Every Classic Sonic Special Stage, reviewed

Hey, I reviewed Sonic Mania Plus recently! Some people seemed to take issue with the fact that I said the new content was a bit of a letdown — which I think more people might be inclined to agree with now that the game’s out. I mean, the team had the opportunity to put the Love Tester back into Studiopolis and they didn’t. I had to dock a point immediately right there. (It’s a joke, people.)

But some folks seemed unusually incensed that I said the special stages were bad. I don’t know why this point in particular seemed to get folks all in a huff, because… well, yeah, Sonic Mania special stages are pretty miserable. They’re absolutely the weak link in an otherwise spectacular game, and having to play more of them was not a fun prospect, made worse by the fact that the special stage rings are still a royal pain in the ass to find (and farm in postgame).

Here’s the thing, though. I’ve played a lot of classic Sonic. I’ve spent a tremendous amount of time in these games’ special stages. I think I have a pretty damn good idea of what makes for a fun Sonic special stage. And, my friends, Sonic Mania’s special stages are absolutely not fun, especially in comparison to some of the other great special stages Sonic has offered us.

So, readers, I would like to once again present you with a painstakingly compiled list of mini-reviews. This time, we’re not reviewing games, but games within games. We’re going to be looking at all of the classic Sonic series special stages1 and evaluating each type… and maybe tell a fun story or two of youthful obsession.

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  1. Except the SMS/Game Gear stuff. Those games aren’t very good, I didn’t own a Game Gear/SMS, and I don’t care.

Konami versus the fans of Tokimeki Memorial: A Legal History

Hey, did you hear about the PUBG vs Fortnite legal case getting withdrawn? Boy, that thing was a complete disaster, huh? But ours is an industry filled with legal shenanigans… many of which, like Capcom v. Data East, Silicon Knights v. Epic, and now this, have ended disastrously for the plaintiffs.

However, it’s not always like this. We only really see these cases from a Western perspective — and, indeed, many of the most important legal cases in gaming, like the infamous Tetris debacle, were decided in US court. But there have also been plenty of legal issues surrounding games in Japan — see the recent spate of game bar closures — and one Japanese company is quite notorious for its use of litigation.

Long before #FucKonami was a trending hashtag, long before Western music game fans and developers cowered in fear of Konami’s legal threats, there were incidents in Japan involving one of Konami’s most popular (at the time) game franchises. These incidents earned Konami a great deal of notoriety among game fans in Japan as a litigation-happy tiger of a company that would happily devour its own fanbase. Somehow, though, these stories never drifted overseas, likely because the game involved was seen by the west as “some weird Japanese dating sim thing” that was of little interest or importance.

It’s time to change that. It’s time to take a look at Konami’s legal actions against one of its most fervent fanbases. Let’s examine Konami’s legal battle against Tokimeki Memorial fandom.

Before we start, perhaps it’s best to talk a bit about what Tokimeki Memorial (frequently abbreviated as Tokimemo) was, and why it was such a big deal.

Tokimemo is considered to be one of the defining “Gal-ge,” or games centered around fostering and nuturing a relationship with one of several eligible virtual women. In this game, you play as a high school boy going through the school year, meeting various girls and finding one you eventually want to win over. By paying attention to the girl’s likes and what she wants in a partner, you budget your time and raise stats to become more appealing. You also have to make sure not to annoy any of the other girls, because they’re catty bitches who will spread damaging rumors about you. Eventually, you’ll reach the end of the school year, where one of the girls — hopefully, the one you were aiming for — confesses her love for you under the tree of legend.

(If you want a slightly more in-depth and fun look at the gameplay, I’d highly recommend the Game Center CX episode centered around the game.)

Tokimeki Memorial did well when it debuted on the PC Engine CD in 1994, but it was the eventual enhanced ports to PlayStation and Saturn that really made the game blow up in popularity. Shiori Fujisaki, the pink-haired girl-next-door archetype on the PS and Saturn covers, became an instantly recognizable face across all of gaming. Konami had a huge hit on their hands, and merchandised the everloving hell out of it: to this day, you can wander into any Japanese secondhand stuff store and likely find various Tokimemo knickknacks.

