Forsaken by SEGA on U.S. Shores: The Story of Phantasy Star

“It will be then, in the darkest of days that the final lights of SEGA’s love will disappear into the Aether once and for all and the most united of states will feel the cold discombobulating nothingness that is life without Phantasy Star.” –PSO 13:5

For many older gamers, the name Phantasy Star is one spoken with a certain amount of reverence. For those of you too young to remember, before Square released the first installment of Final Fantasy on to the console world in 1990*, there was a game trying to garner popularity for the role-playing game (RPG)  genre way back in 1988. This title, released on the Sega Master System was quickly overshadowed in the U.S. by anything released on the Nintendo Entertainment System – but in the wake of its launch, still managed to manifest a cult following that lives to this day. This game was known simply as: Phantasy Star.

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Phantasy Star IV, updated and re-released for the Saturn (Japan only)

The narrative of Phantasy Star was a surprisingly deep one for the time of its release, from political assassinations, to revenge plots and even an elder god manipulating humans so that he could rise to power after hiding in the shadows for centuries. This, coupled with a an overhead map, a rich battle system and a faux-3D first person dungeon view set on the sci-fi/fantasy solar system of Algol – proved to be more than Americans were ready to embrace. This did not, thankfully, dissuade SEGA from releasing the subsequent titles in the series here in the states…for a while.

As SEGA made the transition from the 8-bit generation to 16-bit universe, so too did Phantasy Star. The next three installments of the Phantasy Star series would all take place on the Sega Genesis with each game building on the last in terms of visuals, sound and story depth. Phantasy Star III alone spanned several generations of characters stories all within the course of one game, a concept that is rarely seen at all in modern games and a complete version (mint in box) of Phantasy Star IV is still a highly sought after treasure for game collectors.

Phantasy Star was notably absent for the handheld and 32-bit era in America, with only a series of remakes and spin-offs available only in Japan. However, SEGA was not content to let their beloved RPG go silently into the good night. At the beginning of 2001 Phantasy Star Online (PSO) burst onto the scene, cementing its place into the hearts of gamers everywhere on SEGA’s newest gaming platform, The Dreamcast. Phantasy Star Online was a wildly successful game, and one of the first real online console gaming experiences. PSO eventually was released for the Xbox, Nintendo Gamecube and even PC markets.

With a version update, an expansion and a card based video game spin-off under their belt, Phantasy Star had finally hit the prime time even in the midst of the Dreamcast’s short-lived lifespan. In 2006 Phantasy Star Universe, the next title in the online Phantasy Star series, was released on several consoles and PC to a lukewarm reception. For many, it was so vastly different from PSO that it lost most of the magic of the original PSO experience and the game suffered for it in terms of ratings and sales.

In 2011, the U.S. got their first glimpse of the game that had been waiting years for, a true sequel to Phantasy Star Online. Elegantly called Phantasy Star Online 2, it promised to give American gamers everything they loved in the original PSO and more with features such as more simultaneous players for larger boss fights and a more complex and rich character creation system. The message boards across the internet lit up, eagerly anticipating the next installment of the franchise and year after year when SEGA was asked when PSO2 was going to get released to western shores the only response given was “soon”. With the Phantasy Star festival now over in Japan, we found out that there is a new Phantasy Star Online 2 spin-off dubbed Phantasy Star Nova, in the works and that it is more than likely going to be a Japanese-only release. This announcement, alongside the repeated delays of the American release of PSO2 ultimately begs the question: What does SEGA have against America, when it comes to releasing more Phantasy Star content on our shores?

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I mean, who wouldn’t want to down enemies with a giant fish? (PSO2)

If we look back to the franchises history, the decision to not release the remakes and spin-offs of Phantasy Star on western shores does start to make sense . Japan has always fostered the Phantasy Star market in terms of sales where systems like the Game Gear and Saturn under performed in America, at best. This means that the creation cost-to-profit margin is much slimmer when you take into account the amount of resources SEGA would have to spend to have those games translated on top of marketing and publication. SEGA took a risk on releasing Phantasy Star Online to the states when non-PC internet gaming was in its infancy. This gamble did ultimately paid off for them, which leaves many people scratching their heads as to why Phantasy Star Online 2 has yet to see a western release.

