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The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds Review

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In the midst of a clear reliance on the past, the game carves its identity in surprisingly effective way

Being part of The Legend of Zelda series is already pretty hard. After all, any title that receives the series' stamp and stars the famous Hyrule characters gets endlessly dissected by fans. Even games that are vastly different from their peers, such as the cartoonish and adventurous Wind Waker or the dark and ominous Majora's Mask, have each tiny aspect from their gameplay tirelessly compared to the peaks of the series. A Link Between Worlds, perhaps realizing the inevitability of the comparisons, decides to run straight into one. Heavily inspired by A Link to the Past - widely regarded as the franchise's greatest 2-D entry - the game, confident of its greatness, purposely walks into a trap and the only way out unscathed involves one nigh impossible task: improving upon a game whose enormous achievements are made even taller by a heavy nostalgic fog.

A Link Between Worlds draws parallels to A Link to the Past in two distinct areas: its plot, and its world. Taking place in the very same Hyrule of the Super Nintendo game, only a few generations later, the land is basically unchanged, down to nearly every mountain, tree, dungeon and rock being placed in the exact same position. The storyline, in spite of a few great twists, also follows along the same general line as it did on A Link to the Past. After witnessing an attack by a mysterious figure against the sanctuary's minister, the hero is telepathically contacted by Zelda. Upon his arrival on the castle, Link is tasked with stopping the wizard from trying to wake up the sealed Ganon, which means that he must go through a series of dungeons to save the world from destruction.

It is reasonable to think that, given all the similarities, A Link Between Worlds runs the risk of being rather unremarkable; a game that attempts to ride a wave of nostalgia towards success. However, that is not the case at all. The game successfully manages to carve its own identity in the midst of all sameness. The first step towards achieving its unique personality is Link's ability to merge into walls and become a walking graffiti. It momentarily changes the perspective of the game into a sidescrolling view, and it opens up wide possibilities, both inside dungeons and on the overworld, for puzzles and item locations that take advantage of this newfound skill. Chests that are apparently unreachable and riddles that are seemingly impossible are amazingly solved by using the ability, surprising even veterans who have been through every Zelda game and adding a platforming flavor to certain segments; something that had been missing since the Oracle games.

The second factor that makes A Link Between Worlds stand out is borrowed straight from the original Zelda. Aside from a few storyline-related restrictions, the game's dungeons can be explored in any desired order. Each dungeon still has puzzles centered around one specific equipment, and their entrances are often blocked by obstacles that need to be trespassed by using that item. However, Link's tools are no longer found within the dungeons, but acquired in a shop. At first, it is only possible to rent the items for a small price, but as the game advances, Link can actually buy them for higher amounts of rupees. The difference between a rental and a purchase is that on the former, when Link fails in combat, his rented tools are taken back to the store, meaning that walking back to the store and the payment of a new rental tax act as punishment for defeat. Buying the equipment eliminates that problem.

The potential nuisance of backtracking to the store either when Link is beat down or when players get to the door of a dungeon and find out they do not have the required item to enter it gets severely diminished by the fact that the large world map is filled with many wrapping points, allowing for quick transportation. Still, buying the items avoids that minor annoyance and it also makes rupees valuable rewards rather than useless prizes, which is excellent news given how many secret chests and mini-dungeons the game offers players. Tracking them down, then, becomes a pleasant necessity instead of being a pointless task only tackled by obsessive completionists.

As a consequence, exploring the game's gorgeous overworld becomes an extremely pleasant activity. Navigating towards the dungeons will invariably reveal smart design and an incredible feeling of adventure, but there is much more to do then simply heading straight towards the next dungeon. The item-rental system allows players to go anywhere they wish, and it also makes many of the caves and secret locations reachable. Therefore, going out of your way to explore a new area and uncover its secrets before heading towards your main goal is unavoidably engaging. The amazing Hyrule is there for the taking, and it is impossible to resist its charms and secrets.

Aside from collecting rupees to purchase equipment and tracking down the traditional heart pieces, the game does not offer much in terms of sidequests, but down the line Link will come across a Maiamai Mother that will task players with finding her 100 missing sons in exchange for equipment upgrades. Scattered across the overworld, the little creatures emit a high-pitched cry when they are nearby. Their occasionally difficult-to-reach positions play right into the hands of the incredible quality of the game's overworld. Even those who do not care about the rewards will most likely take on the quest, because it gives players yet another reason to explore every nook and cranny of the world. Not to mention that reaching them, more often than not, involves figuring out brilliant environmental puzzles that have Link merging into walls and traveling between the game's light and dark worlds.

A Link Between World's most striking feature, though, is neither its lack of linearity nor Link's wall-merging antics. This is - like Ocarina of Time and A Link to the Past - the The Legend of Zelda gameplay in a very pure state. There is no filler and no attempts at radical thematic change. It is a game that plays it safe. While some might be put off by it, the truth is that it has been such a long while since a Zelda game has been this straightforward that A Link Between Worlds manages to be fresh in its simplicity. It winds up being a relatively short game, as it can be fully completed within twenty hours, but it is undoubtedly - due to its traditional nature - the most balanced title to hit the franchise since Ocarina of Time. All of its valuable minutes of gameplay are entirely enjoyable; and its twelve dungeons are great, with a couple of them being absolute classics. Most importantly, there is not a dull moment in its adventure

As impressively solid as it may be, A Link Between Worlds does stumble in a few areas. While its soundtrack is undoubtedly masterful, its visuals are lackluster. Technically, they are as close to flawless as it can get, and it is unlikely one will find a 3DS game that moves as gorgeously as this one. However, after a sequence of console and handheld Zelda games that strove to redefine the series visually, the game ends up falling short in the artistic department. Perhaps inspired by its classic structure, the game's looks are simply a visual translation of the original Zelda and A Link to the Past to the 3DS hardware. There is simply not much about it that makes a strong appearance. Its second problem, and perhaps yet another issue arising from its safe approach, is how uninspired its boss battles are. The ones that are not recycled from A Link to the Past just fail to stand out, and all of them are a bit too much on the easy side.

