Strong marketing and a handy DVD-ROM drive made the Playstation 2 the most successful game system of the 21st century.

ACTIVISION ANTHOLOGY
ACTIVISION (CONTRABAND)
COMPILATION

  

Practically every "greatest hit" compilation that has seen the light of a pressing is poorly emulated garbage intended for mass market drones, or your mom, that aren't internet savvy enough to share, or steal, better functioning emulators and ROMs for their PCs.  The Namcos, Midways, and Hasbros (now Frenchies) just stick Pac-Man, or Defender, or Centipede and a couple "B" titles on a disc, ship it for a platform with a moderate market penetration, then collect the money.  There's no better example of this than Namco's ghastly Museum redux for Xbox, which was pretty abhorent when you pit Pac-Man from that collection up against a ROM running on the legally questionable X-MAME.

While the industry's oldest third party is just as guilty of releasing questionable collections for PSX and PC as the industry's big boys, Activision has gone a long way to correct their past faults, and probably to cover their ass on Minority Report, by allowing a group of ne'er do wells (passionate programmers) to put together Activision Anthology.

Every game from Activision's VCS catalog is included, except Ghostbusters.  Pitfall II and a few others are vaunted on the packaging as being available here for the first time since their original releases, along with a couple Imagic games (Atlantis and Demon Attack, obviously).  If the superb emulation and proper mapping to the Dualshock 2 for all the games wasn't enough, developer Contraband goes the whole nine yards by giving the game an 80's feel that's arguably even more true to form than Vice City. 

The game selection interface is implemented cleverly, if a bit clunkily, by putting you in a teenage kid's room circa 1984.  You get an old TV, a wood grain VCS, a spinning rack that includes all the cartridges of the available games, and a radio blaring token 80's licensed music in the background.   You pick a cart from the rack, where you can also access the game's manual and box art, plug it into the VCS, crank up the music and go to town. 

If 45 some-odd Acitivision and Imagic games weren't enough, patches, TV commercials, industry videos (possibly used to promote Activision games in stores or for stock holders as fiscal forecasts for the upcoming year), and about fifteen different gameplay themes (including V-Hold to emulate the feel of playing the game on an old TV, moving clouds in the foreground, and a 3D cube projecting the game on all sides) are included as unlockables.  With the possible exception of the patches, all of the unlockables are easy to get.  Most consist of just getting a certain score, or beating the computer opponent in the sports games.  The patches are obtainable by earning the score or completing the task necessary to get to get the patch originally.

As I've mentioned before, the emulation is perfect.  The gameplay is, too: you can use either the D-pad or analog stick to play all of the games, with the exception of the paddle games, which only use the stick.  The top L1, L2, R1, and R2 buttons serve as the different switches on the VCS (for those curious, you can play in Black and White).  The music, which consists of everything from Twisted Sister, to Quarterflash, to Men without Hats, is included and can actually be played while in the middle of the game. 

The only real faults that come to mind with Activision Anthology are merely subjective.  The game could've used more music, perhaps Devo, The Clash, or stuff from Neil Young's forgotten Trans.  The unlockables could've just been provided as unlocked extras for those who viewed the games in sepia-toned nostalgia but simply sucked at them.  Finally, the promised downloads (including prototypes) aren't going to happen.  It's important to note that Kababober and Thwocker are included here, and Activision has plans to release ROMs of the promised extras on their website. 

If there's ever a reason NOT to steal Enduro or Laserblast or Spider Fighter, this is it. Activision Anthology is an amazing collection that will hopefully get the other companies in the industry to wake up and pay more attention to their compilations, rather than pooping them out to make a quick buck. I'd love to see collections of this high quality from other early game companies... I'm looking at you, Nichibutsu and D. Gottleib Co.

CRIMSON TEARS
CAPCOM (SPIKE, DREAM FACTORY)
ACTION/RPG

 

Now this was an unexpected surprise.  I didn't even know this game existed until I saw it hiding in the corner of the Playstation 2 shelf at my local rental store.  What's even more surprising is that Crimson Tears is a collaborative effort between two of my favorite game designers, Capcom and Spike.

You probably know Capcom as the creators of Mega Man and Street Fighter II, and if you're familiar at all with Spike, you recognize them from their work on the fantastic Fire Pro Wrestling series.  Here comes the biggest surprise of all, though... Crimson Tears is unlike anything either company has ever released.  Instead, it takes equal inspiration from the film Blade Runner and older console RPGs like Epyx's Gateway to Apshai.

The storyline is so close to Blade Runner's that you'll be left wondering if the title characters ever dream of electric sheep.  The heroes of Crimson Tears are Amber, Kalie, and Tokio, a trio of genetically engineered soldiers specifically designed to protect Tokyo from mutant creatures, an unfortunate by-product of organic synthesis.

To accomplish their mission, they must leave the safety of their headquarters and warp to those areas of Tokyo that are most heavily infested by mutants.  These danger zones are nearly as unstable as their inhabitants, welcoming intruders with randomly arranged rooms filled with ferocious monsters and dangerous traps.

This is where Crimson Tears starts borrowing heavily from Gateway to Apshai, as well as a countless number of other RPGs which create dungeons on the fly.  This random approach to level design may have been a necessary evil in the days of console RPGs.  However, in 2004, there's just no substitute for levels cleverly devised by human beings... and no excuse for programmers to expect the computer to do all their work for them.

The random level design puts Crimson Tears well below the standards set by great adventure games like The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker.  Fortunately, Crimson Tears can fall back on another style of gameplay.  It's also a beat 'em up, similar to Capcom's own Final Fight series.  You won't be selecting options from a menu and casting laboriously long spells to defeat enemies here... instead, you'll be hammering them with punches and kicks.  Standard Final Fight rules apply... super attacks can be used in desperate situations, and any weapons you shake loose from broken barrels and bruised baddies are yours for the taking.

At this point, Crimson Tears turns back into an adventure, rather than just a mindless beat 'em up.  Weapons have a much more profound effect on the gameplay than they ever had in Final Fight... each character has a preferred weapon, and their fighting styles change dramatically when this battle gear is equipped.  Amber may not be much of a fighter without a sword, or even with just one.  However, put a blade in each of her hands, and Amber will cut through a room full of enemies with the speed and skill of a Benihana chef!

The power of these weapons might have made the game a breeze, but they're balanced out by several factors.  Some foes, like the eerie slime monsters in the third stage, are invulnerable to sword attacks and will snap your blades like twigs if you get too close to them.  In this instance, you're far better off putting the swords away and using a magnum pistol to deliver some 20th century punishment.  Don't get too reliant on THAT, either, as it has a limited supply of ammunition and won't work well against the soldiers in riot armor. 

Finally, every member of the team is in constant danger of being pushed past his or her limits.  Keep swinging those heavy swords and your character will eventually lapse into a dangerous condition called "overheat", which makes them faster and stronger... but much more vulnerable to attack.  It's another unfortunate side effect of manufacturing life... synthetic humans may be far more powerful than the real things, but the candle that burns twice as brightly burns out twice as quick.

Crimson Tears may not be much of an RPG, but its complex weapon system, plus the ability to build your own items from spare parts, gives it the kind of replay value you won't find in most beat 'em ups.  Plus, its bleak cel-shaded graphics and futuristic storyline are a vivid reminder of the classic science-fiction movie that asked tough questions about the definition of humanity, and the value of life.

FROGGER: THE GREAT ADVENTURE
KONAMI (KONAMI OF AMERICA)
ACTION/ADVENTURE

 

My reviews are usually a little more verbose than this, but this one will be short, because there's only one thing I have to say about this game... I don't like it.  I don't like that they've turned a simple but fun arcade classic into another dull platformer in the tradition of Super Mario 64.  I don't like the new Frogger, a backwater hayseed who bears no resemblence to the character in the first game.  I don't like the control, which tries to mimic real frog movement but really just annoys the player with awkward hop-walking that makes it almost impossible to safely run across thin platforms.  I don't like the southern fried voice overs, and I don't like the ability to spit "goobers" at enemies.  Actually, there's only one thing I didn't like about this game... that would be everything.  Frogger might be back in the hands of its original creators, but The Great Adventure proves that it's no safer there than it was at Hasbro.

GOD HAND
CAPCOM (CLOVER STUDIOS)
ACTION/FIGHTING

 

Just when the outstanding Okami left you convinced that anything by Clover Studios was a lock, along comes God Hand to beat your high expectations into a bloody pulp.  Stepping down from Capcom's best game of the year to its most disappointing is like taking a custom-made Ferrari down a stretch of cop-free California highway for the ride of your life... only to have the fun come to a sudden halt when the sportscar veers off the road and into a nearby tree.  Sure, you're still in a Ferrari, but the experience is quite different once it's been crumpled like a piece of paper and there's a steering column buried in your chest.