Unfortunately, at this time all we have is wild speculation. With SEGA still holding firm to the idea that PSO 2 will be released “at some point” in the west, we can only look to the amount of time it has taken the game to even leave Japan. Reports are saying that around early 2014, PSO 2 had finally entered closed beta in Southeast Asia – nearly two years after the launch of the game in Japan. In 1988, a gap of years like this was commonplace when it game to translation and publication. These days, it can be a death sentence for a game. Gamers who wait too long to play their favorite titles can become disillusioned over time, knowing that the game they have waited to play for so long can never live up to the hype they have built up in their minds.

Another factor could simply be the overall cost of releasing the game here. While in 1988, translation and publication times were much wider, (Final Fantasy I was released by Square Japan in 1987 and not released in the states until 1990) those games ultimately had a large cost associated with release such as paying for the localization teams. Phantasy Star IV alone retailed for up to $100 when it launched in 1995. Phantasy Star Online 2, is currently a free-to-play game with buy-in options as a central game mechanic. Most of these in-game purchases are purely cosmetic since there is a physical copy of the game available for purchase should you prefer a non-digital distribution platform. When you take into account the X variable which is “how much does this game make per day?”, it may not be financially feasible for SEGA to take a risk like translating, distributing (bandwidth costs money) and establishing servers for every region. If this is the case, it would only make sense that SEGA would not be willing to take a chance on Phantasy Star Nova here – considering it is a spin-off of the Phantasy Star Online title we have yet to receive.

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Phantasy Star Nova, in all its glory

While American Phantasy Star fans are eagerly awaiting another game release in their beloved franchise, for now they must be content with the videos being published out of Japan of the upcoming series titles until SEGA has finally announced that a new Phantasy Star is coming their way – or at the very least, finally told them why they will be unable to release it here. If the online fan base is any indication, they are willing to wait a very – very long time to once again step into the shoes of a hunter and try and save the galaxy from Faltz once again.

-Until next time, goodnight and good game

1990*- All dates are based on the U.S release windows

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To Harold Ramis: Thank you for defining my childhood

A disclaimer: I have never been a person who mourns over celebrity death. In fact, since I was young, I have found most people’s obsession with crying over artists they have never had any interaction with outside of listening to and/or viewing their performances rather disgusting.

I survived the suicide of Kurt Cobain obsession of ’94 and if I had to see one more blog about how Michael Jackson was going to be missed and how important he was to someone who has never heard more than the Thriller album, I was ready to launch myself into a chasm to join the king of pop in the afterlife to just get away from them.

I give you the above statement because the events of today make me a hypocrite for feeling the way that I do: Today, at the age of 69, Harold Ramis has passed from this world and I am genuinely upset by this.

To be fair, at first I didn’t think I would be.

I started my day as I normally do, rolling over to check what’s been going on in the flood of bullshit news that is my Facebook feed. Over and over again I saw confirmations that Mr. Ramis had passed and that it was not, in fact, a hoax. I got up to start my day and start getting my show notes together for this week’s podcast (http://thesurlynerd.com) and the first thing on my agenda was to write out what we would be talking about in reference to Harold Ramis’ contributions to both television and filmmaking.

As I got farther and farther into my research of the projects he had worked on in his time on this planet I realized that this man SHAPED my childhood.

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And he also help shape children’s love of Twinkies forever

On a basic level, Ghostbusters is my favorite film of all time. I watch it several times a year and growing up, all I wanted to be was a Ghostbuster. Digging further into his impressive resume I found that he was responsible for so many of the things I grew up watching.

Yes, he did everything when it came to the Ghostbusters franchise – from the cartoons, (The Real Ghostbusters, Extreme Ghostbusters) to the video game that many people consider the third film in the Ghostbusters series. Yet, on top of everything Ghostbusters related he did, his other projects were the ones that helped define my sense of humor and the type of film making that I enjoy to this day.

I want to get the obvious things out of the way: I loved Caddyshack and Meatballs is one of many of the classics he worked on that everyone adores. For me, growing up, it was a little Canadian produced show called SCTV that I used to watch obsessively.

