By Jared Chausow
By Katie Toth
By Elizabeth Flock
By Albert Samaha
By Anna Merlan
By Jon Campbell
By Jon Campbell
By Albert Samaha
Fussysome would say anal retentive!Taurus that I am, Otogi's simplicity of purpose, perfect controls, visual elegance, and spare, haunting score give me the same satisfaction as, say, compulsively washing my hands after coming in from the filthy, germ-infested world outside my apartment. Hey, we've all got our hang-ups. Some of us insist on changing our underwear every day; others scrub their hands raw, even though they never . . . ever . . . become . . . clean. The Japanese aesthetes behind this quasi-role-playing action titleFrom Software, known for other high-functioning, oddball games like those in the Armored Core serieshave created a hermetic universe fired by neuroses and governed by the twitchy laws of OCD. It's fun!
Set a millennium ago, during Japan's Heian era, the single-player Otogi features two human characters and a host of smoky spirits, Rorschach demons, and trickster bosses. Raiko, once an executioner for the imperial court, narrowly escaped biting it himself when some seal was broken; the cloaked Princess granted him a semi-animate state and assigns him quests so that he may "cleanse" his death-doling clan of "impurity." This involves drawing on ever dwindling magic to cast spells like the butterfly attack (whoa, look out for that one!), thwacking methodically at enemies with swords and staffs, and freeing friendly ghosts from fully destructible temples and whatnot. About halfway through, the levels, face lifted, begin again (water becomes lava, for inst). A big cheat, to be sureespecially if you're compelled to repeat basic activities in multiples of three, not two.
If racing games, with their fetal-position track curves and soothing repetition, allow players to act out their fantasies of returning to the womb, then F-Zero GX embodies the trauma of birth. You must contend with lanes that suddenly fall away; pretzeled turns; severely banked, ungrippable surfaces; and an unparalleled sensation of speed. With its deep, campy story mode, detailed create-a-craft option, and preponderance of wicked-hard courses, the game sure beats squeezing one out!
The I Ching: "When the way comes to an end, then changehaving 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
(THQGame Boy Advance) 8
Welcome to hip-hop-saturated Tokyo-to, 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) sustains 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
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.
NCAA FOOTBALL 2004
(Electronic ArtsGameCube, PS2, Xbox) 8
It's time again to toss around the ol' pigskin. This year's model effectively tweaks 2003's brutal ballet, 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.
RETURN TO CASTLE WOLFENSTEIN: TIDES OF WAR
As in Wolfenstein's past, you play Nazi-killer B.J. Blazkowiczprobably 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!
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: You're still sneaking around, sniping at enemies, and squiring teammates.
ULTIMATE MUSCLE: LEGENDS VS. NEW GENERATION
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. The fighter's fanciful settings, bitchy trash-talking, customizable everything, and series of attacks bring life to a sometimes plodding genre. Plus, vibrant cel-shaded graphics perfectly complement the Fruity Pebbles sugar-buzz action.
VIRTUA FIGHTER 4: EVOLUTION
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 atand only 20 bucks. Improvements include a more complex "Quest" mode, in which you now earn stylish accessories by fulfilling certain objectives, spiffed-up graphics, and two new characters. But Drunken Kung Fu master Shun-Di still rules the roost.