This is the system that put the gaming industry back on its feet after the crash of 1984.  You could also call it the best system ever made, and with so many great games released for it, such a statement is hard to dispute.  It's the...  
NINTENDO
ENTERTAINMENT SYSTEM
 
     
     
 

GAMES YOU'LL WANT

1943: Who ever would have thought that the mediocre 1942 would evolve into this brilliant shooter?  The World War II setting is perfectly reproduced in this game.
CASTLEVANIA III: This is perhaps the best of the arcade-style Castlevania games, thanks to exceptional graphics and new playable characters.
FINAL FANTASY: Once upon a time, Final Fantasy kept players entertained with rock solid gameplay instead of distracting them with dazzling special effects.
GUARDIAN LEGEND: Compile's exceptional Aleste series took a daring new direction with a game that's half intense shooter and half engrossing adventure.
KIRBY'S ADVENTURE: The Game Boy game was a fun diversion, but Kirby really made an impact on players when he migrated to the NES.
MEGAMAN 2: Everyone's got their favorite Mega Man game.  However, just about everyone would agree that this sequel was one of the best games in the series.
METROID: Welcome back, my friends, to the game that never ends!  You'll get more than your money's worth with this extremely long futuristic action title.
RIVER CITY RANSOM: Sure, the characters may be cute and the dialog may be silly, but this fighting game's got teeth.  It's also got depth and a two player option!
SOLOMON'S KEY: If endlessly dropping blocks doesn't keep you entertained for long, try this stimulating hybrid of action and puzzle games instead.
SUPER MARIO BROS. 3: Mario goes back to his roots in this welcome sequel, which plays much like the first game yet manages to be many times better.

GAMES YOU WON'T

ACTION 52: "Is this any good?  No.  Hey, what about this one...?  No.  Oh, come on!  This one's GOT to be... uh, no.  Are there ANY good games on this cartridge?!"
BACK TO THE FUTURE II & III: Only Acclaim would have the gall to use one crappy game to promote two films.  It's part puzzler, part platformer, and all poop.
BART VS. THE SPACE MUTANTS:  This was a major catalyst in my decision to abandon Nintendo and upgrade to a Genesis.  The Simpsons deserved better.
CONAN: "I, the mighty Conan, fear nothing!  Neither confusing control nor pixellated backgrounds shall stop me from conquering my greatest foe... Andy Richter!" 
FRIDAY THE 13TH: A horrible movie deserves a horrible game, and this is one of the worst.  Can you kill Jason eight times before he quickly slaughters your campers? 
GILLIGAN'S ISLAND: Can you think of a good idea for a Gilligan's Island video game?  Me neither.  Even the designers couldn't think of a way to make this work. 
HYDLIDE: What kind of miserable excuse for an RPG is this, anyway?  The music's straight out of a greeting card, and you kill enemies by rubbing up against them.
ROBODEMONS:  This game takes place in hell.  I must admit, the designers did a great job capturing the feel of a dark abyss filled with pain and agony.
SUPER PITFALL: I'll bet Pitfall Harry was pissed when they told him he was being replaced by a fat, sweaty Italian guy.  "It's a-me, Mario!  I mean, Harry-o!"
TOTAL RECALL: You'll desperately try to forget this one, but those awful graphics and that rotten, frustrating gameplay will keep coming back to haunt you.

REVIEWS

DONKEY KONG CLASSICS
NINTENDO
SIDE-SCROLLING PLATFORMERS

 

I must say that I'm both surprised and amazed by Nintendo's home conversions of Donkey Kong.  I'm surprised the NES version of the popular coin-op, which was crucial to Nintendo's success as a game publisher, is not the perfect translation one would expect.  I'm amazed that Nintendo published it a second time (along with its sequel, Donkey Kong Jr.) with the same flaws and omissions.  Frankly, I think most NES players expected better, and every Donkey Kong fan deserved better after putting up with a half-dozen weak translations for other systems.  An incomplete conversion is understandable on the ColecoVision, but Donkey Kong is Nintendo's own game, and it should have been flawless when designed by Nintendo's own programmers, on Nintendo's own system.  Considering the circumstances, anything less than the absolute best- anything less- is unacceptable.

I'm certainly not expecting too much, but maybe I am overreacting... this conversion of Donkey Kong is far more faithful to the arcade original than any that have come before it.  It blows away the very incomplete, yet strangely popular, ColecoVision game with brighter, more colorful graphics, better sound effects, more accurate physics, and many of the gameplay elements that punched out around the time the ColecoVision game was under construction.  When Donkey Kong throws a barrel in the NES version, it rolls all the way to the bottom of the screen until it reaches the oil can, where it's reborn as a fireball with beady little eyes.  In the ColecoVision game, the same barrel would make a sneaky exit off the side of the screen after rolling past Mario.  This makes the NES version a lot more exciting and intense... all those barrels put a lot more pressure on the player, even if some of them are no longer able to harm him.  Speaking of pressure, Mario doesn't get a free ride from the hammer like he did on the ColecoVision... this less mighty mallet will only destroy barrels if it physically touches them.  If your back is turned when one of Donkey Kong's unwelcome gifts hits you, Mario is gonna die, just as he should.  Even those great little point labels were left intact; leap over something dangerous and the NES will inform you of your reward, unlike the same game on the ColecoVision.  Apparently, the designers didn't think they were important... but screw that!  They're important to me!

Although there's no question as to which version is best, Donkey Kong on the NES is still missing a lot of things from the arcade game.  You could have lived without them in 1983, but you tend to be less forgiving five years later, after you've played the more complex Super Mario Bros.  Just like in the ColecoVision version, the cement factory is gone, and so are most of the intermissions... the only one that made it is Donkey Kong taking a dive after you pull the rug (and girders!) out from under him in the last round.  You'd think it wouldn't be too tough for the NES to draw a black screen with a few silly looking apes stacked on top of one another... after all, it was the same system that turned the otherwise mediocre Ninja Gaiden into a legendary cinematic experience.  This doesn't really affect the gameplay, but the simplified bonuses and less reliable hammers definitely do.  Jumping clusters of barrels nets you... 100 points for each barrel, rather than a much deserved special award.  The new scoring mechanics don't give you much incentive to take a risk and clear multiple barrels at once.  As for the hammer, you're no longer warned when it's about to disappear, which is pretty important information when the barrels get thick.  It would be like Namco releasing a Pac-Man game where the monsters don't flash white before turning back... there's just not enough indication of how long you can count on being protected from the enemies.

The NES version of Donkey Kong Jr. must have been born a year or two after its pop, because it's a more complete conversion of the arcade game.  You get a complete set of rounds, including a power plant teeming with deadly sparks.  It's no cement factory, but it does help close the gap between DK and DK Jr. with its emphasis on jumping rather than climbing.  The intermissions are still gone (which is doubly frustrating, because who the hell remembers them from the arcade game?), but overall, this is a better translation than Donkey Kong.  The other edge of this blade is that Donkey Kong Jr. is an inferior game.  Mario's not a great villain (I don't buy him using a whip, not even during intimate moments with the princess), and Donkey Kong sure as hell doesn't fit the role of the damsel in distress.  Donkey Kong Jr. fares better than either of them... he lacks the appeal of today's video game mascots, but he does have a nice blend of toddler cuteness and gorilla goofiness that adds personality to the game.  However, his inexperience as a hero really shows when he's climbing ropes at various inconvenient speeds and leaping to tiny platforms... then missing them.  The level design isn't very impressive either, thanks to the abundance of vines and chains that slow the game down and make it tough to dodge the flocks of parrots and Mario's wind-up bear traps (I bet these would be a lot more useful to Mario now, although they don't really fit his current harmless image.  Maybe he'll lend a few to Wario when he gets his own GameCube game).

Of course, there are some people out there who probably loved Donkey Kong Jr., and wouldn't mind getting a competant translation of Donkey Kong to go along with it.  I'm sure they'll be satisfied with this cartridge, but I'm not.  I just can't be happy with a good version of Donkey Kong when I'm sure Nintendo could have made a perfect one.

FREEDOM FORCE
SUNSOFT
LIGHT GUN

  

Although it was one of the most widely distributed peripherals ever, Nintendo's Light Zapper didn't get much use past the obligatory games of Duck Hunt when players first took their systems out of the box.  How many other light gun games do you remember for the NES?  I'm guessing that, unless you had a subscription to Nintendo Power from the very beginning and still haven't let yours lapse, you can only come up with Operation: Wolf and possibly Baby Boomer... and that's only if you were a sadist who thought you could actually fire at the baby.  Whatever you came up with, it's unlikely that you thought of Freedom Force at all.  That's a shame, because this often ignored Sunsoft release was easily one of the best NES games specifically designed for the Zapper.

As the name suggests, Freedom Force has you and a friend (if you don't mind passing the gun around like a hot potato between rounds) battling terrorists.  Neither the identity of these bag-headed bastards or their ambitions are ever really explained in the game itself, but hey... they're terrorists, and they're holding Americans hostage.  What more motivation do you need to blow them away?

Like most NES Zapper games, Freedom Force is more a test of accuracy than today's over the top titles, which require fast, constant firing.  Once a terrorist is shot, you can put the rest of his body in a bag and forget about him... this isn't House of the Dead, where you have to puree' the enemy with bullets before it finally gets the point and stays down.  Speaking of which, it's worth pointing out that Freedom Force is pretty simplistic in comparison to Sega's light gun games.  You can't break any background objects, and there are no hidden items.  The few bonuses you can get are collected from the lower right hand corner of the screen rather than from enemies.  Just be careful when you try to get these, because the computer likes to throw in an icon of a terrorist... nick this with a bullet and the screen will quickly become congested with angry bagheads.

That's one thing that keeps this admittedly simplistic game from becoming boring... it can get intense.  You'll have to fire quickly and precisely to tag all the terrorists and keep yourself from being injured by their sprays of machine gun fire and grenades.  The hostages and a limited supply of ammo keep you from getting too reckless, although you can rack up quite a body count before the game bothers to punish you for your mistakes.  Aside from this, the game is pretty realistic... instead of shooting cute duckies or cardboard cutouts, you're in a serious real-life situation, and the game very nicely reflects this.  Enemies don't just flash when you shoot them... they'll collapse, sometimes falling out of windows and always spurting a little blood.  The animation in general is excellent for an early NES game... you can see just how evil the terrorists really are when they shove hostages into doorways, hoping to use them as a diversion, then yank them back out if you don't take the bait.  The music is just as exciting, especially once the penalty icon's been hit... after an initial note warning you of your mistake, the soundtrack becomes incredibly frantic.  If you remember the boss fights in Sunsoft's more popular game Blaster Master you'll know what to expect.

Unfortunately, Freedom Force's requirement of a light gun kept players from paying much attention to it when it was first released, and it's just as detrimental now that most people play NES games on emulators.  Most emulators just don't have support for light gun games, and the few that do expect you to play the games with a mouse instead.  As you might imagine, it's a lot tougher to kill a terrorist with a mouse than a gun, not to mention a lot less satisfying.  That's why I couldn't really recommend Silent Scope for the Dreamcast, and it's why I can only recommend playing Freedom Force on a real NES.  Sure, it takes a lot of effort to actually get a Nintendo Entertainment System to work, but you'll be happy you struggled with it after you've played a few games of this outstanding shooter. 

HOGAN'S ALLEY
NINTENDO
LIGHT GUN SHOOTER

 

Since picking up Freedom Force, I've gotten into the odd habit of collecting NES light gun games.  However, if most of them are as bland and uninvolving as Hogan's Alley, I'll probably kick this habit like a bad... well, you know.

There are three different modes in Hogan's Alley... the first is a very simple reproduction of a police firing range.  Three cardboard cutouts are pulled into the end of a corridor, then flipped around revealing both dastardly criminals and mild-mannered citizens.  The artwork for these characters is probably the best part of the game... they're very well drawn charicatures of sleazy thugs, grumpy old men, and stick-wielding, big-chinned cops.  You can almost hear the Edward G. Robinson imitation when you blast that snarling mafia boss, complete with sunglasses and a corsage.  Unfortunately, this silly yet savory Nintendo cheese is spread across a very thin cracker... you'll deal with the same number of targets in the exact same places every single time, and you'll spend more time waiting for those targets to roll into place than firing at them.

The game picks up a little in the second mode, which takes the same six targets and distributes them throughout a small, simply drawn city.  All you'll find in this town are a construction site, a gun shop (which makes sense, since nearly everyone in the game seems to have one), and an apartment building, all drawn with text and leftover Super Mario Bros. and Donkey Kong graphics.  They're functional at best, but the backgrounds do give the targets more places to hide, rather than lining up in neat little rows just waiting to be picked off.  Some of the cutouts will even move while they're vulnerable, too, which adds variety to the game (boy, does it ever need some).

The final mode, the can toss, is the most clever but also the most frustrating game in Hogan's Alley.  In it, cans will fly from the right of the screen, and you've got to guide them to the ledges on the left by firing at them.  The lower the ledge, the higher the points you'll get... however, if the can hits the side of the ledge rather than landing on top, it bounces off and forces you to continue firing to keep it in mid-air.  This portion of the game is frustrating because the cans are very small, and you'll generally miss them unless you fire several times.  After a few minutes of this, your fingers start hurting because the Zapper's trigger is so hard to squeeze down... and because you keep pointing the middle one at the screen when the cans somehow pass through your hail of bullets and fall off the screen.

I'm not sure if Hogan's Alley was this dull and annoying as an arcade game, or if this is yet another of Nintendo's lackluster arcade translations, with more accurate graphics than conversions for older systems but the same incomplete gameplay.  Whatever's the case, you should save your ammo for something better... I personally suggest the aforementioned Freedom Force.

MECHANIZED ATTACK
SNK
LIGHT GUN SHOOTER
   

OPERATION WOLF
SNK
LIGHT GUN SHOOTER
   

Please excuse any typos you might find in this review... I'm typing this with only nine fingers.  The tenth fell off from a frantic session of Mechanized Attack and I think the cat carried it under the couch.

That's the problem with both of these games... they're just not suited to the NES and its light gun.  I didn't have many complaints about the Zapper before, but after the arthritis-inducing combination of Operation Wolf and SNK's derivitive Mechanized Attack, its limitations become pretty clear.  The same gun that was great for simple, slow-paced target shooting just isn't a match for hundreds of angry, sometimes bullet-resistant soldiers... the Zapper's trigger is too tight to squeeze repeatedly over a long period of time.  Also, the screen flashes that were tolerable in Nintendo's less demanding light gun games become overwhelming here... they're enough to make an epileptic's head explode.

If you think you can handle all of that, you're going to have a lot of fun with Mechanized Attack... although not so much with Operation Wolf.  After milking the game in arcades for years, Taito evidently didn't think that it would be important to spend much time porting it to the NES.  The situation was reversed for Mechanized Attack... this clone of Taito's extremely popular light gun shooter didn't get much attention in arcades, so SNK used its second chance more wisely, making the home version of Mechanized Attack good enough to keep Zapper fans playing even at the risk of snapping off their trigger fingers.

Mechanized Attack benefits greatly from SNK's extra attention, which you'll see once you compare it to Operation Wolf.  The graphics are more detailed and clearly defined, making it easier to pinpoint and take down each enemy.  The backgrounds in both games are pretty repetitive, but you won't mind seeing five screens of the same jungle quite so much in Mechanized Attack thanks to the more intricate artwork.   There are enough soldiers in SNK's game to keep you blasting, but never enough to make you feel helpless, which was a common occurance in Operation Wolf.  Mechanized Attack also gives you extra lives to go with your two credits, giving you a shot at beating the game.  Frankly, you'll be lucky to beat the first round of Op Wolf thanks to its unfair difficulty.  Even the control is better in Mechanized Attack... both games force you to press a button on the joystick to launch a grenade, but it's much more reliable in SNK's shooter... once you press the button, you can count on your character throwing a grenade in the exact spot you're holding the Zapper.  Finally, Mechanized Attack has a wide variety of bosses, some very large and a lot of fun to fight against.  I've never found any in Operation Wolf, although it's possible they do exist... when you can't make it past the second round of the game, it's hard to say for sure.

The only thing that Operation Wolf does better than Mechanized Attack are intermissions from the arcade game, and even those are a little disappointing... where once there were detailed backgrounds behind your soldier, there is only empty blackness.  Mechanized Attack gives you a single picture of your soldier getting gunned down, and that's more impressive than any three of Operation Wolf's stills put together.

If you think that Nintendo's more sedate light gun games are too light on incoming and outgoing lead, you'll be thankful for Mechanized Attack.  As for Operation Wolf, it's best played with a real gun, using the cartridge as a target.  Just be sure to use a high calibur weapon on this low calibur game.

NINJA GAIDEN
TECMO
ACTION

 

Sometimes less is indeed more. Having just gone back and played both of these games, I can say that the dramatic departure of the simpler yet almost paradoxically more clever NES game from its arcade counterpart is something to behold. How, pray tell? Well, let me attempt to explain.

The arcade version of Ninja Gaiden is basically a Double Dragon clone with impressive graphics, poor controls, unimaginative enemies, and inscrutable action. Although the scissor leg grab is well-done, thatís about the only thing Iíd say is inspired. Basically you run around in two and a half dimensions fighting the same two or three clones (one Jason Vorhees lookalike, one vest-clad stick-wielding biker type) with poor moves.  All those clones eventually and quite unfairly gang up on the player... donít they have the decency to attack individually like in nearly all other martial arts contests? Much of the stuff on the streets is breakable, revealing gems, vitamins, and other items invaluable to a ninja battling thugs. On the rare occasion that a sword is given, of course, it only lasts a short duration. Not that your ninja ever thought of using the sword on his BACK, mind you. It seems rather silly that the best attack is performed by grabbing overhead bars and using the leverage to kick with both feet. In addition to that, all sorts of unfair objects like oncoming traffic will cause the player to mindlessly continue until the enemies and obstacles have been overcome. The only neat thing about this whole game is the CONTINUE? screen which depicts our helpless martial arts expert (deservedly) about to be bifurcated by a rotating saw. Ninja Gaiden certainly doesnít have the ability to hold interest like other quarter munching fighters like TMNT, Crime Fighters, Double Dragon, The Simpsons, Shinobi, or even Bad Dudes.


However, the NES version is quite different. Why this was given the same title is a mystery. This is your basic side-scroller, but in addition to your sword are useful powerups including throwing stars, fire, the ability to freeze time, "boomerang" shurikens, and others. The appearance of the levels, characters, bosses, etc. are merely adequate, as are the sounds. However, the challenge of each level and surprisingly attractive cinematic sequences will keep gamers coming back for more. Itís hard as hell to complete some of these jumps while avoiding and/or annihilating enemies at the same time, but you just KNOW you can do it if you persist. A very tough, very enjoyable game, the original Ninja Gaiden on the NES is my personal favorite in the series.

So, avoid the arcade game, but donít miss the NES version of Ninja Gaiden. Hopefully the update will be worthwhile, too...

 
     

 

Nintendo's next home console was a worthy successor to the NES, with an equally large selection of games but vastly improved 16-bit graphics and sound.  A slow clock speed was the only thing holding back the...  
SUPER NES  
     
     
 

GAMES YOU'LL WANT

FINAL FANTASY II: Double the pleasure, double the fun... this RPG's twice as good as the first one.  It's got a stronger storyline and a marvelous soundtrack.
MORTAL KOMBAT II: Even if you're not a Mortal Kombat fan, you'll still find something to like about this perfect translation of the best game in the series.
ROCKMAN & BASS (JPN): Mega Man 7 was a bit of a letdown, but this Japanese exclusive, loaded with great artwork and animation, more than makes up for it.
SECRET OF MANA: If you liked Zelda but wish you could play it with a friend, Squaresoft's charming action- adventure game will be like manna from the heavens. 
SMASH TV: The home version of Midway's steroid-drenched shooter loses some of the graphic luster of the arcade game, but absolutely none of the intensity.
SPACE MEGAFORCE: The Super NES extension of the always fantastic Aleste series is more sterile than other versions, but its level designs and weapons are superb.
SUPER MARIO WORLD: Mario's 16-bit adventure is both faithful to the first three games and very impressive, proving that the Super NES deserved its title.
SUPER MARIO WORLD 2: It's quite a departure from your typical Super Mario Bros. game, but the changes are welcome and refreshing.  It's just soooo cute, too!
SUPER METROID: The third Metroid game offers all the exploration of the first two and ups the ante with improved graphics and a haunting soundtrack.
TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES: TOURNAMENT FIGHTERS: This arcade quality fighting game was a dream come true for fans of the heroes in a half shell.

GAMES YOU WON'T

BILL LAIMBEER'S COMBAT BASKETBALL: Back in the early 90's, the Pistons reserved their sucking for video games rather than the basketball court.
BRANDISH:  Falcom took a boring adventure game and made it even worse by shifting the screen every time your character turns.  Mmm... disorienting.
CALIFORNIA GAMES 2: I wish they all could be... a lot better than this.  This alleged sequel to the Epyx sports sim should be put behind bars for mode seven abuse.
HOME ALONE: This was T*HQ's first game on the Super NES... and the reason they earned a lousy reputation with gamers, which haunts them to this day.
PIT FIGHTER: Hey, this is kind of impressive for an NES game!  Oh wait, this is a Super NES game.  Forget I said anything.
RISE OF THE ROBOTS: You won't get a rise out of this impotent fighting game.  Sure, the rendered graphics are pretty, but the gameplay is pretty damned awful.
SPACE ACE: People didn't think it was possible, but they crammed all the frustration of the arcade game into a Super NES cart.  Oh, and some of the video, too.
STREET COMBAT: People mistakenly believe this fighter was better when it was called Ranma 1/2.  The sad fact is, it sucks with or without the anime license.
TOM AND JERRY: Perhaps the worst thing to happen to Tom and Jerry since those weird Czechoslovakian episodes.  It's a very dull, very ugly platformer.
VIRTUAL BART: This contains everything you'd expect from an Acclaim game... a popular license, trendy buzzwords, and above all, abysmal gameplay.

