by Marty Demarest & r & & r & THE Wii & r & & r & According to the offices of Santa Claus, Chanukah Harry and the vastly more-informed Consumer Affairs, this is the second winter in a row that Nintendo's Wii ($250) has topped gamers' holiday wish lists. While I'm still skeptical about the system's "revolutionary" abilities, there's no doubt in my mind that the Wii's novel motion-sensitive control scheme has snared more players into playing videogames, and that's not a bad thing (at least for videogame manufacturers).
Unlike last year, when the Wii had very few good games to offer, this year it's got one of the most charming: Super Mario Galaxy (Rated 'E'). Mario's latest foray sends him into outer space, where he encounters the topsy-turvy gravity of hundreds of different planets that swarm with cartoonish enemies and not-too-tough puzzles. The inventiveness that longtime Mario designer Shigeru Miyamoto has lavished on this title makes up for his recent ho-hum games. Plus, the first half is almost too easy, making it accessible for little kids while veteran gamers will still be captured by the game's novelty.
Much trickier to master is Mario Strikers Charged (Rated 'E 10+'), a soccer game set in the Mario universe, featuring Princess Peach, Bowser, Luigi and the rest of the gang. Mario Strikers Charged cartoonifies soccer to the point that even young players will be evenly matched with older gamers, as they go head to head in stadiums laden with chomp-chomps, exploding Bob-ombs, and zinging turtle shells. The Wii's motion-sensitive controller even comes into play for scoring and blocking super-goals, target-shoot-style.
The Wii's point-and-shoot capacity is also the best thing about Metroid Prime 3: Corruption (Rated 'T'), an outer-space shooter that puts players in the first-person perspective of bounty hunter Samus from the popular Metroid franchise. While moving around is still accomplished with the Wii's joystick-like Nunchuk controller, looking and aiming the blaster uses the Wii remote's motion sensitivity, making it one of the most innovative shooters of the year.
The best shooter of the year, however, is Halo 3 (Rated 'M'), available only on the most traditional console around, the Xbox 360 ($350-$450). Building on the previous two Halo games, which feature extremely large environments and a slew of different weapons, Halo 3 adds a built-in level designer so that players can create their own battlegrounds, and a video capturer so that anything from surreal staged dramas to supreme gunfights can be recorded by players and shared with friends across Microsoft's Xbox Live online network.
A more moody shooter is the beautiful BioShock (Rated 'M'; also available for Windows-based PC), set in an underwater city of the 1950s. BioShock is for one player only, so no death matches can happen in the game's striking and unique setting, but for that single player, there's no more moodily immersive title around. Like the popular computer game Myst, BioShock reveals its story in bits and pieces, but much more violently, as players sneak and shoot their way through the tangled underwater utopia-gone-bad.
As for power, nothing beats the & uuml;ber-expensive PlayStation 3 ($400-$500), which is the gaming system of choice for many of the year's games that can be played on more than one system. The reason is simple: they look better on the PS3 than they do anywhere else. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (Rated 'M'; also available for the 360) puts the PS3's awesome graphical prowess to use in creating a combat arena that teems with details and sprawls with virtual space. The game has both a standard single-player campaign, and a much more detailed multiplayer engine in which even guns can be camouflaged.
For all-around playability, the star is Guitar Hero III (Rated 'T'; also available on the PS2, Wii, and 360), a rock 'n' roll simulator played with a plastic guitar controller (included with the game). Like the previous versions of Guitar Hero, this iteration requires players to strum their guitar and finger the correct notes in rhythm with dozens of rock songs, while onscreen cartoon-like rock stars jump around outlandish concert venues. This time, though, more real rock bands than cover bands are featured, so when a classic song comes along, it won't sound like a discount version that's coming from players' fingerwork.
There are also a few PS3-exclusive games that take advantage of the system's strengths. Ratchet & amp; Clank Future: Tools of Destruction (Rated 'E 10+') is a slick looking action game starring a cartoon cat and his robot companion. The gameplay is still based on jumping around and swinging a weapon (usually a wrench), but it's the shiny-smooth surfaces and hitch-free animation that make this game unique. Almost as pretty is the female-starring Heavenly Sword (Rated 'M'), which is a combat game that features some well-directed character animation by the guy who played Gollum in Lord of the Rings.
The Playstation Portable, or PSP ($170), is proving itself to be the place where good games go when they get old. Not only are there dozens of old PS2 games available for the system (with the bonus of now being playable in bed), but some classics that are almost impossible to find are making their way to the system as well.
Dracula X Chronicles (Rated 'T') would make the perfect gift for any Castlevania fan, or vampire lover in general. Not only does it bring the series' Rondo of Blood adventure to the U.S. for the first time, but it also includes the PlayStation classic Symphony of the Night, which is one of the greatest videogames ever made, featuring a seemingly endless haunted castle and more ways to kill a vampire than the movies have ever dreamed.
Also imported from the original PlayStation is Final Fantasy Tactics: War of the Lions (Rated 'T'), a deeply complex turn-by-turn strategy game set in the whimsical anim & eacute; universe of Final Fantasy. Players take charge of characters that can change "jobs," in effect earning new powers and abilities. Combined with the game's turn-based speed, the combat becomes a complex ballet of maneuvers, tactics and attacks unrivalled in gaming anywhere except, perhaps, the modern Dungeons & amp; Dragons system.
Despite the abundance of new videogame systems, however, my favorite is the oldest: the Nintendo DS ($130). This two-screen, touch-screen portable system has been the home of some of the best games of the past three years. The most recent title to show off the pure gaming power and portable pleasure of the machine is also a Final Fantasy title: the new Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings (Rated 'E 10+'). A direct sequel to last year's beautiful, enchanting FFXII, Revenant Wings is a role-playing game that takes place in real-time, using the DS's touch screen to control the characters as though they were figures in a point-and-click PC strategy game.
But even the scope of the Final Fantasy universe is rivaled by The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass (Rated 'E'), a swashbuckling sequel to the Nintendo GameCube Wind Waker. Players take control of the elfin hero Link's weapons with the touch screen, swinging his sword with a slash and flinging his boomerang along traced paths. The game also lets players write their own notes on maps, making treasure hunts and puzzles much more satisfying than the usual "flip the switch in front of you" videogame challenges. And even though it takes place on the DS's small screens, Phantom Hourglass's 3D graphics and cartoon designs are rendered with enough care to make it one of the year's best videogames.