I don’t own an Xbox. I probably never will. I know that this means I am missing out on some great Xbox exclusive games like Halo and, uh, Halo, but my PS2 and GameCube are keeping me plenty busy for now. Not having an Xbox also means I will not get the chance to own Tecmo’s latest experiment in the physics of the female form: Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball (DOAXBV). Fortunately, thanks to the game’s official web site (, I have enough information to review the game without actually playing it.

The web site calls DOAXBV the world’s first “sports fantasy simulation,” but I didn’t realize how true the “fantasy” part was until I read about the game’s premise. It turns out that the “famous Dead Or Alive rebel Zack” has bought his own island resort with some casino winnings. Zack decides to invite his favorite female fighting companions to the resort under the guise of a new fighting tournament. According to the web site, “the ladies have been tricked, but they suck it up fast (note the subtle innuendo) when they realize they are stuck on a beautiful tropical island to have fun in the sun and play beach volleyball.”

All right, fine. It’s not like I was expecting Shakespeare-quality writing in the storyline. How the game plays is what’s important. Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible to garner any gameplay details from the web site. Instead, I was able to splice together a vague description of a game in which girls “strip off their fighting attire and slap on their bikinis” to “play some arousing games of beach volleyball” that “promise extreme action and total satisfaction.” Is this a description of a game or a soft-porn flick?

After some careful reading of the site, I was able to figure out that the girls can “set, spike, and kill their way to victory,” with an “infinite number of moves and combos [that] are so extreme, it will be rare to see your character do the same thing twice.” This likely means that the girls each have three or four distinct volleyball moves, each with hundreds of animations in which their breasts jiggle slightly differently. I also learned that the game features an amazing amount of variety in “four different courts” and “two different modes” of play (including “exhibition,” nudge nudge, wink wink).

Tecmo tries to spice up what is probably a rather shallow volleyball game with other activities on the island including a radio station (read: a sound test feature), a movie theatre (read: computer-animated girls in bikinis), a casino (read: a few crappy Vegas games that you can play on-line for free) and “the hopping game” (read: the ‘watch my breasts jiggle’ game).

Also, since “girls love to shop and the DOA girls are no different,” DOAXBV includes an extensive shopping mall, where you can buy even skimpier bikinis or gifts for your partner that can “strengthen your relationship on and off the court.” I can almost hear every horny 13-year-old in the country thinking, “Maybe if I buy Helena the suntan lotion, she’ll make out with Akumi!” As the web site advises: “Try not to drool.”

As a caption for one of the web site’s many, many screenshots, Tecmo tells us that a rather contemplative looking Lisa is “pondering the meaning of beach volleyball.” After playing this game, you’ll probably be pondering the same thing, as well as why you bought this game instead of a porno video. At least the porno video is up-front about the fact that it’s selling sex and objectifying women. DOAXBV seems almost in denial about it.

What a Load!

Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, and Toto have just returned to the Wizard’s palace in the Emerald City. They have brought the broomstick of the Wicked Witch of the West, yet the great Wizard of Oz still refuses to grant their wishes. Suddenly, Toto notices something behind a previously unnoticed green curtain. The assembled group goes to the curtain, pulls it aside, and…

NOW LOADING SCENE……….……………………………….

It seems ludicrous to imagine loading screens in classic movies like “The Wizard of Oz.” Similarly, people would be appalled if movies, musical performances, or books had to pause before they were complete to load additional content. So why are loading screens so accepted in the video game industry? And how can we get rid of them once and for all?

