Capcom
Fighting Joe in Capcom's Viewtiful Joe.
By
Special to MSNBC
updated 12/22/2003 1:53:39 PM ET 2003-12-22T18:53:39

Nothing excites some gamers more than receiving the “big” one, the game they have been waiting for all year long. Of course, getting a game you don't have the equipment to play is mighty disappointing, so do take the time first to find out what console or computer your game-crazy friend owns. But be it PlayStation or PC, Xbox or GameCube, chances are there's a game someone you know would like on the list below, which covers the best and brightest of the 2003 releases.

ACTION & ADVENTURE
Once dominated by kid-friendly titles like “Super Mario Bros.” and “Sonic The Hedgehog,” the action and adventure genre now includes games for teens and even adults. Most of these games take 20 to 40 hours to complete and typically involve taking a hero around a stylized location, battling hordes of small enemies and an occasional big guy.
 
"Viewtiful Joe" 
Publisher:  Capcom
Platform:  GameCube
Price:  $39.99
Rating: T
If you think the title of this game is weird, just wait until you see its comic book motif. 
Joe takes his girlfriend, Sylvia, to go see a superhero movie. When the movie villain drags Sylvia into the screen, Joe follows and becomes Viewtiful Joe, a superhero. Joe cannot fly or break through walls, but he has the ability to slow the world around him or speed himself up. 
Slowing the world enables Joe to dodge bullets and punches. Speeding himself lets him punch and kick enemies so quickly that they catch on fire.  He needs these abilities because his two-dimensional world is overcrowded with enemy robots and mutants.
“Viewtiful Joe” is silly, quirky fun with some of the most responsive game controls ever seen in a game.

"Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time"
Publisher:  Ubi Soft
Platform:  GameCube, PC, PlayStation 2, Xbox
Price:  $49.99  ($39.99 PC)
Rating: T
In “Sands of Time,” players help a young, spry prince who must battle against men and monsters of mythic proportion. Though the Prince is fine with a sword and battles all kinds of enemies, the emphasis in this game is on getting places.  Hanging on ledges, running up walls, jumping between balconies -- these are the central activities in “Sands of Time.”
Brilliantly constructed, “Sands of Time” has stunning 3D graphics, sprawling levels, and more than enough puzzles to keep gamers of all levels mesmerized for weeks.

"Mission Impossible: Operation Surma"
Publisher:  Atari
Platform:  GameCube, PlayStation 2, Xbox 
Price:  $49.99  ($39.99 on GameCube)
Rating: T
IMS agent Ethan Hunt returns for an all-new impossible mission in which he takes on an East European despot and saves the world. “Operation Surna” is one of the better stealth games this year.  Stealth seems to be one of the hot new flavors in games -- players need to disable or slip past security systems and sneak up behind enemies.
Hunt has a team of three specialists -- including a tech guy who has the voice and likeness of actor Ving Rhames.  He also has more gadgets than a Sharper Image warehouse.

"Armed and Dangerous"
Publisher:  LucasArts
Platform:  GameCube, PC, PlayStation 2, Xbox
Price:  $49.99  ($39.99 PC)
Rating: T
Remember “Three Kings,” the George Clooney/Mark Wahlberg flick about soldiers going after hidden gold in Iraq?  Imagine this movie remade with a science fiction setting and a Monty Python script.  In “Armed and Dangerous,” players guide four hapless rogues. 
The adventure elements of this game are good, the comedy elements are better.

FIRST & THIRD-PERSON SHOOTERS
This month marks the tenth anniversary of “Doom” -- not the first first-person perspective shooter but certainly the game that established the genre.  Most first-person perspective shooters are rated “M,” meaning they are intended for gamers ages 17 and up. (When you hear people speaking out against violent video games, it's this genre they usually have in mind.)
But some of the best games on the market are shooters; games in this genre generally have a high level of intensity and immersion. You can still find “T”-rated shooters, too. Shooters suitable for young children are a bit tougher to find -- perhaps with good reason. Having played one in the '90s called "3D Super Noah's Ark," I can honestly opine that shooting games were never meant to have an “E” rating.

