By Steve Weinstein
By Devon Maloney
By Tessa Stuart
By Alison Flowers
By Albert Samaha
By Jesse Jarnow
By Eric Tsetsi
By Raillan Brooks
Voodoo: It's led to some messed-up stuff, like that blood-drenched sex scene between Lisa Bonet and Mickey Rourke in Angel Heart. A lighthearted traipse through New Orleans's fancifully imagined heart of darkness, Xbox's solidest platformer yet warps the fundamental premise of the action genre hoodoo doll Vince's special powers cause him harm in order to defeat his enemies. For a society that uses Windows, listens to "shock jocks," and watches movies in which a devilishly facial-haired Robert DeNiro plays a man named Louis Cyphre, this masochistic play makes perfect sense. Just be glad that the game owes its teen rating to the use of the word friggin' (or maybe it was darn . . . shoot?) and not to Mickey Rourke doin' it.
The story begins when Kosmo the Inscrutable's thugs kidnap Vince's telepathically communicating creator, Madame Charmaine, releasing zombie dust while they're at it. The dust brings Vince and a cast of Beetlejuice-worthy baddies (psychedelic pit frogs, frosted gingerdead men, zombie chefs, belles, and clowns) to life. In fending off enemies, our wobbly-walking burlap hero gets acid-scarred, smushed by anvils and cows, stung by killer bees, set aflame, caught between colliding trains, and zapped by UFOsall while exploring the cemetery and bayou, piloting fan boats and submarines, completing puzzles and challenges, and making snarky remarks. At one point, you must alter time to win a contest to buy a trumpet to take lessons to jam with a skeletal museum-guarding jazzman. It's voodoo, not doodoo!
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.
ESPN NHL HOCKEY
(SegaPS2, Xbox) 8
Branding: Cows don't like it, but corporations sure do. When the gloves come off, this ESPN tie-in is really just a manicured version of last year's game. 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, closing easy-goal loopholes and adding a surprisingly fun single-skill competition mode. Stick handling, anyone?
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.