Machine Age

Italian Stallion Mario rides again, banana peels in hand

 MARIO KART: DOUBLE DASH!!
For: GameCube
Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo
Rating: 9 (out of 10)

In preparing to review the first new Mario Kart in five years—a gaming world event on par with the smuggling of a cigarette carton into cell block eight—I read an encyclopedia's worth of Mario fan fiction online. What I learned, besides how filthy the princess's mouth can get when she's rescued by her "Italian stallion," is that Nintendorks have way too much time on their hands. Double Dash!! will put an end to that. The advertised new gimmick—you now pick two characters for each novelty vehicle, rather than just a driver—allows more control over performance stats and the new tracks are on par with F-Zero GX's fantasy runs, but the game's race-and-repeat essence remains.

The franchise's ingenious slapstick battle aspect, best summed up by the ability to drop a banana peel on the track, evokes the cartoon violence we all know and love while continually obliterating rankings. Between opponents' backseat bombers, traps, and other natural threats (breaking waves, thunderbolts), you'll need much more than a good drift technique to finish first. And it'll probably be another five years before you tire of the courses. On DK Mountain, you're shot from a cannon to the peak; coming down, you must contend with rocky paths, breakneck switchbacks, and a swaying rope bridge. Yoshi Circuit, meanwhile, follows the green-and-white critter's bulbous profile, sending you careening around his nose. If only fan fiction were half as creative as that.

More fun than . . .
images: Nintendo
More fun than . . .


DDRMAX2: DANCE DANCE REVOLUTION
(Konami—PS2) 8

Unlike bukkake, this Japanese pastime makes perfect sense. We must, per Billy Idol, dance alone on a big cushy pad sometimes. This game insures that even without a partner, we score or get rejected. Only the fleet-footed will hack "Heavy" mode—not to be confused with "Workout" mode, which counts the calories you burn. The series' most extensive music library yet includes Kylie, Dirty Vegas, obscure J-pop, and a host of fun, anonymous techno crap.


DISGAEA: HOUR OF DARKNESS
(Atlus—PS2) 8

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.


FREEDOM FIGHTERS
(EA Games—GameCube, PS2, Xbox) 7

Enemy submarines sit in New York Harbor, tanks roll down Broadway, and femme fatale Tatiana Kempinski 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
(Nintendo—GameCube) 9

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 Arts—GameCube, 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.


THE SIMPSONS: HIT & RUN
(Vivendi Universal Games—GameCube, PS2, Xbox) 9

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 level—manned by chatty Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Apu—a 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.


SSX 3
(EA Sports Big—GameCube, PS2, Xbox) 9

If the only snow you indulge in comes from Colombia, this franchise redesign justifies staying up all night. The winter's best carve-and-grind title transmits texture, depth, and vertiginous launches with a combination of crisp, vista-encompassing graphics, fine response, and turbulent controller feedback. Dropped onto the slope, you follow signs to competitions or head off-trail and navigate fallen trees (doubling, of course, as rails), huge drops, and, on the third peak, avalanches and yawning chasms. I guarantee you won't be "board"!


VIEWTIFUL JOE
(Capcom—GameCube) 9

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.


VOODOO VINCE
(Microsoft—Xbox) 9

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. 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!

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