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The Video Game Critic's
Summer Game Review Special
Part I

Updated June 15, 2008

OutRun (1991)
System: Genesis
Grade: A
screenshotThis is a remarkably faithful translation of the arcade hit OutRun. Your shiny red convertible comes complete with working tail lights and a hot blonde in the passenger seat. According to my friend Scott your goal is to drive like a madman in order to get the hooker to a hotel before the hourly rates go up!

As you zoom down the highway you'll weave around smoothly-scaling cars, jeeps, and trucks. The intensity builds as you approach the next checkpoint with the timer ticking down. The controls are simple and the sensation of speed is exhilarating. Notice the stereo sound when you pass a car? Pretty sweet!

Major collisions are quite a spectacle, sending your car into a roll as its passengers bounce along with it. But the colorful stages are what truly steal the show. The road branches into diverse locations and climates, offering substantial replay value. From desert sands to ancient ruins, each stretch of road boasts its own unique landmarks. You will not find another Genesis game that makes better use of color - this game is gorgeous.

The opening stage is the highlight as you drive along a sunny beach with palm trees, bright sand, deep blue skies, and blooming cumulus clouds. If that doesn't put you in the mind of summer, there's no hope for you. The pleasant soundtrack exudes a fun, carefree spirit, with titles like "Splash Wave", "Passing Breeze", and "Magical Sound Shower". Easy on the eyes and music to the ears, OutRun is a timeless classic.

Wave Race 64 (1996)
System: Nintendo 64
Grade: B+
screenshotIn 1996 Wave Race made a lot of Playstation owners very jealous. I know because I happened to be one of those poor schmucks! Oh how I longed to slice through shimmering waves on a Kawasaki Jet Ski (TM), showing off for all the bikini babes at some sunny, tropical resort.

Today, Wave Race 64 still delivers exhilarating aquatic action on the strength of its cool water effects, simple controls, and upbeat soundtrack. Riding a Jet Ski is challenging because you need to "fight" against the choppy waters. You get jostled all over the place while attempting to skillfully weave around yellow and red buoys. Get accustomed to pulling back on the analog stick to execute tight turns.

The course layouts could have been better. Some of the turns you're required to make are downright severe, and following the course might lead you straight into a wall! Memorizing the buoy placement makes all of the difference. Sometimes I wonder if the game would be better without them.

The opening "sunny beach" stage boasts clear water, bright skies, palm trees, and seagulls. This is exactly what I'm looking for in a Jet Ski game! Sadly, the game quickly abandons the tropical look for less-appealing, gimmicky locations. Drake Lake is shrouded with fog, Twilight City is blinding with light, and Port Blue is an ugly industrial complex. Sunset Bay's orange water makes it look like you're racing through Kool Aid!

Wave Racer 64's sparkling water and sloshing sound effects are so realistic that you can almost smell the salt water (or in the case of the port, raw sewage). Some courses feature a low-flying helicopter, and when approaching it I try to catch a big wave in the hopes of causing a mid-air collision! The light synth music is appealing but the announcer is super annoying. "Good!! Nice!! O-kay!! Okay!! Maximum Power!! Okay!!" Despite a full options menu, there's no way to shut that bastard up.

Modes include championship, time trials, and stunt mode. High scores and best times are recorded with initials, which is great. There's a two-player split-screen mode but without CPU racers it lacks excitement. It's a shame this game arrived a few months before rumble packs were introduced, because it would have been a good fit. Wave Race 64 has its flaws but it's hard to find a good Jet Ski game anymore.

Far Cry Instincts (2005)
System: Xbox
Grade: B+
screenshotAt its core, Far Cry is a standard first-person shooter, but its effective use of lush jungle environments make it feel like much more. You feel as if you're immersed in a completely different world (unless of course, you're playing it in the jungle, which is unlikely). Despite being set on a tropical island, you'll have no problem locating your next objective. There are clearly marked dirt paths and roads, and your movement is actually constrained by "walls" of thick foliage. It doesn't take long to discover the joys of lurking in the scenery, creeping up on enemy soldiers, and employing guerilla tactics.

