Monday, January 23, 2017

My Top 21 Games of the 21st Century (thus far)


You all know how much I enjoy making lists. And while I was stuck at my computer editing a ridiculously long Error Machine Podcast where we ranked the Top 10 games from Nintendo, I decided to make a new list. I've often thought about ranking my top 100 games of all time, but that's a much more daunting task, so you're getting the top 21 of the current century instead.

One thing that I was surprised about is just how many systems have been relevant in the past decade-and-a-half. It's one of those things that you don't realize until you actually sit down and think about it. With that said, any game that was released on the following systems after the turn of the century is fair-game for inclusion: Nintendo 64, GameCube, Wii, Wii U, Playstation, PS2, PS3, PS4, Xbox, Xbox 360, Xbox One, Sega Dreamcast, GameBoy, GameBoy Color, GameBoy Advance, Nintendo DS, 3DS, PSP, PS Vita, Ouya (hahahahahahaha), and any other system that I may have missed. But chances are that if I missed it, there aren't going to be any games from it here.

As always, these games are personal preferences and the ones that I enjoyed the most. There's a good chance that any game you're surprised not seeing on the list was in fact there at one point, but was eliminated as the list was narrowed, or I just simply never got around to playing it. The only rule is that I'm only including one game per franchise, otherwise the list would be mostly Mario and Metal Gear Solid. Let's get started!

21. Guacamelee!


The "metroidvania" genre is one of my favorites in gaming, and it's apparently a lot of other peoples favorite too, because there's a new indie metroidvania game seemingly every other week. The market may be a bit saturated at this point, but when someone makes a really good one, it really stands out. Games like Shantae and the Pirate's Curse, Axiom Verge, and Ori and the Blind Forest are just a few of the metroidvania games in recent years that hit all the right notes. But it's the luchador-infused Guacamelee! that I'm giving the nod to on this list. In fact, outside of Super Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, Guacamelee! may be the best game in the genre.

Not only does it grasp the concept of unlocking new abilities to access new areas very well, but the beat 'em up style combat and the sometimes frustrating platforming sections add new levels of complexity to the game. The humor and writing are top-notch, and the Mexican setting may sometimes seem stereotypical to some, but it's more respectful than offensive. Then again, I'm not a Mexican dude, so what do I know?


Luckily, Guacamelee! is available on several different platforms, and it gets my highest recommendation, as it's one of the few games I purchased a second time so I could play it again when upgrading to the current generation systems.

20. Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon


My first Far Cry game was this game's predecessor, and even after I had conquered that game's tropical island, I wanted more. Blood Dragon took everything that was great with Far Cry 3 and turned the machismo dial up to 11. The best way to describe the game is that it's what an action game would be if developers had modern day technology in 1984. There are few 80s action movies that aren't referenced in some way in Blood Dragon. Your character is part cyborg, so you're already half-Terminator, and on top of that, the man voicing the protagonist is none other than Michael Biehn, who played Kyle Reese in the original Terminator film. So, you're playing as a Terminator, as Kyle Reese, how incredibly meta is that?

Your handgun is the same handgun from Robocop, your shotgun is called the Galleria (a nod to Terminator 2), you destroy unhatched eggs with a flamethrower a la Aliens, and the final sequence features the song "War" from Rocky IV while you ride a giant, mechanical blood dragon with an infinite laser canon while it shouts puns and one-liners.


Being a $15 downloadable title, there's more than enough world to get your money's worth, but I would love nothing more than to see Ubisoft return to the Blood Dragon series for a full-length Far Cry game. I'm hoping their April Fool's joke from a few years back eventually comes true.


19. The Walking Dead Season One


At this point, the Telltale Games development formula is incredibly rote. You know what you're getting. They are the "if you've played one, you've played them all" kind of games. But that doesn't mean that they aren't fantastic storytellers, and no Telltale story has grabbed me the way the first season of The Walking Dead did.

I had never played anything Telltale related before this outside of a brief exploration of Hill Valley in Back to the Future, so before buying the season, I bought the first episode and used it as a paid demo. The second I finished episode one, I bought the season pass. I'm not the type to get emotionally invested in video games, I take the Ivan Drago approach: "If he dies, he dies." So kudos to Telltale for creating a character that I grew to care about and wanted to protect in Clementine.


