Category Archives: Review

Mutant Mudds Deluxe

mudds

Mutant Mudds Deluxe for Wii U

What’s the appeal of pixelated 8-bit graphics and linear gameplay? Well, maybe they’re an escape from Internet-only dystopian shooters (seriously, how many of these can the average gaming bro play through). A respite from “free-to-play.”  A break from “Read Phone Status” permissions. They’re decisive proof that progress isn’t something that just moves forwards. It goes backward all the time (see also: the move away from albums and toward standalone singles and streaming music).

I mean, this says it all. And I would remiss to mention that I am so looking to Shovel Knight for Wii U/3DS at the end of this month.

Until then, I’ve been tiding myself over with Mutant Mudds Deluxe for Wii U. “8-bit” is a monomer here, though, as the game draws inspiration from the SNES’s color palette (plus the blonde haircut and glasses of protagonist Max is more than a little reminiscent of Jeff from Earthbound).

Mutant Mudds Deluxe sets out to do just a few things and it does all them all as well as Scrooge McDuck bounces on a cane. Max has a jetpack and a water cannon. His jump never feels quite high enough, weirdly – maybe it’s the sheer necessity of having to jetpack-blast your way up through all the CGA-Lands (cute IBM reference) that makes the normal jump seem unimportant to the game. In this way, the game resembles 8-bit classic Bionic Commando, with its deemphasis (well, downright obviation) of jumping in favor of claw grappling.

There’s unlimited ammo, as you would expect from a golden/silver age Nintendo platformer.  Difficulty is sufficient – tricky moving/disappearing platforms, weirdly positioned enemies – but not back-breaking like Castlevania III or Defender (or as latter-day gamers call it, Flappy Bird).

You can tell that this game began on the 3DS (sans the “Deluxe” moniker). Its usage of depth-of-field effects is clever, but feels awkward on Wii U, where there’s tons of real estate that feels wasted by shrinking Max into the background. But the widescreen effect does bring some major improvements over the mobile version, which would often not show enough of the screen for you to avoid having to make a blind jump.

At only $10, Mutant Mudds Deluxe isn’t cheap compared to the F2P garbage out there. But like the astonishing Out There, it feels like a bargain for how much craftsmanship is crammed into it.

“With Love” by Zomby – a look back

Zomby’s “With Love” and the importance of physical media
Zomby’s “With Love” is a double album by a dubstep artist known for recording 1- and 2-minute shuffles. How did it come to be?

I ask this while holding a gatefold triple-vinyl edition of “With Love.” The history of physical media, especially the relationship between vinyl and CD, explains how even artists given to brevity have been pushed to make expansive epics.

Zomby With Love

With Love – vinyl cover

By 1984, the writing was on the wall for vinyl LPs. The Compact Disc, introduced a few years prior, promised higher fidelity sound in a portable size, although it would take a while before CDs became a truly on-the-go format. Large home stereo systems were still the name of the game – if you were rich enough to afford CD playback equipment, why not go all-out?

But did CDs really sound better than LPs? That’s up for debate, and listeners will hear what they want to hear. The CD did have at least one decisive advantage – its maximum playing time, which at 74 minutes easily outstripped the 40-50 minutes typical of an LP. The greater length opened new artistic doors even as the CD’s single-sided nature closed others (no more per-side themes), and throughout the 1980s artists pushed the boundaries of the album format, with the Red Book spec as their key enabler.

They added content that would have been nixed in the past to keep the album under 50 minutes. It was possible to make a single CD with an amount of music that only a few years before would have required 2 or 3 LPs. And releasing 2-3x LP (a double or triple album) wasn’t something that bands did lightly. Pushing 60+ minutes of content on the public was a statement.

The Mother of Invention had unleashed Freak Out! in 1966, a four-sided monster with an atonal collage on side four, and two years later The Beatles brought sprawl into the mainstream with the 30-track, 90-minute White Album. While the latter still requires 2 CDs, Freak Out now comfortably fit on one disc, which takes some of its grandeur (two LPs! side 4 is all noise!) away.