Once you get the hang of setting traps, crawling under huts, or sniping from guard towers, Far Cry is as fun as any first-person shooter you've ever played. This is the game Metal Gear Solid 3 wanted to be. The frequent driving sequences are exhilarating as you bust through barricades and swerve around falling trees with missile-launching helicopters in pursuit. The beautiful palm trees, clear blue skies, and reflective rivers are very easy on the eyes, although the plants look a bit sparse and chunky up close.

The jungle sound effects are nothing short of fantastic. Unfortunately, each loud explosion is followed by a high-frequency hum that lasts a few seconds. This is meant to simulate "ringing" in your ears, but it's actually headache inducing! The voice acting is professional, although the dialogue is laced with profanity.

The simple storyline takes a dramatic turn once you become injected with a serum, giving you primal, super-human abilities. Far Cry is a satisfying shooting experience that kept me coming back for more, but it's not perfect. Although the framerate remains smooth at all times, grass often appears to "grow" before your eyes as you approach new areas, which looks odd. On more than one occasion I became stuck in some scenery and had to restart at the last checkpoint.

And while the game encourages stealth action, enemies tend to be hypersensitive to your presence, making it hard to carry out sneak attacks. I love the simple control scheme, but the lack of an "action button" can be frustrating when you want to do something simple like open a door or speak to a civilian.

There's a nice four-player split-screen mode, but the expansive environments and worthless radar displays make it hard to locate your opponents. As a single player experience however, Far Cry is the most enthralling Xbox game I've played in recent memory. If you detest first-person shooters, this probably won't win you over, but if you enjoy them to any degree, you'll absolutely love Far Cry Instincts.

Kings of the Beach (1988)
System: NES
Grade: A
screenshotI've played a lot of volleyball games in my time, and Kings of the Beach is the best classic volleyball game! Its graphics are terrific, with scenic backdrops and well-defined players. Okay, one guy looks like he's wearing a diaper, but work with me here. A brilliant control scheme lets you spike, block, and even dive for the ball.

One problem that plagues many volleyball games is the ability to get your player into proper position to hit the ball. Kings of the Beach addresses this issue by stopping your player once he's moved into the correct spot, and that makes all the difference in the world. There's even a training mode to help you learn the moves.

Volleyball is all about teamwork, and this game makes it easy to cooperate. Grab a multi-tap to form teams, or join forces with a friend to challenge a CPU-controlled team! Kings of the Beach is easy to play, but mastering it is another story, and the CPU opponents are no joke. So if you're in the mood to run around in the sand and spike a ball into somebody's face, Kings of the Beach is your game.

Shark! Shark! (1982)
System: Intellivision
Grade: A+
screenshotSharks have fascinated me since childhood, so I'm a sucker for any game with the word "shark" in the title. This one has it twice (with exclamation points no less) so you know I'm all in. Shark! Shark! may well be the greatest Intellivision game of all time, as long as you do one thing. Whenever you start this game you need to promise me you'll initiate "fast mode" by pressing the disc. If you select one of the slower variations via the keypad this game can be a real slog.

Perfect for a hot summer day, Shark! Shark! takes place in the cool depths of the ocean blue. You control a tiny yellow fish swimming freely around the screen. Other fish of all shapes, colors, and sizes soon emerge and lobsters creep through swaying seaweed. Your goal is to consume other fish of lesser or equal size, causing your fish (and score) to gradually increase in size. Growing lets you consume larger fish but also makes you a bigger target for jellyfish and seahorses. Losing a life returns you to your original size, so enjoy being a big fish while you can.

