Kirby: Triple Deluxe: Is It Worth Buying?

Image From Nintendo UK

Now that Nintendo is on record saying the 3DS isn’t going anywhere for a while, I think it’s time to dig into the system’s back catalog and revisit some classic titles to see if they still deserve your love/dollars. For my money, there’s no better place to start than everyone’s favorite amorphous pink ball of death Jigglypuff Kirby!

The dirty secret of the Kirby franchise is that its mainline games are incredibly formulaic: flying, copying abilities, simple gameplay with minimal challenge, a sudden stake-raising moment at the end that leads to an epic boss fight, and some tough-as-nails postgame content. Once you’ve played one of these games, you’ve basically played them all, give or take an occasional title-specific gimmick (I’m still waiting for playable Nago to come back). “Formulaic,” however, does not mean “not fun to play,” and in general Kirby games inhabit that same magical place that Pokémon games do: You might do the same thing 100 times, but it’s just as fun to do the last time as it is the first.

Kirby: Triple Deluxe was the pink puffball’s first foray onto the 3DS (outside of a bunch of Virtual Console releases), and it’s exactly what you’d expect a Kirby  game to be. A few new copy abilities have been introduced (Archer being the most useful for its range, but also Beetle, Bell, and Circus), and aside from Sleep (which is meant to be a trap), all of them end up having enough utility to grab in a pinch. There are a few small puzzles scattered around the game (mostly tied to the collectables, and some of which make use of the 3DS’s gyro controls), but by and large it’s your typical Kirby platforming experience, with the usual level and enemy design (most of the mini-bosses have been around since Kirby’s Adventure, and Whispy Woods, Kracko, and King DeDeDe all return as world bosses).

Triple Deluxe‘s primary gimmick the Hypernova ability, which increases Kirby’s suction power and lets him inhale bosses, large objects and even pieces of the background in a single gulp. It only appears in certain stages, but it fits seamlessly within the rest of the gameplay and was a ton of fun to use (inhaling four mini-bosses in one go was particularly cathartic). I actually preferred Hypernova to the robot armor of Planet Robobot (it felt more natural and didn’t restrict the rest of Kirby’s moveset), but it led to an ending sequence that didn’t feel as satisfying.

There are two primary collectibles to find here: Sun stones, which unlock secret stages within each world, and “keychains” of different characters from past Kirby games. They’re not terribly hard to find (although locating the rare keychains make take a bit of sleuthing), and aside from the boss stages requiring a certain number of stones to unlock, they don’t impact the gameplay at all.

The game comes with two additional game modes from the start: Kirby Fighters, which is basically a watered-down version of Kirby Battle Royale (which I wasn’t that impressed with), and Dedede’s Drum Dash, a rhythm that forces you to bounce along a drum course while collecting coins, avoiding enemies, and clapping along with the beat. Neither minigame is worth writing home about, but they do seem to be required for a 100% completion rating. The unlockable modes, however, are a bit more interesting:

  • Dededetour: Lets you play through a harder version of the main campaign as King Dedede.
  • The Arena: The usual Kirby boss rush with limited health and abilities.
  • The True Arena: The usual Kirby boss rush, but with the harder version of the bosses from Dededetour. This is where things get real.

For those of you looking for a bit more pain and challenge from your Kirby experience, this’ll cover you.

Given all this, we need to answer the following questions:

  • Is this game worth buying? If you’re a fan of Kirby or platforming in general, yes. This game delivers everything you want from a 2D platformer, including (eventually) a nasty-hard test of mettle. It’s a game I would especially recommend for younger or newer players, as a) Kirby’s flight ability let you bypass any non-boss situation you might have trouble with, and b) it’s a gently-sloped difficulty curve that’s much more considerate of your ego/confidence level than a game like Breath of the Wild.
  • Should I buy this game or Planet Robobot? From a gameplay perspective, it’s a “six of one, a half dozen of the other” situation. Outside of a few tweaks, the game are basically the exact same. However, there is one notable meta difference: As a “Nintendo Select” title, Triple Deluxe now retails for half the price of Planet Robobot ($20 as compared to $40). If you only want one of the two, Triple Deluxe is definitely the better value.

