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The Lost Art of Couch Co-Op

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In recent times, local multiplayer has been slashed from most mainstream titles in favor of features like online content and better graphics. But thanks to an ever-experimenting indie scene, couch co-op isn’t dead just yet.

Most AAA developers have abandoned what used to be a gaming staple in favor of either single player content or multiplayer that is exclusively online (such as Blizzard’s Overwatch). But in the not-so-distant past, anyone you wanted to play with had to be physically there.  

Some of the earliest video games were intended for two players, such as Spacewar! (1962) and Pong (1972). The 1980s – the golden age of arcade games – saw a dramatic upsurge of arcade consoles designed for solo and cooperative play alike. The action arcade game Joust (1982) is often credited with popularizing two-player co-op. Shortly after, games with local two-player became commonplace, while titles like Gauntlet (1985) and Quartet (1986) boasted four-player local co-op.

Home consoles certainly existed around this time, but local multiplayer didn’t become the norm right away. Early video game consoles lacked the technical capability for simultaneous multiplayer. Certain games made for the first three console generations (such as the NES version of Double Dragon) advertised 2-player gameplay, but simply had an alternating campaign where only one person could play at a time. Seeking to emulate the popularity of arcade machines, companies like Konami soon began porting multiplayer arcade games to consoles. Among the most popular of these ports was the two-player run-and-gun Contra, whose NES release was considerably more successful than the arcade version.

As technology improved, developers continued to innovate as the idea of playing side-by-side with a companion gained traction. 

By the 90s, local multiplayer was a staple in the gaming atmosphere. Square’s Secret of Mana and Namco’s Tales of Symphonia offered both two and three player capabilities. After the release of the Nintendo 64 in 1997, four controller ports became industry standard. Among the most renowned games on the system was Goldeneye 007, which featured four-player split-screen alongside its single player story campaign.

Despite being one of the game’s most notable features, Goldeneye’s multiplayer mode was added very late in the development process – less than six months prior to release. At GDC Europe 2012, developer Martin Hollis revealed that this addition was made completely unbeknownst to both Rare’s management and Nintendo.

In tandem with these new developments, multiplayer gaming took on a slightly different look as local area network capabilities began to emerge: connecting consoles or computers with LAN cables, players could play the same game simultaneously. Titles like Doom and Quake became popular choices of LAN parties: caffeine-fueled marathons where players manually connect consoles for multiplayer games. Although online multiplayer has mostly rendered them obsolete, modern LAN parties can still be found.

Swedish tech organization DreamHack currently holds the world record for the largest LAN party. Players manually connected over 17,000 systems at DreamHack Winter 2013.

In the mid-2000s, with the reveal of internet-driven gaming services Playstation Network and Xbox Live, online multiplayer took the video game world by storm. Multiplayer gaming shifted dramatically as games like Call of Duty 3 were capable of having two dozen players in a single match. Subsequent titles of many well-known series began to remove local co-op in favor of online multiplayer, generating controversy among fans and critics alike. Although companies have justified this choice by explaining that they prioritize improving graphics and gameplay, it’s difficult to pin down just why local multiplayer keeps getting axed.

Still, certain communities – notably, the fandom surrounding Super Smash Bros. Melee – continue to flourish despite the pervasive dominance of online play. SSB still has a solid following & remains one of a dwindling number of communities surrounding a local multiplayer game. 

Like the swing of a pendulum, the retro aesthetic has begun to step into the limelight once more. Nostalgic indie titles like Cuphead and Celeste pride themselves on being modern re-imaginings of early visual and gameplay patterns. Retro has come back into style – and with it, local multiplayer. Other indie games like Enter the Gungeon and Crypt of the Necrodancer tacked on local multiplayer capability in addition to the solo campaign, garnering added praise from fans as a result. Many other small but mighty game studios have tapped into the couch co-op sphere:

Overcooked

This 2016 kitchen simulator by Ghost Town Games was lauded for its dedication to compelling yet balanced cooperative gameplay. In a Diner Dash-esque style, each player prepares ingredients, cleans dishes, and serves orders while evading increasingly absurd obstacles. In an interview with Gamasutra, developer Phil Duncan explained that the kitchen is “a perfect analogy for a cooperative game: an occupation where teamwork, time management, spatial awareness and shouting are all vitally important.” Its recently released sequel, Overcooked 2, boasts added fluency and even more interesting level design. If you have an appetite for fast-paced meal assembly, look no further.

‘Overcooked’ was partially inspired by Duncan’s experience as a professional chef.