I haven't watched the show in several years, and even the games have become a bit tired to me at this point, but I'll always remember the cannibal farmers, the surprising and sudden deaths, cutting off my own arm, and perhaps the most heart-wrenching final decision I've ever experienced in gaming.

18. The Witcher III: Wild Hunt


Games as big as The Witcher III can be intimidating. I know it was for me, especially as it was my first foray into the series. There's so much to do and so many areas that you'll never see no matter how much time you spend with the game. All those little "?" on the map screen drive my OCD crazy. I would find myself skipping fast travel just so I could explore all of the undiscovered areas on the way to my destination, which leads to five new quests in my quest log, which makes for a much longer experience.

Due to the fact that I was getting bogged down by imminent games that I wanted to play, I never got around to the Hearts of Stone or Blood & Wine expansions despite owning both, and I rushed through the endgame in favor of a new release, but I can't bring myself to trade or sell The Witcher III because I know at some point I'm going to want to return to that world.

Some people describe it as a third-person Skyrim, which really sells it short. They are definitely similar in many areas, but The Witcher definitely has the upper-hand in character and relationship building, and the combat is definitely more in-tune with my play style.

I'm going to go back to The Witcher III. I am. Stop bugging me about it.


17. Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze


Not many triple-A games coming out these days hearken back to the games we loved growing up, at least not for people my age. Today, the great 2-D platformers are relegated to download services and are mostly indie games. That's not a bad thing, certainly. In fact, one such game you'll see later in this list.

But Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is perhaps the best 2-D platformer I've played in over a decade, and certainly the best of this generation. As much as I loved Donkey Kong Country Returns on the Wii, Tropical Freeze added so much more. The levels were even more creative than before, the bosses were better, and the ability to play as Diddy, Dixie, and especially Cranky Kong made for a more enjoyable platforming experience overall. If you see a K-O-N-G letter or a puzzle piece that you can't quite get with your current team, you now have an incentive to replay that level with a new teammate.


Luckily, I'm not a completionist, so I was content with just unlocking every level and playing through. You know, I really do love the Wii U. There are some great games on that console, but due to its underwhelming sales performance, many of those games will never be experienced by people that would really enjoy them. If you're planning on getting a Nintendo Switch, hopefully Nintendo will re-release Tropical Freeze and you'll get the opportunity to play it, because I really do think it's one of the best 2-D platformers ever made.

16. The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds


I'll be the first to admit that I'm a Nintendo fanboy, but I'm actually not a huge fan of the Legend of Zelda series. I like them, for sure, but as someone who didn't play the early titles as a child, I grew up without that feeling of awe that so many of my peers had when they put that gold cartridge into their NES.

It wasn't until A Link Between Worlds that I finally decided that I needed to finish a Legend of Zelda game, and since then, I've also finished A Link to the Past, Link's Awakening, and Wind Waker, and none of them have lived up to A Link Between Worlds for me. I think it's the best in the series (at least of the ones I've played).


While on the surface the game is almost identical to A Link to the Past, the small changes they made I think set it apart. For someone like me who is inexperienced with the series, the ability to rent items and tackle the dungeons out of sequence was a nice inclusion and made it less intimidating. Every other Zelda game I've played since then has had a point where I start to lose interest and have to push myself to finish, but I didn't have that problem in A Link Between Worlds, I was hooked the entire journey.

15. Portal 2


Cave Johnson is the freakin' man. Never before has an absent character made such an impact, credit that to the incredible voice acting of J.K. Simmons. The puzzles themselves are as mind-bending as the original and the way the story plays out leads you to some really cool places.

I remember there being a lot of skepticism prior to release. The original Portal was a game that was bundled with Half-Life 2 and Team Fortress 2 that could be completed in a few short hours, and people were curious how Valve would manage to turn that into its own, standalone story. But they pulled it off masterfully. The characters of Portal manage to bring humor into a pretty twisted universe.


The co-op mode was fleshed out really well, and wasn't just tacked on to give you something else to do. Portal 2 is one of the few games in the past decade that I've gone through and played more than once or twice. It's one of those "you have to see this" kind of games that you tell your friends about.