The controls allow you to dash forward, but only after you've released the directional pad, which can be a little counter-intuitive. Audio effects include harmonized music and realistic bubble sounds. Ominous tones indicate the approach of the large, menacing shark. He's an intimidating presence but he can be defeated. If you manage to nip at his tail enough times he will die and his carcass will sink to the ocean floor. That's easier said than done as he can turn on a dime and snap you up in his jaws!

The two-player mode adds a whole new dimension as it's possible to eat the other player! This leads to shorter but more exciting contests. For years I forged a "gentleman's agreement" with friends that our fish would not eat each other, but those days are long gone. No more Mr. Nice Fish!

I find it interesting how various creatures in the game will independently swim around and consume each other, creating a fully functional, self-contained ecosystem. Lobsters will jump up to snag low-swimming fish, prompting my friend Chris to exclaim "Was I just eaten by a crustacean?!" When a game prompts grown men to spout nonsense like that, you know it's got to be something special.

Hydro Thunder (1999)
System: Dreamcast
Grade: A
screenshotThis "launch title" (released on the same day as the system) is my favorite Dreamcast game of all time. Hydro Thunder is pure arcade bliss, with eye candy galore, simple controls and some of the most exhilarating gameplay you'll ever experience in a video game. Imagine an amusement park water ride that moves at the speed of a roller coaster, and you'll start to appreciate what Hydro Thunder has to offer.

This wild racer features 13 power boats and 14 astonishing tracks. From the exotic jungles of the Lost World, to the gigantic ice formations of the Arctic Circle, to the majestic ancient ruins of the Greek Isles, each track is magnificent in scale and full of surprises. Complementing the smooth graphics is a dramatic musical score and some hilarious sound effects.

The intuitive control scheme makes it easy to maintain control even as your boat is careening down rapids at high speeds. Large floating icons provide turbo, and using your turbo power efficiently is key to winning. Numerous ramps allow for plenty of opportunities to catch big air, and your stomach will drop as you go over huge waterfalls, some over 400 feet tall!

A split screen mode allows two players to race head-to-head, and while it's a step down in terms of speed, it's still a lot of fun. Two minor complaints are the lack of a restart option and an automatic save. But all in all Hydro Thunder truly delivers on the promise of the Dreamcast.

In The Hunt (1995)
System: Saturn
Grade: B
screenshotWith its stylized sprites, immense firepower, and spectacular explosions, In The Hunt is the kind of title you'd expect to find on the Neo Geo. Some have even called it "Metal Slug Underwater". If you have a single old-school bone in your entire body, gazing at this gorgeous 2D shooter could bring tears to your eyes. Released at a time when 3D graphics were becoming the rage, this game eluded most gamer's radars.

Your yellow sub can simultaneously fire torpedoes forward (rapid-fire), launch missiles overhead, and drop mines below. The eye candy is amazing as torpedoes leave bubbly trails, splashes ignite the water surface, and mines trigger chain reactions on the ocean floor. Most enemies are underwater, but you can surface to engage airplanes and level buildings. The destruction quotient is pretty much off-the-charts as bridges collapse into the water, sending train cars plunging into the depths.

In The Hunt's soundtrack isn't remarkable, but it does call to mind those glorious days when 16-bit ruled. There's just one thing that prevents In The Hunt from achieving greatness, and that's the heinous slow-down that occurs when the action heats up. It's hard to ignore in the single-player mode, and it practically ruins an otherwise terrific two-player simultaneous mode. In The Hunt is a fun game, but it seems like the hardware is struggling to keep up every step of the way.

Frogs and Flies (1982)
System: Atari 2600
Grade: A
screenshotWith its charming graphics, innovative controls, and head-to-head gameplay, Frogs and Flies is one of the Atari 2600's best kept secrets. Each player controls a small frog who can hop between two lily pads on the bottom on the screen. The control scheme is both unique and effective. By pushing and holding the joystick for a few moments, you control both the angle and distance of your frog's jump. When you miss the lilies and splash into the water, your frog automatically swims back to a pad.

