Games 12/20/06: Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin, Luxor: The Wrath of Set, Platypus

Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin
For: Nintendo DS
From: Konami
ESRB Rating: Teen

Point: “Castlevania’s” long-awaited return to two-dimensional greatness in 2001 was so well-received that it has made four more returns to greatness in the five years since. With a new 2D “Castlevania” game now appearing nearly as often as EA Sports’ annual “Madden” game, it’s become rather easy to take for granted what once was a wonderfully pleasant suprise.

Counterpoint: Who cares? The games are completely awesome, and “Portrait of Ruin” is no exception.

Anyone who has played any Game Boy Advance or Nintendo DS “Castlevania” game will know mostly what to expect of “Ruin” — lots of exploration, lots of monsters and weapons, RPG-lite character-building, one giant level that gradually reveals itself as abilities are mastered and boss fights are won.

But Konami’s latest also harks back to the series’ roots, both in terms of the storyline (which is poorly told but engaging because of its lineage) and the level structure, which intersperses the single-level format of recent games with a handful of self-contained areas that take you outside of the castle.

“Ruin” also trots out the long-shelved ability to play as two different characters, but with remarkably clever results. You can switch characters on the fly, but you also can choose (again, on the fly) to go it alone, let the computer control whomever’s shoes you’re not filling, or simply call on the other character only when necessary. A few trite dual-character puzzles— including one truly aggravating one roughly five hours in — predictably appear, but they’re the only blemish on what otherwise an effective system that’s surprisingly devoid of bad A.I.

Beyond that, this is classic “Castlevania” with new levels, weapons and monsters. Calling it familiar doesn’t begin to tell the story, and the moment this series begins to slip, faulting it for being derivative will practically amount to a cheap shot. But that day has not yet arrived, and if Konami wants to release annual examples of 2D action gaming at its absolute finest, it’s awful hard to complain.


Luxor: The Wrath of Set
For: PSP
From: MumboJumbo
ESRB Rating: Everyone

For: PSP
From: Idigicon/MumboJumbo
ESRB Rating: Everyone

The so-so sales of the PSP has taught Sony a valuable lesson: If you want to sell a portable gaming system to the general public — even one as technologically impressive as this one — you need a steady supply of pick-up-and-play games to help make your pitch.

Few publishers are better equipped to reeducate Sony than MumboJumbo, which along with PopCap has become a household name in the realm of high-quality casual PC/Mac/Web games. First in the ring: the space shooter “Platypus” and the latest edition of the popular action puzzler “Luxor.”

If you’ve played “Zuma,” “Puzz Loop,” “Ballistic” or “Magnetica,” you’re already familiar with “Luxor: The Wrath of Set,” which apes what has proved to be one of the most enduring puzzle game concepts to come along since “Tetris” made the genre fashionable. In a nutshell: A chain of colored spheres moves toward an exit, and you need to stop it by shooting spheres at it, matching similar-colored spheres and making them disappear. “Luxor” twists the formula a bit by placing the sphere shooter at the bottom of the playing field instead of the center, which doesn’t improve anything but makes for a nice change of pace.

“Platypus,” on the other hand, is a “Gradius”-style shooter with one heck of a cool gimmick: All of the graphics were created using modeling clay. The game has an insanely cool look, and the animation is equally amusing (ships splat rather than explode, and the larger splats are surprisingly impressive). Novelty aside, the game holds its own, offering multiple difficulty levels and wireless co-op, as well as a survival mode to complement the standard arcade mode. But unless you never tire of these sort of games, you’ll blow through all “Platypus” has to offer in relatively short order.

As ports go, both games make a solid transition: Load times are short, glitches are non-existent, and the games look surprisingly good on the PSP screen. The $30 price tag seems a bit high for “Platypus” — your mileage may vary depending on your tastes — but it’s a great value for “Luxor,” if only because it successfully delivers a beloved puzzle concept to a system long in need of it. A few extra modes and some kind of multiplayer would’ve been welcome, but beggars can’t yet be choosers.

Games 12/13/06: Dungeon Siege: Throne of Agony, Call of Duty 3 Wii, Kirby: Squeak Squad, Rampage: Total Destruction (Wii)

Dungeon Siege: Throne of Agony
For: PSP
From: SuperVillain Studios/Gas Powered Games/2K Games
ESRB Rating: Teen

The worst thing about “Dungeon Siege: Throne of Agony?” Why, it’s its timing. “Throne” arrives on the PSP smack in the middle of the holiday rush, seemingly yet another victim of the tidal wave of more familiar non-PC game hits that drowns gamers annually.