REVIEWS 

BIKER MICE FROM MARS
KONAMI
RACING
 

As humiliating as it is to say so, I have to admit that I like this game.  Back in the early 1990's, Konami had a habit of buying the rights to the most ridiculous cartoons and turning them into surprisingly good games.  I'm not sure if they do it for the challenge, or because their marketing division is as clueless as their programmers are talented.  Whatever's the case, I'll have to live with the shame of openly enjoying a game based on one of the most shameless Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles rip-offs ever made.  Thanks, guys.

Anyway, Biker Mice From Mars is a racing game, very similar to Super Mario Kart but with an isometric perspective that's more reminescent of Interplay's Rock 'n Roll Racing.  Its blandly colored, repetitive scenery isn't as impressive as the more realistic visuals of Super Mario Kart, but Biker Mice does offer the advantage of a wider range of vision, allowing you to better anticipate road hazards as well as the racers behind you.  There's no way you're going to get clipped by an unseen turtle shell in this game... if someone's about to attack you, you'll be able to see them line up the shot before firing.  This gives you the chance to, as they might say in biker circles, get out of the way if you want to lead and not follow.

Generally speaking, Biker Mice is very logically designed, with great ideas that haven't even been implemented in the most recent Super Mario Kart games.  Each character has their own special attack which replenishes every time they finish a lap... you're given just enough of them to keep the game from being frustrating but not so many that you're given an unfair advantage or are tempted to waste shots.  Players also get a random prize as a reward for completing a lap... if you're ahead, you'll generally get a sack of money for your efforts, but if you desperately need to catch up with the other racers, the computer will usually give you a nitro boost or even a star that makes you deadly to the touch.  Simply put, Biker Mice rewards you for top performance but gives lagging players a chance to get back into the game, keeping each race very close and very intense.

After every race, you'll get the chance to spend your prize money on accessories for your bike... or floating orb, or insect mech, or whatever you happen to have.  Each item noticably improves your ride, unlike a lot of these games where upgrades are negligable at best.  For instance, buying armor gives your vehicle another hit point (extremely important in the battle mode) and picking up missiles increases your stock of special attacks.  You can also improve your engine and tires, and as usual, it's a good idea to keep your traction and top speed well balanced... this isn't Drag Racing Mice From Mars, after all.

The graphics aren't exceptional, but they're faithful to the cartoon, and as usual, Konami put in a lot of little details that help add variety to the repetitive tracks.  Fireworks will go off at the last lap of any track sponsored by the game's shop Last Chance, and little crabs will fall out of any trees you bump into while racing in the tropics.  The special attacks are well animated, too... Grease Pit's mines reduce you to a melted pile of sludge on contact, and Karbunkle's mutant ray is pretty amusing... it's fun to watch one of the racers transform into a three eyed dwarf and desperately try to catch up with everyone else, with a pair of tentacles trailing behind him as he runs.  The best looking scene in the game is when a set of five races has concluded and the mice are literally seperated from the men.  All six racers are set on a long, straight track and all kinds of nasty things happen to the losers.  The best players manage to survive every catastrophe, and even outrace the track itself as it crumbles, reaching the winner's circle a split second before tumbling into the wreckage.

The artwork's only occasionally impressive, but the soundtrack is, like most Konami games of the time, exceptional.  It's got the same infusion of intense rock and familiar cartoon riffs that the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles games had, and although I could have done without the Biker Mice theme, everything else sounds great.  If you liked the cartoon, then everything will sound great to you, even cornball catchphrases like "Let's Rock... and Ride."

Yes, I'm willing to admit that I like this game.  I'm even willing to recommend it to everyone else.  But please, PLEASE, Konami, watch your licensing department a little more closely from now on.  I don't want to have to put my seal of approval on a Mega Babies game... 

KRUSTY'S SUPER FUN HOUSE
ACCLAIM (FOX WILLIAMS)
ACTION/PUZZLE
 

The Simpsons have been one of the hottest licenses back in the day and still possess amazing staying power after all this time.  However, their games have definitely been hit or miss.  Fortunately, Krusty's Super Fun House is one of the better titles based on the exploits of America's favorite animated family.

In an odd yet refreshing twist, you are cast as one of the supporting characters, Krusty the Klown, who must rid his latest attraction of the mice (possibly ratsÖ I donít have the instruction booklet!) that have infested every room. For reasons that donít really matter, Krusty eschews calling the pest exterminators and takes it upon himself to get the job done. Not only are there rats to contend with, but certain items must be collected before each area can be cleared, including but were not limited to flyers announcing the Fun Houseís opening. All of this is basically an excuse to use elements from Tetris, Lemmings, Gussun Oyoyo, and other classic puzzlers in a Simpsons game, and the result is more or less positive.

Krusty traverses each room and must use blocks or other moveable objects to manipulate the rats into traps operated by other Simpsons characters. There are enemies including aliens and snakes which must be dispatched using pies or bouncing balls. Only one object may be carried at a time, and each block must be precisely placed at the right time to achieve your objective. The mice climb one square at a time, and will turn and walk away if more than one block is on top of each other and directly in their path. Fortunately, blocks may be turned into makeshift staircases, and there are a variety of other helpful items... tubes and elbow joint pipes may be interconnected, creating a pathway which leads the rats to their doom, and wind blowers force the rodents into otherwise impossible to reach places.

The game's level design is well done and creative. KSFH start out simplistic and straightforward, but once the beginning levels get the player accustomed to its play mechanics, a daunting challenge awaits. Sometimes crossing the fine line between challenging and frustrating, this game is very rewarding once you finally do figure out just how the hell to get those damn mice to their sadistic, well-deserved demise. Like Lode Runner, this is one game that needs a suicide button, as sometimes you will inevitably make mistakes that leave you with no means of escape or victory. If this werenít aggravating enough, sometimes you will successfully rid a long, pain-in-the-ass level of all the mice only to be required to go back again because you didnít pick up the prizes or flyer or whatever the hell needs to be done before the door will be secured with a padlock. Your reward for all this hard work is a trip to an even more difficult funhouse.

In this type of puzzler, audiovisuals are not as important as gameplay. Here, the graphics and sounds are adequate but not outstanding. One nice touch is that the circusy music can be turned on or off during gameplay. The soundtrack is actually cute and appropriate, but I do find myself electing to play without a background score as this game requires a large investment of time and carnival tunes played ad nauseum will sooner or later drive me as mad as the title character. Posters and inside jokes are visible in just about every room, and instead of a health bar, Krustyís energy level is depicted by a charicature which grows more tired whenever the clown is injured.

Krustyís Super Fun House is one of those neat little games that slips through the cracks. Maybe Acclaim should stick to puzzle/strategy games, as this is one of the few winners in their lineup. Recommended.

MEGA MAN 7
CAPCOM
SIDE-SCROLLING PLATFORMER/SHOOTER

Here we go again... Capcom knows damned well that there's no need for another one of these games, and yet slapped together Mega Man 7 in a rather obvious attempt to pander to the few but obnoxiously loud fans of the all too familiar series. I'm not saying that I didn't enjoy the first few games: in fact, I still consider the first Mega Man to be a revolution in NES game design, but that was nearly ten years ago. It's 1996 now (er, well, it was...), and Mega Man 7 shows no improvement over the NES games which spawned it. The graphics for instance are incredibly ugly, with gaudy purple backgrounds and milky fore- ground pastels which don't even scratch the surface of the SNES' extensive color palatte. Music? It's a cross between the jaunty NES tunes and the new, anime' inspired themes in Mega Man X (and Mega Man X2, and Mega Man X3, and... uh, you get the point...), so there's nothing new here either. And finally, we have the control. It's pretty good, but that means nothing when the game itself so unforgivably retread... some rounds are nearly identical to those in the second NES game, and surprise, surprise, you're forced to deal with the infamous chamber 'o bosses in Dr. Wiley's castle as well. It's like paying for a second copy of a game you already own! If you own any, and I mean ANY, other Mega Man game, you've already seen all there is to see in this one, so pass it by.

 
     

 

 
Nintendo hoped they could once again dominate the video game market with this console.  Unfortunately, the system that burned brightly when it first debuted burned itself out after a few short years.  That's the sad story of the...  
NINTENDO 64  
     
     
 

GAMES YOU'LL WANT

FIGHTER'S DESTINY: The innovative point system adds authenticity to this game's tournament setting.  It's probably the best fighter you'll find on the N64.
MARIO KART 64: It's tough to choose between this and Diddy Kong Racing, but ultimately, Mario Kart 64 takes the winner's circle with less frustrating gameplay.
PAPER MARIO: Super Mario RPG on the Super NES was good... but this is better.  It's bright, colorful, and chock full of personality.
SIN AND PUNISHMENT (JPN): After the somewhat lackluster Mischief Makers, it was a relief to see Treasure get back to making stylish shooters.
SUPER MARIO 64: Mario was the first mascot brave enough to set foot in the third dimension, blazing a trail many others would follow.

GAMES YOU WON'T

CLAY FIGHTER 63 1/3: Instead of bashing this fighting game, which would be really easy to do, I'll just recommend that you buy Konami's Rakugakids instead.
POWERPUFF GIRLS: CHEMICAL X-TRACTION: You'll extract this from your N64 as quickly as you put it in.  Imagine Power Stone without the frantic fun.
SOUTH PARK: CHEF'S LUV SHACK: Here's a game only a mother could love, and I don't mean a bad mother like Chef.  The trivia and minigames are mighty lame.
SUPERMAN: It ain't super, man.  It's like what would happen if the man of steel accidentally flew into a copy of Pilotwings that someone threw into the toilet.
XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS: Suck the soul out of Soul Calibur and this would be the unfortunate result.  It's a shame, because Xena deserved better than this.

REVIEWS

KIRBY 64: THE CRYSTAL SHARDS
NINTENDO (HAL LABS)
SIDE-SCROLLING ACTION/PLATFORM

I can't help but think that I'm starting to outgrow the Kirby series.  I was pretty fond of Kirby's Adventure on the NES, and this sequel on the Nintendo 64 has much of what made that game great, plus colorful and attractive polygonal graphics.  For some reason, though, it just didn't keep me entertained the way the NES game did.  Rather than getting me excited about every new round like Kirby's Adventure, The Crystal Shards made me want to finish stages so I wouldn't have to bother with them again.

Perhaps the reason for this is that Kirby 64 is a more straightforward game than Kirby's Adventure.  That game was packed with museums, bonus rounds, arenas, an enormous amount of power-ups.  By contrast, Crystal Shards gives you a lot of platforming levels, some bosses, a few cartoon intermissions, and that's about it.  You get a chance to score extra items after every round, but hopping onto a picnic blanket to grab them is a pretty lame excuse for a bonus round.  Speaking of lame extras, there are a few mini games you can play with your friends, but they've got about as much meat to them as the games in Mario Party, and they're poorly integrated, too... you don't even have to earn them in the story mode to play them!

Kirby 64 still plays fairly well, but HAL Labs made some changes to the gameplay, hoping to improve it.  Some of the tweaks make a lot of sense... for instance, Kirby can still fly but only for a short period of time, making the game more challenging than previous Kirby titles.  You'll have to get through some areas with well-timed jumps rather than just floating over every obstacle, and this is definitely a good idea.  However, some of the other changes to the gameplay don't work so well.  Kirby's gigantic selection of weapons has been trimmed down to six, but you can combine abilities a'la Gunstar Heroes by throwing one bad guy at another or eating them together.  I guess I should appreciate the extra depth this adds to the traditionally simple Kirby gameplay, but I can't help but think that the new weapons are kind of weak.  Earth, fire, ice, needle, bomb, and boomerang are just as dull as they sound on their own, and when you combine them, you're left with weapons that are disturbing (I'm sorry, but Kirby would never, ever stick exploding shuriken between the eyes of his enemies...) and sometimes horribly unbalanced.  To give you a good example, dynamite can harm both you and your opponents, but the refrigerator lets Kirby spit out an infinite amount of food that heals the player but damages the bad guys.  When you've got a weapon like this, why bother with anything else?

Another serious problem with the gameplay is that The Crystal Shards seems a whole lot slower than the other Kirby games... you can make Kirby run by double tapping on the controller, but even then he just isn't fast enough.  Things get even worse underwater, where you're even slower and you CAN'T double tap to run.  Of course, since The Crystal Shards is your typical side-scrolling platformer and the game's designers are your typical sadistic bastards, there's an entire world covered with water, and it just... never... seems... to... end.  By the time you finish it you'll consider ripping the cartridge out of your N64 and throwing it in the nearest lake.

Now that I think about it, maybe I haven't outgrown the Kirby series... perhaps HAL Labs just didn't do a good job designing this particular Kirby game.  Superficially, Kirby 64 looks like it's got everything that made the previous games in the series wonderful, but there's more to Kirby's world than cute characters and memorable scenery.  I hope the designers of this game realize this when they start work on the next one. 

PAPER MARIO
NINTENDO
ROLE-PLAYING GAME

I recently found a review of Paper Mario on the web that began, "Boy, this game sure went down the toilet the moment Square left the project."  This, of course, proves that it's never too hard to find morons on the Internet.

Yes, Paper Mario, the sequel to Super Mario RPG on the Super NES, doesn't have Square's support behind it.  Of course, this also means that it doesn't have cheesy computer rendered graphics, dark, confusing playfields, generic battles, or hours of full motion video starring characters that don't matter to you, either.  Intelligent Systems knew better than this, giving this game three things Super Mario Bros. fans really want: addictive gameplay, familiar characters, and a whole lot of personality.

RPGs are a prickly genre for me... it takes me a while to warm up to most of them, if it ever happens at all.  However, this wasn't a problem with Paper Mario... I loved it right from the start.  The storyline, slightly altered from Super Mario RPG's, was no big surprise, but I really enjoyed the dialogue... and just like Super Mario RPG, it had that same delightfully silly flavor throughout the entire game.  Unlike most role-playing games, you'll enter each town looking forward to all the conversations... you may even start looking for townspeople just to talk to them.  Better yet, they've got names, stories, and relationships of their own, so they're not just the walking signs you've come to expect from other adventure titles.

The graphics are impressive, too... Intelligent Systems left the computer rendering of Super Mario RPG behind and tried a gimmick of their own, one that let them capture Mario's world much more faithfully.  As the title suggests, Mario (and every other character in the game) is a paper cutout, and they're all drawn perfectly... Shigeru Miyamoto himself couldn't have done better.  And although there aren't as many sight gags about the flat characters as there were in Parappa the Rapper, the designers do occasionally have fun with Mario's missing dimension, spinning him around in battles and swirling him down pipes.

An added bonus to drawing Mario as a flat object is that all those extra polygons can be devoted to the backgrounds... and man, are they great.  The towns are colorful and full of scenery, and some of the locations have breathtaking details like drifting snow and paths made of glittering stardust.  Some of the playfields are nicer than others, but I guess that's the point... you'd expect the green hills and cool waters of Yoshi's Island to be more vibrant than the appropriately named Dry Dry Desert.  No matter where you happen to be, jumping into a battle changes the scenery into a stage with hanging props... something I haven't seen in a video game since the release of Dynamite Headdy for the Genesis.  You may or may not like it, but one thing's for sure... you can't call it an overused cliche'.

Oh yeah... that reminds me of the battles.  The fights in most role-playing games can get boring, especially since most of them are exactly alike.  However, Paper Mario has a lot of features that help make them more entertaining, or let you avoid them entirely.  As was the case with Super Mario RPG, enemies don't just pop out of nowhere... they run around the playfields with you, and if they spot you they'll try to start a conflict.  However, you can defend yourself... if you stomp or hammer an enemy, or sic one of your partners on them, you'll damage them before the battle even starts.  Sneaking around or running from enemies is also an option, although some of the bad guys are pretty intent on starting a fight.  Fortunately, since they're based on classic Super Mario Bros. characters, they have all of their weaknesses.  Remember, a Spiny isn't so dangerous when it's on its back, and Bob-Ombs won't get the chance to hurt you if you can make them detonate before they attack.

As you can tell, Paper Mario is a lot of fun if you're a fan of the Super Mario Bros. series, but none of those games were perfect, and neither is this one.  First of all, the battles can be fun, but they're limited as well... none of your partners are treated as full-fledged party members, and you can only use one of them at a time.  If you took the rather flammable Lady Bow into a battle with fire-based enemies and need to select a more suitable character, you can switch to that character in the middle of the fight, but it will cost your partner their turn, and sometimes, you just can't afford to lose that extra firepower.  Also, you're not allowed to damage just any enemy with any attack... if, for instance, there's a particularly obnoxious Magikoopa behind a row of Clubbas or Dry Bones, you won't be able to reach him with the hammer or another close range attack.  Finally, although the sound effects are great (Bombette's explosion really packs a punch!), the music is not.

Oh well... if I have to sit through some overblown, repetitive tunes to play a terrific game like this, I'll definitely do it.  I don't play many RPGs, and I won't finish many of the ones I do play... so when I find a game like Paper Mario that keeps me entertained to the end and leaves me wanting more after it's finished, you know it's worth buying.

SHADOWMAN
ACCLAIM
ACTION/ADVENTURE
 

I was absolutely sure I'd end up hating this one.  The normally docile mainstream video game press ripped Shadowman to shreds, and I was ready to do the same thing when I watched my friend Matt play through part of the first stage.  Whoohoo, Tomb Raider in hell.  Isn't just playing Tomb Raider hellish enough?  I was about to write Shadowman off as another overhyped Acclaim flop, but then, something happened.  When Matt fired up a saved game with Shadowman lost deep within the cavernous world of Deadside, I started to notice how incredibly well designed this world was.  Every level was an intricate puzzle, filled with branching paths which often lead to rooms with important items left just out of your reach.  I urged him to open every door... flip on every switch... swim through every sea of blood to find the next dark soul.  Then I took over, and that urge to discover every hidden path and item became an insatiable need.  The repetitive wall textures, the monotonous backtracking, and the awkward control were instantly forgotten.  All that mattered was finding out what was around the next corner... and the next... and the next.  Sometimes it would be a door just begging to be unlocked, and other times it would be a freakishly dressed zombie with a gun pointed right between my eyes.  The bastard could kill me a dozen times and I'd come right back for more, all because there's another dark soul in the level, calling my name like the ghost of a long lost love. Damn it, I MUST HAVE THAT SOUL!!!

Er, um, sorry.  As I mentioned earlier, Shadowman is a lot like Tomb Raider in that you're armed with a gun but do as much exploring as enemy blasting.  It shares quite a bit in common with Legacy of Kain:  Soul Reaver, too, because your character walks a thin line between life and death and can visit either plane of existence at will.  However, thre are some subtle differences... Shadowman can't die from falling long distances like his big breasted counterpart (because as my friend put it, he's already dead!), and his gun fires these strange beams of light which can be powered up by holding down the appropriate button.  Like Soul Reaver's Raziel, he can be defeated by enemies, but instead of being transported to an alternate dimension to regain his strength, Shadowman is simply returned to the beginning of the current stage.

The graphics and sound won't raise the dead, or anything else, for that matter... the walls have some pretty good textures but they're a bit overused, and this coupled with the very long rounds and lack of reference points makes it very easy to get lost.  And confused.  And frustrated.  The game as a whole is pretty dark and dingy, so don't expect any spectacular lighting effects... however, some of the enemies and the strangely clear pools of blood aren't too shabby.  The music fits the mood, and in one instance, the plot... you'll be tormented by the carefree laughter of a small child cut off by the whine of a circular saw in one stage.  This disturbing sound bite gives you a taste of the trauma Shadowman experienced when he watched his little brother die, but after hearing it a dozen times, you'll hit the mute button on your remote to keep the voices in his head out of yours.  The control is a bit goofy (Nintendo found some pretty weird places for buttons on that controller of theirs!), but it's still better than Tomb Raider's, and the gun battles are more natural than the rather clumsy fights in Soul Reaver.

Is Shadowman better than the games that inspired it?  No, not really.  The game as a whole is a little contrived and doesn't feel as solid as, say, Soul Reaver... and Shadowman's big bad voodoo daddy doesn't hold a black candle to the much more threatening Raziel.  Still, those of you who spent dozens of hours exploring every last cavern in Metroid will be quite happy with Shadowman's endless convoluted tunnels, and the enormous amount of items hidden within them.

SIN AND PUNISHMENT
NINTENDO (TREASURE)
SHOOT EVERYTHING THAT MOVES
(and some things that don't)

Treasure.  A game company that brings drool to the lips of thousands of even the most jaded fanboys.  With the insane difficulty, complex simplicity, and ultra-articulated bosses of their games, the company has gotten quite the following.  The ex-Konami developers have their quirks--their "no sequels" policy, for example--but they've won the hearts of many gamers.

One of their sublimely simple efforts is Sin and Punishment for the N64.  One of the last games to come out for the "Fun Machine," this game challenges the gamer with two simple rules:

1) If it moves, shoot it.
2) If it doesn't move, shoot it anyway.

The plot of the game is actually quite interesting.  In the year 2007, much of Japan has been overrun by genetically-engineered monsters called "Ruffians."  An American military organization called the "Armed Volunteers" has come to Japan ostensibly to help repel the invaders.  However, this being a futuristic setting, and a paramilitary force being what it is, the Volunteers have gotten a bit heavy-handed, forcing rebellion to the minds of three teenagers: Saki (15, male), Airan (16, female) and Achi (13, female).  The three eventually cross paths with the lieutenants of the leader of the Volunteers, a young man by the name of Brad who seems to have prior experiences with Achi.  She apparently gave him some of her blood, which gave him some of her power; mainly, he can speak to his subordinates from afar (with a pretty cool "floating eyes" shot) and attack those who would harm his soldiers with the power of his mind.  And he's a demon with a sabergun.

The "sabergun," as I call it, is the solitary weapon you get in this game.  The weapon has four functions: aimed fire (has to be precisely aimed, but does decent damage), lock-on fire (can lock on, but does less damage), sword (close-range, does great damage), and deflection (deflects certain missile-like projectiles at the targeted monster or scenery).  There aren't really any power-ups for the weapon, but the game is set up so that you don't really need them (apparently, Treasure learned from their mistake in Silhouette Mirage of adding in weapons that served little to no real purpose).

