By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
There are all types of dancers in this world: rain dancers, exotic dancers, interpretive dancers, break dancers, disco dancers, dirty dancers, tap dancers, tiny dancersthe list is longer than the conga line at your sister's wedding. DDRMAX2, the latest if not exactly revolutionary Dance Dance Revolution title, is for what I call karaoke dancers. Unlike bukkake, this Japanese pastime makes perfect sense. We must, per Billy Idol, dance with ourselves sometimes. The game insures that even without a partner, we score or get rejectedas opposed to thinking we're gonna score only to get rejected after hours of buying her drinks and bumping and grinding inches away from bridge-and-tunnel meatheads and glow-stick-waving douche bags rolling so hard they don't notice how much the music sucks . . . but I digress.
For the price of one tab, a few bottles of overpriced spring water, and a cab ride home (about $60), you get the game and dance pad, this big cushy thing with arrows on it. You don't have to be a member of Glitter Motion to get the hang of DDRMAX2, but you can't be half-steppin', either. The new "Beginner" level eases you in; only the fleet-footed, meanwhile, will hack "Heavy" mode. (Fatties can even monitor calories burned in "Workout" mode.) Pick your songs from the series' most extensive music library yet (it includes Kylie, Dirty Vegas, obscure J-pop, and a host of fun, anonymous techno crap, and is now supplemented with some videos), calibrate the difficulty of the required moves, and simply follow the on-screen instructions. Can you dig it? I knew that you could.
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.
(EA GamesGameCube, PS2, Xbox) 7
Enemy submarines sit in New York Harbor, tanks roll down Broadway, and femme fatale Tatiana Kempinksi ha-ha delivers propaganda over the airwaves: It's up to Brooklyn plumber Christopher Stone to flush the Soviet army from NYC. By passing medic kits to wounded rebels, bombing the enemy, or raising the Stars 'n' Stripes, you win the loyalty of up to 12 citizen soldiers, who accompany you through large, nonlinear levels. Don't let your freedom go down the toilet!
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.
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.
Helmed almost as a hobby by money-makin' Resident Evil 2 director Hideki Kamiya, this remarkably well-thunk-out 2-D side scroller celebrates purely physical gaming-qua-gaming. Speeding or slowing time, Joe deflects the fists and bullets of comic characters and bosses, scarfs burgers, and completes small but tricky tasks while turning corners and leaping for coins. Smooth, engrossing, tough, and pretty, Viewtiful Joe exceeds every GameCube title except The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker.
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, 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.