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Beyond Pen and Paper: Top 3 Paper Mario games

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Often praised for their quality, as well as their spectacular writing, the Paper Mario games have provided some of the best stories within the Mario universe and within the entirety of Nintendo’s canon, only rivaled by the Mario and Luigi series or the occasional paradigm-shifting JRPG. Quality is the language spoken by Intelligent Systems, the developer of the series, and to date, the Paper Mario series has been beloved by fans of all ages as a truly great story-focused Mario experience.

When a series of such pedigree is discussed, it can be important to cross-examine each game in the series with other games in the franchise as a reference to demonstrate how the series has evolved during its tenure. Each game in the Paper Mario series has its strengths and weaknesses which construct a unique experience, and yet each entry is not perfect. There is a clear hierarchy which dominates the series. This hierarchy creates an optimal playing order for the gamer new to the Paper Mario series, allowing them to savor its best moments and the best moments of each game while avoiding the pitfalls of comparing a series’ first entry with follow-up games.

(A caveat of the list below. I have never played Sticker Star, so it’s ranking in the series is not reflected below.)

3.) Paper Mario– Nintendo 64- 2001

The original Paper Mario was vastly ahead of its time. Living on the paper thin (pun fully intended) end of the N64’s lifespan, this game helped provide direction for a Mario RPG series that had been left rudderless by the souring of relations between Final Fantasy creator Square and Nintendo. With a small hope of producing a true sequel to the critically acclaimed and Square co-developed Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, Nintendo decided to break the mold and introduce a Mario RPG with an entirely new aesthetic.

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As the first game in the series, the original Paper Mario has some rough edges that are more evident today than when the game was originally released. Occasionally unappealing sprite work, a merely good story, and Bowser as the main villain all contribute to this game being the least great of the Paper Mario series. Although it is still an amazing game, especially when compared to contemporary RPGs on the N64, it still struggles with the one quality which makes the Paper Mario games so great: their writing. The writing lacks wit, an element of the series which would develop given time. Whether this was due to an average localization (compared to the spectacular localization that later games would receive) or from a lack of good source material, it is still a disappointment to notice.

Despite this, the game’s combat and environments show that this is a true classic, and one of the best games on the N64, possibly behind only The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Super Mario 64 in terms of sheer quality. However, it has certainly aged better than the previous two. Good looking, if not great, sprites make Paper Mario one the most visually appealing games on the N64. The calm, leisurely pace of combat, combined with simplistic and intuitive RPG elements make it an amazing game for the RPG neophyte. A family-friendly and cutesy demeanor construct as charming a game as Nintendo has ever produced, and the paper aesthetic is easily as fascinating as the yarn aesthetic in Yoshi’s Woolly World or claymation in Kirby and the Rainbow Curse.

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This game is currently on the Wii U eShop for $9.99, and for that price, it’s a steal. For anyone looking to get into the series, this is the best place to start. The mechanics are easy to digest, even for players new to RPGs, and the combat system in Paper Mario is a good compliment to later developments in the series.

2.) Super Paper Mario– Nintendo Wii- 2007

As the most divisive game in the Paper Mario series outside of Sticker Star, opinions regarding Super Paper Mario vary wildly, the main point of contention being the elimination of turn-based battles. The battles are instead a hybrid of RPG and platformer elements with the ability to change characters, as well as this game’s equivalent of partners, Pixls, in the middle of battle. Unfortunately, the battle system in Super Paper Mario is, quite noticeably, the weakest in the series, lacking most of the elements which made battling in the previous games such a joy. The battle system and boss battles take a serious demerit in quality, and the simplistic nature of combat, coupled with very limited RPG elements, make it oftentimes boring, sleepy, and out of touch with the Paper Mario series’ pedigree.