Metaphors aside, God Hand promises to bring together the demanding gameplay and stylish moves of Viewtiful Joe and the thug punchin', wooden box crunchin', randomly-placed strawberry munchin' action of early Capcom arcade hits like Final Fight.  In the light of its past successes, it would seem perfectly reasonable to assume that Clover Studios would keep its word and make this hybrid work, but the truth is that God Hand is a whole lot dumber than advertised. 

Let's start from the top of the list of grievances, shall we?  The storyline barely makes any sense... following the dialogue in the cut scenes is arguably the greatest challenge the game has to offer!  The graphics are a drab, dreary throwback to earlier times... not just the wild west which serves as God Hand's setting, but the launch of the Playstation 2 when ALL the games on the system looked like this.  The sound consists of a just barely copyright-friendly knock-off of the Hawaii Five-O theme, accentuated by moans, screams, shattered glass, and explosions (and those are just the noises YOU'LL make after you reach the first boss!).

Then there's the fighting... hoo boy.  If Ricki Lake ever invited Mike Tyson's Punch Out!!, Tekken, and Resident Evil onto her show for a paternity test, God Hand would be the bastard child they'd all insist they never sired.  You'll see the inspiration from Punch-Out!! in the over-the-shoulder viewpoint.  It's a brilliant perspective for a boxing game, but when it's taken out of its element and put into a beat 'em up where the foes are plentiful and the player's field of vision isn't nearly as generous... well, it just doesn't work. 

Neither do Tekken's wide range of attacks and emphasis on targeting weak points when the thug you're fighting can shut tighter than a clam by blocking.  You can crack open this iron defense with a guard crush, but they take a while to perform, and it's tough to sneak in a blow for the brief amount of time that the guard crush leaves your enemy stunned.  Throw in the occasional juggernaut who's invulnerable to your most effective blows even when their defenses are down, and your blood pressure is sure to rise as quickly as your interest in the game drops.

The touch of death for God Hand comes in the form of prehistoric character control that would have been better left trapped in a glacier along with Jill Valentine's (Razzie) award-winning acting and Lara Croft's pyramid-shaped breasts.  We've all learned by now that there's just no substitute for absolute control... and in this age of dual analog controllers and cinematic camera angles, there's no excuse for games to be without it.  Despite this, God Hand still forces the player to turn, then walk, then turn again in a clumsy control scheme that should have went extinct by the turn of the century, if not sooner.  If this game's abysmal sales don't wean Capcom from this infuriating habit, nothing will!

God Hand does have a few things going for it, like chihuahua races, midget Power Rangers, and oh yeah, plenty of attacks you can purchase after each stage.  Like Rengoku, customization becomes God Hand's sole remaining joy after the fighting becomes tedious and frustrating.  Still, with so many other titles offering superior gameplay and full-featured create-a-character modes, there's no reason to give this one a hand... or your hard-earned money.

GUNGRAVE
SEGA (RED ENTERTAINMENT)
SHOOTER

 

Fast and entertaining, RED Entertainment's (Bonk, Sakura Wars) Gungrave is a cel-shaded kick from gaming's past.  It's a focused, well crafted "shoot the hell out of everything" redux of a genre that seemingly went out of style in the mid 90s, when searching for keys to unlock doors and/or cryptic puzzles and/or overabundant girlies dragged these games kicking and screaming into the 32-bit era. Gungrave does about what Namco's Dead to Rights and GOD/Ritual's Max Payne does: only with a Japanese flavor and without desperate mini-games and awful past-tense Philip Marlowean ambitions. It's simply a great shooter that's all style and with sufficent substance.

As Grave, an undead ex-assassin (formerly known as Brandon), the player will go on a six level trek for revenge. Level objectives consist simply of shooting down gobs and gobs of polygonal electronic villiany of varying types ultimately leading to a big boss battle with a pattern-ready foe. No key hunting. No strip tease throw offs. No hallucinations of dead babies. Just a lot of shooting things. Dr. T, the strange professor that helps Grave, and Mika, the daugther of a woman Brandon knew, will provide Grave support. Support being dying halfway through the game and being motivational fodder for the revenge minded, coffin-draggin hero.

Gameplay is extremely simple pick up and play. Shooting consists of hammering the square button, or if one chooses, simply holding the square button when the Auto Fire option is turned on.  You'll also attempt to build up "beats" which will fill up a meter allowing Grave to use "Demolition Shots", basically superattackes. Beats are accumulated by mowing down enemies constantly while destroying whatever breakable environments are in the way. The higher the beat, the more the meter will fill. The X button jumps and in combination with directional moves and the square button will allow for roll moves in certain directions. Triangle launches the demolition shot, and holding down the circle button while moving allows Grave to jog. Targeting is, for the most part, automatic as long as the foe is on the same plane as Grave. If enemies are higher or lower than Grave L1 allows him to target and lay waste to these foes. When surrounded, R1 will allow Grave to swing his coffin. The coffin proves to be very effective, particularly in helping keep beat counts alive. R2 allows for what has become the genre's obligitory slow-mo mode but it's for the most part fairly useless. Select allows for a neat pose which figures into the "style" score at the end of a level. It's all extremely easy to learn. One starts to wonder about the need for manuals...

Upon completeing a level Grave is graded on how well he did. Time limit, ratio of killed enemies, accuracy, beat count, and style points lead to accumulated points that will unlock different Demolition Shots. Demolition Shots vary from Grave spraying machine gun fire around himself, to shooting missiles out of his coffin, to doing a bit of both. Demolition Shots prove handy against hordes of enemies and bosses... particularly against bosses. When Grave gets the boss' health down to a certain amount he can perform a finishing shot that's basically an outrageous cutscene of about half a billion missiles or bullets or scrapnel or explosives hammering the boss.

Gungrave's graphics are slightly above average technically but sport a great anime flare. Grave and the rest of the characters appear to be standard polygonal characters while the environment seems to be cell-shaded. The game's art style, handled by the same guys who did Trigun, lends itself well to the game and does have a bit of a Trigun feel to it. Cut scenes are pre-rendered cel-shaded characters and seem to resemble the production company's distinctive style better than the in-game graphics. Cut-scenes are incredibly well-handled and suprisingly tightly paced. For a game whose big selling point, at least in Japan, was its big-name art design and anime underpinnings there's nary a hint of excess like, say, Max Payne with its comic book cutscenes, dream sequences and abusive use of bullet-time. The "cool" characters are well-scripted, if also-ran, and the plot never seems to get in the way of the game.

While the game is short, only six hours long at the most, Gungrave does sport replay value mostly in the way of a few unlockables.  A neat gallery mode featuring EVERY type of enemy you ran across in each level is displayed in action figure packaging.  A slo-mode which can be turned on, off, or made automatic, a low camera angle view for Grave, and a level select can all be unlocked by playing through the game's three difficulty levels: normal, hard, and kick ass. Difficulties actually vary with more enemies and faster pacing in hard and kick ass mode. Difficulty ramps up nicely: bosses follow easily recognizable patterns and the one game's twink boss is remedied by the addition of a Demolition shot everytime the player loses. The game will throw an extra demolition shot onto the last amount tallied after a save, providing the sort of "crumbs" less skilled players need to keep playing. Hopefully, other developers will take note in similar games.

Gungrave is definately worth a look. It's a fast-paced, old-school spin on the current third-person shooter and well worth a look for anime fans and hardcore gamers. Its impressive design and straightforward gameplay make it at least worth a rental.

KATAMARI DAMACY
NAMCO
ACTION

  

Meet The King of All Cosmos.  His name sounds like he should be making frequent visits to Pee-Wee's Playhouse, and he looks like he flew straight out of an especially demented Monty Python cartoon.  The truth is that he's a more dangerously hedonistic ruler than Nero, Caligula, and the entire Hussein family combined.  After all, not even the butcher of Bagdad and his sons could lay claim to destroying an entire galaxy's worth of stars during an alcohol-fueled flight of fancy.

The King does feel a little guilty about what he's done, but he's not about to clean up his own mess.  He leaves that responsibility to his son the prince, who looks like the mascot of a Japanese battery company.  He's also roughly the size of a lima bean, which as you might imagine makes this already difficult job that much harder.  You see, the only way to put the twinkle back in the sky is to create stars, using whatever happens to be lying around.

It takes a whole lot of stuff to make a star, and there's just not enough of it on the prince's home planet for him to get the job done.  It's a good thing that Earth is right next door... it's got plenty of things scattered around, just waiting to be put to good use.  Since the tiny prince can't possibly hold it all himself, the King offers him a katamari.  This brightly colored ball has its own gravitational field, pulling in objects small enough for it to roll over.

You control the katamari with the analog sticks on the Dual Shock controller, rolling over whatever will stick to it.  It doesn't pick up much at first, but with some persistence, the katamari will slowly start to grow.  Eventually, objects which were once obstacles will become targets for the bulging ball, and humans whose legs you'd rolled under at the start of the stage will run screaming in terror from the monstrocity you've created.