The controls are simple--in most stages, you're on rails moving forward, with one or two side-scrolling levels.  You mainly move to the left or the right (in most cases, this means strafe) using the D-pad or the C-buttons.  The shoulder triggers make your character jump, A toggles lock-on and aimed fire, B can disengage a lock in lock-on mode, and Z is the attack button (performs all attack functions).  There's also a 2-player mode that has one player move the character, and the other shoots.

The graphics aren't too impressive--don't get me wrong, they're anti-aliased, and they don't glitch.  However, they're still fairly low-resolution.  This can be forgiven, however, because of the massive flow of humanity (and inhumanity) that you must engage.  The characters are pretty well-designed--including Saki later in the game, where he looks like he's wearing M.C. Hammer pants (the result of a partially-reversed physical mutation); or Radan, an early boss.  The sound is actually quite excellent for the much-maligned cartridge format.

There is a diverse array of music, as well as an excellent array of voice acting.  The strangest thing about the game is that the dialogue is spoken in English, and pretty good English, at that.  In the tradition of Resident Evil, the producers, perhaps with a US/Europe release in mind (which never developed), had English-speaking voice actors do the lines.  NOT in the tradition of Resident Evil, the dialogue is actually pretty intelligent, without the horrors of the language barrier.  There are Japanese subtitles, incidentally (if you just HAD to know), but they can be turned off by beating the game on Normal difficulty.

The gameplay is simple enough to hook you, but there's enough to the game to keep you interested--no mean feat for what would seem to be a warmed-over Space Harrier clone at first blush.  You can get enemies as you pass them with your blade, and you actually have options as to how you want to rid the screen of foes.  For instance, if there are three enemies on a platform, you can either pick them off one at a time or shoot out the platform.  However, you only get credited for direct kills--an important point, since you get an extra continue for every 100 kills--so you have to make that decision depending on your circumstances.  There are even real races against time, including the "railgun firebomb" sequence, in which you have to destroy a railgun shell before it hits a mutated Saki.  Of course, Saki is firing at you (he's mutated and thus delirious), so you can actually position yourself so that the shell is in the path of the blasts.  The part before the railgun shell sequence involves a Death Star-meets-Battletoads sequence in which you have to dodge electrical bolts to slash a railgun chamber.  Also, the final boss may remind you of Missile Command gone mad.

The characters are actually pretty compelling--Airan, who becomes the midpoint main heroine after Saki is "lost," is actually a pretty good "strong female lead" for the game, and Brad actually cares about his lieutenants to the point of giving them blood transfusions and protecting them in battle.  And, I'm sure he gives them full dental coverage, as well.  ;)  Achi plays the "mysterious ally" part pretty well, seeming to be on your side, only to double-cross you at the least opportune moment.

The game is fairly short, but not too easy.  For the 45 minutes to an hour of each play-through, enemies are thrown at you from every conceivable angle.  It's nothing that you can't eventually learn to handle, and this is the kind of game you play to top your personal best.  Try to find it on Ebay; most places are sold out of it, and even if they had it, you'd probably pay a heinous price for it anyway.

Stay tuned for my next review of the LAST N64 GAME EVER, Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 3 (to be released early August).


Preface: I know that just about everything that can be said about this game has been said already, but it definitely bears repeating.  If we're to avoid suffering a game like this again, we must continually and continuously remind the world of this horrible, horrible game. And more than anything else, we can only hope that one day, Titus shares Acclaim's fate.

SUPERMAN 64
TITUS
"ACTION"
 

It would be easy to write a cookie-cutter Superman 64 review.

"It's Superman 64. It sucks."

But that would not adequately capture just how bad this game really is. If you took the badness of pretty much every licensed Acclaim game (well, except maybe the Mary Kate & Ashley ones) and harnessed it into one single game, it would likely not be as bad as Superman 64.

To start, we have the graphics. Not only does Superman look more blocky than his Bizarro counterpart, but apparently Lex Luthor--in his infinite zeal to kill Superman, no doubt--has somehow managed to purchase all the fog from London.

The sound is okay, I suppose. Nothing to write home about, but it captures the mood about as well as can be expected. Considering that the one thing that can be turned off is the one thing they got right (or more appropriately, didn't get horribly wrong), I can't help but wonder what Titus must have been smoking.

Now to the gameplay. The first level--a mandatory training level--goes in the following pattern: Fly through hoops, do something. Fly through hoops, do something. Fly through hoops, do something. Apparently, this must have been originally designed as a game that let you play as Krypto instead of Superman. The "fly through hoops" part is easy enough, but the "do something part" can be frustrating when the car you're supposed to keep safe from exploding explodes before you can do anything about it. That arbitrary factor--the fact that sometimes the game decides to screw you over (though it's fair that it's a warning)--makes this training level the ultimate endurance test. I think this is the most repetitive sequence in a game since the hoverbike level in Battletoads.

In summation, this game is the worst game ever made. It's worse than Final Bout, it's worse than E.T., it's even worse than Fellowship of the Ring. The fact that my N64 didn't come to life and kill me in the shower because of this game is the only possible redeeming factor I can think of about this game. If there were any justice in this world, the Titus offices would be leveled to the ground. (And for those of you who feel that this sounds too extreme, I would point out that I could have easily added "with all of Titus' employees in them" to the end of that sentence.)

I should note that there was a Playstation version of Superman in the works, but it was ultimately canned. I guess, either be thankful or be afraid.

SUPER MARIO 64
NINTENDO
POLYGONAL PLATFORMER
   

Yes, Super Mario 64 justifies most of the positive response that it's received from countless fan-eds and professional game rags, and even I was blown away by the game for the first fifteen minutes, but that's the problem... I'm not sure if most people have actually played SM64 for more than fifteen minutes. It takes at least a few hours to reach the game's later rounds, where you begin to realize that things aren't all secret stars and incredible graphics in Mario's latest adventure... there's frustration, too, and plenty of it. Take, for instance, the Bowser stages. Nintendo never passed up a chance to capitalize on Mario's battles with this gigantic Koopa boss, but there was nary a mention of how difficult it is to actually REACH him in its press releases and advertisements for the N64. You see, the Bowser stages (among others) are set above a bottomless pit, making it very easy to fall to your death if you don't jump from platform to platform with near surgical precision. I've always hated this about platform games in general, but with SM64's 3-D perspective and touchy analog control, it becomes almost unbearable. Don't even talk to me about the ice slide in the Snowy Mountain stage... I've never been so tempted to smash a rented controller into a thousand tiny pieces. What I'm trying to say is that SM64 is an excellent game in most respects, but for heaven's sake, don't buy it and an N64 before playing it for at least two hours. This is one game you can't judge from a first impression. 

TONY HAWK'S PRO SKATER 3
ACTIVISION (VICARIOUS VISIONS)
EXTREME SPORTS SIMULATION
 

With Tony Hawk 4 on the horizon, it seems a bit odd to be reviewing its predecessor. But this is a special case--it's also the final Nintendo 64 release. A moment of silence, if you will...

Anyway, the game generally plays very well, with the combos as easy to pull off as the other versions of the game (PS2, GC, XBox). The primary issue is that the buttons on the Nintendo 64 controller are not laid out in quite the same way as the PS2 or XBox joypads, but this is just a momentarily vexing factor, and it's easy enough to handle. There's not much music, with only six songs, including The Ramones' "Hey, Ho (Let's Go)" and something by Motorhead. The songs themselves are also a bit truncated, due to the limited cartridge space. They sound great, though, which is an important factor; besides, they have the Ramones. What more do you need?

Finally, the areas seem to be a bit smaller, as well. However, they still provide hours of fun trying to get S-K-A-T-E and the videotape. Basically, this game warrants an easy six. It's a serviceable port of the game, but given the limitations of the N64, it couldn't possibly capture the complete experience.

TOHKON ROAD
HUDSON SOFT (YUKE'S)
WRESTLING
 

Pros: It's easy to pick up and play, has actual entrance themes and voices.
Cons: Few characters, it just wants to be Smackdown too much, controlling it with the analog stick? O_o

Hudson made a few wrestling games for the Nintendo 64 based on the New Japan Pro Wrestling promotion. The engine was developed by Yuke's, the company that did the engine for the Smackdown series of wrestling games.

The graphics lack light sourcing, which means the arenas are quite dark. However, the characters seem to be well-animated in this game.  The game actually presents actual entrance themes and voices for the wrestlers. Which isn't too hard considering that it doesn't even feature 20 guys. And that even includes the three secret guys, two of whom are alter egos of the regulars.

The control is fairly easy; the only major issue is that you have to move your character with the analog stick. I'm used to using the D-pad to move my wrestler and the analog stick to taunt. Hudson seems to be trying to reinvent the wheel here, and while it works out all right, the formula Aki had worked just fine. Basically, A, B and A+B by themselves perform strike moves, and holding Z with these buttons will grapple. The C-left button will perform pretty much every other function--run, whip, pick up, turn over--and Z+Cleft at the side will pin the opponent.

The game isn't awful, but there's just too much that could have been so much better. It's "acceptable," but it just seems too unambitious and rushed.

TOHKON ROAD 2: NEW GENERATION
HUDSON SOFT (YUKE'S)
WRESTLING
 

Pros: Major improvement from the first one, after less than a year
Cons: Still using the analog stick for movement, are we?

Some might remember my review of Tohkon Road for the Nintendo 64.  It was a bit threadbare as wrestling games go, even when you consider that it came out in 1998.  Less than a year after the release of the first game, a second was released.  If that doesn't say "recipe for disaster," I don't know what does--do I need to mention "Tomb Raider" here?

All fears aside, this sequel is actually significantly better than the first game.  They actually have a commentator announce the wrestlers before they come down, there are three possible arenas (big Tokyo Dome-style, medium-sized stadium with banners over the sides for each wrestler and small arena), and each wrestler has four different outfits.  In some cases, these outfits actually correspond to "younger" versions of the wrestlers.

Also, there are entries to the ring; that is, you'll see your character make his way to the ring from the entryway.  And certain characters (nWo members) have special pre-intro light shows before their intro in the Dome.  Otherwise, they'll just get the standard "N... W... O" introduction that most WCW fans became accustomed to in the late '90s.  The gameplay is much like the first Tohkon Road (A and/or B strike, Z+A  and/or B do grapple moves, moves vary depending on opponent's condition).  However, certain moves can only be activated after taunting.  For example, the Great Muta can do a superplex to a groggy opponent in the corner.  However, if you taunt beforehand, he'll
instead spew mist in the opponent's face and do a Frankensteiner instead.

The most amazing thing about this game is that I believe it was the first wrestling title to have an actual career mode, where you progress for a year in New Japan Pro Wrestling.  You'll fight your way to the top of the rankings, and possibly win tournaments and titles.

Finally, certain characters (such as at-the-time-recent retirees) have special endings in the career mode.  With all this improvement, I have to give this game an 8.  The only flaws I can really see here are the dearth of match options (no ladder matches, etc.) and the use of the analog stick for movement.

VIRTUAL PRO WRESTLING 2
ASMIK ACE (AKI)
SPORTS (I GUESS)
 

Pros: Excellent selection of guys, great moves, Vader

Cons: Only one licensed promotion in the whole bunch--this could have been a "real-life" FirePro game

One of the most lauded engines in wrestling game history is that used by AKI in such games as WWF No Mercy, the first two WCW games for N64, and even Def Jam Vendetta. The Japanese game series that uses this engine is called Virtual Pro Wrestling. For the most part, the characters in these games are unlicensed, "please don't sue us" counterparts of the stars of the unlicensed promotions. 

The second game, however, has a license with one of Japan's Big Two--All Japan Pro Wrestling. Founded by Shohei "Giant" Baba, this promotion has generally emphasized competition over contrived storylines--which pretty much could be applied to most Japanese promotions and independent promotions worldwide.

The game features a large number of guys, totaling almost 100 total. Of those, 21 are the licensed guys, which include a lot of names that are much more familiar to those who get Japanese tapes in general, such as Baba himself, Gary Albright, Kenta Kobashi, and Johnny Ace; as well as some familiar faces to all, like Vader and Kimala.

The game is familiar territory to anybody who's played No Mercy--tap to perform weak attacks, press to execute strong ones, analog stick taunts and does specials. The match options include time, blood, run-ins, as well as something that had not been done in a wrestling game up to this point--shootfighting mode. This mode allows you to play like the many "mixed martial-arts" leagues in Japan. In fact, some of the guys are geared toward this style, actually being able to force opponents to the mat with strong grapples and subsequently pummel them to the approval of the crowd.

The moves are very impressive and cringe-worthy in some cases. Such moves as the Cradle Piledriver, the Tiger Driver '91 (basically, it involves dropping the victim on the head with no protection whatsoever) and miscellaneous other slams, drivers, breakers and bombs.

Plus, it has Vader. Any game that has a guy who weighs 400 lbs and can do moves that most guys half his weight don't do can't possibly suck. It's a law. Find somebody to get you on Lexis-Nexis or something.

The "career" mode puts you (and a partner of your choosing) through a year of AJPW. You'll win titles, participate in league play, tournaments, and battle royales. What's interesting about this game is that the main title is three belts. For some reason, this just brought a smile to my face.

The entrances are fairly well-done, with the star (and his second, if applicable) in a locker room, and the two walking to the ring.

There is actually entrance music and announcers. If you're one of the licensed guys, you'll actually hear your weight and name. If you're one of the "names have been changed to protect our sorry asses" guys, you'll just get something like "4P Resuraaaaaaa!" instead of even trying the name they gave them. Then again, I guess there wasn't enough space. That said, even the generic music is good. That's a rarity, I suppose.

In short, find this game on Ebay, buy it, etc. Trust me on this one. I got mine for roughly $45. Getting it in some online store would have set me back $70+ easily. And that's if they had it in stock.

WRESTLEMANIA 2000
T*HQ
WRESTLING

This is itÖthe grand daddy of ALL wrestling games. Easiest to play, best selection of characters, awesome create-a-wrestler mode, excellent graphics andÖwell, ok sound. Nothingís perfect.

Me, being the biggest pro wrestling fan on the planet, went out and bought a Nintendo 64 just for this game! Yah, it was a used one, but as long as it works, I am happy. After playing this game, all my wrestling video game dreams came true. Itís a World Wrestling Federation game, which is a huge plus, cause WCW sucks crap. Everyone is included. Mankind, Rock, Edge, Gangrel, Gerald Brisco, Big Show, and even all the ladies are in there!

A huge plus is the fact that this game uses the incredibly easy WCW Revenge engine. Moves are easy to pull off, unlike that WWF Attitude crap on Playstation. Playability is very high for this game, and beginners will have no problem nailing a Rock Bottom or Mandible Claw.

Graphics are very good too. Everyone looks like their WWF counterparts; they even walk and taunt the same ways! Every single little detail has been included. Mankind has Mr. Socko, Al Snow has Head, and Godfather even comes out with a ho! Now thatís realism for ya! All the pay per view rings and environments are here too!

A plethora of play modes and matches including Royal Rumble, First Blood, Steel Cage, 3 Way Dances, and a lot more! Youíll never got bored with all the options in this game. Try to Road to WrestleMania and see if you can become WWF Champion! Unlock hidden characters such as Dude Love and Shawn Michaels while on your quest! Game just keeps you coming back for me.

Challenge in this game is pretty good. Not perfect though. I can pretty much beat any computer opponents whenever I want, except for maybe the upper tier guys. Just be VERY cautious, use weak moves all the time, and if you get into a jam, get a garbage can from the crowd and beat the living hell outta the poor sap!

Create-A-Wrestler is a very cool option, allowing you to make any wrestler you want! Just about every move is available to give your wrestler, and the appearance choices are plentiful. I like making my friends in the game and having them duke it out. Now thatís fun, especially with four people!

Downside to the gameÖ.the sound is not all that hot. Very passable though. Also, creating a female wrestler in the game is kinda a letdown, as the options are very limited. Other than those two gripes, this game is very complete.

In the end, if you are a wrestling fan, you MUST have this game. No bones about it. All the great WWF stars are in there, and if you are a WCW fan, just make Goldberg and Dallas Page! Their moves and taunts are in there! From graphics to playability to all-out fun, this is the greatest wrestling game I have ever played.

 
     

 

All of Nintendo's handhelds were exceptionally popular, but this was the first one that was truly exceptional.  Its powerful hardware let players enjoy 32-bit quality games on the go for the first time ever.  This system really deserves the name...  
GAME BOY ADVANCE  
     
     
 

GAMES YOU'LL WANT

CASTLEVANIA: ARIA OF SORROW: Any of the system's Castlevania games are worth buying, but the variety offered here makes it especially hard to pass up. 
CHU CHU ROCKET: Sega's puzzler, which plays like a faster paced Lemmings, just seems like it belongs here rather than on the Dreamcast.
FIRE PRO WRESTLING: Great wrestling games are hard to find, but fans of the sport can always count on Fire Pro for a complete and satisfying experience.
GURI GURI BLOCK CHAMP (JPN): Forget every puzzle game you've played before... this is a whole new animal. Instead of rotating the blocks, you turn the entire screen!
KONAMI ARCADE ADVANCE: Konami really aimed to please with this collection of six great games, all with added bonuses and new rounds.  They succeeded.
MARIO KART: SUPER CIRCUIT: Anyone who's played the previous Mario Kart games won't be surprised by the quality of this one.  If you like racers, you'll want this.
OLD AND NEW BUBBLE BOBBLE: Bubble Bobble was a childhood favorite of mine, and I'm relieved that MediaKite did such a great job with this conversion.
PAC-MAN COLLECTION: Namco's second collection for the Game Boy Advance introduced the world to the fun and addictive Pac-Man Arrangement.
SONIC ADVANCE: Sonic on the GameBoy... who'd have thunk it?  This is actually better than the Genesis games, with more characters and animation.
STREET FIGHTER ALPHA 3: Although there's some voice missing, this is the next best thing to playing one of the home versions.

GAMES YOU WON'T

DEFENDER: Too bad Eugene Jarvis couldn't defend the good name of his classic shooter by preventing Midway from turning it into this unplayable mess.
EARTHWORM JIM 2: Could have been so beautiful, could have been so right.  The Genesis and Super NES versions were great, so why couldn't this be as well?
FLINTSTONES: BIG TROUBLE IN BEDROCK: The only trouble you'll have while playing this boring, generic platformer is staying awake.  It's yabba-dabba-doo-doo.
HOT POTATO: It's not a completely horrible puzzle game, but there's just something about those oversexed mutant spuds I find incredibly disturbing.
JIMMY NEUTRON: BOY GENIUS: I'll grudgingly admit that the show's not so bad, but Jimmy's games are almost as fun as passing kidney stones.  Almost.
JIMMY NEUTRON VS. JIMMY NEGATRON: He's 0 for 2, folks!  This time, Jimmy sets out to defeat his archrival in a clumsy, frustrating 3D platformer.
MIDWAY'S GREATEST ARCADE HITS: You could always count on Midway's classic collections to be terrific... until this was released.  A huge letdown.
MORTAL KOMBAT ADVANCE:  Midway once again crushed peoples' hopes into the dirt with this miserable conversion of Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3.
SHREK: SWAMP KART SPEEDWAY:  It's just like Mario Kart: Super Circuit.  Except the frame rate's been cut in half and the weapons make no sense at all.
TANG TANG: It may have been inspired by Solomon's Key, but it'll take the patience of Job to get through this banal action/puzzle hybrid.

REVIEWS

CASTLEVANIA: ARIA OF SORROW
KONAMI
ACTION/RPG (THINK SUPER METROID)

Pros: More like Symphony of the Night than ever, interesting plot twists, interesting gimmick
Cons: Still no max/min-ing of stats (yeah, I'm grasping at straws)

This is the third Castlevania game for the Game Boy Advance. The first one, Circle of the Moon, was pretty good, but it was very dark--making it the "perfect" match for the GBA's screen. The second, Harmony of Dissonance, was brighter and better-animated, but the music left something to be desired. This third one, on the other hand, seems to get it all right.

The plot begins at the Hakuba shrine, in the year 2035. You are Soma Cruz, an exchange student staying in Japan. You are at the shrine to witness a solar eclipse. When the eclipse occurs, you and the daughter of the shrine's caretaker, Mina Hakuba, wind up at the gate of Dracula's castle. You meet a mysterious man named Genya Arikado, who tells you that you must find a way out of the castle. As he says this, you are attacked by skeletons, but you actually absorb the soul of one of them. You find that you are able to take the souls of your enemies, using their abilities against them. With these abilities, you must find your way out.

The characters are quite well-animated, smoothly moving and attacking. Larger monsters will often fall apart upon dying. The music is pretty good, even if one would be hard-placed to find sound-alikes in the archive of the mind. Voices, as sparse as they are, also sound good; everything from an evil maid welcoming you (in Japanese, of course) to a succubus exclaiming as she charges you to a character actually saying "Hello" to you.

The system of the game is a lot like Symphony of the Night, giving you weapon, armor and accessory slots. But also, there are three soul slots: an attack soul (activated by up+B), a guardian soul (activated by hitting R), and a status soul (which can increase certain stats or prevent certain ailments). Less common are the "ability" slots, which let you double-jump, super-jump, slide, or even backdash.

The most impressive moment in the game, in my opinion, was the bossfight against Balore. You expect to meet the giant bat from the other Castlevania games, but a giant fist crushes it in a gout of blood.

My only problem with this masterpiece of a game was the inability to "min-max" your character. I know it sounds a bit crazy, but it would add a bit to the game if you could customize your character, perhaps making him into a "tank" or an engine of gathering rare items and souls.

DRAGON BALL Z: SUPERSONIC WARRIORS
"ATARI" (BANPRESTO, ARC SYSTEMS)
AERIAL FIGHTING
 

Pros: It's a Dragonball Z game that's actually good, and it actually works around the "balance" issues in some ways.  The "what if" stories are nice, too.

