Game Zone: Blast from the Past

By Jae-Ha Kim and Misha Davenport
Chicago Sun-Times

A few videogame reviews from back in the day…

GRAND THEFT AUTO: SAN ANDREAS (Rockstar Games, M for blood and gore, intense violence, strong language, strong sexual content and drug use, Playstation 2)

While 2004 has been a strong year for video games, it’s one of the latest releases that has truly made an impact on me. Regular readers of this column won’t be surprised to learn that my pick for game of the year is Rockstar’s “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.” I’m a big fan of the series and am happy to report this one is easily the strongest in the franchise. The game feels like an interactive cinematic experience. The game is well thought out and impeccably executed in every way, from the graphics to the story line to the music. The developers of the game have a knack for picking the appropriate music (and talk radio) to set up scenes. it’s obvious they’ve put some thought into the task rather than relying on the cheapest tunes available or, worse yet, Muzak.

In the past, the franchise has come under attack for a variety of reasons. Italian-American groups bristled that the games perpetuated negative “Godfather” type stereotypes. Parents worried their young children would become violent after playing the games. Never mind that it’s an M title — appropriate only for ages 17 and up — the equivalent of a R-rated film. Here, the antihero is a young African-American character named CJ. Just when he thought he had escaped the hell he grew up in (i.e. the fictional state of San Andreas, which to me sounds more like a city than a state), he gets sucked back in after attending his mother’s funeral. Thanks to a couple of corrupt cops who frame him for crimes he didn’t commit, CJ is forced to break the law to clear his name.

SPOILER ALERT: The crooks actually are the dirty cops who are quite clever and nefarious in the way they lay the blame on CJ. At one point, I had to hijack a police motorcycle in order to escape wrongful arrest. The chase was awesome — more thrilling than anything you’ve seen on “Cops” and, oddly enough, more realistic. Gamers don’t need to be lectured in a video game, and “San Andreas” makes no attempt to guilt us into any sense of morality. But the characters and their motives are so well thought out that we get it. Sometimes crime pays. And other times it ends up being a means to clearing our names.  — Jae-Ha Kim (reviewed 12/24/04)

WORLD TOUR SOCCER 2005 (989 Sports; Rated E for everyone; PlayStation 2)

I’m not sure what happened to World Tour Soccer 2004, but this latest entry in 989 Sports’ football (as the rest of the world calls it) franchise kicks major butt over the 2003 installment. One of the complaints of the older version was it was too easy to play. So while novice gamers enjoyed being able to score major shots from just about any angle, veterans were miffed it took such little skill to play such a subtle sport. It’s much more complicated this time around. Players have to earn their chances to score. Just as in real-life soccer, there are times when you will not score even one goal. But that doesn’t detract from the awesome realism and ridiculous fun this game provides. Tip: The right analog stick is your friend here — use it wisely to change formations at whim. –Jae-Ha Kim (reviewed 4/23/04)

GAME BOY ADVANCE VIDEO: THE FAIRLY ODDPARENTS! VOLUME (Majesco; GBA)

Somehow, Majesco has managed to cram 45 minutes’ worth of full-color video into the compact GBA cartridge, and we couldn’t be happier. We reviewed “The Fairly OddParents! Volume 2” — one of 10 titles now available. The volume contained four full-length cartoons from the hit Nickelodeon show. Sound quality was decent and though the GBA screen offers a less-than-DVD-quality picture, at $19.99 it’s cheaper than buying a portable DVD player and movie. Unlike a portable DVD player, the GBA video didn’t skip once during all the bumps and shakes of a recent morning L commute. Majesco has hinted that it may soon push the technology to hold 90 minutes of content, which would put full-length features in the palms of gamers’ hands. For now, we’ll settle for 45 minutes of cartoon bliss. — Misha Davenport (reviewed 5/14/04)

RESIDENT EVIL OUTBREAK (Capcom; Rated M for blood, gore and intense violence; content may change during online play; Playstation 2)

Perhaps it’s “Area 51” paranoia, but there has always been something bone-chilling and plausible about the premise of Capcom’s “Resident Evil” series. In trying to make us safe, governments sure do a lot of things that threaten our security.

