By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
In a world gone wrong yada yada yada, Disgaea: Hour of Darkness offers a not-so-alternate reality as far-ranging as The Sims or any war game fought over Xbox Live. The Sims links a buy-buy-buy lampoon of capitalism with the heat of sim-social moments, while Ghost Recon simmers over the heat of sneaking-and-sniping. Disgaea, a single-player strategy RPG that's funny in a translated-from-Japanese way, paints you into a series of corners with more trapdoors tucked away than you'll find in a full workweek's worth of play. Combine chess, manga, Dungeons & Dragons, and corrupt politics, and you can imagine the new season of Everybody Loves Raymond, I mean, this game.
As Laharl, Prince of the Netherworld, you wake in a coffin from a two-year "nap" to find your father, King Krichevskoy, dead, his kingdom in disarray, and your cutie-pie vassal Etna arousing, er, rousing you. Everything connects: The fiends and humanoid friends you then recruit to cast spells and fight for the throne must be outfitted at the store and treated at the hospital. Also like you, they may appeal toor bribe or threatenthe Dark Assembly to, say, reduce your opposition. (Of course, no politico forgets threats.) Even more of a pain in the ass, Netherworld's map divides into differently colored "geo panels"; throw a geo crystal into one of them, and every like-shaded cell will be beholden to new laws. The timesthey are always changing.
APE ESCAPE 2
(Ubi SoftPS2) 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.
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!
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.
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.
OTOGIMYTH OF DEMONS
The Japanese aesthetes behind this quasi-role-playing action title have created a hermetic universe fired by neuroses and governed by the twitchy laws of OCD. A cloaked princess assigns your character, former executioner Raikoh, quests so that he may "cleanse" his death-doling clan of "impurity." Set a millennium ago, during Japan's Heian era, the single-player Otogi bombards you with creepy spirits, Rorschach demons, and trickster bosses.
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!
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 fighters' 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
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 (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.