Cons: The game seems to lend itself to cheapness (which, to be fair, can be said of just about any Dragonball Z fighting game), "purchasing" system to unlock fighters

Well, it was bound to happen sooner or later.  The wearers of Atari's tattered flesh brought to us a Dragon Ball Z game that's actually good. The game was actually published in Japan by Banpresto, the "evil" twin of Bandai (evil in the same sense of that "evil" Cartman from an episode of South Park).  But in a first in 2D DBZ fighting game history, they picked a development team that actually knew something about fighting games--Arc System Works, the developers of the Guilty Gear series.

The result is a good, fairly-balanced game that is fun to play.  The graphics and sound are about as true to the series as a portable system could muster, and the control is simple-- B does a light attack, A does a strong attack, L tags out, R charges, R+A does a strong fireball, R+B does a weak fireball, and R+A+B does a context-sensitive super attack. The attack done by R+A+B depends on both the "power" of the character and the position relative to the opponent; for example, Freeza's Death Ball can only be done at 100% power above the opponent.

The system of balance is exhibited in that the characters each have three levels, denoting a particular level of power for the character.  For example, Level 1 Gohan is norman super-Saiyan, while Level 2 is super-Saiyan level 2, and Level 3 is "Mystic Gohan."  The system typically can have up to three characters on each side, but the levels of all the characters combined can only be up to 4.  So, it's sort of a mix between Marvel vs. Capcom 2 and Capcom v. SNK 2 in its balance system.

Another good feature here is the fact that you can go through each saga individually, as well as go through a "what if" scenario, in which you can explore the possibility of Freeza acquiring the Dragon Balls and of Majin Buu going through our heroes until he fights off his dark side and becomes a hero.

However, I said this was a good game; I didn't say it was great.  It still has its little bouts with cheapness... for example, some of the Androids in the game can fire light energy blasts ad nauseum, allowing them to pin down an opponent very effectively.  Also, the super attacks can sometimes be too easy to avoid.

Another problem can be the system whereby characters are unlocked.  One must purchase these characters with "Zenie" earned in the story mode and through challenges.  I understand that certain characters and levels may be too "powerful" to be available from the start, but it's a little strange to have to buy even goon-level guys like Ginyu.

With all this, we have a good-- but not great -- Dragonball Z game.  But all that puts it above most other DBZ games ever released.  I'd definitely recommend at least a rental for this game.

GUILTY GEAR X ADVANCE EDITION
SAMMY (ARC SYSTEMS)
FIGHTING

Arc System Works are the greatest company that most people have never even heard of.  These genii of gaming are responsible for the biggest shocker of the PSX's history--a well-animated 2-D fighting game, Guilty Gear.  The game was impressive, considering that it was on a console for which 2D was a distant afterthought.

Flash forward to 2000, where they, under the aegis of Sammy, create Guilty Gear X on the much more capable Naomi hardware, allowing for an easy port to the Dreamcast.  Among the features included were improved graphics running at an unprecedented 640x480 resolution, a tweaked engine, and two primary sources of cheapness removed ("win match by default" kills, multi-level special moves).

Flash forward--again--to 2001, where Sammy releases Guilty Gear games for Dreamcast, PS2, and Wonderswan Color, and announces a port of Guilty Gear X for Nintendo's wonder system... no, not the Gamecube, the Game Boy Advance! Many doubted their ability to do this, citing the lackluster KOF:EX as an example.

But Sammy succeeded where Marvelous Entertainment failed.  Sammy knew not to trust the task of porting over GGX to any company other than the one that made it--Arc System Works.  With this in mind, Sammy set Arc to the task at hand, ordering them to not come out until they had given their all to port the game over.

Did they succeed in recreating the GGX experience? (What, did you think I would purposely truncate it for the purpose of coolness?)  In my opinion, yes.  The characters have all their moves, even the "power-up" techniques of Johnny and Jam, as well as the "random" maneuvers of Faust, the "baldhead"ed doctor. The round-ending "instant" kills are present as well, and the effects of certain maneuvers, including Faultless Defense and Millia's hair slashes, are created as well as the GBA's 32-bit heart can pump them out.  The music is like a toned-down version of the original tracks, but you can still catch the fever created by the tunes.

The characters are smaller than usual (shades of Samurai Shodown SNES, anyone?), but they're still animated and detailed very well.  There is minimal slowdown during some of the more intense "instant" kills, but believe me, when one of the players is already doomed, it doesn't affect gameplay one iota. They even incorporated the "Heaven or Hell" from the original arcade game, with a somewhat subdued voice saying it as well.  Certain areas are toned down graphically, however: The select screen no longer seems to have the "Please select of [sic] a character" bars running along, and the win screen doesn't have the "endless in a victory of a [sic] yourself" text appearing almost HotD-like.  There also don't seem to be taunts, but if taunts are going to keep you from buying this game, I really have to warn you to hold on to those straws.

As an added bonus, the end text is in English, so you'll most likely be able to understand what you were fighting for. :)  This is definitely on par with SSFII Turbo Revival in terms of portable fighting games.  This is a Guilty Gear X-perience you shouldn't pass up.  There, I did it.  Happy?

FINAL FANTASY TACTICS ADVANCE
NINTENDO (SQUARE-ENIX)
STRATEGY
 

Pros: Lots of classes and abilities, great music, Laws, good number of quests.

Cons: Certain abilities are over-powered; music seems inappropriate at times, Laws, some classes seem superfluous, plot seems transparent, seems too easy

First off, we have the best known of the three games here, and most likely the most anticipated. In this game, a boy known as Marche and his friends find a mysterious book. After reading it, they all go home and sleep, after which they somehow wind up having their town turned into a fantasy world. Marche has to find out how this happened, and also how to change it back.

One of the interesting things in this game is that each fight is governed by "Laws." These laws affect what you can and cannot do in the fight; for example, one Law might prevent you from using Fire-based abilities, while another might prevent you from using projectile weapons. At first, the laws can feel frustrating and confining, but as you progress and can "change" laws, you can use them to your advantage. If you violate the laws, youíll either get a yellow card or a red card, depending on the number of offenses and the nature of the offense (if you kill an enemy in the violation of a law, youíll get a red card). Red cards will send you to prison, while yellow cards will earn you a mere warning. Both will issue you a fine, however, affecting your items, equipment, money, or stats. To get the cards removed, you will have to go to the prison and send the affected party member to jail for a set number of battles, as well as pay a token fine. This, however, is better than the alternative-higher and higher fines. Also, if Marche gets imprisoned, you get an automatic Game Over. So be careful.

The customization in this game is pretty good. Each character can use the abilities from up to two classes at once, which can occasionally benefit the "secondary" class with more beneficial stat growth. To learn new classes, you have to master a certain number of abilities (learned from weapons) from one or more classes. The different types of abilities are Action abilities, Reaction abilities (used as defenses, like "Counter," "Reflex," which can actually dodge an attack, or "Block Arrows"), Support abilities (like Maintenance, which can prevent equipment theft; or Immunity, which allows you to resist status ailments), and Combo abilities, which allow more than one character to attack an enemy at once for hefty damage. The problem with the abilities is that certain abilities seem unbalanced, like "Damage > MP," which causes an attacked character to lose MP instead of HP. Unless you have your characters swarm a character using this, heíll effectively be invincible. Meanwhile, some of the classes seem to be mere "means to an end"-Beastmaster is only useful if you want to either a) teach a Blue Mage abilities, or b) build up to a Morpher or Sage.

The music in this game is very well done. The only complaint I have is that some of it seems inappropriate-when youíre fighting zombies, you donít need to hear a light-hearted tune.

Meanwhile, the plot plays out with certain quests. The different quests are battle quests, negotiation quests, searching quests, and "clan battle" quests. All but the "clan battle" and battle quests require you to dispatch one character for either a set number of days, a set number of battles, or until a set number of enemies are defeated. If youíre not careful, you may find yourself short-handed, and the plot seems to only involve a small percentage of the quests.

Yet another problem lies in the Laws. They are governed by a judge, who seems to keep any fallen members of your party from dying permanently. You donít have to be as careful in this game as in other games, unless thereís no judge, in which case the battle is anarchy. Also, some of the laws are really a pain, like the "Dmg 2" laws, which prevent you from doing damage to a certain race, or even to monsters.

This game is pretty good overall, but itís not the best game out there. A lot of the value of the game lies in the Final Fantasy name. That said, the upcoming FFXII seems to borrow from it, using its races and universe. Overall, the game, in my opinion, deserves a 7 out of 10.

FIRE PRO WRESTLING
BAY AREA MARKETING (SPIKE)
WRESTLING

The Fire Pro Wrestling series is legendary in Japan.  The depth of the game engine, along with the amazing customization possible, have been acclaimed the world over.  Each game in the series has seemingly myriad characters to choose from, each with several dozen maneuvers.  And all this without a license from any major US or Japanese federation.

It was only a matter of time before one of these games came over here, and in fact, Fire Pro Wrestling A for the Game Boy Advance was brought over for the system's US launch.  And again, there is nary a license to be had.  But that's not a bad thing... it's a GOOD thing.  I'm sure most of you remember many licensed wrestling games--ECW Hardcore Revolution, anyone?--that don't really capture the atmosphere of the federation in question.  And let's not get started on WCW Backstage Assault.  My point is, without a license, Spike was able--nay, forced--to make the game shine on its own merits, rather than just try to make it sell based on its association with the WWF.  And boy, does this game shine.

First of all, the characters all look and act enough like their real-world doppelgangers to overlook the nagging lack of license.  And the gameplay is scaled back (consider that the FirePro games have been made for every system from the Super Famicom to the Saturn to the Dreamcast) just enough to accomodate the layout of the GBA, but not so much that it's too simplistic: B does light attacks, A does medium, B+A does strong, R runs, and L allows your superstar to catch his/her breath.  And to grapple, you just walk into the opponent--a FirePro staple.

About that breath thing... Another hallmark of the FPW series is its realism. The characters will actually get tired over the course of the match, and if you hit them right, they'll even "bleed."  There's a slight redness on the character then, and at the moment of bloodletting, you can hear a scream.  In fact, if you overexert yourself, even if you have the upper hand in a match, you'll barely be able to move!  And if you see "CRITICAL!"--well, suffice it to say that the match is over.

There are a diverse amount of matches available, as well.  1-on-1, tag team, handicap (2-1), 4-way matches (normal elimination, last man standing, or over-the-top), exploding electric cage matches (you don't win, you survive), and even a UFC-style octagon brawl.

The superstars seem to represent virtually every federation in existence (at the time of the game's release, anyway :P)--WWF, WCW, New Japan, All Japan, NOAH, FMW, as well as several shootfighting organizations such as PRIDE and UFC (the whole Gracie family seems to be in full effect), and even guys who aren't in any fed (at the time, including Rob Van Dam, Abdullah the Butcher and Sabu) or even wrestling anymore (Andre the Giant, Bob Backlund).

Also, there are "audience matches," in which you have to progress through various tiers of matches, getting a certain level of approval.  But in each mode, the audience favors a different approach:  One audience might favor 2-minute squashes, while another might go for 30-minute classics, and another might favor dirty tactics such as low blows and forks to the head.  If you manage to get through the mode in question, you'll unlock secret superstars, including Ric Flair, Johnny Ace, and Shawn Michaels.

With a total of over 200 superstars, you'd think there would be no need for more, though.   However, Spike know what their audience wants, and they put in a create-a-wrestler feature that's actually pretty damned meaty.  You can change the skin tone of your fighter, the head, the size of the clothes (small, medium, large or fat), and even decide how he double-teams his opponents.  And there's even some fairly good entrance music in this game--including a dead ringer for Stone Cold Steve Austin's music.  And of course, you can pick three taunts--one for your entrance into the ring, one for the match, and one after your hard-fought victory.  This stands in stark (VERY stark) contrast to THQ's Road to Wrestlemania, which only has about 20 or so stars and has no create mode.

In short, this is probably the single best portable wrestling game ever made--and like SNK vs. Capcom for NGPC, it will be the standard by which all others in its genre will be judged.  If I had one complaint, it's that they don't have proper hardcore or cage matches--and would it kill them to put in a ladder match?  (Maybe it would, in which case, I apologize ;)  If you have a GBA, and even remotely enjoy wrestling (even in the "guilty pleasure" vein), buy this game.

KING OF FIGHTERS EX NEOBLOOD
MARVELOUS ENTERTAINMENT (ARTOON, SNK)
FIGHTING (1-1, 3-3)
 

Solid SNK died.  But they came back.  Either they survived, or there are two of them...

Sorry, wrong game.  Anyway, about six months ago, I heard about a King of Fighters game being released for the Game Boy Advance.  The game was actually being done by a company called Marvelous Entertainment, a company that also does such things as anime dating games and distribution of an anime called Medarot (Medabots in US).  I was pretty psyched to get this game--it was supposed to fill in the gap between KOF'97 and KOF'99.

Now that I've played it, I'm not so sure it's THE game.

Don't get me wrong, it's a good game.  The graphics are good, and the only real trouble I had with the controls were doing qcf, hcb motions and doing SDM's.  To do SDM's in this game, you have to hit both attack strengths. However, the strong attack buttons are the triggers, and getting the timing off consistently requires mastery of the Force or a third arm.  Also, there's a significant lack of frames here.  Not so much that it's unplayable, but there's definitely a noticeable lack of animation.  Also, the collision on the command throws is very picky--you have to be right next to the guy to land a Super Argentine Backbreaker by Clark.

From the get-go, there are 18 characters to play as here.  Six others are designated strikers, and there are also "extra strikers" from KOF Evolution.  The designated strikers are Shingo (Kyo's team), Joe (Fatal Fury), Yuri (Art of Fighting), Whip (Ikari), Chin (Psycho Soldier) and Jhun (Korea).  The "protagonist" team in this game is made up of Kyo Kusanagi (of course), Benimaru "Polnareff" Nikaido, and a newcomer by the name of Moe (that's Mo-eh) Habana, Kyo's caretaker of American origin (her parents are Japanese).  Her attacks seem to give off cherry blossoms the same way that Kyo's give off flames.

The plot seems to be the same: KOF tournament, invitations go out, secret goings-on revealed.  Some of the designated strikers are actually explained out of the game by the storyline (Yuri has the mumps, Joe is entertaining the king of Thailand).  Of course, Iori can't be too far behind Kyo; indeed, he serves as the game's sub-boss.  When you beat him, the organizer of the tournament, our old sky(scraper)diving friend, Geese Howard, makes his appearance.  Apparently, he enlisted Iori to help him attain the Orochi power, or something like that.  The endings seem a bit "sparse;" they entail Geese saying something, then his background exploding, then your team standing outside Geese Tower saying something, then Iori standing outside Geese Tower saying something, then the credits.  Hmmph.

The music seems to be pretty well-done, representing an approximation of some of the KOF2000 themes, including the Psycho Soldier team's 2000 theme.

In short, it's a good game that could have been much better.  Marvelous is good, but they're no SNK.  Just as well, because there's only room enough for one SNK and one Big Boss!  Wait, what are you doing with that dart full of horse tranquilizers?

<phoot>

So sleepeeeeee zzzzz...

KING OF FIGHTERS EX 2: HOWLING BLOOD
MARVELOUS (PLAYMORE, SUN-TEC)
FIGHTING
 

Pros: Much improved over original, great new characters, incentive to excel
Cons: The sound leaves something to be desired

The first King of Fighters EX game was not particularly good. It played as some approximation of the KOF series, but the collision was worse than the Game Boy games, the sound was inconsistent, and the animation was horrible. That, and the buttons couldn't be configured other than 3-button/4-button.

The second one is much better. They no longer have "designated strikers" in this game, and the animation is much better. They also have a 2-button control scheme in which you can play like KOF R-2.

The plot is as follows: Something is affecting the seal placed on Orochi in 1997. Children are being abducted. This can only mean one thing: It's time for another King of Fighters tournament. However, Chizuru Kagura can't attend, because she has to keep an eye on the seal. So, she sends her servant, Reiji, in her stead. Meanwhile, Iori has a new team made up of Jun, a supermodel, and Miu, a schoolgirl who attacks with crow feathers. The other teams are as follows: Korea team (Kim, Chang, Choi), Ikari team (Ralf, Clark, Leona), Psycho Soldier team (Athena, Kensou, Bao), Fatal Fury team (Terry, Andy, Mai), Art of Fighting team (Ryo, Yuri, Takuma), and Kyo's team (Kyo, Moe, Reiji).

The game controls just like the normal KOF games, and you can customize the button assignments, even right down to the combinations for rolling and striker calls. The graphics look remarkably like KOF, right down to the backgrounds from KOF2000.

Meanwhile, the sound is a mixed bag. The music is pretty good, coming from KOF2000, but the voice is a mixed bag. There are some of the classic quotes, like "Hey, c'mon c'mon!" and the entire Maiden Masher dialogue, right from the start to the end. But some of it isn't there.

Meanwhile, there's a rating system that ranks your performance according to how well you fight (perfects, straights, hyper finishes), and as you unlock the "Master Orochi" rank for each character, you'll unlock options like more difficulty levels and secret characters, as well as a "counter mode" like in KOF EX.

The boss is vintage KOF... a boss that is cheap as hell, but that can be beaten with the right strategy. Also, the way the striker system works here is as follows: First round, your second guy is the striker and you have three striker calls. Second round, third guy is the striker and you get four calls. Third round, no striker.

In all, this game deserves a 9/10 for not just being a good game, but a much-improved game. 

KINGDOM HEARTS: CHAIN OF MEMORIES
SQUARE-ENIX (JUPITER)
ACTION RPG
 

I'm sure that many Playstation 2 gamers out there remember the game Kingdom Hearts, which brought together Square characters, Disney characters, and original characters, topping the mix off with famous voice actors including David Boreanaz, Haley Joel Osment, and even Lance Bass. With the second Kingdom Hearts game to be released soon for the PS2, Square Enix and Disney Interactive- realizing that there will be a gap in the story- have released a Game Boy Advance interlude in the series.

In this new game, Sora, Donald, and Goofy happen upon a robed figure who offers to grant Sora something he holds dear... but he must lose something first. This takes our heroes to Castle Oblivion, where they expect to find King Mickey, but lose many of their memories. As they go through the castle, they encounter old friends, and come face to face with a mysterious organization that seeks to gain the power of Sora's Keyblade for itself.

To put it simply, the graphics and sound are nothing less than you would expect from either Disney or Square: if nothing else, this is the one "sure thing" that both companies can be expected to get right without any problems. Also, you will hear Sora calling for various characters, as well as the voices of said characters, throughout the battle. Even some full-motion video sequences, as well as a surprisingly high-quality rendition of Utada Hikaru's "Simple and Clean" from the first Kingdom Hearts, have made the cut here.

The story is interesting... without any major spoilers, the main theme seems to be that memories are important, and some memories that seem lost are just buried deep within our minds. Also, the dialogue is pretty good, making sure that everything is tied together tightly (on a side note, somehow, the word "hell" got past Standards and Practices- and apparently the ESRB, since the game got rated "E" regardless of its inclusion).

The gameplay combines isometric dungeon-crawling with elements from Paper Mario-  attacking enemies on the main map will give you the initiative, letting you attack stunned opponents on the battlefield. The battles seem to be a more free-roaming version of the Megaman Battle Network system... your attacks, spells, items and summons are done using cards, and high cards will "break" low cards, negating the move and leaving the victim open for counterattack.  Also, you have "sleights" that function like the Advance Programs in MMBN, allowing for devastating combos or just stronger versions of spells or summons. Also, certain monsters, including bosses, yield "enemy cards" that can do anything from increase the value of all your cards by 1 to prevent your attack cards from being broken.

Also, this game continues Square's "world-building" obsession that seems to have started with Legend of Mana. Each floor of the castle has you picking a world card that provides the motif, and each room is determined by a particular map card. The map cards can do anything from lessen the values of your enemies' cards to stunning every enemy in a battle when you get the initiative. Also, there are cards for save points and shops, which are essential to improving your deck.

The deck is limited by the number of "Card Points" you have. Cards have a certain CP cost based on 1) the type of card (for example, spell cards may cost more CP than some weapon cards) and 2) the number on the card (the 1 will be cheapest, while the 0--which can break any other card, or even a sleight--is the most expensive). However, it is possible, either through a reward earned in a fight or a shop purchase, to get a "Premium" card, whose cost will always equal the "1" card. However, premium cards will not be reloaded when you reload your deck. Also, reloading your deck will take more time each time you do it, so at least in the early goings of the game, you may want to try to get as many attack cards in your deck as you can, rather than the more expensive spells and summons.

Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories should take the average player about twenty hours to finish on the first run-through. Some of the bosses are pretty hard, but each one has a particular weakness- either a susceptibility to a particular type of attack or a hole in its strategy- that can make the fight easier. Also, even after the game is over, there's more to do, including fight versus battles.

The game could probably have been longer, and there could have been more stuff in the game (why not have Leon- Squall's incarnation from the original Kingdom Hearts- as a summon, or why not have some other big Square villain as a secret boss?). However, the game is very well done overall, even with its flaws, and a must-play for Kingdom Hearts fans, if for no other reason than to get some background on the next game for the Playstation 2.

KINNIKUMAN II (ULTIMATE MUSCLE IN U.S.)
BANPRESTO (Bandai's "evil" twin)
WRESTLING (sort of)
 

Good: It's based on the series known as Ultimate Muscle in the US, it has commentary, a diverse array of characters.
Bad: Not your conventional wrestling game (aka no pins)

Bandai has a split personality. On the one hand is its horrible shovelware games and its ill-conceived attempt to compete with Nintendo in its element. On the other hand is its other side, Banpresto, which makes the critically-acclaimed Super Robot Wars series and the game here, Kinnikuman II.

