Ukiyo-e, for the uninitiated among you, means 'pictures of the floating world' in Japanese. It's a name given to a kind of ethereal Japanese woodblock print which gained popularity in Edo (Tokyo) as far back as the early 1600s. In the book, Masterpieces of Japanese Prints, Richard Lane writes that it was from traditional schools of Japanese art that ukiyo-e, "acquired its basic themes, its lovely and harmonious coloring, its sinuous, supple line, and its emphasis on the dramatic relationship between figures."

OK, this ain't no art class, but ukiyo-e and its celebration of the earthly spirit, the underworld, and the heavens, is part of what makes OKAMI one of the year's best games. Okami, the new action/adventure game from Capcom, is one of the most beautifully rendered games of the 2006. Because of its attention to Japanese myth, ground-breaking game play and graphics reminiscent of Asian ink painting on rice paper, it's in a class by itself.

In Okami, you're Amaterasu, a sun god who's returned to earth and has taken the form of a snow white wolf. Your mission is to stop the huge and monstrous Orochi, who has unleashed a kind of apocalypse upon the peaceful world of Nippon (Japan). Even as you move through the first level of Okami, you'll marvel at its beauty and shudder at its monsters.

Welcome to the apocalypse, Nippon-style
image: Courtesy of Capcom
Welcome to the apocalypse, Nippon-style

Details

Okami
Publisher: Capcom
Developer: Clover Studio Format: PlayStation 2
  • Check out reviews of all the latest and greatest games (updated every week), along with past faves in NYC Guide.
  • In Okami, you're no hack-and-slash swordsman, killing willy nilly to progress in the game. What you'll really become early on is a kind of artist of the gods. You'll meet a small god and companion called Issun, a bug who'll teach you how to employ your PlayStation 2 controller's left stick as a brush. You'll be informed that there are 13 gods of the brush, and as you move through these starry worlds, you'll become adept at using the them.

    Sometimes, you'll draw a river to help you pass through a stream. At other times, you'll use the brush as a sword to kill demons in your path. I guess that's why they call the thing a Mystic Celestial Brush. Down the line, you can make a swirling motion to draw the wind, or call up lightning by making a zig zag with the controller stick. Since you have to work at it rather than simply pressing one button, you really do feel as though the elements of wind and fire are in your hands.

    Unlike the Greek and Roman myths, the Japanese myths are still new and mysterious to me. As I played the game, I ate up the stories of cherry trees which are gods, and even the tale of Orochi, who has many heads like the Hydra, the multi-headed serpent so popular in Greek myth. Okami is completely rich with stories, so much so that I felt like a kid again, having fables read to me by my mother as I sat wide-eyed. As though you're under a spell, you'll feel that child-like sense of wonder throughout the 40 hours of game play.

    Even a game this rich, of course, isn't perfect. You'll get a little tired of pressing the 'O' button to read the words of people, animals, and gods who want to talk to your white wolf character. Sure, it's a fact that when you read, you tend to remember more than when you hear words. Despite this, the constant button-pushing slows things down.

    Some games are compelling as far as weapons and creative shooting goes. Some games have a rich story, but repetitive game play or below-par backgrounds. For the most part, Okami, has every base covered—down to the most minute detail. More importantly, Okami is a real triumph of art in gaming.

  • Check out reviews of all the latest and greatest games (updated every week), along with past faves in NYC Guide.
  • Lego Star Wars II: The Original Trilogy
    Publisher: LucasArts
    Developer: Traveller's Tales

    As a nerdy college kid, I always enjoyed Crisis On Infinite Earths, the Marv Wolfman-penned comic book series that had DC superheroes team with Marvel superheroes. It was one of those rare crossovers that actually worked. What else other pop culture classics would would work? How about Lost meets The X Files or All In The Family meets Friends? Or how about Lego meets Star Wars? Think that wouldn't work? Think again.

    While the real buzz and hype of the Star Wars phenomenon has abated somewhat (there are no more movies, after all), there will always be Star Wars fans. To satiate those who will never get enough of Skywalker and Darth Vader, are you ready for . . . some Lego? You better be because the terribly cute, story-rich LEGO STAR WARS II: THE ORIGINAL TRILOGY hit stores earlier this week.

    Hot on the heels of the mammoth success of Lego Star Wars which dealt with George Lucas's prequel films, The Original Trilogy doesn't stray from the formula which made the first offering so charming. That formula includes non-speaking, blocky characters which fight their way through the Star Wars universe like real warriors. Why does it work? You just don't expect sweet, little Lego dolls to have the bravery, the courage, the unflinching focus that comes with having "The Force" within you.

