By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
By Roy Edroso
By Jon Campbell
By Albert Samaha
By Zachary D. Roberts
Yes, sadly, in the end Bart may just be part and parcel of the decadence and nihilism that pervades our era." So opines lowbrow browbeater Mark T. Conard in his essay "Thus Spake Bart: On Nietzsche and the Virtues of Being Bad," which appears in the decidedly less than vigorous but still boring The Simpsons and Philosophy: The D'oh! of Homer. And who better than our anagrammatic brat-boy-if-not-übermensch to lead the hee-larious tutorial for the best Simpsons license yet? "Violence," Bart deadpans as you crash your pink convertible into mailboxes and monuments to earn coins, "is always an appropriate response in the face of the unknown." It's funny 'cause it's true.
This delightful, deep, and detailed (but unfortunately not cartoon-style cel-shaded) rip on the Grand Theft Auto series critiques itself better than any untenured academic could. The simple mini-game races you run get ticked off by, among others, paste-eater Ralph, who counts, "One, one, one, go!" Run over Nelson on a mission to find items you've borrowed from Flanders, and the bully spits, "My dad hits me harder than that!" Beating a prostitute in Vice City suddenly seems so banaland you don't even have any weapons at your disposal! With each levelmanned in turn by chatty Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Apua corporate-conspiracy-addled Springfield grows. Find hundreds of obscure landmarks and clips from memorable episodes. Or cruise through downtown, the suburbs, and into the sticks, where nuke-green sewage runs in the streets and the slack-jawed yokel Cletus falls under your pricey wheels. Nihilistic? I think not.
DISGAEA: HOUR OF DARKNESS
A single-player strategy RPG that's funny in a translated-from-Japanese way, this Netherworld fantasia paints you into a series of corners with more trapdoors tucked away than you'll find in a full workweek's worth of play. In a world gone wrong yada yada yada, Hour of Darkness offers a not-so-alternate reality as far-ranging as The Sims or any war game fought over Xbox Live.
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.
NCAA FOOTBALL 2004
(Electronic ArtsGameCube, 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.
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 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
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.