Thursday, November 17, 2016

The Great PokeClone-Off Finale

On this winding path through lame jokes and Poke-themed armchair game design, we are finally at the beginning of the end, which is author-speak for “whenever sounds most dramatic.” The sun is setting, the ship is leaving dock, and the fat lady is running low on lung capacity. We have reached the end of the road, the line, the journey, the thread, our wits, and the overextended intro sequences. And we’ve hit that point with a whole mess of baggage still waiting to be packed in.

So it’s time we got to it! This final post will focus on the miscellaneous, those nuggets of critical gristle that don’t fit within the neat, juicy cuts of analysis covered before. I’ve condensed these turbulent storms of raw opinion into five sorta-distinct categories: Level Design, Difficulty, Post-Game/Multiplayer, Economy/Interface, and Mini-Games/Side Quests.  Each will be worth five points, which I have ingeniously combined with my incredible skills of basic multiplication for a 25 point total. The critiques will be doled out quickly and efficiently, like extremely condescending machine gun fire. And that rapid rain of ravishing reverence and ravaging ridicule will begin…

…hold on, let me just check my wa – RIGHT NOW!

Miscellanous – 25 points

Pokemon Pearl

Level Design: Pokemon level design doesn’t change much. Much of this geography is just ever-new configurations of beaten paths and tall grass. The extra dimension Pearl lends to the landscape offers opportunities for more vertical design, but it rarely takes advantage of that. There are some good routes, like a refreshingly, uh, fresh snowy road with rad music. But there are also irritating ones. A good example is anything in the marsh area of the map. Some rocket surgeon here was struck with a brilliant ray of inspired level design: mud! Your character gets stuck in it every few steps and you have to wriggle out, contributing nothing of value and making things take ten times as long. Glad that one somehow got past an entire team of designers.

On the upside, the gyms ramped up their presentation this time around. Gyms have often featured puzzles or elaborate environments, all the way back to the first game. But this generation the puzzles grew more involved than usual, featuring plenty of unique mechanics and requiring more thought to navigate. These areas also made better use of the 3D than any other portion of the game, leading to more intricate and memorable locations. The many average routes and a couple stickler areas keep me from rating Pearl too high, but I’d still give it a perfectly pleasing 9/10ths of a Pokemon.

Difficulty: Pearl has pretty standard difficulty for a Pokemon game, until about 2/3rds of the way through. Then it gets a running start, tucks its legs in, and attempts to set the world record for the pole vault. Difficulty jumps, is what I’m saying. On one hand, older players like myself often wish for a little more challenge in this ultimately rather easy series. Having a final boss that’s genuinely tough is a plus for me. Wild Pokemon jump in difficulty along with enemy trainers as well. This prevents the problem of massive gaps in suitable grinding locales, which has hamstrung other games in the series. (Looking at you, generation two).

So the highest level wild Pokemon are in the 40s, the final boss has Pokemon at level 88, and there’s no way to rematch trainers at will? I don’t foresee any problems here!

But this also causes my biggest issue with the difficulty jump: wild Pokemon will match or outstrip your own team in level. I always find this frustrating, because it makes the team you spent so much time on feel meaningless. Why spend dozens of extra hours building an elite squadron of adorable killing machines if apex predators just as lethal are filling every cave and pool to the brim? I appreciate a good challenge, but the game would’ve benefited from a gradual difficulty curve rather than what feels like a sloppy rush to the finish line. 4/5ths of a Pokemon.

Post-Game/Multiplayer: “Post-game” is a self-explanatory term referring to things to do after the main story has ended. Pearl is nowhere near the largest in this regard, but it puts up a respectable chunk ‘o content for those who’ve already become the very best (like no one ever was). There are a few brand-new areas, a ton of legendary creatures to track down and an end-game arena known as the battle tower. A standard addition by this generation, the tower scales your Pokemon to a set level and forces you through gauntlets of tricky trainers. Subsequent games and even one or two before have left greater gobs of goodies to unravel after the end, but Pearl is satisfactory enough that I’d deem it average for the series.

On the multiplayer front, Pearl was the first game to add online play. Random online matches were still a ways off, but you could play with friends in person or across the global web-net. And being able to trade Pokemon with strangers worldwide was a nice addition for the terminally friend-impaired. Overall, a fairly standard showing at One Full Pokemon.