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Despite the languid battle system, the gameplay is incredibly solid. For an RPG-laced platformer, the game controls remarkably, and the buttery-smooth platforming feels almost as good as a traditional 2D Mario game. Adding to the strength of the gameplay are the unique abilities that belong to each member of the party, including Mario’s ability to change the perspective of the world from a flat, two-dimensional surface to a world of 3D, where Mario can move around two-dimensional obstacles and enemies with ease. Many of the game’s puzzles involve using each party member’s abilities in unique ways. This aspect of the gameplay, while interesting, never evolves much past its initial difficulty.

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The story and writing, however, are where this game truly shines; Super Paper Mario has the best story in the Paper Mario franchise. The main villain, Count Bleck, is as complicated a villain as Mario has ever seen, and his moral ambiguity presents an interesting contrast to Bowser as a villain in the original Paper Mario, a villain whose paper-thin characterization make him lovable and hardly a threat. Bleck’s main purpose is to use the Void, an enormous black hole, to destroy the entire universe as a salve for his own personal suffering. Villains in Super Paper Mario, such as Bleck, possess complex ideologies with philosophies such as nihilism taking center stage. Add in a few flashbacks, writing as quick and witty as has ever been seen in the Mario RPGs, and Super Paper Mario crafts a story which is a true Mario classic; it is a story not to be missed by anyone who is a fan of the plumber’s RPG outings.

1.) Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door– Nintendo GameCube- 2004

Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door is far and away the best Paper Mario game to ever be released. Combining the best elements of the original Paper Mario and Super Paper Mario, The Thousand Year Door never fails to provide one of the most joyous experiences ever craftedand in every aspect The Thousand Year Door stands head-and-shoulders above the rest of the Paper Mario games. Locales are much more interesting, the story is better than the original, and the combat is the best in the series.

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While the story may not be as well-constructed as Super Paper Mario’s, the dialogue is much quicker and wittier than its successor. Partners, while never advancing much beyond their paper-thin personalities, still present more character to the player than the partners in the original Paper Mario and are a thankful break from the mostly-mute Pixels in Super Paper Mario. The story is simple and linear, rarely straying away from the pace set in the original; however, it still manages to get more done in its brisk twenty-five hours than most games do in forty hours. The excellent localization, coupled with hilarious pop-culture references, truly shows the range and creativity that the writers at Intelligent Systems and the localizers at Nintendo of America were capable of producing.

Combat, molded in the image of the original Paper Mario, expands on that system and provides mechanics interesting enough to create a truly unique experience which still stands the test of time. With a plethora of badges, the main way of customizing Mario and Co.’s abilities, and new mechanics, including an audience which watches Mario during battle, the game’s battle system is the best of any in the Paper Mario series. The bevy of customization that comes with badges produces a battle system which is easily digested by relatively new RPG players and yet customizable by veteran players.

Beautiful art direction also carries the game in more ways than one. Gameplay mechanics involving paper unfold beautifully on the screen, while Mario and the various NPCs that he meets show comical emotion, are artfully animated, and are truly full of life.  The world of The Thousand Year Door is quite striking as well. From the seedy town of Rogueport to the spectator-filled arenas in the floating town of Glitzville, the game’s various locales ooze infectious personality, even when presented in lackluster 480i. It is evident that in every aspect of the world’s construction there is love and care infused from the developer. This game is a passion project, a shocking departure from the cold, sterile manner in which most AAA games are produced today.

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Despite the fact that it is only available on the Nintendo GameCube and cannot be played in HD, Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door  is better than the other Paper Mario games. One must not misunderstand, however, as all of the main Paper Mario games are true classics; each title is one of the best games on its respective system. Each of these three games is crafted with the same love and care that is seen in Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door and they are worth playing in their own right. Every game in the franchise deserves the praise it garners, and ultimately they are among some of the finest RPGs to ever be produced by Nintendo, and some of the best RPGs in gaming.