"Call of Duty"
Publisher: Activision
Platform:  PC
Price:  $49.99
Rating: T

Activision
Call of Duty by Activision
Real weapons, real armies, real settings, but somewhat exaggerated combat -- “Call of Duty,” a new first-person perspective shooter from Activision, takes the action from World War II and boosts it up a notch.  The game includes missions for the U.S., British, German, and Soviet armies.
The action in “Call of Duty” is very intense, with enemies often contesting every inch of the battlefield.  Players must contend with heavy weaponry along with enemy soldiers.

"Rainbow Six 3"
Publisher:  Ubi Soft
Platform:  Xbox  (GameCube, PC and PlayStation 2 versions due next year)
Price:  $49.99 ($69.99 bundled with headset)
Rating: M
“Rainbow Six 3” is a shooter, but it could easily be categorized as a strategy game or even a simulation.  Players control an elite counter-terrorist team as they battle some nasty South American terrorists in locales around the world.
This is not your typical run-and-gun first-person perspective shooter.  You lead a team of four agents—and you must work together, covering each others’ positions and carefully rooting out the enemy.  The weapons and tactics in this game are reality based.  This is the thinking-man’s shooter—no health kits and one shot kills all.  This game works well as a single-player and multi-player game.

"Counter-Strike"
Publisher:  Microsoft
Platform:  Xbox
Price:  $49.99
Rating: M
With the highly anticipated “Halo 2” delayed until next year, Microsoft had to scramble to find a first-rate first-person perspective shooter for its Xbox game console. “Counter-Strike” fits the bill.
In this game of counter-terrorist techno-tag, players either become crime-committing bad guys or society-protecting SWAT-cops.  There is a definite yin and an absolute yang to this game.  If you are the bad guys, you are trying to blow up a stadium or do a kidnapping.  If you are the good guys, you are trying to stop them.  Whether you play single-player against bots or multi-player against real people, the gameplay remains sharp and fun.

"Halo: Combat Evolved"
Publisher:  Microsoft
Platform:  PC
Price:  $49.99
Rating: M
“Halo 2” may not have made it to Xbox this year, but that did not stop the long-awaited migration of the original “Halo” from Xbox to PC. “Halo" is the quintessential first-person perspective shooter for consoles, and it plays even better on PC.  Players assume the role of a battle-hardened soldier trapped with his platoon on a strange world with a hostile alien army.  The combat is great.  This game includes vehicle combat, squad-based fighting, and more.

ARCADE/FIGHTING
This category has become a bit of a catch all, with wrestling games stealing the limelight from the former hot genre of martial arts.

"Virtua Fighter 4 Evolution"
Publisher:  Sega
Platform:  PlayStation 2
Price:  $19.99
Rating: T

Sega
Virtua Fighter 4 produced by Sega.
Where do you begin?  When Sega first released “Virtua Fighter” for PlayStaton 2, the game had 13 combatants and some serious graphics problems.  It also had the most realistic martial arts of any successful fighting game, and one of the biggest libraries of moves per fighter.
Now re-released as “Virtua Fighter Evolution,” the game now contains two new fighters, much better graphics, and new single-player modes.  A good game has been made great. 

"WWE Smackdown: Here Comes the Pain"
Publisher:  THQ
Platform:  PlayStation 2
Price:  $49.99
Rating: T
The menus of “Here Comes the Pain” are like a brainstorm of all things wrestling.  It will let you stage any kind of match you imagine -- tag team, lumberjack, royal rumble, and iron man. The big talk is the new “Bra-&-Panty” match in which the “divas” tear each other’s clothing off.
The wrestling is fast and deep in “Here Comes the Pain.”  Every wrestler has standard and signature moves, and the attacks and reversals make these matches fun to watch and play. The graphics are amazing -- wrestling games have long been among the more impressive games visually.  The wrestlers almost look real.