As I said earlier, I wanted to be a Ghostbuster when I was little. The other occupation I really desired was that of a comedian. I used to watch the classic stand-up comedians over and over – from George Carlin to Rodney Dangerfield, Dana Carvey, and the list could go on and on. I fell in love with the idea of sketch comedy shortly thereafter. While I did watch Saturday Night Live (who didn’t back then) it was SCTV that I really went out of my way to see every week.

Second City Television (SCTV) was a sketch comedy show with a theme based all around a fictional television station that would make fun of anything from politics to late night horror television shows (my personal favorite segment). So many actors that are famous now had a hand in this cheaply made comic production – Eugene Levy, John Candy, Rick Moranis, Martin Short, and of course Harold Ramis.

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Count Floyd was the best

I don’t want to keep going on about his career, because I am sure a million other websites and blogs will have covered his life in much more detail than I ever could. Needless to say, I felt like something was genuinely gone from my life as I kept reading about his passing.

Following that, I saw dozens of pieces of original artwork from all over the internet showing how much he was going to be missed and I – for the first time ever, believed them. In that moment I had a connection to so many faceless people that existed online that all loved the same screenwriter and actor that I did.

Maybe this does make me a hypocrite, based on my previous thoughts when it comes to celebrity death. Maybe I just understand this concept more than I did before this moment. There’s a lot of maybes to consider now that Mr. Ramis has moved on from this world.

What I do know is that my childhood would not be what it was, if not for the man who eventually became Egon Spengler.

As I finish this little post, my marathon of the Ghostbusters movies is coming to an end as well. I know that as the credits are about to roll, and the theme song is going to play out one final time before I turn in for the evening – all I can think to myself is:

Thank you Mr. Ramis, for defining my childhood. You are going to be missed more than you know. Oh, and you were right, print is dead.

egon

Until next time – Goodnight and good game

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The Importance of Escapism

Disclaimer: This post is more personal in nature than usual.

Tonight is my grandfather’s birthday. Tonight is also the night that my family scattered his ashes. Due to life circumstances I was unable to be there to stand by my family, cry and talk about how amazing of a man he was and how much joy he brought into my world.

Instead I had to remain at home, readying myself for work tomorrow as the responsible adult that I, hope, have become over the years.

It wasn’t easy, as I don’t think situations like this ever really are. I was blessed to have someone close to me talking to me via Skype as the text messages, video messages and pictures messages began to flood my phone from my family as they celebrated the man I called my papa. It hurt not to be there, to not be able to just express how much one man’s life meant to me as I grew up. How I admired him and how a simple “you did well” from him meant more than all the awards and medals I could ever earn.

At some point during our virtual conversation I found myself so upset by my inability to be with my family today that I decided to log off of the internet and fire up my Xbox. I said that I needed to: “get offline and shoot something”, not really knowing how to express what I was feeling or going through. I was told “shoot well” as I signed off to try and what I thought was, distracting myself from everything that was going on.

Before I go any further, I will confess that I love the Bioshock franchise. My living room is themed with framed art from the game down to the city scape of Rapture hanging over my fireplace. This last week, as a belated birthday present, I was given a copy of Bioshock: Infinite which I had put off buying because I was saving for a new car. Already ten hours or so invested into it, I was ready to try and forget everything that was upsetting me and just dive back into the world of Columbia and be a hero.

Then, after only mere minutes escorting of Elizabeth through danger, protecting her from the people out to stop us from accomplishing our mission to escape, it dawned on me: I didn’t decide to play this because I needed to enact some form of rage or aggression on random enemies…I needed to be in control. I needed to be able to save someone because I couldn’t be there to save my grandfather.

I paused the game, took a sip of my drink and sat back in shock. When I resumed playing I fought like a man that knew the fate of the world rested on his shoulders, a man who could do something to change the world for the better and more importantly, a man who could rescue someone from a life in shackles. Or worse…death.

Video games have always been a part of my life. They are the one constant that is always around. Bad day at the office? Play some Devil May Cry. Nice, quiet day outside? Good time to lounge by the pool and play Final Fantasy Tactics. Today my grandfather passed and I got to, for a moment, enter the world of Columbia and be a hero to the people, or more importantly, to Elizabeth.

