Author Archives: lewispackwood

About lewispackwood

The first game that Lewis ever played was "Horace Goes Skiing" on the ZX Spectrum. Yes, he's that old.

The magical video game art of Oliver Frey

The Fantasy Art of Oliver FreyI was browsing through a book shop the other day when I came across a volume that got my nostalgia glands throbbing from just one look at its cover. The Fantasy Art of Oliver Frey is a celebration of the artwork of one of the most famous individuals in the eighties computing scene, and I found myself rushing to the counter to purchase it in less time than it takes to boot a Commodore 64.

Oli Frey painted numerous covers for eighties computing magazines, including Crash and Zzzap!64, and I remember the excitement of seeing his artwork on newsagents shelves, hinting at the possibilities of what delights the games inside would hold. Frequently, of course, the artwork was much more exciting than the games themselves, but Oli’s covers showcased the enticing hidden world to be found in games, something intoxicating to a wide-eyed youngster.

Oliver Frey Amstrad CPC

Looking back at the above picture of giant Amstrad CPCs descending on an unknown planet, the disconnect between weedy eighties computers and a display of awesome power seems ludicrous. But I lapped up images like these at the time – they reflected my own excitement and the feeling that we gamers were at the cutting edge of technology. Even if it was an Amstrad.

Oliver Frey Crash Number 1Oli Frey’s most famous picture is probably this one – the cover of Crash issue one, in which a terrifying alien has Space Invaders for eyes. It didn’t really have anything to do with what was inside the magazine, it was just meant to be an exciting image that was vaguely game-related. This was a surprisingly common theme in early games magazines – often the cover wouldn’t necessarily relate directly to the content.

Oliver Frey King KongHere’s another famous Crash cover of King Kong munching on a Spectrum. Again, there was nothing about King Kong in the magazine, Oli just wanted to create a cool image. And I think you’ll agree he succeeded.

Oliver Frey ChristmasI love Oli’s detailed paintings for Christmas specials, which usually featured the magazine’s editorial team. A few years back, Retro Gamer commissioned Oli to paint a similar Christmas-themed cover for their magazine, and I believe he’s done a few of them since.

Oliver Frey LemmingsThis is one of my favourite of Oli’s paintings – his idea of what a realistic Lemmings would be like if it featured people. I think this image appeared on a SEGA magazine in the late eighties. I love the use of perspective, but it also captures what appealed to me about Oli’s work – there’s a dark undercurrent that made video games seem dangerous, forbidden and exciting, even if they were mostly blocky pixels shuffling around on a black screen.

It’s a shame the hand-painted magazine cover has died out: they’re so much more distinctive than highly polished modern covers. Hand-painted covers were still fairly common well into the nineties, and I remember TOTAL! used them quite often, but they gradually disappeared as digital artwork became easier to create.

Oliver Frey is still making art, and you can order some of his iconic images via his website: http://www.oliverfreyart.com/. I’d also recommend ordering The Fantasy Art of Oliver Frey if you have any love for retro gaming, it really is a wonderful trip down memory lane.

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From The Armchair: Love Hurts in Mass Effect

ArmchairWhat ho, chums!

It’s been fairly quiet in the gaming world over the past couple of weeks, no doubt because everyone is holding back announcements for the upcoming annual mayhem of E3 on 10th June. Add in the fact that I’ve been journeying around the untamed wilds of Scotland for the past few days, and it means that there is likewise little for me to report on the domestic gaming front. Although I can confirm that Scotland is very, very cold. Beautiful, but cold.

However, I did eventually manage to finish Gargoyle’s Quest after much gnashing of teeth and frustrating restarts, and I’m pleased to say it turned out to be a lot of fun after the initial shock at how difficult games used to be. I’ve also made a bit of headway on Castlevania, although that game is astonishingly hard even by retro standards – god knows how anyone ever finished it without a save game system. It is strangely addictive though – despite having my posterior handed to me on a regular basis by Frankenstein’s monster, I still find myself drawn back to the game like an addict to the needle.

Link: charming

Link: charming

I also treated myself to The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds: I’ve barely dipped my toe into the pastel-coloured waters of Hyrule, but it charmed me completely from the start. My face was set with a dreamy grin as I guided Link on his quest, quite different from the determined grimace that is a permanent fixture during my battles with Castlevania.