In the “Resident Evil” series, a corporation — rich with a big, fat, no-bid contract — works in secret on a biological weapon that accidentally or intentionally gets released on an unsuspecting public. Biological weapons like anthrax have found their way into the public, so I suppose it’s only a matter of time before something akin to “Evil’s” T-Virus turns us all into flesh eating zombies, right?

There is a sense of immediacy to “Outbreak” unseen before in the franchise. Previous games have focused on people somehow connected to the events that led to the T-Virus. Games followed a plot that was equal parts detective novel and horror story. This time around, there is no plot. Gamers play as one of eight ordinary citizens in Raccoon City when the virus is unleashed. They are innocents at ground zero and their survival depends on you.

The off-line single player mode puts you with two characters selected and controlled by AI. Online play has you with three other people, and it works the best. Like the characters in the game, you are all strangers, each with differing skills and agendas, hopefully united in your goal to work together to survive the zombie onslaught and escape the city with your lives. And the best part? Lose your life and you join the undead and turn on your former friends.

The game is far from free of errors, though. It would have been nice to have some sort of voice interface to communicate with fellow gamers, and load times really break up the game’s flow. If you’ve recently sprung for the PS2 hard drive, follow Capcom’s advice and download the game to it. –Misha Davenport (reviewed 4/23/04)

MARIO VS. DONKEY KONG (Nintendo, Rated E for mild cartoon violence, Nintendo Advance)

First it was all about love. This time it’s about the benjamins. In 1981, “Donkey Kong” invaded arcades, became an instant classic and changed Nintendo — the company that made the game– from a playing card company to a video game giant. The plot featured a tiny guy in overalls and a cap (he was unnamed at first, the name “Mario” would come later) facing off against a giant ape Both man and ape are enamored with the little guy’s girlfriend Pauline — the ape going so far as to kidnap her. My, how times have changed. Pauline hasn’t been seen since. Mario and Donkey Kong finally face off again, but this time the motivation is money. The Kongster has figured out the perfect way to fill his cupboard with bananas –steal the hot-selling wind-up Mini-Marios from the toy shop and sell them on the black market. Of course, Mario is determined to keep the ape from monkeying in on his business. There are ladders to climb, springs to jump on, and conveyor belts to run across like in the original “Donkey Kong. There’s also a bit of “Donkey Kong Jr.” in here with Mario climbing ropes and dropping hanging fruit onto enemies below. What’s new is the introduction of strategy. There are six worlds, each with six levels. Most are made up of two boards. The first features a key and a locked door that the key opens. Fetching the key and getting it to the door usually require the manipulation of switches that turn on and off certain barriers. On the second board, you need to retrieve the Mini-Mario to move onto the next level. The final two levels on each world consist of returning the Mini-Marios to a toy chest and a boss battle with your old nemesis. The game features bright colors with both title characters nicely rendered in 3D. Each of the levels are unique, so you won’t tire of the game.  This platform/puzzle game doesn’t disappoint –Misha Davenport (reviewed 5/21/04)

ONIMUSHA 3: DEMON SIEGE  (Capcom,  Rated M for blood, gore, intense violence, strong language, strong sexual content and drug use, PS2)

The “Onimusha” series has consistently offered everything you look for in an action/adventure involving a 16th-century warrior and his never-ending battle against an army of the dead. “Demon Siege” — the third and allegedly final installment of the series — offers a nice resolution to the story lines and conflicts that began with the original and manages a few surprises along the way. Samanosuke Akechi, the hero introduced in the first game, returns. When we last saw Samanosuke, he had defeated Nobunaga Oda — the king of the demons. It’s hard to keep a bad demon down, though, and Nobunaga is back. Before the pair can face off again, Nobunaga’s henchman, an evil inventor called Guildenstern, develops a method of time travel. Before you can say, “Sacre bleu!” Guildenstern and an army of zombies have invaded modern-day Paris. Samanosuke is thrust into the future while 21st century Parisian cop Jacques Blanc (French action star Jean Reno) is sent back in time. Both are united in their quest to defeat evil and find their way back through time to their respective homes. Admittedly, it sounds a bit trippy, but the sci-fi element works brilliantly, with the strange plot working in concert with hack-and-slash gameplay. The game’s graphics are another strong point. Ancient Japan and modern Paris are beautifully rendered and the CGI cut scenes are breathtaking and cinematic in scope. The game’s biggest puzzle is one only Capcom can solve: How can such a great game feature some of the worst voice acting you’ll hear this year. Reno voices his character in French, but someone else dubs his English and the two sound nothing alike. The English dubbing of Japanese characters is equally bad. Fortunately, the story, gameplay and graphics compensate for this shortcoming. — Misha Davenport (reviewed 5/14/04)