In a way, the gameplay is a little like that Intellivision classic Shark! Shark!.  As you devoured sea creatures smaller than yourself in that game, your tiny guppy expanded into a titanic trout, capable of taking on almost anything.  The same principle applies here... you'll want to roll the katamari over smaller items and keep it away from anything it can't handle.  Collisions with large objects break pieces from it and cost you precious time, which you'll need to reach the goal stated at the beginning of each stage.

That's only part of the Katamari Damacy experience, however.  To get the most out of the game, you've got to watch the cut scenes after every round... listen to the King as he explains each goal... read the refreshingly na´ve descriptions of all the items you've picked up on Earth... hear the music, performed by everyone from a childrens' chorus to a cheesy lounge act... and of course, witness the mindblowing introduction, where the King rains stardust down upon our planet as rainbows sprout from the ground and ducks sing along with the opening theme.

And of course, there's the feeling of empowerment you get from starting out small and working your way up to plowing over construction equipment, buildings, sea monsters, and even entire islands.  There's a lesson to be learned here... no matter how insignificant you may feel, you can still make a big impact on the world around you if you just try.  It's a lesson reinforced by the game itself... Katamari Damacy has earned the praise and admiration of countless game reviewers, and even beat out Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas on Time magazine's list of the year's ten best games.  Against all odds, this tiny budget release has snowballed into a best-seller... and for good reason.

KING OF FIGHTERS: MAXIMUM IMPACT
SNK PLAYMORE
FIGHTING

 

You'll probably notice that this review is more charitable than others you've read.  This is because I desperately want to give SNK the benefit of the doubt.  After all, when a company like this one spends the better part of a decade entertaining you with some of your all-time favorite games, you're quick to point out its successes with one hand while quietly sweeping its mistakes under the nearest rug with the other.

The truth about King of Fighters: Maximum Impact is that it's not a great fighting game.  It doesn't really do justice to the previous titles in the long-running King of Fighters series, and it can't compete against advanced 3D brawlers like Virtua Fighter 4 or Soul Calibur 2, which offer more features and better graphics at a far lower price.

However, Maximum Impact's shortcomings are easier to forgive when you consider what SNK has been through in the past five years.  Financial distress, an insistence on supporting outdated arcade hardware, and acquisitions by two different corporations, including one which had no idea how to run the company, have left SNK in pretty sorry shape. 

The creators of the South Town series are back on the right track with  current owner Playmore, but SNK's troubles have left it trailing behind its competitors, which have long since learned to tap the power of the Playstation 2 to create fantastic fighting games.  With this in mind, it's no wonder that Maximum Impact looks and feels like it should have been released two years ago, and that it should have since evolved into something much more impressive.

They may have came late to the party, but at least SNK is off to a promising start with Maximum Impact.  Like the previous King of Fighters games, this one has fast-paced gameplay, solid control, and a variety of memorable characters.  The fighters may be polygonal now, but the designers have done an admirable job of capturing the look of the South Town heroes and villains, from the subtle hand gestures of K Prime to the flaming red hair and distinct fashion sense of Iori Yagami.

The gameplay will be familiar to King of Fighters as well... perhaps just a bit TOO familiar, when you consider what the designers could have- but didn't- do with the new 3D environment.  Instead of the gorgeously detailed backgrounds of Virtua Fighter 4 or the exciting, multi-tiered levels in Dead or Alive 3, you get generic enclosed playfields that start to feel like cages after a couple of rounds.  The walls around each battlefield bend, but don't break when your opponent's battered body is thrown against them, meaning that you'll be trapped inside the arena for the duration of the fight.  This is inexcusable (yes, even for SNK) when you consider that the otherwise unspectacular X-Men: Next Dimension let you battle your way through an entire mansion, from the top of the balcony to the bottom of a hidden jet hanger.

Even long-time SNK, used to the King of Fighters games on the outdated Neo-Geo hardware, will complain that there's not enough depth to the gameplay.  Each of the previous KOF releases introduced new play mechanics which helped distinguish each title from the others in the series.  Not only are there no new features to speak of in Maximum Impact, but it lacks the one thing that tied all the King of Fighters games together... team gameplay.  You'll have to settle for just one fighter in the story mode, further limiting a game already in sore need of depth.

There may be a lot missing in Maximum Impact, but it's important to point out what IS there... a solid game engine with a great deal of potential.  The character designs are quite pleasant, striking a balance between the blindingly bright anime' of Soul Calibur II and the more hard-edged look of Tekken 4.  The control is responsive, never robbing you of rightfully earned combos and special moves.  There are even several game modes and "rigging models" which let you customize the characters to some degree.

Despite all this, and my love for all things SNK, it's very hard for me to recommend King of Fighters: Maximum Impact.  I've always loved this series and had wanted this installment to excel on the Playstation 2 in the same way that its predecessors had dominated arcades.  Sadly, there's still a lot of room for improvement... so much, in fact, that Maximum Impact feels like rough framework, a skeletal structure onto which a more complete game can be built.  Let's hope that SNK will give us this game sometime next year.

MEGA MAN X7
CAPCOM
ACTION/PLATFORM

 

Mega Man X has taken its first timid steps into the third dimension with this sequel, the first game in the series released exclusively for the Playstation 2.  Capcom's done a surprisingly good job of making the transition from sprites to polygons, but nevertheless, the game has one major flaw... it's still Mega Man X, with all that that implies.

The new style of artwork has brought with it a fresh new character, the young and cocky Axl.  When the members of his gang of vigilantes suddenly start acting, well, irregular, he wisely chooses to sneak away in the dead of night, eventually crossing paths with veteran Maverick Hunter Zero.  After some initial hesitation, Zero joins forces with Axl and the two work together to bring down the corrupt members of Red Alert.

So where does the title character, Mega Man X, fit into all this?  Well, Axl may be named after a former Guns 'n Roses member, but X is the one who's bitter and out of shape.  He's retired from the Maverick Hunters, but you can convince him to come back once you've rescued enough of the hostages scattered throughout each stage, demonstrating to him the importance of your mission.

With or without X, you'll play Mega Man X7 with a team of two characters, selected at the beginning of each stage.  One character serves as an anchor, and the other one can be brought in when his abilities are better suited to the terrain, or when the first hero is dangerously weak.  It's a brilliant addition, lessening the difficulty of what has historically been an extremely challenging game.

True to its heritage, Mega Man X7 is pretty darned tough.  It'll take several tries just to finish the first round, and it takes even longer to adapt to the three dimensional playfields and Axl's unique abilities.  Many of the stages feature both side-scrolling action and slightly less linear 3D gameplay.  The 3D scenes are difficult for all the usual reasons- frustrating camera angles and confusing depth perception- but the side-view sequences can be tricky as well.  Sometimes enemies appear over the horizon and attack you from a distance... even with Axl and X's auto-targeting, it can be tough to hit these renegade Reploids, and if they happen to drop items after you've beaten them, the much-needed energy boosts fall out of your reach rather than into your hands.

The boss battles can be especially aggravating thanks to the polygonal levels.  Only one of the Maverick fights takes place in a traditional side-scrolling environment.  You'll fight the rest of the Red Alert gang in large 3D arenas, which make it difficult to target your adversary and dodge his attacks.  The most frustrating of these fights is against Snipe Anteater, who spends most of his time hiding behind a glowing cylinder while launching explosive army ants and guided missiles at you.  You can't reach him from behind that cylinder, but he'll continue to throw everything he's got at you, making the battle extremely unfair unless you've got the right weapon to even the odds.

Fortunately, Mega Man X7 is a game that rewards persistence.  If you tough it out just long enough to memorize the layout of the stages and rescue some of the hostages, you'll gain both experience and valuable power ups.  This in turn improves your performance and raises your grade, from a humiliating D to a praise-worthy A and beyond.  The graphics also give you an incentive to keep playing after the frustration begins to mount... they're very crisp, and cel-shading is used just where it's needed; on the characters themselves, not their surroundings.  The sound is much harder to appreciate... although the music fits the atmosphere, some of the sound effects are ridiculous (the oscillating lasers sound like they were lifted straight out of a Hanna-Barbera cartoon), and the voice overs are even worse.  The actors' performances weren't just phoned in... they were left on a friggin' answering machine!

You'll need to invest time and effort into Mega Man X7 before you can truly begin to appreciate it.  Some players won't have the patience for this, but anyone who's struggled through the previous Mega Man X games and emerged victorious will probably enjoy this one as well, even with its controversial move to 3D gameplay.

MORTAL KOMBAT: DEADLY ALLIANCE
MIDWAY (CRITERION STUDIOS)
3D FIGHTER

The only really satisfying thing about this game (aside from the Cooking With Scorpion segment) is that, after many years, Midway has finally acknowledged that violence is the only element of Mortal Kombat that keeps the series alive.  Just watch the film included with the game that describes the making of Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance.  For all their excitement about the realistic death animations and the controversy surrounding them, does the ape-like Ed Boon and his team of programmers ever talk about the gameplay?  This dirty word barely escapes their mouths.  The documentary takes as much care to avoid the topic as it does hiding the designers' naughty T-shirts and the XBox controllers used in playtesting, but Deadly Alliance can do nothing to disguise its lackluster gameplay once these initial distractions are ignored.  Once you start playing, you'll once again realize what you've always know about Mortal Kombat from the moment the series began... it can dazzle you like no other fighting game, but it will never, ever be as fun to play as Capcom's Street Fighter series.