Much like my grandfather, I occasionally say less than I mean. He was a strong man, an amazing man and when he said he was going out to the ranch to care for the horses he worked with he meant he was going to do just that…and also grab a bite to eat and maybe meet the guys for an hour or so after his work was done to have a drink, and decompress from the day of labor he had finished. Today, I said “I need to go shoot something” when really I meant that I needed to get lost for a while and be a hero when I felt that I was at my weakest.

I titled this article “The Importance of Escapism” for a reason. In our daily lives we find ways to deal and cope with the stresses that are thrust upon us by the world. For some people their form of escapism is as simple as going home at the end of a long day and seeing their family. For some, in one of the worst possible scenarios, it is going home and drinking yourself into a state where you forget all the things that drove you there in the first place. For many of us gamers, it is the idea that, for even a moment, we can save the world.

It does not mean that we do not do the best we can in our daily lives. It never means that we do not strive to make our world a better place to live in. It just means that, for a second, we can enter another world and be the heroes that we know that we know we are for just a little while. It means that sometimes, a little escapism helps us cope with harshness of reality and accept that even in the real world, we can still be heroes. We might just have to try a little harder to do so.

With that, my thanks go out to the Irrational Games crew who let me escape on an airship to the world of Columbia for just a little while and to my papa who made me the hero I am today.

I miss you.

Goodnight and good game. –James C Smith

P06-04-139521-02

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Expanding on the works of our fathers: Why do we struggle with sequels and remakes?

These days, you can’t go a week without hearing an announcement about a sequel or a remake whether it be a film or video game franchise. As avid fans of the series that we care about, the trailers for these, no matter the medium, fill us with hope and oftentimes take us back to the reason we loved these stories so much in the first place. A familiar sound or an enchanting song from a game we love gets our heart beating faster and we can’t wait to see what’s in store for us next when we finally slip that game into our consoles to settle in for another adventure.

The moment that intro song plays, all its fans get excited

We idealize the world of game development often, thinking that if a game franchise is popular, the team behind it will stay together forever and continue to weave these amazing tales for us as gamers to become immersed in once again. Sadly, game development is subject to all the laws of the real world, with teams breaking apart like “Team Silent” of the Silent Hill franchise leaving so they could pursue their own personal projects. Sometimes these teams break apart under much worse conditions, like when game studios must file for bankruptcy and the talents behind their biggest games are forced to go elsewhere. Oftentimes when this happens, our beloved properties go to other teams who try to recapture our imaginations with their own unique spins on the titles we love and more often than not, they create something that we are ultimately disappointed with.

Often when we hear about a game that is part of a series we care about, usually at one of the bigger gaming tradeshows, the team behind that game will come out on stage and say something along the lines of: “We know what made this franchise great and we are dedicated to bringing that same sense of action/horror/RPG elements together again to make an experience you will all enjoy”. When the release of that title finally happens we end up with another Silent Hill: Downpour (Metacritic score 68/100) or Final Fantasy XIII (IGN score 8.9/10) and while we hear that these games are good from critics, the backlash from the fan base is overwhelming: “You didn’t live up to your promise of this being the next X game.”

Will any Silent Hill sequel really live up to the expectations of the fanbase?

So the question to be asked is this: Are we able to actually create a game that lives up to the legacy of the previous titles when the main development team is gone or are we as gamers so obsessed with our own nostalgia for these titles that we can’t even begin to fathom a sequel or remake for a franchise we love being better than the games that came before it?
The argument could be made either way for these questions but at its core, we as gamers want both. We hope for a game franchise to continue on past its creator’s inception but oftentimes our nostalgia does cloud our perception of those games that came before. Take for instance the October 2010 reimagining of the franchise Castlevania. Up until this point, all 3D attempts at making a Castlevania title were met with both fan and critical disgust and the idea of creating another 3D Castlevania game was almost considered too taboo to even try again, and why should anyone want to? The 2D series had not only extremely high marks in every release but also had such tremendous commercial success that Konami could have, in theory, produced a title a year and done very well for themselves financially.