It’s actually been a bit of a games-buying bonanza over the past few weeks after months of abstinence: I’m eagerly awaiting my pre-ordered copy of Mario Kart 8, and I bought Halo 4 in order to finally get up to date with the series and continue my quest to finish all of the Halo games in coop with my good friend Mr Sutton. I’ve also been sorely tempted by Wolfenstein: The New Order and Watch Dogs, although I managed to resist the devil’s subtle whisperings of enticement in the end. But should I eventually succumb, it’s likely that I will be hurling my shilling in the direction of Wolfenstein rather than Watch Dogs: hunting ludicrous sci-fi Nazis is more up my street than GTA with mobile phones.

I did, however, hunt down and buy Mass Effect 3, such is my eager anticipation to see this series through to its conclusion. I’m currently hovering at around the 35-hour mark in Mass Effect 2, and I’m utterly enchanted by it: any of my spare time, of which there is sadly little, has been funnelled in the direction of this frankly quite remarkable game, which deservedly made it into the top five of our Most Agreeable Games of the Generation.

The difference between Mass Effect 2 and its prequel is astonishing: as I said in my review, the first game has a great story but is fatally flawed by repetitive sidequests and dull exploration. Yet the sequel manages to fix pretty much every single flaw in the original, and the satisfying complexity of the game world makes it a joy to seek out quests and study the lore of the Mass Effect universe.

However, I’ve spent most of my time recently trying to cop off with members of the crew.

Miranda: annoying

Miranda: annoying

‘Romance’ in Mass Effect is almost like a metagame in itself. The fact that your relationships from the previous game carry over into the sequel is a genius idea, and it adds weight to your awkward flirtations when you know that your decisions will carry over to the next game. Miranda is currently in a huff with me after I took Jack’s side in an argument, but I’m not particularly bothered as she’s frankly irritating (I’m sure I can’t be alone in thinking that). To be honest though, I’m surprised there hasn’t been an option to bed Jacob, such is the sexual tension whenever my male Shephard sidles into his quarters for a chat and leans suggestively against the desk.

All of this soap opera posturing is highly entertaining, but the depth of the game still amazes me: at numerous points you’re offered decisions that cause the game to continue in radically different ways, and it’s perhaps the only game I’ve played since Fallout 3 that offers such varied ways to continue the story. This will mean nothing to people who haven’t played the game, but I just found out that there’s even an option to recruit Morinth and see that relationship through to its inevitable conclusion. In that case, love really would hurt.

All of these choices, all of these consequences – I’m already contemplating a second playthrough to see how things might have worked out differently. At this rate, and with Mass Effect 3 waiting in the wings, I won’t need to buy any new games for at least another year.

Toodle-pip for now!

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From The Armchair: So Long, Kinect

ArmchairWhat ho, chums.

Well, what an exciting week it’s been in the world o’ gaming. For a start it’s been an absolute rollercoaster ride for Nintendo: first they announced another loss on the back of dismal Wii U sales, then everyone got excited about the reveal of Skylanders-style figurines based on Mario and his ilk, then it all went horribly tits up when Nintendo of America decided to retreat into the 1970s in regards to gay relationships in Tomodachi Life (a story that even made BBC News, and which I intend to explore a bit further in a later post) and, finally, the company ended the week with a bit of good news thanks to the ecstatic reviews of Mario Kart 8 (which even got a rare perfect 10 from Eurogamer). Phew, what a time to be alive.

But despite all of the excitement in the Nintendo camp, it’s been overshadowed by Microsoft’s momentous decision to ditch Kinect for Xbox One. Only a few weeks ago, Microsoft executives had been doggedly insisting that Kinect was an ‘integral’ part of Xbox One. It turns out that when they said ‘integral’, they actually meant ‘disposable’.

