By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Wind Waker.A dark shadow hangs over the Super Bowl this year, and it's not the Goodyear blimp's. In his State of the Union address, the Prez urged that famous athletes stop shooting steroids. (He might as well've encouraged teenagers to quit having sex.) This, coupled with the promise of a "D"-dominated matchup 'tween Carolina and New England (Go, Pats!), may lead even the most die-hard fan of expensive new advertisements to deploy the pun "Super Blow XXXVIII." Football's a combination of chess, ballet, and gay demolition derby, sure, but America has exploded the Greek ideal, celebrating bursting muscles, overflowing rage, and shrunken testicles (all the better to fit in one's jockstrap). Gaming may someday be the last bastion of sporting prowess that defies God and nature.
In NFL Street, you and up to three friends encounter legends from Randy Moss to Barry Sanders in a dark alleyor warehouse, beach, junkyard, etc.and send them sprawling over benches and into walls. Each pro's been beefed to cartoonish proportions, and when you've shown off enough fancy jukes and spins, a "gamebreaker" juice-up renders your crew virtually invincible. Teams are pared to seven apiece, making matches more brutal but the process of picking them more nuancedwhich superstar can you afford to ditch? In the surprisingly good single-player "NFL Challenge" mode, you earn points to build a franchise, choosing everything from the players' mutated genes (10 attributes, plus size) to their speed-enhancing sneakers. 'Cause it ain't all about the steroids.
ESPN NHL HOCKEY
(SegaPS2, 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. (You pick which teeth he's missing!) Most notably, Sega tightened online play, closing easy-goal loopholes and adding a surprisingly fun single-skill competition mode. Stick handling, anyone?
FATAL FRAME 2: CRIMSON BUTTERFLY
The delicate underage twins who drift through this high-minded survival update imperil themselves all too pornographically but pop flashbulbs instead of the typical FPS plasma phallus. As Mio, you follow Mayu into a post-massacre phantasmagoriaa black, fast-cut creepfest equal to most Hollywood horrorcapturing lost souls on your camera obscura while picking up clues like newspaper clippings. There are no bosses to pelt, and the puzzles and plot kinks keep you looking over your shoulder rather than shooting from the hip.
MARIO KART: DOUBLE DASH!!
Speedier, sillier, and even more psychedelic, the first new Mario Kartin 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 (breaking waves, thunderbolts), you'll need much more than a good drift technique to finish first. So turn on, tune in, and drop out!
NEED FOR SPEED UNDERGROUND
(Electronic ArtsGameCube, 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, thoughrace designers have yet to reinvent the wheel.
The first Prince of Persia was 2-D; you play The Sands of Timein 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
(LucasArtsGameCube, 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 postmortempardon mepostmodern condition.
THE SIMS: BUSTIN' OUT
(EA GamesGameCube, 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 homemundane 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.
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.
A lighthearted traipse through New Orleans's fancifully imagined heart of darkness, Xbox's solidest platformer yet warps the fundamental premise of the action genrehoodoo 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!