Loading screens are an inevitable side effect of the unique aspects of interactive media. Since playing a game is a non-linear experience, the creator can’t be sure what portion of a game’s program the player will access next. Rather, certain areas of the game program must be accessed based on inputs the player gives. Hence, a game must pause every so often to load the next section of a program into the game consoles limited memory, so that it can be accessed more quickly. As games get larger and more complex, these load times will only becomes longer and more frequent (barring any revolutions in video game storage media or disc-drive access speed)

Video games aren’t the only media that features long pauses that break up the experience. Television and radio shows, for instance, have commercials in the middle of them, breaking up the flow of the program in order to promote the product of another company. But advertisers pay to insert these pauses into television and radio. In fact, they pay enough to make them free to the viewer once they have bought the television set or radio. These commercials are annoying to the viewer, obviously, but the viewer endures them because they drive down the cost of watching or listening to the show.

Viewers are often willing to pay to get rid of these annoying breaks. The Home Box Office cable network, for instance, offers movies, original series’, and sporting events without commercial interruption for a small monthly fee. Similarly, by paying a one-time charge and buying a CD, one can listen to the music they desire without interruption and at any time they want, without having to wait.

This ‘pay or wait’ strategy has worked well for other entertainment industries. A slightly altered ‘pay to wait’ strategy is needed in the video game industry.

My proposal to fix the problem of excessive load times in video games involves a tax on games based on the amount of loading they contain. This tax would start at a base of $0 for a game that had no load time, and go up at a rate of $5 for every minute of loading the average player has to sit through per hour of gameplay. Since no game can be completely free of loading, the first three minutes per gameplay-hour will not raise the tax.

Revenue from this tax would go to a governing body that would carefully study each new release’s average load times and impose new taxes accordingly. Excess funds could go to companies that show impressive progress in reducing load times in their games, or to researching new ways to load interactive content efficiently.

Of course, consumers would be more than willing to pay the burden of this tax on a game that was good, just as they are willing to pay extra money to watch quality shows like The Sopranos on HBO. Thus, good games that are forced to have long load times due to technical limitations would still be able to generate sizable revenues for their company. The companies that this tax would hurt the most, then, would be those that make bad games that also require players to suffer through interminable loading screens. Many gamers are willing to pay $50 for long-loading games like Crash Bandicoot: The Wrath of Cortex, but much fewer would be willing to buy them if their prices were suddenly inflated by ten to forty dollars! (In fact, in Crash’s case, a $40 tax may be too low!)

Think of what this tax would mean to the industry as a whole. Lazy programmers, who were willing to leave long load times in a game instead of optimizing their code, would be forced to pore over their work to lower the tax’s effect on their company’s bottom line. Console makers would be forced to streamline their system’s RAM caches and data buses so their games would not fall prey to the tax. Consumers, who may already be wary of a game that they hear suffers from awful load times, will be given an extra reminder at the cash register of the severe waiting they are about to suffer.

Eventually, out of sheer need to survive in an increasingly competitive market place, companies would be forced to develop and implement new methods to reduce load times. Average load times for games would decrease significantly, as would the effect of the load tax on both consumers and developers. Eventually, once most developers have integrated these techniques into their development processes and realized the benefit in sales that results from them, the tax would be abolished, and developers and gamers alike would rejoice in a land of minimal-loading bliss.

Or maybe not. It is possible that this tax would put an undue strain on video game consumers, reducing game sales and hurting the industry more than it would help. Or perhaps gamers would simply ignore the tax, paying the extra money without thinking about it. Perhaps a rating system, warning gamers of their impending wait with large friendly stickers on the box, would be a better solution. But one thing is for certain, when it comes to loading, we all need to

LOADING CONCLUSION…………………………………………..

Why does everybody love Super Smash Bros. Melee so much?

To put it differently: Why have sales of Nintendo’s GameCube gone up significantly just after the release of a game that many players beat simply through button-mashing? Why have people, myself included, spent thousands of hours repeating the same repetitive tasks over and over and over in hopes of collecting that last elusive trophy? Why does everyone, again, myself included, seem to be so obsessed with what is, when it comes down to it, a pretty basic fighting game?

In short: What does Super Smash Bros. Melee have to it that other games don’t?