Although a gamer since before I can remember, there is not a better definition of me than these three words: Christian, moderate, and learner. I am steadfast in my Faith, my Beliefs, and in my Opinions, but I am always willing to hear the other side of the discussion. I love Nintendo, History, and the NBA. Currently a PhD Student at Liberty University.

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PAX South 2020 Hands-On: ‘Ghostrunner,’ ‘Everspace 2,’ and ‘Wrath: Aeon of Ruin’

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‘Ghostrunner,’ ‘Everspace 2,’ and ‘Wrath: Aeon of Ruin’

We’ve already covered a wide variety of the games on display at PAX South this year, from retro revivals to unorthodox romances to everything in between – and we’re not done yet! In this next roundup article, we cover three more ambitious, action-packed games: Ghostrunner, Everspace 2, and Wrath: Aeon of Ruin.

Ghostrunner

Ghostrunner

Ghostrunner was one of the most in-demand games at PAX, and after playing it, it’s easy to see why. This first-person action slasher, developed by One More Level and produced by 3D Realms, lets players dash through the air, run across walls, and slash through enemies at blistering speed all while exploring a dystopian cyberpunk world. It’s gorgeous, lightning fast, and feels amazing to play.

Ghostrunner begins in a broken future, where the remnants of humanity have hidden away in a single condensed tower. Naturally enough, you’re put in the role of the one rebel who dares to rise up against the forces oppressing humanity. As you begin your uprising, you’ll also encounter a grand mystery – why is humanity the way it is now? Just what happened to the rest of the world? And what’s that voice you hear in your head?

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My demo didn’t offer much illumination to these mysteries, but the 3D Realms team assured me that the story plays a significant role in the main campaign. What my demo did offer, however, was a look into the fast-paced, brutal gameplay that defines the game. Combat is so dynamic in Ghostrunner. Your arsenal of moves is massive and varied – of course you can run, jump, and slash with your katana, but you can also run along walls, dash over chasms, slow down time to dodge bullets, and more.

When all the moving pieces flow together, Ghostrunner achieves a visceral, almost hypnotic flow of battle. There are a few obstacles to this feeling. The controls took a bit of getting used to on my end, but that would be because, console peasant that I am, I’m not used to playing 3D games on a keyboard instead of a controller. Also, this may be an action game, but at many times it feels more like a puzzle game. With bloodthirsty enemies scattered around each environment, you’ll often need to take a step back and methodically evaluate which abilities to use in each situation. This can take some trial and error – it might have taken me more than a few tries to clear out the final wave of enemies. But when the solution works out, it’s a beautifully exhilarating feeling, and that’s what sets Ghostrunner apart.

Wrath: Aeon of Ruin

PAX featured plenty of retro-styled games, but not many quite like Wrath: Aeon of Ruin. This retro-style FPS is a throwback to the simpler, faster days of shooters, built entirely in the same engine as the original Quake. It was even based off the work of Quake community modders. If you’ve played any classic FPS like the original DOOM or Wolfenstein, then you should have a good idea of how Wrath plays: it’s brutal, lightning fast, and action packed.

My demo got straight to the point. After teleporting me to a distant hellscape, I was faced with a horde of demons, ranging from simple skeletons to more aggressive ogre-like enemies and flying laser monsters. Thankfully, I was also given an assortment of weapons to take these creatures down with, including a simple handgun, a powerful blade arm, and my personal favorite, a shotgun. Each one of these felt good to control, and like any good old-fashioned shooter, they gave me a great feeling of power.

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Like any good, brutal FPS in the vein of Quake, Wrath features an insane amount of mobility. Movement is extremely fast and fluid, allowing you to zip across and above stages with reckless abandon. This extra speed will be necessary, especially considering that enemies can slaughter on with reckless, overwhelming abandon.

