take the action happening on the stages to new levels. Wise is able to be cheery, threatening, and blissful when the game requires, and the adventure soars to new heights due to his stellar work.

Sadly, the sole problem that has not been fixed are the bonus areas that reward players with puzzle pieces when cleared. The original trilogy had bonus mini-games that aside from centering around a dozen different goals added more variety on top of that by building the areas according to the elements of the levels on which they were found. However, Tropical Freeze, like its predecessor, has a group of six plain-looking bonus areas that have the very same objective: collect all the 100 bananas before the time runs out. It is a tiny little smudge in the midst of a sea of greatness, but it is nevertheless a disappointment to see so many areas take great steps forward while something so simple and easy to fix like the bonus areas remains forgotten and unchanged.

In the end, the game, unsurprisingly, is not Donkey Kong Country 2: the masterpiece it will naturally be matched against when Nintendo fans look back on the history of the franchise a few years down the line. Yet, if there is one title out there that can put up a fight on that one-sided battle for the sidescrolling crown, Tropical Freeze might be it. It is a struggle that is only decided by the tiniest details, because this sequel manages to be immensely challenging, invariably creative, and fully packed with content. It is a game whose fun borders on everlasting and whose overall qualities evoke a magical aura that few titles are able to muster. It is not quite good enough to win the ultimate platforming battle, but it has enough qualities to find its place on the hall of magnificent games of the Nintendo brand.

Albums of the Month: March 2014

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Album: The Smiths

Artist: The Smiths

Released: February 20th, 1984

Highlights: Reel Around the Fountain, Pretty Girls Make Graves, This Charming Man, Suffer Little Children

While R.E.M. was fueling alternative rock in America, The Smiths were doing the same on their British playground. Their self-titled debut marks the beginning of a four-year four-album journey that would rightly put the group on the rock pantheon. Their magic is mostly supported by Johnny Marr's jangly Rickenbacker. Instead of giving the songs rhythmic muscle, hence influencing the melodies, his guitar work - like a full-fledged electric orchestra - paints a musical landscape on which his bandmates can operate. Morrissey is given freedom to come up with wide and irregular melodies that transmit emotion effectively, while Rourke and Joyce - true to the post-punk tradition inaugurated by Joy Division - create a rhythmic section that fills in the gaps as a very prominent melodic bass dances around and keeps up with Morrisey's vocals.

It is a thing of beauty, and here it is used to touch upon various themes: homosexuality on “Reel Around the Fountain”, “Hand in Glove” and “This Charming Man”, the strength of fatherly love on “The Hand the Rocks the Cradle”, the broken relationship of “Still Ill”, the ambiguous celibacy on “Pretty Girls Make Graves”, and the heart-breaking retelling of the real-life abduction, abuse, and assassination of five children on the album's closer “Suffer Little Children”. While some songs hint, with dashes of pop, at the aggressive punk that preceded the band, a great part of the album points towards new sonic directions when the guitar-playing focuses on constant and complex chiming sounds. Right out of the gate, the group is able to display their unique quality, as Morrissey showcases the full power of his baritone and Marr technically mesmerizes on his quiet virtuosity.

Album: The Masterplan

Artist: Oasis

Released: November 3rd, 1998

Highlights: Acquiesce, Listen Up, Rockin' Chair, The Masterplan

“One man's trash is another man's treasure”. Under the light of Oasis' “The Masterplan” - a collection of B-sides from the band's three initial records - that saying inevitably comes to mind. It features a group of fourteen very strong tunes, including a live The Beatles cover (“I am the Walrus”) and the full version of an instrumental that had partially shown up on the “Morning Glory” album (“The Swamp Song”). In fact, most of the numbers are so amazing it is impossible not to wonder why Noel Gallagher decided against including them on the albums, as those songs would have made the near-perfect “Definitely Maybe” and “Morning Glory” even better. Due to the lengthy period of the group's career that it covers, “The Masterplan” is extremely varied, finely striking numerous elements that display the ways through which the group can impress.