Of course, with a hit game comes sequels and spinoffs, and they were numerous. The first sequel, Tokimeki Memorial 2, was a huge game spread across five CDs, and is widely considered the best in the franchise in terms of gameplay and presentation… yet it didn’t stick around in gamers’ hearts like the first game did. A disastrous move to 3D visuals on PS3 with Tokimemo 3 upset many, and Konami opted to focus instead on the growing otome market with Tokimeki Memorial Girls’ Side, which had you playing as a girl trying to impress a bevy of hot dudes. The last Tokimeki Memorial game, Tokimeki Memorial 4, was on PSP in 2009, and its very existence seemed like a surprise to many.

(A fun fact shared to me by my late friend Andrew Fitch — who formerly worked at Konami’s US branch — was that the weird PSP game Brooktown High was meant as a testbed to see if an “American Tokimemo” would work. We miss you, Andrew.)

Since then, Konami hasn’t done much with the series, aside from putting out the occasional bit of Girls’ Side content. Love Plus on the 3DS was seen by many as an evolution of the game’s concepts, though Konami basically destroyed that series as well. Currently, there’s a game called “Tokimeki Idol” on smartphones that looks like a really bad attempt to cash in on the Idolm@ster/Love Live! wave by using scraps of an old IP. The decline of Tokimemo itself is worthy of its own article, as it’s due to a variety of factors, but one thing that may have played a part was Konami’s antagonism of its own fanbase through legal means. Such as… Continue reading

The Amazing, Unrecognized World of Japanese Arcade Quiz Games

Quiz games. They’re one of the most basic forms of game out there, going a long, long way back to the days of game shows on radio and television, persisting to this very day. They’ve also been a part of videogaming from the early days: as soon as ROM chips could feasibly hold a decent amount of text, quiz games started to appear in arcades and on consoles.

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Nowadays, when you think of arcade quiz games, you probably think of something like the multiplayer setups you see at trivia nights in a local bar. This is the direction Western quiz games evolved in: they never really eschewed a game-show/board-game style format, and evolved to implement either real-money gambling mechanics or large-scale multiplayer, competitive functionality.

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In Japan, however, things played out very differently. Arcade quiz games started to appear there in the mid-late 80s, through companies like Sega and Nichibutsu. As the 90s came along, a renaissance of quiz-game development created a unique, fascinating genre with an abundance of different thematic elements.

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The genre first saw significant advancement through games like Adventure Quiz: Capcom World, a trivia game loaded with 80s Capcom fanservice, and Mitchell’s Quiz Sangokushi, which melded the question-and-answer format with strategic, territory-conquering gameplay. These games utilized elements of visual novels and strategy games to make the quiz experience more appealing and engaging. Other games put quiz elements into fun new genres: Taito’s Quiz Chikyuu Boueigun (“Quiz Earth Defense Force,” no relation to the current Earth Defense Force games by D3 Publisher) has you saving the planet in a story that’s chock-full of classic sci-fi parodies, while SNK’s Quiz Daisousasen (“Quiz Big Criminal Investigation”) is a detective story that morphs into a weird sci-fi/horror thing at the end. You still had game-show style quiz games too, but they were quickly losing ground to more ambitious efforts.

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In some cases, publishers adapted existing properties but added a quiz-game twist, hoping the familiar name would draw in customers. This is how we got games like Saurus’s Quiz King of Fighters and Taito’s Quiz HQ, which combined existing game properties with a quiz-game element. As time passed, however, more and more experimentation happened. The mid-late 90s were really a golden age for arcade quiz games, resulting in a stunning variety of thematic and gameplay genres mixing in with traditional quiz elements.

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Interestingly, quiz games tend to be very lengthy, sometimes taking an hour or more to complete from start to finish… which, in theory, goes against the short, focused play experiences arcades want to offer. You want to get people off that machine as quickly as possible, right? However, with these new thematic ideas, players became more committed to seeing the games through to the end. It doesn’t hurt as much to abandon a gameshow you feel like you’re not doing well in, but when you’re in the middle of a story about saving the universe? Hell yes you’re going to brute-force your way through with yen! Add a second player into the mix and watch earnings double!