That’s a pity, too, because this is the hacking, slashing dungeon crawler a certain segment of the PSP-carrying population has lusted after since the system launched nearly two years ago. Where a handful of games have failed due to problems ranging from bland design to uninspired execution, “Throne” succeeds by committing no such sin.

For starters, it’s rarely ever dull. “Throne” doesn’t deviate a great deal from the dungeon crawler formula — which, admittedly, is a blueprint for repetitive, grinding gameplay. What it does do, though, is complement that simple formula with depth in every respect. The game is an adventurer’s paradise, crammed with truckloads of diverse environments to explore, quests to undertake, monsters to slay and rare (and useful) treasure to find. It also lets you play your way, offering character classes that are upgradeable in a slew of ways and can master a dynamically-growing list of skills and jobs as the game progresses.

All this daunting depth is made consumable by “Throne’s” other shining plus: total and complete user-friendliness. An exceptional interface makes sifting through the myriad upgrade options a piece of cake even for genre rookies, and the ability to stack found items against your inventory on the fly makes it refreshingly simple to decide what’s worth equipping, worth selling and best left behind. There’s even a color-coding system that ranks the special items according to value. If you like your depth with a side of convenience, heaven awaits.

Beyond this — and in addition to a stylish storyline that isn’t afraid to be a little silly at times — the game is just fun to play. It’s fast, pretty and unhindered by lousy cameras and sloppy A.I. The occasional long load time is a bummer, but the PSP’s sleep feature means you still can pick up and play this one at a moment’s notice — a nice compensation for the many, many moments spent waiting for a game like this to appear.


Call of Duty 3
For: Nintendo Wii
From: Treyarch/Exakt/Activision
ESRB Rating: Teen

The Wii is an exciting new system with unspeakable potential, but it’s a system developers are still learning to understand. There may be no better example than “Call of Duty 3,” which enjoys a dual existence as both a fun game and an unflattering exposure of the Wii’s warts.

Save for graphics (not nearly as good) and online play (omitted), “COD3” is identical, feature-wise, to its big-ticket Xbox 360 and PS3 counterparts. That means the same storyline, battles, and obligatory tutorial level at the onset of the campaign. Mostly, that’s good news: Despite less horsepower, the Wii doesn’t get saddled with a less exciting game.

But it’s also bad news. The flimsy tutorial — all of three minutes long — is serviceable when playing with a controller but wholly undercooked when trying to master a brand-new control scheme. “COD3” uses the Wiimote and Nunchuck (required) to emulate a PC mouse/keyboard setup, and it’s pretty common sense stuff. But it’s still nice to develop some level of proficiency before entering a fight as intense as the battles here. Prepare to die — often — as you fumble to learn how to be a good shot while German bullets swarm you every time you peek around cover. Exciting? You bet. But frustrating? Goodness, yes.

It gets worse. Throwing a grenade by shaking the Nunchuck is fun in concept, but having to press the D-pad (instead of, say, a button on the Nunchuck) first means you’ll inevitably budge the Wiimote, which inadvertently moves your aiming reticule and causes you throw the grenade off target. This isn’t the game’s fault so much as the controller’s, and it underscores the potential for problems caused by not having enough buttons handy (and perhaps the need for a more full-featured attachment down the line).

Other weird issues — including a weapon struggle mini-game that’s absurdly demanding in terms of precision — further fuel the frustration. But for every aggravation, there’s a moment — a sniper mission here, a surprisingly smooth driving mission there — that immerses players in ways the flashier versions cannot. Patient gamers hungry for new experiences should check this one out, but be warned: The developers are still learning, and they expect you to learn right alongside them.


Kirby: Squeak Squad
For: HAL Laboratory/Nintendo DS
From: Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone

Playing “Kirby: Squeak Squad” after playing last year’s “Kirby: Canvas Curse” is like eating an ordinary pretzel after trying one of those soft pretzels with the cinnamon glaze for the first time. It’s hard to go back to plain old salt, and it’s just as hard to go back to a traditional Kirby game after playing “Curse,” which turned the formula on its ear and used the DS’ touch screen capabilities to brilliant effect.