“Acquiesce” has a soaring chorus and vocals that switch between Liam and Noel; “Talk Tonight”, “Going Nowhere” and “Half the World Away” are simple acoustic ballads where Noel takes center stage, and “The Masterplan” features the orchestral grandeur that was everywhere on “Be Here Now”. On the more aggressive side, “Headshrinker” is as loud of a song as the group has ever performed, while “Listen Up” and “Stay Young” - both with prominent and traditional, by Oasis' standards, wall of sound production - and the masterpiece that is “Rockin' Chair” are easily among Noel's greatest compositions. Even faced with the flooring quality of their first two albums, it would be no exaggeration to claim that “The Masterplan” is the band's greatest collection of original material. Going to show that either Noel had no clue whatsoever how brilliant all these songs were, or that he was on such a creative roll that some gems simply had to be left behind.

Album: 13

Artist: Black Sabbath

Released: June 10th, 2013

Highlights: God is Dead?, Age of Reason, Dear Father

After their first six classic records, Black Sabbath had been awfully irregular both in terms of lineup and music. “13”, coming nearly two decades after their latest album, is the creative offspring of the reunion of Iommi, the man whose guitar sound invented heavy metal; Butler, the dark genius of the ominous bass and the twisted lyrics; and Ozzy, the voice that added a sinister layer over the group's early sluggish sound. Following a lengthy hiatus, the work could have been lazily labeled as an attempt at squeezing cash out of an incredible legacy. However, “13” throws all of those labels out the window as soon as the first guitar blows of Iommi announce “End of the Beginning”, the album's opener and a song that features clear links to “Black Sabbath”, the first song of their debut album.

The album is marked by long slow-paced tracks that are as dark and heavy as anything the band has ever done, and the structure of the songs reach for the complexity found on “Sabotage”. Threatening riffs turn into grand solos, and the band usually delivers a couple of verses and choruses around each song's main riff before venturing into fast-paced metal attacks. That general mold is broken up by “Loner”, a short and aggressive track with guitar lines that would perfectly fit on early Metallica tunes, and “Zeitgeist” a moody experimental number that inevitably brings up memories of “Planet Caravan”. Even if it occasionally suffers from a suffocatingly loud compression and a couple of songs that are a little bit too similar to their first classics, “13” could not have been any stronger. With eight stellar tracks, not to mention the four great tunes that were left out of the record, it comfortably finds a seat among the band's greatest records and shows that the band's long absence only served to increase its creative fire. They sound like a band with a lot to prove, and they show that they still got it.

Album: Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere

Artist: Neil Young

Released: May 14th, 1969

Highlights: Cinnamon Girl, Down By the River, Cowgirl in the Sand

“Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” is pretty much the perfect title for Neil Young's second record. After a debut that revealed a promising songwriter who was still developing his craft, and lacked full confidence in his singing and arrangements, the sentence shows that Young acknowledges the path of rock stardom does not lead to where he wants to go. The song that lends its name to the album is a road-weary tune that urges for the tranquility of home instead of the wild schedules of a star, and it is perhaps the realization that he wants peace and quiet - the coming to terms with his own wishes - that allowed the production of such a strong and mature album. Even if his singing is still not stellar, and even if the production is still too thin, it is a record that delivers masterfully on the most important component of musicianship: songwriting.

“Cinnamon Girl” kicks things off with a majestic riff that announces the arrival of new rock-infused Neil Young. His rockier country-flavored side becomes prominent on “The Losing End” and the two lengthy album centerpieces “Down By the River” and “Cowgirl in the Sand”, whose lyrics are delivered in incredible hooky melodies punctuated by massive jams and solos that extend both songs over the nine-minute mark. At the same time, he showcases folk aspirations (perhaps inspired by Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell) on “Round and Round”, a deep reflection on the harms of isolation; and “Running Dry”, where accompanied by a haunting fiddle a lonely character regrets his selfish actions. “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” manages to be incredibly varied inside the simplicity of its delivery, and it is a record whose value grows with each listen. It is not Young's ultimate masterpiece, but it is a telling blueprint of what he would achieve down the line.