14. Bioshock


Bioshock blindsided me. I didn't follow gaming in 2007 with the same kind of fervor that I do now. I knew the kind of games that I liked and tended to avoid anything outside of that. But, for the first (and only) time in my life, Game Informer actually convinced me to buy a game. While I find that Game Informer tends to score games a bit higher than other outlets, they're also pretty stingy when it comes to giving games a perfect 10. But when I read through that month's issue and saw that both people who reviewed it gave it a 10, my interest was piqued.

I picked it up on release day and was blown away. I had never experienced a world like Rapture before. Every single area told a plethora of stories, and I scoured every inch of every room so I could experience all of them. The game itself blends first-person action and survival horror beautifully, and the plasmids gave you so many different options for each enemy encounter.

I don't think I need to go into detail on how the mid-game twist blew me away. The Bioshock series hasn't been able to recapture the magic that it had with the original, but that doesn't take away or water down its greatness.

13. Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes


I was more excited about Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes becoming backwards compatible on Xbox One than any other game I have. I've never been a huge JRPG or strategy RPG person, but there's something so engaging about the combat in Clash of Heroes that I was hooked from the moment I first played it on the Nintendo DS.

Rather than having one huge campaign, the game is broken up into five smaller ones, each one playing a different role in the same conflict and portraying it from that protagonist's perspective. Throughout the campaigns you acquire new classes for your party, level them up, and all the stuff you come to expect from an RPG. But what really makes the game stand out is the combat. You combine three of the same class to create an attack, you can link them with other classes, you can combine them with the same classes to create stronger attacks, you can eliminate characters from the field to create blockades.


Perhaps the easiest way to explain is to just show it to you in action.



Linking attacks together and seeing your team lay waste to the enemies side is very satisfying. This is the one RPG that I revisit time and time again.

12. Shadow of the Colossus


I don't know if I have the proper vocabulary to encapsulate what makes Shadow of the Colossus one of the most thrilling videogame experiences ever. To say the game is a masterpiece should go without saying to anyone who has played the game. It breaks the standard gaming conventions by having no enemies outside of the titular colossi, but you still feel the need to explore this vast open world.


Each colossi presents a different challenge. Some require more thinking than others, while some require sheer, brute force. Jumping and grasping onto the wings of Avion (the 5th colossi), or holding on for dear life as Hydrus drags you under water, shooting an arrow into the eye of Dirge as it emerges from the sand while riding your trusty steed, these are some of the most intense and breathtaking moments I've ever experienced.

Few games deserve to be described as "epic," but Shadow of the Colossus certainly fits the bill.

11. Shovel Knight


Yacht Club Games has received a lot of my money over the years, but they deserve it. Not only did I buy the game three different times (digitally on 3DS and then gain on PS4, then the physical version on PS4), but they also churn out a lot of great merchandise. I'm more than happy to spend money on Shovel Knight when I consider how much fun I've had playing and replaying it.


Shovel Knight invokes all the right feelings of nostalgia for me. This was the type of game that I loved growing up, and they've managed to make it work in the modern era. You see hints of DuckTales, Mega Man, and Castlevania while rocking out to a stellar retro-infused soundtrack. I'm not normally the type of person to listen to video game soundtracks outside of the game itself, but I find myself occasionally wanting to listen to the Shovel Knight soundtrack, especially that opening level track.



Yacht Club even released a free update to the game allowing you to play as Plague Knight, so you can experience it in a whole new way, and trust me, it'll feel like a new game, as Plague Knight is a completely different type of character than our shovel-wielding hero in blue.

10. Alan Wake


If there's any game on this list that I want to get a true sequel, it's Alan Wake. I loved how unconventional it was. While some horror games try to make you feel helpless and vulnerable, Alan Wake really does make you feel outnumbered and you'll be scrambling to find your next light source/respite. Using flashlights to break the darkness off of oncoming enemies was a nice break from the traditional "shoot til they drop" approach of other action-shooters like the Uncharted series. And don't take that to mean I don't love Uncharted, because I do, but you have to admit that those enemies are bullet sponges.

Finding all of the manuscript pages were a great way to help you prepare for upcoming encounters, and even when you knew they were coming, you were still surprised by them. The only negatives I can lobby against Alan Wake are the weird final boss and the fact that they always find a way for you to lose your guns at the start of each episode. Speaking of which, the game is broken up into episodes like a television show, complete with "Previously on Alan Wake" and "Next time on Alan Wake" bumpers. I really liked this format, and I often found myself thinking about how this could actually be turned into a television show.