But a pretzel by any other flavor is still a treat, and that same adage applies to “Squad,” which takes a lot of what made prior Kirby games good, mixes in a few new tricks, and produces an experience that’s a little too familiar but a lot of fun nonetheless.

Kirby fans will know what to expect: “Squad” is two-dimensional platformer, and Kirby’s abilities to jump, float and vacuum-swallow enemies whole is compounded by whatever form he temporarily embodies after swallowing certain enemies. Forms include plenty of returing favorites (swordfighter, wheel, tornado, arrow-shooting angel, bomb-lobber), but “Squad” introduces some new ones as well, including a rabid animal, an rather charming magician and others which are best left unspoiled.

Beyond the occasional mini-game, “Squad” uses the touch screen as a means to store up to five forms, power-ups and/or treasure chests. This comes into play in a good way: Many levels feature multiple paths, and mastering the game as it’s meant to be mastered (the rather humorous story provides the details) means finding your way into these visible but obstructed areas. You’ll need to embody certain forms at certain times to do so, and the capacity to store forms makes it possible for “Squad” to add some strategic challenge to what otherwise would be a pretty soft game.

None of this will make anyone forget “Curse,” the sequel to which hopefully is either in development as you read this or on its way there. But Kirby is one of Nintendo’s best and most unheralded characters, and there’s no reason he can’t headline two series instead of one as long as the games keep delivering like they do.


Rampage: Total Destruction
For: Nintendo Wii
From: Midway
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+

Sift through the Wii’s launch library, and you’ll find plenty of examples of how games we’ve played for years can be dramatically reinvented — and in a good way — on Nintendo’s new system.

“Rampage: Total Destruction,” on the other hand, represents the opposite phenomenon: a respectably-designed game made worse, not better, by the inclusion of Wiimote controls (and the lazy development team that included them).

If “Destruction” seems a bit familiar, that’s because it originally released in April on the PS2 and Gamecube. Introduced as a budget-priced modernization of a beloved arcade classic, “Destruction” was just that — “Rampage” with more monsters (nearly 40 to the original game’s three), more modes, more real cities, more means of destroying them and better graphics, sound and animation. “Rampage” hasn’t aged as well as some arcade games, but Midway mostly delivered on its promise with a simplistic but fun (and funny and nostalgic) pick-up-and-play game.

Little has changed since April beyond a slight jump ($10) in price and Wiimote-specific controls. Unfortunately, the latter is where “Destruction’s” biggest problem lies. The idea of using the Wiimote to punch buildings and throw cars is an extremely appealing one, but the controls are so tacked-on that the idea is far better than the reality.

For starters, because “Destruction” wasn’t built from the ground up with the Wii in mind, half the commands (punching, jump) are relegated to button presses while the other half (smashing, grabbing) now work via Wiimote motions. (You can also move you monster by tilting the Wiimote, but plugging in the nunchuck and using the analog stick cannot be recommended enough.)

Unfortunately, these motions involve nothing more than flicking the Wiimote up/down or left/right, so it never feels like you’re destroying anything. It’s also much too easy for the game to confuse your movements and grab when you want to smash. Miss those simple button presses yet? If you play hashed-together games like this, you will. You’re better off getting the cheaper Gamecube version and playing that on your Wii if you need a “Rampage” fix.

Games 10/25/06: God Hand, Tiger Woods PGA Tour 07, Nintendogs: Dalmatian & Friends, Lumines Live!

God Hand
For: Playstation 2
From: Clover Studio/Capcom
ESRB Rating: Mature

Awesomely terrible or terribly awesome? That is the question surrounding “God Hand,” arguably the most polarizing game to arrive in 2006. The “love it or hate it” superlative is abused to the point of irrelevance, but Clover’s bizarre brawler is the real deal.

Why might you hate “Hand?” For starters, the production values are a mess: The story makes no sense, the visuals are sloppy and incoherent, the animation is stiff, and the voice acting is deliberately horrendous. The control scheme borrows from the Nintendo 64 days, with tank-like controls and no means to maneuver the camera, which is way too close to your character’s back as is. That’s not exactly an ideal scenario for an already-challenging brawler that likes to send enemies your way from every direction.