Economy/Interface: The economy of Pokemon Pearl is similar to the economy of most single-player RPGs: mediocre. Like most games in the genre, it leaves the player with vast piles of riches and not much to spend it on. To be fair, the highest level healing items are pricey in bulk, and there are a few cash sinks like buying your way through the game corner prizes. It’s still flawed in that there aren’t any universally desirable and highly expensive items to shoot for, but so are all the other Pokemon games.

The series user interface has generally been improving over time. Pearl was a big jump, as it was the first game with touch controls. It takes to them like a Magikarp to the bottom of a PC box. Unlike other games of the time it gets the science of screen-tappin down pretty well first try. Buttons are big and clearly labeled, with touch options for almost every part of menus but not for character movement itself, where buttons provide an easier and more convenient option anyway. It could stand to be a bit slicker here and there, but it’s super smooth for the era. For these categories Pearl scores One Full Pokemon.

Mini-Games/Side Quests: Pearl has a few mini-games to pursue if you don’t care about capturing awesome collectible monsters and outfitting them with an amazing array of battle techniques. You weirdo. The first is Pokemon contests. I tried one of these, once, the first time I played the game. Up until literally this morning, I had not tried them again. Why? Well, I never really felt I was the, uh, target audience for contests. Put more bluntly, I always felt the target audience was little girls. I mean c’mon, the first stage of judging is competitive dress-up.

Look, I know little enough about fashion to begin with. I have no idea how it applies to slugs, dragons and ghosts.

But having played again to refresh my memory, it’s not completely without appeal to those above age 12. The second stage is a forgettable rhythm game, but the third and final is an exhibition for attacks. All the existing moves have different effects towards impressing the judges, setting up to impress more next round or hindering the performance of others. A lot of moves have identical effects and it doesn’t have near as much depth as the actual battle system, but it’s something.

Pokemon Pearl also has an optional diversion in the form of the Underground, a sprawling maze filled with a whole lotta nothing. You can dig up items from the wall in a little mini-game, but that’s just about the only thing to do with impact elsewhere. There are some other bland activities available in multiplayer, like setting traps for your friends and playing capture the flag. It sounds dreadfully dull and I’ve never bothered, but hey, it exists.

More engaging are the many optional side areas found in Pearl. Even before the end of the game there are over half a dozen optional dungeons and routes of varying sizes. Most of these have either valuable items, rare Pokemon not found elsewhere, or both. It’s pretty on par for the rest of the series, and so it nets yet another score of One Full Pokemon.

Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker

Level Design: In terms of level design, Joker definitely has less level to go around than Pearl. The amount of island to trudge through isn’t huge, and the scenery of those isles isn’t as varied as I’d like. We have a normal island, a desert island, a normal island with a castle on it, a dreary brown island, a normal island with ruins on it, and a tropical island. I wish there was more variation, both visually and mechanically. At least Joker has more verticality than its competitors, with environments often winding around mountains, valleys or tall trees. It also has some decently put-together dungeons. They’re nothing special, but they’ve got some rudimentary puzzles and optional loot that makes them fun enough to explore. It’s a very standard RPG set-up through and through. 4/5ths of a Pokemon.

Difficulty: It’s difficult for me to judge the difficulty of Joker, because I exploited the shit out of it. I was really digging the monster synthesis and spent a ton of extra time picking fights I didn’t have to. However, given how completely and utterly I steamrolled the game without any difficulty whatsoever, I’d say it isn’t that hard. I’d also say that any difficulty it brings (and there’d no doubt be some were I not crafting gods among monsters) isn’t a very fun type of difficulty. I mentioned before that the AI is a few eggs short of an Exeggcute and I can’t ever see such simplistic tactics making a fun challenge. Even the final boss is accompanied by two random minions to artificially boost difficulty. By contrast, the final battle of Pearl features a full team that’s not just statistically superior but filled with clever strategies and excellent type coverage. Joker at least has a smooth difficulty curve free of jumps and an appropriately challenging post-game. I just wish its form of difficulty was a little more interesting. 4/5ths of a Pokemon.

