It’s easy to take Super Mario Kart for granted considering just how far the franchise has come since its inception in 1992. Mario Kart is a series that improves on itself logically and linearly with each iteration, more so than any other Nintendo property. Of course, each entry is designed to stand on its own with a unique identity, but even a game like Double Dash— which is built around one core concept that was never revisited— has clear mechanical and design similarities with its 3D predecessor, Mario Kart 64, and each of its successors. There’s a uniform quality to how Mario Kart presents its mechanics and track design, linking all the way back to the original game on the SNES. Where Super Mario Kart is the foundation on which every subsequent game has built itself upon, however, it also remains the most uniquely designed entry in the franchise.
Starting with Mario Kart 64, Nintendo began designing the series with 3D sensibilities in mind. Even Super Circuit, the franchise’s only other 2D entry alongside the original, has arguably more in common with 64 than it does SMK. Tracks have more spatial depth, characters control with considerably more leeway, and the overall difficulty curve in order to be more accessible to general audiences. This is a trend that can be noted in every game after the original, but one that cannot be applied to the original. Super Mario Kart is 2D through and through which means it doesn’t have all the bells and whistles 3D offers. Not that it needs it, though.
In no way whatsoever is Super Mario Kart a lesser game because it isn’t designed in the same way as its successors (or because it’s 2D for that matter.) To this day, Super Mario Kart features some of the tightest track design and controls in the franchise, if not the downright tightest. Arguably to a fault. The biggest roadblock fans of Mario Kart might find when revisiting the original is just how difficult it is in comparison to the rest of the series. 50cc is simple enough, but 100cc immediately demands a level of mechanical understand that’s more or less reserved for 150cc nowadays.
Super Mario Kart is a rather simple game when broken down to its core mechanics, but only deceptively so. One wrong move can spell disaster and cost a race, a blow that hurts all the more considering tracks are 5 laps long. Someone playing through Super Mario Kart for the first time might find the game discouraging as a result. Even back in the day, the humble racer offered quite a level of challenge. Like F-Zero before it, Super Mario Kart demanded players get good or stop playing before. Thankfully Nintendo wasn’t so tactless as to just toss new racers into the deep end.
Whether it be played through 50cc or 100cc, the Mushroom Cup makes for one of the best “tutorials” on the SNES. While not a tutorial in a conventional or traditional sense, each of the Mushroom Cup’s five tracks work to gradually reveal the importance of the core mechanics at play while also introducing track types and track hazards. By the end of the fifth and final track, an attentive player should have a well-rounded understanding of what Super Mario Kart expects from them.
Mario Circuit 1 is, understandably, the easiest track in the game. Although its main purpose is to simply allows racers to acclimate to the controls, there are multiple ways in which the track allows for deeper mechanical understanding while offering a safe space to experiment. As a track, Mario Circuit 1 doesn’t even require drifting. A player can simply hold down B to accelerate and turn on the D-pad when necessary. At the same time, Mario Circuit 1 is one of the best courses to try drifting in as its road is spacious enough where players won’t necessarily go off-road should they chance a drift with a particularly wide arc.
For those struggling with drifting, but nonetheless practicing the maneuver, Mario Circuit 1 offers a space where hopping thrives. Since drifting can go wrong in unsteady hands, sometimes hopping is a better alternative for new players. By simply pressing L or R, players can trigger a brief bounce. Said bounce can be used to jump over small gaps (or in rare cases even items) in later tracks, but it also serves as a means of readjusting one’s position. With a well-timed hop, a kart can change its trajectory without committing to a full-on drift.
It is worth noting, however, that drifting is a faster alternative to hopping at all times. A well-timed drift can lead into a mini-turbo. While nowhere near as useful as in later entries, mini-turbos are brief bursts of speed that save quite a lot of time when pulled off properly. Super Mario Kart perhaps has the hardest mini-turbos to pull off in the series, but Mario Circuit 1 offers a reasonable track to practice turning a drift into a full-on speed boost. Of course, Super Mario Kart doesn’t always make it so easy to pull off its mechanics as evidenced by its second track.
While not remotely difficult in the slightest, Donut Plains 1 does up the ante considerably coming hot off the trails of Mario Circuit 1. Where off-roading is relatively forgiving in MC1 (going so far as to featuring an off-road shortcut that actually doesn’t waste any time should a player take it without a mushroom or star,) Donut Plains 1 has grass that slows racers down considerably, walled off areas to keep players on the road, open water to sink anyone still driving without abandon, and a large chunk of mud right before the finish line to punish players hugging the edge of the track.
Where Mario Circuit 1 presents a safe space to introduce the mechanics, Donut Plains 1 ditches that safety in favor of refinement. The physically tighter, curvier paths punish poor drifts far more than before. Racers need to be mindful of how they’re drifting so not to veer off course. Coming back to the track in MC1 was generally quite easy and didn’t eat up too much time, but DP1 can be quite punishing in this regard thanks to the walls.
Walls themselves likewise encourage players to really nail down their drifts. Where off-roading at least keeps the player actively moving off course, hitting a wall stops a kart dead in its tracks. Of course, walls in Donut Plains 1 are spread out far enough where players are rarely in danger of this happening (save for a lap on 150cc gone horribly wrong,) but their presence still serves to highlight just how early Super Mario Kart introduces a major concept. Hazards aren’t too damning during the Mushroom Cup, but they very quickly start to pose a threat.