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Unfortunately, most the appeal of these games is lost on the West. Japanese quiz games might be the most culturally impenetrable games out there: not only do you have to be fluent in the language, you also have to be fluent in a variety of cultural elements. Sure, you might know the multiple readings of thousands and thousands of kanji, but unless you lived in Japan during the early 1990s and remember which popular talent of the time appeared in a specific ad campaign, you’re probably not going to get very far. That is, unless you cheat. Thankfully, emulating most of these games allows you to cheat through the quiz portions, making the games somewhat more accessible… though it does result in the game losing a big part of its inherent charm. (Plus, even if you do cheat, if you don’t speak the language you can find yourself making very poor choices.)

You don’t hear a lot about quiz games nowadays — the genre saw a sharp decline in development and interest after the 1990s. Currently, the big name (and basically the only name) in Japanese quiz games is Konami’s Harry Potter-inspired Quiz Magic Academy, which has a new arcade version releasing soon (along with a mobile version that is no doubt raking in plenty of money). Right now, it’s practically the only arcade quiz game in town, unless your local game center has an older game installed in a cabinet somewhere.

But where does someone who doesn’t know anything about Japanese arcade quiz games go to get a good sampling of what the genre has to offer? Well, that’s why I’ve taken the time to write this. Today, we’re going to take a look at some noteworthy Japanese-style arcade quiz games: One that, against all odds, got a localized release, and three others that showcase some very interesting experiences. Continue reading

INTERVIEW: Hideo Yoshizawa and Keiji Yamagishi

Few games are as fondly remembered by NES kids as the Ninja Gaiden Trilogy. It’s not an exaggeration to say that these games put the small publisher Tecmo on the map and set a high bar for many action games going forward. Of course, part of the reson why these games were so good was the talented staff behind their production, which included director Hideo Yoshizawa and composer Keiji Yamagishi. But their exemplary work in games continues far beyond the adventures of Ryu Hayabusa: Yoshizawa has helped in the creation of fan favorites like Klonoa and Mr. Driller, while Yamagishi is involved with game music production company Brave Wave.

I was given the opportunity to interview both Yoshizawa and Yamagishi at MAGfest 2018, and was eager to get some insight on the creation of these games. I was joined in this interview by the wonderful Jonathan Wheeler, alias ProtonJon, who is one of the biggest classic Ninja Gaiden fans I know. (His questions are notated by italics.) Read on to learn plenty of surprising details about the origins of some of the most beloved games of all time (and a few notable obscurities)! (I also suggest watching the official panel they had at MAGfest, too!)

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A DEFINITIVE, CERTAINLY CORRECT AND INARGUABLE ranking of classic-style Pac-Man games

Guys. GUYS. Did you see that list ranking all of the Mario games? Holy crap! New Super Mario Bros. U at number one, for reals??? Why, clearly this is a horrible judgement that I must take to the internet to express my displeasure over– oh, no, wait, everybody else has already done that. Dangit!

But… hmm. This list has generated a lot of attention and discussion. Clearly, Gaming Dot Moe needs a real kick in the pants, an article that will drive vistors to the site in droves and make them read about Raimais and spur heated debate and conversation! We need to make a ranking list involving a popular, long-running videogame character!

Let’s see… Mario’s been done… Sonic? Oh jeez, that’s a debate I don’t even want to wade into, what with the differences between Classic and Modern Sonic… I mean, hell, even if we just limited it to Modern Sonic, nobody can agree which ones are actually the good games and they will hate you for whatever you say! Megaman? I mean, that’s pretty cut-and-dry, the debate is basically between 2, 3, and X.

Wait… I’ve got it!

Yes! Pac-Man! Nobody’s done a comprehensive list talking about the best Pac-Man games yet! We’re going to have another GAMING DOT MOE EXCLUSIVE on our hands here!

