Tag Archives: Animation

Cuphead Review

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By now, you’ve heard the praise, the fervor, and the cries of sore losers everywhere. But the hype for this one really is deserved. Cuphead is a magnificent blend of gameplay taken from Contra, Gradius, and even some Mega Man for good measure. And while many games have done so, Cuphead is one of the ones that stands out from the crowd. If you haven’t already bought, and downloaded this game to your Xbox One or Computer you really ought to. But if you need more details before doing so, read on.

PROS: Amazing animation. Wonderful music. Spot on controls. Tough, but fair challenge.

CONS: Some bugs keep it just shy of perfection.

GENERATIONS: The animation on display will even amaze your Great Grandparents.

Cuphead is the result of a couple of high-risk takers. Studio MDHR started out with a vision: An action game that truly feels like playing a late 1930’s cartoon. Early on they discovered that making that vision a reality was going to be far more time-consuming, and expensive than originally thought. They ended up quitting their jobs, and re-mortgaging their homes just to be able to bring this title to market.

My hope is that this risk has paid off. Because the finished product is nothing short of amazing. Cuphead very likely has the best animation of any video game ever made thus far. Studio MDHR painstakingly made every background in the game by matte painting it. Every frame of animation was hand drawn on a cell before being scanned into a computer to be inked, and colored. As a result the game delivers on the core promise of looking, and feeling like a 1930’s animated short. The character designs are breathtaking. All of the hallmarks of vintage cartoons are here. The angled pupils, exaggerated movement, and pretty much everything you can recall from old Popeye, and Betty Boop serials are here.

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Studio MDHR even went as far as hiring an actual big band jazz ensemble to write, and perform the score for Cuphead. So not only does it look like an 80-year-old cartoon, it also sounds like an 80-year-old cartoon. Just seeing the game in action alone would be worth the price of admission. There is such a wealth of talent on display through the entire game that it’s honestly something that has to be experienced. In the realm of audio, and visual experiences Cuphead is nearly in a class all by itself.

But what about the game play? Well, it’s a fairly solid, and enjoyable experience. The game starts out with a very clever tutorial, and a classic story book introduction. Cuphead, and his brother Mugman go against their guardian’s wishes when they visit a casino. Unfortunately, the Casino is owned by the Devil, and he rigs the game at the Craps table to claim the souls of our heroes. But they plead for their lives so he tells them he’ll forgive their debt if they go get the soul contracts of the others in the town.

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So that’s the set up for just why Cuphead, and Mugman are off on their adventure. The game places you on an overhead view of a map, where you move the characters around, and choose a stage, or talk to an NPC. There are three maps, and you’ll need to complete every stage to move onto the next one. Each map also has a shop in it where you can use coins to upgrade your abilities. There are three main types of stage on display here. You’ll have Run n’ Gun stages. These play like you’d expect, taking homage from games like Contra, and Metal Slug. So you’ll have to fire where you’re going. You can’t shoot backwards while moving forward. The game play is not a twin stick style, rather a more traditional one. In these stages you’ll find the aforementioned coins. So you’ll certainly need to play these if you want any hope of buffing up your character.

Some of the items in the shops will give you a new style of weapon, or extra hits on your health meter. But any item you choose will have a side effect to balance things out. For instance, buying extra health comes at the cost of weakening your attacks slightly. But there are a wide variety of things to check out here. So you can swap out items for others after you’ve paid for them, and see what load out works best for you.

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There are shmup levels too, these generally play like the third type of stage I’ll get to in a moment. The difference being here, you’ll be piloting a plane, and fighting a multifaceted battle against a boss character. With the shmup mechanics here, the game feels a lot more like the memorable moments in old horizontal shooters like Thunder Force III, R-Type, Gradius, or Life Force rather than the more contemporary bullet hell shooter. Just because there aren’t zillions of things to avoid doesn’t mean there isn’t anything to avoid. These encounters throw plenty enough at you, and you’ll have to memorize attack patterns to survive. You can also shrink your plane so if you get into a situation you don’t think is avoidable, it may just be your ace in the hole.