Yes, the gameplay has been completely redesigned.  However, I can't stress enough that this new design is hardly an improvement.  The one advantage Mortal Kombat had over other fighting games is that it was fast and intense... this is no longer the case now that Deadly Alliance has downshifted to slow-paced close quarters fighting.  There are still elements from the previous Mortal Kombat games, like the familiar special moves, but the emphasis on them has been reduced now that characters can move in 3D.  This means, of course, that you'll have to close in on your opponent to do the most damage... but that's also where you'll be most vulnerable, as many of your attacks are frustratingly slow and rigid.  Punches and kicks don't combo well, even the ones specifically designed to do so, and the freedom of movement while attacking in Soul Calibur just doesn't exist here.  A lot of other things that added depth to the best 3D fighting games are entirely missing here as well.  The playfields, are sharply drawn as they are, lack definition.  You won't find X-Men: Next Dimension's interconnected levels, or Bloody Roar's breakable walls, or even Virtua Fighter's ring out zones... none of these exist in Deadly Alliance.  Don't let your eyes deceive you... that acid pool might be just inches from your opponent, but an invisible force field will prevent them from falling in regardless of their energy level.  Chalk this up as a missed opportunity on Midway's part... there's a million ways for the characters to die, but the designers didn't bother to take advantage of them.

Perhaps they were too busy perfecting the graphics... and they really are perfect.  This is one place where Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance really excels.  The characters are painstakingly detailed, so much so that characters bear uncanny resemblences to popular celebrities.  Li Mei's a dead ringer for Lucy Lawless of the long-forgotten Xena television series, and Bo' Rai Cho shares a lot in common with Fat Bastard, from the large jiggling belly to the total lack of manners.  He relies on his own vomit as a weapon, and you'll be surprised and a little disgusted at the way it cascades from his mouth in gelatineous brown-yellow chunks.  Of course, we can't forget about the blood... it not only stains the playfield, but turns a deep brown as it dries.  The blood also seeps into the cracks you've made on the floor and sprays out of the opponent's stomach, if you just happened to leave your weapon there.  Finally, the fatalities are genuinely disturbing... if that's what you came for, and it's very likely that you did, you'd better grab a strategy guide because you won't want to miss any of the finishing moves.

I'll give Midway credit for the Krypt as well, although it was more difficult to use than necessary thanks to the profile system.  I'm still not sure why they included this... there's no point in repeatedly forcing players to enter a password if they can just as easily hide their memory card from bratty little brothers who might want to unlock all the goodies.  Furthermore, the password's not going to stop them from erasing the file entirely in the BIOS screen.  In addition to THAT, I can't think of anyone who wouldn't want to loan their save data to a friend, saving them the trouble of having to open all the coffins in the game (sorry, but I'm not using Ed Ba-boon's moronic names for all the items in the Krypt).  Anyway, once you create a profile and enter a password, you can collect a wide variety of coins which act as the keys to over six hundred coffins inside the Krypt.  Each coffin contains something different... the highest priced coffins contain new characters and outfits, and the cheapest ones could have just about anything inside.  You'll pry open a casket with a handful of gold coins, only to find jade coins inside, thus leading you on a wild goose chase that leads you to finding absolutely nothing in the coffin appropriately marked "FU".  Frustrating?  Sure.  It's still more fun than playing the actual game, though.

This is the part of the review where I'd recommend Deadly Alliance to rabid Mortal Kombat fans... but I can't even do that, because it plays nothing like the older Mortal Kombat games.  I can, however, offer this advice: if you loved the violence and flashy graphics in Mortal Kombat, Deadly Alliance has so much of both that you might not even notice the mediocre gameplay.  You certainly wouldn't be the only one who forgot about it. 

NEO GEO BATTLE COLISEUM
SNK/PLAYMORE
VS. FIGHTING

   

The evolution of the 2D fighting game hit its peak with the masterfully designed Capcom vs. SNK 2 and its little brother on the Neo-Geo Pocket, Match of the Millennium.  Seperately, both SNK and Capcom had created many outstanding one-on-one fighters, but it was only when the two companies joined forces that their full potential could be unlocked.

Sadly, this partnership would not last forever.  The mismanagement of SNK at the hands of Aruze, and its subsequent purchase by Playmore, split this dynamic duo apart.  Since that time, neither SNK nor Capcom have been able to reach the level of excellence achieved in Capcom vs. SNK 2.  In fact, Capcom hasn't even made much of an effort to top the masterpiece it helped create, settling for re-releases of past classics like Street Fighter III, and coughing up the lazy, and downright lousy, Capcom Fighting Evolution in a half-hearted attempt to keep the Street Fighter franchise clinging to life.

SNK has been more ambitious, developing several new fighting games starring its iconic South Town heroes.  King of Fighters: Maximum Impact tried to bring Terry Bogard, Ryo Sakazaki, and Iori Yagami into the 21st century with glossy polygonal graphics.  Then there was SNK vs. Capcom: SVC Chaos, which hoped to recapture the magic of Capcom vs. SNK 2 by once again pitting the hungry young fighters of South Town against classic Street Fighter stars like Ryu, Chun-Li, and Guile.

SVC Chaos didn't meet with the expectations of most fighting game fans.  It was badly hobbled by stiff control and the limitations of the decade old Neo-Geo.  Luckily, SNK's latest title, Neo Geo Battle Coliseum, comes a lot closer to hitting the mark.  Battle Coliseum (originally designed for the Dreamcast-powered Atomiswave arcade system) pushes both the Playstation 2 hardware and SNK's own development team a lot harder than its predecessor. 

All that extra effort was not wasted... it's resulted in a game that's vastly superior to SVC Chaos.  The "so old-school the students have been evacuated and the building has been scheduled for demolition" play mechanics have been thrown out and replaced with fast, frenzied tag-team action in the tradition of Marvel vs. Capcom and King of Fighters 2003.  The chunky sprites have been whipped into fighting shape, and all those hideous backgrounds are a thing of the past, being swapped out with playfields that bring back fond memories of classic scenes from past Neo-Geo titles.  Even the music, an electrifying assortment of heavy metal tunes, is a huge step up from the low-key soundtrack in SVC Chaos.

The only thing you lose in the trade up from SNK's last fighting game is the cast of Capcom's heroes... but you won't miss them which when you spend a little time getting acquainted with their replacements.  The developers have chosen wisely when building the Battle Coliseum character roster, offering a large selection of heroes spanning the entire Neo-Geo software library.  It doesn't matter what your favorite game on the system was... from the lethal elegance of Last Blade to the down 'n dirty backstreet brawling of Fatal Fury to the outright silliness of World Heroes and Metal Slug, Battle Coliseum's got you covered.

There's a pretty nice mix of characters here, but the selection isn't airtight... a few duds did manage to slip through the cracks.  Among them are Chonshu and Chonrei, the twin brats from Fatal Fury Real Bout Special; Cyber Woo, the metal-plated, 800-ton gorilla from King of the Monsters; and perhaps most head-scratching of all, Kisarah from Aggressors of Dark Kombat.  Yes, Alpha Denshi's tremendous flop which proved that Final Fight and Street Fighter II are two great tastes that taste horrible together. 

As an added, ahem, "bonus", there are two characters unique to Battle Coliseum.  One's Yuki, a mighty morphin' power ruffian who battles his foes with dramatic poses.  The other's Ai, an obsessed Neo-Geo fan who's a lot thinner and more female than you'd expect.  Neither of them are of much use.  Battle Coliseum also marks the unwelcome return of Orochi.  SNK promised that this outrageously overpowered final boss wouldn't be back for at least another hundred years, but here he is, dishing out obscene damage and making life miserable for all who dare cross his path.

Even the prince of cheap bosses (sorry SNK, but Gill still holds the crown) can't bring down one of the best side-scrolling fighting games on the Playstation 2.  Neo Geo Battle Coliseum isn't on equal footing with Capcom vs. SNK 2... that game set a standard of quality in the genre that will be almost impossible to top in this age of 3D dominance.  However, this clash of arcade titans packs enough of a punch to knock the foul taste of Capcom Fighting Evolution and King of Fighters: NeoWave out of your mouth.