Yet, A Link Between Worlds manages to get its point across spectacularly well. It is a smooth Zelda adventure that adds a few twists to the mix while maximizing the potential of the traditional structure of the franchise. The fact that it goes against the recent trend of Zelda games padding their content to make the journey longer makes it extremely hard to put down, because it is a game that delivers one gameplay treat after the other until it arrives to a satisfying conclusion to the storyline. In the end, instead of falling victim to comparisons with A Link to the Past, the game takes advantage of them to show that, sometimes, in order to be unforgettable, all a The Legend of Zelda game has to do is be a pure The Legend of Zelda game.

Albums of the Month: December 2013

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Album: Definitely Maybe

Artist: Oasis

Released: August 30th, 1994

Highlights: Rock 'n' Roll Star, Live Forever, Supersonic, Cigarettes and Alcohol

“Definitely Maybe” is one of the records in rock history that portrays the reaching of songwriting nirvana. Its greatness is so organic, its hooks so natural, that it is hard to come to grips with the fact that, at some point in history, those songs simply did not exist. It is as if all those melodies had been floating in space for many centuries until Noel Gallagher, in a moment of enlightenment, translated them into chords. It has such a ridiculous amount of stellar songs that if someone unknowingly stumbled upon it a few decades from now, the conclusion that it is a great “best of” album would not be far-fetched.

Coming more than an year after Blur's “Modern Life Is Rubbish”, “Definitely Maybe” is not the first Britpop album, but it has a much stronger connection to the baggy movement that preceded it. That link can be seen on the gargantuan wall of sound produced by the guitars, Liam's loose vocals that transit between nonchalant and defiant, and the band's tendency to indulge themselves in long intros and outros. Even if its influences are clear, “Definitely Maybe” turns those elements into a whole new louder, bigger and more aggressive monster. It is heavy layered rock dressing up hooks whose accessibility can be traced back to The Beatles, and powered by feel-good lyrics that, while not great, don't compromise. It is the work of a group that knows where they come from, and is fully aware of where they want to arrive.

Rocket to Russia

Artist: Ramones

Released: November 4th, 1977

Highlights: Rockaway Beach, Sheena is a Punk Rocker, Teenage Lobotomy, Do You Wanna Dance?

Joey cannot sing, Johnny moves songs forward by playing loops of three chords, Dee Dee follows along with some of the most straightforward bass lines ever, and Tommy seems to play the drums with the same approach for every single song. Yet, the Ramones click like no other band. They are not embarrassed by their lack of skill, hence making their sloppiness neither pitiful nor ridiculous. It is, instead, their major allure, and they wear it so nonchalantly that the boldness of such attitude dignifies them. While British punk groups were challenging the world by either setting it on fire (The Sex Pistols) or trying to change it (The Clash), the Ramones were just out to have fun, and nowhere did they do it better than on “Rocket to Russia”.

Even if all songs are pretty much played the same way, it is a record that shows an uncanny versatility. Within the confines of their limited musicianship, the Ramones pull off a couple of surf rock numbers in “Surfin' Bird” and “Rockaway Beach”; a few ballads, such as the mournful “Here Today, Gone Tomorrow” and the energetic “Locket Love”; and many of their signature punk songs. “Rocket to Russia” has the variety, and it also holds some of the group's most iconic melodies. All songs pleasantly stick to one's mind after a couple of listens and, even when Joey sings “I Don't Care” for nearly two minutes, you cannot help but feel good about it. It is the ultimate Ramones statement, and one that makes it clear that, sometimes, all that it takes to be a great rock band is having enough courage to face a crowd; and that is precisely how the Ramones conquered the world: 1% skills, and 99% attitude.

Album: Reflektor

Artist: Arcade Fire

Released: October 28th, 2013

Highlights: You Already Know, Joan of Arc, Afterlife, Supersymmetry

Arcade Fire has always been a band fueled by grand ideas. Their albums, like mini rock-operas, have invariably focused on specific themes around which all songs gravitated. Now, while the ambition of concept remains untouched, as all of “Reflektor” deals with how we live isolated in a deeply connected world, there is also an ambition of sound. Gone are the introspection and familiarity of “Funeral” and “The Suburbs”, and in comes music that is expansive. Even if the band had already touched upon wider music on “Neon Bible”, “Reflektor” sounds vastly different. The credit goes to both the band's positive wish to change and the participation of James Murphy as a producer, which when joined, crafted a sound built upon dance music and electronic elements occasionally infused with Haitian rhythms.

In the wake of commercial success, the fact that “Reflektor” is such a big departure for the band is commendable. However, the final result is a frustrating record. Aside from “Porno”, which has B-side written all over it, all of the album's songs have moments of great inventiveness and songwriting, but rare are the songs on which the greatness is constant. The matching of the group's melodic talent and their wish to go for new sonic grounds is not always natural, as if their musical ambitions got in the way of a smooth composition process. “Reflektor”, therefore, only truly soars on the unpretentious “You Already Know”, on the dancing groove of “Joan of Arc”, on the masterpiece that is “Afterlife”, and on “Supersymmetry”, that bumps into the accessible moments of “Kid A”. The rest of the record alternates brilliant Arcade Fire moments with occasions of artificiality and indulgency, as indicated by the inflated length of some numbers. The group took a praise-worthy leap, but it failed to land safely on its feet.

The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds Impressions

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A Link Between Worlds is the heir to A Link to the Past. Its dungeons are numerous; and though they are undeniably short, they pack quite a challenge and feature constant level design brilliancy. Traveling through its overworld, especially to those who have not visited the Super Nintendo classic in a while, is a refreshing delight. Its secrets are many, and awaiting in every corner of its two contrasting worlds are caves, characters and mini-games that remind you why this specific take on Hyrule might be the most well-done of all. It is not overwhelmingly big, but it is just grand enough to allow Nintendo to fill every single one of its acres with something nice to do. A Link Between Worlds, therefore, does something not many Zelda games have done lately; it amazes both inside and outside the dungeons.

All of that is, obviously, great news. But, given its glaring similarities to a timeless classic, A Link Between Worlds needed something to distinguish itself and become a remarkable Zelda that stood out on its own. Nintendo, then, went ahead and found not one, but two elements that set it apart from the crowd. The first one comes in Link's ability to merge into walls. It is not a random gimmick, but something that smartly brings back elements of 2-D platforming that had been missing since the pair of Oracle games. It supports the development of great dungeons whose puzzles go beyond the item-based triggers we have grown so accustomed to, and it allows for brand new interactions with an overworld that has been explored by most players.