I’ve been thinking about this subject a lot recently, and reading every review of the game I could find to come up with an answer. Many reviews have pointed to the game’s amazingly cartoony, yet lifelike, graphics and sound effects as the main reason for its appeal. Others have pointed out the excellent soundtrack and an amazing, almost hidden depth in the seemingly simple fighting engine. A few have simply pointed out the sheer amount of stuff in the game: 25 characters; 29 fighting arenas; 290 trophies to unlock; three full one-player modes plus mini-games; an impressive array of multi-player options, etc.

As I read these opinions, I thought that all of these features, in their own way, contributed to the intangible feeling that I got from playing Super Smash Bros. Melee. Yet none of them separately, or even all of them put together, fully encompassed what made the game so special to me. Then, while I was sitting in a particularly boring economics lecture this morning it hit me:

The much-ballyhooed “Nintendo Difference”, the one that makes Super Smash Bros. Melee so special, is character.

Notice that I didn’t say the difference is ‘the characters’, meaning the 25 combatants that you can fight with in the game, although that is a big part of it. Rather, the integral element of the game is its inherent sense of character; the feeling that the game draws from each of the characters’ disparate previous games and back-stories.

You can see the character oozing out of every element of Super Smash Bros. Melee. It’s in the way Dr. Mario throws pills instead of fireballs. It’s in the way the Ice Climbers target test mimics their classic game. It’s in the way that Super Mario Bros. 2 boss Birdo randomly appears and fires eggs from his mouth in the SubCon stage. It’s in the way HAL Labratories remembers characters like Balloon Fighter and the ducks from Duck Hunt in the trophy room. It’s in the little details that show HAL paid more than lip service to what makes these characters special.

But wait,” I’m sure some of you are saying at this point, “Those things only minimally affect the way the game actually plays. Are you saying that hidden Nintendo fan-boy in-jokes are the only thing that makes this game special?” Not at all. These hidden in-jokes are just examples of the rich sense of style and character that Super Smash Bros. has to draw from, by virtue of the myriad games it represents.

Much like the way Marvel’s Onslaught series brought together the whole Marvel universe into one storyline, similarly Super Smash Bros. Melee brings the most popular characters, environments, and items from the Nintendo Universe, albeit in a slightly contrived way. After all, it would be hard to come up with a story that motivated all 25 of these characters to suddenly develop a desire to kill each other and thus set up a tournament to that effect. So HAL put together a skeleton of a story involving an ambiguous “Master Hand” who is staging these events by animating trophies of each of the characters and making them do his will. This story, in itself, presents an interesting commentary on how, as video game players, we are in effect doing the same thing as Master Hand, but that’s for another article.

Apart from this weak premise for getting all the characters together, HAL has done an amazing job combining the varied worlds of all these characters into one game. From each character’s distinctly structured fighting arena to items ripped from their previous games, all of the game’s elements are sure to evoke a tangible feeling of nostalgia to anyone who is familiar with the characters and their games. Even those who aren’t gamers traditionally are likely to be drawn in; A few of my non-gamer friends have been enticed to give Super Smash Bros. Melee a try after recognizing Pikachu or Kirby or some other character that they wanted to try out.

This sense of character doesn’t come exclusively from the game environment. The characters themselves are full of character as well. Granted, we’d rarely seen Fox McCloud do anything but fly a spaceship before the original Super Smash Bros. was released, but it’s not a stretch to imagine him as the quick, gun-toting fighter that you can play in Super Smash Bros. Melee. The way Peach floats in mid-jump, as she did in her last fully playable appearance in Super Mario Bros. 2, and the way Mr. Game & Watch’s moves feature only a few frames of animation, as his Game & Watch appearances did, are also indicative of HAL’s efforts to maintain each character’s character.

Perhaps the best example of Super Smash Bros. Melee’s character comes from the one-player Adventure mode. This mode lets you choose any one of the game’s characters and play through levels inspired by various classic Nintendo games. One level has you fighting goombas and koopa troopas in a stage reminiscent of Super Mario Bros. Another has you searching for the triforce in an underground dungeon maze, similar to those in the Legend of Zelda series. Yet another has your character racing on a track from F-zero, avoiding the passing hover-cars as you go.