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Finally, there are the Boss stages. In these you’ll use the Run n’ Gun mechanics in a multifaceted battle against a boss character. These fights feel closer to the classic NES Mega Man boss fights. than the ones in the old Run n’ Guns. One boss in particular will give you memories of storming Dr. Wily’s castle in Mega Man II. All of these bosses however will require you to learn patterns, and expert timing to get through them in one piece. Since most of the stages in the game are Boss stages you can expect to lose many, many times when you first attempt them.

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There are also a couple of side challenges where you’ll free ghosts by parrying other ghosts. You should honestly do these because the parry is a mechanic Cuphead uses to beef up your super meter. When you fill up the meter you can do a very devastating attack which is especially handy in boss battles. Anything colored pink in the game can be parried, and these challenges are the perfect way to master this mechanic.

Most of the stages in the game have an easy mode in addition to a regular tough as nails mode. You’ll need to beat the harder difficulty on bosses to get the contracts, needed to finish the story. But playing the stages on Easy will let you progress, and see what future stages have to offer. You can also go back to any stage you beat previously to replay it. Cuphead definitely has a high level of challenge. But the challenge is generally very fair. You’ll die hundreds of times over. But upon your expletive laden loss you’ll understand that your last death was your own fault. You jumped when you meant to shoot. Or you didn’t plan for a moving platform properly. Or you weren’t patient enough. Or you panicked, and walked into that projectile.

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Cuphead isn’t impossible though. Those who absolutely love old platformers, shmups, and classic action games from the days of Atari, Sega, Nintendo, and Commodore platforms will likely pick things up a bit faster. But that doesn’t mean someone newer to this type of experience cannot persevere. It’s the kind of game that requires patience, and practice to excel in. For some players it may take more time, and patience than others. But everything in the game is so captivating it’s worth checking out.

There are a couple of very minor issues I have with the game though. The most alarming are a few rare bugs. Admittedly these are rare, and in time they’ll probably be fixed. But they’re still a nuisance when they happen. One of them will glitch a low-level enemies’ health to a point it takes no damage. When this happens you can try to just skip past it. But that might mean you take damage in the process, and impede your ability to clear the level. Exiting the stage, and re-entering it usually fixes it in the interim, but that is also a nuisance. The other bug I’ve run into is an inexplicable performance hit, where the game will suddenly drop frames, and run ridiculously choppy for around 60 seconds before going back to normal. It’s especially annoying in boss fights. Closing the game, and re-starting the application again, fixes it in the interim. But it can be pretty annoying. I also wish there could have been a few more action stages over boss rush stages to add to the variety.

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Nevertheless, I can wholeheartedly recommend Cuphead to just about anybody who is even remotely interested in it. The animation, and soundtrack alone are worth the price of admission. Even for all of the complaints some may have with the level of challenge, the experience easily overshadows that. This is a game that is a wonder to behold. And while old-school arcade challenge may not be your Cuphead of tea, (I know, that’s a terrible joke.) Cuphead is still one of the most entertaining experiences you’ll likely have this year. If you relish a challenge, and love classic cartoons you should buy this for your computer or Xbox One if you haven’t already. You may want to look into this game even if you normally don’t care for this sort of fare. The amount of talent, and dedication on display is nothing short of captivating.

Here’s hoping Cuphead was a successful enough endeavor for a follow-up, or another game using the same wonderful artists, and animators. I know I’ve repeated myself a lot in this review, and I probably sound a bit redundant. But win or lose, Cuphead is one experience you just may want to roll the dice on. (I think I did better on that one.)

Final Score: 9 out of 10

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Cartoon Network Punch Time Explosion XL Review

Say that title five times fast!

Anyway, as we all know, knockoffs are nothing new. We see them in everything. Everyday household items. Appliances, and of course creative media. Including obviously, video games. Over the last thirty or more years we’ve seen Pac-Man clones. Space Invaders clones. Super Mario Brothers clones. Street Fighter clones. Doom clones. Basically, one could spend a lifetime talking about the concept alone before even getting to the examples. Some of which I’ve already reviewed. Many knockoffs aren’t worth a second thought. But as Mortal Kombat, Saints Row, and others have taught us, sometimes they are. Taking a proven formula, and putting their own spin on it.

