by Ken Gagne

Video games can be serious business, especially when it comes to making sense of the myriad choices available this holiday season. 

The video game market is currently supporting more systems successfully than any other single time in its history. The Microsoft Xbox, Nintendo GameCube, and Sony PlayStation 2 are all competing for consumer televisions, while the Game Boy Advance offers portable pocket gaming. Each system has its own strengths and unique library of entertainment titles. Though the hardware varies in capability and expansion opportunities, the best criterion for any console purchase is the selection of appropriate software. Some games exist for all systems, while others are exclusive to one or two systems. The following games are some of the best titles released for each system this year. 

The perennial party favorite returns in Mario Kart: Double Dash!! for Nintendo GameCube. This racing game sports multiplayer mayhem as popular Nintendo characters team up to drive tandem karts, with one person behind the wheel and another acting as gunner, launching turtle shells and banana peels at opponents. Up to four players can race or battle, or eight people can network multiple GameCubes and televisions for massive tournaments. 

Another Nintendo series returns on the GameCube in The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. A young boy, a wicked warlock, and a princess in distress are elements of this 3D adventure set in a watery world. The hero Link must sail the seas and recover magical artifacts to defeat the villain Ganon. The cartoonish art style may dissuade more mature gamers who can't see past the surface into the involving gameplay, while younger gamers will need patience for both problem-solving and the long journeys between islands. 

For an aquatic adventures with less action, try Everblue 2, a PlayStation 2 game from Capcom. Players become scuba divers and salvagers, collecting junk, lost personal possessions, and legendary treasures from sunken cruise ships, planes, submarines, and pirate ships. The sale of recovered items funds the purchase of better equipment, allowing gamers to dive deeper and longer; otherwise, if they run out of air or health, or are carrying too much luggage, it's game over. Though the occasional shark or man-o-war will strike, evasion is the only option, as Everblue is entirely non-combative. With so many tasks and treasures, the game is both relaxing and addictive. 

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the not-so-relaxing PlayStation 2 and PC perversity known as Silent Hill 3, the biennial installment in Konami's survivor horror series. The resort town of Silent Hill has intersected with a dark dimension possessed by demons and unnatural monstrosities. Heroine Heather must discern her connection to this nightmare while surviving brutal onslaughts and mysterious encounters. The story connects directly with the first Silent Hill game, rewarding players who have previously experienced the series. Disturbing images and a pervasively profane atmosphere render this game for adults only. 

It's less frightening to take up arms against the underworld in Konami's other gothic game, Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow, for the Game Boy Advance. Castlevania, the home of the ancient and evil Dracula, has reappeared in the year 2029. Trapped among its evil inhabitants, young Soma Cruz must employ both the classic armaments of swords and axes with futuristic weaponry to escape the vampire lord's domain. This action-adventure game challenges players to collect the souls of Soma's enemies, each which increases his range of moves. Fatalistic fiends will try the skills and souls of even the hardiest vampire hunter. 

From dungeons and demons to dragons, take to the skies in Panzer Dragoon Orta, an Xbox game from Sega. A highly advanced civilization long ago wrought its own destruction; now, an age of unearthed technology clashes with fantastical creatures. A young girl of unknown origin is chosen by a dragon, a creature thought extinct, to help overthrow the draconian Empire currently enslaving the world. This flying game moves airborne gamers along a set path, but allows them the freedom to combat hostiles from 360 degrees, as the both the dragon and its foes can circle to any of each other's sides, calling for swift decision-making and button-pushing as players sweat and tear over its extreme difficulty. 

Remain airborne in Skies of Arcadia Legends, a GameCube role-playing game (RPG) by Sega. Air pirates inhabit this fantasy world of floating islands and endless skies, where ancient crystals are being revived to threaten the six kingdoms. With all the vibrancy and enjoyable storytelling of the early Final Fantasy games, Skies of Arcadia has aged well since its original release for the Sega Dreamcast some years ago. 

Technology and fantasy are combined in another galaxy far, far, away in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, published by LucasArts for both the Xbox and Windows. Set 4,000 years before the events of the films, this Star Wars role-playing game lets players tailor their own protagonist with which to venture forth and defeat a Dark Jedi uprising. Gamers will converse with hundreds of people, spanning hours of spoken dialogue, and will be presented with decisions that will determine whether they fall to the Light or Dark side of the Force. The massive inventory and complex gameplay system isn't for people looking for a simple, fast-paced time, but Knights draws fans in as few Star Wars games do. 

You needn't travel to the stars to find conflict. Nintendo's Advance Wars 2 for the Game Boy Advance offers strategic struggles as players plot against the imperialistic Black Hole army. Using a gridded map, players move units representing tanks, bombers, infantry, and batteries, while managing resources to produce new units in the fight. Two Game Boys can be connected for players to battle against each other, or to swap terrain maps they've created for custom campaigns. The animated setting and lack of demonstrated violence make this game appropriate for any age of gamer willing to think through her moves. 

More frantic but no less calculating is the combat in Soul Calibur II, a fighting game for the Xbox, PlayStation 2, and GameCube. Published by Namco, Soul Calibur pits two fighters wielding swords, nunchakus, polearms, staves, and whips against each other in 3D arenas. Each warrior has a vast repertoire of detailed maneuvers to master, elevating combat to an art style. Exclusive to each version of this game is a unique character: the comic book character Spawn on Xbox; on PlayStation 2, Tekken's unarmed Heihachi; and best of all, Link, the hero of Nintendo's Legend of Zelda series, on GameCube. 

Soul Calibur II is a worthy sequel, as are many of the best games of 2003. With decades of franchises under its belt, the electronic entertainment industry has made an art of resurrecting old licenses and preserving their heritage while updating them for a new generation of consumers. This remodeling doesn't always succeed, but the above nine sequels are proof that, this holiday season, what's old is often worth being new again.

This article is copyright (c) 2003, 2007 by Ken Gagne. All rights reserved. Not to be distributed without permission.

Original publication: Gamebits, 01-Dec-03