RATCHET AND CLANK
SONY (INSOMNIAC)
3D PLATFORM

  

When people recommended that I try Ratchet and Clank, I was a little skeptical... I thought that it would be a pretty good platformer in its own right, but there was no way it could touch Sly Cooper.  Now that I've tried it, however, it's become clear that Ratchet and Clank is even better.  It's got larger, more spacious rounds, less predictable characters, better voice acting, more variety, much more useful abilities... the list goes on and on.  It's even got Sly Cooper beat in the stealth department... it's not always wise to meet your enemies head on in either game, but unlike Sly, Ratchet can use one of his many weapons to pick them off from a safe distance. 

Ratchet and Clank doesn't outperform Sly Cooper in every respect... it's derivitive of other platformers, including Insomniac's previous series Spyro the Dragon and Naughty Dog's Crash Bandicoot, and the artwork, while crisper and more colorful, doesn't leave the lasting impression that Sly Cooper's did.  Nevertheless, Ratchet and Clank is the better of these two games, and a strong candidate for the best platformer available on the Playstation 2.

"Forget about the Playstation 2 for a second... how does it fare against Super Mario Sunshine?"  Whoa, whoa... let's not go nuts here!  Ratchet and Clank is bound to come up short in a comparison like this.  Let's face it, nobody designs levels quite as well as Nintendo... they're always beautifully integrated and devilishly clever.  Ratchet and Clank, on the other hand, has levels that are well integrated and reasonably clever.  They're still very good, but they lack the careful thought Nintendo had put into Super Mario Sunshine's playfields.  Instead of wide open spaces that allow the player to both explore and uncover hidden items, Ratchet and Clank offers a central point with several linear paths extending from it, and several more straightforward trails springing from those paths.  You definitely feel the difference between these two styles of level design... in Super Mario Sunshine and its predecessor Super Mario 64, you'll excitedly shout, "Wow... there's just so much to see and so many places to explore!  What do I do next!?"  A lesser, but still competant platformer like Ratchet and Clank makes it pretty clear where you're supposed to go and prevents you from going anywhere else, taking away some of the excitement of being dropped into an entirely new world.

Furthermore, the vast selection of weapons in Ratchet and Clank doesn't always work to the game's advantage.  You'll have loads of fun blasting enemies with missiles, machine guns, and mines, but sometimes you just want a weapon that could do it all.  Each item in Ratchet and Clank is reserved for one use, or perhaps two if you're really clever, but the waterpack in Super Mario Sunshine was far more versatile, handling a wide variety of situations and encouraging the player to discover even more uses for it.  After switching from the flamethrower to the key to the bomb glove to the water displacer in Ratchet and Clank, you'll wish you could just replace them ALL with something more handy.

Despite the hassle of swapping out weapons, Ratchet and Clank is a fun and very memorable game, and it actually does have advantages over Super Mario Sunshine.  Mario just isn't a very compelling hero these days... he may have moved to the third dimension over six years ago, but his personality is still just as flat as it was when Donkey Kong was first released.  Ratchet and Clank are much more fun, and they're surrounded by a large cast of equally enjoyable, if somewhat familiar characters.  You'll look forward to encounters with the self-absorbed intergalactic hero Captain Qwark and Supreme Chairman Drek, the galaxy's most diabolical businessman.  The chemistry between the juvenile, impulsive Ratchet and his intelligent yet naive robot Clank is also a delightful surprise... just because they're stuck with each other doesn't mean that they always enjoy each other's company.

I've spent the entire review telling you everything you already knew... that Super Mario Sunshine is the best platformer money can buy, and that Mario is the world's most boring mascot.  What you may not know is that Ratchet and Clank is worth your time whether you're stuck with just a Playstation 2 or have a GameCube as well.  It's a fantastic game in its own right, and thanks to its nearly endless supply of weaponry, it has that added touch of sadism you just can't get from Mario's adventures.

SHADOW HEARTS
MIDWAY (ARUZE, SACNOTH)
RPG

There are a few unusual traits that keep this otherwise typical role-playing game from being quickly forgotten.  The first is that it was produced by Aruze's video game division (formerly SNK) and brought to the United States by Midway.  Neither of these companies are known for making role-playing games... in fact, Shadow Hearts may very well be Midway's first. 

It's fitting that this was their introduction to the genre, however, because Shadow Hearts follows the Midway model with its dark, disturbing artwork and controversial storyline.  This also differentiates Shadow Hearts from the majority of its competitors... it's just much creepier than most of Square's releases.  I dread to think of what would happen if any parents bought their kids this instead of the similarly titled Kingdom Hearts... this definitely isn't a Disney approved game, with a tight focus on the undead and characters who frequently contemplate taking advantage of their fellow party members.  The hero Yuri manages to keep his hands to himself, but you can't say the same thing about the accupuncturist Meiyuan, who has a disturbing tendency to help himself to his male clients.  After a couple of encounters, you'll start to wonder if he should be paying THEM for his "services".

There's one more thing that seperates Shadow Hearts from other role-playing games... although it doesn't necessarily improve it.  The Judgment Ring determines the outcome of battles and gives the player an opportunity to gamble for stronger attacks.  It works a little like the timed attacks in Paper Mario... there's a large circular artifact with glowing slices of varying sizes, and it's up to you to hit the lit portions as a line sweeps around the edge of the Judgment Ring.  Some lit areas have red fringes, and if you press the button as the line touches them, your attacks will be stronger than usual.  It's an innovative idea that's sadly overused... the Judgment Ring not only influences your attacks but nearly everything else in each battle.  You'll even have to deal with this when you use items, and sometimes even before you can take them!  It's clear the designers were proud of this idea, but the average player won't be nearly as enthused about it after a long stretch of battles.

There's not much else worth mentioning in Shadow Hearts.  The graphics are mediocre, with the same kind of dark, confusing rendered backgrounds that took most of the fun out of Final Fantasy VII.  Despite the still backgrounds, the characters themselves aren't especially well drawn or detailed, hovering between PSOne and PS2 quality.  The monsters you'll encounter are even worse, ranging from boring (wolves, bats) to ridiculous (green water creatures with an annoying laugh that would make even Steve Urkel cringe).  The animation is impressive, with unique deaths for each of the monsters and realistic attacks for each of your party members, but that's the best the game has to offer visually.

The soundtrack is hardly worth bringing up... it's predictable, repetitive, and during the fight scenes, very obnoxious.  You'll be tortured with the wailing of a tone-deaf banshee as you battle your foes, and once one of the characters runs out of turns and loses their minds, you'll come dangerously close to following their lead once the already rotten music regresses into something even worse.  There's not much voice acting, but what's there is pretty average and sometimes inconsistent... one of the females switches from a cavalier American to an angry, excited Japanese woman, all in the same attack!

The gameplay is solid, but again, there's little here that's truly memorable.  Shadow Hearts' combat system borrows heavily from Final Fantasy's battles, as do most role-playing games.  The Judgment Ring helps draw a distinction between the two games, but the similarities are still pretty obvious.  The designers added a graveyard which you can access to earn new character forms- and that's good- but you'll be forced to travel here periodically to silence the angry souls of the monsters you've killed- and that's bad.  I just don't see the logic in forcing the player to participate in another boring fight after they've already won a dozen of them.  It's even worse that you're not compensated in any way for your trouble... you get no money, no experience, and no soul points for winning these enforced battles.  What you WILL get, however, is hunted down by the main character's deceased father until you've fought to reverse all your bad karma in the graveyard.

Considering their lack of experience with these games, Midway and SNK (and whatever pachinko company that currently owns them) did a more than satisfactory job with Shadow Hearts.  There are still about a half dozen RPGs on the Playstation that are superior to this one, however, so you'll only want to consider Shadow Hearts if you're looking for a game with a much darker mean streak than any of them.

THE SIMPSONS: ROAD RAGE
ELECTRONIC ARTS
DRIVING

 

XBOX:

Your view of this game will depend almost entirely on your opinion of The Simpsons.  Yes, there are actually a few people who don't like the show and never have.  To those folks, The Simpsons: Road Rage is going to seem like a desperate clone of Crazy Taxi with the characters from an inexplicably popular television show stapled to it.  However, the many, many Simpsons fans out there will probably consider Road Rage one of the best and certainly the most faithful game based on their favorite sitcom.

I'm not even going to bother recommending this to anyone who doesn't like The Simpsons.  If you guys already have Crazy Taxi, you're not missing a thing.  Road Rage's cars look and feel like remote controlled toys thanks to the primitive graphics and a new control scheme which lacks Crazy Taxi's realism and impact.  Furthermore, even though the game has more characters, more levels, and more voice than the game that inspired it, none of these things will be relevant to you.  I dare say that you'll consider this a painful experience, with the Simpsons characters only salting the wound.

However... however.  If you enjoy The Simpsons, or in my case, used to enjoy it, you'll think of Road Rage as the first episode you can actually play.  The first few Simpsons games concentrated primarily on Bart and his "hilarious" catchphrases ("Here's one you better learn for your adult years... 'Hey, buddy?  Got a QUARTER?!?'"), but Road Rage is much more diverse, giving most of the show's cast a chance to speak up.  Some of their quotes are right out of the show, but others were recorded specifically for Road Rage, which means you'll hear conversations between friends and family members.  There's even an introduction that accurately captures the humor of the show... after Hans Moleman is poisoned by one of Mr. Burns' atomic buses, he begs to be killed... and Marge helpfully offers, "That poor man.  Someone SHOULD kill him!"