PROS: Nice graphics. Decent mechanics. Controls well.

CONS: Saves can’t be brought to another system. Unbalanced.

CAPTAIN PLANET: He’s our hero! Going to take pollution, down to zero!

Cartoon Network Punch Time Explosion XL does just that. This time the target is Super Smash Bros. The SSB series looks like it can easily be copied at face value. The core concept of keeping combatants off of your hill or out of your ring seems simple. You have a cast of characters who are unique, yet share a simplified movement set.

Moving beyond that, Smash has also employed campaigns in past games. Such as Melee’s Adventure Mode, or Brawl’s Subspace Emissary Mode. Smash has a ton of different items you could add in for random fun. Or assist trophies, that enable NPCs to help you win. Nintendo’s series even has a lot of individual mini game challenges throughout the series from target smashing, to sandbag beating. All with mechanics that hyper-competitive players find quite deep. Today, the series has hardcore fans, and countless tournaments where the best players win enough cash to live on. It’s one of the most watched series on Twitch. Its reputation has reached the heights of games like Street Fighter, and Tekken.

To say that CNPTEXL has some lofty goals is an understatement. Does it get anywhere near the pedigree of Nintendo’s mascot party fighter? No. But is it a bad game? Shockingly, the answer is also no. This game takes Nintendo’s approach to mascots, and applies it to Time Warner’s Cartoon Network. The game was published  a bit before the channel’s power houses Adventure Time, and Regular Show. So you won’t be playing as Benson or throwing down with Finn. However the game’s roster does go pretty far back to the channels early days. Dexter’s Lab, The Power Puff Girls, Samurai Jack, and Johnny Bravo all make appearances with many of their characters. Some of the later hits like Ben 10 & The Grim Adventures of Billy, and Mandy are here. And even some of the lesser known shows are represented.

The game has a campaign mode in the vein of Super Smash Bros. Brawl’s Subspace Emissary mode. The story is told by a narrator (Voiced by Space Ghost’s George Lowe), which follows the convergence of all of Cartoon Network’s shows. This follows a formula similar to Brawl’s. You will go through side scrolling platformer stages with brawler elements. Depending on the stage, you can use a certain number of characters. When you get to the end of the campaign it is revealed that the narrator’s TV remote has gone rogue, and is responsible for the merging of the realities. Of course, this remote is the final boss.

Along the way you’ll also unlock characters for you to use in the other mode. Again, much like the Subspace Emissary. The difference is that you use currency to do it. CNPTEXL has a Store option where you will find not only the bonus characters, but stages, alternate costumes, and clips from the various Cartoon Network shows. Clearing the game or playing enough in the other modes will give you points that can be used to unlock them. Once unlocked, the characters, and stages can be used in the Story mode or the Battle mode. There is a vault where the unlocked clips can be viewed, along with the character models. It works kind of like a cut down version of Smash’s trophy room. You can get info on the characters, what shows they belong to, and their original appearances. It isn’t nearly as deep as what you will find in Nintendo’s games, but it still gives you something to look forward to if you are a fan of the CN shows. The clips are DVD quality, and most of the clips are from some of the better shows’ moments.

 

The meat of the game is in its multiplayer. Battle mode is up to four players, and also allows you to use a variety of controllers. If you’re playing the Wii version you can use the Wiimote, and Nunchuck. Or you can opt for either a Classic Controller or a Gamecube Controller. As I’ve mentioned before, the core concept of CNPTEXL is the same as the Nintendo franchise it cribs from. Each of the game’s 26 stages will see players trying to keep each other off of the arena. You do this by attacking one another, to build up damage. The more damage you take, the farther you are knocked back with each successful hit. Each stage has a knockout zone around it. Going beyond it, or being unable to otherwise make it back to the arena results in a death.