Of course, being built in the original Quake engine, Wrath is a delightfully retro treat to behold. It features all the signature hard polygonal edges of PC shooters from that bygone era, but with the added smoothness and fluidity of modern hardware. The game feels great to play and is a unique treat to behold. Wrath is currently available on Steam Early Access, and there’s plenty of new content that can be expected throughout the year, including new levels, enemies, and even a full online multiplayer mode. Stuffed with violent retro action, Wrath: Aeon of Ruin is absolutely worth watching out for.

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Everspace 2

Space is the final frontier, offering limitless exploration This’s the exact feeling that Everspace 2 captures. This sandbox open world space shooter dumps you in outer space and leaves you to figure out the rest, allowing you to fight, scavenge, and explore as you will, all with an incredible amount of freedom.

It’s a remarkably beautiful game too, boasting of extremely detailed 3D graphics that wouldn’t look out of place in a full 3D AAA experience. It’s extremely ambitious, offering a wealth of customization options through parts that can be scavenged from fallen space craft or space debris. There’s alien life to discover and a wealth of locations to explore, with the full game apparently featuring more than 80 unique environments.

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These environments will always be interesting to explore thanks to a mix between handcrafted worlds and randomization. The original Everspace was a pure roguelike, and as developer Rockfish Games told me, this constantly changing design has often been fundamental to previous great space shooters. Although Rockfish opted for an intentionally designed open world for the sequel, they want to maintain some of those same roguelike elements. That’s why whenever you venture through the many galaxies of Everspace 2, the galaxies and planets will be the same, but the items you find or enemies you encounter within them may change each time.

It took me some time to get used to Everspace. It immediately offers a great amount of freedom, with the demo simply dumping me in space and only requiring that I take down some enemy units and pick up some loot. Yet once I got the hang of the controls and the environment, it became extremely fluid and natural to zip through space, upgrade different components, and experience all the free-flowing action that it has to offer. Space is the ultimate freedom, and Everspace 2 is set to represent that.

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PAX South 2020 Hands-On: ‘Windjammers 2,’ ‘KUNAI,’ and ‘Young Souls’

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PAX South

PAX South 2020 attracted tons of exciting publishers to San Antonio, and even with such a crowded lineup, the DotEmu and Arcade Crew booth easily stood out as some of the show’s very best exhibitors. Streets of Rage 4 might have been their standout demo, but the French boutique publisher and developers brought a fantastic selection of games to the show, including their signature retro revivals and some promising original indie games of their own.

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Windjammers 2

Sequel to the much-beloved arcade classic, Windjammers 2 takes all the hectic frisbee-throwing action of the original and updates it for the modern generation. For those unfamiliar with the art of windjamming, it’s effectively pong, but instead of balls, you toss discs back and forth across the court. It pits two players against each other on opposite sides of the court, tasking you with mercilessly hurling your disc back and forth until it gets into your opponent’s goal.

You can just throw the disc directly at your opponent, but Windjammers 2 gives you many more options besides that. To really excel at the game, you’ll have to make use of the most extravagant moves you can, dashing across the court, leaping into the air, tossing the disc above you before slamming it down into your opponent, to list only a few of the uber-athletic abilities at your disposal. The game can move extremely quickly when both players take advantage of these capabilities, yet things never feel overwhelming. I always felt in control of the action, even when my quickest reflexes were put to the test. It’s fast-paced disc throwing insanity, and I couldn’t get enough of it.

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Just like the rest of DotEmu’s catalogue, Windjammers 2 combines classic gameplay with gorgeous modern aesthetics. It has the same hand-drawn style that makes other DotEmu titles stand out, like Wonderboy: The Dragon’s Trap. The original Windjammers was a time capsule of garish 90s style, and that design is retained for the new release, with characters looking even more colorful and absurd than ever thanks to the revitalized art and animations. Hectic to play and beautiful to behold, Windjammers 2 is already set to be a multiplayer hit.

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Young Souls

Streets of Rage 4 was certainly the premier beat ‘em up on display at DotEmu’s booth, but it wasn’t the only one. Alongside this retro revival was an all-new take on the genre: Young Souls, an extremely stylish action game that blends fast-paced fighting with deep RPG customization and a charming, emotional narrative.