During the transition from LP to CD, artists previously known for their restraint began to dabble in longer-form projects. The punk label SST Records was a microcosm of what was happening with recording at large. Husker Du finished the 70-minute Zen Arcade in 1984, an expansive work that inspired (or perhaps kindled the envy of) labelmates The Minutemen. Only a few months later, The Minutemen recorded 45 songs – padded with stripped-down covers and instrumentals – that lasted “only” 81 minutes. Their Double Nickels on the Dime was a double LP that still hasn’t been pressed on double CD.

While the Huskers-Minutemen rivalry was the impetus for these epic works, the changing of the guard in physical media format enabled their largesse.  The Minutemen may even have gone too far in swallowing up the possibilities of the CD era, much like video game developers went bananas for full-motion video after the CD-ROM displaced the floppy in the mid-1990s (the 6x CD The Beast Within is still the best example of this excess).

In 2014, we’re seemingly long past the point at which CDs became obsolete. Streaming music services and digital purchases are more convenient, if not more profitable. Still, the CD lingers, but it barely resembles its 1980s self. Today’s CDs come with bonus discs, bonus tracks, bonus everything – anything to push that 80-minute barrier. At the same time, the double CD album has become less of an oddity than a fact of life – whether it’s the studio album + a live disc, or two studio discs, recording more than 80 minutes of music is cliche.

I’ve already looked at one of last year’s double albums – Shaking the Habitual by The Knife – and in that entry I mentioned Terre Thaemlitz’s excellent work on the growing disconnect between album length and performance length. He skewered the divide with his 30-hour album Soulnessless, which shipped on a microSDHC. But I’m not surprised that an artist as ambitious as Thaemlitz would do that. I am surprised, however, that Zomby made a double album at around the same time, a time when MP3s have essentially made it possible to record a never ending album.

With Love: The gritty details
Zomby’s style would seem unsuited to  long form media. There are few lyrics, so telling a long-winded story is pretty much out of the question. Similarly, there are no exceptional instrumental chops that would justify, even if tenuously, extended jamming and progressive rock pretentiousness. Sure, Zomby is not heir to these  traditions of rock music, but his style forgoes even the most excessive aspects of the more stylistically germane electronica genres, such as the extended remix (trance), the sprawling soundscape (drum n’ bass), or the mashup (EDM).

What does Zomby sound like? There’s a lot of plinky keys and synths, as well as 1990s R&B samples, which is de rigeur for dubstep. In dubstep, the 1990s are ancient history, with a historical relationship to the present-day akin to that of the 1960s British Invasion to modern pop and rock – Zomby’s breakthrough album was, after all, called “Where Were U in ’92?” and closed with a dizzying sound barrage punctuated by samples (“Sonic Boom!“) from 1990s cultural hallmark Street Fighter II. It was one big long send-up to rave.

With Love isn’t a similar single genre exercise. Rather, it has inspiration, variety and length that seem rooted in the ideal of a compilation album. There’s a little bit of chiptune, some jungle, a dusting of ambient, and a lot of trap. Opener “As Darkness Falls” is so chiptune that it reminds me of another double album, Hella’s  2005 opus Church Gone Wild/Chirpin’ Hard, which was essentially two separate albums, with the superior half consistently echoing Nintendo Entertainment Sytem-era boss battle music (the other was an unlistenable menage of Boredoms-esque drum noise). With Love follows similar logic. One of its halves is trap-dominated, while the other is more stylistically varied.

There’s a consistent, melancholic veneer that tries to tie With Love together. Though it moves between genres, there’s always a certain distance, a particular darkness that emanates from the music. It’s this theme that makes With Love a real heir to the epic album because it insists that the proceedings are more than just a collection of songs, that there’s a singular logic holding it all together despite the apparently unfocused running time. Taking such a stance is a cliche, as it is literally the raison d’etre of the artist album, but it’s necessary all the same because advances in physical media capacity has enabled works that seem destined to be unfocused.