Post-Game/Multiplayer: DQM has a respectable amount of things to do should you stick around past the credits. There are extra fights in the arena, some challenges based on taming certain monsters, and a few optional boss fights. It also bothers to change all the NPCs dialogue to reflect the end of the game. True, most of that dialogue ain’t gold, but I appreciate the effort considering many RPGs can’t be arsed.

Thanks for the tip, gnome that I could only talk to if I was already gnome-sized. Are you aware that the world is being slowly consumed by a massive tide of unstoppable darkness?

Because that’s a thing.

Surprisingly, Joker all has the most robust multiplayer of our contestants. You can battle other players locally and trade like normal. But you’re also given several extra options to mess with like whether revives are allowed or if the fight is controlled manually or by AI. You can even set up a tournament or do any of this online rather than in-person. There are also options for AI fights against random opponents or a daily Wi-Fi tournament with global leaderboards. This type of stuff was getting pretty common in 2006, but certainly not for handheld games. So though the post-game is nothing special, I’m gonna throw Joker a bone and give it 11/10ths of a Pokemon.

Economy/Interface: As with most things, the economy for DQM is very standard-issue. You’ll struggle to make enough moolah early on, at least not enough for your minions to suit up with this season’s latest in fashionable murder-sticks. But as time goes on your pockets will bulge and the cost of efficient homicide will get smaller and smaller, in a stunning and deftly executed social metaphor for…nothing really. It’s just poor game balancing. Though it takes so long for adventuring inflation to kick in that perhaps poor is going too far. It’s an average economy easily on par with the business dealings of pocket monsters.

The interface doesn’t earn quite as sunny a comparison. Joker has a very straightforward interface that does the job passably. There’s not too much over-complication* or nested menus. But it’s a rather no-nonsense text-and-rounded-rectangles affair that doesn’t dazzle the eyes nor suit itself to touch controls. I stuck to buttons playing DQM as it was too much hassle to tap the tiny plain-text commands with speed and consistency. As interfaces go, it’s a pretty powerful plus for Pearl and a dully disappointing defeat for DQM. 7/10ths of a Pokemon.

*Ha! I’ve learned my lesson since part one. Stuck a fotha-muckin HYPHEN on that shiz…dawg.

Mini-Games/Side Quests: Joker is completely absent of mini-games. But honestly, I’m not sure that’s a point against it. Sure, more optional activities would be nice. But they’re vestigial to the core experience. So if those optional activities aren’t taken seriously I’d rather their time just be spent elsewhere in development. The sparse amount of side quests I find more bothersome. The monster arena and proficiency test required for the post-game have simpler versions available before the credits roll. Enemy tamers randomly show up about the islands for occasional bonus fights.

Though the game has optional content, there’s little optional geography. To my knowledge, there is exactly one (1) set optional area. There’s also a small chance you’ll find a random uncharted island transitioning between islands on the map. But they’re all tiny chunks of land with nothing on them except a few wandering enemies (never species unique to that island) and a single treasure chest with a common item. It’s enough to distract you for a short while, but never anything great. 3/5ths of a Pokemon.

Spectrobes: Beyond the Portals

Level Design: I’ll give Spectrobes credit: It has some varied environments. The different planets offer everything from grassy plains to sandy deserts, icy tundras to gloomy swamps. It technically has more variety than either of the other games, speaking purely from a number-of-biomes perspective. Okay Spectrobes, you enjoying that credit? All snuggled up comfortably next to the warm glow of positive recognition? Good. Now back to kicking you in the gnads.

From a mechanical perspective, the levels in Spectrobes suck. It’s all a bunch of bland, lifeless combat arenas strung together in linear fashion. There’s no vertical design, no mountains, bridges or overhangs. The Z axis may as well not exist. There’s no interiors within areas, no buildings or caves to enter. You either land in one of the indoor locations (cities) or everything is open-air. There aren’t even branching paths 90% of the time. Even when there are, there’s little reason to follow them because they just lead to dead ends with more dull minerals to collect. The scenery’s a bore, traversing levels is a chore, and I don’t want to do it anymore. 3/10ths of a Pokemon.

