Developer Team Ninja
Rating 9 (out of 10)
If Tom “Risky Business” Cruise can star in The Last Samurai, then closeted Scientologists and your fat little brother should be able to swing swords and fling stars as ninjas. This is Ninja Gaiden’s inclusive message. If you’re all thumbs, let one of the industry’s best fighting engines grant you the poise of a top gun. With two left feet, you’ll stumble through Dance Dance Revolution. Here, basic combos multiply into wall-run back flips and blood-spurt beheadings—the smoothest acrobatics and most graceful gore this side of the Pacific. Like Prince of Persia, another old-school series that’s ocean-deep on new hardware, Ninja Gaiden proves that there’s something to game sequels. Imagine accomplishing Mission: Impossible II yourself. (What, you’d prefer Rain Man?)
It barely does Team Ninja’s Tomonobu Itagaki justice to call him gaming’s John Woo. This is as good as a hack-and-slash epic gets. There are shades of platform puzzling; you’ll navigate huge, overlapping maps in each level, backtracking to unlock doors or upgrade your weapons with the blacksmith. But the action never flags. You’ll encounter meatier and meatier varieties of enemies (the scaly, rainbow-colored Greater Fiends are a highlight), and bosses with multiple modes of attack. Counter with blades, nunchakus and bow-and-arrow or power up ice, fire, and electricity, all while grabbing technique-teaching scrolls and running across walls and—wonders never cease—on water. You just won’t be able to turn it into wine.
007: EVERYTHING OR NOTHING
(EA Games—GameCube, PS2, Xbox) 8
The cinema’s about as grip—ing as any recent Bond, which is to say not at all. But the seamless action—now presented in third person—is spit-shined and ever shifting. You’ll pass through Egypt, Peru, New Orleans, and Moscow, crouching, sniping, rappelling, remote-controlling cars and bombs, and driving weaponized motorcycles and Porsche SUVs. And you have “Bond Sense.” And you can become invisible. But that’s it.
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 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
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!
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!!
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
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.
METROID: ZERO MISSION
(Nintendo—GameBoy Advance) 8
Twenty 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. 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.)
(THQ—PS2, Xbox) 8
There’s a thousand and one ways to make an ass of yourself in what is the funnest race-trick-crash blowout since last holiday season’s SSX 3. The game thrills like few other white-trash sports titles, mostly because you can launch off jumps into the propellers of passing helicopters. I’d like to see Al Qaeda do that with a donkey.
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.