“Soliloquy” may be the best track on With Love, with lightly whirring rhythms, punchy bass and overlapping melodies that interlock nicely, drawing the listener in even as the iciness keeps them at arm’s (ear’s?) length. Vocal samples are rare, but the ones in “It’s Time” recall 1990s-era Goldie and maybe hint at trip-hop, a suggestion strengthened by the track’s beat.

With Love has the length and scope of a trance compilation, but the singularity of purpose of Zen Arcade. While it’s hard to call anything the “last” of its kind, With Love feels like the send-off for the double album. It exhausts the listener across six sides of vinyl/2 CDs, its every machination under pressure from both the growing expectations around how much material an artist should churn out in the MP3 era and the need to “tie it all together” and make it more than the dreaded Just a Collection of Songs.

It’s not the most extreme example of a product forged under these dual pressures. Pan Sonic’s 4-CD Kesto, not to mention Thaemlitz’s aforementioned SD card-album, push the envelope further, but by doing so they become something alien, something that’s barely recognizable as an album that can be packaged, enjoyed in one sitting and replayed. But With Love is still relatively traditional. IT paradoxically feels extremely long – 33 tracks will do that – while being short for a double album, much like Double Nickels on the Dime nearly 30 years ago. It does long form in the only way that the brevity-minded dubstep genre can do – as a glorified mixtape, roughly transitioning form one burst of notes to another. Only the thematic darkness keeps it together, as if midnight were approaching for the album’s Cinderella run.

Phoenix Wright – Ace Attorney: Dual Destinies

Phoenix Wright Dual Destinies

One of the many ways in which Dual Destinies makes good use of 3D effects – with an in-your-face yokai charm.

Intro: Ace Attorney and “Art”
When I looked at the complex relationship between video games and established “arts” like cinema, music, and literature, I argued that the final sequence of Phoenix Wright – Ace Attorney: Justice for All, with its intricate plot lines and dynamic characters, transcended video games and entered into the realm of drama or the novel. Justice for All wasn’t the strongest title in the GBA/DS line of Ace Attorney games; the original and Trials and Tribulations were more consistent and arguably more critical to the series’ overall mythology because they introduced characters such as Miles Edgeworth, the Von Karmas, and Godot. But that infamous Matt Engarde case from Justice for All is without equal among the Ace Attorney games or most games, period.

Engarde’s different personae and the high stakes of Maya’s kidnapping made “Farewell, My Turnabout” not just an outstanding piece of art, but the quintessential Ace Attorney case. More than any other, it was a story that you had to experience rather than play through – insofar as you could “win” the game, your progress was only a mechanism for moving the story along, a state of affairs that is the opposite of most games, in which the plot is just window dressing as you go about collecting more kills and corralling more items. That focus on plot was always what made Ace Attorney special and “Farewell, My Turnabout” has it in spades.

It was as black as a spade, too. The case’s darkness went above and beyond that of its peers, including the Manfred Von Karma showdown from the original. The player could even suffer a “bad ending” if Engarde weren’t acquitted. It can be easy to overlook the fact that characters are dying and being putted into danger against the backdrop of Ace Attorney’s melodramatic digressions about film, aesthetics, and culture. But what if we finally got an Ace Attorney game that took its latent darkness more seriously, that found a way to?

The dark pathways of Dual Destinies
The newest title in the series, and the first for the 3DS, is unmistakably an Ace Attorney game. The same investigation/trial structure from the first four installments shows up here, as do the characeristic shouts of “Objection!” But there’s something fundamentally different about Dual Destinies, and it’s primarily a difference of tone.

First, check that ESRB rating. Yep, that’s a big fat “M (17+)” and it’s well-deserved. This game is full of blood, sinister laughs, and foreboding. I mentioned Ninja Gaiden – The Dark Sword of Chaos in my entry about video games and art, and I couldn’t help but think of it again during one of the cutscenes involving new prosecutor-villain Simon Blackquill. The sea of blood that covers the floor after one of Blackquill’s trademark blade slashes is a dead ringer for the bloody action from Dark Sword of Chaos. Like that game did for the NES, Dual Destinies is blazing a new trail and bringing something new to the table for the normally family-friendly 3DS.