The second trick that A Link Between Worlds has on its sleeve is the flexibility of the order in which dungeons can be conquered. Once past the initial stages of the game, the map will be marked with the locations of the game's dungeons, and players are free to decide where to go to. The greatest thing about that system is not the flexibility itself, but the item-rental mechanic it is based on. Since most dungeons require a specific item to be accessed and cleared, Link can rent any items he wants from a shop. Rented items will remain with Link until he falls in battle, at which point they are automatically returned to the store. After some time, those items can also be bought. Purchasing each item eliminates the punishment of losing them upon defeat, but it also costs a whole lot of rupees.

And it is in there that lies the genius of the whole system. Not only does the equipment-rental allow dungeons to be explored in any order, but it also makes finding treasure extremely important, hence playing right into the hands of the joy that it is to explore Hyrule and its dark twin kingdom. Finding caves, mini-dungeons, and using Link's graffiti powers to access new locations is a lot of fun, and it also has a end: to save players the trouble of flying back to the item shop every time Link is beat down.

A Link Between Worlds has its flaws. For a series that has shown such artistic prominence in its latest entries - as clearly demonstrated by the release of Wind Waker HD, the game's visuals are good, but not remarkable. Its boss battles are far from being inventive, which is disappointing considering how brilliant Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks were in that regard. Yet, even with a few dungeons remaining until the story is finished, and many hours and secrets away from fully completing it, it is easy to see this is the most balanced Zelda game since Ocarina of Time.

The Big Four

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Nintendo's stunning collection of franchises - carefully built through the company's long history in the gaming market - naturally has a handful of stars that shine brighter than the others. Though all of their characters are somewhat readily recognizable as pertaining to the company, four of them are famous beyond the frontiers of Nintendo's loyal fan base. The reason for such universal success - only comparable to Disney characters and major superheroes - is the fact that, aside from being around since the inception of gaming as a major form of entertainment, they have pushed the boundaries of their respective genres forward and have reinvented themselves enough times to remain relevant for three decades.

Mario, Donkey Kong, The Legend of Zelda and Metroid have established so many norms and concepts, and have done it for such a ridiculous amount of time, that they no longer determine the rules that need to be followed; they represent some of the most important guidelines to making a successful quality game. They are the bar with which platformers and adventure games will be compared when trying to assess the greatness of a new gaming franchise. Still, with so much well-earned praise and accolades, they have not been entirely consistent in their greatness. In fact, by going back and looking at them on a generation-by-generation basis, it is revealed that they have rarely been simultaneously excellent.

By glimpsing at the four series back in the NES era, it is noticeable that while most of them were trying to push gaming towards new glorious places, they were not doing it without a few stumbles. Donkey Kong was lazily resting on the laurels of his original arcade blockbuster by giving us more of the same, but in a console format. Meanwhile, The Legend of Zelda introduced the concept of open-world gameplay and a save system, and Metroid crafted nightmarishly mazes on which the world itself was a puzzle waiting to be solved.

Both Zelda and Metroid were imperfect: the original Zelda lacked a clear direction, and - in an indication of uncertainty - Zelda II chose to go on a vastly different direction instead of improving what was there; while Metroid was technically clunky. However, at the time, their technical flaws were hidden by the ambition of their design. Mario, on the other hand, escaped from under Donkey Kong's wings to soar by himself. After three installments of platforming, he was able to let the world know the full extent of what he was trying to accomplish. Super Mario Bros 3, the first masterful game the big four would produce, set a structure so firm and steady that it has been serving as a support for all platformers ever since. It was colorful and alive, and it showed how fantastic gaming could be.

The following generation was vital for the solidification of the four franchises. After all, not only did Nintendo have strong competition at the time, but Zelda, Metroid and Donkey Kong had yet to be flawless in both concept and execution. Perhaps not coincidentally, the SNES - Nintendo's best system - was the one that saw the franchises reach for something beyond greatness at the same time. Super Mario World built upon what Super Mario Bros 3 had presented and delivered amazing levels tied together with an involving overworld that was filled with an unbelievable amount of secrets. Meanwhile, the other three characters found their identity in incredible fashion.

Super Metroid was a bigger and technically tighter take on the original Metroid, and the atmosphere it mustered by using the system's hardware was simply unparalleled. A Link to the Past chose the right foundations to build upon (the original instead of Zelda II) and went out to create an adventure whose size and epic value was only matched by Square's gargantuan RPGs. And no turnaround was as big as Donkey Kong's, who left the outdated confines of an arcade-style game and went on to reinvent itself. The simian, powered by Rare's amazing talents, took such significant steps in graphics, level design and music that the second part of the series was able to top Mario himself in platforming goodness.

Just after finding their footing, Zelda, Donkey Kong and Metroid - alongside Mario - had to face the introduction of a whole new perspective. 3-D gaming was on its way, and the Nintendo 64 provided the franchises with an amazing opportunity to change, but also a considerable risk to fail given the drastic changes that were about to occur. Mario led the way, and his landing was masterful. Super Mario 64 was the point on which gamers met the nuances of a fully explorable tridimensional world, and it wisely made alterations to the franchise's mechanics so that it would adapt itself to the new dimension without losing its charm and signature.

Zelda followed suit, setting standards for puzzle-solving and combat controls, and delivering two masterpieces that showed the franchise would do just fine in 3D: the epic Ocarina of Time and its sprawling world, and the dark indecipherable Majora's Mask. Donkey Kong 64, though, was not as successful as its peers. Rightfully hyped as the “biggest game ever”, its collectathon gameplay divided the fan base between those who loved the game's ambition, size and inflated numbers, and those who dubbed it a chore disguised as a game. The greatness of Donkey Kong 64 is eternally debatable, but - either way - the big four could never shine in unison on the Nintendo 64. Metroid, after all, for undisclosed reasons, just did not make the leap.

One generation later, though, Samus came out to play, and what we got was nothing short of one of the greatest games ever. Metroid Prime woke up the series from its slumber, and it remains the biggest most unpredictable change a Nintendo franchise has ever gone through. It looked like anything but Metroid, but by playing it for less than fifteen minutes one could feel the franchise's alien world crawling through the screen and its organic sounds leaping out of the game. The loneliness of being stuck in an hostile planet fighting against nature itself and an intergalactic enemy was more claustrophobic than ever, and it all happened because we now saw the world through Samus' own eyes.