It’s probably a good decision to ditch the unloved peripheral. Kinect has been around for four years now, but the initial excitement around it died off almost immediately – rapid sales gave way to general apathy within a short while, and in its four years of existence, no-one seems to have come up with a way of taking full advantage of its motion-tracking abilities. The idea of including Kinect with every Xbox One was good on paper, since it meant that game designers were more likely to build its functionality into their games, and it also acted as a key differentiator that set the Xbox One apart from its rivals. But now we’re well into the first year of the console’s life, and the Kinect-enabled games released so far range from the rubbish to the utterly abysmal; even worse, there’s no sign of any decent Kinect-powered games on the horizon. It’s hard not see Kinect as an expensive white elephant rather than the key distinguisher Microsoft hoped it would be.

Some defended the system on the basis that Kinect voice commands make it easy to navigate the Xbox One menu system. But others point out that just designing a less-confusing operating system in the first place would negate the need to use Kinect when navigating it. And is it really worth diverting 10% of the Xbox One’s graphical power to running Kinect when that juice could be used to make prettier games?

But Kinect is likely to come into its own when it comes to VR. Microsoft have been quiet on possible VR developments, but I suspect they might unveil something along these lines at the upcoming E3 conference. If they do reveal a VR peripheral, Kinect will be a key part of it. Although as I’ve said before, VR is only likely to appeal to a limited set of gamers, so it’s the right decision to make Kinect optional rather than compulsory, if only to bring down the eye-watering price of Xbox One.

It’s tempting to draw comparisons between Nintendo and Microsoft when it comes to expensive peripherals. The Wii U’s gamepad adds considerably to the cost of the console and, like Kinect, it’s been poorly implemented into most games (although unlike Kinect, it’s also had its triumphs). Indeed, it might be in Nintendo’s interest to release a Wii U without the gamepad in order to reduce the cost and improve flagging sales. But whereas I feel sorry for Nintendo’s financial plight, I struggle to feel anything but cynicism towards Microsoft: the initial reveal of an always-online, secondhand-game-restricted, TV-focused Xbox One smacked of misguided intentions at best and bare-faced greed at worst. And the ever-watching Kinect eye was a terrifying concept from the start.

Perhaps the key difference between Nintendo and Microsoft is one of trust. Microsoft has steadily eroded my trust through a litany of poor decisions, from charging me to watch Netflix on Xbox 360 to unleashing Windows 8 on an unsuspecting world. When Nintendo struggled to produce enough games for the Wii U, Nintendo president Satoru Iwata publicly apologised. When Microsoft back-tracked on yet another design decision by removing Kinect, they fired up the obfuscating PR cannon yet again to bombard us with marketing bumpf. And let’s not even get started on #dealwithit.

I trust Nintendo. But I wouldn’t leave my family alone in a room with Microsoft.

Bye-bye baby, bye-bye.

Bye-bye baby, bye-bye.

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From The Armchair: Old Skool Gaming

ArmchairWhat ho, chums.

Last week I found myself in the unusual position of having nothing to play on my Nintendo 3DS. Considering the tottering (although diminishing) pile of unplayed games on The Mantelpiece, this was an almost unprecedented situation. But yet there I was, Saturday morning stretching ahead of me like a great shoe with its lights on, nothing but a lazy morning in bed planned, and no games to play on my 3DS.

Some of you may at this point be suggesting that I should have instead gotten up and gone out for a walk. Or perhaps learned a foreign language. Indeed, I could have simply read an edifying book. But fie! I wanted to play a VIDEO GAME, goddamn you, and I went about exercising my rights as a free Englishman in pursuit of my chosen pastime.

So, to the eShop. Ever since Sir Gaulian’s excellently nostalgic post about the ludicrously audacious advertising for Capcom’s Gargoyle’s Quest – “Graphics so real you’ll forget it’s only a game” – I’ve been meaning to play said game to put this bold claim to the test. I remember when Gargoyle’s Quest came out, back in 1891, when I was but a wee nipper and Nintendo’s Game Boy had only just found its way to Albion’s fair shores. I recall it received excellent reviews, and the game remained on my ‘To Buy’ list for years, but I never did save up enough pocket money. Now that I am comfortably in my 30s, my pocket money has been upped considerably, and I’ll admit it was eminently satisfying to make my childhood aspiration a reality. Following a virtual swipe of the credit card, Gargoyle’s Quest was mine at last, after a wait of only 23 years.

Gargoyle's Quest, mine at long last.

Gargoyle’s Quest, mine at long last.