Pressing the fire button flicks your frog's sticky tongue, allowing him to snag the blocky but tasty flies buzzing overhead. Each fly is worth two points and the frog with the highest score by nightfall wins. The fly movements are erratic, and it's always satisfying to snag one just before your opponent can reach it. The scenery is blocky but conveys a cozy pond environment, complete with plants lining the edge and tree branches hanging overhead.

As the sky darkens the action becomes fiercely competitive. At the game's end, a fly pulls a "The End" sign across the screen, and crickets can be heard chirping in the background. My friends and I have a blast with this game, and there's a surprising amount of trash talk. Frogs and Flies also appeals to women, and is one of the few M-Network games that supports solo play.

Super Mario Sunshine (2002)
System: GameCube
Grade: A-
screenshotIt's always a joy to play a brand-spanking new Mario game, and Sunshine radiates with all the magic and charm we've come to expect from the pudgy plumber. It's not revolutionary like Super Mario 64 (N64), but Sunshine still provides some remarkably fresh platform action. The storyline revolves around a Mario look-alike who has vandalized the beautiful Isle of Delfino. Unjustly charged with the crime, Mario is sentenced to clean up the island with the help of a high-powered, water-spraying backpack.

This innovative device really adds a whole new dimension to the standard platform fare. It's a blast to hose off nasty sludge, and you can even turn the nozzle on your foes! The water pack has a surprising number of other uses as well, like turning windmills from afar, rocking yourself on a giant swing (this one actually gave me motion sickness), and even functioning as a jet pack (by aiming the nozzles down)!

In terms of graphics, Sunshine boasts the best water effects to date, including some amazing reflections. The Isle of Delfino is a tropical paradise that rivals the lush environments of Sonic Adventure (Dreamcast) and Jack and Daxter (PS2). The music is wonderful, and many sound effects are throwbacks to classic Super Mario titles. You can save your place at any time, and the game has a reasonable learning curve.

And last but not least, Yoshi is back! What more can you ask for? Well, a better camera system for one thing! You'll need to wrestle with it constantly, and sometimes even a simple jump can be difficult to execute due to the awkward camera angles. I'm also not a big fan of the new "triple jump" move. Nevertheless, Mario Sunshine is too innovative and fun to let the minor flaws like those rain on the parade.

Ecco The Dolphin (1992)
System: Genesis
Grade: B
screenshotEcco the Dolphin was critically acclaimed in 1992, and hailed as the first of a new breed of games that would eschew violence in favor of constructive, thought-provoking gameplay (Ha!). Ecco is more puzzle game than arcade game, with spectacular water effects and a brilliantly colorful undersea world. Your dolphin's movement is silky smooth, and swimming around in the open sea and jumping out of the water is fun in and of itself.

The goal of each stage is not immediately apparent, but you'll discover hints by "talking" to other sea creatures you encounter. You'll open passages, save other dolphins, avoid deadly sharks, and eventually destroy an "ancient evil" in the grand finale. Your 25-stage journey will even take you back through time to the lost city of Atlantis. It's fun to see what each new stage has in store.

The difficulty level is ideal, providing plenty of challenge but little in the way of frustration. A password is provided at the end of each stage. In addition to its gorgeous graphics, Ecco's music is also amazing, with sometimes ominous yet mostly relaxing undersea tones. Action-oriented gamers may find Ecco a bit tedious, but ultimately this is a very satisfying adventure.

T&C Surf Designs (1987)
System: NES
Grade: C+
screenshotWhat the heck is T&C Surf Designs, a line of summer clothing? Whatever it is, I've talked to several people who have fond childhood memories of this cartridge, which offers both skateboarding and surfing action. This is an ideal game to play on a hot summer day. Skateboarding is easily the highlight, as you cruise down a boardwalk while jumping over obstacles and collecting coins. It seems like every time you play you advance a little bit further.

