By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Branding: Cows don't like it, but corporations sure do. Following the ignominious business-speak tradition of turning nouns into verbs, marketers contrived the word to express the advertising of image, above and beyond product. Branding sets ESPN NHL Hockey apart from its highly rated predecessor, the simply named NHL 2002. But not because ESPN stands to gain much from this indecent exposure to gamers; what hockey fan isn't familiar with ESPN, cable's best-known sports network? It's Sega that benefits from the channel's imprimatur. Since sports vid-games more closely replicate spectatorship than sportsmanshipsince, that is, your lazy ass plays themhaving Bill Clement and Gary Thorne narrate your (or one of your seven friends') goals during instant replays adds to the title's verisimilitudinal oompah. Were this high school hockey, wouldn't you want a crazed player's dad punching out the referee?
When the gloves come off, ESPN NHL Hockey is really just a manicured version of last year's game. The new graphics engine looks slicker than any competitor's: Before being etched with skaters' trails (and after the Zambonis roll), the ice reflects remarkable detail. The complex controls have been refined, and the team-management franchise mode now allows you to import new characters. (You pick which teeth he's missing!) Most notably, Sega tightened online play. There's no more long time-outs, subway-address-quality voice communication, or random disconnects on Xbox Live. They also closed easy-goal loopholes and added a surprisingly fun single-skill competition mode (stick handling, anyone?). Still, I miss the time when hockey's only fiercely protected trademark was the mullet.
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.
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.
Who better than our anagrammatic brat-boy to lead the hee-larious tutorial for the best Simpsons license yet? "Violence," Bart deadpans as you crash your pink convertible to earn coins, "is always an appropriate response in the face of the unknown." With each levelmanned by chatty Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Apua corporate-conspiracy-addled Springfield grows. Cruise into the sticks, where nuke-green sewage runs freely and the slack-jawed yokel Cletus falls under your pricey wheels. It's funny 'cause it's true.
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.