The game involves Kinniku Mantaro's (Kid Muscle) journeys against such opponents as the dMp (Demon [making] Plant), the second-year students of the Herakles Factory, and No Respect. The modes are pretty interesting: There's the classic story mode, the tournament mode (basic arcade mode set-up), 3-on-3 (in which you pick one of 5 groups--New Muscle League, dMp, 2nd-year students, No Respect, and old Muscle League), exhibition, and training (in which you can learn the intricacies of the engine against Ramen Man and test them against Terry the Kid).

B is a light attack, A is a medium attack, and AB is a heavy attack. R grapples, and in a grapple, B does weak grapple attacks, A does strong grapple attacks, L whips an opponent into the ropes, and R throws him into the air for a high-impact move. The timing gauge affects your ability to do certain moves: You can whip an opponent into the ropes or do a weak grapple attack when the bar is in the yellow, but only when you're in the blue can you do a strong grapple attack or throw an opponent into the air.

The characters look like something out of the cartoon, right from Kinniku Mantaro to Dead Signal, a wrestler made out of road signs. The sound is excellent as well, including voices from the anime, and the control is spot-on. On the other hand, I was disappointed that a wrestling-style game with wrestling-style controls lacked the ability to pin an opponent. But, it's nothing major. It's still good.

LEGEND OF WRESTLING II
ACCLAIM
WRESTLING
 

Games have been made based on classic baseball players, classic basketball players (Jordan vs. Bird) and classic boxers (Legends of the Ring). So, Acclaim made a game called Legends of Wrestling some time back. The game wasn't that bad; it had some interesting ideas, such as all moves starting from a few basic positions, like the "head between legs" position of a piledriver; and the ability to control a classic superstar carving a path of destruction through the US. Also, it had Hulk Hogan as the frontman of the game.

The Game Boy Advance version seems to have a total of 40 superstars in it, out of the 60+ in its bigger brothers on consoles. The game has a career mode, in which you are either managed by Jimmy Hart or Lou Albano through five different US regions, the entire US, and then the world (consisting primarily of Mexico City, Montreal, and Tokyo). Depending on your ability to excite the crowd, it can take any number of matches to get the title shot for each region. Every time you go all the way through the game, you can unlock a secret character. Considering that there are 20 secret characters (out of 40 total), it would have most likely been more prudent to unlock one guy with each "region."

The controls are fairly simple, with all of the strikes and attacks (irreversible grapple maneuvers like backbreakers and jawbreakers) being done with combinations of the D-Pad and the A button, grapples being done with the B button, the R button performing defense and counters, and the L button switching focus, whipping the opponent into the ropes, and entering/exiting the ring. The problem with the control is that the collision is iffy--it can take several tries to get a tie-up, and you have to be at a precise distance from the opponent for a strike to hit. However, the less collision-sensitive areas, like timing the combos and reversals, are fairly easy to get.

The graphics can be described by Ranier Wolfcastle from the Simpsons: "My eyes! The goggles--they do nothing!" Pixellation is not your friend, Acclaim. Also, try to put some emotion into your characters' motion. As for the sound, there's not too much music in there, and it's very forgettable.

I actually had some hopes that this game would at least be fun, but it got to be a chore after a while.

LORD OF THE RINGS:
THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING
UNIVERSAL
RPG
 

Good: Better than warm milk for getting you to sleep.
Bad: Where to begin...

From Two Towers, I got the illusion that Fellowship of the Ring would be a good game.  For fucking with my mind, I will punish this game with many kicks to the groin to match the pain I endured.

The first time I booted this game up, it wouldn't load up properly.  Five kicks to the groin.

In the beginning of the game, I had to sit through a long intro involving Bilbo's goodbye to his fellow hobbits.  Two more kicks to the groin for not cutting to the chase.

The entire first part of the game served as a massive fetch quest series.  Ten kicks to the groin for sending me on a scavenger hunt.

The battles take too long, especially considering that in the beginning, you can only do 1 damage per hit and you miss 99.99% of the time.  Fifteen kicks to the groin for making battles a drawn-out exercise in futility.

To make matters even worse, there's a bug in the game that prevents you from getting past a certain point if you don't save the game AT EXACTLY THE RIGHT POINT IN TIME.  Twenty kicks to the groin for not getting all the bugs out prior to shipping.  Five more because it's bad enough that we have to put up with this bull in PC games.

Finally, because I'm fed up, fifty kicks to the groin for going back to the main menu after saving your game.

All I can say to Black Label (other than "you guys suck") is that this game is a horrible abuse upon all.  I thought Acclaim was bad.  I thought Bandai was worse.  But now, there's a new king of Hell.  Its name is Black Label Games.

To paraphrase the principal in Billy Madison, "I actually feel dumber for playing this game.  I give it 0/10, and may God have mercy on your soul."

LORD OF THE RINGS: THE TWO TOWERS
EA GAMES (GRIPTONITE)
ACTION RPG (DIABLO CLONE)
  

Pros: It's Lord of the Rings, it's like Diablo (if you like that style)
Cons: It's like Diablo (if you don't like that style)

The Lord of the Rings is one of the greatest works of fantasy ever written. The recent release of the second part of the saga in theaters, as well as of the game for PS2 and GBA, has been well-received. The game itself is interesting, as it's not the same conventional licensed crap game.

The gameplay is very much like Diablo, which means that you'll be doing quite a bit of attacking and exploring. The button layout is pretty good: B attacks, A uses an ability, L switches between abilities, and R picks up items and opens treasure chests. The game itself allows you to play as one of five characters: Frodo, the Hobbit keeper of the One Ring which must be destroyed; Gandalf, the wizard who has commissioned the task of destroying the Ring to Frodo; Aragorn, lost prince of Gondor and master Ranger; Legolas, brave Elf and archer; and Eowyn, human princess.

There are three main gauges in this game: HP, represented by a red sphere in the lower left corner (like Diablo); MP, represented by a blue sphere in the lower right corner (again, like Diablo); and Corruption, represented by an "Eye of Sauron" in the upper-right. Certain actions will raise the Corruption total, and when it gets to look like a giant eye, a Ringwraith will come after you and attempt to kill you. You'll have to find fire to stop them.

My only real complaint is that you can only hold eight items at a time other than items equipped. Other than that, you can sell items in forges and shrines; also, forges can enhance your weapons and give you random items, and shrines can give you status and ability points. There are two types of abilities: Active, which are activated by selecting them (with L) and using them (with A); and Passive, which are with you at all times and range from resistance to Corruption to the ability to use two swords.

In short, check this game out. It's pretty good for a licensed game.

 
MEGA MAN ZERO 4
CAPCOM / INTICREATES
ACTION / ADVENTURE
   

PROS: Not quite as frustrating as previous MMZ games, interesting Zero Knuckle system, new customizable Cyber Elf system
CONS: Too short, somewhat gimmicky new Cyber Elf system

The Mega Man Zero series known for its frustrating difficulty along with its impressive graphics, sounds, and gameplay.  Megaman Zero 4 is no exception to this rule.
 
The graphics are up to par with those in the previous Mega Man Zero games, with the victims of your Z-Saber falling apart like meat sliced from a bone, and shadows trailing behind Zero as he dashes.  Similarly, the music is up to the standards of the other games in the the series.
 
The gameplay is just as familiar, except with four major changes.  First, the Zero Knuckle replaces the various Rods and the Shield Boomerang, and allows you to "borrow" minor enemy weapons such as a flamethrower, an axe, or even a tongue (yes, a tongue).  Secondly, a weather system affects the design of each level.  Next, the new Cyber Elf system allows you to customize your character.  Finally, you can now enhance Zero with parts assembled from the scraps of your fallen foes.  The Cyber Elf system now features only one elf with three different stat-building attributes... Nurse (healing), Animal (support), and Hacker (other, including everything from customized combination attacks to simplified attack commands).  You can change the level of each attribute by feeding the elf energy crystals.  However, if you want the highest score possible, the level of these three attributes cannot be above a set amount (which will increase as the game progresses).
 
The weather system also adds a fresh new spin to the familiar gameplay.  Each of the eight "robot master" levels has two different types of weather, one of which is ideal.  The four total types of weather are sunny, cloudy, snowy, and stormy; and in the ideal type, the level is more difficult and the boss uses its EX skill (which could be anything from a time-stopping blast to ball lightning covered in scrap metal).  Luckily, you only have to beat the boss under the ideal weather conditions to acquire its EX skill.  You can only equip one buster EX skill, but you can equip all of the saber skills at the same time.  Sadly, there aren't any knuckle skills.  Since one of the bosses uses a flaming uppercut, this seems kind of odd.
 
Even with all the enhancements made to the gameplay, Mega Man Zero 4 is not perfect.  The new cyber elf system is more restrictive than before, allowing you to equip only one ability of each type at a time.  Also, the game seems significantly shorter than previous entries in the series.  Perhaps this has more to do with the decreased difficulty than anything else, but it only took me three hours to finish the game.  Considering the average cost per hour, this would make Mega Man Zero 4 a better rental than a purchase.
 
METAL SLUG ADVANCE
SNK PLAYMORE
ACTION (AND LOTS OF IT)
  

Pros: Metal Slug on the GBA, special "card system" to enhance play
Cons: No "trademark death animations," sometimes difficult to collect cards

The Metal Slug series is notorious for pitting one or two lone soldiers against everybody from Nazis to a Saddam Hussein body double to zombies, aliens and mummies. This game, naturally, is no different. However, instead of the usual gang of hardened soldiers, you have to send one of two recruits through a survival course so that they can become the latest members of the Peregrine Falcon Squad.

In Metal Slug Advance, you have to go through five levels of heavy action, shooting enemy soldiers, rescuing hostages and driving around in the eponymous supervehicle. Being able to do this without having to pay a triple-digit price is a definite perk.

The game contains well-animated characters and vehicles, and the playable characters even have their idle animations. However, unlike other Metal Slug games, the characters simply slump over and die when they get attacked. The enemy soldiers don't disappear in a gust of bones from a shotgun blast, or lurch around ablaze from the flamethrower. This was one of the "touches" that the series has typically had, and while understandable, it's a little unfortunate that this couldn't be worked in, just for old times.

Unlike most of the Metal Slug games, you have a life bar, but just one life.  If you die, you can choose to start at the beginning of the "stage" within the mission or choose another stage. This can make the game easier in some ways and more difficult in others, since while you don't have to worry about one-shot kills, but pits are a bit more perilous.

A new addition to the game is the card system. By collecting cards throughout the stages, you can upgrade your weapons and ammunition drops, get other vehicles, or even unlock secret rooms and levels.  However, any cards you get in the mission disappear upon death; even if you have already completed the mission, you can't simply skip out of the mission to collect the cards.

In short, the game is very good, despite the flaws it may have. And at about 10% the cost of most other Metal Slug games, it's a definite recommendation for Metal Slug fans.

METROID FUSION
NINTENDO
ACTION ADVENTURE

Perhaps the greatest improvement this Metroid has over the SNES and NES versions (I've not played the others for comparison) would be the fact that it has actual plot and goals. In the other two versions mentioned, basically you wandered around aimlessly gathering items until finally you were able to find and defeat the final boss. Personally, any game where you wander around aimlessly is lacking something. After all, if such were a bonus, then SaGa Frontier would have done well.

Granted, some will criticize the mission system, saying the specific tasks and lack of free exploration ruins something of the Metroid flavor. Having never been a true die-hard Metroid fan to begin with, I don't miss the aimless wandering. On the other hand, there are times in Fusion when I've just received some nifty new power-up that I noted I needed three levels back, but I can't go back to try it out because that area is inaccessible for plot reasons. So in these sorts of cases, some amount of free exploration can be argued for. Still, I won't complain about the computer's mission briefings that actually give you goals to strive for and a meaning for your existence (and, consequently, for your playing the game).

One other possible gripe that some old fans may have is that most of Samus' upgrades in this game are in fact, well, old. You spend much of the game simply re-gathering abilities that Samus had in previous games. This is explained well in the plot, but some might say it would have been a lot more interesting had most or all of the power-ups been new. Then again, it wouldn't really be Metroid if Samus couldn't roll up into a little ball and drop bombs. And requiring you to gather these abilities rather than just starting the game with them gives you more to do.

So now that I've covered any possible negatives, let me touch briefly on the positives. The graphics are quite nice, better than the screen shots on the back of the box would lead you to believe. (I'm amused by whoever took that screen shot with SA-X in it, as the person had to commit suicide to get that shot. True dedication.) One nice touch is that Samus' sprite is actually not in fact x-flipped; her cannon is always on her right arm no matter which way she is facing. My only complaint with the graphics is they are overall too dark. I know this is supposed to be a gritty sci-fi game, but on the GBA screen, most of the areas are nearly impossible to see in anything less than optimal lighting conditions. Running around blind in areas where you aren't really supposed to be running around blind loses something. It's just a shame that game developers too often forget to take this into account.

The play control is top-notch. There are a few issues where you find yourself fighting with the controls, mostly when trying to jump correctly off ladders, but still, overall it works well. The developers were thoughtful enough to give you the L button for diagonal aiming, so you don't have to worry about accidentally moving while trying to shoot. And Samus has a lot of moves, more than it might at first appear. Among other things, she can duck, morph, jump, dash, high-jump, shoot in eight directions, climb certain walls, stick to certain ceilings, and grab onto the edges of ledges. It's also no longer necessary to use bombs to jump while in the morph ball form, which, while not as challenging, makes navigation easier. Samus can aim in nearly any practical direction regardless of her current position--she can shoot straight up and down while on a ladder for example, which allows her to dispatch enemies sharing the ladder with her while she climbs. Coupling her aiming abilities with various positions such as standing versus ducking and so forth leads to a lot of maneuverability.

Finally, the game even has a little bit of the "survival horror" genre thrown in, which mostly takes the form of one SA-X who likes to pop in at unexpected times with the ominous sound of footsteps. SA-X can really make your adrenaline level shoot through the roof when it suddenly decides to walk in the door behind you...

Overall: A very solid action game with the Metroid feel, sans the aimless wandering.

ONIMUSHA TACTICS
CAPCOM
STRATEGY/RPG

Pros: Actually grades your performance, interesting play mechanics, can skip cutscenes

Cons: Not your typical strategy RPG, no real penalty for failure, limited customization, too "idiot-proofed"

Onimusha has become a fairly successful franchise for Capcom-the premise of killing the undead in a Japanese setting has been intriguing to many gamers, and the ability to customize certain aspects of your character has been a pretty good idea as well. How well, however, will this translate to a strategy RPG?

The game is actually not that bad, despite the average rating. It has many features that most games of its type do not- you can actually skip cutscenes, and you donít regenerate SP in the game, so you have to make each special attack count.

The game takes place around the time of the real downfall of Oda Nobunaga, an infamous Japanese tyrant. This leads me to believe that the game may be a prequel to the main Onimusha series, as from what Iíve gathered, you seem to be fighting an undead army led by Nobunaga.

This game is very simple. You can attack, perform one of up to three or four specials (one of which is learned from an enhanced weapon, the other of which are learned as you progress in levels or reach a certain part of the game), use an item, check your status or stay where you are with each turn. Sometimes, you will have an option called "Issn" available, which will automatically kill one opponent who uses a normal attack. This will earn you many souls, which can be used to enhance your weapons.

The game also eschews certain aspects of the strategic RPG. For instance, there is no real exploration. The game is mostly in a straight line, and there are no stores. Instead, you earn certain stones from enemies, which can be refined into weapons, armor, items, or accessories as you pick up the recipes for them. This can be an interesting gimmick, but you can only use it before a fight.

Also, you can save in mid-fight. You don't just "suspend" the game data until you play next; you actually save. This is an interesting idea, but it can make the game even easier than it would be otherwise.

As I mentioned previously, this game can be really easy. When a character dies, he can be used in the next battle, but he/she will have zero experience points, without losing his experience level. Also, for some reason, you can only earn 48 experience points at a time. This "trial-and-error" style of gameplay hurts Onimusha Tactics.

Also, there is next to no customization available. You can change the weapons and armor on your characters, but they will remain in the class they started out in until the day they die (and then theyíll come back for the next battle as the same class). There is also a dearth of secrets-the only real hidden extra is that you can get a secret character by going through the "Phantom Tower," a sixteen floor marathon of increasing difficulty.

The notable thing about this game is that itís the first tactical RPG Iíve seen where enemies can have more than 999 HP. However, the game will show a maximum of 999 hit points. This is somewhat unusual, as towards the end, youíll hit opponents with devastating attacks which appear to have no apparent effect.

One of the most frustrating things about this game is its extreme friendliness. If your character has a gun, you canít aim past your allies, and you canít aim a technique at an empty square on the field. This can be frustrating if all enemies are just out of the range of the spell.

For all the flaws, itís still an entertaining game, and there seem to be some interesting missions in Onimusha Tactics, like having to defeat the enemy within a certain number of turns or kill two enemies in the same turn. But I canít in good conscience give it more than a 6/10, because I expect more from Capcom than this.

PAC-MAN COLLECTION
NAMCO (MASS MEDIA)
CLASSIC COLLECTION IN THE KEY OF PAC-MAN

Pac-Man has become like the doorknob of the video-game world--every system under the sun seems to have gotten a turn.  There's even a section on this site that has every known version and port of the game.  So, it was only a matter of time before Nintendo's follow-up to their most successful system of all time got its chance at the game.  But before you write it off as another hastily thrown-together deal, hear me out.  This one has something the others don't.

The game is a collection of four Pac-Man games... superficially, it seems to be par for the supposed course.  The four games are the original Pac-Man, Pac-Mania (the isometric "noble experiment" that never really panned out), Pac-Attack/-Panic, and Pac-Man Arrangement.

Did you read those last few words? I hope so, because they make up the most significant thing about this new compliation.  The "Arrangement" version of Pac-Man has never before been released outside of an arcade, which makes this the first, best, and only chance (so far, at least) most people will have to experience this game.

Some people might know about this game, but they brought back Clyde for the first time in a long time, as well as bringing in a fifth monster named "Kinky."  This bespectacled beastie has a penchant for fusing with the other monsters, with interesting results; for example, Pinky turns into a bunny-monster who can hop across the maze with incredible ease; Clyde sets down "slow-down" pellets to trip you up, etc.  It seems as though Pac-Man may have his hands full... or he would, if he had hands. ^_^'  However, Kinky seems to scare quite easily, and eating him in his "frightened" phase will in turn frighten the other monsters.

But wait!  There's more!  Certain levels have "zip" arrows that can allow you to go through monsters, stunning them (unless they're frightened).  There are also powerups that appear along with the fruit--speed-up, mirror (a shadow Pac-Man appears opposite you on the maze, mimicking your movements), and capture (traps the monsters in a pot temporarily).  It's nice to know that Namco made this effort to balance the combined extra challenge of 1) an extra monster and 2) the prospect of "super-monsters" in this game.

But that's not all!  There's one more challenge--a final boss.  That's right, this game actually has an "endgame" stage, with a giant robot monster.  Beat this guy, and you win.  It's not very easy; it involves going about the usual business of eating dots and avoiding the monsters, including the ones manning the gigantic robot.

As for the other games on the cartridge, there seems to be the classic treatment given to each.  Pac-Man Classic has the full-screen (but small) and zoomed-in modes (the trigger buttons are used to scroll up and down), complete with the sound and intermissions.  Pac-Mania is pretty good, with decent resolution and graphics, as well as music (the Lego-esque first two levels and intermissions seem to be here in full effect).  And Pac-Attack is... well, Pac-Attack.  Not much to be said about this particular title... screwing this one up would be a task that would make Hercules blanch.  Make of that what you will.  And as an added bonus, you can tweak certain features of the games (lives, difficulty, and "bonus" conditions) and get tips on each game.

The only two things I would change are 1) two-player support, as far as I could see, there was none; and 2) maybe more games (Pac & Pal or Super Pac-Man, maybe--imagine Super Pac-Man in "scroll" mode O_O').

Mass Media actually did a decent job on this one, as opposed to the abomination that was the DC Namco Museum.  If you have a GBA, check it out. 

SAMURAI DEEPER KYO
MARVELOUS
HACK AND SLASH
 

Pros: Interesting characters, attention to detail
Cons: Repetitive. Very Repetitive.

In the year 1600, at the bloodied and misty battlefield of Sekigahara, two swordsmen square off. In one corner, the samurai Mibu Kyoshiro. In the other, the feared assassin Onime no Kyo (or Demon-Eyes Kyo), the slayer of a thousand men. Both men fight viciously, but Kyoshiro's sword is broken. As the battle goes on, three warriors sent by the Sakuya clan--Sanada Yukimura, a drunken samurai; Saizou, a ninja, and Sasuke, a yound magician-type boy, set the plan to eliminate Kyo into motion. Saizou maintains the mist in the field, Yukimura keeps Kyo busy, and Sasuke summons a meteor to the area. As the meteor hits, Sasuke, Saizou and Yukimura escape. But Kyoshiro and Kyo seem to be killed in the blast...

Four years later, Mibu Kyoshiro is disguised as a pharmacist, Onime no Kyo is wanted for 1,000,000 Yen, and the three aforementioned warriors are searching for them both. Meanwhile, Shiina Yuya, a young female bounty hunter, lures Kyoshiro into a trap by pretending to be sick--it appears that he is also wanted (for eating food and not paying for it). And so, she uses the old "I'm cold--would you please warm me up?" strategy to trick him. He soon finds himself with a triple-barreled pistol in his face.

Later, as Yuya has Kyoshiro tied up, a snake-like swordsman comes by, looking to kill some people. Yuya attempts to shoot him, but he catches the shots with his tongue and mutates into a horrible monster. He lays waste to both Yuya and Kyoshiro. As he's about to bring the killing blow to the druggist, something... or someone... happens. Onime no Kyo appears where Kyoshiro once was...