So with all that going against it, what’s to love? How about the positively enormous roster of unlockable moves that include everything from standard blows (uppercuts, roundhouse kicks) to special attacks (shockwaves, missile kicks) to slapstick (making like Roger Clemens and plunking someone with a baseball)? You can customize your arsenal to suit your fighting preferences, and you can even hit the local casino to quickly raise funds toward purchasing more moves. (As a fun aside, see what happens when you deliver a cheap shot to a fellow gambler).

Additionally, depending on who you are, “Hand’s” flaws may work as perks. Those who can adjust to the strange controls will discover a level of depth not remotely expressed in the game’s awkward opening battles. One-on-one fights, in particular, are fantastically fun. Similarly, those with a strange sense of humor may appreciate “Hand’s” bizarre mishmash of inanity, which clearly was no accident.

Ultimately, you’ll have to try this one yourself. Criticism and praise for “Hand” has touched both ends of the spectrum, with critics in one camp condemning the game as garbage while others anoint it as the best PS2 game of the year. Where you stand is up to you, but one thing’s for sure: You’ve never played anything quite like it. Given Clover’s perilous commercial record, you’re not likely to ever again, either.


Tiger Woods PGA Tour 07
For: Xbox 360, Xbox, Playstation 2 and PSP (coming November to Playstation 3)
From: EA Sports
ESRB Rating: Everyone

Here’s hoping you brought your appetite: EA Sports is serving Tiger a la carte this year, and you have a poison to pick.

Do you want lots of courses? The Xbox or PS2 version of “Tiger Woods PGA Tour 07” might be for you. Each boasts a total of 21 real and fantastical courses, nearly twice as many as the Xbox 360 version’s dozen. Then again, the courses you do get are prettier and more immersive on the 360 than what’s possible on the older hardware. That goes as well for the pros (15 on the 360, 21 on Xbox/PS2): You get less of them, but they outclass their old-hardware counterparts in terms of looks and animation.

It gets trickier. The 360 version sports nearly two dozen modes, including the essentials (tour, training challenges, skins, match play, player creator), some new stuff (a full-featured practice facility, the deservedly-hyped team tour) and a healthy smattering of arcade- and mini-game modes that can be enjoyed solo, with friends or online. The PS2/Xbox versions sport the new team tour mode, but a good chunk of the fun side games are exclusive to the 360.

The PSP version has its own exclusive suite of fast-paced mini-games as well, but no team tour and only slimmed-down versions of the other essentials. Then again, this is the only version that allows you to save a game in progress. Never mind that it’s also portable and allows you to play online from wherever you can find a hotspot. Just be prepared for a lessened degree of control: The PSP’s analog nub is no substitute for any of the aforementioned systems’ controllers.

So you can’t have it all. Fortunately, if you’re a fan of the series, you can’t go terribly wrong, either. “TW07” is fundamentally identical to its predecessors: The analog swing and putt controls still provide the most intuitive game of video golf around, and the optional new preflight adjustments (including shot targeting and power boosting) offer additional accessibility for players who miss the days of meters and three-click gameplay. That, plus whatever features you decide are most important to you, make “TW07” second only to itself as the market’s most comprehensive golf simulation.


Nintendogs: Dalmatian & Friends
For: Nintendo DS
From: Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone

As if it knew ahead of time that “Nintendogs” would be a massive international sensation, Nintendo hid the Dalmatian breed inside all four versions of the game and kept that bit of information on the down low. The unlockable Dalmatian was awarded to players as a treat for being studious, dependable virtual dog owners, but chances are good many “Nintendogs” owners to this day have yet to, ahem, spot one. (Sorry.)

Enter “Nintendogs: Dalmatian & Friends.” “Dalmatian” plays exactly the same as the previously-released quartet of “Nintendogs” games, but this time the Dalmatian is both on the cover for all to see and available for adoption right from the start. A “greatest hits” collection of previously-advertised breeds — Boxer, German Shepherd, Golden Retriever, Yorkie and Beagle — also is immediately available for perusal. Beyond that and the dogs’ ability to understand French and Spanish as well as English voice commands, the game hasn’t changed at all.

Nintendo, to its great credit, makes it clear on the back of the box that all 19 breeds ultimately are available in each of the game’s five flavors. Any accusations of unfair franchise milking at fans’ expense pretty much end there. Then again, Nintendo also slaps a “Limited Edition” badge on the front of the box, almost certainly ensuring a healthy level of interest from collectors, fanatics and the ebay crowd.