Blackquill’s status as a felon makes him perhaps the most wicked of Ace Attorney’s antagonists – or does it? Manfred Von Karma and Godot were also killers, although their actions were not known until they were melting down in the face of Phoenix Wright’s torrid strategies. Still, Blackquill’s past is a sign that the game isn’t messing around or confused about its identity – it wears its darkness proudly.

Technical features
The graphics are a big bump up from the GBA/DS games, with beautifully rendered 3D models. This game makes better use of 3D than any 3DS title I’ve played except possibly Super Mario 3D Land. The effect is both subtle and complex.

In the courtroom, 3D adds a nice layer of depth to revelatory moments when the camera pans across the crowd. It also makes the witnesses and attorneys really pop out from the screen, giving life to their gesticulations. There’s also a nice effect in one of the gardens, in which the 3D makes the lanterns appear to sway on the line.

The game now has a retraceable conversation history, which is helpful if you skip through dialogue with the B button or need to review clues. And new attorney Athena Cyke’s emotional intelligence scanner is intriguing, although not that much different than Apollo’s magical bracelet.

Wrap-up
Dual Destinies may be the best all around Ace Attorney game. From a technical/graphical standpoint, it’s much richer than its predecessors, and its story lines have a certain darkness that makes the player feel like what he/she is doing is much more important than ever before.

It’s only $26 in the eShop, making it significantly cheaper than previous installments. If you have a 3DS, then this game beckons.

The Wonderful 101

Wonderful 101

Wonder Red, one of the leaders of the Wonderful 100.

Intro: Battletoads
In the summer of 2008, in between spells of supervising future Wall St bankers at Brown’s summer camp, I wasted countless afternoon hours playing Battletoads on an NES emulator. For someone who came of age during the twilight of 16-bit gaming, the 3D wonkiness of N64/GameCube era, and the advent of FMV movie-games, the sheer difficulty and variety of Battletoads was like a kick to the teeth.

The game ferried me breathlessly from a Double Dragon-style beat ’em up to a boss battle (from the boss’ perspective!) to perhaps the most unforgiving biking racing sequence ever. More impressively, the game’s difficulty wasn’t a gimmick; it wasn’t hard for its own sake (or because it was poorly executed), but for the sake of making the player hone her abilities, reflexes, and strategy. Each level was a world unto itself, and it’s impossible to imagine some kid sitting down in 1991 and just beating it straight-through on an unenhanced NES.

Battletoads was a unique mix of challenge and variety, sprinkled with just the right amount of humor – the game’s premise of superhero amphibians is almost surely a parody of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle rage sweeping the world in the late 1980s/early 1990s. It was also a trailblazer, with its gorgeous graphics and faux-3D level design foreshadowing not only the upcoming Genesis/SNES generation but the PSX/Saturn/N64 one after that. It pushed the NES for all it was worth. Since that time, though, no game has really followed its exact blueprint, even if Battletoads’ influence can be seen in platformers like Donkey Kong Country.

Battletoads’ spiritual successor on the Wii U
Until now, anyway. The Wonderful 101, a Wii U exclusive released back in August 2013, is a fantastic genre-defying superhero game with a steep learning curve, unpredictable level design, and beautiful HD graphics. The player controls a massive group of heroes, called The Wonderful 100 (the 101st member is the player) and must collate their powers to fight off earth-invading aliens. To do this, you have to use the Wii U GamePad to draw attack patterns and movement trails (drawing with the R stick on the GamePad/Pro Controller is a bit more cumbersome, I found).

The GamePad is utilized to its fullest here, in a way that hasn’t been seen since the excellent ZombiU launch title. While inside some buildings, the GamePad’s gyroscope (one of its many tricked-out hardware features) is used for navigation, and many scenes perform the patented “look at your GamePad!” move that any player of Nintendoland is likely to be familiar with.

