Let me say right off the bat that I’m no Ring Lardner, Roger Angell, or even Robert Christgau when it comes to baseball writing. Take me to a sports bar in the summer and before long I’ll be asking, “Who’s on first, what’s on second?” (Nyuk nyuk nyuk!) America’s game is slow and emphasizes stats, making it one of the least accessible displays of rampant steroid abuse. And yet I’m genuinely sold on a disc that’s stacked with every MLBPA member and minor-league team, has a hyper-realistic bead on baseball’s fundamental mechanics, and encourages you to sim your way through a season as manager. By putting the game’s history (over 50 Hall of Famers, to start) in your hands, and allowing you to lead your club many years into the future, MVP Baseball 2004 makes a poetic argument for declaring the de facto American sport— console gaming—our official pastime.
In Cuba, all the youngsters play baseball. That’s because they’re too broke to buy PlayStations. How much better is it to skip the national anthem and time some famous guy’s swings to the sounds of the All-American Rejects? You can effectively cork your bat or shrink your opponent’s glove by fooling with the dozens of settings, but it’s impossible to make the intuitive, HUD-guided ball-and-bat controls seem cartoonish. Attention to detail ranges from countless nuanced plays, crowd chants, and announcer anecdotes to in-game fatigue variables and season-defining emotions derived from playing time, performance, and earnings. What’s an American pastime without greed?
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. Turn on, tune in, 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.
(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.
The world’s best hack-and-slash epic: Basic combos multiply into wall-run back flips and blood-spurt beheadings, the smoothest acrobatics and most graceful gore this side of the Pacific. Counter meatier and meatier varieties of enemies with swords, nunchakus and bow-and-arrow, all while grabbing technique-teaching scrolls and running across walls and—WWJD?—on water. You just won’t be able to turn it into wine.
(Midway—PS2, Xbox) 7
As Torque—a musclehead jailed for, but not necessarily guilty of, killing his wife and kids—you mostly splatter classical Stan Winston monsters. If you’re in it for the copious blood (why else would you be?) there’s no reason not to shotgun monsters and innocent prisoners, confirming your guilt at game’s end. Why not encourage the players to prove their innocence?