The object of course is to be the last one with any lives left. The game plays as one would expect. There is a primary attack button, a special move button, a shield button, and a button for your finishers. Each of the main three buttons can be combined with directions. So as in Smash, you can get different moves based upon what direction is used with each. It also has smash attacks of its own. So pressing a direction with the attack button at the same time will dish out more knock back. The shield also allows you to roll out-of-the-way, and perform parries as in Smash. Many of the tactics employed in Smash like edge guarding can also work here. Even holding the shield for too long will break it, leaving you open to punishment. The finisher button is novel too in that you don’t have to chase down a smash ball. The one thing this game does to carve itself out a niche is  the use of a gem system. Beating up on your opponent will cause them to drop gems. Collect enough of them, and you can use your finisher. Most of the finishers are pretty cool, and have anime inspired animations leading up to the attack.

In addition to the primary battle mode, there are a handful of variants. Choosing a custom match is similar to the way custom matches in Smash games work. You can turn assist trophies on or off, set the frequency of items, and set the time limit or number of lives. It does not let you go over each individual item however.  Beyond the custom mode, there is a mode called Drones where the game will throw a bunch of NPC enemies into the match. Instead of scoring you on stock or knockouts, it instead scores you on whoever defeated the most computer controlled combatants.

There is also a variant called PTE mode, where you collect energy orbs. Think of it like the coin mode in the Smash series. Finally, there’s the arcade mode. This plays like the arcade mode in Smash. The game puts you in a ladder, against other combatants, and you’ll get a different ending for each character you beat the mode with.

As far as the look, and sound of the game go, the visuals are pretty nice, while the sound isn’t. All of the characters models look pretty good considering Papaya’s probable budget constraints. Backgrounds aren’t very detailed. Muddy textures cover most of the background objects, and small details are lost in the shuffle. Although one has to be impressed with some of the destruction, and transition that goes on in certain stages. Again, the finishing moves are actually pretty impressive. Especially if you’re a fan of some of these old shows. Audio is lackluster however. Aside from the voice samples, and quality during the unlockable clips, there isn’t much to recommend. Music isn’t all that memorable, and none of the effects will really wow you.

Despite all of the similarities with Nintendo’s games it still doesn’t hold a candle to Super Smash Bros. That’s the biggest trouble with Cartoon Network Punch Time Explosion XL. The roster isn’t as large, and as great as many of these shows were, it simply isn’t as fun to pick up Johnny Bravo, as it is to pick up Donkey Kong. What’s worse is that the roster you do get isn’t really all that balanced. There are a handful of characters you’ll stick with if you do decide to play this with friends even remotely regularly. While every fighting game ends up with one or two characters that have more versatility, the best fighters still make everyone viable. This game really doesn’t. It was clearly made to be a Smash clone for people on a budget. Or at least for Cartoon Network fans who couldn’t get enough Smash-like experiences. Unfortunately while it does succeed on those merits, it won’t succeed in keeping you away from Nintendo’s franchise for very long. The fact you can’t unlock everything on your own, and bring it to a friend’s is disheartening too. Especially since, at least on the Wii, you can back up your save file to an SD card.

Still, if you do like some of these classic cartoons, you might want to check the game out anyway. It is by no means a terrible game, and it is a fun ride as far as licensed games go. But you aren’t going to drop Super Smash Bros. for this. Nor are you going to fool yourself into thinking you’re playing Super Smash Bros. if you pick it up on the Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3.  It’s average. But sometimes that’s enough.

Final Score: 6 out of 10

 

ConnectiCon 2014 recap

Every year in Hartford, ConnectiCon comes around.

This year was packed with a large amount of guests, activities, and panels. So many in fact, that it was impossible to see everything between the variety, and overlap. Still, I just like to recap my convention experiences. I always have a lot of fun,  getting to go to panels, talking with other fans, and taking in a really great meal.

Some of the highlights for me over the weekend began almost immediately upon arrival. One of the first events I attended was an Epic Rap Battles Of History event. Some of the most notable episodes were played on a screen. After each one of them the hosts of the event, and the fans in attendance debated which characters won. Historical Accuracy, the number of good insults, rhythmic flow, were all factors in picking a winner.

A large number of attendees loved the He-Man costume I roamed about the convention center in. I probably stopped every 15 minutes or so, so that someone could take a snapshot. It was more over than my Dr. Insano cosplay from last year, and that had gone very well. But there were far many more impressive costumes than mine.