October 2010 came and went and Castlevania was released to mixed feelings from the masses. Many exclaimed that because it was a new story that deviated from the (already convoluted, let’s be honest here) main continuity or “canon”, because it was a retelling, they refused to play it on principal alone. Others who took the time to play it said that it was a refreshing way to introduce new people into the series while still being very self-referential to the titles that came before it. At the end of the day, lines in the sand were drawn and shouts across the internet were of: “This isn’t the Castlevania that I loved growing up!”

This game has 75% less wall chicken, we hates it!

This happens more often than not in the industry and as it does we become more tempered against the idea of remakes and re-imaginings. For every commercial success like Deus Ex: Human Revolution, we hear cries from the masses of their hatred of every Silent Hill: Downpour we get.

Is it truly that difficult to make a sequel or a remake to a beloved franchise? I have never done so myself, but I have read over and over again and spoken with game developers that say that it can be a very daunting task. When a game has a strong fan base, you have many people that you are trying to make happy and at the end of the day and you simply cannot please everyone. When a game developer takes the stage, they are not lying to us when they say they are excited to work on a project that is part of a franchise they played growing up even if it does not meet our expectations.

With greatness, comes responsibility

I feel that we as gamers need to take that into consideration when we approach these remakes and sequels that other teams work on. I have never spoken to a game developer that said that they have started a project with the intention of their product coming out less than satisfactory. They will talk about time constraints, budget constraints, but never creative constraints. Sometimes you just don’t have the time to make the game as perfect as you would like but the best you can do is get it as close to perfection as you can.

From there it is up to us, as gamers, to open our minds as well. It is far too easy for us to say things like: “I can’t play the new Silent Hill because Akira Yamaoka isn’t composing for it so it just won’t be the same”. This dismissive attitude is very unbecoming of us as a gaming community. The fact is that the chance for the original Chromo Trigger team to get back together is pretty minuscule and if we are given the opportunity to explore that universe again, we should embrace it. I am not saying don’t be critical of the games you play, simply that we should keep an open mind about the titles we have not had the opportunity to play.

To all you developers out there, we know how insanely daunting creating a sequel or remake of a franchise that has a strong following can be. Be true to your vision and the games that came before and it will show through.

Until next time, Goodnight and Good Game

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Video Games and the Human Condition

We all play games for different reasons. For some of us it is an escape from the drudgery of mundane life, a chance to explore other worlds and become heroes in another world; one we can control. One we can feel like we made a difference in. For others it’s about relieving stress after the end of a long work day. Sometimes it’s just about being social and hopping online with our friends and catching up while we shoot at other people in a World War Two simulation.

No matter the reason we play, we all enjoy the same hobby and take whatever chance we have to play, even if it’s just for a few minutes on the morning commute using our cell phones. The one thing you rarely hear though is someone saying that they play a videogame to feel human, to feel vulnerable to the world and wanting to connect with a virtual environment the way they would reality.

Games like Silent Hill and Heavy Rain put players into situations where they feel like they are making “human” choices but these games are few and far in between. More often than not we play games like God of War to feel like the action heroes that we dreamt about as children and in doing so we sometimes lose sight of what a good story about the struggles of mankind could give us if we could get the gameplay mechanics right.

Few games have the "soul" that Silent Hill has.

This was something that came to mind recently while I was re-watching (for the millionth time) 28 Days Later. I got to thinking about what it IS that keeps us coming back time and time again to zombie movies, for better or worse, while other films about the supernatural come and go without much fanfare. I’ve read more books, short stories and watched more films about zombies than I have anything else and the one thing that keeps me coming back to these infected post-apocalyptic scenarios is that the core of the best of these works is that the primary element is not the creatures themselves but the human element involved. A good zombie movie makes you think, makes you wonder what you would do in that situation and what you would do to survive. In this way, a zombie outbreak is no different than the movies we watch about earthquakes or catastrophic tidal waves or a meteor hitting the earth.

The core of many of these stories is what some people would call: The Human Condition.

