For hot gift ideas, it’s all in the game

By Jae-Ha Kim and Misha Davenport
Chicago Sun-Times
December 22, 2002

It’s not just toys, books, CD box sets and collector’s edition DVDs this holiday season; video games are also a good bet to show up under Christmas trees.

While the sluggish economy has dampened many retailers’ spirits, the video game industry is actually celebrating. U.S. sales of game consoles, software and accessories increased by 25 percent from last year and will exceed the $6 billion mark before the year is out.

Some of our suggestions for making your holidays brighter:

Gameboy Advance

“Metroid Fusion” (Nintendo, E for Everyone, $34.95)–It’s been eight years since we last saw Samus Aran, the plucky, power-suit clad heroine of Metroid. Fans will no doubt say Metroid Fusion –the fourth entry in the franchise– is long overdue.

Unlike the GameCube’s “Metroid Prime” and its teen rating, this one is rated E and finds Samus searching for the X parasite, a creature able to mimic any creature, including Samus. It’s a surprisingly well-detailed game in graphics, gameplay and story-telling. (MD)

“Yu-Gi-Oh: The Eternal Duelist Soul” (Konami, E for Everyone, $29.99)– “Yu-Gi-Oh.” began as a card game in Japan, was exported to the U.S. and didn’t really take off until a cartoon based on the game debuted. “Yu-Gi-Oh” quickly became one of the top-rated kids shows, creating a market for the card game.

The game finally makes its way to the Gameboy Advance. Gameplay is a bit like the old card game “War.” You place a monster card in either a defensive or attack mode, your opponent does the same. You attack, and if your attack points are higher than your opponent’s, your opponent has to discard the card and points are deducted from his pot. Added to the mix are magic cards that power up your monster and charm cards that protect your monster from attack.

Adults will find the game a bit confusing (Konami actually sent an animated video on how to play the game with our review copy), but the game isn’t for them, it’s for kids who are fans of the show. (MD)

“SpongeBob Squarepants: Revenge of the Flying Dutchman” (THQ, E for Everyone, $29.95)–SpongeBob is back –and this time he’s armed. OK, so it’s only a bubble wand, but in the wacky world where a sponge not only talks but wears pants, of course a bubble wand would be a weapon.

The plot might as well be from the hit cartoon. While searching for his pet snail Gary, SpongeBob accidentally unleashes the ghost of the Flying Dutchman, who quickly enlists SpongeBob to find his missing treasure. As you search, you run into many of the characters from the show –SpongeBob’s “special friend” Patrick, the aptly named Mr. Krabby and others. All are rendered with great graphics and it feels like you’re actually manipulating an episode of the show. Gamers and fans of the show will soak it up. (MD)

GameCube

“Animal Crossing” (Nintendo, E for Everyone, $49.95)–The GameCube’s answer to “The Sims,” begins with you moving away from home to set out on your own. A train takes you to a town inhabited by cute, talking animals. This being a Japanese game, the sense of freedom is short-lived and soon replaced by the necessities of the real world (finding a job, paying a mortgage, keeping up with the Joneses and heck, even yardwork).

The game comes with its own memory card, so no two towns or town residents are alike. Up to four gamers can each have a house in the town and play the game (though not at the same time). It makes “Animal Crossing” ideal for a family. (“Look, mom left me a bag of money and a note that says to do my homework before I think about playing this game …”)

You initially have to do various errands for your neighbors to earn cash. Before long, you’ll be able to buy a shovel (useful for finding buried sacks of money), fishing rod (it seems nearly impossible to over-fish and your catch earns you a pretty penny at the market), a bug net (some of the rarer bugs yield a wad of cash, but they’re hard to catch) and a pretty useless axe. (Though it doesn’t earn you any money, you nonetheless need the axe to thin out the forests and keep the residents happy. Wouldn’t President Bush be proud?)         It’s an open-ended game that allows players to determine what kind of game they want to play. Fish all day if you want to. Pick fruit if that suits you. It’s up to you and thanks to the GameCube’s internal clock–played in real time. It makes the game highly addictive”. If you don’t play regularly, when you do pick up the game again, you’ll be surprised to find weeds everywhere and half the town’s residences have pulled up stakes for greener pastures. (MD)

“Metroid Prime” (Nintendo, T for Teen, $49.95)–A GameCube must. You play as bounty hunter Samus Aran, and you hunt for prey on planet Tallon IV. Besides getting to wear a spunky red and gold uniform, you get to color coordinate your visors. OK, technically the visors aren’t so much for fashion as for offering different views, and her default view is good enough for the game. She’s not the most graceful of creatures and at times has a few awkward “Robocop” moments. Because there really aren’t any levels to work your way through, you get optimal playing time with minimal hand-eye coordination frustration. (JHK)

“Super Monkey Ball 2” (Sega, E for Everyone, $49.95)–So you’re thinking this game just looks too darned cute to be any fun? Try playing it with a group of friends and I defy you not to get a kick out of this. The game makes no attempt to mirror reality. When’s the last time you saw a happy little monkey enclosed in a ball dodging dominoes and executing some gymnastics-worthy tricks? Granted, some of the characters do get cloying. Ignore them and hit a round of Monkey Tennis. Better yet, try your aim in the shoot ’em up Monkey Shot. The cartoon feel will delight the little ones, even if the mechanics are a bit difficult for them to navigate. That’s where you come in. (JHK)

Playstation 2

“Shinobi” (Sega, M for mature, $49.95)–Hotsuma, the hero of Sega’s latest 3D action game, doesn’t have an easy mission. He has to battle former clansmen who aren’t particularly friendly and his energy gets sapped from all the slash and thrash fighting. Inspired by Sega’s classic ninja franchise, Shinobi is intended for an audience old enough to legally attend R-rated movies. If you get the chance, try opting for the Japanese voice option when you’re done with the standard English. You may not understand what’s being said, but it fits better with the anime feel of the graphics and the Japanese score accompanying it. (JHK)

“Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus” (Sony, E for Everyone, $49.95)–Mario-schmario. “Cooper” is hands-down the best platform game of the year.         There’s much that elevates it from the usual plumbers and janitors you find in other games. First, cel-shaded graphics make you feel like you’re playing a Saturday morning cartoon. Second, gameplay is smooth. As Sly, you stealthily search for the Thievius Raccoonus (a sort of Holy Grail for thieves) that has been stolen from his family. Using all the tricks of a cat, er, raccoon burglar, you jump, climb swing and crack safe codes. Finally, much thought has gone into plot and character development. Even level bosses have names, personalities and backstories. “Sly” is –well, how else can we say it–sly. Here’s hoping the game is the start of a new platform franchise for Sony. (MD)

“Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 4” (Activision, T for teen, $49.95)–Three years after the release of his first game, Tony Hawk’s pro skater series has become the action sports franchise to beat. It’s a shame that the two-minute time limit has been taken out of the game, but what may have dissipated in suspense has been replaced with time to cultivate your gaming skills. One of the nicer elements of this game is the option to re-start an aborted trick, rather than having to backtrack to the beginning as you had to in previous incarnations of the game. (JHK)

XBox

“Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell” (Ubi Soft, T for Teen, $49.99)–Good heavens, if there was one XBox title you had to own outside of “Halo,” this is it. In fact, we’ll go so far as to say if given the choice between “Halo” and this, we’d be buying “Splinter Cell.” It’s enough to make us want to kiss Tom Clancy.

You play as secret agent Sam Fisher and your mission is to infiltrate a terrorist operation before it precipitates World War III. Fisher bears a striking resemblance to George Clooney, but his moves are strictly 007. This is probably the first game where it’s recommended you don’t skip the training missions. Fisher has a host of signature moves including crouching, rolling and sliding down a rope. Besides, unless you have hands-on experience with the night vision headset, chances are you’ll need the training.

If the gameplay doesn’t move you to buy it, the graphics will. Walls, objects, people are all rendered with detail and texture. Even Fisher’s 5 o’clock shadow looks rough enough to file your nails on it. Simply, “Splinter Cell” is currently the best looking game out for the holidays on any system. (MD)

“Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance” (Midway, M for Mature, $49.95)–When the first “Mortal Kombat” showed up in arcades in 1992, it redefined the genre of fighting games. It was both good-looking and gory. In the days before game ratings, anyone willing to pop in the required quarters could play it. Its ultra-violent content evoked the wrath of concerned parental groups and Congress.

A lot has happened since 1992 and “Mortal Kombat”–once a leader in the genre–seems content with following. The good news is, “Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance” has closed the gap a bit. One improvement to the franchise includes three fighting moves unique to each of the 21 characters. Now, all the players don’t fight the same.

Another plus are the “koins” you receive after winning matches. You use them in the “krypt” to purchase “koffins.” The “koffins” are like Christmas presents–you can’t tell what’s in them. Some feature new characters or mini-games that are pretty cool. Others koffin prizes are downright dumb–one awarded me (and I wish I was making this up) a 32-pack of adult diapers. Worse still, some are empty (robbed, I tell ya, robbed I was). All and all, it’s just enough to keep you planning the game until you unlock all of the goodies –which should take you well into the New Year. (MD)

“MechAssault” (Microsoft, T for teen, $49.99)–Published by Microsoft, this game is actually the product of the Chicago-based, independent game developer Day 1 Studios. Don’t think we’ve included it simply because of hometown pride. “MechAssault” left us dizzy, tired and with blistered thumbs and we don’t regret a single destructive moment.

There’s more to this game than just the usual third-person action shooter. Much more. The campaign mode has 20 single player missions that put you in command of a dozen “Mechwarriors,” or Mechs for short. The Mechs are robotic tank-like vehicles and each has varying capabilities and weapons, but all were built for destruction.

You’re free to roam the heavily-detailed landscapes, destroying everything from bridges to buildings. Heck, you can even squash the puny street lamps if you want.

Just when you think the mindless destruction couldn’t get any better, you realize the campaign mode is also perfect for training you for the real reason to buy this game: online mayhem. When played through Xbox Live, the game offers you head-to-head combat with players from around the U.S. Expect to have your butt kicked the first few rounds of online play. Before you know it, you’ll be blasting your way to victory in this highly addictive game. (MD)

 


These games merit a second glance

Previously reviewed, still recommended:

Playstation 2

        “Grand Theft Auto: Vice City” (Rock Star, M for Mature, $49.95)–It doesn’t matter if you’re an expert gamer or a novice dude. The game is so well-crafted it sucks you in faster than the squealing cars being chased by the cops. (JHK)

        “Kingdom Hearts” (Squaresoft, E for Everyone, $49.95)–Squaresoft, the company behind the hit “Final Fantasy” series, teamed up with Disney for “Kingdom Hearts.” Just about every Disney animated character turns up, and that’s only half the fun. The end result is over 40 hours of pure gaming bliss. (MD)

Available cross-platform

        “Madden NFL 2003” (EA Sports, E for Everyone, $49.95)–Any football fan knows there is just one football video game to own each year and it’s “Madden.” Outside of “Monday Night Football,” no one does the sport better. (MD)

        “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” (Electronic Arts, T for Teen, $49.95)–Electronic Arts plunges you into the battles that make the current film in the franchise so compelling, with clips from the film. The game also includes interviews with the film’s cast and crew, production designs and more–all unlockable as you play through the game. One game is truly lord above all. (MD)

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