Emboldened by my purchase, I quickly snapped up 1888’s Castlevania too. Back in the early 90s, I had a rude introduction to the Castlevania series in the form of Castlevania: The Adventure for the Game Boy, which is widely regarded to be the worst Castlevania game ever made. I wasn’t to know that at the time, however, and this sluggish shambles of a game put me off the series for the next decade. Thankfully, I finally warmed to Castlevania through, of all things, the stripped-down mobile version of Aria of Sorrow that I bought for my crumbly old Sony Ericsson phone several years ago, and since then I’ve hankered to play through the series from the very beginning.

Purchases made, I settled back to enjoy a relaxed morning of warm gaming nostalgia. Which was soon interrupted by the sound of prodigious and increasingly amplified swearing.

“What the f**k? Dead again?”

“Motherf**king bat spider!!!”

“You must be f**king kidding me, I have to restart all the way back there?!?”

“F**KING BAT SPIDER!”

And so on, and so forth. Dear me, games used to be hard in the old days, didn’t they? I stopped counting after my fifteenth failed attempt to get through the first level of Gargoyle’s Quest. Yes, THE FIRST LEVEL. I’ll admit that my reflexes may have withered somewhat over the years, but they certainly haven’t withered that much – it’s an undeniable fact that games were rock hard back in the early days.

The complaint that modern games are too easy is an oft-repeated one. But I for one am grateful that we no longer have to put up with restart points that are spaced so far apart you’d need a telescope to see the next one. Or one-hit-kill lava. Or enemies that knock you down bottomless pits for an instant death. Or bosses that absorb absurd amounts of damage and then kill you with one hit. Or HAVING TO GO BACK TO THE START OF THE GAME WHEN YOU DIE. Perhaps modern games are too easy in some cases, and there’s an argument that greater challenge provides greater reward, but there’s challenge and then there’s wanting to claw your own eyes out in frustration.

Thankfully, the Virtual Console has an ace up its sleeve in the form of Restore Points – at any time you can create a save point, meaning that virtually impossible levels become just about doable with a reasonable level of patience. Without the Restore Point function, I would never have been able to proceed to the second level of Gargoyle’s Quest; but I’m glad I did, because it turns out to be a rather fun game (and oddly, it actually gets easier as it goes along, thanks to the abilities you continue to unlock). Some might say Restore Points are cheating. I say they’re the only thing that makes ancient games playable now that I no longer possess the limitless patience and dexterity of an 11 year old.

And as for Castlevania… well, thanks to Restore Points I’m enjoying that too, but if anything it’s even harder than Gargoyle’s Quest. I’ve started to rethink my plan of playing through the series from the very beginning… Maybe I’ll pick up with the series at the point when the developers finally discovered save points.

Welcome to the house of pain: the first boss in Castlevania.

Welcome to the house of pain: the first boss in Castlevania.

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From The Armchair: Making Music With Mario

ArmchairWhat ho, chums.

I must admit, I can’t help but be drawn in whenever a new Nintendo Direct video pops up on my 3DS. These tiny saccharine video bonbons never fail to bring a smile to my embittered lips. Seeing Satoru Iwata and chums enthusiastically teasing their latest gaming treat with undisguised glee reminds me of why I got into games in the first place: they’re just damned fun. And in the primary-colour world of Nintendo Direct, it’s OK to see games as toys, because most of the time that’s just what they are, goddammit – at least in Nintendo’s world. Realistic war sims, super-complex strategy games and soul-searching ennui-‘em-ups have their place, but when I just want to play something, you know, for fun, Nintendo is my number one destination.

This week’s Nintendo Direct was dedicated to Mario Kart 8, and I have to say it sucked me in completely. I only intended to watch the first five minutes, mostly just to see Iwata-san do that brilliantly cheesy ‘DIRECT’ gesture, but I was so enticed that I stayed for the whole 34 mins, and by the end I’d preordered a copy of the game, complete with a free T-shirt. That I will never wear.

