FATAL FRAME 2: CRIMSON BUTTERFLY
For:PS2
Developer: Tecmo
Publisher: Tecmo
Rating: 7 (out of 10)

Sometimes a stogie is just a stogie, but who doubts that boys pow-powing with tree branches, crutches, and Twinkies aren't unconsciously practicing for that life-giving shoot-'em-up, ejaculation? First-person poppers like Doom only literalize the psychodrama. The people I knew in college who got laid the least played these games the most, suitemate vs. suitemate, from the comfort of their own rooms. Sending a Mancubus back to Hell with a well-aimed plasma blast implies fertilization as well as destruction, death drive, and the continuation of one's own species. And it's as homoerotic as the time-honored towel-snap. In sum, geeks are jocks with bigger, though equally addled, brains.

Mio and Mayu Amakura, the delicate underage twins who drift through this high-minded survival update, imperil themselves all too pornographically but shoot nothing more than pictures. Mayu, who suffered an ominous injury at birth and now sees dead people, follows a butterfly into lost Japanese massacre site All Gods Village. As Mio, you follow her into the ensuing phantasmagoria—a black, fast-cut creepfest equal to most Hollywood horror—capturing lost souls on your camera obscura while picking up clues like newspaper clippings. To record and dispatch the unfriendly ghosts Mayu senses (many pitiable, like a sobbing spirit girl), you must allow them to come close and carefully time your shutter snap. There are no bosses to pelt, and the puzzles and plot kinks keep you looking over your shoulder rather than shooting from the hip. Give these designers five-dollar cigars!


ESPN NHL HOCKEY
(Sega—PS2, 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. Most notably, Sega tightened online play, closing easy-goal loopholes and adding a surprisingly fun single-skill competition mode.


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!


MARIO KART: DOUBLE DASH!!
(Nintendo—GameCube) 9

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.


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.


NEED FOR SPEED UNDERGROUND
(Electronic Arts—GameCube, PC, PS2, Xbox) 8

The newest Need for Speedintroduces the novel ability to exoticize your crappy base-model with conspicuously sporty aftermarket parts, like spoilers. (And I don't mean car-safety guru Ralph Nader.) 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, though—race designers have yet to reinvent the wheel.


PRINCE OF PERSIA: THE SANDS OF TIME
(Ubisoft—GameCube, PC, PS2, Xbox) 9

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. With empires like this, who needs revolutions?


SECRET WEAPONS OVER NORMANDY
(LucasArts—GameCube, PC, PS2, Xbox) 6

One part History Channel, two parts Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe, this flyover necessarily sucks much of the life-and-death from war history's grand sweep and anonymous tragedy. Whaddya gonna do? It's the postmortem—pardon me—postmodern condition. Secret Weapons' assortment of bombing runs, dogfights, and detail missions fly by thanks to an emphasis on arcade-style ease-of-play, but one simply leads into the next. And characters are rendered in black and white: Stoic American Chase (heh-heh), forbidding Germans, pussy Englishmen.


THE SIMS: BUSTIN' OUT
(EA Games—GameCube, PS2, Xbox) 9

While some games inspire religious devotion, only Sim spin-offs require it. In this saucy console debut update, you can take a disco nap, shower, shit, scooter to Club Rubb, grab ass, go home—mundane or fun, everything recedes into a heartbeat of flushing, snoring, and Simlish. And whether you join the military or "counterculture," there's a path to follow; adherents to the latter, for instance, need only keep fit and charismatic. That's a world worth having faith in.


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.

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