It’s odd how perhaps the two most quintessential Wii U games – ZombiU and The Wonderful 101 – are incredibly difficult. ZombiU’s bleak survivalist ethos – few weapons, power-ups, and health dot the landscape – means that making it through and dying only once is a superhuman feat. The Wonderful 101 is difficult in a different way – while it has plenty of items to restore health or unlock new features, it requires a great amount of coordination to use your team, as well as a certain physical preciseness in timing unite morphs (the giant fist morph may even be a reference to Battletoads’s combat animations).

The learning curve is sharp – The Wonderful 101 unfortunately provides little guidance, forcing players to learn its unique machinations largely on their own.  And multiplayer mode requires a pricey Wii U Controller for each additional player. But The Wonderful 101 nevertheless stands as a good indication of what developers can do with the Wii U’s unique hardware and input methods. I hope that the recent sales boost from Wind Waker HD will drive more consumer and developer interest in the platform.

The Best Android Twitter Clients

Now that Falcon Pro is in a tailspin induced by the perfect storm of Twitter’s harsh API policy and the app’s own shady token “resets,” there’s room at the top for high-end Twitter clients on Android. And of course, there’s the official Twitter app, which is serviceable if unremarkable.

Carbon

Carbon for Twitter

Carbon client for Twitter.

Carbon is free, ad-free, and beautiful. True to its name (“carbon” is derived from “carbo,” the Latin word for coal), it has a pitch-colored interface that scrolls as fluidly as any Android app outside of the Robin client for App.net (ADN). The timeline can be tilted to refresh it.  Settings and menus (lists, trends, etc.) are nested at the right. Your Twitter profile can be edited at the left.

Pros:

  • beautiful design
  • free
  • great responsiveness
  • ability to edit Twitter profile
  • widget, in-app browser

Cons

  • No DashClock support
  • Google Play reports that it has been downloaded 100k-500k times, meaning that it could hit the Twitter API ceiling soon.

Robird

Robird for Android (Twitter)

Robird for Android.

Talk about a true-blue Holo app: Robird looks a lot like the Nexus Android dialer, with three black-and-blue columns. Robird utilizes a minimalist aesthetic that focuses just on your timeline, interactions, and DMs. Its scrolling is nothing to write home about, but it has useful tap-and-hold gestures that will be familiar to any Falcon Pro pro.

Pros:

  • Simple, unobtrusive, and intuitive design
  • DashClock support
  • Configurable refresh interval (15-45 minutes)
  • Useful gestures
  • Not that popular, meaning it still has a long life ahead of it.

Cons

  • $1.99 price (this isn’t a con to me, but it will be to many)
  • No widget
  • Not much support for lists or trends

Plume

Plume for Twitter (Touieteur)

Plume for Twitter (free version).

Plume is an old-school Twitter client from the same developers behind Beautiful Widgets. It is available in both free and paid versions. The latter is pricey at $5, but the app has some perks in the form of an internal browser and a lockscreen widget.

Pros

  • free (if you can put up with the ads)
  • immune to token limit since it’s an older app
  • lockscreen widget
  • scrollable widget
  • familiar slide-out UI on the left
  • Facebook integration

Cons

  • ads
  • paid version is relatively expensive
  • no DashClock support except via 3rd-party extension
  • older-looking design/aesthetic

Twitter for Android

Twitter for Android photo filters

Using Twitter for Android’s photo editing abilities.

It’s the official Twitter app: what’s there to say? You’ll never have to worry about it running out of tokens. It has exclusive features like photo filters which aren’t much to right home about; iOS 7 and Android Jellybean and later both ahve native photo filters, to say nothing of Instagram.

Pros

  • free
  • not subject to restrictions placed on clients
  • photo filters
  • casual, familiar feel that will appeal to some

Cons

  • unimaginative design
  • promoted Tweets in your stream
  • battery drainer
  • mostly for casual users, meaning it won’t work as well for heavier users

Tweecha

Twitter on Tweecha

Tweecha

My in-depth review here.