What's really surprising about Road Rage is that there are a lot of characters, and a lot of locations... significantly more than Crazy Taxi or even Crazy Taxi 2.  Sure, it gives the game more variety, but more importantly, you get to listen to more Simpsons stars and fully explore the town of Springfield.  It's just some kind of crazy rush to actually drive past all the places you remember from the show, even if they aren't always in the right places (c'mon, guys, everyone knows the world's largest toilet was set in a flat field, not a forest!).  Listening to all of the characters' comments is great, too... they can get repetitive, but fortunately, the game tends to surprise you with a new quote every once in a while.  The only way they could make the Road Rage experience any better is to offer a celebrity edition featuring the voices of Jon Lovitz, "Oh no!" Bette Midler, and a cast of dozens.  The possibilities would be endless... and best of all, it would give players the chance to run over Alec Baldwin!  Repeatedly.

Well, Simpsons fans, you've been waiting almost a decade for a truly good Simpsons video game, and at last, your ship has come in.  It's not just any ship, either... it's Knight Boat, the crime-solving boat!

SLY COOPER AND THE THIEVIUS RACCOONUS
SONY (SUCKER PUNCH)
3D PLATFORMER

  

I like platformers, and I like charismatic animal characters.  With this in mind, you'd think a game like Sly Cooper was perfect for me, but it also features something I've never enjoyed... stealth action.  I'm not a patient person, and games like Tenchu and Metal Gear Solid test a player's patience in every possible way, forcing them to slowly sneak up on enemies so as not to be noticed... and making them complete each round with exact precision.  Having grown up with fast paced shooters and fighting games, I prefer a more direct approach, dealing with enemies fist to face rather than trying to hide from them.

Fortunately, Sly Cooper's gameplay uses stealth action more sparingly than Metal Gear Solid.  This light seasoning of sneakiness gives the game more originality than the majority of bland polygonal platformers, but doesn't force the player to tread carefully through every square inch of every stage.  Sometimes, enemies won't notice you until you're hit by their spotlights, but other foes are more aggressive, hunting you down if you're nearby.  Sure, you could sneak around them too, but why waste the time when a swat of your staff will take care of them permanently?  Similarly, rooms with laser detection must be navigated with extreme caution, but once you disable the alarm that controls the security, you can backtrack with ease, letting you comb through the stages for hidden items.

Of these items, you'll want the clue bottles the most... a complete set lets your nerdy, neurotic friend Bently piece together the codes which unlock the vaults in each stage.  These vaults, in turn, hold pages of the Thievius Raccoonus, the Cooper family's ancient guide to better larceny.  Pages of this book will give Sly new abilities, giving the player a much stronger incentive to search every square inch of every round than Rare's platformers ever had.  Better yet, there aren't a massive amount of clues in each round, and they're not impossible to find.  The game will even give you a helping hand if you can open the vaults in certain stages... instead of a page from the Thievius Raccoonus, you'll find a blueprint of the boss's hideout.

Sly Cooper contains a lot of scenes where precise control is an absolute must, especially when you're desperately jumping from platform to platform as your nemesis (and unwilling love interest) Carmalita Fox blasts them to bits.  You don't always get this solid control in polygonal action games, but Sly Cooper is very forgiving, offering the player both tight control and generous collision detection.  Even if the hook or wire you need to grab isn't directly in your path, you'll wind up snaring it anyway.  Encounters with enemies are just as free of frustration, provided that you haven't been caught in their flashlights.  Once that happens, survival becomes much more difficult, with every thug in the vicinity hunting you down like a pack of rabid coonhounds.  The lesson here, as it is in every other stealth action game, is not to be noticed.  If you break that rule, you've earned any misery you may have brought upon yourself.

The graphics are fantastic... creating a cartoony atmosphere was important to the designers, and it's clear they've succeeded.  The cel shading in Sly Cooper is surprisingly effective... the characters actually DO look like cartoons instead of polygon builds with thick, ugly outlines.  It helps that they're so beautifully drawn and animated, so much so that you can get an idea of each character's personality just by watching them walk.  The playfields are remarkably original, full of detail, and have plenty of objects to break.  To strengthen the cartoon association, there are even animated segments between rounds describing both pages from the Thievius Raccoonus and the origins of each villain.  The overall presentation will remind you of what would happen if Tim Burton lost his obsession with the undead and started producing episodes of Scooby-Doo along with Nickolodeon's most daring cartoonists.  You can strain your brain trying to figure out what you'd get from this unlikely combination, or just rent Sly Cooper instead... I highly recommend the latter course of action.

The music and sound doesn't carry the same impact as the graphics, but it does fit the overall theme, and the voice actors do cartoon quality work, even if their characters are hopelessly predictable.  Perhaps Sly Cooper adheres a little too closely to cartoons in this respect... villains like the Panda King and Muggshot are just cheesy stereotypes, despite their detailed histories.  The heroes (if you can call a band of thieves that) fare slightly better, although I could have sworn I've seen that purple hippopotamus in a couple episodes of The Critic.  Bently the turtle has an Austin Powers/Professor Frink aura about him that makes him tough to dislike, and Sly himself is as cocky as you'd expect a master thief to be, with just a touch of gravel in his otherwise youthful voice.

So, is there anything at all in Sly Cooper that could be described as bad?  Not much, but I will say that the mini-games are pretty aggravating.  You'll find everything from a series of slow-paced, frustrating car races (I hope nobody at Sucker Punch is considering Sly Cooper Kart) to the unfortunate lovechild of Robotron: 2084 and the Vectrex, heh heh, "classic" Rip-Off.  Seriously, couldn't the designers have thought of a better game to use as a template than the worst title available on the Vectrex?  Geez, a little common sense is in order here.  One of the stages near the end of the game, a fun derivitive of Asteroids set in cyberspace, is worth coming back to a few times, but the rest are a little too frustrating for their own good.  Speaking of frustration, nothing in Sly Cooper is quite as maddening as the encounter with the final boss, Clockwerk.  The first two fights, reminescent of the boss battles in Space Harrier, aren't so bad, but the obstacle course you're forced to navigate afterwards is absurdly difficult.  Even that wouldn't be quite so irritating if dying at this point- and yes, you will be dying quite often at this point- didn't send to back to the very beginning of the fight.  There was absolutely no need to make the player fight the Clockwerk's previous two forms... it's an annoying, pointless waste of time that's made even worse if Sly exits the round to find the protective horseshoes he'll need to have any hope of survival.  Once you return, you'll not only have to fight Clockwerk from the beginning but listen to his unavoidable speech about rubbing the Cooper family out of existance.  After a dozen failed attempts to finish the last round, you'll either reach for the nearest GameShark, or just let Clockwerk finish the job and turn Sly into owl pellets.

So that would be my only advice to Sucker Punch when they're ready to make a sequel to Sly Cooper... leave the mini-games to Spyro the Dragon from now on, and don't make the last boss any more aggravating than he absolutely needs to be.  I really am looking forward to another Sly Cooper game, though... it's more fun than a stealth action game has a right to be, and a sequel has a lot of possibilities.  New abilities for Sly are always good, but entirely new playable characters (perhaps distant relatives of the Cooper family who somehow managed to hide from Clockwerk?) would be even better.

STREET FIGHTER EX 3
CAPCOM (ARIKA)
FIGHTING

Does anyone still want to argue that video games aren't a form of art?  Well, if that's the way you feel (and you're actually a video game player, as opposed to some bigot judge who's seen almost five minutes of The Resident of Evil Creek), just try to tell me that after playing a few rounds of Street Fighter EX 3.  Sure, it plays well.  Sure, the graphics and sound are passable.  But you know what?  It sucks anyways.  And it sucks because there's no trace of artistic expression in the design. 

Let's look at the graphics.  The characters are very plain... you could almost forgive the jaggies and the ugly gouraud shading if the designers had added something to distinguish them from their Street Fighter or Marvel vs. counterparts... smooth, clever animation, new outfits, SOMETHING.  That something doesn't exist, so all you've got are generic action figures.  When these Hasbro refugees throw fireballs or slam one another to the floor, there's no dynamic animation, dynamic special effects, or dynamic anything that really keeps the player interested.  The designers just didn't care.  Neither will you after playing the game for thirty minutes.

Next, there's the music.  It's all pulled from previous editions of Street Fighter EX, which means that it's fine, but also means that the designers ran out of ideas.  If I wanted to hear Skullomania's original theme, I'd play the original game.  Moreover, the soundtrack is kind of annoying in the team modes... like the Marvel vs. games, the theme changes as characters are defeated, but unlike those games, the music in Street Fighter EX (having been written in 1997) was never designed to be switched around repeatedly.  Don't get too attached to any of the tunes, because you won't be hearing any one of them for long.  As for the sound effects, the voices were changed, but everything else is pretty forgettable.  Smack, bam, kaboom, zzz... oh, sorry.  That last sound effect was mine.