To be honest, it was difficult to say no to the offer of a free Wii U game with with every purchase of Mario Kart 8 – of the ten games on offer, I have my eyes firmly set on The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD, which I loved the first time around. And it’s been far too long since I last played a Mario Kart game – in fact, the last one I played was Mario Kart Wii, which I bought an astonishing six years ago. Up until today, I’d found it hard to get excited about the prospect of yet another MK game, but watching the video reminded me just how bloody fun they are, and those new tracks looked utterly glorious in HD. I hate to say it, but Iwata got me, hook, line and sinker.

One part of the video that stood out was when they revealed that most of the game’s music was recorded live, and a lengthy segment showed the musicians earnestly playing the game’s soundtrack in a studio (skip to 26.10). It was a great reminder of just how much craft and effort goes into making games these days. Long gone is the time when a lone programmer would wrangle bleeps and boops from a recalcitrant 8-bit chip – nowadays just as much effort goes into making music for triple A games as for blockbuster movies, and Nintendo has some of the best tunes around. Super Mario Galaxy 2 had probably the best music I can remember hearing in a game – I often found myself reluctant to press ‘start’ on the title screen because I was enjoying listening to the theme tune too much.

Away from Nintendo, Bastion was a recent highlight in terms of game music, with a beatifully mellow acoustic guitar soundtrack that blended perfectly with the title’s idle wandering and bittersweet nostalgia. In fact, Ms. D liked the music so much that she actually bought the soundtrack.

Which leads me to wonder: have you, dear reader, ever loved a game’s music enough to buy its soundtrack? And what are your aural highlights from the gaming world? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

Toodle-pip for now!

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From The Armchair: China Rising

ArmchairWhat-ho, chums.

Of all the gaming news that I’ve browsed through this week, the one piece of information that made me sit forward in my armchair with a quizzically raised eyebrow was this: China has revealed its censorship rules for console games. I would encourage you to take a look at the long and sometimes baffling list of restrictions that China feels is necessary in order to ‘protect’ its citizens from harm. The ban on anything that ‘promotes cults or superstitions’ caught my eye in particular – does this include Harry Potter? What about vampires? Ghosts? All very confusing.

I’m certainly not the first one to point this out, but it does seem a little rich for the Chinese government to come down so hard on official games when they seemingly do little about the rampant piracy and copyright infringement that plagues the country. It says something when even the Chinese military feel it’s perfectly OK to make a clone of Call of Duty (the wonderfully titled ‘Glorious Mission‘). Pretty soon though, Chinese citizens will have the choice, should they wish, of buying legitimate games and consoles, rather than ‘Chintendo Viis’ and ‘Nintendo PolyStations’.

But considering the censorship restrictions, the Xbox One and PS4 will have few games to offer the Chinese market: a quick look at the list of games released so far reveals that most of them would probably fall foul of the censors on grounds of violence. Nintendo, on the other hand, have an ace up their sleeve in terms of the family-friendly Mario games – could Nintendo’s launch into the Chinese market prove to be the shot in the arm the Wii U so desperately needs?

It wasn’t so long ago that this humble author was himself the victim of Chinese censorship. During my travels around Japan, I penned a humble webblog that one avid reader informed me had been blocked on Chinese shores. I could never fully understand the reasons behind this censorship by the Chinese authorities – perhaps they did not wish their citizens to see what a simply marvellous time I was having, lest they defected to search out the pleasures of Japan for themselves.

I wonder, is A Most Agreeable Pastime available for perusal on the Chinese mainland? If you happen to be in the Middle Kingdom, do please let us know. Although if our offerings ARE being blocked by the Chinese censors, I’m not quite sure how you would be reading this missive…

Ah well, maybe we will never know.

In domestic gaming news, I raced through the entirety of Beyond Good & Evil HD this week, and thoroughly enjoyed myself along the way. The ending was particularly intriguing – I dearly hope the much-talked-about sequel finally gets made to clear up a few outstanding questions. I also particularly enjoyed the collectible system, and unusually I went out of my way to discover all that the game had on offer rather than racing to the end – this blog post does a good job of explaining what the game system gets right (and a bit of what it gets wrong).

That’s all for this week, toodle-pip for now!