Sorry for the long set-up, but that's a rough summary of the first episode of the anime series that this game is based on. The game seems to play like a Dynasty Warriors-type game (from the second one in the series on, that is)--go through an area, cutting through as many enemies as necessary between points A and B, eventually face a boss. Somewhat formulaic and tedious, but it's still fun to an extent.  As you progress, you'll face the same three or four types of goons, which basically are as follows:

--swordsman
--swordsman who occasionally explodes
--swordsman who occasionally spews smoke that does strange things to you
--Black-cloaked wizard-type

Each character seems to have a different style of play--Kyoshiro/Kyo being the well-rounded character of the bunch, Yuya being the ranged character, Yukimura being the defensive type and Benitora, I believe, filling the "power" area. 

The graphics are surprisingly impressive. There doesn't seem to be any slowdown, and the attention to detail is impressive. Characters leave footprints, and the supers tend to leave dust trails where they go through. The sound includes voices from the anime, as well as approximation of the music.

The only complaint I really have about this game is that it's really repetitive. Other than that, the game is a lot of fun, and the difficulty is brought the old-fashioned way--by force of numbers. I give this an 8.

TACTICS OGRE: KNIGHT OF LODOS
ATLUS
STRATEGY
  

Pros: Actual difficulty, incentives to be thorough in clearing out foes, more secret characters, able to recruit characters, compelling story.

Cons: Might be a bit obscure for some, certain "configurations" of characters may be arbitrary.

Here we have a game in another famous saga (at least in Japan). The Ogre Battle saga is not quite as comprehensive as the Final Fantasy series (in fact, the first four chapters have not yet even been made), and the gameplay in most of them has not been as involved (you mostly pick your army and let them go at it). However, this series has one thing Final Fantasy doesnít-continuity. All the games are actually connected, and not just in the sense of sharing characters with similar names.

In this game, you play Alphonse, a young nobleboy sent on behalf of the Holy Lodis Empire (ostensibly) to investigate a conflict between two regions of the island of Ovis. He and his friends are attacked by bandits, and Alphonse is knocked out to sea while intercepting an arrow meant for his commanding officer. Upon coming to, he meets up with a knight named Ivanna Batraal, who offers to help you reunite with your friends. However, along the way you meet up with the troops of the lord who sent the bandits, and get captured. You wind up getting saved by a mysterious woman from a secret society and caught in an intricate plot involving land wars, family betrayal, deep-seated jealousy, and fallen angels. YesÖ fallen angels.

The game seems to be a lot like Final Fantasy Tactics Advance. But in FFTA, the characters attack according to speed, while in TO, each side takes turns (all your guys go, then all my guys go, etc.).

The game doesnít seem to be as customizable as FFTA, but certain traits have more impact on your charactersí development. Each character has two special alignments: element and law. Element can be Earth, Air, Water or Fire, while law can be Lawful, Neutral or Chaotic. The element of a character can affect both his skill with certain elements (an earth character can use earth spells or weapons more effectively) and with attacking enemies (an earth character can more effectively attack an air character, and vice versa). The legal alignment can affect the classes open to a character. Also, certain "emblems," earned by achieving given feats, like hitting two enemies at once with a spear or performing a certain number of "head-on" attacks, can change certain abilities or open up classes.

You can also recruit new fighters regularly, either by "buying" them at a store or by persuading them mid-fight. The effectiveness of persuasion can be affected by the class of both characters, as well as any "emblems" one might have.

Also, in battle, you have a "support" system, which affects your abilities. Each characterís confidence is affected by both allies and enemies in close proximity. For instance, a "beast tamer" will provide +1 (support) to allied beasts within three panels, while a character with an "exorcism" emblem will cause -1 (fear) to undead enemies within three panels. This affects your attack strength and accuracy.

Furthermore, each class has a different type of movement both on land and in water. Certain characters can only hop up one level or down two, others might be able to move in snow without penalties, others still might be able to walk across water. Also related to terrain is the elemental influence of the terrain. Snow will enhance water attacks performed on it, while lave may affect fire attacks.

There are actually very many classes and races to control in this game. In addition to the more than dozen classes available to each gender (though there are liberal amounts of overlapping), there are "demi-humans," beasts, dragons, undead, fiends (gremlins, gorgons, etc.) and transmigrated beings (Angel Knights, Liches). Only humans can equip spells for the most part, but most creatures can learn abilities as they level up, such as "breath" attacks for dragons and healing abilities for fairies.

As the story unfolds, youíll find your main character questioning not only his new allies, but also his old friends. In the end, the decision will be yours to make, but it depends on how far youíre willing to go to achieve certain goals. Also, certain battles will be changed according to which path you take, as well as the ending (of which there are five).

The only problem I can really think of in this game is that the "setup" of your character seems to be arbitrary. This can be more problematic for the legal alignment, but that can be remedied with the right items. Overall, this game earns a 9/10, and I look forward to any other games of this nature Atlus may want to make in the future.

TOUKON RETSUDEN ADVANCE
TOMY
WRESTLING
 

Toukon Retsuden is another great wrestling series. It's enjoyed great success on such platforms as the Playstation, the N64, the Dreamcast, and even The Little Engine That Not Only Couldn't, but Had No Business Even Trying, the WonderSwan. Now, the Game Boy Advance gets its turn. Not particularly noteworthy in the annals of history, except for the fact that this is a 3-D to 2-D conversion.

The Toukon Retsuden series deals with the Japanese promotion New Japan Pro Wrestling, a federation which is very much like our World Championship Wrestling, right down to doing interpromotional deals and having their own New World Order. Hulk Hogan even won his first title there--and he was the first to win the title! Certainly, a promotion with a good amount of history. But since most people haven't played this game, I'll give a quick rundown of how this particular installment works.

The game follows a simple, intuitive grapple system: B does striking attacks (punches, kicks, chops), A does suplex-type moves (suplexes, slams, drivers and bombs), and R does submission holds (and the odd pinning combination). The moves you can do depend on 1) your position relative to the opponent (front, back, etc.), 2) your opponent's position relative to you (on the ground, standing up, in the corner), and 3) your opponent's state of consciousness (normal, groggy, very groggy). It's easy to pick up, but hard to master, as the CPU can reverse with relative ease; however, the cheapness doesn't quite get out of hand.

The characters are pretty interesting, but most people might not have heard of most of them. The ones you may be familiar with if you followed WCW pretty closely are: Masahiro Chono (nWo member), Hiroyoshi Tenzan (also nWo), Scott Norton (nWo), Super-J (aka nWo Sting), and of course, the papa of the Palm Strike, Jushin "Thunder" Lyger, who headlined the first Nitro with the late Brian Pillman). Also, followers of PRIDE, the MMA promotion in Japan, may be familiar with Don Frye, who seems to be an unstoppable force in the league--he's here, too. Finally, luchador fans might have heard of a doctor by the name of Dr. Wagner, Jr., hailing form Mexico.

The career mode seems to put you through a good number of matches, gauntlet runs, and even the odd tournament (G1 Climax, King of the Jr. Heavyweights). You'll also get to join or reject membership from Team 2000 (the Japanese nWo as it stands now) and BATT (some faction that talks about "puroresu* LOVE"). By going through this mode with a created superstar, you can unlock new moves and characters (who seem to be either templates or unlicensed wrestlers). I've seen the Stunner and the Last Ride in here, among other famous finishers.

The create-a-wrestler mode is pretty neat in this one. You can change so many details about your character--the sleeves, the shirt, the gloves, the pads, the pants, the skin tone, the head, the stance, and even the date of birth and nationality. You can set up to four specials and one finisher.

As for the presentation of the game. The characters are large and animated very well, even "selling" injuries to limbs by limping and clutching their arm. The music is fairly generic, and there's only one ring--but it has an walkway instead of the ramp seen in most US promotions. They even have something of an entrance, but it's not much--stand in the gate, taunt, walk, do another taunt, get in the ring, taunt some more. I wish that at least they could have had something like custom ring entry, like luchadores leapfrogging the ropes and big guys stepping over them. But you can't win 'em all.

The game even has the "Critical Combos" from the series that will more or less devastate your opponent and get the crowd roaring. This was an interesting touch.

I have to give this one a 9 as well. It could have been better (why hasn't a GBA wrestling game had steel chairs or tables yet? >_<) but not by much. And it's better than Road to Wrestlemania or *shudder* WCW/nWo Thunder. A quick caveat, though--this game is very much in Japanese. Including the extensive text in the career mode. However, for the moves, you can check what they do in the move edit mode by hitting right on the d-pad to figure out what you want for your instrument of destruction.

 
     

Nintendo's latest system offers a lot of improvements over its main competitor, the Playstation 2.  It's faster, more powerful, and even cheaper.  However, the immense popularity of the PS2 has kept players from noticing the...  
GAMECUBE  
     
     
 

GAMES YOU'LL WANT

ANIMAL CROSSING: A game about nothing, but with 100% less Julia Louis-Dreyfus. There's no goal, no battles, and no ending - and yet somehow, Animal Crossing is a daily addiction. One of the most original games of this generation.
ETERNAL DARKNESS: Silicon Knights and Nintendo go together like smooth, creamy peanut butter and rich Hershey's chocolate. Brilliant psychological-thriller, historically accurate storytelling meets Miyamoto gameplay. One of my all-time favorite video games.
IKARUGA: If you don't have the cash to pony up for the Dreamcast port and don't mind having your fragile ego shattered over and over again, pick up this incredibly difficult and yet surprisingly fun Treasure-designed shooter. My frothing demand for this game increases.
THE LEGEND OF ZELDA: THE WIND WAKER: Cel-shaded or not, this game was going to rock. Fantastic dungeons, a brilliantly conceived overworld, and - oh yeah - graphics that look like animation come to life make this an exceptional Zelda experience.
MARIO PARTY 4: The pinnacle of four-player party gameplay. Fixes nearly everything that was wrong with the N64 installments and adds a much-needed team mode. Bring the drinks and munchies, set it to 50 turns, and let the party begin.
METROID PRIME: Nobody believed that Retro Studios could do Metroid in 3D and make it feel, well... like a Metroid game. Not only did they do it, they created one of the most amazing first-person adventure games ever devised. A true classic that will be remembered for a long time.
PIKMIN: Miyamoto's first original game for the system, Pikmin simplified the real-time resource-management strategy genre for an exceptional console experience. The sequel, coming this year, will add a two-player mode.
SEGA SOCCER SLAM: Another one of those high-quality four-player experiences that is rollicking good party fun. Enjoy the outrageous ethnic stereotype characters and the arcade-style action as you team up with a buddy and beat some ass at Europe's favorite pastime.
SOUL CALIBUR II: Only available as an import at this time, but American gamers are still snapping it up. Looks nicer than the PS2 version but not as good as the XBox version. But who the hell cares - this one has Link.
SUPER MARIO SUNSHINE: If you are so jaded as to believe that a Mario game is not going to be mind-blowing, then you should give up on this whole video games thing right now. It's not working out for you.
SUPER MONKEY BALL: It's monkeys. In balls. A four-player party game with tons of different things to do, from Monkey Bowling to Monkey Fight to... oh yeah, and there's a first player mode based on the obscure arcade game! Oh yeah, and a sequel that's better in every way.
SUPER SMASH BROS. MELEE: Four-player fighting at its finest. Tons of classic Nintendo characters, stages, items, and incredible music. If you have any nostalgia in your body for the NES days, then you'll scream like a little girl for this game.
(Games to be released in a year's time that will almost assuredly be must-haves: F-Zero, Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles, Mario Kart Double Dash, Metal Gear Solid: Twin Snakes, Wario World.)

GAMES YOU WON'T

DEAD TO RIGHTS: Namco's financial situation is not great right now, and I bet this two-million-dollar piece of crap title from their American division is high on the list of reasons why. Hasn't been released in Japan yet, for reasons that are easy to guess. Stay very away.
MEGA MAN NETWORK TRANSMISSION: I haven't personally played this, but the word on the street is that it's a classic Mega Man title in name only. Those 'in the know' say, skip it.
RESIDENT EVIL 0, 1, 2, 3, CODE VERONICA, 4, AND AS MANY MORE AS THEY FRIGGIN' DECIDE TO CHURN OUT: Don't get me wrong. Scoring an exclusive run on this popular series was a major coup for Nintendo. But borderline retarded plots (coupled with terrible translation and atrocious voiceovers), shit-tastic control systems that sucked on the PS1 and suck now, and a battery of quickie ports that cost full price means this series makes me want to die. And NOT come back to life.
SONIC MEGA COLLECTION: Call me a diehard Nintendo fan until the end, but the little blue bitch was overrated in 1991 and is still overrated twelve years later. If you're a huge Sonic fan, I guess you'll buy this, but there aren't any improvements to the games and it makes you play each one like twenty times to unlock options and games that should have been available from the start.
STAR FOX ADVENTURES: Don't let the pretty graphics and masterful musical score fool you: beneath the layers of varnish, this game is an unqualified turd. The decent cinematics, breathtaking visuals, and amazing music kept me going for a few hours, but eventually the pain of the gameplay got to me. Don't be suckered by the license - best wait for Namco's Star Fox titles.


These Gamecube lists were compiled by Chris Kohler, a freelance writer for many gaming sites and the editor of Kobun Heat.  You can find more of his work at http://kobunheat.pitas.com.

REVIEWS

CAPCOM VS. SNK 2 EO
CAPCOM
FIGHTING

If you didn't get the opportunity to plunk dozens of shiny gold tokens into a Street Fighter II or Mortal Kombat machine at your local Malibu Grand Prix (if you had a Malibu Grand Prix) and you couldn't, or can't, get a grasp of the exceedingly complex, complicated world of charge moves, quarter rolls, half circle rolls, 360 (sometimes called full circle) rolls, Super Combos, Hyper Combos, Fatalities, Stage Fatalities, Babalities, and Friendships, you may as well consider yourself fucked. You're an outsider to that world, like a Catholic to the Masons, or Moses Fleetwood Walker to the Brotherhood of Professional Baseball Players (read Clever Baseballist: the Life and Times of John Montgomery Ward by Bryan Di Salvatore), and you'll always be an outsider. You may be treated well by the "true" fans- hell, even respected for what talent you possess- but you'll always be outside of that realm... a realm whose members chuckle every time you pick Dan Hibiki to battle against Ryo Sakazaki, but never tell you WHY they chuckle. Alas...

This is a weird little game that's either one of two things: (a) Capcom's attempt to turn a profit or (b) something less sinister, Capcom's attempt to open the "old boy's club" that is the 2-D fighting genre to the less patient or astute gamer (like myself), who have migrated to the friendlier "dial-a-combo" world of 3-D for our fighting game fix.

The idea of EO's (Easy Operation in Japan, Extreme Offense in the US) simple gameplay will make the most hardened blond ponytailed Gamestop employee who impersonates Professor Frink while pummeling a ne'er do well with Akuma cringe: EVERY special move, Super Hyper Mega Combo or otherwise, is tied to the Gamecube's little yellow C-Stick. For instance, with Ryu (or Dan or Ryo or Ken or Akuma) you push the stick forward to do a Haduken, up for a Shoryuken, and back to do a hurricane kick. For arial moves you simply jump then point the stick in whatever direction the move requires. Since the C-Stick is analog, exerting specific amounts of pressure on the stick will determine whether it was a light, medium, or heavy attack.

Now before anyone who knows how to double quarter roll blindfolded starts bitching, EO is still a fairly challenging game. Simply being able to move the C-Stick around to launch a flurry of attacks won't mean you can pummel that oh-so-not-AI Capcom AI. In fact it seems the computer KNOWS that it's dealing with a guy who really doesn't know how to do Kim Kaphwan's spinning bicycle split kick (or whatever...) and will promptly counter, and in many ways abuse, the whole new play mechanic as well. So the twelve year old kids still out of the loop reading this review shouldn't wet their chops just yet...

All 44 some-odd characters are available, and the color edit mode, arcade mode, and VS. mode are all the same with Groove edit mode being the lone unlockable feature. Survival and VS. mode, along with the Groove Edit mode (for those who can understand it), provide the game its potential longevity. That and the game's near GOBS and GOBS of recognizable characters, six different grooves, and three fighting styles (an improved version of the first game's ratio system, three on three, and single match) make it the best fighting game on Gamecube by default.

As an out of the loop non-sprite pugilist I had a lot of fun with Capcom vs. SNK EO... mostly because it let me appreciate a Capcom fighter on more than just an artistic level. As for tried and true fans, they may just want to avoid this version altogether: the standard gameplay is here but it's mapped as pressure sensitive buttons on an controller that's atrocious for fighting games. They'll want to stick with the import DC or PS2 version. That said, EO is nice little time waster and a fine game for those who don't know what the hell an air cancel is... but who did one just now.

DONKEY KONGA
NINTENDO (NAMCO)
MUSIC/RYHTHM
 

Let me first start out by saying that I have NEVER had any desire to make a fool out of myself by playing any of the Dance Dance Revolution games. I always thought rhythm games were a bad idea, and they can be truly polarizing. NEVER has anyone described DDR as "OK, good, or not bad". They either love it with a passion or hate it immensely (those in the latter category, like myself, detest the very premise so people like us would never play that game in the first place). I saw Donkey Konga on G4 when it was a Japan-only title, and thinking that it was one of the lamest ideas I'd ever seen for a game. No way would something like that come out in America, right? And if it DID, there's no way I'd play something like that.

Then I heard positive things about it from some of my classic gaming friends. Then I saw the commercial. Then I read some positive reviews. I was fiending to get a new game last weekend, and I saw Donkey Konga for the Gamecube at the store. After much debate, I caved in to my curiousity and further tightened my plastic handcuffs (commonly referred to by many as "credit cards") to get it. I knew I would love it or loathe it. And guess what? I am absolutely in love with this game and this is undoubtedly the most fun I've had with a game this year.

A dual bongo drum controller comes packaged with the disc. Two conjoined barrel-like drums are plugged into the GC's control port. A wide variety of hit or miss songs, 33 in total, are included, and you must use your hands to pound the drums and clap to onscreen cues while each song is played. Three skill levels are present, giving the player the opportunity to earn coins to purchase drum sets, mini games, and to earn the right to play songs on the hardest level.

From the moment I started playing this game, I didn't want to stop. I'm sure there is something out there that is comparable, but I have never played a game like this before. So simple yet so challenging and perhaps the most unique game I've ever played, Donkey Konga is a must-have GameCube title, right up there with Mario Sunshine, Zelda Wind Waker and Metroid Prime.

The negatives? I don't care for the mini games and the extra drum sets offer little to enhance gameplay (EXCEPT for the Big Band set, which makes the one swing jazz tune sound much, much better). It's too bad I don't have a group of gaming friends with their own sets of Konga drums so we could play together. It seems like an incredibly fun party game, but being the loner that I am, I'll probably never know.  One other weakness is that the songs are not by the original artists. They are all very good covers, but still this should be noted.

So, yes. I am giving a rhythm game a nine on a scale of one to ten... it's the most pleasant surprise of the year. I still can't wait for GTA: San Andreas and Halo 2, but this one will tide me over until then. I'm almost embarrassed to admit I love this game so much.

Tony Bueno is a pseudonym, by the way...

IKARUGA
ATARI (TREASURE)
SHOOTER
    


DREAMCAST:  

Sometimes the most diplomatic way to settle an argument is to flip a coin and leave it up to chance.  No matter what comes up, you can be sure that there will be a clear winner... and a loser.  You can always count on a clear outcome from a coin.  Its answer to every problem is in black and white, never shades of grey.

Inspired by this fact of life, Treasure created Ikaruga.  At first, this sequel to the fantastic Radiant Silvergun appears to be just like any other vertically scrolling shooter.  However, Ikaruga has one key difference which transforms it into an entirely new experience.  Like a coin, your ship can flip over, switching its protective barrier from light to dark and back again.  This gives you two advantages over the swarms of black and white enemies crowding the screen... switching to their color will protect you against their bullets, and switching back makes them more vulnerable to your own fire.

To survive in Ikaruga, you must constantly adapt to hostile conditions, frequently switching colors to defend yourself against a constant rain of bullets and strike back against well armed bosses.  If that's not enough of a challenge for you (and it almost certainly will be), you can aim for a higher score by firing at enemies in sequence... hitting three black or white ships in a row will earn you a combo bonus which increases with every trio of like-colored enemies destroyed.

Ikaruga is a very demanding game... perhaps a little too demanding for its own good.  It lacks the flexibility of Radiant Silvergun, which allowed you to experiment with weapons and explore your surroundings.  If you expect to excel at Ikaruga, you'll have to develop sharp reflexes and absolute precision... and memorizing the location of the enemies in each stage certainly couldn't hurt.  The best players will appreciate the chance to push their considerable skills to the limit, but the rest of us may not enjoy the challenge quite as much.

Ikaruga's graphics are solid, but not outstanding... especially not on the advanced GameCube hardware but not even by the Dreamcast's more humble standards.  Perhaps it's because the game was designed by a skeleton crew at Treasure, or perhaps the backgrounds are drawn in subdued sepia tones to make the black and white objects stand out.  Whatever's the case, the game's visuals don't make the strong impression that its predecessor had on the Saturn.  On the other hand, the soundtrack is nearly as majestic as the amazing music in Radiant Silvergun.  It manages to be powerful without demanding your attention the way the screaming heavy metal in Dodonpachi did.

If you're a fan of Treasure's past work or just need an exceptionally difficult shooter to keep your video game playing skills finely tuned, Ikaruga is a smart purchase.  My advice to everyone else?  Flip a coin. 

INTELLIVISION LIVES!
CRAVE (REALTIME ASSOCIATES)
CLASSIC GAME COLLECTION
 

Intellivision Lives! must have been one of those things that seemed like a good idea at the time.  "Hey, everyone else is making classic game collections... why not us, too?  Heck, we own the rights to the Intellivision game system and its library... we're practically sitting on a goldmine!"  Unfortunately, Realtime Associates (aka The Blue Sky Rangers, alias InTV Corporation...) never stopped to consider the obstacles they'd face when bringing the Intellivision back to life on the latest generation of consoles.