Finally, there's the gameplay.  This has been improved the most, but some of the new ideas just weren't given much thought, proving that even the play mechanics suffer without some sort of artistic direction.  The new story mode is idiotic... after team battles, versus battles, one on three battles, and who knows what else, you'll start to wonder if the damned game will finally make up its mind and offer you a series of fights with some consistency.  Ace (possibly the other half of the Ambiguously Gay Duo) isn't much better... he allows you to build your own fighting style with moves borrowed from the rest of the game's cast, but to get the most out of him you'll have to wade through the boring, sometimes confusing training mode.  Are we having fun yet?  Not here.  Not ever.

Street Fighter EX 3 perfectly illustrates that competent game design isn't enough.  The first game in the series may not be as pretty and it may not have as many characters, but it does have one very important feature this waste of a sequel is missing... creativity.  Try to remember to include that in your next EX game, Capcom.

STRETCH PANIC
CONSPIRACY (TREASURE)
ACTION

 

Those of you who've been playing video games for a while may have taken quite a liking to Treasure, the design team best known for sleeper hits like Guardian Heroes and Radiant Silvergun.  While that devotion is understandable, it's important to remember that even the creators of Gunstar Heroes are mortal, and they too are capable of making mistakes.  Take Stretch Panic, for instance.  This title started out as a tech demo, originally planned as framework for a Tiny Toon Adventures game.  Buster Bunny and his friends were eventually given their walking papers, but the well-intentioned but clumsy gameplay never evolved past its humble origins as a game based on a kids' cartoon.

If nothing else, Stretch Panic is original.  The game stars a little girl named Linda and her possessed scarf, an article of clothing with a wicked black hand that can grab nearby objects and, well, stretch them.  This hand can be used to not only attack enemies, but interact with the environment as well.  Linda will need this ability to exorcise the evil spirits inside her seven sisters, which act as the game's bosses.  Sounds great so far, right?  Putting the pinch on enemies and stretching their bodies out of proportion sounds like a fun way to spend the afternoon.  Ah, but that's before you realize that the game has serious flaws.

The first of these are the awkward controls.  All of your enemies, even the big-breasted bimbos aimlessly wandering through the first stage, have weak points that must be targetted in order to destroy them.  Unfortunately, it's so very difficult to guide your scarf to these weak points that you'll feel like you're trying to pick up a dime with boxing gloves.  It'll take multiple attempts before you can hit each target... this is mildly irritating when you're battling the mindless minions and their monstrous mammaries, but an absolute nightmare when faced with the more dangerous bosses.

Here's where the next big flaw comes into play.  You'll guide your hero with the first analog stick on the Dual Shock controller, and the scarf with the second.  Where does that leave the camera?  In the fumbling hands of the computer, of course!  During boss fights, you'll often find that the camera is too close to your character, and pointed away from the enemy you need to attack.  By the time you re-center the camera with the shoulder buttons and take aim at the boss, chances are, they'll already have set their sights on you.  Things get even worse when your gigantic foe sends waves of missiles, tiny grim reapers, and animated boogers after you... the scarf is too slow and clumsy to fend off these adversaries, and running from them only prolongs your inevitable, frustrating demise.

Stretch Panic's final shortcoming is that it just isn't much of a platformer, especially when you compare it to later Playstation 2 titles like Sly Cooper or Ratchet and Clank.  The graphics are (to put it kindly) subpar, with abstractly drawn characters and ugly texture mapping, and there's just not enough to do thanks to the barren level designs and overemphasis on boss fights.  There are no enhancements for your scarf, no tricky platforming challenges to overcome, and no hidden rooms that reward clever exploration... you just fight busty women to increase your points, spend those points on confrontations with your possessed sisters, and repeat the process until you've won the game.  Hopefully, you'll have replaced the disc with something more entertaining long before that happens.

Perhaps Treasure's most unfalteringly loyal fans will argue that a game like Stretch Panic just wasn't well suited to the Playstation 2.  I'll agree on that point... if Treasure had held onto this idea for just a few more years, they could have brought it to the Nintendo DS instead, where the pinching and stretching action would have been felt a great deal more natural.  However, Stretch Panic's flaws run far deeper than its problematic control, proving that (as much as some gamers would like to believe otherwise) Treasure doesn't always live up to its ambitious name.

TIME CRISIS 3
NAMCO
LIGHT GUN / ACTION

 

Just when you thought it was safe to shut that closet overstuffed with peripherals you'll never use again, along comes Time Crisis III and its pair of bright orange firearms!  Better make some room for those GunCons... if there's any room left!

The first thing you'll notice about these mock weapons before you sentence them to exile in the land of misfit toys is how obscenely difficult it is to get them ready for the game.  It's not enough to connect the GunCons to your Playstation 2, oh no!  You'll have to do your best impersonation of the king of convoluted contraptions, Rube Goldberg, to get things started. 

First, you'll plug each gun into a USB port... then join the two guns together with a coupler... then plug the PS2's video jack into the coupler... then finally connect the coupler to the back of your television set.  Wait, wait, that's not all!  If you want to play the game with a more advanced video connection than the composite cables that the GunCons natively support, you'll have to shell out big bucks for an optional adapter!

It's no fun getting the ball rolling, but once you set it into motion, you'll understand the need for the elaborate setup.  The GunCon controller is precise down to the pixel... the only thing that stands between you and the next stage in Time Crisis III is your own aim.  This makes the future of the Nintendo Wii even more exciting... if the system's wand controller can match the accuracy of the GunCon without all those annoying cords, the Wii may just live up to all that pre-launch hype!

But er, back to Time Crisis III.  If you're not familiar with the series, here's the deal... as a pair of ace military specialists, you'll storm through each stage, picking off hundreds of well-armed foes.  Like House of the Dead and Virtua Cop, the action is very cinematic, with dynamic camera angles and plenty of exciting cut scenes. 

However, what distinguishes Time Crisis from those games is that you're not pushed through each level.  If you need a quick breather or some cover from enemy fire, you can hold a button to hide behind jeeps, walls, and other protective barriers.  That button can be on just about anything... the light gun itself, standard Dual Shock controllers, dance mats, and even the pedals from steering wheels!  This versatility was a smart move on Namco's part, letting the player get as close as they can afford to be to the arcade experience.

What WASN'T such a great idea was the counterintuitive weapon select system.  You can only switch firearms by pressing the trigger of the GunCon while hiding behind cover.  Each of the four available weapons are best used in different situations, so you can imagine how frustrating it is when you need the rapid-fire precision of a machine gun but inadvertently switch to a shotgun or a grenade launcher in the middle of an grueling gun battle.  The fact that your partner can be hit in the crossfire makes this issue even more infuriating.

The graphics and sound are both appropriately cinematic, making you feel like you've been dropped in the middle of a slick action film (Danny Glover not included).  Explosions fill the screen and rock your speakers, while a threatening array of terrorists crowd the playfield like so many G.I. Joe action figures crammed into a kid's toy chest.  Like most Namco arcade ports, Time Crisis III is a very sleek, polished game, with the the only blemish being the course textures of the rocks you'll hide behind while reloading your gun.

There's not a large audience for light gun games these days.  What was once the most popular alternative controller for game consoles has taken a back seat to everything from keyboards to dance pads.  If you're one of the few gamers left with a trigger finger that's begging to be itched, this is the only opportunity you're going to get to satisfy that craving for at least a couple of months.  Maybe this long-neglected genre of games will become more prevalent once Nintendo's Wii hits store shelves, but the latest Crisis game is enjoyable enough to help you bide the time until November.

VIRTUA FIGHTER 4
SEGA (AM2)
FIGHTING

  

The original polygonal fighting game is on... please don't make me say it!  Ooooh... all right, all right.  Virtua Fighter 4 is on the Playstation 2.  It should have been released for the Dreamcast, and from the looks of the PS2 version, it COULD have been made for the Dreamcast, but that's not what happened, and I'll just have to accept it.

Anyways, Virtua Fighter 4 on the (gulp) Playstation 2 is terrific, just like the previous Virtua Fighter, and the Virtua Fighter before that.  I've never been especially fond of 3D fighting games, but it's been tough for even me to ignore this series.  Unfortunately, Virtua Fighter 4 doesn't demand to be noticed the way the previous games had.

For starters, the graphics that typically make a huge leap in quality from game to game are only marginally improved in Virtua Fighter 4.  Virtua Fighter 2 added detail and more realistic character designs to the series, and Virtua Fighter 3 almost completely eliminated the blocky edges of the fighters, making them amazingly lifelike.  VF4, on the other hand, takes the Shenmue route, adding details to the characters you're not even sure you wanted, like bulging veins, oversized muscles (fine for Wolf, but not so fitting for Vanessa), and thick patches of body hair.  After watching the ocean of wrinkles on Lau's forehead, you'll probably agree that it's best to leave some things to the imagination.