Small grievances aside, the one actual bad thing about Alan Wake is that I discovered the band Poets of the Fall because of this game, which is not a good band to listen to when you're going through a bad breakup. Luckily, I got over that crap and I no longer listen to the band...much.


9. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim


We all have those games that mean something special to us for various reasons. For me, I played Skyrim nonstop during the winter of 2011/2012. At the time, I was going through a lot of stuff. I hated my job, I was living with my parents, I was going through a lot of depression and anxiety, but Skyrim helped get me through it. I would spend every moment that I wasn't in class or at work exploring its various dungeons with my boxer, Muldoon, huddled by my side and the lights out. I lost myself in Tamriel.


I was still playing Skyrim when I met the woman that would eventually become my wife, so it holds a separate place in my heart for that reason. I had never really played a Bethesda game before, but I gave in to the hype and bought Skyrim, and I didn't regret a moment of it. I wanted to explore every cave, defeat every monster, pickpocket every dumb commoner, and Fus-Ro-Dah my way up every mountain.


I did pick up the expansions, but never got around to playing. However, I do have the remastered special edition in my possession, and I'll revisit the world of Skyrim again during the inevitable summer lull.

8. The Simpsons: Hit & Run


Watch the video below if you want an incredibly detailed explanation as to why I think The Simpsons: Hit & Run is the best licensed game ever made.



While I may not have watched The Simpsons for probably over a decade now, I have so many fond memories of the show from season 1 to about season 17, which is the last season I watched new. Hit & Run released in 2003, which was right around season 13, and it's so jam-packed full of Simpsons love that there's no doubt that the developers were all huge fans of the show. Perhaps the smartest thing they did with the game was break the city of Springfield into three smaller areas rather than one large world. This makes the game seem more focused, and it benefits greatly.



There are so many great Easter eggs to find if you're willing to travel off the beaten path, each one referencing the show in some way. Video games haven't always been kind to The Simpsons, they've seemingly tried it all trying to find something that worked, and who would have known that ripping off Grand Theft Auto was the best choice?



I would love another Simpsons game in the same vein as Hit & Run, or hey, since they have Lego Simpsons sets, why not a Lego Simpsons game?

7. Picross 3D


Picross 3D may be the game that I've spent the single most amount of time on. The hours are easily in the triple digits, and they delivered so much free content that my DS wasn't able to contain it all. That's a bargain, especially when you consider that it was only $20 when it launched.

On the aforementioned Top 10 Nintendo Games episode of the Error Machine Podcast, Picross 3D ranked 8th on that list. Luke may not have the same love for the game as I do, but based on the sheer amount of time I've put into, I refused to let that game not make the final cut.


It's the perfect game to play before bed or if you only have a few minutes to spare. Just pull the DS out and play a puzzle or two. The bigger, more intricate puzzles can be real mind-benders, but when you're able to master a tough puzzle and complete it under the time limit with no faults, you feel like you've just defused a bomb.

6. Gears of War 3


While I do love the Gears of War campaigns, their stories aren't anything to write home about. They have their memorable moments, and they make for a really good time, especially when playing co-op with a friend. The shooting in the Gears of War games feels better to me than any other shooter.

Screw Gears of War multiplayer and it's shotgun parties. Seriously, I hate the multiplayer in Gears. But what I come for is the Horde. I loved the original Horde Mode, simple as it may be. And Horde 3.0 emphasizes teamwork more than the previous entries, but it was Horde 2.0 that really did it for me.


The maps in Gears of War 3 are the best in the series, and they range from huge, open maps like Sandbar and Trenches to the close-quarters of Checkout to the bleachers of a Thrashball stadium. The ability to create defenses added a new level of strategy, and the inclusion of boss waves made for some stressful, intense moments. That's when you just save money up for a Silverback and lay waste to everything...and then watch as the rest of the team leaves the game because you're getting all the kills. Totally worth it.