Ultimately, though, “Dalmatian” simply offers an additional option for the bazillions of people who have purchased a DS since “Nintendogs” originally released last year and set fire to the system’s buzz. If you already have a copy and have no desire to praise your dog in Spanish, you probably have no need for “Dalmatian.” Don’t feel bad for the puppy on the cover, though; there are many thousands of folks ready to adopt him or her in your place.


Lumines Live!
For: Xbox 360 Arcade
From: Q Entertainment
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+

“Lumines” was one of the best games to launch alongside the Playstation Portable last year, and the block-puzzle-slash-rhythm sensation remains one of its best games more than 19 months later. Considering how accessible and addictive the “Lumines” formula remains, its migration to the Xbox 360’s Live Arcade is a match made in downloadable heaven.

Or so it would seem, until you realize “Lumines Live!” marks the latest slap in the new and entirely unwelcome era of video game microtransactions.

Like any other Live Arcade game, “LL!” offers a free trial version and a not-so-free full version (priced in this case at 1200 Microsoft points, or $15). Unfortunately, the full version (as it’s labeled) isn’t full. For your 1200 points, you get the challenge/marathon, puzzle, mission, versus and multiplayer modes. But the puzzle and mission modes consist of only five levels each, while the versus mode includes only one (yes, one) level.

Want more than that? Pony up: Additional versus levels will set you back more points, and you’ll pay yet more for an acceptable amount of missions and puzzles. The included 12 skins pale in comparison to the PSP version of “Lumines,” and you’ll have to pay extra for more of those as well.

This bit of news would be less aggravating if all this extra content was accessible in a single bonus pack that was available now. But assembling the real full version of “LL!” requires four separate downloads (five if you want the much-publicized music video skins), and three of these won’t be available until next year. Worse, none of this is explained up front, though Q is kind enough to spill the beans once you’ve parted with those first 1200 points.

Major ill will aside, “Lumines” still plays like it should, and the Xbox Live action is fun and free of nasty sneak attacks on your wallet. But if online play isn’t a concern and you have a PSP, you’ll be far better served by the forthcoming “Lumines II.” It costs only twice as much as “LL!’s” broken initial download, but it offers considerably more content than all five downloads put together. You also get the entire game at one time. What a concept.

Games 10/18/06: Killzone: Liberation, Mercury Meltdown, Clubhouse Games

Killzone: Liberation
For: PSP
From: Guerilla Games/Sony
ESRB Rating: Teen

Problem: You made a first-person shooter named “Killzone” on the Playstation 2. People really liked it. You want to make more “Killzones” on more systems. But your next destination, the PSP, handles first-person games about as well as the Washington Generals handle the Harlem Globetrotters.

Solution? Make a “Killzone” game — but don’t make an FPS.

Result? Awesome. Give Guerilla Games a round of applause: It knew better than to pretend, as many developers have, that what’s good for the PS2 automatically is good for the PSP. And in not playing dumb or assuming we were, it crafted one of the best games of its kind ever made.

Oh sure, the song remains the same: You’re still fighting the Helghast army, and your methods — guns, grenades, tanks and turrets — haven’t changed. But in “Killzone: Liberation,” the camera’s zoomed way out, and the action now takes place in an overhead fashion — think “Commando,” “Ikari Warriors” or the top-down levels in “Contra,” only with 3D animation, more complex level designs and other modern-day bells and whistles you expect from a shooter in 2006.

Other 3D games have attempted this in the past — “Max Payne” and “Rainbow Six” on the Game Boy Advance are two shining examples — but this is the most magnificent reinvention yet. Everything that was fun about “Killzone” is fun again in “Liberation.” The firefights are both intense and cerebral, mixing duck-and-cover strategy with guns-blazing blowouts. Vehicles are surprisingly fun to control and are implemented perfectly, as are squad controls and escort missions that actually don’t stink. The game is tough as nails to beat, but the excellent checkpoint system always keeps victory within reach.

The soldier you control could be a little zippier, but beyond that, the new approach never holds this one back. In fact, “Liberation” is such a fresh mix of old- and new-school gameplay, “Killzone” fans just might be tripping over themselves to play it. Portable renditions of console games need not be crippled or dumbed down to be faithful, and Guerilla’s stroke of brilliance stands as proof.