These adventure levels help turn Super Smash Bros. Melee from a simple fighting game into a sort of interactive Nintendo history book. The adventure mode captures the most quintessential moments from Nintendo’s rich history of games, updates and alters them slightly for a new generation, then puts them together into one amazing play experience. HAL should be proud for capturing the Nintendo essence so perfectly in these levels.

Just think: What would Super Smash Bros. Melee be like without this sense of character? What would it be like if all the characters were replaced with generic, wire-frame models (such as those you fight near the end of adventure mode)? What if instead of getting Nintendo-history inspired trophies, you simply received gold medals for your various achievements? How would the game be changed if the arenas had no backgrounds, or the items were replaced with generic, non-Nintendo-related equivalents?

The basic gameplay would be unaltered: Characters would have the same moves, arenas the same dimension, and items the same effects. The graphics, music and sound would remain just as technically flawless. Everything usually considered integral to what a game is would be unchanged.

But it just wouldn’t be the same.

Without its character stripped, Super Smash Bros. Melee would simply become another derivative fighting game. It would likely garner some attention for its innovative play mechanics and high production values, but it definitely wouldn’t be the system-selling phenomenon it is in its current form. Without its character, Super Smash Bros. Melee would be nothing.

Say whatever you want about Nintendo. Say their hardware is underpowered. Say their games are derivative and overly cute. Say they’re too focused on producing mindless sequels than anything truly original. But no matter how much you deride Nintendo for these and other flaws, there’s one area in which they are untouchable.

Nintendo games always have been, and always will be full of character, and this difference will let them retain their popularity far into the future.

I just killed 93 people.

Before you judge me, consider that six of them were criminals, and 14 were gang members. Also consider the price I had to pay: Twelve visits to the hospital and five shorts stays at the local jail. Finally, consider that all these events didn’t really happen, and only took place in a video game.

Yes, fortunately, my life of crime has thus far been limited to the controlled mayhem of Grand Theft Auto III for the Playstation 2 game console. Unfortunately, there are people out there who want to stop me and others like me from playing this game as they would if the crimes were real.

Some background: Grand Theft Auto III (GTA3) is Rockstar Games’ latest entry into its series of games that let you play a freelance hit man of sorts. The game centers on your unnamed character, who goes underground after being set up by his girlfriend and proceeds to perform odd jobs for Liberty City’s local crime bosses and crooked cops. The games advanced 3D graphics, quality storyline and voice acting, and unmistakable sense of style have earned it consideration as Game of the Year by many trade publications. All of which makes it harder to stomach that Australia’s Office of Film and Literature Classification (OFLC) has effectively banned the game in that country.

The OFLC offers four possible ratings for computer and video games, the highest of which (the MA-15+ rating) restricts play and access to those 15 years and older. If none of these ratings is suitable for a game, the OFLC can ‘refuse classification’, as it did with GTA3, and give the Australian government the authority to remove the game from store shelves. According to the OFLC’s guidelines, games can be refused classification for reasons including nudity, bestiality, promotion of pedophilia, or, in the case of GTA3, the relatively minor problem of “excessive and serious violence.” (Incidentally, the American Entertainment Software Ratings Board gave GTA3 a Mature rating, for 17 years and older).

The OFLC is worried that, if the game were given the maximum MA-15+ rating, it would be accessible to 15-, 16-, and 17-year-old game players who do not have the mature perspective that the game requires. Never mind those game players 18 and over, who, as a group, make up seventy percent of the computer game playing population according to the Interactive Digital Software Association. Are the interests of these game players trumped by the minority of immature gamers who would have access to the game under an MA-15+ rating?

