By Steve Weinstein
By Devon Maloney
By Tessa Stuart
By Alison Flowers
By Albert Samaha
By Jesse Jarnow
By Eric Tsetsi
By Raillan Brooks
There are film buffs, music snobs, and fools who watch Carnivàle, sure, but no major media audience can claim as many geeks as gaming's. While Hollywood's Pirates of the Caribbean, Missy Elliot, and The Wire all prove the viability of gay swashbucklers in pop culture (OK, maybe just Pirates of the Caribbean), game makers can rely on this core of weenies to support high-concept offerings honoring the art's history and exploring its conventions. Viewtiful Joe, a remarkably well-thunk-out 2-D side scroller for one player, is GameCube's premier example of this type of title. The edgy Legend of Zelda: The Wind Wakerdoesn't count because it's not self-reflexive. Helmed almost as a hobby by money-makin' Resident Evil 2 director Hideki Kamiya, Joe defines gaming rather than redefines it.
Joe, a Napoleonic teen redhead wearing a backward baseball cap, enters the cartoon Matrix when his horny girlfriend, who has accompanied him to see a vintage superhero flick, gets kidnapped by the movie's villain. Vanquished Captain Blue pulls Joe into the screen and trains him in martial arts and slowing down and speeding up time (hey, you can do it on a DVD). All superheroes are fucked-up kids at heart, and all regular-Joe players heroes onscreen. Pursuing his lady like Mario, Joe deflects the fists and bullets of comic characters and bosses, eats burgers, and completes small but tricky tasks while turning corners and leaping for coins. Smooth, engrossing, tough, and pretty, Viewtiful Joe proves that complex play, properly executed, works on as many levels as the ones you merely have to complete.
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.
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. 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. 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.
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.