Lucius Merriweather

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From The Armchair: All Aboard The VR Hype Train

ArmchairWhat-ho, chums. It seems that barely moments after out last little chat about VR, Facebook caused the gaming community to fall off their bar stools in astonishment by buying Oculus Rift for a whacking great sum – $2 billion to be exact. Not exactly small change, but ’tis but a drop in the ocean for the hulking moneywhale that is Facebook. I must say, the move rather caught me on the hop, and it certainly had the community in uproar. The immediate reaction was one of horror that an ‘evil’ megacorp had stolen ‘our’ company to use for nefarious ends, probably involving FarmVille or Candy Crush, or some other such insidious free-to-play mugger game. But on the other hand, it could also be seen as a healthy sign that the technology we’ve all learned to love is finally, after years in development, about to wade out into the mainstream.

I sympathise with the naysayers in some respects, especially those who funded Oculus through Kickstarter using their very own cash, simply from a will to see the technology succeed. It highlights a very real problem with Kickstarter – namely that it works fine for small projects where the end result is simply a game that never would have been made otherwise, but when it comes to kick-started new technology, the backers end up short-changed. If those backers had bought shares in Oculus in the traditional sense of the word, they would now be on the receiving end of a healthy financial return thanks to Facebook’s money cannon, and more to the point would have a say in what happens to the technology. As it is, they’re left wondering what on earth will happen to the fantastic contraption that they helped into the world. Will it evolve into the revolutionary gaming machine that was sold to them? Or will it become simply a fancy gizmo for watching basketball ‘as if you’re in a ringside seat’, as Mr. Zuckerberg so bizarrely touted? Only time will tell.

Despite the Facebook buyout, or more likely because of it, the hype behind VR is escalating to absurd levels. This week the CEO of Epic Games claimed that VR will be “bigger than smartphones” – a comment that was rightly subjected to scathing scepticism. As I espoused from the comfort of my armchair last week, VR will be big, but not that big – the very fact that the technology requires one to don a medieval-style helmet necessarily limits its application, and this will instantly put off many people from using it. VR is unlikely to entirely usurp the more traditional way of playing games with a controller and TV, mostly because it still makes a lot of people feel sick, and fast-paced games really aren’t suited to the medium. I see it developing more along the lines of Kinect – a massive buzz will lead to rapid sales, but many will quickly dismiss the tech as a novelty. However, unlike Kinect, there will remain a dedicated and hardcore following who will wholly embrace the technology. Augmented reality systems such as Google Glass, on the other hand, are likely to become more mainstream, but I still doubt whether they will gain the market penetration of smartphones.

In other news, Amazon entered the console market. After a fashion. Their set-top box allows users to stream games, but mostly it appears to be focused on allowing purchasers to watch Amazon’s video content. The fact that the game controller is sold separately indicates that games are an afterthought, and I doubt many readers of A Most Agreeable Pastime will be enticed by the prospect of the hundreds of free-to-play games said to be in the works for the system – for this gentleman at least, the words ‘free-to-play’ have become synonymous with ‘we-will-attempt-to-rip-you-off’.

To be honest, I am left utterly clueless as to the market for Amazon’s Fire TV. Most gamers have consoles through which they can stream Netflix, etc. and aren’t interested in free-to-play games, and most non-gamers already stream such content through laptops, tablets or services like Sky. Add in the fact that Internet TVs are getting ever cheaper and offer the same streaming services, and I’m left pondering the point of Amazon’s new device.  Oh, and that controller looks awful, doesn’t it? Like a cheap knock-off of an Xbox One controller you might find on the local market, perhaps with a neon, star-shaped label attached, scrawled with “Genyuine X-boX 1 Controler! £9.99!!!!”

amazon_fire_tv_controller

“Genyuine X-boX 1 Controler! £9.99!!!!”

Back in The Manor, it’s been an eventful week, as I finally finished both Fire Emblem: Awakening and L.A. Noire. Ms. D. and I were both impressed by the ending of the latter – which crescendoed in classic film-noir style. I’m saddened that our nights in with Cole Phelps and co. have come to an end, and I dearly hope that L.A. Noire 2 eventually emerges, although we may be in for a long wait. In the meantime, however, I’ve been consoling myself with the purchase of Steamworld Dig on the 3DS, which has proven to be an excellent buy… but I fear I’ve waffled on for too long already to tell you more: I shall leave that one for next time.

Toodle-pip!

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