If Metroid Prime showed itself as worthy of the franchise's name, the same cannot be said for Super Mario Sunshine and Jungle Beat. Though occasionally fun, the two games simply did not hold a candle to what the franchises had previously done. The former's tropical setting was enchanting, but its platforming was lacking; and the latter, while inventive on its bongo-based controls, lacked the substance of the Donkey Kong Country series. Thankfully, Zelda balanced things out by bringing along the spectacular size of the adventurous Wind Waker; a game whose only major flaw - lack of great dungeons - was later addressed by its darker brother. Twilight Princess came so close to the end of the Gamecube's cycle that it got ported to the Wii, and even though it was not as great as the Wind Waker, it brought - for the second straight generation - two great Zelda games to the same console.

On the Nintendo Wii, the overall result of the big four was probably the best since the Super Nintendo days. The Super Mario Galaxy duo was the long-awaited step forward the Mario series needed to take after Super Mario 64 was naturally trumped by more polished 3-D platformers. It overcame them all with the first installment, and Super Mario Galaxy 2 did the impossible of improving upon perfection. Donkey Kong, handled by the same gifted hands that made Metroid Prime, starred on his best game in well over a decade by looking at his past for inspiration. In spite of its lame boss battles and bonus stages, Donkey Kong Country Returns had outstanding levels that put it beside the original Donkey Kong Country, a few steps below the masterpiece that is Diddy Kong's Quest.

Zelda, after a string of successful games, tried to reinvent itself. And although it failed in developing an immersive overworld above the clouds and bringing along great sidequests, it featured amazing visuals, fantastic dungeons and a combat system that positively defined both the Wii and motion controls. Metroid, unfortunately, may have been the low point of the group during the previous generation. Corruption had stellar controls, but its focus on action and its fractured overworld did not please some. Other M tried to take advantage of the Metroid series' amazing and unexplored storytelling potential, but it failed to both create an involving atmosphere - something vital to a Metroid game - and to make Samus a convincing character. It was one of the most polarizing Nintendo games ever made, and the treatment given to the intergalactic heroine was, to some, borderline sinful.

One year into the current generation, the big four are already on their way to further increase the strength of their unshakable legacy. After the sheer quality of the Galaxy games, it seemed Mario was bound for a relatively disappointing corner, but Super Mario 3D World has been getting amazing reviews all across the media. Donkey Kong is flexing his muscles before taking on Tropical Freeze, the second installment of the Donkey Kong Country Returns series, which has a lot of work to do in order to live up to the second game of the original string of adventures. Zelda and Metroid remain nowhere to be seen, but the two franchises are in prime position to do something big. Metroid - after the unsuccessful Other M and the end of the Prime series – seems headed towards a reboot, and Zelda will certainly try to keep implementing changes to its formula, as signaled by Skyward Sword.

Is the stage set for another Super Nintendo era kind of run?

Gaming Didactics

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Kids are much smarter than we give them credit for. It is one of the reasons every parent considers his children to be geniuses whose brain power would blow the top of the chart of any IQ test. We judge them to be unable to draw conclusions and learn more complex ideas, and next thing you notice they are going on and on about the storyline of a movie they just saw. Still, as great as their capacity to learn might be, they - just like ever other human being who isn't an autodidact - need a helping hand when faced with a brand new concept; be it a new task at school, a new toy that works a little bit differently, or even a game that presents new kinds of challenges.

I have a six-year-old cousin who is growing into a big Nintendo fan - something for which I am willing to take half of the credit (the rest goes straight to Nintendo for producing games that are so brilliantly awesome). He owns a Wii, a 3DS and a brand new Wii U, and throughout his gaming life he has been mostly engaged by simple sidescrollers such as Kirby's Epic Yarn, Donkey Kong Country Returns and - his biggest addiction of all - New Super Mario Bros Wii; and it is easy to understand why. Games like that, after all, are simple to grasp and easy to get into. They have no focus on story, their gameplay is very natural - encompassing organic motions such as jumping and running - and they involve going from the left end of the stage to its finishing line on the right.

His tastes, though, began to change a little bit last week when he excitedly presented me with Mario and Luigi: Partners in Time, his new favorite game. Going from sidescrollers to a decently complex RPG is quite a leap, especially for a six-year-old. Partners in Time has a lot of dialogue and story development - an absolute nightmare for a kid whose native language is Portuguese, its exploration is not exactly linear, and its battles involve more evolved mechanics like menus for attack selection, not to mention the ability to avoid incoming attacks. Still, after showing me the game, he proceeded to tell me about how “the Evil Queen of Space kidnapped the princess with her army of purple mushrooms, and Mario and Luigi have to go to another dimension to save her”, and how during the battles “you need to choose the hammer to fight spiked enemies and when they attack you have to press A”.

Maybe I was also victim to the syndrome of underestimating children, but by the time he was done explaining me how the battle system worked, it hit me like a ton of bricks: Nintendo is extremely didactic in their games. The company understands that, due to the association of their name with family-friendly brands that are extremely alluring to children, their games often serve as a kind of doorway into the gaming world. Their Mario plaformers are responsible for many kids' first steps into gaming, and from there kids are tempted to explore different kinds of gameplay, which include their very accessible but still deep RPGs (Mario and Luigi, Paper Mario and Pokemon), their wacky takes on otherwise bland sports titles, and - eventually - their grand Hyrulean and Zebian adventures.

For most young children, their parents serve as the filter that will determine what they will play and what they will not. Therefore, any game that is dropped too soon by the infant will ultimately tell the parent his child either does not like or does not understand the game. To Nintendo, in one less disastrous (but still pretty bad) case, the family will migrate to their other franchises, but, in a more dramatic turn of events, a game unable to teach a child how it should be played in a decently entertaining and clear way might mean Nintendo products will be dropped altogether as the family experiments with other brands. To a kid, gaming could be seen as a series of doors locked by progressively complex puzzles that need to be, little by little, figured out. If any of those puzzles is accompanied by poorly detailed explanations, the journey might have its course finished or changed.

Nintendo, much like other companies, has been slowly advancing in their didactics as years go by. One clear parallel that displays that evolution can be drawn between the early Donkey Kong Country games and the recently released Donkey Kong Country Returns. The original trio of games does have instructions as how to perform the Kong's numerous moves, but all of them are hidden in instruction manuals, which - aside from that moment between the purchase of the game and your glorious arrival at home - is not read at all. Not only does Donkey Kong Country Returns presents in-game instructions, which will naturally be seen, they are also presented in a very didactic manner, as dialogue balloons with images of the Wiimote will pop up to tell players what buttons need to be pressed and what movements need to be performed. Very effective strategies like that can also be seen on the early stages games in the Kirby and Wario series.