Towerfall: Ascension 

From Matt Makes Games (creators of Celeste), this 2D archery combat game features local co-op with up to four players, making it a wonderfully simple party game with just the right amount of chaos. Treasure chests grant you wings, bomb arrows, and other combat advantages. If arena-style free-for-all isn’t your thing, the game also features a one or two-player campaign with additional levels and unlockable bosses. 

Ascension is actually a reincarnation of the original Towerfall, which released for the Ouya microconsole in 2013. Originally an exclusive for the Playstation 4, Towerfall: Ascension is now available on both Xbox One and Nintendo Switch. For those seeking additional mayhem, there is also a PC version that supports eight players.

Don’t Starve Together

Originally, Klei Entertainment had no intention of adding multiplayer to their solo survival game Don’t Starve. The studio clarified this when announcing the multiplayer alpha on the Klei community forum, explaining that “at the time we didn’t have the resources to make it happen and we weren’t confident that it would actually work both in concept and implementation.” But thanks to widespread demand and some new additions to the developer team, multiplayer capability was added in the form of a free expansion: Don’t Starve Together. The game can support up to six players at a time in the form of either public matches with strangers or private matches with friends. If you like teamwork with a touch of Tim Burton, look no further.

Keep Talking & Nobody Explodes

From Canadian studio Steel Crate Games, this straightforward but stress-inducing game is meant for two to four players. One player (the “Defuser”) is tasked with defusing a bomb while the others (the “Experts”) read them instructions from a manual. The Defuser can’t see the manual while the Experts can’t see the bomb, so cohesion and communication are an absolute necessity. The bombs vary wildly from round to round, providing a solid sense of replayability. 

Previously, KT&NE was only available on Windows, OSX, and Linux (plus virtual reality versions on PSVR and Google Daydream). However, non-VR versions for Playstation 4, Xbox One & Nintendo Switch are now available.

Monster Prom

Released in April 2018 following a successful Kickstarter campaign, this satirical dating sim places up to four players in “Spooky High,” where they must successfully find a monstrous prom date within three weeks. Although it is demonstrably based on dating simulations – a heavily single-player genre – the game is best enjoyed with company. The concept may be simple, but the replayability is surprisingly high – the game includes a variety of items and minigames in addition to multiple endings.

Monster Prom

Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime

A vibrant but strenuous space shooter, Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime tasks up to four players with piloting a spaceship through hostile territory and rescuing your captured allies (who are all adorable animals). Each ship contains various stations for one specific purpose (navigation, guns, a shield, and a powerful “Yamato Cannon”). All four campaigns end with a boss fight, each with their own unique set of attacks. Don’t be fooled by the cutesy art style, though the upper-level difficulties demand a considerable amount of teamwork and coordination.

Originally a simple platformer conceived at a game jam, Lovers is partially inspired by the art of Sailor Moon and Katamari Damacy. Developer Matt Hammill mentioned in an interview that the team “wanted to do a space game with gunfire, all that nerdy Star Wars stuff, but we wanted to avoid going with a default gunmetal, chrome, cyberpunk textured-look.” The result was a bright and bubbly ballet of gunfire, aliens, and good old-fashioned search & rescue. 

The game’s title is a reference to the Bruce Cockburn song “Lovers in a Dangerous Time”.

Stardew Valley

With PC multiplayer fresh out of beta, Eric Malone (aka  “ConcernedApe”) has been working tirelessly to add multiplayer capability to the hit 2016 farming sim. Players will be able to visit each other’s farms and complete tasks in tandem. Unlike most couch co-op games that thrive on high-speed competition, Stardew Valley is a nicely paced experience that will allow each player to farm, fish, mine, and explore at their own tempo (as long as you’re in bed before midnight, that is).  It’s unclear exactly when the patch will make its way to other platforms, but according to the developer blog, the console versions are in development and coming soon.

StardewValley

The indie scene has certainly embraced local multiplayer with no signs of stopping. Still, this doesn’t mean the mainstream has completely abandoned it. Even Microsoft decided to roll back their previous decision and reintroduce split-screen co-op to Halo 5 after a prolonged outcry from fans.

Couch co-op is indeed a thing of the past, but it doesn’t have to stay there.

Student, writer, and animation enthusiast based in Chicago, IL. I've been gaming since my parents made the mistake of buying me a Game Boy at age six.

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1 Comment

  1. Styno

    June 7, 2019 at 2:58 am

    Don’t starve together does not have couch coop…

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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?

Ghostrunner

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.

PAX South

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.

PAX South

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.

Animated GIF

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.

Animated GIF

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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