F-ZERO GX
For:GameCube
Developer:Amusement Vision
Publisher:Nintendo
Rating:8 (out of 10)

If racing games allow players to act out their fantasies of returning to the womb—and they must, since I brilliantly postulated exactly that in an earlier column—then F-Zero GX embodies the trauma of birth. The next-gen arcade racer tools with the major aspects of its genre, from the fetal-position track curves to the mindless, soothing repetition. All that remains is a sudden delivery across the finish line. On the way there, you must contend with lanes that suddenly fall away; turns that you must spin your vehicle to pass through; severely banked, ungrippable surfaces; and, most dizzyingly, a complacency-defying sensation of speed.

You and up to three friends don't just race—you snort F-Zero GX three laps at a time. It's a hard comedown; I literally feel fidgety and aimless immediately afterward. The superb environments, set centuries from now, writhe with light, activity, and weather: Giant sand worms leap out of the desert and over your head, buildings twinkle, lightning strikes. Like any group of speed freaks, the 30 available characters (each of whom pilots a unique hovercraft, and who are mostly carried over from the game's arcade and N64 versions) have a ridiculous, irrelevant story to tell: "One of Billy's ancestors," the manual relates, "was a trained rocket pilot and the first monkey in space." With a deep, campy story mode, a detailed create-a-craft option, and a preponderance of wicked-hard courses, F-Zero GX is a (primal) scream.


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 apes? As precocious teen Jimmy, you must capture variously talented adorable apes who are staging classical gorilla, er, guerrilla-type warfare in Monkey Park. Several diverting mini-activities add to the game's cascading series of thrills, which relies 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 ofa minutely detailed ocean, where innumerable nonlinear challenges and rewards await.


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.


TOM CLANCY'S GHOST RECON: ISLAND THUNDER
(Ubi Soft— PC, Xbox) 8

This expansion of last year's superior first-person shooter, Ghost Recon, offers eight new single-player "Campaign" missions and 12 new Xbox Live environments, all set in post-Castro Cuba. As with Papa's supposedly ongoing "Revolution," Island Thunder exhibits little change: Sneaking around, sniping enemies, and squiring teammates.


ULTIMATE MUSCLE: LEGENDS VS. NEW GENERATION
(Bandai—GameCube) 8

This is the most homoerotic game ever. Even the male-stripper stereotypes of the WWE can't compare to Ultimate Muscle's anime-rendered Village People lineup. Anyhow, the fighter's fanciful settings, bitchy trash-talking, customizable everything, and series of attacks that culminate in nutty cut scenes bring life to a sometimes plodding genre. Plus, vibrant cel-shaded graphics perfectly complement the Fruity Pebbles sugar-buzz action. Fave character? Kevin Mask, who draws on his "latent power."


VIRTUA FIGHTER 4: EVOLUTION
(Sega—PS2) 10

Marketed as a "Greatest Hits" title because it 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. 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, say), spiffed-up graphics, and two new characters. But Drunken Kung Fu master Shun-Di still rules the roost.


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 the 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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