The OFLC obviously thinks so. Defending its decision in a Classification Review Board report, the OFLC cites a rule from their Computer Game Classification Guidelines (CGCG) which states that “minors should be protected from material likely to harm or disturb them.” The report also mentions, and then seems to quickly forget, another guideline from the same section of the CGCG which states that “adults should be able to read, hear and see what they want.” An outright ban of the game obviously fulfills the former guideline, while failing to address the latter at all.

The same report includes a recommendation that classifications for video games “be applied more strictly than those for the classification of film and Videotape,” because “their ‘interactive nature’, may have greater impact, and therefore greater potential for harm or detriment, on young minds than film and videotape.” Despite this fact, the OFLC offers fewer possible ratings for computer games than for films (Four compared to six) and the CGCG is less clear on how these ratings should be assigned than the corresponding film guidelines.

Outside of these self-contradictions, the OFLC guidelines seem to try to presume what sort of content a reasonable adult would and would not want to see. The Classification Review Board report asserts that “the impact of the violence [in GTA3] goes beyond that which most people would consider reasonable,” citing a scene which contains a “person splitting in half and transforming into a puddle of blood.” The report states that this scene “goes beyond high-level violence, and could be described as excessive and serious violence.” I agree that minors should be prevented from seeing such extreme violence, but as an adult, I would like to be able to decide for myself what constitutes “excessive and serious violence,” without the government deciding for me. If I lived in Australia, this would not be possible.

The report does offer some hope, however. In the final line before the summary, the Classification Review Board proposes that “the Ministers responsible would give consideration to an R rating [restricted to those 18 and over] for computer games, as is available in films and videotapes, so that adults may see and hear and play what they want – legally.” Until then, I’ll be glad I live in a country where I can gun down as many virtual gang members as I want without the government trying to stop me.

GameSpot: Playstation 2 Reviews: Grand Theft Auto III Review,10867,2820025,00.html Video Gaming: Myths and Facts

Office of Film and Literature Classification: Classification Review Board: 40th Meeting Notes

Office of Film and Literature Classification: Guidelines for Computer Game Classification

Before you read this review, take a few minutes to read a review of either Final Fantasy VII or Final Fantasy VIII. You done? OK. Final Fantasy IX is just like that… except more so.

The basic Final Fantasy gameplay still hasn’t changed much since the original NES game, and all the “cinematic”, “epic”, “movie-like” qualities of the Playstation iterations are still there. So instead of repeating all that, I’d rather focus on what FFIX does differently.

One nice addition is the Ability system, which like Materia and Guardian Forces before it, is the main method for learning skills and magical spells in the game. Abilities are attached to weapons and armor, and can be used by a character as long as the wear it. As you battle with the weapon/armor you slowly gain ability points. Gather the required number of points, and you learn the ability permanently, allowing you to change equipment without screwing up your character. The system leads to some interesting micromanagement decisions. Do you put on the better armor and lose an important ability, or wear the inferior armor until you get some more ability points and learn the skill? It’s a tough choice that makes the often mundane task of equipping your character more interesting.

Each character is also limited in which abilities they can learn from any given weapon or armor. This gives each character a unique list of skills that sets them apart from the others and helps to reinforce their characterization. This is something I felt was sorely missing from the Materia and Guardian Force systems, which let you equip any magic ability on any character you wanted.

The FMV cinemas that the FF games have become famous for have actually improved since the amazing showing in FFVIII. The characters look nicer and move more naturally than ever before. Explosions are more explosive and lighting effects are more, uh, light. It’s everything you’ve come to expect from Square’s team. The increased graphical detail spills over to the in-game graphics, which feature much more expressive and animated character models (Although I still think they look out of place in the pre-rendered backgrounds. Hopefully Square will utilize the polygon power of the PS2 in making some true 3D environments for FFX)

While these movies and cut-scenes are amazing to watch, I felt they were a bit overused, especially near the beginning of the game. In my first two hours of actual real-time game playing, I had direct control of my character for about 45 minutes. The rest of the time I was watching some beautiful movies, or jamming X to get through the characters’ dialog. While this ratio improved throughout the game, the non-interactive storyline elements tended to be clumped together at key points in the story. Forty minutes of running around and battling would be followed up by twenty minutes of storyline. Better spacing of smaller bits of the story would have been appreciated,