ROLE-PLAYING GAMES
In video and computer games, the term “role-playing” or “RPG” mostly refers to games in which the player invests time and effort growing a specific character. Most of the big “massively multi-player online games” you hear about are RPGs: games like “EverQuest,” “Dark Age of Camelot,” and “Star Wars: Galaxies.”

"Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic"
Publisher:  LucasArts
Platform:  Xbox, PC 
Price:  $49.99
Rating: T
Set thousands of years before the birth of Luke Skywalker, “Knights of the Old Republic,” is a Star Wars RPG in which players can choose the light or dark side of the force.  You can choose specializations, hang around with thugs or learn to be a Jedi. “Knights of the Old Republic” adds more breadth and depth to that far away galaxy than any previous Star Wars experience, including the movies and the books.

"The Sims Bustin’ Out"
Publisher:  Electronic Arts
Platform:  Game Boy Advance
Price:  $29.99
Rating: E
Famed game designer Will Wright brings his ludicrous mundane-ity to Game Boy Advance.  In “Bustin’ Out,” players control a virtual person who has moved out to a farm. You get to mow a field for money, stalk a burglar around town, and hunt chickens. The “The Sims” formula sounds strange but works again and again.  Players get totally immersed in helping their on-screen selves balance their lives.  As you get lost in that world, the game injects humorous events -- it’s like an interactive version of “Seinfeld.”

"Final Fantasy X-2"
Publisher:  Square Enix
Platform:  PlayStation 2
Price:  $49.99
Rating: T
Yuna lives in a fantasy world which she helped save at great cost in “Final Fantasy X.”  In Final Fantasy X-2,” Yuna sees a magical item called a “movie orb” with the image of a friend she lost during the last game.  Now she is on an all-important mission to find him. With its in-depth storyline, amazing graphics, and a vivid, new combat interface, “Final Fantasy X-2” is one of the most impressive games of the year.

"Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker"
Publisher:  Nintendo
Platform:  GameCube
Price:  $49.99
Rating: E
Link, a young island boy, is drawn into a world of gods, monsters, and pirates as he travels around an island kingdom. Nintendo employed a cartoon-style of animation for this game that makes great use of atmospheric lighting and projects emotion. “Wind Waker” is not beautiful, but it draws you in.
Released early this year, “Wind Waker” has been called ‘one of the greatest games of all-time’ by many game reviewers; but the game includes long stretches in which players mostly troll the ocean looking for treasure.  That portion of the game was not so stellar.

RACING
While the following two games are nontraditional, don't mistake this to mean that this has been a bad year for racing games with cars. Auto racing fans might consider “NASCAR Thunder,” available from Electronic Arts for just about every gaming platform, or “Project Gotham 2,” from Microsoft for Xbox.

"Mario Kart Double Dash"
Publisher:  Nintendo
Platform:  GameCube
Price:  $49.99
Rating: E
Nintendo’s big game for the holidays, “Mario Kart Double Dash,” is a return to the familiar and fun style of racing in which players drive carts and shoot each other with fanciful weapons as they jockey for position.  Nintendo has attempted to dress the old game (11 years old this year, to be exact) with two-man carts, but the basic formula remains intact.
If you are looking for new and innovative, the two-man carts do offer players the chance to team up in a new way.  You can now steal boosts or kick other players.  But on the most part, “Mario Kart Double Dash” does a good job of preserving a solid gaming formula, and that is good enough.

"F-Zero GX"
Publisher:  Nintendo
Platform:  GameCube
Price:  $49.99
Rating: T
In “F-Zero GX,” players guide hovering vehicles that travel at the speed of sound along frictionless race tracks.  As you might guess, this game requires lightning reflexes and some course management.  Don’t expect to beat tracks on your first run; you need to learn your way around. “F-Zero GX” is a solid game made better by some of the prettiest scenery in video games.  This is especially true if your television handles games in progressive scan.