RPGs like Paper Mario, and Mario and Luigi present two even tougher challenges. First of all, they have plot. A plot requires storytelling; storytelling leads to dialogue; too much dialogue bores kids who cannot read; and bored kids leave games behind. Nintendo's solution to that problem, which is undoubtedly aided by the cartoonish nature of their games, is giving birth to plots that can be told in an equally effective manner through text and image. The characters in those games are extremely expressive, making kids fully aware of the heroes' emotions, and the cutscenes feature very subtle strategies that indicate what is important. Though missing the dialogue does cause the loss of the specifics of the whole situation, the core of the plot, as proved by my cousin's little speech, is still properly transmitted.

The second challenge that games of that kind face are its battles. They are not exactly trivial, and - in the case of the Mario RPGs - they frequently require sequences of timely button presses, not to mention the pattern memorization that is demanded if enemy attacks are to be avoided. Nintendo and their partners counter this with tutorials that are activated by default, and they pair up the text, that can either be confusing or unreadable - depending on the age of the child, with visual cues that indicate what needs to be pressed and when. In the case of the recently released Dream Team, which further proves that Nintendo is constantly improving their didactics, more complex attacks even featured a demo that displayed the brothers in action before players could jump in and practice the complex attack at will.

For us, old boring grumpy gamers, those details and tweaks go completely unnoticed. When they are clear, we - and I mean to say “we” as the overall reaction of the gaming community, especially its reviewers - bash them for breaking up the pace of the game or being too invasive. However, truly, they are carefully placed handrails that guide youngsters through the early stages of this little journey of theirs. And, in the grand scheme of things, they might be a key part of what has been keeping these franchises alive for such a long time. After all, all of us have known what it was like to be young at a time when not much attention was given to gaming didactics. The titles that we left, even if temporarily, on a dusty shelf after we had struggled through them for hours to little avail are a sad testament to that.

Links to the Past

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It is hard to pinpoint exactly what was the biggest day of Nintendo's gaming history, as there are more than a handful of contenders to grab that crown. October 18th, 1985 saw the release of the NES, and was probably the ultimate solidification of the company's position in the gaming market. November 23th, 1998 came along with the launch of Ocarina of Time, widely regarded as one of the greatest games ever and, alongside September 26th, 1996 - Super Mario 64's release, an absolute landmark for 3D gaming. And that all goes without mentioning the launch of gargantuan titles such as Super Mario Galaxy, Super Metroid, the original The Legend of Zelda, or the arrival of Nintendo's two best systems ever: the Super Nintendo and the Nintendo DS.

Regardless of which date holds the fondest memories to each fan out there, the soon-to-come Friday of November 22nd has a great chance of ranking up there with all those unforgettable moments of Nintendo history. After all, for the first time ever, two major titles of the company's biggest franchises will hit the market on the very same day. Super Mario 3D World will try to breathe fresh air into the Nintendo Wii U's lungs to sustain it, and maybe push it forward while Sony and Microsoft get ready to unleash their new systems. Meanwhile, The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds will keep the 3DS' stellar string of software releases going and make it increasingly obvious that it is hard to compete with Nintendo in the handheld market.

The first takeaways from that simultaneous release is that, firstly, Nintendo is fully aware of the independence they have been able to build between the two markets on which they act. Zelda and Mario are absolute must-buys for any Nintendo fan out there, and the fact that the 3DS complements the Wii U, rather than being a portable version of Nintendo's biggest console, means the two games will live in perfect harmony. Secondly, and most importantly, it indicates the company is very serious about powering their systems through the holidays and giving all those doubtful gamers great reasons to buy both the 3DS and, especially, the Wii U, which is so deeply in need of help that it needs something universally appealing to elevate its sales to an acceptable level.

Though vastly different, Super Mario 3D World and A Link Between Worlds share the trait of being two titles that are heavily inspired by parts of each franchise's long and glorious pasts. Super Mario 3D World, much like its predecessor - Super Mario 3D Land, bets on levels that are as simple and straightforward as they can be within a tridimensional environment. Where Super Mario 64, Super Mario Sunshine, and the duo of Galaxy games attempted to create bigger levels, 3D World and 3D Land thrive on exporting the stripped-down, but still surprising, nature of 2D Mario levels and injecting it into a 3D world. It is a transplant that makes those games impressively accessible and gives them the potential of selling as much as the New Super Mario Bros series, which reached its ridiculously high sales numbers on the heels of its charming simplicity.

Speaking of New Super Mario Bros, the series started something that is now widespread among sidescrolling games: the wacky multiplayer that transits between cooperative friendliness and competitive madness. What was once a genre devoid of simultaneous multiplayer options has now grown to rely on it to a good extent, and Nintendo, with Super Mario 3D World, takes the first steps towards making it work on a larger-scale scenario. The multiplayer gameplay was yet another factor that made New Super Mario Bros so popular, and with the nod to Super Mario Bros. 2 - via the introduction of Peach as a playable character and the unique characteristics given to each of the four main characters, Nintendo looks to both further explore the game's commercial potential and please its longtime fans through an explosion of nostalgia that has great gameplay value.

A Link Between Worlds forms, with A Link to the Past, a knot that is pretty much unparalleled in the history of the Zelda franchise. Majora's Mask borrowed all character models from Ocarina of Time and shared the same Link with 1998's masterpiece. Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks are direct sequels to Wind Waker, with Phantom Hourglass even taking place in another part of the very same world presented in the Gamecube title. However, at first sight, none of those connections go as deeply as the one A Link Between Worlds makes with A Link to the Past. Their overworld seems to be the same down to every hill, tree, rock and location placement, and given how important the overworlds are in the definition of the characteristics of Zelda games, A Link Between Worlds could end up feeling a whole lot like A Link to the Past.

In the lore of 2D Zelda games, there is nothing quite like the overworld of A Link to the Past. It is incredibly immersive, it possesses an amazing sense of freedom, it packs a great variety of scenarios that are all seamlessly connected, and it offers plenty of locations where puzzles, sidequests and character interactions take place. And that all goes without mentioning the thrilling storyline possibilities produced by the existence of two parallel worlds. The perspective of seeing that overworld once again, and now more beautiful than ever, is undoubtedly exciting and it will make up for a very pleasant experience, especially to those who have not played A Link to the Past in a while.