Beat ‘em ups might not be known for deep storylines, but Young Souls aspires to something more. Along with its satisfying combat mechanics and plentiful flexibility for character builds, it also boasts of having “a profound story with unforgettable characters.” While my demo didn’t give me much of a look at this deep narrative, it’s reasonable to assume that the story will at least be quality, since it’s penned by none other than the author of the Walking Dead games, Matthew Ritter.

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However, I did get a substantial feel for combat. Young Souls features more than 70 monster-filled dungeons, and I got to venture into two of them in my demo. The action feels weighty and solid when going up against enemies, yet precise at the same time. Like any classic beat ‘em up, there’s a mixture of light and heavy attacks, along with blocks and powerful special moves, along with items and spells to exploit during combat as well. In between battles, you’re able to deck your character out in equipment and items, allowing for an element of roleplaying depth that isn’t typically associated with action games like this. In my short time with the game, it was fun to experiment with different character builds, which could determine the speed and abilities of my fighter, promising combat for the final game.

I played the demo both solo and co-op; in single-player, you’re able to switch between the two twins at will, while two players can each take control of a sibling. In both playstyles, the gameplay was just as visceral and satisfying as one would expect from a classic-style beat ‘em up like this, but the addition of a deep story and RPG mechanics put a unique spin on this entry. That’s not to mention that, like every other game at the DotEmu and Arcade Crew booth, it’s visually beautiful, featuring stylish 2D characters in 3D environments that are all rendered in gentle, washed-out colors. Young Souls might not have a release date or even any confirmed platforms as of now, but it’s absolutely worth keeping an eye on in the meantime.

KUNAI

KUNAI takes the typical metroidvania formula and boosts it to hyperspeed. It has all the hidden secrets and massively interconnected world exploration that you’d expect from the genre, and it gives you the ability to speed through that faster and more dynamically than ever. Its main gimmick is right in the name – by giving you two kunai hookshots, you’re able to traverse up and down your environments with speed and freedom, making for a uniquely vertical method to explore.

KUNAI starts out with the end of the world. In a dystopian future where technology has taken over, you control Tabby, a sentient and heroic tablet that’s dead set on liberating the planet. This serious plot is filled with plenty of personality, however, from the silly faces that Tabby makes in action to the charming dialogue and quirky character designs. This personality is rendered in appealing detail thanks to the game’s simple yet effective pixel art.

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It’s in the gameplay where KUNAI truly shines. With the eponymous kunai, you’re able to latch onto vertical surfaces. Combine this with the additional abilities to dash, bounce off enemies, or wall jump, and it provides for a uniquely dynamic method of exploring the world. Using the kunai feels easy and intuitive, fast enough to gain speed but never too floaty. It’s a balanced approach to speed and movement that never gets out of control, resulting in what it is perhaps the best-feeling movement of any metroidvania I’ve played recently. My demo was brief, and ended very soon after first getting the kunai, but the gameplay felt so smooth and natural that I can’t wait to experience more of it. Thankfully, it’s not long to wait, since KUNAI hits Switch and PC on February 6.

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PAX South Hands-On: ‘Streets of Rage 4’ Balances Legacy and Innovation

Streets of Rage 4 embodies the original series’ elegant, action-packed design and revives it for a new generation.

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Streets of Rage 4

From the moment I began my demo with Streets of Rage 4 at PAX South, it felt like coming home. It might have been more than two decades since the first three games in the Streets of Rage series perfected the beat ‘em up formula on the Sega Genesis, but courtesy of developers Lizardcube, DotEmu, and Guard Crush, this legendary series is back and in good hands. This brand new entry aims to recapture all the style and balance of the originals, while introducing innovations of its own. If my demo is any indication, the game is set to achieve that.