The first of these is hardware limitations.  Now, you'd think that a system as powerful as the GameCube would have no trouble handling games originally created for a twenty five year old console like the Intellivision.  For the most part, it doesn't... the emulation is nearly flawless, with perfect sound reproduction and only slightly blurred graphics.  However, it's the control that drains most of the fun out of this collection.  Like most consoles of the time, the Intellivision had a complicated controller, designed to compensate for the system's limited memory.  This allowed players to select options quickly without a complex interface eating up the Intellivision's precious resources.

That worked well enough back in 1981, but in these days of more streamlined and intuitive controllers, there's just not enough buttons to go around to handle the amount of input possible on a numeric keypad.  Realtime stretched the GameCube controller as far as they could by assigning commonly used functions to the face buttons and using shift keys to access the rest, but in many games, this isn't enough.  Overlays are provided for more complex titles like B-17 Bomber, but they fill up a quarter of the screen, and you lose control of your character while you're keying in commands.  It'll make you wish that the manufacturers had packed in a replica of the Intellivision controller, because playing these titles without one is like trying to play one of today's games with one hand tied behind your back.  It's possible, perhaps, but not very enjoyable.

The second stumbling block to this game's success is the limited budget used to create this collection.  Intellivision Lives! closely mimics the design of the exceptional Activision Anthology, setting the mood with a nostalgic environment and giving players incentives to unlock new content by beating high scores.  While the setting, a neon-colored pizzaria, is every bit as good as the humbly decorated bedroom in Activision Anthology, the bonus features don't quite measure up.  Only a small handful of the available games have unlockable goodies, and the selection of music is a lot less exciting.  Instead of a diverse selection of the eighties' greatest hits, you get an Annie Lennox knock-off lamenting the loss of her favorite game system (sweet dreams AREN'T made of this), a surf remix of the Thin Ice theme song by litigious music composer George Sanger, and a sex scene acted out by characters from the Intellivision's voice enhanced games.  I only wish I were making that last one up.

Granted, this is all just window dressing.  However, when you peer inside that window, you're going to notice a whole lot that's missing.  Since the Realtime Associates crew was working on a tight budget, they couldn't afford the rights to all the licensed games on the system.  Now this wouldn't be a problem if they were all movie-based blunders by Acclaim, but the sad truth is that arcade translations and film adaptations were among the best titles on the Intellivision.  Burgertime's Peter Pepper was practically the system's mascot back in the early 80's, but because Data East went belly up shortly before the game was released, neither Burgertime nor its sequel Diner are open for business on this disc.  Try as you might, you won't find Konami's Loco-Motion, or Activision's Dreadnaught Factor, or Capcom's Commando (oddly present on Activision Anthology) either.  Finally, Tron: Deadly Discs, truly the gem of any Intellivision collection, was taken out of the mix as well.  While I understand the rationale behind this, its absence nevertheless leaves this collection with a great big hole in the center.

Realtime could have bandaged this gaping wound by including some of the games they've designed since the release of the Intellivision.  Curse, a side-scrolling shooter InTV had originally planned to release for the Sega Genesis, and Normy's Beach Babe-o-rama, based on the life of Blue Sky Rangers president Keith Robinson, would have been adequate substitutes for the games listed above.  Sadly, they're not here either, leaving you with a lot of forgettable software, and making you exceedingly glad that you didn't pay much for it.

Intellivision Lives! has one last shortcoming, reflected in the title.  It's an Intellivision collection, and to be perfectly blunt the system just hasn't held up as well as its rivals from the early 1980's.  Activision's 2600 games still hold some artistic merit thanks to their carefully layered background colors and bright, cartoony characters, but Intellivision games lack that appeal due to the system's limitations.  The resolution is painfully low, the colors don't blend well, and the fluid animation of the running man only serves to slow the games to a crawl.  On top of that, the action never feels very smooth.  There's a lack of precision in the control that makes ships streak past their intended destinations and humans take unexpected and often lethal detours through mazes.

If you still have fond memories of the Intellivision, or just want to alleviate some of the guilt brought on by playing its games on your computer, you'll want to pick up this collection.  Intellivision Lives! doesn't compare to classic compilations by larger software manufacturers like Activision or Midway, but its astonishingly low price tag guarantees that you won't leave the store with buyer's remorse.

LEGEND OF ZELDA: THE WIND WAKER
NINTENDO
ADVENTURE
    

Once upon a time, a young hero battled the wicked Ganon and his minions to save a beautiful princess, and the entire world.  Years of peace and prosperity followed Ganon's defeat, but this great age would not last forever.  Eventually, Ganon returned... but the hero did not.

That'd be a pretty lousy way to end a video game, but it's only the beginning for The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker.  Wind Waker takes place a century after the events in The Ocarina of Time, with the world ravaged by a resurrected Ganon.  What little life remains is stranded on tiny islands scattered across a vast ocean.  On one of these islands, a family dresses their eldest child in green to honor the memory of the lost hero. 

Nobody realizes that the boy, Link, will carry on the legacy of the man who first defeated Ganon.  Nor do they understand why their daughter was kidnapped by an enormous bird.  All they know is that someone must save Aryll, and since he's already dressed for the occasion, Link volunteers to rescue his sister from her mysterious captor.

Wind Waker shares a lot in common with the previous Zelda games on the Nintendo 64, from the extremely accomodating 3D gameplay to a versatile musical instrument which helps Link solve the game's many puzzles.  This time, our pointy-eared hero is given a conductor's baton, granting him control of the wind.  Sure, this may not sound as exciting as a flute that acts as a gateway to the past and future.  Nevertheless, with all the sailing you'll be doing to reach new destinations, you'll be very grateful that you have it along for the ride.

More than anything else, the emphasis on sea travel is Wind Waker's defining characteristic.  You'll spend as much time skimming across the ocean as you will wandering through grassy fields and exploring dungeons.  Furthermore, weapons and items that serve a specific purpose on land may be useful to you in an entirely different way while you're sailing the seven seas.  A grappling hook conveniently doubles as a fishing hook for reeling in sunken treasure, and the bombs you used to clear away boulders can also be used as powerful ammunition for your ship's cannon.

Players who'd rather keep their feet firmly planted on dry land may not appreciate the long trips from one island to the next, but Nintendo made enough concessions to keep them from getting seasick too quickly.  Link can use the Wind Waker to create powerful cyclones that carry him to preset locations on the world map, and diversions ranging from gigantic sea monsters to barrel-jumping contests (funny, I never noticed Donkey Kong anywhere...) ensure that the game never regresses into so much nautical nonsense.

The sea travel is Wind Waker's most significant departure from the rest of the Zelda series, but it is by no means its most controversial.  That honor would have to go to the game's graphics.  "Cartoony" doesn't go far enough to describe them... they've got a simple but colorful look that will remind you of popular cartoons like The Powerpuff Girls and The Fairly Oddparents.  It may take time to get used to Link as a big-headed dwarf with stubby legs and enormous almond-shaped eyes, but you'll grow to love the little guy after watching him in action.  Most polygonal characters look like stiffly animated zombies or dead-eyed manniquins, but not Link... he carefully watches enemies as he circles around them, and reacts with wide-eyed wonder when examining the glowing contents of a treasure chest.  The monsters in the game look great, too... they're wonderfully animated, and many are adorned with swirling, pointed patterns that bring to mind tribal tattoos and ancient Aztec carvings.

The graphics are most definitely NOT a liability for Wind Waker.  What does hurt the game are the overwhelming number of fetch quests you'll have to complete.  Rather than putting the shattered remains of the Triforce in the dungeons where they belong, the designers scattered them throughout the ocean, and force you to collect a series of maps in order to locate them.  If that weren't enough, the maps are useless before they're translated, and you'll have to sail to an island in the middle of nowhere and pay the man who lives there a fortune in Rupees before you can pinpoint the location of the Triforce pieces.  This brings up a complaint I have about most adventure games... why are the non-player characters always so selfish and uncooperative?  I'm trying to save the world from certain destruction, jerks... you think maybe you could stop thinking of ways to fill your pockets just long enough to help me save your own ass?

Deep breaths there, Jess... ah, that's better.  Aside from the design issues that makes the game much longer (and more boring) than it needed to be, Wind Waker is one of the best titles in the Legend of Zelda series.  It's got a gentle charm that you just don't see in video games anymore, along with puzzles so brilliantly designed and thoroughly satisfying that you'll spend every waking hour and sleepless night setting sail for new adventures.

RAYMAN 3: HOODLUM HAVOC
UBI SOFT
PLATFORMER
 

Like a guy cutting his eye, an elaborate bank heist with melting clocks and severed backsides with people crawling out of it, and Jean Reno movies, Rayman 3 is French. BEYOND French. Surrender to you three times before you put it in your system French. The latest entry into Ubi Soft's venerable limbless platform franchise continues the series' competency and utter pandering to its true audience: the hardcore platform fan. Arbitrary power-ups, contrived jump puzzles, linear level structure, and endless McGuffin collecting makes Rayman 3 a joy for the fan of the genre and the genre alone.

Rayman 3's plot is almost completely confusing at times, and when does start to make sense it does its damndest to try to go back to being confusing. Rayman's cohort Globox swallows a Hoodlum, a small black furry bug thing, who demands that Globox (voiced by John Leguizamo...) release him.  Unfortunately, for some reason he can't. The hoodlum demands plum juice or he'll rip apart Globox's insides, so Rayman proceeds to find plum juice while trying to save his friend. Then something happens about halfway through, and you fight the Hoodlum. Or something.

Really, Rayman 3 is more about gameplay and that's where it, for the most part, shines. The exploration and free-form feel of other recent platformers like Sly Cooper and Ratchet and Clank are forsaken for more traditional gameplay. Levels are highly structured and laid out, at times, in a quasi- 2.5D fashion while timed power-ups are meticulously placed and force use, creating a hairy, sometimes frantic, pace that demands much from the reflexes. Level layouts are challenging but never too mind-bending:  The lack of a time limit, power-ups that last just long enough to be used effectively, and a liberal sprinkling of life up knick knacks help keep Rayman 3 from a becoming a controller busting experience for novices.

Where the game fails, however, is where most games in the genre do: in gimmicky sub-levels and bosses, particularly at the end of the game. A snowboarding level, various rounds involving a shrunken Rayman chasing his other boot in a bumper-car style battle, and Rez-like "transition" levels that have Rayman doing rail transfers, all prove more irritating than fun, but thankfully, Rayman 3 never relies too much on them. They're more dispersed throughout then concentrated at any point in the game.

For a major title released across all three platforms, Rayman 3 really shines in the graphics and sound departments. Stunningly surreal (but not too distracting) environments sport a very French otherworldly feel: American developers attempting to add "hip and edgy" crooked doors, mad German professors, musket toting and vaguely mysterious ne'er do well cowboys, and shiny glittering things should be taking notes from Ubi Soft's art staff. The game features some great music (particularly on the Gamecube, where it's most impressive on the usually limiting mini disc format) all credited to Euro-techno group Groove Armada. Voice work is competant (if bizarre) and offered in five different languages (English, French, German, Italian, and Spanish). I'm not sure what language John Leguizamo is speaking...

Rayman 3 comes recommended to the hardcore platform fan: it's a nice blend of 3-D and traditional 2-D platforming, and while the mini-games and other deviations from the standard gameplay are kind of annoying, they're not nearly as jarring in other platformers (specifically Traveler's Tales' Haven: Call of the King). However, it's not recommended to non-fans, casual fans, or people who hate the genre. It's entirely geared toward the lot that enjoy double jumping, hopping on foes, and recognizing boss patterns.

RESIDENT EVIL 4
CAPCOM
ACTION
    

Leon Kennedy thought the nightmare of Raccoon City was over when the scheming Umbrella Corporation, creator of the most terrifying disease in human history, was driven out of business by the United States government.  However, while on a mission to rescue the president's daughter, he discovers that the worst is yet to come...

Things might not be looking up for poor Leon, but for fans of the Resident Evil series, they've never been better.  Even those who never appreciated Capcom's survival horror games will be astonished by how much has been changed- and improved- in this one.

Even the zombies aren't really zombies anymore... this time, you'll deal with faster, smarter enemies hiding a horrible secret.  Are they devoted religious fanatics, blindly following the twisted orders of their mysterious robe-clad leader?  Have they all been driven insane by years of isolation in a remote village, detached from the rest of the world?  Or are they possessed by a far more terrible influence?

You'll need to stay alive long enough to find out, and the inhabitants of the unnamed European town you're visiting won't make that easy.  You'll be lucky to escape the clutches of just one of them, but like any good hunters, the villagers rarely work alone.  They prefer to attack en masse, stalking you with pitchforks and dynamite and chainsaws and anything else that looks like it will kill you.  There's nowhere to run, because wherever you hide, they will find you... and you don't want to know what they'll do next.

All you can do is fight back.  Thanks to a completely redesigned (and frankly, long overdue) control scheme, you can.  While the gameplay still feels slow in comparison to many of today's action titles, the control is vastly improved over previous Resident Evil games.  It's more natural and less rigid... when you push left or right on the controller, Leon moves in those directions, rather than turning in place.  Reversing direction is still a bit tricky, but you'll be thankful that you can back up without turning your back on the crowds of marauding townsfolk.

There's also a new perspective that bridges the gap between a first-person and third-person viewpoint.  The camera is set two steps behind Leon, giving the player both enhanced peripheral vision and greatly improved accuracy while aiming.  This accuracy serves an important purpose... now, you can line up shots from great distances and target specific areas on your foes.  Fire into a neo-zombie's face and their head snaps back from the impact of the bullet as they stumble backward, shrieking in pain.  Reactions like these make the game feel more alive, even if your targets, well, aren't.

The fantastic graphics add even more life to the experience.  The cut scenes which advance the plot are especially gorgeous... the lips, eyes, and mouth of each character move in perfect harmony as they speak.  When the leader of the village gloats about his sinister plans, a chill will run up and down your spine as his lips curl into a devilish grin.  You can see the hatred in the eyes of his manservant when the towering beast picks you up by the throat and crushes your windpipe with his massive hands.  These facial expressions both convey and evoke the kind of powerful emotions you rarely experience in a video game.

The visuals while you're actually playing the game aren't quite as amazing, but they're still wonderfully expressive.  If the screaming, bloodthirsty villagers don't make you feel unwelcome, the village itself almost certainly will.  The blood-stained beds, the ramshackle buildings, and the dead brown grass poking out of the parched earth make it clear that this will never be a vacation hot spot.  Once you peer inside a rusty barrel and find a vile stew of stagnant water and wriggling maggots, even you'll start to wish you'd booked a trip to Tahiti instead.  Hey, it's not like she's the president's ONLY daughter, right?

It's tough to find much to complain about in Resident Evil 4... Capcom's addressed nearly every shortcoming in the previous games.  The voice over acting is actually pretty solid this time, and the dialogue is more entertaining as well, even slipping in sly references to other creepy horror games like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night ("Hee hee hee... thank you!") and House of the Dead 2 ("Don't come!").  Ammunition is in much greater supply, and new weapons are easily obtained from a one-man army (surplus store) who shows up at the best possible times.  Capcom has even taken the pain out of saving, with plenty of save spots and absolutely no penalty for using them.

Resident Evil 4's only major fault is that its difficulty level is wildly uneven.  The high concentration of neo-zombies in some areas will leave you feeling helpless... while their complete absence in others will just leave you twiddling your thumbs.  Moreover, some locations let you camp in a safe spot and lure the enemies to their deaths, picking off each poor sap within firing distance as the villagers wait in line for a chance to strangle you.  Once you've blown away the long parade of targets, there's no challenge left until you've entered the next location.  There are just enough enemies to go around in Resident Evil 4... it's a shame that Capcom didn't distribute them more evenly.

So there's a little room for improvement here, but not much.  Resident Evil 4 offers all the tension and heart-stopping fright of the first games, without all the annoyances.  It'll convince players who've always hated the series to happily give it a second chance... and make Resident Evil fans wonder why they've been putting up with the game's flaws for almost nine years.

SPACE RAIDERS
MASTIFF (TAITO)
ACTION / SHOOTER
 

In the early 1990's, Taito faced the challenge of updating its long-running Space Invaders series for a new generation of gamers.  The company had released titles like Space Invaders '91 and Majestic Twelve, which brought sophisticated gameplay elements like bosses and power-ups to the world of Space Invaders, and further enhanced the experience with outstanding audiovisuals.  Although neither of these games caught the attention of players the way that Capcom's hugely successful Street Fighter II had, they nevertheless served the intended purpose of evolving the Space Invaders series, once again making it a relevant and valuable property.

A decade later, Taito once again tailored Space Invaders to fit the demands of a rapidly evolving industry.  Space Raiders is the company's attempt to introduce the series to a younger, more demanding audience... an audience that grew up with more cinematic games like Resident Evil and Tomb Raider.  Space Raiders follows in the footsteps of these influential releases with a movie-quality soundtrack, more realistic polygonal characters, and cut scenes which seperate each level from the next.  However, the difference between Space Raiders and its 16-bit counterparts from the 1990's is that its new features do absolutely nothing to improve Space Invaders as a game.

Come to think of it, Space Raiders isn't all that appealing as a movie, either.  Although the introductory sequence (featuring a horde of alien monsters scurrying through the city streets, crushing everything in their path and impaling humans with their sharpened legs) is pretty exciting, the cut scenes between levels will just leave you groaning in disbelief rather than screaming in fear.  If the stale voice acting doesn't leave you rolling your eyes, the unremarkable dialogue and absolutely idiotic plot twists almost certainly will.  Near the end of the game, the heroes hijack an F-16 fighter and take it straight to the invaders' mothership for the final conflict.  Never mind that the jet is in perfect condition when they find it despite the alien attack that left the rest of the planet in ruins.  Never mind that this random assortment of survivors (including a police officer, a news camera operator, and a street punk) shouldn't have the slightest clue how to pilot an advanced military aircraft.  Never mind that they dock with the mothership to fight the creatures inside it, rather than unleashing a dozen missiles on the flying saucer to ensure its complete destruction.  I won't even mention Space Raiders' stunning(ly stupid) climax or its infuriating ending, although when you see them, you'll cut the writers of Independence Day a little more slack for letting Jeff Goldblum use a Macintosh to hack an alien computer network.

The storyline could be easily ignored if the meat of the game were satisfying.  Sadly, it's less akin to meat than the rubbery gristle you'd accidentally bite into before throwing it to your dog... and not even your favorite one.  Space Raiders is a stripped down shooter, offering few improvements over the original Space Invaders and lacking any redeeming values when compared to triumphs of the genre like Radiant Silvergun or Dodonpachi.  Like in the original, you travel along the bottom of the screen, picking off invaders as they steadily close in on you.  However, unlike Space Invaders, whose massive armies of soldiers left you feeling helpless and overwhelmed, there's little challenge or urgency to be found in Space Raiders.  Not only are the aliens in limited supply and in poorly organized formations, but the game hands you so many advantages that it's practically impossible to lose against them.  Did you just die?  Aww... have a continue!  In fact, have them all!  Too many enemies on the screen?  Here, throw this grenade at them... they'll all die in a spectacular explosion!  If even THAT'S not enough, use this overpowered laser beam to melt them into puddles of disgusting goo!  You can even use this against the bosses if you want... hey, we won't stop you!

Space Raiders won't impress you much with its graphics or sound, either.  The bass-heavy explosions are laid on a little too thick... instead of adding impact to the deaths of especially powerful enemies, they shake your windows, walls, and doors every time you blink.  The cinematic soundtrack supplied by the legendary musicians at Zuntata is better, but not by much.  If you've ever watched a big-budget movie, you've heard it all before.  Speaking of things in Space Raiders that are suspiciously familiar, the artwork shamelessly copies the dark, dreary atmosphere in Capcom's Resident Evil games, with shambling zombies, grimey city streets, and heroes who somehow manage to stay picture perfect throughout the onscreen chaos.  The unpolished graphics, with their noticable polygonal edges and blurry textures, would have been acceptable in the days of Code: Veronica, but after the release of the visually astounding Resident Evil 4, Space Raiders is left looking like a second-rate clone of a game with infinitely more depth and inspiration.

Unlike the Space Invaders sequels of the past, Space Raiders doesn't succeed as a next-generation gaming experience or as a worthy successor to the arcade classic.  Not to fear, though... you can always squeeze every last drop of power out of your GameCube with Resident Evil 4, then satisfy those xenocidal cravings with the upcoming Space Invaders collection on the PSP.  Heck, even Space Invaders on the Game Boy Advance will do the job in a pinch.  Whatever you do, don't let the space in your GameCube collection be invaded by Space Raiders!

TRUE CRIME: STREETS OF L.A.
ACTIVISION (LUXOFLUX, EXAKT)
FIGHTIN', SHOOTIN', AND DRIVIN'
    

When reviewers talk about this game, the first thing that comes out of their mouths is "Grand Theft Auto clone".  Yeah, just like that!  See what I mean?   However, I don't think the comparisons are fair, or even accurate.  The truth is that the two games couldn't be more different.  In Grand Theft Auto, you play a sleazy thug who runs over random citizens with the car he just stole from a little old lady, while gunning down Mafia-assigned targets.  However, in True Crime, you play a cocky cop who... uh... runs over random citizens with the car he just "commandeered" from a little old lady, while gunning down targets assigned by the police department.  So, uh, there.

All right, all right... I'll admit the two games have more than a few similarities.  However, since the comparisons to Grand Theft Auto have been done to death, I'm going to take this review in an entirely different direction... back to the past! 

Nearly fifteen years ago, Konami released a game for an earlier Nintendo system which, like True Crime, featured racing, shooting, and fighting, all in one package.  The Adventures of Bayou Billy was ambitious, but it just wasn't much fun to play due to the poor integration of the three different styles of gameplay.  The driving would come to a screeching halt to make way for the fist fights, and the brawls would end just as abruptly when it was time to draw your weapons and pick off enemies in the streets of New Orleans.

Luckily, True Crime takes a different approach.  Instead of pasting together three mediocre games, the designers took the shooting, fighting, and driving and blended them together, making each style of gameplay dependant on the others.  When a crime breaks out, you'll need to jump in your car, race to the scene before any cops or hostages are killed, then exit the vehicle and take on the suspect with your martial arts skills or, when things get serious, your pair of guns.