Although the outlook for the two games is undeniably bright, each has major challenges to overcome. Super Mario 3D World is a game, apparently, made in the mold of its predecessor. Super Mario 3D Land, in spite of being a good game, suffered from often being simply unremarkable. It was a pleasant experience, but in the wake of Super Mario Galaxy 2, it left a whole lot to be desired. Super Mario 3D Land, as the console Mario game that will directly follow the two Galaxy titles, has to deal with that shadow, and it will only be able to do so successfully if it does more than simply betting in rewriting elements of the past.

A Link Between Worlds also has to make its light shine through the darkness cast by the enormity that is A Link to the Past. It is a fact that becomes especially true when one considers that the game has chosen to put itself in such position by having its adventure take place in the very same overworld. In such a proximity to A Link to the Past, A Link Between Worlds needs to find ways to distance itself from it and build its own legacy. Although it does not have much to live up to in terms of direct predecessors, given how both Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks were the weakest - albeit not bad - handheld Zelda games, it faces a daunting challenge considering how highly regarded A Link to the Past is.

Super Mario 3D World and A Link Between Worlds are two games that are very rooted in the past, but in order to take the leap that is necessary to reach the pantheon of their respective franchises, they will need to take great steps towards the future. Nintendo knows it, and within a couple of weeks, we will see if they have succeeded in that task.

Pokemon X Review

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By taking big steps in visuals and connectivity, it further illustrates the irresistable charm of the Pokemon world

After having two generations released on the very same portable - a somewhat rare occurrence for the Pokemon franchise, Pokemon X arrives on the Nintendo 3DS and marks, without any drop of doubt, the biggest leap the franchise has taken in more than six years. It does not rock the series' pillars to their core, neither does it need to do so, but it presents punctual innovations that are enough to draw back those who have been away from this wonderful universe, and please the dedicated loyal fans who have stuck with it since its early monochromatic days. It is addictive and delightfully engaging, making it easy to see how, after almost two decades, the Pokemon games are still able to immerse adults and enchant children with their magic.

By now, the core mechanics of Pokemon are well-known to anyone who is able to tell a Pikachu from a Charmander. Players take the role of a small-town trainer who, when gifted with his first Pokemon, sets out on an adventure that will have him traversing a continent on which the only worries are: training a strong Pokemon team to beat the eight gym leaders and gain access to the Pokemon League, and stopping some new sort of lunatic from destroying everything that is amazing about this virtual world by harnessing the power of a legendary Pokemon. It is a simple concept that is joined by gameplay that is easy to grasp, but that - at the same time - offers a ridiculous amount of depth for those who go looking for it.

The key reason the Pokemon franchise thrives, besides the fact catching those creatures and training them in battle is unreasonably addictive, is because of its feel-good beautiful world. It offers no major worries, no stressful problems, and everybody seems to be willing to lend a hand and words of advice. And, this time, that world is more gorgeous than ever. The smart use of the more advanced hardware that houses this sixth generation of games is first seen on its graphics. For the first time ever, sprites have been replaced by character models, and the Pokemon world has been finally revealed in its 3D form. The game is so aware of the beauty of most of its scenarios that moments on which the camera shifts to different angles to display the full beauty of what Game Freak has built are not rare.

If outside the battles the visual work is impressive, inside them the work of the developers is just flooring. The monsters are fully animated, moving naturally while waiting to attack, and the animation of the moves they perform is so nicely integrated with their models that it is impossible not to wonder the gargantuan hours that have been devoted to making every single Pokemon have a relatively unique way to deliver every single attack that is available. It is astounding dedication, and even it causes occasional frame-rate drops, it has significant results in the quality and excitement brought by battles.

Another new addition that spices things up within battles are the Mega Evolutions: temporary transformations certain Pokemon go through when carrying a special stone. They last as long as the battle does, but even if you have multiple Pokemon that can mega evolve, only one of them can do it per battle. Those evolutions drastically improve the Pokemon's stats, and while they are undeniably awesome, they shift the balance of battle so strongly that they create a problem on online battles, where carrying a Pokemon that mega evolves in your team becomes almost mandatory in order to achieve victory. All in all, it is a nice addition, but one that limits players' options when assembling a Pokemon team.

One of the main changes made to the game is the fact that the useful Exp. Share item now plays a significant role. This time, it is acquired very early in the adventure, and instead of only sharing the experience points only to the Pokemon that holds it, it now gives 50% of the points to all Pokemon of your party that have not participated in the battle. In a very wise decision, the game allows players to turn the item on and off at will, meaning that those who want to grind their way through the game can happily do so, and those who want some help when leveling up their monsters will leave it on and enjoy its amazing benefits. Its core positive effect, and a blessing to the franchise, is the fact training low-leveled monsters is no longer a grind, making it easy for players to increase the number of strong Pokemon they have available to use even when they cannot spend long hours playing the game.

Speaking of Pokemon variety, Pokemon X is able to please fans from all generations. These new versions only offer 68 new monsters, an all-time low, therefore forcing the game to make full use of the absurdly large roster of Pokemon presented by older generations. Consequently, the game is not economical when it comes to the wild monsters. Most of the routes, caves and water bodies have a very high amount of different species waiting to be caught, giving players an amazing number of options when it comes to building teams or simply experimenting with new creatures to see how powerful and effective they can be in battle. It is easy to lose track of time walking around the grass to discover if there is some unknown kind of Pokemon available in a certain area.

Bigger than the extra value brought by the game's graphical advances is how incredible its online features are. With a simple press of a button that connects the game to the Internet, a large number of online options becomes available. A large panel on the system's lower screen displays, through trainer avatars, the friends that are online or disconnected; the passers-by, who are players that are in the same area of the world as you are; and the acquaintances, which are the people with which you have battled and traded. By tapping any of the avatars, it is possible to gain access to other players' profiles, make a trade proposal, or challenge anyone for a battle. That seamless integration, that keeps players connected and the doors to the online world wide open in the midst of gameplay, turns Pokemon X into a deeply connected game with large possibilities for social interaction.