SPORTS
Some sports games simply rule the roost, and everybody knows it.  Despite Sega releasing an excellent “ESPN Football” game this year, few people will look beyond Electronic Arts’s “Madden NFL.”  Why should they?  Year after year, “Madden” is that good.  (For the hardcore player, “ESPN Football” may be the better game this year.)

"MVP Baseball 2003"
Publisher:  Electronic Arts
Platform:  PC, PlayStation 2, Xbox (Review does not apply to PC version)
Price:  $39.99 ($19.99 PC)
Rating: E

EA
MVP Baseball by Electronic Arts
Every baseball simulation on the market has real teams, real jerseys, and real faces -- Electronic Arts’s “MVP Baseball” has these, but it also has the best batting and pitching interface ever seen in a video game.  Electronic Arts adapted the “swing meter” from its golf games for baseball to give players more control than ever on how fast and how accurately they pitch the ball.
“MVP” executes on all fronts brilliantly, but that new batting/pitching interface makes it stand out as the best baseball game on the market today.

"Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2004"
Publisher:  Electronic Arts
Platform:  GameCube, PC, PlayStation 2, Xbox
Price:  $49.99 ($39.99 PC)
Rating: E
With 18 courses built right into the game, “Tiger Woods PGA” brings professional golf competition right to your home.  The courses look great.
One thing Electronic Arts understands better than any other sports game company is that players come with all levels of skill.  “Tiger Woods PGA” has a rookie level that lets beginners compete.  As you get better, you can make the game less forgiving when you slice.
This is a great game for friendly competitions -- made better because the PC and PlayStation 2 versions support online play.

PORTABLE:
"Super Mario Bros. 3: Super Mario Advance 4"
Publisher:  Nintendo
Platform:  Game Boy Advance
Price:  $29.99
Rating: E

Nintendo
Super Mario Advance for the Gamboy Advance.
Leading the pack on the Game Boy front is the “Mario Advance” series -- a line of Mario games originally released for older Nintendo game consoles.  “Super Bros. Mario 3” was the biggest game ever sold separately in video game history -- Nintendo sold 16 million copies of the game for the original Nintendo Entertainment System. “Super Mario Bros. 3” is still among the greatest side-scrolling games ever made.  This game just keeps coming up with twists and challenges as you help Mario fly, run, hop, and swim his way to rescuing the Mushroom Kingdom.

"Pokemon Ruby/ Pokemon Sapphire"
Publisher:  Nintendo
Platform:  Game Boy Advance
Price:  $34.99
Rating: E
The Pokemon franchise is looking long in the tooth, but it’s still fun. In “Pokemon Ruby” and “Pokemon Sapphire,” players travel around the countryside collecting 200 species of pocket monsters (“pokemon” for short), which they train and enter in sanitized cockfights. Collecting these cuddly little gladiators becomes a bit of an obsession; and even though these latest Pokemon games are only mildly indistinguishable from much older games, the formula still works.

"Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles"
Publisher:  Konami
Platform:  Game Boy Advance
Price:  $29.99
Rating: E
Forget about following the storyline in “TMNT.”  After playing a level or two, you will find yourself hitting the start button to skip the dialog because the Turtles talk too much.
Once you get past the babble, “TMNT” works pretty well.  It’s an old-school game in which you alternate between side-scrolling fighting levels and 3D driving/skating romps, both done well.  The occasional boss battles are challenging and fun.  Overall, “TMNT” is a cut above the competition.

"Warioware, Inc.: Mega Microgames"
Publisher:  Nintendo
Platform:  Game Boy Advance
Price:  $29.99
Rating: E
Wario, Mario’s twisted cousin, has decided to go into the game publishing business and creates a cartridge with over 200 10-second games.  That is the concept behind “Warioware, Inc.”
Don’t look for depth in “Warioware.”  Everything is based on one quick twitch -- dodge cars, catch ball, hit ball with baseball, simple stuff.  Many of the games require one or two quick taps of a button.  You don’t even need to aim.
The themes of these games are comically twisted. (In one game, you try to time a button press so that a finger goes up a nostril as it passes below a nose.)  The overall payoff is charismatic and mischievous fun.

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