METROID: ZERO MISSION
For GameBoy Advance
Developer Nintendo
Publisher Nintendo
Rating 8 (out of 10)

A “zero mission” sounds like it should involve picking up a 30-pack of Coors or scrubbing down mom’s double-wide on threat of being kicked out, but for our lady hero-not-zero Samus Aran, the big 0 simply refers to starting at square one (math was never my strong suit). About 20 years ago, fans of Metroid for NES suited up on Planet Zebes, blasted Skeeters, chipped away at Ridley and Kraid, and finally outsmarted Mother Brain. (Artificial intelligence was less impressive in the eight-bit era.) Today, America’s 20 million GBA owners can suit up on Planet Zebes, blast Skeeters, chip away at Ridley and Kraid, and finally outsmart Mother Brain—on the subway! (I once saw a hobo do this without a GameBoy.)

Wait for the G late at night, and the mission might take you one ride: The game lasts for only a few hours. Finishing does unlock the hard setting (plus the original Metroid), and the first couple repeat plays are rewarded with different endings. It’s enough to soak in play this fluid. Aran, outfitted in armor that allows her to curl into a “morph ball,” vaults, rolls, and battles strenuously, mapping elegantly detailed, maze-like levels. Contrary to Internetchatter, the twist that comes after Momma Brain’s defeat won’t quite make you cream your jeans. I wouldn’t put it past that hobo, though.


FATAL FRAME 2: CRIMSON BUTTERFLY
(TecmoPS2) 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.


FINAL FANTASY: CRYSTAL CHRONICLES
(Nintendo—GameCube) 8

This Final Fantasy experiment, dreamed up by market-hungry Nintendo, introduces a multiplayer mode requiring Game Boys. 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 a way that redefines the term role-play. Fulfill individual bonus objectives to progress ahead of your partners—those bastards!


IKARUGA
(Atari—GameCube) 8

The I Ching: “When the way comes to an end, then change—having changed, you pass through.” In this arcade-style shooter, you speed through a downward-scrolling gauntlet of black- or white-bullet-firing enemies and obstacles, either dodging those of the opposite color or reversing your polarity to absorb them. Try it at half-speed. As Confucius said, “It does not matter how slow you go, as long as you do not stop.” Just don’t forget to use the bathroom!


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!


MAXIMO VS ARMY OF ZIN
(Capcom—PS2) 8

Really just an improvement on 2002's overly difficult Ghosts to Glory, Army of Zin boasts action as crisp and effervescent as Crystal Pepsi. Only boyish gladiator Maximo, armor-clad and bearing sword, shield, and hammer, can save the kingdom from blade-armed ghosts in machines. For geeks who warp to Middle-earth via IMAX, such retrofuturist technophobia charges fantasy’s frisson. It’s Bronze Age romanticism, reforged in silicon.


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. (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.


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 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.


OTOGI—MYTH OF DEMONS
(Sega—Xbox) 7

The Japanese aesthetes behind this quasi-role-playing action title have created a hermetic universe fired by neuroses and governed by the twitchy laws of OCD. A cloaked princess assigns your character, former executioner Raikoh, quests so that he may “cleanse” his death-doling clan of “impurity.” Set a millennium ago, during Japan’s Heian era, the single-player Otogi bombards you with creepy spirits, Rorschach demons, and trickster bosses.


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?


R-Type Final
(Fresh Games/Eidos—PS2) 8

A 21st-century 2D shooter: Your insect-like fighter simply scrolls right, encountering enemies that must be showered with bombs and bullets. Yet 101 customizable crafts provide exponentially escalating ways to counter trickster bosses, some of which grow and change organically as you fight them. There are only six levels—some in space, others that involve going underwater—but many difficult-to-find paths through each. And no quarters required.


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.


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”!


ULTIMATE MUSCLE: LEGENDS VS. NEW GENERATION
(Bandai—GameCube) 8

This is the most homoerotic game ever. Even the male-stripper stereotypes of the WWE can’t compare to Ultimate Muscle’s anime-rendered Village People lineup. The fighter’s fanciful settings, bitchy trash-talking, customizable everything, and series of attacks that culminate in nutty cut scenes bring life to a sometimes plodding genre. Plus, vibrant cel-shaded graphics perfectly complement the Fruity Pebbles sugar-buzz action. Fave character? Kevin Mask, who draws on his “latent power.”


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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