And that is not all. At any moment, it is possible to gift your friends through one of many O-Powers, which can temporarily increase one's Pokemon's stats, the experience points they get, and other effects. In addition, the already famous Global Trading System and Battle Spot are back and better than ever. The GTS now allows players to put their monsters up for trade and request, in return, Pokemon they have never seen by simply typing the name of the desired monsters. Meanwhile, the Battle Spot has pretty much all possibilities of battle setups and matches players up accordingly. Furthermore, upon registration on the Pokemon Global Link website, it allows Rating Battles, which keep track of players' battle records and awards a certain punctuation depending on one's numbers of wins and losses.

One of the game's few problems is how it lacks in post-game content. Although it is to be expected that Nintendo will eventually come up with some events involving legendary monsters, the game does not offer much to do after players have completed the main adventure. The online component addresses part of that issue, since it gives competitive players more than enough reason to improve their teams and train new Pokemon, but, other than that, there is little to no side content.

To those who are willing to gain an extra edge in a competitive environment, or within the game itself - even if beating a Pokemon game has never required a huge amount of effort and battle expertise - the training of Pokemon's EVs, points that increase a certain stat of your creatures, is now plain to see. By engaging on a touch-screen based shooting mini-game on which your Pokemon must avoid soccer balls while scoring goals by hitting certain parts of a giant balloon, it is possible to make your Pokemon more powerful in the areas you want to. It makes EV training incredibly accessible, as opposed to the obscure way in which it was implemented on past versions, while still requiring a good amount of effort to be accomplished.

Pokemon X does its job extremely well in most areas. It moves the series forward, especially on its visual and online department, and it brings new elements to the table that make high-level training easier to figure out. It comprehends and highlights the fact that Pokemon, almost twenty years after its original release, is still a global phenomena among people from all ages, and it brings them together in this extremely alluring virtual universe. After all this time, the franchise's basics are still as strong as ever, and the added touches of quality brought by this generation make it quite blatant that the series is more than ready to face many other decades of gaming evolution.

Albums of the Month: November 2013

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Album: Music from Big Pink

Artist: The Band

Released: July 1st, 1968

Highlights: Tears of Rage, The Weight, This Wheel's On Fire, I Shall Be Released

America's Rock n' Roll sent waves across the Atlantic, triggering an explosion of British creativity that lead to a massive cultural invasion. While The Beatles and The Stones conquered the music world, the US was left with a massive void in guitar music. Ironically, it took a group of Canadians, plus a guy from Arkansas, to fill up that emptiness. They did so by channeling the traditions of root rock into a laid-back and beautiful record that delicately displayed the group's skills in songwriting, their mastery of the instruments and the unparalleled harmonies produced by the conjunction of the group's three vocalists.

The album's strongest numbers are, undoubtedly, the songs on which Bob Dylan contributed when he was exiled with the group in Woodstock. Dylan's “I Shall Be Released” soars to new heights with Richard Manuel's interpretation, and the collaborations of “Tears of Rage” and “This Wheel's on Fire” show the loose energy that Dylan and The Band created on the sessions that would give birth to “The Basement Tapes”. At the same time, The Band proves that they can work quite well without Dylan on songs such as “The Weight”, “Caledonia Mission”, “We Can Talk”, and “Black Veil”, which is one of the album's songs that are beautiful enough to make any man cry. “Music from Big Pink” is a major staple in American rock, and it proved that US bands could compete with the dominant storm of British groups.

Album:The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society

Artist: The Kinks

Released: November 22nd, 1968

Highlights: Do You Remember Walter?, Picture Book, Village Green, Starstruck

On their first five albums The Kinks could never put together a complete effort. Even if a part of that early discography is quite good - “Something Else By the Kinks” and “Face to Face” - a masterful recorded still eluded the brilliancy of Ray Davies. “Village Green Preservation Society” fills those voids quite effectively. Its thematic cohesion, displayed by Davies' melancholic singing and his lyrics that yearn for a simpler nearly utopic past England, brought to life an album that is tight and coherent; and the fact that all songs have some value to add to the theme, not to mention their musical quality, makes “Village Green Preservation Society” devoid of fillers and full of highlights.

Aside from the blues of “Last of the Steam Powered Trains” and the whimsical gloom of “Wicked Annabella”, the record has a nearly pastoral feeling to it. A lot of it has to do with the album's glorious acoustic arrangements, but a lot of credit also goes to the fact Davies is sadly urging to turn back time as he goes through memories of a rural past. “Picture Book” and “People Take Pictures of Each Other” are the songs that best describe the record's bittersweetness. Both put a spotlight on the importance of freezing moments in time to keep memories of the past well alive, but while on the former Davies seems excited about that concept, on the latter he sings “Oh how I love things as they used to be / Don't show me no more, please”. “Village Green Preservation Society” is, then, a peaceful stroll through the past; one that reveals that while we do love to look back on great moments of our lives, the reality that they are gone and cannot be lived again brings us sour stings of pain. It is a sadly beautiful feeling, and here it is put on record with excellence.

Album: Give 'Em Enough Rope

Artist: The Clash

Released: November 10th, 1978

Highlights: Safe European Home, Tommy Gun, Stay Free, All the Young Punks

The Clash's second record, and their last punk rock album, is certainly the band's least groundbreaking effort. It does not feature the sprawling experimentation of genres present in “London Calling”, “Sandinista!”, and “Combat Rock”; and it does not show a punk band that is willing to flirt with reggae, like their eponymous debut so clearly highlighted. “Give 'Em Enough Rope”, though, is a focused vicious attack of ten songs and thirty-six minutes that does not present a single weak moment of songwriting or performance. It is as tight as The Clash ever was, and it exposes a band smartly exploring the last few uncharted corners of their initial sound before moving on to new grounds.

Although “Give 'Em Enough Rope” is still raw in a few places, it airs the band's punk aggression with a smoother production, hiding the garage sound of the first record, and turning it into a completely different monster whose loudness flirts with hard rock. Strummer remains an acid political lyricist, attacking the media's unintended glorification of terrorism on “Tommy Gun”, and noting the constant threat of war that plagued the world on “English Civil War”, while Mick Jones emerges as a stellar songwriter on “Stay Free”, his musical letter to an old friend who got arrested. But the album never gets so powerful and meaningful as on its relatively lengthy closer “All the Young Punks”, on which Strummer laments the philosophy of new self-proclaimed punk rockers. It is a bitter farewell to a movement that lost its purpose, perhaps before even having one, and a fitting end for the band's last punk record.