BOMBERMAN JETTERS (Majesco; Rated E for everyone; GameCube) ***

Taking off where the Bomberman Generation left off, this giddy, fun game is reminiscent of “Pokemon,” “Super Smash Bros. Melee” and “Super Monkey Ball.” The characters live in a fantastical world of water, fire, vegetation and — dun-dun-dun — the underworld. It’s your job to get from one place to the other. But don’t worry, there’s help on hand. The characters are adorable, but they’re not simple-minded. Run into a Charabom and you’re in good luck. The little critters can only be activated one at a time, though, so use them wisely. One aerobic charabom was good enough to win a gold medal for the high jump at the Olympics, but I found the critter that lets you fly to be the most beneficial. And the Bomberman himself can satiate his need for speed with a little upgrade as well as accessing a variety of potent bombs. That said, try not to blow yourself up. It’s easier to do than you’d like to believe. In one of the vignettes, the gamer is asked to round up a bunch of balloms, which are cherubic little beings who enjoy following the leader. The catch is that the more balloms you get, the slower your Bomberman becomes. But my particular favorite was the “Revenge” mode. After I accidentally blew myself up, I got to sit along the sidelines and play dodgeball with the remaining Bombermen. The revenge? My ball was a bomb, and once I hit a Bomberman, I had the option of making him switch places with me. Truth be told, it was just as fun torturing them from the sidelines. — Jae-Ha Kim (4/30/04)

ESPN Major League Baseball (Sega; Rated E for everyone; PlayStation 2)

Take me out to the ballgame? How about leave me home to play “ESPN Major League Baseball”? This Sega winner is right up there with EA’s plethora of aggressive sports titles. You play as any of your favorite teams with their current real-life rosters. The controls are simple to navigate and very effective. It’s easy to steal, advance runners or even throw your heat (that’s a fastball to you, newbie) when it’s called for. As your players make the big play or drop the ball, their confidence level changes accordingly, affecting the rest of the game. Playing the game, you’ll quickly notice that the whole vibe is similar to watching a real ballgame on ESPN. — Jae-Ha Kim (reviewed 5/21/04)

HITMAN: CONTRACTS (Eidos; Rated M for blood, gore, intense violence, strong language, strong sexual content and drug use; Xbox)

As one would imagine, the job of hitman varies substantially than — say, the fry guy at McDonald’s. Sure, there isn’t an equivalent assassin lunch time rush, but the job isn’t without it’s own set of pressures and stressing situations. Agent 47 –the bald-headed, Armani suit-wearing killer-for-hire is back with a host of open-ended missions. And that’s a good thing. Anybody can fire a gun or use dental floss to strangle a target. To get the attention and admiration of your peers –not to mention that coveted Hitman of the Year award at the annual convention– why, that takes finesse! Thankfully, the game is chocked full of some of the most creative ways to do in pesky international terrorists, sleazy politicians and back-stabbing crime bosses (meat hook, pool cuestick or pillow –I just can’t decide). As many paths there are to take in completing your objective, Eidos is determined to make an honest hitman out of you. Unlike the “Grand Theft Auto” series, “Hitman” frowns on killing innocent bystanders and your scores on levels will definitely reflect it if you’ve had a lot of senseless, sloppy kills. Which, if you think about it, is the way it should be. A hitman gets paid for eliminating a specific target. Killing anyone else amounts to a “freebie.” Having said all that, like “GTA” this game is definitely for the 17 and over crowd. It’s plot and action are equal parts “The Godfather” and “Reservoir Dogs.” The graphics are a bit darker this time around. The game makes better use of light and shadow which suits both the stealth aspect of the gameplay itself as well as some of the more seedier scenes in it. While darker in both mood, graphics and tone than the previous games in the series, “Hitman” like Agent 47 himself, hits the mark. –Misha Davenport (reviewed 5/28/04)

PSI-OPS: THE MIND GATE CONSPIRACY (Midway; Rated M for blood, gore, intense violence and strong language; XboX)

