Punch Drunk: If the Boys Want to Fight You Better Let Them

 VIRTUA FIGHTER 4EVOLUTION
For: PS2
Developer: AM2
Publisher: Sega
Rating: 10 (out of 10)

Fukko. More than a few bar brawls have ignited over that utterance, but in the Virtua Fighter universe, the word actually refers to a decidedly unsloppy martial arts move. Not one that falls under the umbrella of drunken kung fu, either, although you can deploy that style, too, playing as Shun-Di—an "herbal doctor," the manual tells us, whose hobby is "drinking." Marketed as a "Greatest Hits" title because it merely updates 2002's Virtua Fighter 4, the just released Evolution is the greatest fighting game ever: deep, almost infinitely replayable, lovely to look at—and only 20 bucks.

The improvements include a more complex "Quest" mode, in which you now earn stylish accessories by fulfilling certain objectives (slamming someone into a wall 10 times, bar-fight style, for instance); spiffed-up graphics; and two new characters, judo "assassin" Goh Hinogami and "thrill seeking" kickboxer Brad Burns. Since the 15 available fighters all bust out dozens of actual moves, whether from the worlds of wrestling or jeet kune do, I asked a kung fu-trained friend to wrap his tiger claw around the controller and study the game's realism. But once he started playing, he didn't say shit for an hour, other than to point out an opponent's "camel toe." Understandably. Countering the CPU's A.I.—which is modeled after the styles of Japanese arcade masters—requires great care, particularly as you move quickly from challenger to challenger, each one opening a unique can of whup-ass.

"This is gonna be a two-hit fight..."
image: Sega
"This is gonna be a two-hit fight..."


APE ESCAPE 2
(Ubi Soft—PS2) 9

Throughout history, humans have insisted that something separates us from animals. What creatures play on our insecurities better than those strong, smart, poo-flinging primates, the monkeys? As precocious teen Jimmy you must capture variously talented adorable apes who are staging a classical gorilla, er, guerrilla-type campaign in Monkey Park. Several diverting mini-activities add to the game's cascading series of thrills, which rely on aesthetics as much as action. That's what sets us apart: art.


IKARUGA
(Atari—GameCube) 8

The I Ching: "When the way comes to an end, then change—having changed, you pass through." In this arcade-style shooter, you speed through a downward-scrolling gauntlet of black- or white-bullet-firing enemies and obstacles, either dodging those of the opposite color or reversing your polarity to absorb them. Try it at half-speed. As Confucius said, "It does not matter how slow you go, as long as you do not stop." Just don't forget to use the bathroom!


JET GRIND RADIO
(THQ—Game Boy Advance) 8

Welcome to hip-hop-saturated Tokyo-to—"a city in Asia," the manual tells us, "similar to Tokyo"—where you're a graf-writing skateboarder evading the keisatsu ("cops" to you, gringo-to). As in the original Dreamcast version, rendered here in simpler isometric 3-D, getting up on grindables and carefully spraying your color-coded load (including tags you design) sustain a frisson that the more advanced but less nutty Tony Hawk series leaves to mere button-mash combos.


THE LEGEND OF ZELDA: THE WIND WAKER
(Nintendo—GameCube) 9

The shrewdest aspect of this installment in gaming's greatest series is its cartoonish graphics. Flawlessly executed, the sweetly surrealistic look evokes classic titles from earlier platforms, sugar-high Saturday-morning tube, and Japanese anime's threatened innocence. Considering the depth of gameplay, it only makes sense for The Wind Waker to take place principally under, above, and on top of a minutely detailed ocean, where innumerable nonlinear challenges and rewards await. I'll drink to that.


NCAA FOOTBALL 2004
(Electronic Arts—GameCube, PS2, Xbox) 8

It's time again to toss around the ol' pigskin, and I don't mean Anna Nicole Smith. This year's model effectively tweaks 2003's brutal ballet and careful play planning and the boot-and-recruit student-turnover drama central to "Dynasty" mode. Skill can't make up for the irritating flaws in short passing, but if you've perfected your game, try re-creating classic moments like Doug Flutie's 1984 Hail Mary against Miami or go against fanatics online with the PS2 version.


RETURN TO CASTLE WOLFENSTEIN: TIDES OF WAR
(Activision—Xbox) 9

As in Wolfenstein's past, you play Nazi-killer B.J. Blazkowicz—probably the first Jewish video game hero. But this time, SS-hole Heinrich Himmler's raised an army of the undead! This game is best played over Xbox Live with five friends. Teams side with the Allies or Axis, and individuals perform assigned tasks: The soldier might maintain cover for the engineer as he sets up explosives, while the medic, hanging back, plugs the injured with syringes. Nurse!

 
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