One of the best moments was when Alan Oppenheimer’s booth assistant saw me coming down the aisle. Then proceeded to put her head face down on her arm on top of her table, and laugh. But both Mr. Oppenheimer, and his assistant were very kind, hospitable, and friendly.  Of course Masters Of The Universe was a huge part of my childhood.  So meeting the guy who provided the voices of many of its most iconic characters like Man At Arms, and Skeletor was a really awesome moment for me.

I also got to see Alan Oppenheimer, and Noah Hathaway talk about their time working together on The Never Ending Story, and other projects in a panel together. Like many of the various panels I attended it was pretty informative. Noah talked in-depth about how the scene where Artax dies in a swamp was done, taking several shoots on  a giant sound stage. The stage had a lowering platform for the horse to simulate sinking, and was covered in mud. The set designers also brought in the trees, and other props for the scene.

He also talked about leaving, and returning to acting, as well as the fun of nitpicking movies. Alan also talked a lot about voice acting, and the importance of being able to visualize a voice for a character. He also talked about using traditional acting techniques in voice acting. Notably, how much of acting is actually listening to the other performers in any given scene.

Like last year’s ConnectiCon, Doug Walker was in three panels. Doug is best known for his long running Nostalgia Critic web show. The first panel was on Friday, and it focused on how to better debate movies with other people by listening. The set up, was that each of the attendees in line would bring up a movie they loved that the internet at large seemed to hate, or vice versa, and why. The point of the exercise was to show how much you could learn about someone in just hearing why they did or didn’t like a movie. It also made for the argument that you can have a strong opinion about a film, and still remember that that’s ultimately what it is:  An opinion. Often times we can forget that when we talk about pop culture. We may have all of the evidence in the world that a movie is bad, and justify our opinion. But someone else is going to like it anyway, and it doesn’t make them terrible for doing so. In fact, really listening to someone’s opposing point of view may bring out some interesting things you may not have considered.

Doug was also part of a web series roundtable panel with Marble Hornets, internet comedian Uncle Yo, and Signal Crash. This Q&A session was geared more toward production of content. Advice was given to creative people in attendance. What kinds of techniques to use in any given craft. What avenues to take in furthering a goal. But there was also the rather frank theme of doing what one loves because they love to do it above all else. Not only from Doug Walker, but from all of the members of the panel. It was an encouraging panel that acknowledged challenges, acknowledged that there will be rejections, and failures. But it also left a theme of persistence, and sense of pride in whatever our passions are. Whether we ever get to do them professionally or not.

Of course there was also the That Guy With The Glasses panel in which Doug, and Rob Walker fielded questions of all kinds. As in the roundtable, some of the questions were about production, promotion, and professionally furthering one’s creative output into a business. Others were about the content of the TGWTG flagship series. Then there were other moments that came out of left field. One fan brought in a script, and wanted the Walkers to produce. They couldn’t do that, but they did recite the first page in the voices of Chester A. Bum, and Jeff Goldblum. At one point during the panel the Nostalgia Chick herself; Lindsay Ellis showed up with the rest of Chez Apocalypse. Posing as a con goer, Lindsay asked Doug when Nella (of Chez Apocalypse) would be getting top billing in lieu of the Nostalgia Chick. Fans cheered as Lindsay, Nella, and Elisa would celebrate the run in during their exit.

 

Chez Apocalypse were also part of another panel with other internet media creators including members of Steam Funk Studios, and Overclock Remix. Similar to some of the other panels, it was a Q&A session filled with some insight into the guests’ creative processes, how they keep things fresh, and how they handle criticism. There was also a lot of advice given to the audience at hand. The biggest piece being perseverance. Being able to see where one began, and the level of improvement over time as a driver to keep going.

Actor Walter Jones was also at ConnectiCon. Most know him as the Black Ranger from the original Mighty Morphin Power Rangers show. He talked about his life growing up in Detroit, Michigan. His early days working as an entertainer on cruise ships, and of course his time on Power Rangers. He joked about how difficult the helmets were to see out of at times. He described some of the impressive stunts he did during shoots only to have parts lost during edits. He was also asked if he had seen himself as a role model for African-American children by someone in attendance. He told the audience that he saw himself as a role model for all of the children watching the show, and that nobody in the cast risked doing anything to jeopardize that. When asked if he would ever return to Power Rangers, he said it would be an option provided it would be backed by The Writers Guild Of America. The original show wasn’t, and it was the main reason he left after the Mighty Morphin era of the series ended. Another person asked if he still talks with the rest of the cast, and he replied that he did from time to time when schedules line up. He added that he actually knows some of the cast members from other iterations of the series.  It was an intriguing panel even if you weren’t a Power Rangers fan.