What do you get when you cross the stealth action of “Splinter Cell” with the Psychic Friends Network? Why, “Psi-Ops,” of course. And the game experience is much better as a result. At first glance, the game is just your average stealth shooter. You play as Nick Scryer. In the lengthy prologue, your character has his mind wiped clean, then he’s dropped into combat, where he’s immediately captured by a military terrorist organization and taken to their top-secret hideout. Before the rogue group can brainwash him into fighting for them, a double agent helps him break out of solitary confinement. The plan all along was for you to infiltrate the group and thwart their plans. A few stealth levels later, you meet up again with the mole and she injects you with a serum that slowly revives your memory. Your psychic abilities also return, and that’s where the game becomes innovative. The first power to return is telekinesis. It’s rather handy for flinging enemies up against walls and moving objects, but you also can climb atop a crate or use it to levitate yourself high above your enemy. Other powers include pyrokinesis (the power to start fires), mind control, astral projection (the ability to project your mind outside your body) and mind drain (in which you suck the psychic energy from your enemies). There are a few collision problems with your character disappearing into walls as well as the usual awkward camera issues. Enemies also seem to show up out of nowhere — especially when your back is turned. Finally, some of the dialogue is B-movie quality. It’s a given, though, thanks to the game’s plot. Despite those faults, I enjoyed “Psi-Ops.” The star of the show is its great physics engine. Objects and enemies look as realistic as possible, given you’re moving them across the room with the powers of your mind. You’ll never tire of raising a guard above Nick’s head and shaking him like a rag doll. I know I didn’t. Also available for the PlayStation 2. — Misha Davenport (reviewed 6/25/04)

RED DEAD REVOLVER (Rockstar; M for blood and violence; PlayStation 2)

The story mode provides a compelling tale: you are a young man whose parents have been killed by bandits. Filled with bitterness, you grow up to be a bounty hunger whose mission in life is bringing these murderers to justice. This means plenty of fun for gamers, who get to use gun fights as means to seeking vengeance on the bandits. The gameplay in the first person player storyline is fast moving and decisive. There’s an adrenaline rush navigating your way through the gun fights, as you peek out to shoot from behind rocks and wagons as the enemy charges at you. But in the arcade gunplay, it’s uncontrolled mayhem with a handful of armed men shooting at everything and everyone for no apparent reason. While fun for about 20 seconds, the chaos gets old fast. The game could use a little more structure to keep things really interesting.  — Jae-Ha Kim (reviewed 5/21/04)

UFC SUDDEN IMPACT (Take Two; Rated T for blood and violence; PlayStation 2)

Ultimate fighting isn’t exactly a major genre in video games, so it’s difficult to compare “Sudden Impact” to another title. But playing it reminded me a little bit of EA Sports’ “Fight Night 2004,” which pitted boxer against boxer. Here, you take it to the extreme. Literally. There are no gloves or protective head gear. In your quest to become the ultimate fighting champion, you will have to tackle masters of many disciplines, such as Thai kickboxing, jujitsu and even Greco-Roman wrestling. Because you need to learn so many different styles of fighting, you have to sit through a tedious training session. But once you’ve conquered that, you’re on you way to grappling your opponent into submission. — Jae-Ha Kim (reviewed 5/14/04)

SPACE RAIDERS (Mastiff; Rated T for Teen, for blood, gore, brief nudity and violence; GameCube)

Borrowing heavily from “Independence Day” and “Starship Troopers,” “Raiders” updates Taito’s classic “Space Invaders” with decent 3-D graphics and three separate and solid story lines. Teenager Justin is looking for revenge after invaders murder the rest of his street gang. Naji — an African-American policeman — is out to avenge his fallen partner. Ashley is a 23-year-old camerawoman searching for her boyfriend amid the rubble. Amid the fire and smoke from the first wave of alien invaders, aliens rain down on you. The creatures from the original game weren’t all that menacing. Not so here. Swarms hack, slash and spray acid at you as you fire round after round at them. Like the original, it can get old fast, but old-schoolers are sure to appreciate the update. — Misha Davenport (4/30/04)

DESTRUCTION DERBY ARENAS (Gathering; Rated T for teen; PlayStation 2)