The backgrounds have lost a lot of the dimension they had in Virtua Fighter 3, which could be a blessing or curse depending on whether or not you want the playfield to be a factor in each fight.  Personally, I enjoy throwing opponents off the tops of three story buildings, but you could always argue that a more flat surface keeps the focus on the players rather than their surroundings.  In any case, the playfields are pretty attractive (unlike, say, the dark, depressing locales in Bloody Roar 3), and many feature an impressive special effect that makes them more realistic, like snow that's packed down as you walk over it or clay tiles that shatter when a character is dropped onto them.  Each round is fairly large and some contain walls and fences (some break, others don't), which helps prevent annoyingly cheap ring out victories.

Like the graphics, the music doesn't have as much impact as it had in previous Virtua Fighter games.  There's a good selection of hard rock tracks, but none of them stick with you like Sarah's theme from Virtua Fighter 2.  One thing that remains constant in every Virtua Fighter game is the voice over work, which is great for the Asian characters and moronic beyond description for the remainder of the cast.

That reminds me... there are a couple of new characters in the game, and by that I literally mean just a couple.  Vanessa's a cop with Halle Berry's face and the body of an Olympic weightlifter... it's as you would imagine a pretty scary combination.  Replacing the generic sumo wrestler from Virtua Fighter 3 is Lei Fei, a generic Shaolin monk most likely added to capitalize on all those wire-fu movies that were popular last year.  They're not as memorable as SNK's best characters, but they've got a little more personality than your typical Virtua Fighter star, like the blond temptress in the surprisingly modest outfit who's been in every other 3D fighter ever made.  Plus, Lei Fei's got a lot of attacks that lead into fighting stances, which in turn lead to new attacks... just the thing for skilled players who'll happily spend hours learning everything there is to know about their favorite characters.

Then there's the gameplay.  I can't really say I like it, but it is about as good as the other games in the series.  Some new play mechanics have been added, although it's up for debate just how much they change the feel of the game.  These include stun hits (complete with an onscreen indicator that warns the player to shake out of it as quickly as possible), attack reversals (unlike Dead or Alive, just grabbing that outstretched arm or leg isn't enough to do damage), and simplified 3D movement (doubletap in the direction you want to move).

I can't really call Virtua Fighter 4 a disappointment, because it's an excellent game and a surprisingly good arcade translation considering the design team's unfamiliarity with the Playstation 2.  On the other hand, it hasn't dramatically improved the series the way the previous games had.  Considering the quality of Virtua Fighter 3, however, you have to wonder if such a step forward would have even been possible. 

WE LOVE KATAMARI
NAMCO
ACTION

   

Katamari Damacy is back, and this time, it's brought along a few friends!  Actually, they're fans of last year's surprise Playstation 2 hit, and they're all here to make requests of the King of All Cosmos.  The King is more than happy to oblige them after a little flattery, but naturally, his son the Prince (and any cousins he happens to find along the way) will be doing all the work!

We Love Katamari doesn't stray too far from the original.  You'll use a sphere that looks like a dog's chew toy to sweep up the debris in your path.  Eventually, you'll be able to pick up bigger and better things, and your katamari will grow from the size of a tennis ball to a small planet.  If you reach that point before time expires, the King will go all Horkheimer on your ass, taking the fruit of your labor and sending it skyward as a celestial body.

It may seem like business as usual for Katamari Damacy, but this sequel is full of subtle improvements.  The stage select screen is easier to navigate, and you're given the option to immediately restart stages if you find yourself off to a lousy start.  The best new feature (aside from a significant reduction in kingly crotch.  THANK YOU, Namco) is that any cousins you meet can be used in place of the Prince, even in the single player mode!

We Love Katamari also features more distinct levels and specific goals to go along with them.  In one stage, you'll save gluttonous fairy tale stars Hansel and Gretel the trouble of dealing with a scary witch by tearing down her gingerbread house, then delivering it to them.  In another, the katamari is set ablaze, and the only way to keep the fire burnin' is to continually roll over small objects.  If it burns out, or you fall into a nearby river, the King will toast YOU to a golden brown with a hail of laser beams!

The new objectives add variety to We Love Katamari, but they also raise the difficulty level.  If you thought the King was demanding in Katamari Damacy, wait 'till you get a load of what the fans expect from you now!  Even if you do manage to complete a stage, they won't be truly satisfied until you've collected everything in sight.  Don't stop at the kitchen sink... get the miles of plumbing it's attached to, the treatment facility that supplies those pipes with water, and even the nearby dam just to be safe!

This added challenge, coupled with the assumption that players are already familiar with the original, makes We Love Katamari a game best reserved for fans of the series.  If you haven't already played the first Katamari Damacy, spend some time with it first.  That way, you won't feel like you've been left out of the loop when you graduate to this equally satisfying, if self-indulgent, sequel.

X-MEN: NEXT DIMENSION
ACTIVISION (PARADOX)
3D FIGHTER

   

Funny thing about Activision's X-Men fighting games.  I'm always excited to try them... but ultimately, they always leave my high expectations unfulfilled.  Next Dimension has more characters, more background interaction, and more exciting special moves than Paradox's previous two X-Men games, but the gameplay remains bland even when you're throwing your opponent through windows and blasting them with enormous laser beams. 

As you continue to play the game, you'll keep asking yourself why Next Dimension isn't as enjoyable as it could be.  The graphics are quite good, featuring large, colorful battlefields with plenty of breakable items and other obstacles.  Most amazing of all is that several of these playfields are interconnected... you may start out in the narrow hallway of Charles Xavier's mansion, but it's anyone's guess as to where the fight will end.  Once you knock your opponent through the hallway door, out the second story window of the mansion, into a secret entrance once hidden by a basketball court, and onto an elevator leading back to the first floor, you could very well find yourself back in the hallway where the battle started.  This adds more realism, variety, and excitement to the game... it's more realistic because the locations have depth, dimension, and freedom of movement.  There's more variety because you could see an entirely different portion of the playfield at any given moment.  Finally, the excitement comes into play when you've sent your opponent headfirst off a cliff or into a deep, dark hole.  While it's true that X-Men: Next Dimension isn't the only fighting game to offer large, complex stages, it uses them more effectively than many of its competitors.

This alone will keep you playing X-Men: Next Dimension even after you've become bored with it.  It doesn't hurt that Patrick Stewart offers his charming yet authoritative voice as a reward for beating the game.  It helps even more that there are several hidden characters in the Next Dimension, including a couple of the more obscure mutants as well as powerful alternate versions of the main cast.  If you thought Betsy Braddock was tough to beat, just wait until you meet her even deadlier alter ego Psylocke!  Whether you're a fan of Marvel's comics or just the best of the Star Trek captains, there's plenty of nerd bait in Next Dimension to go around.  Finally, the super moves are just as spectacular in X-Men: Next Dimension as they were in the game's main competitor, Capcom's Marvel vs. Capcom 2.  Betsy's most powerful attack incorporates her skills as both a psychic and a ninja... she leaves her opponent wandering blindly in the middle of a mental void.  As the enemy struggles with the voices in his head and the images of butterflies floating before his eyes, Betsy strikes... and continues her stealthy assault until her foe is brought down for good.

When a game's got this much going for it, how could it be anything but fantastic?  You'll be haunted by that question as you continue to play Next Dimension and continue to not enjoy it.  Eventually, you'll begin to understand what Activision did wrong with the game... you'll realize that the unreliable control has been constantly robbing you of the special moves you need to defeat your opponent.  You'll also notice that the special moves don't lend themselves as well to strategic fighting as the ones in Capcom's fighting games.  You'll think about the brutally ugly computer rendered movies, and you'll also remember how frustrating the story mode was, featuring unfair battles against overpowered opponents and a limited selection of playable characters.  Then you'll know why you ignored your gut reactions as a Marvel fan and rented X-Men: Next Dimension instead of purchasing it.



PLAYSTATION 2

tech specs

CPU

MIPS R5900 64-bit

MHz

299MHz

RAM

32MB

Media

DVD-ROM

Sound

2 SPU, 48 channels

Gfx

Graphics Synthesizer

Res

1280x1024 max

Color

32-bit color

Sprite

18.7 sprites/sec

Polys

75 million/sec

best games

Activision Anthology
Capcom vs. SNK 2
Culdcept
Dark Cloud 2
Fire Pro Wrestling Returns
Gradius V
Jak X: Combat Racing
Katamari Damacy
Ratchet and Clank: UYA
Virtua Fighter 4 Evolution

worst games

BMX XXX
Frogger: The Great Adventure
Futurama
Midway Arcade Treasures 3
Namco Museum
PK: Out of the Shadows
Street Fighter EX 3
Suikoden IV
Super Bust-A-Move
Tekken Tag Team