I also found my way into a Cosplay Court event during the convention. Hosted by Steam Funk, it played a lot like a small claims court show like The People’s Court. The spin on it was that everyone in the room had to play in their cosplay character. Audience members were chosen for the character on trial, prosecution, defense, and even the witnesses. In one case I was called to the stand as He-Man, and was cross-examined by a cosplayer who was The Mad Hatter from American McGee’s Alice.  In one case a Mario cosplayer was on trial for the extermination of the Koopa race, as well as the Mushroom Kingdom’s citizens. Another case was against Frozen’s Elsa, and of course there were many Disney themed cosplayers involved. Including a pretty good Ursula of The Little Mermaid fame.

Voice actors Maurice La Marche, and Rob Paulsen also had two events. I managed to get into the second one. It was a Pinky & The Brain Q&A, and it was certainly one of the highlights of the convention for me. Nearly the entire session was done in character. Both actors talked about many of the shows they’ve done over the years, in addition to a lot of the cartoons that inspired them. There were some zany moments too. One member of the audience wanted Maurice to determine if a photo of his daughter looked more like him or his ex-wife. There was another point when someone had asked P&B which fan was the worst they had experienced. Maurice pointed into the front of the crowd saying “That guy right there.” to which the crowd erupted in laughter as it was revealed to be Doug Walker. Doug  pretended to fail to be conspicuous while walking to an exit that turned out to be a hall filled with chairs. He then sheepishly walked back to his chair. Later in the panel, the two actors actually listed Doug in a list of some of the most pleasant entertainers they’ve known over the years. A list that included names like Jon Lovitz, and Steven Spielberg.

I was also lucky enough to catch a Voice Actor roundtable near the end of the final day of the convention. Lauren Landa, (Dead or Alive 5, Attack On Titan) Danielle McRae (League Of Legends, Skullgirls), Chris Cason (Dragonball Z), Brittany Lauda (Prince Adventures) were on hand to make for a nice sendoff. All of the guests were laid back, very friendly, and were funny. As with all of the previous panels fans asked the panelists what some of their favorite works were. What some of their dream roles would be, and some of the things voice acting entails.

Speaking of interesting people, I do want to give a shout out to Jenisaur, a blogger who introduced herself to me at the convention. She writes over at  http://www.sub-cultured.com/ about all kinds of things. Comics. Conventions. Novels. You name it. If it sounds interesting to you, check it out.

There were a lot of other panels, and events I missed that I would have loved to have seen. But you can only get out to so many over the three days. I would have loved to have made it out to the Jennifer Hale panel. She has done so many interesting video game, and animated television roles over the years.  I also missed seeing Ellen McLain, the voice of GLaDOS from the Portal series.  Her husband John Patrick Lowrie was there with her, and he’s done voice work for Half-Life 2. Hearing a bit about voice work for Valve would have really been a blast for me, and sadly I had to miss them. TV’s Diedrich Bader was there too. I also had to miss his panel. I did get to see him for a split second roaming the dealer’s room, and shared a very brief “Hello”.  I loved seeing him on The Drew Carey Show back in the day, and his role in Office Space was pretty great. Apparently he has done a myriad of cameos, and voice work that I never knew about. Alas, another interesting panel I missed out on. Others I missed? TeamFourStar was there. There was a Cards Against Humanity panel. There’s just so much to do, and so little time.

But I suppose that’s a testament to just how much there is to do every year. Cosplay death match, creative workshops, heavily discounted movies at the theatre across the street. Video game tournaments. Table top game tournaments. Japanese import rhythm arcade machines. Swag. Obviously the panels. It really is a great time, and I love it when I attend it. I can’t wait to see what next year brings. Plus there’s always City Steam Innocence IPA waiting for me a mere two blocks away.