    Yet the characters put on faces of grim determination and fight for the frontiers of outer space in fine sci-fi style. And for little blocky figures, they sure do have a lot of moves, weapons and ways to fight. Here's the deal. You've got three stories, one for each of the first three Star Wars movies. Each story has six stages which faithfully follow and sometimes enhance the films' stories. Follow these stages through to conclusion once and you'll unlock new characters which will allow you to replay the game in Free Mode (playing the stage with any character you choose). There are a wide variety of Star Wars ships to pilot, too, making you the captain of your space-filled domain. But there's more, too. You can create your own Lego Star Wars character using, say, the head of Yoda and the body of Vader. The delight and humor you'll find in simply trading body parts in and out is one of the prime reasons to play the game.

    There are a few caveats, however. Going through the game the first time is pretty quick. Also, it's fairly easy: your Lego never really dies. Also, if you're thinking of buying the Xbox 360 version for an extra $10, think twice. While you'll be able to get marginally better graphics and download some cool stuff via broadband, there is no online play.

    However, the console games, including the 360 version, are all tons of fun. And the handheld games offer their own particular cachet as well. The PSP version lets you play the hardest levels from Lego Star Wars I and does sport the PSP's wireless coop mode. Even the Gameboy Advance version lets you play as 36 different characters with graphics that are pretty darn excellent.

    So what do the game developers do now that they've finished the Stars Wars stories? Reportedly, they're going to do a Lego Batman video game. The story of Batman and Bruce Wayne is a dark and mysterious one, darker than Star Wars. So that's a true challenge. But I can't wait to see what they do with those crazy, seminal comic book villains, The Penguin and The Joker.

    LocoRoco
    Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
    Developer: Sony Computer Entertainment

    Remember that over the top fat suit Gwyneth Paltrow wore in Shallow Hal? The excess of rubberized adipose made her appear onscreen as a mountain of a woman who, if she fell, looked like she could bounce high as a Superball. The thing about the suit was that, sure, it was gross, but it was also kind of adorable (there was heart and soul in them thar hills). The fat suit reminded me of these in-game globules that look like they're wearing a fat suit after they gorge themselves.

    Called LOCOROCO, the globule-filled game is a much-touted, highly anticipated offering. More often than not, a game doesn't live up to the hype that precedes its release. Look at The Matrix (a real money pit) or even last year's disappointing Madden 06. That's not the case with a small game called LocoRoco for Sony's PSP. The hype began with drooling bloggers almost a year ago. Phrases like "sleeper hit" were bandied about constantly. Early game art looked a little like the Nintendo DS' Mario games in their simplicity. LocoRoco" graphics were intentionally childish, reminding me of one of the greatest games ever for the old PlayStation, the rhythm-based Parappa The Rapper with its first grader-like cutout 2D figures.

    So what is LocoRoco? First off, it's a simple cartoon-like game. You press the right and left buttons at the top of your PSP to play the game. With the occasional pressing of the 'O' button, that's all you need to play LocoRoco. Believe me, kids won't be able to get enough of it. Adults won't be able to put it down, either.

    I know that's a grand statement, especially since I usually don't rave about games, even the ones I really like. But the allure for LocoRoco is manifold. LocoRoco are cute, bulbous, smiley creatures that sing ultra-catchy pop songs. They shake when they move like the element mercury. They're so adorable, you want to hug them—even if you're not predisposed to such emotion. They're also so cute you don't want to see them die, which is why you keep playing: to get them safely to the end of each level without perishing.

    None of this would be worth a plug nickel if the game play weren't so intensely compelling and challenging. Immediately in the first level, you're placed into a strange world full of twists and turns, mountains and hills and moons and suns. You've got to move your LocoRoco up and down these crazy paths. This becomes increasingly difficult because the LocoRoco needs to feed and gets fatter and fatter. To try to get your portly creature up a big hill, you'll find yourself turning and twisting the PSP as if it had a gyroscope inside. But it has no such machine. You just have to be supremely accurate with your pressing of the buttons.

    Hills aren't the only danger in LocoRoco. If he runs into prickly plants or evil inkblot spiders called mojas, he'll come apart like Humpty Dumpty into many tiny LocoRoco. That's when you press the 'O' button, to put Humpty Dumpty, er, LocoRoco back together again. You quest is to find all the LocoRoco in each level, which isn't easy because they're hidden in caves, grottoes or even underneath the ground.

    There's also a beauty to the simple graphics. Often, you'll be shot like a rocket through nooks and crevasses and up high into starry space. You'll feed as you go on flowers and such. But you'll also get fatter and fatter. Yet that's the goal. This is an Adkins Diet Free Zone. So pig out.

    Simple and challenging really is the grail in most video games. It's rare that the two come together, so uncommon it's like a sighting of the mola mola, a huge, strange ocean sun fish in the Atlantic's coastal waters. Such a sighting is a feast for the eyes and a big deal for marine biologists. The release of LocoRoco is also a big deal. It's not only a new debut for Sony (which is often too dependent on its franchises). "It's one of the best games of the year."

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