The not-so-final fantasy reinvents group role-playing

 FINAL FANTASY: CRYSTAL CHRONICLES
For: GameCube
Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Nintendo
Rating: 8 (out of 10)

Capitalism's the stepmother of invention—call it evil, but don't fault the electric can opener. Sweating Sony's imminent Game Boy killer, the PSP, Nintendo must be scheming everything short of invading China to expand its wildly popular handheld's market. Experimenting with the cherished Final Fantasy series, the game maker has produced Crystal Chronicles, which requires Game Boys in multiplayer mode. Loyalists will be disappointed if they attempt this threadbare adventure alone. But up to four chums, substituting GBs for controllers, will cooperate and compete—and be forced to communicate—in an altogether different way. (Eight total can trade in and out over the game's course.) And if you reserve a copy now, you'll get a free GameCube connection cable!

As with any role-player, there's a mess of shit to track: money, spells, elements, keys, letters, artifacts, trades, treasures, ailments, weapon parts, and your favorite foods (I like star carrots!). The multiplayer concept, like the game's pastoral setting, is much more elegant. Your "caravan" (a fellowship of four or fewer tribes, including the thieving Selkies, whose women bare their midriffs) keeps the world's miasma at bay by fighting dungeon bosses for myrrh drops that power protective crystals. Upon each new battle, the handheld screen switch between the map, treasure or enemy radar, and enemy stats; you must take turns navigating, dictating types of attacks, etc. Meanwhile, fulfill individual bonus objectives to win first pick of artifacts and you'll progress ahead of your partners—those bastards!

Not searching for Martin Lawrence
image: Nintendo
Not searching for Martin Lawrence


NFL STREET
(EA—GameCube, PS2, Xbox) 9

A grimy take on football's combination of chess, ballet, and gay demolition derby: Each pro you send sprawling over benches and into walls has 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. In the sur-prisingly good single-player "NFL Challenge" mode, you earn points to build a franchise, choosing every-thing from the players' mutated genes (10 attributes, plus size) to their speed-enhancing sneakers.


FATAL FRAME 2: CRIMSON BUTTERFLY
(Tecmo—PS2) 7

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 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. 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!!
(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 (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 Arts—GameCube, 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, 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.


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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