A lot of you out there in internet land are not familiar with “the human condition” as it exists in a philosophical sense. There are a ton of works out there that explain it in greater detail and I am going to try and break it down for you in the easiest way possible without you having to do a ton of research on Yalom just to understand the core of my argument. In many ways the idea behind “the human condition” are those things that make us who we are. Feelings of loneliness or a desire to better oneself against all odds are part of this theory.

Sometimes the most dystopian stories make us feel the most human

What’s important here in not delving into “the human condition” as you would in a philosophy class but what the concepts behind it mean to us as gamers. I stated earlier that the human condition is rarely explored in the medium of video games and by saying that I mean that we choose to play games that put us in a superhuman role, one that we feel affords us the opportunity to defeat forces we would normally have no control over. In God of War we are placed in the shoes of Kratos, who has the power to defeat the corrupt Gods of his world. In Devil May Cry we play the son of Sparta, a powerful demon, and can help save the world from the things that go bump in the night. In their own way these things are a metaphor for us having a lack of power in our own daily lives. We watch politicians make bad decisions that affect all our lives and at the end of the day we feel that our own choices mean nothing. In that sense video games are the perfect outlet for trying to control the things in the world that we normally could not.

For many individuals that is one of the great benefits of gaming: We can affect the world in way we normally could never do. In the original Bionic Commando we could fire a rocket into Hitler’s brain. In Legend of Zelda we could save the woman of our dreams and an entire world at the same time. In the Final Fantasy series we could take a planet on the verge of destruction and make it a better place. Why the hell wouldn’t we want to immerse ourselves in a landscape where we are all powerful? Here, in this world, all we can do is vote and hope that change happens in our favor.

Sometimes you just want to yell...at everything

Games that delve deep into the idea of the human condition are few and far between and I think that a lot of it has to do with our desire to escape our reality in one way or another. The big question I have for you as gamers is this: Do you feel more fulfilled when you have completed the average game where you save the world from a great evil when just jumping and blasting his way through the world is the solution or do you enjoy the story of the everyday man who has to confront his own weaknesses and fears to find normality in a world that in his view is abnormal?

I would not be surprised if many of you said that you prefer to be empowered in your games because it plays to that dream many of us have as children, to be the hero and to rise above all odds to make our surroundings a world we want to live in. There are very few games out there that put you in the role of the average, vulnerable human and while you may not appreciate titles that do that I think that there is a severe lack of games out there that make you evaluate yourself as a person and if we are insisting that video games are a form of art, I feel we need to try and explore that concept more.

Often times movies that intrigue us are those that not only entertain but also encourage us to reevaluate our own outlook on life. Films like Fight Club ask us to analyze who we are as people and we praise them for it. Why don’t we ask that of the games that we play? If we can follow James Sunderland through Silent Hill and question the decisions he made in the relationship with his wife, can we not tackle bigger issues? Can we not embrace the medium as a window to the soul more often where we can wonder who we are as a species and what lengths we would go through to protect the people we love?

I don’t want you to walk away from this article thinking I am just trying to spew some philosophical nonsense at you and that I hate the current state of gaming because that is not true at all. I love my Mario and Unreal games as much as I love Silent Hill titles. I simply feel that as the medium of video games evolves we are afforded this wonderful opportunity to use this form of entertainment as a window to our own minds and that is a risk very few developers are willing to take.

In the online arena the debate over video games as a form of art continues and for those of us who feel that it is, don’t we owe it to ourselves to embrace that philosophy and create games that make us think about things like our own mortality? A game where death can is final, or you have you feel a true sense of isolation. Could we make games that make you feel truly claustrophobic or have us try and find a meaning in our characters life? Only future generations really hold the answer to this but I hope that there are still a handful of game creators out there that make us question what it is to be human through the medium. I honestly think that we could all benefit from having a game ask us once in a while: What is it to be human?

Until next time: Good Night and Good Game.

The beauty of video games as art

http://goodnightandgoodgame.com

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My next article is right around the corner but until then…

I’d like to take this time to plug my podcast. We’ve been around for about two months now and we cover everything from video game to technology news. You can listen to us through our website or you can find us on iTunes and the Zune marketplace. Welcome one and all to: The Surly Nerd

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