The water in Donut Plains 1 is a nice warning of this. It’s very unlikely a player will drift so poorly they’ll land themselves in the water, but the pool is still a presence, one that gets immediately fleshed out in the next track: Ghost Valley 1. Essentially Donut Plains 1 taken to an extreme, Ghost Valley 1 demands stability above all else. Where the water in the previous track simply submerged players for a few seconds, Ghost Valley 1 features a course that outright allows racers to fall off. Worse yet, any walls on the track are only there temporarily and fall off once hit. A player falling into the pattern of colliding off walls will soon find themselves pummeling into the abyss below.
To its credit, Ghost Valley 1 is not so cruel as to expect the world from players right away. Due to the sharper turns and bottomless pits, the course is wider as a whole, much more in line with what Mario Circuit 1 offered. Keeping complete control of the kart is crucial here as drifting to the point of spinning out or simply veering at a bad time can land a player straight off the road. It isn’t a particularly difficult course when mastered— it’s realistically the easiest track in the Mushroom Cup other than Mario Circuit 1— but it serves as a good training spot for other tracks, especially one of the Ghost Valley variant. Perhaps most importantly, GV1 places shortcuts front and center.
While shortcuts existed in Mario Circuit 1 and Donut Plains 1, they were both off-road cuts that could only be pulled off with a mushroom or star. Even then, the former’s shortcut offers no time penalties should a player take it anyways. Ghost Valley 1’s shortcut, on the other hand, is downright impossible to pull off without a feather. By using the feather, players can jump onto a strip of land right in front of the finish line. Said shortcut isn’t so over and done with, however, as landing requires players to veer towards the finish line lest they immediately drive off course.
By this point in the cup, players should intrinsically know how to: hop, drift, pull off a mini-turbo, look for shortcuts, and keep their karts stable. Each track adds in new obstacles to look out for, but there’s a clear progression in how tracks play off each other and compromises are often made so not to make one track considerably harder than the others. That said, this design mentality gets thrown out the window when it comes to Bowser Castle 1, a track that very well could have served as the cup’s final course.
Bowser Castle 1 introduces four major concepts: lava which more or less serves as a brighter version of Ghost Valley 1’s bottomless pits; zippers which give players a burst of speed; Thwomps which serve as moving hazards, potentially crushing players as they dink under them or blocking them in their path; and bumpers that cause a player to bounce when run over. Combined, these elements make for a hectic track with danger at every turn.
The track itself has its own learning curve of sorts, dedicating the first lap to simply allowing players a chance to feel the layout. As Thwomps stay stationary in the air during the first lap, there’s no real danger to a player other than themselves. By this point, drifts should at the very least be maneuvered carefully so giving racers a clear view of the Thwomps before they activate is a fair way of warning them that “something” is coming. Of course, a visual tell can only do so much.
With Thwomps rising and falling, it’s more important than ever to drift well. Being crushed by a Thwomp flattens a kart while hitting a Thwomp usually cuts a few seconds off each lap since players need to wait for it to rise. Good drifting, on the other hand, will see the player cutting through the field of Thwomps, landing themselves right on the bumpers, veering right back into another set of bumpers, and drifting towards the finish line. Super Mario Kart doesn’t just teach its player base through punishment; skilled players are rewarded.
The zippers themselves are an interesting concept, albeit one that might not necessarily benefit the game. While racing, CPUs have specific patterns. They will always turn a certain way, drive a certain way, and stick to a certain path. This can actually be used to one’s advantage since they’ll know where to plant items, but it also results in CPUs missing out on taking advantage of the track. CPU racers will never hit the zippers, not even on 150cc. Because of this, players get a clear advantage when hitting a zipper, one the computer controlled characters don’t have. (Though that’s perhaps for the best considering Super Mario Kart CPUs love to cheat.)
While Bowser Castle 1 is epic enough in scope and scale to serve as a suitable finale, that honor belongs to none other than Mario Circuit 2. A bookend of sorts, Mario Circuit 2 brings players back to a familiar setting, trims down the hazards, and features plenty of room to practice techniques in a skilled manner. Where Mario Circuit 1 encourages basic understanding, Mario Circuit 2 promotes basic mastery. Good drifting here is just as rewarding as in Bowser Castle 2, and the zippers near the end of the track can be used to curve the player into a drift towards the finish line.
Walls make a return appearance (the nonbreaking kind,) and oil slicks are introduced as a hazard that makes racers spin out, but there’s nothing particularly threatening about Mario Circuit 2. Most of the damage that can be inflicted will either be from CPUs or from poor playing. MC2 is designed to be a straight up race first and foremost, keeping gimmicks to the sideline and giving racers a track where they can put their skills to the test. On 150cc, a dexterous hand is more or less necessary to get through Mario Circuit 2 in the top four.
By the time players are (hopefully) taking center stage on the podium, the Mushroom Cup’s infinite wisdom will have brushed off. Or at the very least, players will understand what Super Mario Kart expects out of them as a game. Without needing to put a single piece of text to screen, SMK teachers exclusively through its visuals and design. Such a feat is downright rare to run into nowadays, but it’s a trend that Mario Kart continues for the most part. Super Mario Kart may not be as clearly polished as later entries, but it doesn’t particularly need to be. It has its own charm, its own style, and plenty to love. The Mushroom Cup shows that off in spades.
PAX South 2020 Hands-On: ‘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 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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
PAX South 2020 Hands-On: ‘Windjammers 2,’ ‘KUNAI,’ and ‘Young Souls’
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 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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