Most of this story was revealed through the new Active Time Event system, which prompts the player when an important event is happening away from the current character and then shows it to you. While this system led to some nice dramatic irony at times, in the end it felt tacked on. I got the feeling that the developers were trying to make the “sitting and reading dialog” part of the Final fantasy games more “interactive” by letting you choose which parts of the story to hear at what times. It’s like a “choose-your-own adventure” book, except your choices don’t change the outcome at all, they just change which part of it you see. Not exactly thrilling.

The overall form of the games story has taken a slight change from those of FFVII and VIII. In the previous games the story centered mainly on the one main character (Cloud, Squall) and his closely-knit band of heroes, fighting against an encompassing evil. In FFIX, the story feels more like a conglomeration of eight separate storylines, one for each character, than one overriding quest. This method of storytelling was executed surprisingly well, with each character being evenly developed and having believable motivations (Exception: The unexplainable Quina, who’s purpose in life is to “eat new and exciting things”). On the downside, this storytelling technique makes each of the characters feel like their own disconnected entity, and lessens the feeling of camaraderie among the playable characters. It takes some getting used to, but once you do, it’s a welcome change.

Another very welcome change in FFIX is the improved translation and localization for a U.S. audience. Character dialog sounds much more believable and less broken than it has in previous Square outings. The translation team went as far as to give each character consistent speech mannerisms throughout the game, making them all the more believable. A great example of this is princess Garnett, who has to consciously dumb down her speech when she is pretending to be one of the ‘common folk’. Zidane, the games main character and ‘bad boy’, has to essentially teach her how to speak like a normal person. As the game progresses, you see Garnett’s act getting better and better, until she actually sounds more like Zidane than a princess.

The improved translation makes possible another thing largely missing from the Final Fantasy series up to this point: humor. FFIX’s tension is often undercut by absurd situations that can catch the player totally by surprise. The main outlet for this comic relief is Steiner, a clanking, clueless guard whose sworn duty is to protect princess Garnett. His exasperated tirades against Zidane’s advances towards Garnett (complete with arm waving) are pretty amusing. Another scene casts Steiner and a few other characters in a scene of mistaken love based off a dropped love note. I won’t give anything away, but the ensuing mix-up is very engrossing and wholly entertaining to watch.

Other small gameplay touch-ups help out FFIX. Little touches like word balloons over characters heads being used for dialog and the new “exclamation point” system for finding things hidden around the landscape make a world of difference. The card game system has been improved too, and is even more of a time-wasting diversion than before. And of course, FFIX is packed with the requisite optional Final Fantasy extras. Between finding crystals based on the constellations, delivering letters to moogles and countless other side-tasks, this game could keep you occupied for a long while.

I was disappointed with the way the storyline fell apart near the end of the game. Everything that had been building up throughout the games first three discs was seemingly thrown out the window for disc 4. An example of this is the final boss of the game. This boss remains unintroduced and unmentioned until about 5 minutes before you fight him, at which point he gives a lame “I want to destroy the universe” soliloquy. Your party proceeds to defeat him, and he is never heard from again. If it weren’t for this glaring storyline inconsistency, this game would have scored at least half a point higher. On the plus side, once you get through the absurdity of disc 4, you are treated to an amazing, 30+ minute FMV ending.

I couldn’t help feeling as I progressed through FFIX that, despite all the incidental changes, I had played this game before… twice. While I still enjoyed the game for what it was, I couldn’t shake the memories of Final Fantasy VII, and how much more engrossing and fun it was for me. But I’m just a jaded gamer who’s played one sequel too many. When it comes down to it you either like Final Fantasy or you don’t. FFIX won’t change your mind, but it will definitely affirm your position.