Surfing, on the other hand, isn't as enjoyable due to its hard-to-grasp controls. Just remaining upright on your board for more than a few seconds is a major feat. Fortunately the two games can be played separately, allowing you to forgo the surfing if you can't get the hang of it.

T&C features appealing, bright beach graphics, and the background music is a lot of fun to listen to. There's a two-player mode, but it's alternating only. On the whole, T&C Surf Designs is not great, but gets by on its sunny graphics and addicting skateboarding action.

Pitfall 2 (1984)
System: Atari 5200
Grade: A
screenshotThere aren't many adventure games for the Atari 5200, but this sprawling jungle romp is pretty much all you need! Pitfall 2 looks and sounds nearly identical to the 2600 version, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. You'll explore deep underground caverns, swim in rivers, and encounter all sorts of exotic creatures including monkeys, birds, and electric eels. From what I understand, there's an enormous hidden area that's exclusive to this 5200 version. Unlike the first Pitfall game for the 5200, there are no control problems to contend with. Pitfall 2 is fascinating and fun, but I must admit a "duck" button would have been a really good idea. The game employs checkpoints, and was one of the first to do so. Pitfall 2 is one Activision classic that truly shines on the 5200.

Finding Nemo (2003)
System: Playstation 2
Grade: C
screenshotThis game is fine to play on a lazy summer afternoon, but I couldn't find much to get excited about. The storyline faithfully follows the film, so you'll be able to control Dory and Nemo's dad in addition to the loveable clownfish himself. Although the stages are rendered in lush 3D, about half of them employ an old school, 2D style of play as you dodge enemies, avoid traps, and traverse maze-like reefs. It's also possible to hide in coral and attack enemies with bubbles.

In the 3D stages, you typically swim through rings while moving toward or away from the screen. Man, I really got sick of those after a while. This game has a way of taking a cool concept, like outrunning a Great White Shark, and absolutely beating it to death. I have never been so happy to see puzzles, which occasionally break up the monotony. My favorite stage of all involves finding a series of fish hiding in an aquarium.

Finding Nemo's colorful graphics are gorgeous as you'd expect, rivaling the clips shown from the film (and there are many). The fish swim in a fluid manner and the backgrounds are scenic yet unobtrusive. This is certainly one of the better-looking games I've played on my PS2. The controls are perfectly good, and a superb orchestrated soundtrack ranges from tranquil to intense.

Stages are reasonable in length, with frequent checkpoints. The difficulty is easy, although collecting all of the bonus items can be a challenge. There are no glaring flaws with Finding Nemo, but I found myself growing weary of it about halfway through. Younger kids and Nemo fans can safely bump up the grade by one letter, but those looking for some excitement should look elsewhere.

Frogger, The Official (1984)
System: Atari 2600
Grade: A+
screenshotThe Parker Bros. version of Frogger for the 2600 was very good, but this Official version blows it out of the water. It's astounding how faithful this is to the arcade. The lush graphics boast a brilliant color palette and a well-animated frog that takes smooth, measured hops. All of the elements of the arcade are included (even the otter), but what makes the game extra fun is the break-neck pace. You get seven lives (!) but you'll go through them quickly thanks to turtles that quickly submerge and cars that abruptly change speeds.

The first screen is leisurely but the difficulty ramps quickly. I love how bonus point values appear right on the screen, making it extra satisfying when you escort the lady frog or snag a fly. Like the other Frogger, the difficulty switches determine if you can float off the side of the screen unharmed. But what really surprised me about this game is the music.

Several songs play throughout the game, and while they lack harmony, they are all catchy and fun. Since the game rotates through a series of tunes (including Yankee Doodle), you never get tired of hearing them. It's a shame The Official Frogger is so obscure, because it's one of the most impressive titles I've played on the 2600. The game originally appeared on the Starpath series of cassette games, and was later included on the "Stella Gets a New Brain" CD.

See also The Video Game Critic's Summer Special Part II

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