F.Birchman / MSNBC.com
By Columnist
msnbc.com
updated 9/17/2004 1:19:01 PM ET 2004-09-17T17:19:01

With releases like "NFL Madden 2005" selling equally well from Texas to "Taxachussetts,"  video gamers appear to be immune to the sorts of divisions media pundits have been giving to members of red and blue states.

But that doesn't mean that certain red state and blue state values can't be detected (by columnists looking for a hook) in certain new releases.

Electronic Arts
Grudges aren't forgotten in "NASCAR 2005."

Red state roadsters
"NASCAR 2005: Chase for the Cup" (PlayStation 2, XBox, GameCube)

Not too long ago NASCAR meant mullets, hot Southern nights and copious amounts of beer.

Aggressive marketing has practically replaced NASCAR's red-blooded, red-stated roots for a national phenomenon with all the edge of a stock car sponsored by Viagra.

Take "NASCAR 2005: Chase for the Cup," a game that celebrates marketing acumen almost as much as driving prowess.  The game opens not on ugly old Texas Motor Speedway, but a generic city street where the player races against 2002 Rookie of the Year Ryan Newman.

The face-off allows game maker Electronic Arts the opportunity to promote Dodge Viper with an in-game advertisement and set the story. After beating Newman, the player can then  work his way through the racing ranks from the open stock car Featherlite Modified Series circuit to truck racing and on to the NASCAR National circuit.

"NASCAR 2005's" raison d'etre is building a "career" on the circuit and like virtually every sports game on the market today, success is contingent not just on beating the competition, but in pouring virtual winnings into better equipment or nicer uniforms or a competent pit staff.  A descent-sized component of "NASCAR 2005" actually includes negotiating sponsor contracts.

When the rubber hits the road, however, "NASCAR 2005" shines.  Even on the easiest level, many players won't place better than 10th on the first several races.  In a nice touch, a sorry showing on the track triggers hilarious cut scenes where the driver vents his frustration by kicking tires while fellow racers awkwardly walk over to give a macho sort of hug that says, "Hang in there, little buddy."

There are opportunities to develop alliances with other drivers.  But every bump or cut-off has repercussions as well.  The longer a career, the more enemies a player earns.  They will hunt you down in future races to the point of risking the destruction of their own vehicle.

"NASCAR 2005" boasts over 39 tracks, but graphics lack the cool immersion of street racing games like "Midnight Club" which are able to take advantage of rain-slicked cobblestones and street lights to better effect.

Whatever the case, players will spend more time in "NASCAR 2005" struggling to keep up with the pace then checking out the pretty scenes. And in a racing game, that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Nintendo
Pikmin meet Louie and Olimar

Blue state recycling
"Pikmin 2" (GameCube)

The pikmin of the title are little chili-pepper-like creatures that travel around an Earth-like planet in a spaceship that looks like a flower.  They boast the industriousness of ants, the good nature of puppies and the all-around Japanese cute factor of Hello Kitty! dipped in powdered sugar.  This shouldn't be a surprise given that "Pikmin 2" comes from the mind of Shigeru Miyamoto, the game design god who rarely, if ever, fails in delivering quirky game play.

The challenge in "Pikmin 2" revolves around harnessing the power of the pikmin through two astronauts, Olimar and Louie, sent from the planet Hocotate to scrounge the surface and nether regions of the pikmin planet for valuable objects -- actually discarded junk like cans, rusty toys and the like.

The cosmic recyclers are quite tiny too.   Olimar and Louie need the help of the pikmin which they raise by planting the seeds of a dandelion-type plant. 

Are you following me?

"Pikmin 2" evolves into a challenging strategy game once Olimar and Louie have assembled the pikmin.  There are several types of pikmin, each assigned a special power, and the player must learn how to use each group to their full effectiveness which is easier said than done.  There are hungry critters to avoid.  And if Olimar and Louie fail to return the pikmin to their spaceship by nightfall it's "oh no, Mr. Bill." 

And then there is the pikmin herding.  Guiding a hundred or so tiny creatures comes courtesy of a GameCube joystick and a tiny whistle wielded by Olimar and Louie which -- get this -- blows psychedelic light waves. 

Colorful, cute and refreshingly bizarre, "Pikmin 2" will most likely be a hit among kids.  But anyone over the age of 15 shouldn't consider themselves immune to the pull of the pikmin.  Even the most jaded "Doom 3" gamers may find up themselves up late clucking over their herd of tiny pikmin. 

They're just that darn cute.

Destineer Publishing
Players will need to jump between farming duties and accounting challenges to keep the farm in the black.

Red state rural life
"John Deere American Farmer" (PC)

Plymouth, Minn. based Destineer Publishing is shaping up to be red state America's game publisher.  Company chief executive Paul Rinde helped create 1997's "Deer Hunter," the hunting game that defied game critics to become a Wal-Mart best seller.

This summer Destineer Rinde’s company completed the rural America trifecta with "In-Fisherman Freshwater Trophies," a fishing game, and the farming sim "John Deere American Farmer."  There hasn't been so much banjo playing in video games since 1997's "Redneck Rampage."

In "John Deer American Farmer" players manage a farm by juggling an ever-complex number of variables associated with modern-day farming.  Soybeans or corn?  Hogs or cattle?  Should the farm supplement its income with a roadside flower stand or a tourist-attracting statue of Paul Bunyan?

Destineer reportedly consulted farmers in its attempt to make "American Farmer" as accurate as possible.  And so it's not a surprise that much of the game is focused on doing anything to keep business in the black.  Changes in the price of fertilizer or crops can have equally disastrous of beneficial effects on potential income.  Paying off loans and upgrading or downsizing equipment plays a major role in this game. 

Bankruptcy may loom over game play, but so does a healthy dose of humor.  The game is peppered with quirky little incidents that keep the rural life interesting.  There are inheritances to untangle, freak weather patterns and, in one scenario, a bizarre accident involving a farmhand and a large reptile.  Who ever said farming was boring?

Electronic Arts
Take it easy big guy.

Blue state romance (with guilt)
"The Sims 2" (PC)

"The Sims 2" offers several new advances over the original with improved animation and facial characteristics, a new life aspiration storyline for sims, and most importantly, the introduction of aging and the ability to pass down genes to new generations.

Appreciating everything "The Sims 2" offers requires a good two weeks of play -- a luxury I did not have with a deadline approaching.  So I concentrated on the one topic that really matters:  The sex.

Oh c'mon!  Yes, the thought of grown adults huddling over PCs and turning their digital dollhouses into cat houses sounds like the subject of an HBO documentary.  But exploring the romance possibilities in "The Sims" has been a major reason for its success.  The game maker even underscored the popularity with game add-ons like "Hot Date" and "House Party."

Sex -- or "woo-hoo" as it's known -- remains chaste in "The Sims 2."  The act is implied.  What is clear, however your sims are willing to become romantically involved with whomever they want.  Bisexuality?  Yup.  Homosexuality?  Sure.  Gay adoption?  Hey, whatever floats your boat.  It's no big deal in the sims universe. 

But red and blue state moralists can rest easy.  In "The Sims 2" extreme bed hopping comes with consequences.  There's pregnancy, for one.  And there's jealousy.  This time around the sims appear to bear more grudges against their randy mates than usual. 

But I'll need to send my sim back to the hot tub for more research. 

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