Difficulty: Spectrobes has something of a difficulty curve to it. Enemies and bosses gradually increase in challenge, on average. But the difficulty of individual fights can swing wildly depending on a few things. Firstly, some situations don’t tell you exactly what types you’ll be facing. Against the wrong type you take a buttload of extra damage and deal an assload less, so this can make things annoyingly difficult until you just, y’know, die and try again (there’s no death penalty). Second, the difficulty of particular enemies varies wildly. It usually has to do with how well-equipped they are in the stunlock department. Some foes spam attacks that hit all around them, making fights slow, tedious and finicky. Other fights swarm you with a large number of enemies that serve you back and forth like expired hors d’oeuvres at a party where everyone hates each other. Should you avoid both these predicaments, every enemy in the game including bosses is pretty dang susceptible to the ol’ one-two. Or rather, the ol’ one-two-one-two-one-two-one-two…

So the game is a cakewalk, except when it’s annoyingly difficult. But at least challenge has a general curve to it. 3/5ths of a Pokemon.

Post-Game/Multiplayer: Spectrobes does not have a post-game. At all. So that’s a great start.

But its multiplayer options were better than I thought. You can battle and trade locally or online with friends. I must’ve been a horribly unsocial teen, because I had no idea these features were so standard by this point. Spectrobes even has random battles with strangers. Nothing fancy, but certainly more than I expected of the game. So for pretty decent online and a total lack of post-game Spectrobes earns 2/5ths of a Pokemon.

Economy/Interface: The economy in Spectrobes is much like a [CLEVER SIMILE FOR THE SPECTROBES ECONOMY]. It’s broken and pointless but easy to ignore. There are four different things you can purchase. The first is equipment for Rallen, which is about as useful as [WITTY DESCRIPTION OF A THING THAT IS NOT VERY USEFUL]. Reason being the brief segments outside Spectrobe combat are extremely shallow. If you just slash until things stop being alive it works pretty well, and there’s nothing stopping you from running past every enemy. You could also spend money on mining tools, and those are actually helpful. But they’re all so cheap that they make less of a dent in your wallet than [METAPHOR FOR A THEORETICAL ITEM WHICH IS ACTUALLY QUITE INEXPENSIVE].


You could also spend your money on collectible tokens with Spectrobes’ faces on them. Unfortunately, these are about as handy as [FLOWERY DESCRIPTION WHEREIN YOU DESCRIBE A PERSON, PLACE OR THING WHICH IS THE ANTITHESIS OF HANDYNESS], because there’s no practical use for them. The final hole to dump your money is healing items, but you can only use these outside of combat. You can easily avoid every fight in an area besides a boss, and your ship fully heals you, so I thought these were about as wise a purchasing decision as [AN OBJECT HEREIN IS DETAILED THAT IS LACKING IN THE ATTRIBUTES TYPICAL OF BEING AN ITEM WORTHY OF SIGNIFICANT MONETARY INVESTMENT].

As for the interface? Meh. It’s basic and gets the job done, but it doesn’t make very good use of the touch screen and often has extra clicks/confirmations when it doesn’t need to. Overall, I’d say it’s something like [METAPHOR WHICH DESCRIBES THE APPROPRIATE THING FOR THIS SENTENCE].

That about sums up this section, so let’s move on quickly before anyone realizes that [YOU NEVER FILLED IN THE BLANKS YOU ASSHAT]. 1/2 of a Pokemon.

Mini-Games/Side Quests: Let’s start with side quests:

Spetrobes has no side quests.

Alright, glad we got through that lengthy diatribe! Now onto mini-games.

Spectrobes doesn’t have any optional mini-games, but it has a few required activities with different mechanics from regular combat. For example there’s the fights Rallen can get into outside of your regularly scheduled, tornado mandated Spectrobe battling. I described Rallen’s fights briefly above. In summary: Lame and pointless. Another side activity is hatching and raising Spectrobes. You feed them to make them evolve, which is pointless busywork. You get bonuses if the room they’re in has the right wallpaper, which requires less mental focus than successfully reading this sentence. You blow into your microphone to awake them from fossils. In order to accurately assess that activity, here are some fun statistics about mechanics using the Nintendo DS microphone: 50% of them actually work, 0% of them did something that couldn’t be accomplished by a button, and 100% of them made you look like a buttface when played in public. Related fun fact: Public is the place handhelds were invented for.

Pictured: Someone cooler than a person yelling into a DS microphone in public.

But all of these quick little activities are ultimately inoffensive. Even though I might object to their execution or purpose, they don’t actively detract from the experience.

Let me tell you about digging.