Final Score: 8.5/10

When Sega launched its Dreamcast system on September 9th, 1999, it was a company at the end of its rope. After the three straight home systems proved dismal failures (Sega CD, 32X, and Saturn), the Dreamcast was Sega’s last-ditch attempt to win back the loyal followers it had in the heyday of the Genesis. By beating the competition to the market by more than a year, Sega hoped to gain an insurmountable lead in the next generation of home video game consoles

For a while, it seemed like Sega’s gambit would pay off. The Dreamcast had a phenomenal launch, thanks in part to the largest marketing campaign ever for a video game system. Sega took home $97 million on the first day of Dreamcast sales in the US, surpassing the opening weekend gross of blockbusters like The Phantom Menace! With a great library of launch titles and many influential developers (with the notable exception of gaming giant Electronic Arts) pledging their support, the Dreamcast looked as if it might mark the end of Sega’s bad luck.

Unfortunately for Sega, this was not the case.

After the launch hysteria died down, Dreamcast sales leveled off to a rather unimpressive level. In Japan, Sega’s homeland, even the ailing Nintendo 64 was selling better than the Dreamcast. Despite many innovative, high quality games from Sega’s in-house development teams, the Dreamcast never developed very strong third party support. Many developers who had pledged support for Sega ended up devoting some of their development resources to the upcoming Playstation 2, which promised to be more popular among hardcore gamers and more powerful than the Dreamcast. Sega tried many innovative marketing schemes to keep its Dreamcast alive, such as offering a free system with a subscription to their SegaNet ISP, but nothing seemed to help.

The final nail in the Dreamcast’s coffin was last October’s launch of the Playstation 2 (PS2) in North America. Sony’s PS2 quickly rose to dominance, selling more consoles in 5 months than Dreamcast had sold in more than a year.

Early this year, rumors that Sega would no longer be able to support the ailing Dreamcast started flying. These rumors proved true, as Sega recently announced that they would stop producing the Dreamcast console at the end of March in favor of developing games for other systems.

Despite all this, there are still a few reasons to consider the Dreamcast if you’re planning to buy a new video game system. First off, at $99, the Dreamcast is priced a few hundred dollars lower than the PS2, and is likely to be much cheaper than other upcoming systems (Exact pricing for Nintendo’s GameCube and Microsoft’s X-Box have not been officially announced). Used Dreamcast systems are going for as low as $60 or $70 on Ebay, with many used games similarly low priced. You could easily buy a used Dreamcast and ten bargain bin games with the same money you might spend on a PS2 without any games. This makes Dreamcast the obvious choice for the console gamer on a budget.

Second, while the PS2’s library is rather slim at the moment, the Dreamcast already has a library of hundreds of games available. This library ranges from fun arcade-style titles like Crazy Taxi to quirky puzzle games like Chu Chu Rocket to serious RPG’s like ShenMue. With such a large and varied selection of games, you’re sure to find at least a few you’ll enjoy playing.

Third, the Dreamcast is the only console currently available that comes with a built in 56K modem. This allows you to play popular games like NFL2K1 and Phantasy Star Online with millions of people around the world through SegaNet’s online service. Playing on-line with the Dreamcast, however, isn’t painless; the SegaNet service costs $22 a month and the modem requires you to unplug your phone. Playing games through a dial-up modem can also be pretty slow when compared with playing on a PC through the campus network. Still, it’s nice to know the option for on-line play is there if you want it.

Finally, the Dreamcast isn’t quite dead yet. Even though the system itself isn’t being produced, dozens of games that were in development when the Dreamcast was discontinued are still forthcoming. Big name games like Sonic Adventure 2 and a new version of the popular PC shooter Half-Life are still on their way. After this year the supply of new games will likely dwindle down to nothing, but for now Dreamcast owners still have some new titles to look forward to.

The Dreamcast may not be around in the future, but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it now. With tons of great games at bargain prices and more titles to come, there’s no reason to write it off just yet.