But lay something down first, because there’s a lot of Pac-Man games out there covering different genres. The main rule in this ranking is that the game has to adhere to the basic tenets of classic Pac-Man gameplay, which means roaming mazes while collecting objects. So no, no Pac-Man World, Ghostly Adventures, Pac-Attack, or Pac-Land. Sorry if you’re looking to see if Pac-Man Party is better or worse than Pac-In-Time, but someone else will have to make that list.

That doesn’t mean we can’t talk about a few other Pac-Man games first, though…

Special Mentions

Pac-Man 2: The New Adventures

Out of all the games Pac-Man’s ever starred in, this one deviates the furthest from the concepts established in the original, meaning that there’s no way I’d put it on the list with the rules I established. However, it’s worth mentioning because it’s a game you simply have to experience, preferably vicariously.

It feels like somebody at Namco woke up one day and said, “Hey, we have a beloved videogame icon here, but the style of game he pioneered is just too old for the purple-stuff addled kids of the 90s. We need to make something unique and original to make Pac hip and relevant again!”

And the result was… a point and click adventure game. No, scratch that — it’s a point and click adventure game with an added layer of obfuscation. Pac-Man is not under your direct control — instead, you have a slingshot to hit objects (and Pac-Man) with and the ability to yell “LOOK!” in the hopes that you can direct his attention somewhere. Unfortunately, Pac-Man rarely does what you actually want him to do, resulting in amazing moments of frustrating as Pac-Man winds up in stupid, stupid situations that would have been wholly avoidable if you could just tell him what to do. This is where the “smug asshole Pac” meme began, and once you see the game, you’ll understand why.

I wouldn’t recommend trying to play this yourself, but you absolutely should watch somebody else suffer through trying to get Pac-Man to do very simple tasks. It’s a good time for everyone… except the player.

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Pac-Man Battle Royale

This one’s tough to slide into the list just because how much fun you get from it is wholly dependent on how many players you have. If you have a full group of four people, then yes, this is going to be one hell of a time. However, with every player you subtract, Battle Royale becomes noticeably less enjoyable. It doesn’t really seem fair to fault an inherently multiplayer game for being less fun with less players, so I’m going to exclude this one from the ranking.

Anyhow, that’s enough preamble, let’s get to

THE RANKINGS

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Astonishingly Awful Gaming Merchandise: Consumerism is Scary Edition

Happy Halloween, everyone! But considering the world we’re living in is an apocalyptic hellscape, it’s like every day brings us fresh, Halloween-like horrors!

…Okay, that’s a little too negative for this site about gaming love. After all, no matter what happens, we’ll always have positive gaming experiences and the friendships and bonds they help create to get us through things. I got a firsthand glimpse of this at the recent Portland Retrogaming Expo, a yearly convention that celebrates the rich history of gaming. It was a fantastic show, filled with arcade games, classic consoles and games, an interesting variety of vendors, some great panels, and museum exhibits that included unreleased NES games and the Sony Playstation Super NES CD. The show was great, the people were great, everyone was happy, and good times were had all around.

Of course, a lot of the vendors were selling old games and consoles, and I’ve come to realize I’m almost completely over my game-collecting phase: with so much making the transition to digital, I’m more inclined to collect things where physicality is more important. Most of what I bought at the show was game-related merchandise, books, and crafts from local artists — I didn’t acquire any actual games. Not to hate on people who do collect games: I just find collecting things related to games more interesting in general than owning a whole roomful of titles for every console under the sun. (I’m more about acquiring and holding onto the games that really mean a lot to me.)

There was no shortage of merchandise at PRGE. Lots of cool stuff could be had from a variety of sellers, but I also saw a lot of random crap that left me scratching my head, pondering why it even existed. Do companies really believe we, as fans, are so lacking in taste that we’ll buy anything with a familiar game character on it, no matter how ugly or devoid of value? Well, um… yes. And the fact that this crap keeps getting made is proof that someone — many someones, in fact — are falling for it.

So today, on this most frightening of days, we’re going to be looking at some of the worst pieces of gaming-related merchandise out there. Truly spooooooky!

I didn’t want to make this too easy for myself, though, so I put some rules down for this feature.