Mercury Meltdown
For: PSP
From: Ignition Entertainment
ESRB Rating: Everyone

“Mercury” had its place in the launch of the PSP last year. The PSP needed puzzle games — every portable system does. And “Mercury” — which plays like “Marble Madness” and “Super Monkey Ball,” but with much cooler physics — was a good game with good timing.

That said, “Mercury Meltdown” is the real deal, a soup-to-nuts improvement in terms of gameplay, design and everything in between. Name a flaw in “Mercury,” and chances are good “Meltdown” has addressed and stamped it out.

First and most importantly, the frustration has been toned down. “Meltdown’s” difficulty progression is far more gradual, offering less lobotomy-friendly levels at the very start and less ridiculously difficult ones shortly after. And because the more than 160 new levels now come in packs of 16 instead of one after the other, you can put a difficult level aside when it’s driving you nuts and simply try another one. Finally, remember the timer? It’s still there — but if time expires, you merely take a penalty in your pursuit of the high score instead of start the level over. In other words, Ignition wants you to play “Meltdown” in whatever manner best fits you.

“Meltdown” also looks like a new game, replacing “Mercury’s” generic visual style with an explosion of color and personality that seeps into the levels, menus and even load screens. The load times are way down, and Ignition takes advantage of everything from wireless multiplayer to downloadable content and game sharing. The new party games — which themselves have multiple levels — are clever new twists on the gameplay formula. And it almost goes without saying at this point that the levels feature a new slew of traps and gadgets to compliment the inventive batch from the last game. Everything else has been improved, and you can bet that piece of the puzzle has been as well.


Clubhouse Games
For: Nintendo DS
From: Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone

You say you want a new game for that there Nintendo DS? Well heck, how about 42 of them? That’s what you get with “Clubhouse Games,” an everything-to-everyone compilation that’s such a no-brainer, it’s a wonder it took two years and Nintendo itself to deliver it.

As implied by the name, “CG” is an array of games you might play at a clubhouse, including card games (everything from Memory to blackjack to poker), table games (checkers/chess, board game knockoffs, dominoes) and other casual standards (darts, bowling, billiards). The “42 games” pitch is pretty honest, too: You don’t, for instance, get 35 variations of Solitaire and seven other games. Between the game selections and the various ways to play them — including an Xbox 360 achievements-like mission mode — “CG” isn’t hurting for variety.

That’s not to say every game is a winner. While “CG” gives you a lot to chew on, you’re asking too much if you expect each game to be the definitive version of its sort. The Texas Hold ’em game, for instance, doesn’t even allow you to choose the size of your bet. And the billiards game is … well, it’s bad.

But for every disappointment, there are plenty of games that are both faithful and executed well. And while “CG” features lots of usual suspects, Nintendo has included a surprising number of inspired picks, including Spit, the shuffleboard-like Takeover, the Jenga-esque Balance and I Doubt It!, which is a G-rated but otherwise faithful interpretation of a certain anatomically-named card classic. That little bombshell is enough to make up for the baffling omission of air hockey (which we can only assume was saved for the sequel, because no other explanation suffices).

Nintendo’s online savvy seems to improve with each effort, and “CG” is no exception, featuring an integrated PictoChat that’s always accessible but never intrusive. Online play is available for each game, as is wireless multiplayer (eight players, one card). The adjustable difficulty makes “CG” fun to play alone, but few games scream “find some buddies” quite like this one does.

Games 9/27/06: Okami, Mario vs. Donkey Kong 2: March of the Minis, Test Drive Unlimited, Dragon Quest Heroes: Rocket Slime, Bomberman PSP

For: Playstation 2
From: Clover Studio/Capcom
ESRB Rating: Teen

You know that sound a politician makes when he promises to reform government and lower your taxes? That same hollow thunk is what you can expect to hear from hundreds of games that proclaim, “You’ve never seen anything like this!” only to arrive months later looking exactly like [insert previously released game here] with [insert slight improvement here].

“Okami” isn’t exactly guilt-free in this regard. To say it models its structure, gameplay and storytelling approach after Nintendo’s more recent “Legend of Zelda” games is something of a kind understatement.