As someone who hadn’t played a Kirby title since Kirby’s Dream Land 3, I really enjoyed both Triple Deluxe and Planet Robobot. Both were great experiences, but Triple Deluxe‘s reduced price make it a much better investment. (Now let’s see if Kirby: Star Allies can meet the same standard.)

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Song Review: Jillian Jacqueline, “Reasons”

2018 has been a year of uninspired songwriting thus far, so it’s nice to hear someone out there trying to raise the bar for a change.

Jillian Jacqueline is a Pennsylvania newcomer who has been kicking around Nashville since 2010, but despite generating some buzz online with “Overdue” back in 2014, she only recently scored a major-label deal with Big Loud Records last year. Her first official single “Reasons” was released to radio a few weeks ago, and while it’s not the attention-grabbing debut a newer artist requires, there are enough good things here (especially in the writing) to hint at her future potential.

The production here is dominated by three things: Prominent fake-snap percussion (which is a bit louder than it needs to be), a dark, spacious piano, and a simple whistling riff that sounds a lot better than whatever Walker Hayes tried to do on “You Broke Up With Me.” The mix is surprisingly sparse on the verses (you get four snaps and two piano chords for every four measures), but it does a nice job of providing a full-sounding atmosphere while giving the vocals plenty of room to breathe. The choruses introduce a slick electric guitar and a more-complex drum machine rhythm, providing a bit more energy and intensity to the track. While the whole thing comes across as a typical pop-country sound, the piano and the frequent minor chords introduce a layer of darkness that underlines that complements the writing by driving home the seriousness of the protagonist’s feelings. Unlike Jason Aldean’s latest single, this style fusion works, and it works well.

Vocally, Jacqueline’s sound falls somewhere in between Sarah Buxton and Kelsea Ballerini (the Buxton comparison feels very appropriate, given that she and Jacqueline co-wrote the song), and she demonstrates both the technical ability and and earnestness to sell the listeners on the track. The song isn’t actually a great fit for Jacqueline as is (it’s a key or two too low, causing her to sound a little labored and breathy on the verses), but she’s got just enough range to make things work, and she handles even the faster portions of the song with aplomb. Most of all, she does a nice job infusing emotion into the song’s narrator, adding a touch of weariness to the verses and a dash of frustration to the choruses. It’s a solid all-around performance that hints at Jacqueline’s future potential.

Despite the strong production and vocals, the writing is probably my favorite part of the song, because it’s the first time I’ve heard someone dive this deeply into the “Reasons” of a failed relationship. Songs typically address a portion of these reasons (Reba McEntire’s “Somebody Should Leave” talks about the kids, Chris Young and Cassadee Pope’s “Think Of You” talks about how acquaintances react, George Strait’s “Give It Away” addresses the logistical concerns), but I haven’t heard a song bring them all together and paint a complete picture of why people are reluctant to break up. The imagery here is vivid and novel (stuffing belonging into plastic bags, standing together at the sink without a word, eating takeout in an empty room), and the whole thing comes across as personal and relatable. In the end, the message comes through loud and clear (if you don’t love each other, why in the world are you doing staying together?), sticking in the listener’s mind long after the song ends.

Is “Reasons” the song that catapults Jillian Jacqueline to stardom? Depressingly, I would say no: It takes a few listens to really appreciate its construction, it doesn’t differentiate itself enough sonically from the rest of the crowd, and country radio still has a bizarre fear of putting too many women on their playlists. Still, “Reasons” is a great song that showcases Jacqueline’s potential, and it suggests that she’s got a bright future in this league.

Rating: 7/10. Definitely check this song out.

Song Review: Jason Aldean, “You Make It Easy”

Sometimes the whole is lesser than the sum of its parts.

