'Playboy' Goes Naked, But 'Wario Ware' Touched Us the Right Way

For: PC, PlayStation 2, Xbox
Publisher: ARUSH
Developer: Cyberlore

You may be disappointed to learn that the most elating thing about this Hef-meets-The-Sims offering is the fact that you can create and run the magazine yourself, which is often engaging for a nerd journalist such as myself. With regard to the sex, well, it doesn't go far enough—it's just topless. (Even Jayne Mansfield took off her underpants for Playboy and that was the '50s.) Remember Virtual Vixens, the X-rated sci-fi PC game of about a decade ago in which you had to try really hard to make the women have an orgasm before you did? If you didn't, you'd get chided. Now, that was Clinton-era cool. Of course, this is Playboy in the time of Bush, not bush, and there is no such attempt at Vixens' orgasmic equality in this game. Almost makes you think that nudity is bad. Don't believe it.

For: Nintendo DS
Publisher: Nintendo
Developer: Nintendo

Break out the Adderall! There isn't much in video game history that's more fast-paced than Wario for the DS. These 180 five-second games test your reflexes and your memory with ever-maddening difficulty on the touch screen, which is kinda cruel because you're laughing some of the time as you follow the commands of the comic, mustachioed baddie. You even get to use the DS microphone; just blow into it mic to play 'em. The micro-games and animations are more manically intricate than the previous Warios, so you won't feel any sort of ennui.

For: GameBoy Advance
Publisher: Nintendo/Capcom
Developer: Flagship

Even though it's a GameBoy Advance release, The Minish Cap offers what all the Zelda games are best at: a role-playing experience with jubilant optimism and Frank Capra-era heart. Unabashedly old school, the fight to save the Princess Zelda (who is turned to stone; no, not by Medusa) is rife with twists and turns in which Link shrinks down into the miniature world of the Minish and dons a cap that's also a cheeky bird who helps you out during the game. There's the requisite sword-fighting bravery, monster-filled adventures, and the ability to save the girl at the end. The sun sets, and you feel chest-puffingly heroic—at least until you look up to see what's real, wishing you could banish it all to one of the game's massive dungeons.

For: Xbox
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: Oddword Inhabitants

If you think Patti Smith is utterly pretty with gray hair and age on her, and that Sphinx cats and naked mole rats are beautiful, you'll appreciate Oddworld Stranger's Wrath. You're a bounty hunter in need of an operation (is he really a girl?) and outlaws by the dozen block your progress. As its Clint Eastwood-inspired Stranger and spaghetti western locales combine with space cowboy sci-fi suspense, the game's silliness catches you off guard. OSW is the most happily offbeat game of the year thus far. For instance, while PETA wouldn't appreciate it, you use sci-fi animals like the wise-ass Chippunks as crossbow ammo. By the looks on their faces, the animated animals hate it. You'll love it.

For: PlayStation 2
Publisher: Sony
Developer: Angel Studios

Black Monday is the British version of the shooting and driving genre, and while the gritty script to this sequel is full of "fucks" to make the game feel realistic, it seems like the developers wanted to "fuck" the eager gamer by putting this onto the market before it was completely debugged. Aiming to shoot is a pain, and camera angles induce a kind of David Foster Wallace-feeling of overly self-aware paranoia because the walls and corners seem to want to defeat you more than the thugs do. The potential here was great; you really want to live on the streets of London and feel immersed in its underbelly and the interesting characters herein. But the game's flaws are like strong gusts of wind blowing you off track.

For: PC, PlayStation 2, Xbox
Publisher: THQ
Developer: Volition

The Punisher sure got the brooding, ambivalent, violent nature of its comic book anti-hero down, right down to the cheerless words he spews about New York City still being a violent hellhole underneath its theme park/Times Square exterior. And the game adds a nice twist or two to the shooter genre with violent interrogations à la Popeye Doyle. Punch the cowering weasel just enough and he'll cough up usuable info. Punch too hard and he dies at your hands. Threaten him with death by woodchipper if you like. But the Manhattan environment doesn't quite feel as gritty as the real McCoy. Ultimately, the game needs to be more like Night of the Hunter—more psychopathic, and more soulful in its violence. The script's stirring, but there's no line like Robert Mitchum's "Don't touch my knife. That makes me mad. Very, very mad."

For: GameCube
Publisher: Capcom
Developer: Capcom Production Studio 4

Script lovers beware: Resident Evil 4's dialogue is stilted and not exciting, B-movie bad. Still, after five hours of continuous play, I found I had to pull myself away physically from this zombie horror offering about a cult that has captured the president's daughter. It's one of the most graphically complex and utterly beautiful games ever coded for the GameCube: lush when vivid, chiaroscuro when scary (which it is often). There's a Clive Barker-S&M essence to the atmospheric horror, which is bloody and full of sloppy marrow too. As one of Barker's characters uttered in Abarat, "Every dark unthinkable thing that has happened at the dead of night has happened right here." Especially when you meet that thing in the lake. If only the script were better.

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