But unless you’ve ever witnessed a watercolor painting come to life, enter the third dimension and move at the mercy of your two hands, you truly have never seen anything like “Okami” before. Clover Studio’s art direction is so stunningly original and expertly executed, all charges of me-too-ism would be forgiven had “Okami” merely aspired to be a “Zelda” copycat in gorgeous clothing.

Fortunately, that’s not the case. Whereas Link employs a cornucopia of gadgets to save the day, our hero in “Okami” — a wolf with a better backstory than perhaps any wolf ever — wields a paintbrush. A button press transforms the world before you into a canvas, and from here you’re free to alter it as needed to move forward. Paint a sun to light up the sky, swipe a straight line to cut down trees, fill in a path to reach points B, C and D. Maybe sketch out a bomb for when all else fails. The brush comes into play during combat as well, with some memorably original boss fights ensuing as result.

If this sounds gimmicky to you, guess what? During the first hour, as Clover lobs remedial kindergarten-grade challenges at you, it is. But once practice ends and your range of abilities increases, novelty gives way to integration. And if there’s anything more impressive about “Okami” than its art direction, it’s how Clover takes a should-be gimmick and brilliantly employs it as the heartbeat of an adventure that’s every bit as satisfying as Link’s best. Who needs a shiny new Playstation 3 when the arguable game of the year is playing right now on the rickety old PS2?


Mario vs. Donkey Kong 2: March of the Minis
For: Nintendo DS
From: Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone

Poor Mario. Every time he tries to do anything — meet a girl, take a trip, start a business — there’s someone ready to bring him down. In the case of “Mario vs. Donkey Kong 2,” Donkey Kong not only has crashed the opening of Mario’s new theme park, he’s also kidnapped Pauline — Mario’s first flame from way back in the day — yet again.

How’s this for jaded, though: Instead of performing his usual rescue job, Mario has taken the wind-up Mario toys he saved in the first “Mario vs. Donkey Kong” game, ordered them to do his dirty work, and slipped out the back door to catch the end of the ballgame at home.

As implied by Mario’s absence, “March of the Minis” is a different game than its predecessor. Whereas that game was mostly a platformer with a passing resemblance to the classic “Lemmings,” this one is a full-blown, touch screen-powered “Lemmings” homage with Mushroom Kingdom parts. You have some control over the toys, but it’s limited. And as they march through and around a gauntlet of pipes, pits, spikes, piranha plants, toy Donkey Kongs and more, you’ll need to tinker with the levels themselves as much as the little Marios to keep them away from peril.

It’s a simple concept. But as the levels grow more intricate, you’ll need to be quick of mind and hand in order to keep the Marios on point. Escorting a single Mario to the goal is all that’s needed to unlock the next stage in “Minis,” but players who want enjoy the game for all its worth will aspire not only to march all of them to the exit, but earn top ratings and unlockable minigames while doing so. You get out of “Minis” what you put into it, and saving Pauline is only half the point.

Should you prefer to flex your creative rather than multitasking skills, “Minis” includes a fun, intuitive level editor. Up to eight creations can be saved at a time, and you can trade levels with friends (wirelessly or online) to keep the fun from ever running dry.


Test Drive Unlimited
For: Xbox 360
From: Atari
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+

The onslaught of open-world racing games — where you’re free to just cruise around to your liking and rack up any number of moving violations between races and missions — is a blessing with one critical flaw. Driving around and unleashing vehicular mayhem in a virtual world is a stupidly fun time sink, but it’s not quite the same when you’re terrorizing computer-controlled traffic instead of other maniacal drivers.

“Test Drive Unlimited” does away with this problem like a Maserati crashing into a Yield sign, offering not only a real virtual world — Oahu, Hawaii — but one populated with real drivers whom you’re free to ignore, challenge or rear-end incessantly until your stress melts away.

“TDU” merges its single- and multiplayer modes into one seamless, gigantic island o’ fun, and you’re free to engage in solo events, multiplayer challenges and other diversions (car/motorcycle shopping, taxi missions, house hunting) on the fly. “TDU” doesn’t really offer an endgame beyond winning events, buying nicer vehicles and just having a good time cruising the island (which, besides some pop-up issues here and there, is gorgeous and rich with detail). Log on, have some fun, log off. It’s a fantastic example of old-school sensibility enhanced by first-rate technology.