Jason Aldean remains one of country music’s most reliable hitmakers, but his last single “They Don’t Know” didn’t quite live up to his lofty standards: While it peaked at a respectable #3 and #8 on Billboard’s airplay and hot country songs respectively, both numbers are actually the worst he’s earned since 2013’s “1994.” (It was also his worst showing on the Hot 100 since 2007.) Now, Aldean has returned to the airwaves with “You Make It Easy,” the leadoff single from his upcoming Rearview Town project, and although I wouldn’t call it a bad showing, I would call it an awkward fusion of Urban’s “Blue Ain’t Your Color” and the Zac Brown Band “Loving You Easy” that pales in comparison to both tracks.

The production here is Urban’s contribution, as “You Make It Easy” features the exact same 3/4 time, guitar-driven slow jam that “Blue Ain’t Your Color” used to great effect (even the chord progressions are eerily similar). Sure, there are slight differences (Aldean leans on electric guitars where Urban primarily went acoustic, Aldean uses an organ for background atmosphere instead of strings) but the atmosphere they set is the same: a serious vibe with equal parts darkness and sexiness. As with darn near everything Aldean releases these days, the mix comes across as very stiff and serious, which is fine if the lyrics have darker undertones as Urban’s hit did, but not if the song is supposed to be a happy, celebratory song about how awesome life is with the narrator’s partner.

The ZBB influence is seen in the writing, as this song is just an off-brand version of “Loving You Easy,” right down to the girl-as-angel comparison and the PG sexual innuendo. Outside of an unexpected fourth-wall break (“girl you…put the words right into these songs”), the imagery is generic and predictable, and the track’s description of the narrator’s partner is disappointingly shallow. Again, none of these are deal-breakers by themselves, but Zac Brown and company were at least smart enough to pair their tune with bright, bouncy production and drive home the woman’s awesomeness with every note. Here, the writing just highlights how poor of a pairing it makes with the mix, and leaves the listener more confused about how to feel more than anything else.

To his credit, Aldean really tries to sell this song, fighting through the low fidelity of the recording and his own serious reputation to turn in a decent performance. His range and flow both handle the song’s demands without much trouble, and you get a slight sense of sexiness from his delivery, but “slight” is as far as Aldean can go. When he’s weighted down with the awkward fit of the production, he simply can’t make the narrator feel all that believable. The song needs a bit more power à la “Don’t You Wanna Stay” to better fit Aldean’s style, and it’s just not there.

Overall, “You Make It Easy” isn’t a bad song, but it feels like an experiment gone wrong, an attempt to shove a square peg into a round hole. Fusing the sound of “Blue Ain’t Your Color” with the message of “Loving You Easy” was not a great decision, and it left Jason Aldean struggling to pull the whole thing together. Still, I suppose when faced with the alternative of pulling a Dan + Shay and doing nothing, I guess Aldean’s team deserves a little credit for the effort.

Rating: 6/10. It’s worth a listen or two, but not much more.

Is Your Wii/Wii U Safe On The Internet?

Is it time to load Linux on this thing?

Producing a Switch version of Smash Bros. isn’t just a marketing necessity. It’s essential for the nation’s cybersecurity!

Even as the Switch and its games post mind-blowing sales numbers, a fair amount of Wii Us remain in service and online. The console still boasts a few top-notch home-console exclusives (Super Smash Bros. for Wii USuper Mario Maker, Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, etc.), and thus the device will maintain a notable network presence for many months to come. In a vacuum, this isn’t a problem: Having an old N64 or Super Nintendo, for example, isn’t going to cause any problems (unless you trip over it, or decide to use it as a blunt instrument). However, adding an Internet connection to an old console changes the equation substantially.

The last few years have brought about a smart device revolution, as everything from light bulbs to refrigerators to toilets are being networked together to gather data and receive commands from almost anywhere. There’s a lot of convenience and insight to be had within this “Internet of Things,” but there’s also a large amount of risk involved, as networked devices are often as exposed (and as vulnerable) to hackers,  malware, etc. as  laptops, smartphones, and servers are. Nowadays, it doesn’t even matter if the hacked device has any valuable data by itself—any system that can provide a foothold on a network or serve as a mindless bot for an attacker is worth compromising.