You don’t capture Spectrobes the same as Pokemon, by throwing a ball at a weakened foe. You don’t capture them the same way as Joker, by attacking enemies in a show of strength. Spectrobes are beings awakened from fossils, so you capture them by digging. Digging is a simple little game, really. You uncover the rock by dragging along the touch screen over the partially buried object. If you touch or hold too long on an uncovered area you damage the object. Once you uncover enough of the object you’re done, and you get experience based on how quickly you did so. Leveling up in digging makes it harder to screw up. Sometimes additional tools are required in digging, like a fan to blow away sand. All these amount to is switching to a different tool before dragging your fingers more. In addition to Spectrobes, you can also dig up all sorts of other goodies like gems to sell or minerals to feed to Spectrobes to give them experience. And that’s digging.




We don’t take kindly ta yer type round ere.

I didn’t hate it at first. Sure the mini-game was a bit basic, a bit bland, but if that were enough to scare me off I wouldn’t be playing Spectrobes. That digging is boring is only half the problem. The other half?

Digging is really damn useful.

It’s required to get new Spectrobes. If you want to see all the cool creatures and test out how they handle, AKA one of the few redeeming parts of the game, you’ll have to buckle down and do a ton of moving dirt. You’ll do it in silence too, since the digging mini-game cuts off all music. Since the minerals you dig up give experience as a percentage of a level, it’s often faster to earn money and experience by digging instead of fighting. I spent something like half my play time digging, and I regret every second of it. It baffles me that something so central to the gameplay could be so under-developed mechanically. It has all the depth of a simplistic flash game, like one of the hundreds you’d find on sites like Neopets. Hell, Pokemon Pearl had a digging game about as involved and it was only one of several activities in a completely optional side game!

Digging is a dull and soulless chore that put me off playing this game by its mere presence. For actively worsening my experience, it earns Spectrobes zero points. You get nothing! You lose! Good day sir!

Pity – 10 bonus points

So things have gotten a little heated now and then, and the heat has been almost solely directed at Spectrobes. We’re talking searing rays of hate-fire locked onto the game with deadly precision. But I wanted to again make it clear, I don’t hold a grudge against the game. Disappointment, sure, but no grudge. So as a sort of olive branch, I’m introducing one last category. The current points total up to a neat one hundred, so this will be all extra credit. Specifically, I’m going to dole out some points based upon the comparative adversity of the game’s development. Pity points for the underdogs going up against such entertainment juggernauts. It’s not something anyone should be ever be obligated to put in an objective review. But this is not an objective review, it’s a fun analysis-comedy series and I’m feeling charitable. So who deserves some pity?

Pokemon Pearl

Are you kidding me? After Mario and Tetris, Pokemon is the best-selling video game franchise of all time. It’s sold over twice that of franchises like Final Fantasy or Madden and about four times as much as The Legend of Zelda and, ‘lo and behold, Dragon Quest. It boasts global popularity on the level of the polio vaccine. There’s more documentation on it than most real, historical wars. You probably know the face of Pikachu better than some of your own relatives.

Uncle Albert, is that you?

And it’s not even at peak popularity! The first two generations of Pokemon released in 1998 and 2000 outside Japan. I was six to eight years old. Do you know what that was like? I woke up before school and watched Pokemon next to a human-sized Charmander doll while eating Pokemon brand cereal. My brother and I had the video games, the trading cards, the trading card video game, the VHS tapes, the figurines, the board game, the soundtrack, the guidebooks, and more. And we were completely average fans. I’m pretty sure my neighbor sold their family into slavery in exchange for a foil trading card, and the court ruling on their behalf was as follows: “Ancient Mew isn’t actually rare, you scrub. Guilty, because you could at least hold out for a Charizard!” If Lord of the Flies was written in late 90s North America, the conch would be a cartridge with a successfully completed Rare Candy glitch.

In short: Check yo Pokemon privilege. 0/10 pity points.

Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker

Sure it’s one of the longest running RPG series out there. Sure, it’s a massive media franchise that’s become a household name. Sure, it’s the 20th best-selling game franchise of all time. BUT: It’s only normal popular here. Its popularity only reaches rabidly insane levels in Japan. So that’s…something?

Something, but not much. 2/10 pity points.