Gameplay-wise, “TDU” shares much in common with “Need for Speed: Most Wanted,” sharing strong parallels in terms of visual style, car physics and mission layout. As with that game, you’ll also contend with cops and heavy traffic during and between races. Veterans of “Wanted” also will take quickly to the driving controls here. Just be prepared to pay some dues: The Class F vehicles handle pretty atrociously. (Things improve dramatically with a Class E vehicle, so sit tight.)

Presumably to beef up its online community, Atari has priced “TDU” to move — $40, to be precise, compared to the usual $60. This, however, is not your typical budget-minded game: There’s a ridiculous amount to do here, and Atari has designed a beautiful, forward-thinking beast of a game in which to do it. Expect parts of this game to provide inspiration for more than a few racing games in 2007 and beyond.


Dragon Quest Heroes: Rocket Slime
For: Nintendo DS
From: Square-Enix
ESRB Rating: Everyone

You may not know word one about “Dragon Quest,” but you’ve probably encountered one of the many toys, plush dolls and keychains modeled after the blue glob of slime that has become the unlikely face of the franchise. Fifty-hour role-playing epics aren’t for everyone, but a dollop of goo with a cheerful smile on its face? Who doesn’t love that?

The lowly slime finally get their day in “Dragon Quest Heroes: Rocket Slime,” and what a strange day it is. For the first hour or so, “Slime” consists simply of walking around, collecting items with seemingly no purpose, and stretching and launching yourself, Stretch Armstrong-slash-slingshot style, into evil cats and birds in order to advance the story. It’s fun for a while, but it’s not long before you wonder if this is all there is.

It’s at that exact moment the game puts your fears at ease. Those apples you collected? They aren’t food, but fodder for a gigantic tank you can summon from thin air (from thin air!). Same with the bombs, obelisks, arrows, rocks and more. The tank battles in “Slime” mark the climactic points in the story, and with good reason: They’re strategic, exciting and humorously creative. You can stock your tank with whatever combination of fodder works best with your fighting style, and pretty much anything that isn’t bolted down — including yourself and your tankmates — can be thrown into the canon and launched at the enemy.

The tank battles are available as a multiplayer option as well: Between four and 16 players can participate, depending on your configuration. That’s good news, too, because “Slime’s” single-player modes aren’t intent on challenging so much as entertaining you. The story is bursting with bizarre humor and so-bad-they’re-good puns, and players who fancy an easygoing exploration- and puzzle-fest will find hours of enjoyment inside. But if there’s one word that will never describe “Slime,” it’s “perilous.” Should you manage to find a way to let the cats and birds get the best of you, you simply aren’t trying.


For: PSP
From: Hudson/Konami

Proclaiming, “Bomberman’s back!” doesn’t really carry a lot of thunder when you consider the most recent “Bomberman” game came out … oh, about three weeks ago. But when a game as unrecognizably awful as “Bomberman: Act: Zero” lands with the thud it did, the arrival of the plain-titled but fundamentally divine “Bomberman” on PSP is, indeed, cause for such a proclamation.

The best news about this “Bomberman?” No news at all. The age-old gameplay has aged spectacularly compared to most arcade games from the 1980s. That same gameplay shows up in fine form on the PSP, gifted with a clean, colorful look and graphics that take advantage of the system’s 3D capabilities without abandoning the classic overhead perspective. Gameplay is paced just right: Bombs don’t take an eon to explode as they did in “Zero,” but you have ample time to get out of the way after planting one.

Of equal importance to any good “Bomberman” game is how it handles multiplayer. (Or, post-“Zero,” that it HAS multiplayer.) Thankfully, this “Bomberman” also passes that test. Four-player wireless play is available, and you need only one copy of the game to have at it. “Bomberman” offers plenty of customization options as well: You can dictate what special items are in play, how many winning rounds equal a winning game, the match structure (2-on-2, 1-on-3, every Bomberman for himself) and more.

If there’s a disappointment about “Bomberman,” it’s the lack of online play. That said, should you play solo, bots can be substituted in place of human opponents. All the same customization options are available, and the bots don’t exactly lie down and let you beat them. Hudson included a nice 100-level story mode for solo players, but the solo battle mode (and unlockable copy of the original “Bomberman” levels) are so good as to trump it even when friends aren’t around.