5. The Last of Us


I've never cared about a relationship in a videogame more than I do for the one between Joel and Ellie. Granted, you don't have any actual control as to how that relationship plays out, but it's a masterful piece of storytelling. The Last of Us has the perfect blend of survival, action, stealth, and horror, and the tension you feel between every new character you encounter is palpable. Can these people be trusted? Or are they planning to betray you?



The post-apocalypse trope is one we see in so many games, but where most games portray it as a desolate wasteland, The Last of Us goes a different route. This isn't the end of the world, it's the downfall of mankind. The world isn't gone. In fact, the world is still thriving. Trees are still growing, feral animals continue to scavenge, and homes and buildings are still intact. Where the real apocalypse comes into play in The Last of Us is in the behaviors of the people. They've resorted back to their ancestor's instincts. It's kill or be killed, taken or be taken from, and most characters in this world are savage in their actions.


I knew I wanted a sequel to The Last of Us, but I thought I wanted a different story with new characters set in the same world, but when they revealed The Last of Us Part 2, I had to recant my words. That is exactly what I want. I want more Joel and Ellie, and I can't wait to see where their next journey is going to take them.

4. Borderlands 2


I love the Borderlands series. Well, I love 1 and 2, Pre-Sequel was pretty meh. But that's not how it started out for me. I remember seeing Borderlands on the cover of Game Informer years ago before it had it's cel shaded art style, and I had absolutely no interest in it. Even when the game was released, I gave zero craps about Borderlands. This was very early in my tenure at GameStop, and a co worker highly suggested the game to me, and everything he said sounded pretty good, but I had never played a game like Borderlands before. When I was debating between picking up Fallout 3 Game of the Year and Borderlands, I shot him a quick call asking his opinion, and without hesitation, he said I would enjoy Borderlands more, so that's what I picked up. And the rest is history.


I know I've told this story before, but the original Borderlands gets some credit for my wife and I being married today. When we first met, we were talking about videogames and she mentioned how much she loved Borderlands. I also expressed my love for the game and we played through the game every night on Xbox Live. During that time we bonded greatly, and 8 months into our relationship, we were married. When Borderlands 2 came out, we were beyond hyped. Two copies of the game, two televisions in the living room side-by-side (we share a lot of things in this marriage, but a TV screen is not one of them), and we spent that entire evening shooting and looting.


Two characters that people seem to crap on all the time are Claptrap and Handsome Jack, but I love them. I think Claptrap is (usually) hilarious, and Handsome Jack is a very memorable villain. In the words of Mick Foley: "A heel (bad guy) has to believe that what he is doing is right." And that sums up Handsome Jack perfectly. He's insane, but he believes he's correct in all of his actions. I loved all the new characters, I loved the way the old characters were worked into the story, the season pass content was usually themed after a character I didn't care for but still substantial and a lot of fun. My wife and I have sunk hundreds of hours into the Borderlands franchise, and we look forward to hundreds more. Now Gearbox, give up on Battleborn. It's over, that dream is dead. I expect to hear a Borderlands 3 announcements at or before E3 this year. Thanks.

3. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain


It's hard for me to admit that there are any faults in the Metal Gear Solid franchise. Yeah, I'm one of those guys. The kind of person that thinks Hideo Kojima can do no wrong. You can't convince me otherwise, so don't even try. The Phantom Pain may be the true swan song for the franchise, but what a note to go out on. Maybe the twist wasn't what you were hoping for, or maybe you were upset that David Hayter didn't reprise his role as Big Boss, or maybe you were disappointed in the lack of a boss faction for the Skulls. All that aside, The Phantom Pain plays better than any other game in the franchise, and I truly believe this is how Kojima always wanted the games to play. It just feels smooth.


In standard Metal Gear fashion, there are so many weird things you can do and so many ways to approach situations that we probably haven't even discovered them all yet. You know that tape you collected that's just a 20 second recording of a guy taking a dump? Yeah, you can play that tape inside of a restroom and enemy soldiers will leave you alone. Did I also mention that you can order a horse to poop on command? Also, you have a dog that wears an eye patch. And your helicopter can play "The Final Countdown" as it drops you off/picks you up from encounters.


