By Steve Weinstein
By Devon Maloney
By Tessa Stuart
By Alison Flowers
By Albert Samaha
By Jesse Jarnow
By Eric Tsetsi
By Raillan Brooks
Under the rule of Darius I and his son Xerxes, the empire of Persia, founded by Cyrus II in 546 B.C., stretched from the Indus River to the Mediterranean. Alexander the Great finally enacted regime change between 331 and 333 B.C., and in 1935, the greatly diminished Persia became Iran. Fifteen years on, Jordan Mechner's Prince of Persia franchise stands as one of gaming's greatest dynasties. Fittingly, The Sands of Time is an allegory of empire: The proud Prince (Xerxes? Xena? We know not his name), tricked by the diabolical Vizier, unleashes the titular sands, thereby transforming his peaceable minions into sword-wielding zombies. Trapped in his father's enormous, booby-trapped palace, the Prince, relying on the expert archery of the slammin', reluctant Farah, must put the genie back in the bottle (so to speak).
Luckily, he's armed with the Dagger of Time! This handy item allows Princie to speed, slow, reverse, and stop time, even peer into the future. (Apparently, people ride camel-less carriages there!) The first Prince of Persia was 2-D; you play The Sands of Time in four dimensions. Plummet into a chasm? Rewind up to 10 seconds and take another leap. This evolution of Enter the Matrix's bullet-time gimmick rounds out the game's spectacularly acrobatic play, which finds you running along walls and climbing, dodging, jumping, flipping, and shimmying around enemies and through obstacles. The impeccably intuitive controls make this feel as magical as it looks, and the gorgeous graphics and music fully ground you in the fantasy. With empires like this, who needs revolutions?
BEYOND GOOD & EVIL
(Ubi SoftGameCube, PS2, Xbox, PC) 9
What, exactly, lies beyond good and evil? Kelis's milk shake song? As Jade, a photographer exposing a government conspiracy on war-wracked planet Hilly, you must care for sniveling orphans, consort with shady characters, kill soldiers invading and defending Hilly, and wear green lipstickall while paying your electric bill. The cartoonish environment, though small, abounds with hidden desirables and fine detail-blaring propaganda, rich reflections and shadows, site-specific music, assorted visual gagsand even minor characters possess crisp, individual personalities.
DDRMAX2: DANCE DANCE REVOLUTION
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" modenot 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.
(EA GamesGameCube, 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!
MARIO KART: DOUBLE DASH!!
Speedier, sillier, and even more psychedelic, the first new Mario Kart in five years is reason enough to buy a GameCube. The Technicolor franchise's 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, you'll need much more than a good drift technique to finish first.
MAX PAYNE 2: THE FALL OF MAX PAYNE
(Rock Star GamesPC, PS2, Xbox) 7
Bloodied and murderousand in this sequel falling in love with a woman, who you also playMax Payne embodies the depth and injustice of human suffering. This is sexy violence: Shot-up bodies stiffen and reel, tumbling down stairs, blood spurting. During slow-motion bullet time, hordes of attackers twist and fall in an orgy-like spectacle. The game is bittersweet and short: Unlockable modes offer nothing new, and chatting with thugs and checking answering machines ain't all that. Call it Medium Payne.
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.
NEED FOR SPEED UNDERGROUND
(Electronic ArtsGameCube, PC, PS2, Xbox) 8
The newest Need for Speed introduces the novel ability to exoticize your crappy base-model with conspicuously sporty aftermarket parts, like spoilers. Engine ups and nitrous tanks unlock automatically, but hustling style-points by drifting around corners and landing jumps opens almost infinite combinations of superficial customizations. No spinners, thoughrace designers have yet to reinvent the wheel.
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.