I’ve often thought of Nintendo as the Disney of video games. Many Nintendo franchises, such as Kirby, Mario, and Pokèmon, are geared towards the 8-13 year old market, just like Disney’s animated features. Despite their kiddy focus, however, Disney movies remain popular with many teens and adults. Maybe it’s nostalgia, maybe it’s the hidden in-jokes geared towards older audiences, or maybe it’s because Disney movies are just so well made that people can’t help but love them. Paper Mario should be loved for these same reasons.

Paper Mario is the semi-sequel to the semi-popular “Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars” (SMRPG) for the Super Nintendo. I say ‘semi-sequel’ because the original was co-developed by Nintendo and popular RPG maker SquareSoft (Of Final Fantasy fame). SquareSoft had nothing to do with the making of Paper Mario. This led many to speculate, before the games release, that Paper Mario would botch the successful formula of SMRPG. This is not the case, as Paper Mario is almost everything its predecessor was and more.

Paper Mario’s gameplay is a mix of action and RPG elements, much like it’s prequel. You control a paper-thin, 2D Mario that runs and jumps around a 3D world. When Mario touches one of the many enemies he encounters, a turn based battle starts. There’s a twist though: If Mario jumps on an enemy to start the battle, the enemy will start out slightly damaged. If instead the enemy charged into Mario to initiate the battle, Mario starts out with damage. This system made the game feel a lot like the old, action-oriented Mario games without taking away from the RPG battle system.

Another interesting gameplay twist, back from the original SMRPG, is the timed attack system. When Mario attacks an enemy in the turn-based battle sequence, you can increase the damage he does by performing certain actions with the control pad at specific times. These actions vary from hitting the A button at exactly the right time to flicking the control stick quickly from left to right. It’s a simple addition, but it keeps the player on their toes and prevents battles from becoming the usual “jam on the attack button until it’s over” affair.

In contrast to the innovative gameplay, the story behind Paper Mario is about as deep as a kiddy pool. When people in the Mushroom Kingdom make wishes, they go up to Star Haven, where they are granted by the Star Spirits using the magical Star Rod. (original names, eh?) King Koopa (yes, the same King Koopa that’s been around since Super Mario Bros.) steals the Star Rod and uses its power to capture the Star Spirits and Princess Toadstool. Of course, this will not stand. Mario to the rescue!

This storyline is augmented by lots of little side-quests for Mario to complete. For instance, when Mario goes to Shiver City to find the seventh Star Spirit, he finds the mayor of the town has been murdered! Mario finds himself the prime suspect in an investigation conducted by the security officer, and isn’t allowed to leave the city until he clears his name. Interesting twists like this keep the game from getting too predictable and make the player want to keep playing just to see what’ll happen next (Just so you know, the mayor wasn’t actually murdered. He just tripped and hit his head. This is a Nintendo game after all).

As is evidenced by this story, Paper Mario is not for those with a low “cute” tolerance. The dark blood and gore of games like Unreal Tournament and Quake 3 are replaced with bright colors and cheerful music. This can be a good or bad thing depending on your tastes. I personally didn’t find it too distracting, but some players may feel the need to take a Goldeneye break after about an hour of playing.

As you might expect with a game this cute, the challenge level in Paper Mario is not that high. Even my seven-year-old sister was able to get through the first part of the game without assistance. Veteran RPG players may be frustrated by this simplicity, as well as the linear nature of the story. (It’s often obvious what is going to happen next, because the story can’t move on unless it does.) This makes Paper Mario perfect for beginners, but perhaps a little too basic for experienced players. The latter group may want to check out games like Chrono Cross or Final Fantasy IX instead.

Bottom Line: If you can get past the inherent simplicity and cuteness in Paper Mario, you’ll probably end up enjoying it immensely. Sure, it isn’t a ground breaking, epic, cinematic experience, but it’s a fun, nostalgic ride nonetheless. 8/10