My only real problem with the game is Chapter 2, where you're forced to replay some missions a second time. I'm assuming this was because of a time crunch and Konami wanting to get the game out by a certain time. Big Boss doesn't play much of a role in the story, in fact, in some cutscenes he has as many lines as Quiet. It's also a bummer that the true final mission was stuck being put onto a different disc and only explained to you how it was going to play out rather than allowing you to play it. I would have been willing to wait for the game to be 100% finished, but that apparently wasn't the same mentality Konami had.

The Phantom Pain is easily the best playing game in the franchise. Is it my favorite? Maybe. I still give that distinction to the original Metal Gear Solid on the Playstation, but Phantom Pain is right up there. Snake Eater was great and a contender here, but I just think with the amount of options you have and the sheer amount of game presented, Phantom Pain wins out.

2. Resident Evil 4


Being a fan of the Resident Evil series since the beginning, I was there when screenshots and videos were first getting out about Resident Evil 4. The original concept changed several times throughout its development, and because of that we now have the Devil May Cry series. I remember seeing a dude wielding a giant hook that stalked Leon, and a video depicting Leon fighting ghosts. The Resident Evil series may be campy, but it was always grounded in carnality. The supernatural just didn't feel right.

This, however, is totally normal.

Resident Evil 4
still went in a new direction, and the tonal shift presented turned out to be the shot in the arm the series needed. Between the original trilogy on the Playstation, Code Veronica, and the prequel, Resident Evil 0, the series had wearied fans. Opting for a more action-oriented experience gave us a new type of adventure while still feeling like a Resident Evil game. It's almost like Capcom said "What if we made the same game but actually gave the player plenty of ammo?" Turned out pretty well, I think.

When I heard the game didn't have zombies, I was dumbfounded. How could a Resident Evil game not have its most iconic enemy? But the villagers of the small Spanish community turned out to be much more terrifying. Its one thing to have five mindless zombies shambling toward you, and another thing to have five intelligent beings running toward you with pitchforks in tow.

There was nothing I didn't do in Resident Evil 4. Like Skyrim, RE4 was another game that I used to cope with the worries of life. I was miserable at the time, in a relationship that I felt trapped in, and I played Resident Evil 4 every night for almost a year to get through. It sounds weird to say that Resident Evil 4 got me through a rough point in my life, but that's what gaming does for you, I guess. So, thank you RE4. You're awesome.

1. Super Mario Galaxy


The Nintendo Wii was still difficult to find over a year after its launch. I stood outside of a Toys R Us overnight in subzero temperatures for mine. I remember my feet being so cold that they physically hurt. I seriously thought I had done permanent damage to them. Luckily the feeling came back when I got inside the store. Super Mario Galaxy was the game I got with it, and I played through that entire game, collecting all 240 stars between Mario and Luigi in the process. Shortly thereafter, my hard drive crashed. Nintendo, being great with customer service, gladly took care of it, and I never had another problem with my system when it arrived back at my doorstep.

The only problem was that I lost all of my progress in Super Mario Galaxy. But on the other hand, that gave me a reason to replay it. And I did so. I did so with a big dumb smile on my face. As someone who never really owned a Nintendo 64 or GameCube, Super Mario Galaxy was my first real experience with a 3-D Mario game, and having gone back and played Super Mario 64 and Sunshine since then, it's not hard to see why I think Super Mario Galaxy is easily the best 3-D Mario game.


There's nothing in Super Mario Galaxy that I don't love. Mario controls perfectly, the orchestral soundtrack is beautiful, the levels are whimsical, the hub world is small but fun to jump around in, and the story, by Mario standards, is pretty fantastic. It also introduced me to my videogame girlfriend, Rosalina. The reason I give the nod to the original over Galaxy 2 is because as great as it is, it didn't give me the same sense of wonder that I had with the first. It's more of the same, which isn't bad, because you can never have too much of a good thing, but it didn't give me the same feelings as the original. They also got rid of Rosalina, which I disapprove of greatly.


With the Nintendo Switch bringing the motion control back, I would love nothing more than to see an HD remaster collection for the Galaxy series. Super Mario Odyssey looks flat out amazing, but until I have the game in my hands, Super Mario Galaxy stands head and shoulders above all other 3-D Mario games, and over all Mario games outside of Super Mario World.

Thank you guys so much for reading. Leave a comment and let me know what games you would have included in your list. And don't forget to check out all the other stuff I do at the links below.


-Dustin

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