While there’s no silver bullet vendors and consumers can use when it comes to cybersecurity, there are some accepted best practices that can be adopted to minimize a person’s risk. Tops among these practices is this: Keep the software on your device up to date. When a vulnerability is discovered, the device manufacturer will (usually) produce a patch that fixes the original bug and keeps a would-be attacker from exploiting the flaw. These patches are rolled into the device’s latest software release, so installing the most-recent version of your device’s software give you the best protection against vulnerabilities.

However, once a vendor discontinues their support for a product, any vulnerabilities that are found afterwards are left unpatched, and the longer a piece software is in the wild, the more time an attacker has to probe it for flaws and exploits. Therefore, any out-of-support device on the network carries a significant risk of being compromised, one that only grows as the device ages.

Nintendo, like other software companies, is acutely aware of the risks associated with exploiting their software, and tends to do a decent job of staying on top of software updates for its supported consoles. For example, the Switch’s system software has been updated 10 times since its release last year, with the most recent version coming out last December. (Not all of these with specifically security patches, but it’s safe to assume that any patches for flaws the company was aware of were included in these updates.) The 3DS, for its part, has been updated a whopping 53 times since its release (roughly once every 1.5 months), with its last release coming last September. (I’m hoping that the Big N going 4.5 months and counting without a 3DS software update means that haven’t had any major issues to correct, but it still makes me nervous…)

The Wii U, however, is where things start to get concerning: Reggie Fils-Aime went on record over a year ago saying that “we really are at the end of life for Wii U,” and the system hasn’t received a software update since last July. For comparison purposes, having a Wii U on your network now is like leaving a laptop running Windows Vista connected to the Internet (extended support for Vista ended last April). The original Wii’s situation is even more dire: The last software update it got was it in 2010, making it the equivalent of a Windows 2000 machine sitting on your home network.

Given that online play for the Wii was discontinued in 2014, there is absolutely no reason for it to be left out like a sitting duck on the Internet. The Wii U, however, is a tougher call: Its online services are still active (as mentioned earlier, it’s the only way for Smash Bros. and Mario Maker players to get their online fix), and it’s not like there are any exploits out there wreaking havoc on consoles right this very minute. (In fact, given the console’s paltry install base, it may not even be a lucrative-enough market for cybercriminals to target.) I would argue, however, that the risks to the player/owner are much higher than even the Switch: In addition to being a potential pivot point for an attack, it’s got a built-in microphone and camera on its Gamepad that could be used for eavesdropping. (The Switch only has an IR camera in a Joy-Con, and no mic at all.)

Using the Wii U’s online features is a personal choice, of course, and there are still some compelling arguments to connect it to the Internet. (Without the network, how will I ever complete more Super Expert Mario Maker runs?) It’s important to keep in mind, however, that whenever you boot up your console, you may not be the only one watching.

Song Review: Dan + Shay, “Tequila”

And I thought Midland had a drinkin’ problem

You only get so many attempts to make an impression on the radio, and Dan + Shay strikes me as a group that is rapidly running out of chances. “How Not To” was an unremarkable pop-country track that seemed to be forgotten the minute it went recurrent (despite reaching No. 1 on the airplay chart), and “Road Trippin'” was forcefully rejected Dikembe Mutumbo-style before it could even make the Top 40. Now, the group has decided to close the book on the Obsessed era, releasing “Tequila” as the leadoff single for their currently-untitled third album. Unfortunately, the pair seems to bringing the same old sound to the new project, and the result is an undistinguished snorefest that fails to justify its existence.

The production here is an eclectic mix of instruments, opening with a piano and slowly bringing in an acoustic guitar, a steel guitar, a quiet organ, an atmosphere string section, a dobro solo, and a mix of real and synthetic percussion. The mix seems to do a lot of good things (its’s surprisingly cohesive for the size of the band, it creates a spacious but serious atmosphere that fits the mood of the writing, the dobro is a nice touch), but like most of Dan+ Shay’s work, it feels incredibly generic and run-of-the-mill, as if I’ve heard this same sort of ballad a million times before. The mix is also completely devoid of any energy (although the drums on the second verse do their best to add some), and just plods along lifelessly until the listener falls asleep or changes the station. For a song that clocks in around 3:15, it feels like I’m waiting forever for the darn thing to finish so I can hear something else.