  • No T-shirts. As painfully terrible as many gaming T-shirts are, I already ranted about them at length.
  • It has to be at least somewhat retro-flavored. There’s some really bad Fallout merch, I know,  but I’d like to keep this more focused on the commercial exploitation of nostalgia.
  • No Funko POPs. Fish, barrel, you know how it goes.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at some merchandise that’s so bad, it’s scaaaaaaaary! (…okay, I’ll stop)

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Artbook review: Sonic the Hedgehog 1991__2016 by Cook and Becker

Hey guys, did you hear the news? Ever since Sonic Mania, Sonic is good again! I mean, nevermind that Sonic Colors came out and is easily one of the best platform games of that generation, Sonic officially doesn’t suck now! Rejoice!

And what better way to celebrate the triumphant revival of one of gaming’s most beloved and enduring characters than with a lavish artbook by Amsterdam-based modern/digital art publisher Cook and Becker? Why, that sounds like exactly the sort of thing I’d love to put on my shelf!

So here it is, Sonic the Hedgehog 1991__2016, a book celebrating Sonic’s 25 anniversary and packed with art, development anecdotes, and rarely-seen concepts, all printed on that sort of expensive, glossy paper that makes you feel like you’re ruining the book with your filthy fingerprint oils if you even think about touching it with your bare hands. This is the standard edition, which runs $47 USD plus shipping (which, while I don’t recall the exact amount, wasn’t as exorbitant as I expected.) There’s also a limited edition that comes with a lithograph for $125, but I decided to get just the basic book: I have more than enough prints and posters right now.

So let’s get a move on and dive right in to this hefty book!

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Extra Credits: Youmais

Wow, has it really been a year since I wrote an absurd amount of text about Raimais? Well, I guess it’s time to finally get to the last bit that I’ve been putting off.

Ohhhh boy.

In 1988, the PC Engine’s base wasn’t quite there yet, the MegaDrive was on the cusp of launching, and the Super Famicom was still a ways off. However, the Famicom, and to a lesser extent the FDS, were going very strong. It made sense financially for companies to port their arcade games to the FC… even if the platform couldn’t do anything close to an accurate port.

There were several approaches taken to dealing with the FC’s lack of arcade horsepower. Some developers tried to port as much of the gameplay and graphics as they possibly could, aware that cuts and compromises were inevitable. Other developers took the arcade game as a base, but heavily rearranged and added things to the game to make for a similar — but different — experience. Finally, there were the ports that threw out everything except the concepts and characters, making completely different games that just happened to have the same title as popular arcade titles.

Taito was a big fan of option B. They did a lot of ports of arcade games to the Famicom Disk System that had notable, distinct differences from their arcade originals. Most folks are aware of Bubble Bobble and Kikikaikai’s FDS incarnations, but few are aware that Raimais got this treatment as well — probably because it’s under a different name: Youmais, or Yuu Maze if you go from a straight kanji/kana reading.

No, seriously, though — calling it Yuu Maze is a HUGE pet peeve of mine. It says Youmais right there on the menu, and it’s a Raimais reinterpretation! Have you people even heard of ateji?

Unfortunately, Yuu Maze is the title you’re more likely to find this game listed under in English, though I steadfastly refuse to use that. It’s Youmais or nothing, and I’m sticking to it. Fight me, nerds.

ANYWAY. Youmais is fundamentally similar to Raimais in its premise and underlying gameplay. There are numerous differences between the two titles, however, and I’ll get to those in more detail shortly. But the biggest difference is how aggressively mediocre Youmais is.

If you’re wondering why it’s taken me so long to write about this game, it’s because playing it feels like a genuine chore while knowing how much better Raimais is. I decided a few weeks ago I was finally going to suck it up and get this written, when suddenly, I was made aware of pure propaganda claiming Youmais is a mindblowing revelation on a FDS disk.

Well, as self-proclaimed Number One Biggest Raimais Fan On-Line, I can’t let that stand unchallenged, now can I? So come with me as we take a look at how Youmais compares to its big sister. (Spoilers: not well.)