Rascals, Scoundrels, Villains and Knaves

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When you think about it, it could be said the Assassin's Creed franchise gets more credit than it deserves. It is one of the most popular and well-known series in modern gaming, yet its main line of titles is awfully uneven. The first part of the trilogy was overwhelmingly daring in its scope, and it would be no exaggeration to call it one of the most ambitious games of all time. All that greed, though, translated into a title whose gameplay crumbled under the sheer weight of the game's size; often falling into repetitive, predictable, and bland patterns.

After the disappointment, came the triumph. Assassin's Creed II was so successful that it span a large number of spin-offs that dove even further into its amazing setting. Ubisoft showed its willingness to correct the flaws of the original by listening to fans' complaints, and the result was an epic. The intriguing Renaissance period and the wonderful Italian architecture were a pleasant invitation to exploration, and if players accepted it, they would encounter a world full of great missions, secrets, content and characters.

After striking pure gold, the natural assumption was Ubisoft would stick to that smooth formula and craft sequels whose quality would be comparable to that of the franchise's magnum opus. However, what separates great games from merely good ones are the little things, and Assassin's Creed III went ahead and did all of them criminally wrong. Although Boston and New York were also alluring, the franchise's soul was not there.

Where Assassin's Creed II thrived upon freedom, the third installment was too restrictive. Its gameplay centered around awfully scripted missions, and players were kept in bounding chains until well after the game's halfway mark. Assassin's Creed II was a masterpiece because the world belonged to you, but on Assassin's Creed III your character belonged to the world. Games that have all the cinematics and restrictions of a movie have become more prominent, but while that gameplay style is a nice alternative, after all there is beauty in variety, things take a wrong turn when some of those elements spill over a franchise to which they do not belong.

Assassin's Creed IV arrives in the midst of that context. As of today, the main line of games of the franchise had brought us one universally acclaimed title, and two that rightfully caused very mixed reactions. In a way, Black Flag is the game that could define the series as either some sort of one-hit wonder that is yearly milked to no grand effects, or a generally successful brand.

There is no single magical recipe to do so, but recovering the thrilling sense of freedom of Assassin's Creed II seems to be a core issue. The choice of a pirate setting is a good step towards the addressing of that problem. There is no pirate lifestyle without an awesome ship full of cannons and the main character behind the wheel steering the beast through the dangerous Caribbean waters and finding trouble at every port and island. If Ubisoft decides to go that way from the game's very start, and given the series' ability to build impressive believable locations, then chances are Black Flag will be an absolute blast to explore.

If done right, the setting can probably do to the franchise what The King of Red Lions did to Zelda on Wind Waker, which is providing an unique and unparalleled sense of freedom. At the same time, the wild piracy can solve another one of the previous game's many small issues, which is its overly serious tone. The franchise has a strong love for some historical accuracy, so its safe to say Black Flag will not venture into cartoonish territory. However, the pirate universe and the reckless drunkenness of it all might lead to some missions and situations that are more free-spirited and fun, which would be a true blessing.

As history has shown so well, Ubisoft was able to learn from their faults after the first game's reception, and that awareness brought us to the wonderful Assassin's Creed II. Assassin's Creed III, though a mistake in many areas, can be positively seen as another learning opportunity for the company. Fortunately, the superficial design choices made by Ubisoft, and now the generally positive reviews indicate that the company was once again able to analyze and gain knowledge from their miscues.

In the end, it is hard not to root for Black Flag's success. After all, the gaming universe is full of incredible sensations and remarkable experiences, and - as shown by its second installment - the Assassin's Creed franchise, when done absolutely right, has a power to overwhelm and amaze that cannot be matched by most games out there.

Jenny and Lou

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“Jenny said when she was just five years old

There was nothing happening at all

Every time she puts on a radio

There was nothing going down at all, not at all

Then one fine morning she puts on a New York station

You know, she don't believe what she heard at all

She started shaking to that fine fine music

You know her life was saved by rock 'n' roll”

Rock 'n' Roll – The Velvet Underground – Loaded (1970)

Lou Reed was neither a doctor nor a fireman, yet it could be said that he saved a large number of people through the seventy-one years of his life. At the dawn of the seventies, Lou might not have realized it, but when composing “Rock 'n' Roll”, one of his career's biggest hits, he was writing a tune that would serve as an autobiography of sorts, a stunning summary of the musical journey that would define his life.

On “Rock 'n' Roll”, little Jenny is just sitting at home. At the early age of five, she is already bored with her life. She looks at her parents and fears of what she might become. She wants something to either drastically change her world or simply make her day a little brighter by giving her hope that there is something out there that breaks away from the dull mold of modern life. She wants something different; something that introduced her to new possibilities and to an alternative lifestyle, something that would allow her to find her true self.

And then, out of nowhere, a New York station playing some good old rock 'n' roll comes to the rescue. She is enchanted by what she hears, and her life is rescued from the jaws of boredom. Little Jenny is one of many characters Lou created, but she transcends fiction. Whether we are five or fifty, we have all been there: bored, hopeless, sorrowful, you name it. And then, we listen to one magical song that shakes it all away and makes us feel better for no explainable reason whatsoever.

We have all been Little Jenny at some point in our lives, and even for those who have never listened to The Velvet Underground, chances are their world was once made better due to a band inspired by the New York group or Lou Reed himself. Although the group's records did not sell much, and even if Lou Reed was never a huge superstar, if Brian Eno's now famous remark about the band's debut that says “everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band", then those who - much like little Jenny - have been saved by rock 'n' roll have been indirectly saved by Lou Reed.

The tidal waves of The Velvet Underground's first records and of Reed's songwriting kick-started many bands in American soil on the 60s and 70s, and the echoes of their sound were still felt on the 80s when the alternative scene, captained by the likes of R.E.M., Pixies and Husker Du, often made reverence to the Velvets. And their importance and power came to the forefront once more when the so-called rock revival of the early 00s was lead by The Strokes, another New York City band, and one that used The Velvet Underground as an inspiration for their signature sound.

If a genealogical tree of American modern rock was to be built, Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground would be right on its top, serving as the source of energy to all of its magnificent fruits. Under that tree, protected by many of its branches, generations of people have been sheltered and saved, even if for a little while, from the evils of the world. And if we have all been little Jenny, then Lou was our rock 'n' roll.