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The games of summer
A look at warm-weather options for mindless but mesmerizing recreation

Roger Yim, Chronicle Tech Critic
  Saturday, May 26, 2001

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POLITE APPLAUSE DANCE DANCE REVOLUTION: Rhythm game. (Konami for PlayStation, $29.99, $59.99 with dance pad, ESRB rating: Everyone.)


Trashy novels at the beach, mindless blockbusters in theaters -- summer is the season to put the brain in storage. What better time to brush up on your video-game skills?

Here's a look at some of the coolest games for a long, hot summer.

Dance Dance Revolution, known as DDR to its fans, is not for someone looking for an hour or two of diversion: It requires long, sweaty hours of practice. The reward? Showing off what you've learned in front of admiring crowds at the arcade.

In the PlayStation version of DDR, the player stands in the center of a mat (sold separately, $20 to $50) that has pressure-sensitive areas in front, on the sides and behind. As disco, techno and hip-hop tunes play, arrows move up the screen in time with the music, indicating where the player must step.

After giving it a try -- and flopping around like a speared fish -- we turned to DDR expert Cesar Aldea to show us how it's done.

The 29-year-old San Franciscan, who has been playing the game for about a year, not only manages to hit virtually every arrow, but he executes his moves in a flashy street-dancing style. No wonder he's a regional DDR champion.

"I believe in choreographed routines, like a professional dance competition, " says Aldea. Somehow he is able to hold a conversation while playing.

Aldea believes players whose sole aim is to perfect harder songs (which are rated by the number of feet icons) are missing the point of the game.

"They think they're good because they can pass an eight-foot or nine-foot song," says Aldea, who goes by the name DJ 8-Ball when he spins music at clubs.

"But the difficulty doesn't matter; it's how you look."

In Japan, where DDR has been a hit since the first arcade version was introduced in 1998, workers reportedly unwind at the end of the day by playing DDR at the arcades -- suits, ties and all. They apparently don't care how they look.

The long-awaited U.S. PlayStation version includes 27 songs, some of them very strange indeed: a disco version of "Have You Never Been Mellow," a hip- hop version of "Smoke on the Water." The latest Japanese PlayStation version --

there have been five -- has more than 100 songs, from "Flashdance (What a Feeling)" to "Shake Your Booty."

Most hard-core DDRers have been practicing at home with the Japanese version of the game. But before you rush out and buy one (Network Video in Burlingame is a good source), be aware that U.S. PlayStations will not play Japanese games; you must either buy a Japanese PlayStation or solder a "mod chip" to your PlayStation circuitry.

For beginners, the U.S. version works just fine. The game features a variety of modes, including a workout mode that keeps track of calories burned and a training mode, which lets you finish a song without being berated by the commentator ("Did you have breakfast this morning?"). The interface could be easier to navigate, and the psychedelic backgrounds are repetitive -- but trust us, you won't have time to notice.

All songs can be played in beginner, normal and expert modes, and if you're willing to pay for a second pad, there's a masochistic setting in which a single player has to hop between eight buttons on two pads.

DDR can be difficult to find; check the Internet or the PlayStation store at Metreon in San Francisco. For more information about DDR, including organizations and tournaments, visit http://www.ddrfreak.com/.


WILD APPLAUSE Adventure games. (Nintendo for Game Boy Color, $34.99 each, ESRB rating: Everyone.) THE LEGEND OF ZELDA -- ORACLE OF THE AGES/ORACLE OF THE SEASONS

Nintendo's twin Legend of Zelda games are tiny miracles to behold, and a fitting swan song for the Game Boy Color console, soon to be replaced by Game Boy Advance. Fortunately, the new handheld unit will run games made for Game Boy Color.

Elfin hero Link returns to save the land of Labrynna from evildoers. In Oracle of the Ages, Link travels back and forth through time using a magical harp. In Oracle of the Seasons, a magical rod has the power to change the seasons.

The action is typical Zelda questing: searching for items, learning skills, battling monsters, talking to characters. But everything is executed perfectly,

from the pacing of the story to the colorful graphics that make the most of the Game Boy's small screen and limited resolution. The worlds are vast and the play engaging and satisfying.

The gimmick here is that the two games (sold separately) can be connected using a link cable and two Game Boys. Linking allows items collected in one game to be brought over to the other and extends the adventure.

It's a clever idea and a stroke of marketing brilliance: If you play one game, chances are you won't be able to resist getting the other.


ALERT VIEWER COOL BOARDERS 2001 Snowboarding simulation. (Sony for PlayStation 2, $49.99, ESRB rating: Everyone.)

Is there room for yet another PlayStation 2 snowboarding game? SSX, still the best PS2 title available, has broad appeal with its wacky, arcade-style action. The less-flashy ESPN Winter X Games Snowboarding takes a more realistic approach to the sport and is closer to a simulation.

Sony's Cool Boarders 2001 tries to find a balance between the two and, for the most part, succeeds. One of its strong points is variety: 27 courses and six events. There's downhill racing, half-pipe contests, "big air" trick runs, board parks and wild obstacle courses. Those who have grown tired of SSX's courses will find plenty to explore here.

Control is intuitive and, in fact, a little too easy when it comes to performing stunts. While the graphics are sharp and quick, the character animations, especially during trick moves, aren't particularly convincing. Sometimes boarders appear to defy gravity as they execute flips and turns.


POLITE APPLAUSE ZONE OF THE ENDERS Action game. (Konami for PlayStation 2, $49.99, ESRB rating:

Mature.)


If it were a little longer and required more strategy, Zone of the Enders could have been a great game. Instead, it's a good game that earns another notch for putting the PlayStation 2 graphics processors to the test.

The Japanese-made game takes place in a war-torn colony on Jupiter, with the player taking control of a flying robot and battling enemy invaders. Both the player's character and the enemies are incredibly detailed, and midair fights are gorgeous light shows. Piloting the robot is easy, thanks to a well- designed control scheme.

The game's weakness is in its battles. Repeated shooting or up-close slashing pretty much takes care of all enemies. It's mindlessly enjoyable, but those looking for more strategy might be disappointed.

If tactics are what you're looking for, Zone of the Enders comes packaged with a playable demo of Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty -- now that's cool.


ALERT VIEWER MARIO PARTY 3 Party game. (Nintendo for Nintendo 64, $49.99, ESRB rating: Everyone.)

Nintendo has taken to releasing a new version of Mario Party every year, and the third incarnation is clearly the best, with improved graphics and better game play. It's basically a turn-based board game spiced up with minigames -- more than 70 this time around.

The minigames include a Tetris-style arcade game, races in boats and planes,

trivia quizzes and reaction tests. They're colorful and cute but often simply require rapid button mashing that's hard on the hands and controllers.

Still, the Mario Party titles are among the few true multiplayer games for more than two players that actually work. There's also a new two-player version that adds battles and reduces the time spent waiting for your turn.

Great for parties and sleepovers, but little to offer players older than 12.

E-mail Roger Yim at ryim@sfchronicle.com.


 
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