Vocally, lead singer Shay Mooney turns in a mediocre performance here, and is no more interesting than the production. The song feels a bit low for his range, making him sound more breathy and less Gary LeVox-esque than usual (then again, given how badly “Back To Us” crashed and burned, perhaps sounding less like Rascal Flatts was actually the goal), but Mooney mostly makes it work, and his flow on the faster portions of the writing is sharp and on point. He also comes across as believable in the narrator’s role, but he seems to interpret the character too literally, which is a problem because when the lyrics are taken at face value, the narrator is not a terribly sympathetic character (more on this later). Most of all, however, Mooney’s performance is just So. Darn. Boring! His steadfast dedication to the production’s sleepy tone makes him just as forgettable as everything else here.

Lyrically, the song features a narrator telling his ex that he’s totally over her, except when the taste of tequila brings back memories of their time together. If written and performed with the proper subtly, the song could be a tacit admission that no, the narrator is not actually over his ex and that he want her to come back. As it is, however, the narrator comes across as whiny and annoying, to the point where you just want to grab the guy and tell him that if his life is as good as he claims, just freaking stop drinking tequila and all your problems will be solved. Unfortunately, not even a frustrating narrator is enough to draw a reaction from the listener, as the production and vocals anesthetize them so deeply that they’re too busy sleeping to lodge a complaint.

In short, after listening to “Tequila,” I’ve officially run out of patience with Dan + Shay. No matter what approach they take, they always seem to wind up with subpar, uninspired material, and they’re taking up radio space that could be filled by more interesting pairs (Sugarland, Brothers Osborne, Maddie & Tae, etc.). At this point, my advice for Dan + Shay is simple: Shape up or ship out.

Rating: 5/10. *yawn*

Song Review: Dierks Bentley, “Woman, Amen”

Me: Wow, Brothers Osborne did a nice job discussing an overdone topic.
Dierks Bentley: Oh really? Hold my beer.

Bentley’s last album Black was a perfectly fine disc, but despite containing two No. 1 hits and a No. 2, it seemed to lack that special something that made the disc truly memorable, and so it was forgotten even among my paltry “Top 3 Albums of 2016” list (come on Dierks, I only bought 4 albums that year!). With his experiment with a more-contemporary sound out of the way, Bentley made his way to Colorado to find inspiration for his next project The Mountain. While he claims the project is a fusion of Black and his bluegrass disc Up On The Ridge, the first single “Woman, Amen” has more of a Riser flair to it, and feels like a welcome return to form after Black.

Take the production from Bentley’s 2013 hit “I Hold On,” sand the rough edges off the guitars, and throw out the minor chords, and you’ve pretty much got the sound of “Woman, Amen.” This mimicry, however, is not a bad thing: The driving beat of the drums gives the song a ton of energy, the “whoa-oh” background choruses add a spacious feel to the atmosphere, and the brighter guitar tones fit the reverent, celebratory nature of the song well. There really isn’t much else to say here: Bentley has mastered the art of the uptempo, energetic country tracks, and this one is no exception.

Vocally, while I wouldn’t call this Bentley’s greatest performance (his voice sounds a bit rawer and rougher than on his previous material, and his flow feels a little awkward on the verses), it’s still an enjoyable listen, as he remains a master salesman who comes across as earnest and believable as the narrator. Part of this is because of his branding: Bentley is one of the few left in the genre who can credibly claim to be an “outlaw” (even after the ultra-slick Black), and paying tribute to the woman who rescued him and made him walk the straight and narrow through her undying affection is a classic outlaw trope (Waylon Jennings being the gold standard). “Woman, Amen” is the perfect song for a mid/late-career veteran with Bentley’s background, and he delivers enough charisma and personality to make the tune resonate with the listener.