Streets of Rage 4 uses the same elegant level design that set the original trilogy apart back on the Genesis. The gameplay is simple: keep walking to the right, taking out every enemy in front of you with all the jabs, kicks, jumps, and special moves at your disposal. If anything, the controls feel better than ever before, with an added level of precision and fluidity that simply wasn’t possible on older hardware.

Streets of Rage 4

That’s not to mention the new move sets. Beat ’em ups might not be the most complex genre around, but Streets of Rage 4 adds the perfect level of depth to the combat. It has the same simple jabs and kicks found in the original games, but spiced up with the potential for new combos and even a handful of extravagant new special moves. With new and old fighting mechanics, this new entry features plenty of room to experiment with combat but never loses the simple, arcade-like charm of the originals.

Streets of Rage 4 revives the series’ rage-filled and action-packed style for the twenty-first century

The demo included series staple characters like Axel and Blaze, yet I opted to play as an all-new character: Cherry Hunter, a guitar-wielding fighter whose move set felt very distinct from classic characters. Her movement is speedy, certainly faster than Axel but slower than Blaze, and her guitar provided for some unique melee moves. Like the new mechanics, her addition to the character roster helps shake up the Streets of Rage formula just enough, while maintaining the core beat ’em up simplicity that made the series special in the first place.

Streets of Rage 4

Streets of Rage 4 might innovate in a few areas, but one thing that’s clearly remained true to form is the difficulty. It boasts of the same old school difficulty that characterized the original games. The classic and brand new enemies are just as ruthless as ever, mercilessly crowding in around you and can easily overwhelm you if you’re not careful. However, just like the originals, the fighting feels so satisfying that it’s easy to keep coming back for more action.

Amid all these changes and additions, perhaps the most obvious (and controversial) change is the visual style. While the original series used detailed pixel art, Streets of Rage 4 instead boasts of an extremely detailed handcrafted art style, in which every frame of character animation is painstakingly drawn by hand and environments are colorful and painterly. Thousands of frames of animation go into each character, and the effort certainly shows, making every punch, kick, and other acts of violence a breathtaking sight to behold.

Streets of Rage 4 reimagines this classic series for a new generation, reintroducing the best of the beat ’em up genre for players of all backgrounds and experiences.

Some fans have complained that the game loses the series’ spirit without pixel art, but DotEmu marketing director Arnaud De Sousa insisted to me that this simply isn’t the case. Pixel art wasn’t an artistic choice back then – it was a matter of necessity. If the developers could have designed the game to look exactly as they wanted, regardless of technical limitations, then it likely would have looked just like the luscious hand-drawn visuals of the current Streets of Rage 4.

That’s not to mention that, as De Sousa emphasized, the Streets of Rage games are defined by looking different from one another. The third game looks different from the second, which looked different from the first – and now this new entry has twenty years of change to catch up on. Thus, it only makes sense for this new entry to adopt a radically new graphical style after all this time.

Streets of Rage 4

Streets of Rage 4 reimagines this classic series for a new generation, reintroducing the best of the beat ’em up genre for players of all backgrounds and experiences. The difference between De Sousa and myself is perfect evidence of that. He grew up playing the games in the 90s, whereas I wasn’t even born when the original trilogy became such a phenomenon and only played them years later in subsequent re-releases. Yet here we were, standing in the middle of a crowded convention and gushing about decades-old games. We might have had extremely different experiences with the series, but that didn’t stop us from appreciating the joys of stylish beat ’em up action.

“A good game is a good game,” De Sousa told me, “no matter how old.” That’s the attitude that Streets of Rage 4 exemplifies. It revives the series’ rage-filled and action-packed design for the twenty-first century. And with a release on all modern platforms, more players than ever will be able to rediscover the simple pleasure of wielding your bare knuckles against thugs of all types. Between the new art style and the solid gameplay, Streets of Rage 4 is looking like an incredibly welcome return for this iconic franchise.

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