I’m torn when it comes to this game. While it’s loads of fun driving around in circles and crashing into other cars — without worrying about your insurance rates skyrocketing — it grows old fast. There’s a little bit of skill involved, but not a heck of a lot of finesse. You score points for hitting the other cars. The more complicated the crash, the more points you nab. Your high school driver’s ed instructor would be mortified, but he should take heart — the cars are too boxy to be mistaken for anything even remotely real. As for your kid brother or sister, they’ll probably think this is pretty darned cool. Too bad they’re probably too young to play it. — Jae-Ha Kim (4/30/04)

SMASH COURT TENNIS PRO TOURNAMENT 2 Namco; Rated E for everyone; PlayStation 2)

While it’s fun playing tennis in real life, playing a video-game version is about as compelling as watching a match on television. It just doesn’t grab you. This game moves at a relatively slow pace with the payoff not really worth waiting for. But there is some fun to be had. “Smash Court” allows you to unleash your inner Andy Roddick or Serena Williams. Literally. But while it may be fun playing as an already established superstar, there’s something to be said for creating your own player with a unique style and stance. Of course, this also means it’ll take a while to get to tournament mode, since you have to pass a series of training sessions before you’re allowed to advance. Once you do, you may slowly rise up in tournament ranking. Pride aside, there’s incentive to do well — lots o’ swag. The better you do on the court, the better you look. Winning earns you the right to do a little shopping at the pro shop. — Jae-Ha Kim (reviewed 6/25/04)

VAN HELSING (Vivendi Universal; Rated T for blood, gore and violence)

Blame it on repeated viewings of “The Exorcist” or the countless hours I’ve spent playing survival horror games like “The Suffering” and “Silent Hill,” but “Van Helsing” suffers from the same malaise as the feature film on which it’s based. Though it contains all the horrific characters from Universal’s cannon of classic monsters, (Wolfman, Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster) it’s missing all of thrills, chills and jump-out-of-your-seat moments. Graphically, it’s a nice looking game, though there are frustrating camera issues. If you’re a fan of Hugh Jackman or the movie, there are worse ways to spend a Saturday afternoon than playing this, I guess. –Misha Davenport (reviewed 5/28/04)

UEFA EURO 2004 (EA Sports; E for mild lyrics; PlayStation 2)

This game, unfortunately, isn’t going to do much to win over Americans when it comes to the awesome game of soccer. There are some good points — the controls are easy to use, the gamer can make players do some neat maneuvers; the flying bicycle kicks and the awesome graphics made the athletes look lifelike. As its title implies, the teams here are some of the best in the European league. I enjoyed pitting top-rated France against the Netherlands, but the game play that followed was lacking. It was so tedious even the most ardent soccer fans will find themselves just waiting to get the match over with. Non soccer fans make jokes that watching real-life soccer is like watching paint dry. But few would argue that soccer players are some of the most agile and quick athletes on any playing field. This sense of urgency ,however, is lacking in this game version. Players move so slowly you have to wonder if they’re on the injured reserve list. –Jae-Ha Kim (reviewed 5/28/04)

THIEF: DEADLY SHADOWS (Eidos; Rated M for blood and violence; Xbox)

Meet Garrett. Garrett is a master thief. See Garrett steal. Steal, Garrett, steal. He can’t knock out guards, so see Garrett hide. Hide, Garrett, hide. That’s about it in terms of gameplay. Granted, there’s a hokey plot set in medieval-like times about a struggle for power between some nature-loving Pagans and a more tech-savvy group called the Hammerites. The graphics are decent. While new levels offer different sites to explore (I’m partial to the zombie-infested ship), the strategy on each of the levels remains unchanged. For the most part, you’ll be sneaking around. Once you’ve mastered that, you might as well call it a day. Buy this game and you’ll feel like you were robbed. Also available for the PC. — Misha Davenport (reviewed 6/25/04)

SEVEN SAMURAI 20XX (Sammy; PlayStation 2; $39.99)

Dear God, what an unholy mess! This game sets Akira Kurosawa’s classic film about a band of 16th-century Samurai in the distant, high-tech future. Mel Brooks’ “The Producers” kept flashing through my head while playing it. Like the audience in that film, all I could do is stare with my jaw agape at this atrocity. Fortunately, it’s a standard hack-and-slash game that requires frequent mashing of the square button, so you don’t even have to watch the desecration on the screen if you don’t want to. Here’s hoping Sammy has better luck with “Casablanca 20XX.” (Rated T for blood, gore and violence) –Misha Davenport  (reviewed 4/23/04)

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