Before I actually heard the song’s lyrics, I thought it would be a statement about the treatment of women in the vein of Keith Urban’s “Female” or Tim & Faith’s “Speak To A Girl.” In reality, the song is closer to Jerrod Niemann’s “God Made A Woman” or Russell Dickerson’s “Yours,” as the narrator proclaims amazement at all the things his partner gives him that he doesn’t feel he deserves, and feels that he should thanking God every night for bringing this woman into his life. However, while the writing is wholly unoriginal (the “cracks in my shattered heart” line was the only unique piece of the song) and it’s not really intended as a female enpowerment anthem, I actually find it to be more powerful than “”Female” or “Speak To A Girl” because it feels a lot more personal, as if it’s calling for each and every one of us to give a little more credit and respect to the women in our lives. Unlike Urban’s and Tim/Faith’s effort, nothing feels forced or awkward here: It’s a simple, straightforward statement that it expertly delivered by a capable artist and producer.

Overall, “Woman, Amen” is a darn good track from a darn good artist, and one that resonates with the listener long after it’s over. Both the production and the topic fall squarely within Dierks Bentley’s wheelhouse, and he delivers a solid, believable performance to drive the message home. If the rest of The Mountain meets this standard, then Bentley won’t be the only one shouting “Amen!”

Rating:  8/10. It’s definitely worth your time.

Nintendo Labo: Right Idea, Wrong Price Point

In the latest installment of Nintendo being Nintendo, the company has turned its latest console into a piano, an RC car, and a giant robot. It’s an intriguing idea, but it feels a bit pricey for its target audience.

In a sense, Nintendo Labo occupies a middle ground between traditional console games and toy-to-life accessories such as amiibo. Players are guided through putting together a series of cardboard apparatuses by the software, and can then insert the Switch console and “Toy-Cons” into the finished products to make music, hook virtual fish, and take part in all sorts of different activities. On top of all that, Nintendo has explicitly included a “discover” piece to the puzzle, letting players observe the inner working of their devices, learn the hows behind the whys of their new toys, and perhaps even make custom modifications to test the limits of their creations.

Admittedly, my inner gamer is not particularly excited over all this: The phrase “some assembly required” makes my eyes glaze over, and the activities themselves don’t feel like they have a lot of replay value. My inner STEM educator, however, is jumping for joy over Nintendo Labo, and wondering just how far the “discovery” portion of these kits can stretch.

I’ve bumped into a surprising number of hackers and security researchers in my travels, and I’ve always been curious about how they discovered their passion and found their way onto their current career paths. Most of them have a similar genesis story: They were endlessly curious about the world in their youth, and were forever taking things apart to see how they worked. This is exactly the sort of behavior Nintendo is encouraging with Nintendo Labo: Unlike the black boxes that are Super Mario Odyssey and most other video games, these cardboard contraptions are specifically designed for their inner workings to be visible and explainable.

In a world in desperate need of technology professionals and where math/science education is a major priority, Nintendo Labo is exactly the sort of game we need to show children the wonderful world of technology and how things works, and even inspire a few to eventually make this a career choice. (While I’m still not sure the Joy-Cons needed all the technology Nintendo gave them, Nintendo Labo is a much better use of said tech than, say, 1-2 Switch.)

All that being said…did the financial barrier to entry have to be this high?

Nintendo Labo kits are currently available for pre-order at the eye-popping price of $70-$80. The world is used to games with extra peripherals costing extra, but given that the system you need to play it on is already $300, investing $450 just to let your child build a cardboard robot feels a bit too rich for my blood. I feel like this kind of price tag is going to exclude a lot of people from the game, and as something that feels more like an educational tool than a source of entertainment (i.e., something that everyone should have the chance to try out), that doesn’t feel right.

Yes, I know the 3DS is old and outdated, but at $150 or less, it’s also a lot easier on a family’s bottom line. I really wish Nintendo had put together a Labo-like product for its older handheld, in order to allow more people to try it out.

We only have what we have, however, and what we have is still pretty darn impressive (after all, I don’t see Sony or Microsoft turning their consoles into musical instruments). I probably won’t check out Nintendo Labo much myself, but I’m excited that a lot of younger players will, and wish that even more could too.