Spectrobes: Beyond the Portals

Now we’re talking! Spectrobes may struggle in some areas, but it can’t be denied it’s the underdog here. It’s an experimental new series pitted against some of the best-selling, farthest-reaching franchises of all time. Spectrobes deserves credit for trying to take some of these concepts for a new spin. And like a freshly refurbished ceiling fan, it really is a new spin. It could’ve just copied the formula of Pokemon or similar games before, tweaked a thing here or there, and called it a day. Sure its ideas didn’t always pan out, but I admire it for trying.

Okay granted, this is the second game in the series. And, uh, there’s another game after this one. Slightly surprised that it managed to get two sequels. You don’t, uh, normally get the budget for that many sequels with gameplay like this. But hey, all the more power to the developer! I know enough about game development that I’m sure this isn’t an indie studio, but I’d bet they’re some mid-level venture that really put themselves out there and…uh…hm.


Wait a minute.

What’s that on the box?

Down in the corner there?


Oh right. I forgot.


Really, Spectrobes?!

God damnit I can’t even give you full points in the category MADE for you!

5 out of 10 pity points.


And so, after a long and arduous trial, the final bell has rung. The sun has set on our little competition and a new moon is rising. Or maybe the other way around, depending on what version you bought. It’s time to see just who’s up to snuff. Time to figure out just how well each of the contestants did. Time to discover which participant has the most gumption, backbone, guts, perspicacity, vim, wherewithal, and chutzpah. By this I of course mean: It’s time to confirm the rankings you knew were coming since the first gosh darn article, but now with arbitrary numbers attached. Here they are!

Pokemon Pearl totals out to 97% of the average Pokemon game by volume. It’s just slightly below the standard you’d expect from the series. Still a highly quality game, (and one blessed with an amazing soundtrack), but held back by a legion of minor flaws. If anyone out there wants to experience the game and hasn’t yet, I hear Pokemon Platinum fixed most of its issues.

Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker drops in at 70.5% of an average Pokemon game by weight. It’s got a number of problems, but much of that score isn’t from problems, per se. It’s simply less elegantly designed. The combat isn’t as engaging, the music is dull, and so on.  It’s good, an above average game overall, but not fantastic. If the game still sounds fun to you after all you’ve heard, by all means, you could find it quite enjoyable.

And Spectrobes: Beyond the Portals. Sweet Spectrobes. It measures up to 40% of an average Pokemon game by surface area. Just about every single aspect of the game is either executed poorly or musters up something merely mediocre. I’ve systematically torn the thing to shreds, drawing stark contrast to the glowing praise I’ve radiated elsewhere. From the moment I began this series, I knew it would be this way. I knew that the most fun and interesting writing lay in comparing the enthusiastically excellent to the enthusiastically awful. It was a game that bored me to play, and frustrated me to think about.

But there’s something important to grab hold of there, shimmering beneath the sea of bile. I was frustrated with the game. Through all the dull disinterest and tired tedium, I sometimes instead felt irritation or anger. Sounds like a rotten time all around, eh? Well…yeah. But it’s a rotten time in a very different way. When a product makes you happy, it’s because you care. When a product makes you bored, it’s because you don’t. When a product makes you angry, it’s also because you care.

I was and still am 100% enthusiastic about Spectrobes. I’m enthusiastic about its setting, its combat system and even its story. I’m enthusiastic about the potential for those things, and enthusiastically angry that they weren’t realized. Because whatever else could be said, Spectrobes is a game that tried. It tried something different and fell flat on its face, and I’m just as much here to point and laugh as I am to try and find out why. If I can untangle that, then maybe I can stop myself or someone else from making the same mistakes.

And hey, if I get to make people laugh at jokes about butts along the way, all the better.

If anyone out there has read all the way through this ridiculously lengthy series, you have my thanks. If anyone skipped an entry here or there, you also have my thanks. If anyone skipped straight to the end so you could look at the arbitrary numeric scores and tell me how wrong I am, you still have my thanks. I don’t discriminate. Even those commenters who did nothing but complain that Shin Megami Tensei wasn’t covered have my thanks. I am a cascading waterfall of ever-flowing thanks, a shining star of over-flowing thank energy, a battalion of thank tanks firing shells of lethal gratitude right into your faces. You may want to brace for impact.

In short: This was fun. Thanks for reading.

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