True Crime has one other advantage over The Adventures of Bayou Billy... better design.  While none of the games in Bayou Billy had much substance or variety, True Crime keeps you hooked with open-ended gameplay and a surprising level of complexity.  Targeting specific areas of your opponent (whether it be their legs or the wheels on their getaway car) results in easier arrests, and the fighting is more strategic and rewarding than in a certain Rockstar series.  If all this still isn't enough to keep you happy, a quick stop at a nearby training facility is all it takes to learn new abilities and further broaden your horizons.

Heck, the game is even fun to watch, thanks to a great storyline.  True Crime is inspired by the campy cop films we all remember from the 80's and 90's, but it's so over the top that it could nearly pass for a parody.  You'll need no introductions to characters like the Big Black Police Chiefô and the Stuck-Up Female Partnerô...you've met them all before.  You're going to love getting acquainted with Nick Kang, though... this offspring of a surly cop and his mysterious Chinese lover is armed with a wit as quick and deadly as his fists.  You'll bust a gut laughing when he chases after a perp, shouting "Run, Forrest, Run!", or when he optimistically refers to the handcuffs he's putting on a suspect as "restraining jewelry".

Could True Crime get any better?  Well, yes, actually it could.  The three way gameplay proves to be a little too complex for its own good... pressing certain buttons activates different modes (shooting, walking, and fighting), and it can be hard to break Nick out of them when necessary.  For example, firing your gun in the air could convince a suspect to give up right away... but they may also make a break for it, forcing you to run after them while still stuck in shooting mode (and remember, blowing away unarmed foes is a big no-no, even if Nick Kang is just one gun conversation away from being the 21st century's answer to Sledge Hammer).  Speaking of shooting, you can also slow down time to target a foe's "neutralizing points", but these areas are so difficult to pinpoint even with the gameplay at a crawl that it's usually not worth the trouble.

Also, can I complain about the cameo appearance by Snoop Doggy Dogg?  Well, I will anyway.  I'm getting sick of seeing this living stereotype everywhere, and I sure as hell don't want him in any video games.  He may have won an award for it, but the option to play as the Shizz-head is hardly what I'd call a bonus.

Even with its complicated control and idiotic guest stars, True Crime offers a lot of bang, punch, and burned rubber for the buck.  I wouldn't go so far as to call it a Grand Theft Auto killer, but True Crime's successful merger of three different game genres is more than enough to finally bring Bayou Billy to justice.

 
     

 

They said it would be the next Virtual Boy.  They said that a handheld with two screens was impractical.  They said that its competitor, the Sony PSP, would outsell it by a wide margin.  It looks like "they" underestimated the successful...  
NINTENDO DS  
     
     
 

GAMES YOU'LL WANT

CASTLEVANIA: DAWN OF SORROW:  Soma Cruz takes a second stab at the creatures of the night in this fantastic DS-exclusive sequel to Aria of Sorrow.
KIRBY CANVAS CURSE:  Even the system's biggest skeptics will be drawn into this entertaining side-scrolling platformer, played exclusively with the stylus.
METEOS:  When your world is pelted with a rain of hot rocks, your only hope is to return them to sender in this puzzle game full of imagination and variety.
TRAUMA CENTER: UNDER THE KNIFE:  It will take a steady hand and fast reflexes to keep your patients alive in this viciously intense surgical action game.
YOSHI'S TOUCH AND GO:  It's up to you to protect Yoshi and his vulnerable sidekick Baby Mario with clever taps and swipes of your stylus.

GAMES YOU WON'T

PAC-PIX:  After the novelty of bringing horribly disfigured Pac-Men to life wears off, all you'll be left with is a simplistic action game overflowing with frustration.
PING PALS:  Let me ask you this... have you ever used the Picochat feature more than once?  Why then, would you want to buy a slightly enhanced alternative to it?
RAYMAN DS:  The magic of Rayman 2 is lost in this unsatisfactory handheld conversion, made even less appealing by awkward touchscreen control.
SUPER MARIO 64 DS:  Everyone's favorite N64 game quickly becomes a lot less appealing when you add clumsy touchscreen control to the mix.
SPRUNG:  It's a dating simulation, like the ones they've been making in Japan for the past fifteen years.  Judging from Sprung, we haven't been missing much.

REVIEWS 

DIG DUG: DIGGING STRIKE
NAMCO
ACTION
   

There are many stars in the world of video games, but none shine as brightly as the heroes of the early 1980's, when the industry was still young.  There's Pac-Man, and Sinistar, and Pitfall Harry, and of course Mario... who could forget any of these guys?

Then, further down the list... no, keep going... ah yes, there we are!  MUCH further down the list, there are the B-grade celebrities of classic gaming... those characters that hang out in the dusty corner of your nostalgia-riddled mind.  Some of these forgotten heroes, like Mr. Do!, Stanley the Bugman, and that penguin from Antarctic Adventure are content with one toe hanging from the edge of obscurity, but Dig Dug refuses to accept an early retirement.  Frustrated by his fading fame and further humiliated by the increasing popularity of his son Mr. Driller, the hot-headed hole digger vows to make a comeback.

Unfortunately, Dig Dug's latest adventure is unlikely to win over any new fans, or even most of the older ones.  Dig Dug: Digging Strike is buried under an avalanche of awkward features that neither enhance the game, nor work especially well together.  You get the feeling after a few monotonous hours that the designers were frantically throwing every power-up, mini-game, and half-baked play mechanic they could think of at the hollow core of Digging Strike's gameplay, hoping that something would stick.  In the end, nothing does... including the player, who will be quick to swap the game with something more enjoyable.

So, what will you be doing in Digging Strike when you're not distracted by all that useless clutter?  As Dig Dug, your mission is to protect an island country from rampaging monsters by... uh, sinking all the islands.  Apparently, the citizens of this nation would rather drown than suffer the indignity of being swallowed alive by these fifty foot tall Pokemon stunt doubles.

Anyway, soaking these savage beasts takes a little planning, along with frequent migrations between the top and bottom screens on your DS.  The top screen displays the surface of the current island, while the bottom screen illustrates what's going on underneath it.  Giant screws are strategically placed on the top of the island, just barely extending into the soil below. 

Once you dig into that soil and drop the screws through the bottom of the island, the land starts to split.  Drop enough screws and pieces of the island will break away and sink into the surrounding ocean.  If the monster happens to be on that section of the island as it sinks, the creature drowns, and you can proceed to the next stage.  Just be careful where you're standing when that last screw falls, or that monster will have company down in Davy Jones' locker!

The basic play mechanics are clever, and they seem to work for the first few stages.  Then the islands get larger, the screw patterns become more complicated, and the classic Dig Dug gameplay gets obfuscated by over a dozen power-ups you don't really need.  Some even halt your already sluggish progress with cameo appearances by Mr. Driller. 

The star of the most overrated Namco game since Tekken tries to lend his old man a hand by stunning the monsters, but he only succeeds in boring the player with shameless product placement that Namco generously calls mini-games.  These interactive ads for Xevious and Rally-X aren't the least bit entertaining, and they have little bearing on the outcome of the game they so frequently interrupt.

Thankfully, you can take Mr. Driller out of the equation, but even without him, the Digging Strike formula still adds up to unending boredom for the player.  It's no fun zig-zagging through a screen's worth of dirt to make each screw fall, and when the stages grow to three times their original size, Dig Dug is forced to dig under nearly a dozen of them to make any progress.  Throw in the possibility of a stalemate which forces you to start the stage from the beginning, and you've got a game you'll be sorely tempted to bury under a ton of debris.

Dig Dug was hoping that Digging Strike would help him take back just a little of the spotlight he lost over the past twenty years.  Unfortunately, Namco's miner celebrity only wound up digging an even bigger hole for himself.  Maybe it's time to put down that air pump and pick up a pair of enormous scissors for the grand opening of that new shopping mall, Taizo.

KIRBY CANVAS CURSE
NINTENDO (HAL LABS)
ACTION
 

It's amazing how many enemies cute little Kirby has made in the past thirteen years since his debut on the original Game Boy.  King Dedede, Metaknight, that blue thing from The Adventures of Lolo, Tommy Tallarico... the list just goes on and on.  Kirby's latest adversary is a shadowy witch who's turned his beloved home into a tacky painting.  When our hero chases her into her own world, the sadistic sorceress uses her magic to pluck Kirby's stubby arms and legs from his bulbous body, hoping to leave him stranded and helpless.  However, like the black knight from that famous Monty Python movie, Kirby just doesn't know when to quit.  With or without limbs, he's determined to travel through the witch's strange land, defeat the cackling creep, and rescue his friends from a fate worse than death... hanging over a mantle while playing cards with a pack of poker-loving dogs!

As persistant as Kirby may be, he won't even make it to the nearest handicapped parking space without your help.  As the keeper of the magic rainbow paintbrush (er... that would be your stylus), it's up to you to roll the pink pinball to the end of each stage, picking off enemies and picking up medals along the way.  Prodding Kirby with the stylus prompts him to dash, while drawing lines gives the star of the game a safe path to follow through the many dangerous obstacles in each round.  You'll send Kirby over spikes, under angry stone blocks, and through tight passages packed with the witch's lackeys as you lead him to the doorway in each round.

The play mechanics are going to sound familiar to anyone who's played Yoshi's Touch and Go.  However, Kirby Canvas Curse takes a different approach, offering faster gameplay and longer levels than its cousin.  Rather than walking through each stage at a leisurely pace, Kirby picks up speed as he rolls, forcing the player to both think and draw quickly to keep the little guy from falling into pits and electrified walls.  The level design is also more complex, with deviously placed traps scattered everywhere and detours that can only be accessed when Kirby collects power-ups from the enemies he's flattened.  None of the stages are randomly generated like they were in Yoshi's Touch and Go, but they're so diverse and in such great supply that the game never becomes predictable.

However, the biggest surprise of all in Kirby Canvas Curse are the boss fights.  Instead of Kirby wearing down the defenses of a oversized foe, these boss battles are inspired challenges that offer a refreshing break from the rest of the game.  You'll race against the portly King Dedede, crack open the walls protecting a disgruntled cloud, and draw a series of progressively complicated shapes to help Kirby stay one step ahead of a gang of animated explosives.  The last of these three mini-games is my favorite... who knew art could be this intense?

It won't come as a shock to long-time fans of the series that Kirby Canvas Curse looks great.  It's got the same plump, personable characters as the previous games, but this time, they're running around a variety of imaginative backgrounds.  They've got a brightly colored, just slightly abstract appearance that differs wildly from stage to stage... in one level, you'll see billowing clouds of smoke pouring from a stained glass volcano, while craggy, hand-painted caverns surround you in another.  Unfortunately, the background music isn't as impressive as the backgrounds it accompanies... the primitive soundtrack could just as easily have been done on a Game Boy Advance.

Despite this relatively inconsequential flaw, Kirby Canvas Curse is the first game that truly justifies the purchase of a Nintendo DS.  The system has seen entertaining games, truly original software, and titles that take full advantage of its touch screen... but Canvas Curse is the first DS release that brings all three of these qualities together.

METEOS
NINTENDO (Q ENTERTAINMENT)
PUZZLE
 

There are thousands of planets in our galaxy, but only one that strikes fear in the hearts of all who hear its name.  That planet is not just uninhabitable, but outwardly hostile, hunting down other worlds and showering them with an merciless hail of flaming rocks.  For centuries, the sight of a cat's eye ominously floating overhead was a sure sign of the apocalypse... but recent advances in technology has given hope to Meteo's next victims, and a chance to end this threat forever!

This sounds like a storyline in your ordinary, average shooter on the Sega Genesis.  Don't be fooled, though... Meteos is a puzzle game, and there's nothing ordinary or average about it.  While Lumines was a comfortably familiar experience to anyone who had already played Tetris or Columns, the play mechanics in Meteos are as alien as the many worlds you'll defend. 

Instead of directly controlling the pieces as they fall, you slide them into place with the stylus after they've rested on the planet's surface.  And rather than lowering the stack of blocks, you use the bursts of energy from the matches you've made to send them skyward.  Gravity and your own skill play a part in how far the Meteos are launched.  Larger stacks of blocks are heavier and less aerodynamic, but strings of matches boost the strength of each launch.  Play your cards right, and you can clear the entire screen of Meteos with one fell swipe of your stylus!

This begs the question... where do all those stray comets go once you've launched them back into space?  Why, over to someone ELSE'S planet, of course!  Even in the single player mode, Meteos is a competitive game, with the stakes set as high as they can go.  You and your opponent will trade blows, each trying to rescue your home planet by destroying the other.  Eventually, one will be buried in an avalanche of intergalactic debris, while the other will survive... at least until the next challenge.

Your ultimate goal is to rid the galaxy of Meteo, but there are all kinds of ways to challenge this foe, and just as many rewards for your bravery in the face of this ultimate weapon of mass destruction.  The Star Trip lets you choose your own path to Meteo, from a straight shot to a tangled journey through the depths of space, with each stop determined by your performance in the previous round.  You can also battle up to three other players or computer opponents in the competitive mode, or just sharpen your skills in a brutal test of endurance that cranks up the heat as you continue to play it.

When you're finished, you can take the Meteos you've launched and use them to purchase unlockable content, like soundtracks, helpful block-clearing items, and even new planets, filled with abstract creatures all looking to you as their savior.  You wouldn't expect so much variety from a typical puzzle game, but that's the beauty of Meteos... it's anything but typical.  From the vibrant graphics that differ wildly in each stage, to the fresh gameplay designed to take full advantage of the DS touchscreen, Meteos goes to great lengths to be different... and in the process, finds itself light years ahead of other puzzle games.

NANOSTRAY
MAJESCO (SHIN'EN)
SHOOTER
 

Fans of old-school shooters should feel doubly thankful for Nanostray.  It's become a rare treat to see these games on modern day systems, and it's even more unusual that a struggling company like Majesco would take a risk on a title with such a limited audience.  Rumor has it that Nanostray was released in limited quantities due to Majesco's recent financial woes, so if you're at all interested in this blast from the past, you'd better get your hands on a copy now, while you still can!

Nanostray was developed by Shin'en, the team of German developers with a decidedly un-European approach to game design.  Nobody in the industry works harder to copy the distinct look and feel of Japanese games, but this strong Eastern influence definitely works to Nanostray's advantage.  No shooter on a handheld game system has ever been as impressive as this one... Nanostray's play mechanics tightly fit together like the pieces of a well-crafted puzzle, and the graphics are outstanding, defying the conventional wisdom that the Nintendo DS is just a handheld Nintendo 64.  You'll spend a lifetime looking for a shooter on that console that even comes close to looking this good!

What makes the graphics in Nanostray truly spectacular?  It's not the endless waves of beautifully animated foes, or the lush color palette, or even the dazzling special effects.  It's the immersive polygonal environments that really put this one over the top.  Each stage feels like a roller coaster ride, with your ship climbing over metal structures and diving through hollow meteors on the way to its next confrontation.  This interaction with the environment draws you into the action and makes Nanostray more than just another overhead view shooter.

Unfortunately, the gameplay in Nanostray isn't quite up to par with its fantastic visuals.  It's a good, solid shooter with enough technique and originality to elevate it above the dozens of boring Raiden clones that flooded arcades in the early 1990's.  However, Nanostray just can't rise to the level of classics like Radiant Silvergun, Dodonpachi, or Mars Matrix.  The scoring system is part of the reason why... although you're given a total of eight different weapons, you'll have to settle for the least powerful ones in your arsenal if you hope to earn a respectable score and a passing grade at the end of each stage.  This does make the game more challenging, but it also limits the player's freedom, effectively closing the door to half of what Nanostray has to offer.

Even when you're not playing for a high score, you're still going to be unsatisfied with the selection of weapons in Nanostray.  They're not especially original, and can't be used with the same level of strategy as the bombs, beams, and bullets in Radiant Silvergun.  Instead of rapidly switching between weapons to adapt to the enemy's rapidly changing battle tactics, you'll stick with the lightning gun and vulcan cannon for the majority of the game, selecting the side cannons only to pinpoint weak spots on the occasional boss.  The fourth weapon, a wavy laser beam, is too unpredictable to be of much use, further restricting the player's already limited selection of attacks.

As a shooter, Nanostray trails behind true classics of the genre like Radiant Silvergun and the later Gradius games.  However, as a demonstration of the Nintendo DS's abilities, Shin'en's creation stands alone.

PUZZLE QUEST
D3 PUBLISHER
PUZZLE/RPG
 

Puzzle Quest is a surprisingly addictive hybrid between a puzzle game and an RPG.  Even someone like me who doesn't particularly favor puzzle games can get a lot of enjoyment out of this one.

Put simply, the game is similar to a strategy RPG in execution, complete with plot events and quests reachable via an overworld map where you can select your next destination.  However, whenever you enter battle, you "fight" by playing the game's puzzle mode.  All combat is one-on-one; you and your opponent take turns moving gems around on the board, matching colors in order to gather mana (used for special skills), gain experience or gold, or damage your foe.

The puzzle game's mechanics are relatively simplistic, but it holds interest fairly well, and there are plenty of other things to do outside of that.  You can level up your character, fight random battles at any time you wish (you aren't restricted to fighting only quest-related battles like in some strategy RPG games), build a citadel to give yourself various benefits, buy or craft items, and so forth.  Even after you hit the level cap, there's still lots to do.

One curious aspect of the game is it is expressly designed not to be frustrating.  There is absolutely no way to lose the game, and there's no penalty for failure.  If you are defeated in battle, you still gain some experience and gold, and you can jump right back in and restart the fight without restriction.  If you are attempting to capture a monster and you fail, there's a "Try Again" button right there for you.  You don't even need to hunt down another monster to capture.  You're allowed to retry the attempt against the same monster as many times as you wish.  Not to mention the game gives you hints.  Yes, hints.  Not very good at the game?  Just wait long enough and it'll do things like point out four-of-a-kinds for you just in case you miss them.

All of this, combined with the fact that you can close the lid to put the game into sleep mode at virtually any time that you wish, makes this title an excellent "casual" game.  Carry it around in your coat pocket, and whenever you get stuck in a line or something, pull it out and play a few rounds.  It's definitely a game that you can play for any span of time.  Pick it up for short bursts here and there, or spend hours at it at a time, whichever suits the occasion or your mood.

The main downside to the DS game is it was adapted from a PC game, and so the PC version has a few features that were not shoehorned into the DS title.  For example, the sound quality in the DS game is quite diminished; for some reason, the music clips horribly at times, which gives it a staticy sound as if it is overloading the DS's speakers.  Also, the graphical effects during battle aren't as distinct; when you clear a row of skulls, for example, it's much more obvious in the PC version that you are damaging your enemy.  A few game play elements are not explained in the DS version's tutorial at all (such as exploding skulls), which means you might have no idea what is going on with them unless you've played the PC game first.

Still, most of the game is here, and one advantage of the DS version over the PC one is the portability of it.  If you like puzzle games or you enjoy building characters in RPGs, you probably won't regret picking this one up.

TRAUMA CENTER: UNDER THE KNIFE
ATLUS
ACTION
 

Here's an important prescription for anyone who's thinking about snapping up this surgical action game... be sure to get a copy of Nintendogs along with it.  Trauma Center is as nervewracking as it is ingenious... you'll be completely stressed out after finishing the game's most difficult surgeries, and you'll need a more laid back DS release to steady those shaking hands and that frantic heartbeat.

After you're done playing with your puppy, you'll be ready for another round of Trauma Center... and believe me, it won't take long before you'll want a crack at that next seemingly impossible operation.  In Trauma Center, you play as Doctor Stiles, a determined young surgeon fresh out of medical college.  At first, the doctors and nurses will question your inexperience.  However, once you've proven yourself, you'll earn the respect of the hospital staff, and even be given the chance to work your magic on patients throughout the world.

Previous video games based on the delicate science of surgery have been slow and awkward, but the Nintendo DS makes becoming a hotshot doctor as easy as picking up the nearest stylus.  Generally, you'll use it as a scalpel, drawing lines to cut through skin and remove diseased tissue.  However, the icons lining the sides of the screen change the function of the stylus, transforming it into a variety of other surgical tools.  The forceps allow you to pull shards of glass from a damaged organ, while the syringe lets you reduce the swelling in tumorous growths.

Each surgery must be completed within a time limit, while keeping the patient's vitals (shown as a number on the top-right hand of the touchscreen) high.  Making mistakes, like injecting a tumor with the wrong medicine or burning a hole through tissue with the surgical laser, lowers the patient's strength and wastes valuable time.  Fortunately, Doctor Stiles can use  healing gel as a surgical White Out, rubbing it on to blot out the errors he's made.  In desperate situations, he can inject green medication into the patient to boost their vital signs, or even slow time to a crawl, perfect for treating a half dozen blocked blood vessels before they all burst at once.

Even with these advantages, surgery in Trauma Center isn't easy.  You'll be pressured not only by time constraints and the worsening condition of your patient, but by the pointed comments of your surgical partners, which cut deeper than even your best scalpel.  Your stress level will go through the roof when you're given vague and even misleading information about the surgery that could ultimately cost you a patient.  Chances are, you'll have to go through an operation several times before you get it right... and it'll take a few more tries before you can finish it with a high rating.

You'll be frustrated by Trauma Center, for sure.  However, it's just as certain that you'll be back for more punishment.  The hook of the gameplay is largely dependent on the stylus... you really feel like you're in the operating room, draining toxins from an oozing wound and setting bandages on an incision you just stitched together.  The storyline is just as compelling, with emotional dialogue that legitimizes the medical setting and makes the outcome of each surgery even more important.  Finally, the polygonal graphics during each operation border on the surreal, but they're always reliable, with every important detail being a cinch to spot.

It may raise your blood pressure (all right, there's no "maybe" about it), but you'll still be glad you brought home Trauma Center.  It's a fun, frantic action game with a heavy dose of originality, and it really dusts the cobwebs off the underutilized Nintendo DS stylus.