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Interview: Akihiro Takanami/Hiroaki Fujimoto of h.a.n.d. and System Vision

I don’t know why, but I’ve always been strangely fascinated by Ragnagard. It feels like such an anomaly in the Neo Geo’s massive library of fighting games on numerous levels: the CG visuals, the slow-feeling gameplay, the focus on aerial combos. It’s the sort of game that I’ve felt a compulsion to research, to figure out just how it came into being.

I’m the sort of person who will delve into weird internet rabbit holes over the course of researching stuff and pursuing information, and sometimes that yields incredibly interesting results. One day, when I was out looking for things related to Ragnagard on Japanese sites, I came across a page that had a gorgeous illustration of the game’s main female lead, Benten. But that’s not all that was there: alongside it were numerous anecdotes written by someone who was clearly heavily involved in the game’s development. It turned out this site was run by one Powerudon, an accomplished artist in the game industry who had been one of the driving forces behind Ragnagard’s development.

Looking around his site yielded more interesting tidbits of info, particularly related to a Super Famicom fighting game called The Battle Master. It hadn’t hit me that this and Ragnagard were done by the same developer, as they have a dramatically different feel, but Powerudon had laid out a lot of details about the mechanics and development of these titles on their site — alongside some incredible artwork

I knew I had to talk with Powerudon. One of the reasons I created gaming.moe is to preserve elements of gaming history that might otherwise be lost to time, particularly the words and memories of the people behind games both well-known and obscure. I reached out to Powerudon for an interview, and he agreed, so I emailed him a batch of questions.

A while later, he sent me a massive text file containing replies to all of the questions I had sent. I had asked him to go into as much detail as possible, and he did just that — for which I’m extremely grateful, because he has some really interesting anecdotes and thoughts on game development. So sit back, grab a drink, and enjoy a lengthy interview about System Vision, Battle Master, Ragnagard, and the tumultuous environment of game development in the early/mid-90s.

Special thanks to Tom James and Jason Moses for translation assistance!

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Arkanoid vs. Space Invaders: The Epic Journey from F2P Hell

I think anyone who follows this site knows that I’m something of perfectionist: when I don’t have any editorial constraints, I’m the sort of person who will nitpick at something until it comes out just right. Sometimes, I feel like a piece is perfect almost from the get-go. Other times, well, it takes a while before I can mold a piece of writing into something I’m satisfied publishing. A lot of the stuff I cover here doesn’t see a lot of attention anywhere else, after all, and I want those folks who come here from a Google search on obscure gaming subjects to walk away feeling completely satisfied. So when I write a big ol’ piece about Raimais or MC Hammer’s video game influence or weird as hell Virtua Fighter OVAs, I want it to be really, really good.

So when Arkanoid vs. Space Invaders originally came and went as a Japanese-exclusive F2P mobile game, I wanted to write a lot about it. I would be the only person memorializing this odd little game chock-full of Taito fanservice in English, after all, and it would be my duty to preserve a little piece of gaming history most others would overlook. I’d done something similar for Bubblen March, another Taito F2P game that died suddenly months after I wrote about it, but in this case, I wanted to do it better.

Unfortunately, my perfectionistic tendencies kicked into overdrive, and while I poked away at it for months on end, I never really felt satisfied with the piece as a memorial. I was the sole person enshrining this game’s memory, dammit, I had to do the best job I could, and I would have rather not posted anything at all than posted something I wasn’t happy with.

But then a funny thing happened: out of nowhere, Arkanoid vs. Space Invaders was reborn as a global paid app on iOS and Android. For about $5, you can play the game with no further strings attached.

It was a weird relief: I didn’t have to hold myself responsible for preserving the game’s memory outside of Japan, because now it not only existed again, but was available in roughly a dozen different languages. It’s received a fair bit of word-of-mouth and good initial reception, too. However, I still think there’s something to be looked at here, since many of the people now playing the game didn’t have an opportunity to see how the game was transformed in its unlikely revival.

I think it’s finally time to sit down and talk about Arkanoid vs. Space Invaders.

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