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Press Start: December 2007 -- Must-Haves!

In this month's edition of "Press Start," Peter "The Rizk" Rizkalla writes down his list of the must-have games for the holiday season.

Like I said before, the holiday season is here and there is a maelstrom of games that are now flooding inventory rooms of game retailers across America. A lot of them are just plain god-awful; still, some of them are worth a few bucks for a rental and some others are actually pretty fun. But which games out there really warrant a purchase? Which games out there are so worth keeping that you would still be willing to play them waaaaaaaaaay down the road?

Because I care for my fellow gamer so much, I have come up with a few great games that are all worthy of playing, keeping and playing again for years to come. Every game in this list is a "must-have!" But hey, you really don't have to take my word for it; in fact, you really don't even need to read this article.

NOTE: AWN does not agree with the preceding statement. In no way does AWN support this writer's previous opinion. However, AWN fully supports the following statement:

But if you really want to know what shining stars the game industry has to offer this time around, sit back and check out the rest of this article, as The Rizk lets you in on which games are absolute "must-haves" during this holiday season. Let me wish you a Merry Christmas, Happy Hannukah, Happy Kwanza and all that jazz while you take a ride on this month's edition of "Press Start!"

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You'd think gamers would be sick of seeing that same chunky Italian plumber show up in every game imaginable. But that's not the case. This time, Nintendo has released one of the best Mario games in history, Super Mario Galaxy. All Galaxy images © Nintendo.

Super Mario Galaxy for the Nintendo Wii; Publisher: Nintendo; Developer: Nintendo; Release Date: November 12, 2007; ESRB Rating: E for Everyone; Genre: action/adventure; Players: 1-2; Support: N/A; Online: N/A

You would think that the game industry would be sick and tired of seeing that same chunky Italian plumber show up in every kind of game imaginable. But no, that's not the case. In fact, it seems like gamers can't get enough of the mushroom-chomping, high-jumping hero no matter how many games he puts out! But this time is very different; not since the outstanding Super Mario 64 has Nintendo seriously created a work of art like this one. Now, after enjoying ridiculous amounts of success with the "still increasing" sales of the Wii, Nintendo has released one of the best Mario games in history, Super Mario Galaxy.

Like Super Mario 64, Super Mario Galaxy is an action-adventure title where players take control of Mario who, once again, must save Princess Toadstool from King Bowser. Bowser has outdone himself in this one; not only does he kidnap the Princess, he steals her and her whole freakin' castle and takes them to some hidden area in space. A new princess shows up to help Mario by giving him the ability to travel from galaxy to galaxy. In return she asks Mario to retrieve the power stars that Bowser has stolen from her.

Mario moves by using the analog stick and jumps with the A button. All of his classic jumps are back, like the triple jump, the long jump, the back flip and the side flip. Mario also performs a spin attack via a gentle shake of the Wii remote. When venturing off to find a star, players move Mario around small, oddly shaped land masses in space, each with its own gravity. It's like walking all over a planet the size of a house. Mario can jump from land mass to land mass if they are close enough. If not, Mario can use a launch star which sends him hurtling through space to the next area. You would think all that flying and walking upside down would screw up the camera but it doesn't. For the most part the camera stays in a good position no matter what the circumstance is.

As far as graphics go, Galaxy has got to be the best-looking game on the Nintendo Wii. It even outdoes Metroid Prime 3, which is not an easy win. As usual with almost any Nintendo game, Galaxy's frame-rate runs at a constant 60 frames per second and has some of the most incomparable particle effects you'll ever see in a game. The fur effects in Galaxy are excellent, although you don't see them that often. Most notable is the fur on the queen bee in Honey Hive Galaxy.

Some of the coolest new additions to this Mario title are the power-ups. Mario can now fly and stick to honey-soaked walls as Bee Mario, walk on water by freezing it as Ice Mario and pass through walls like a ghost as Boo Mario. The sheer amount of things you can do in this game is awesome. Hidden stars are all over Galaxy, and going for a shooting star is just plain fun. A shooting star will have you play through a level that you have already played, but it will add a stipulation like all enemies now move faster or you have to race a shadow Mario to the awaiting star.

Fortunately for you and unfortunately for me, I can't seem to find anything wrong with this game. Even if I did try to talk about whatever microscopic problems this game might have, I would totally feel like a hairsplitting whiner for doing so. Plain and simple, this game is righteous! If you have a Wii and someone buys you this for Christmas, it means they freakin' love you.

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For its usual newly-formed-band-rises-to-the-status-of-rock-gods story, Guitar Hero III offers superb 2D animated scenes showing your band signing record deals, shooting a music video, promoting, and other hilarious bits. All GH3 images © 2007 RedOctane, Inc.

Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock for the Nintendo Wii; Publisher: RedOctane; Developer: Vicarious Visions; Release Date: October 28, 2007; ESRB Rating: T for teen; Genre: rhythm; Players: 1-2; Support: guitar controller; Online: 2-player online battles and face-off matches.

Ah, Guitar Hero. We've been down this road before, haven't we? Your fingers are probably still smoking from Guitar Hero Encore: Rocks the 80s, but you know damn well that ain't gonna stop you from adding some more Ben-Gay onto those knuckles in preparation for Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock. GH III has been released for all the mainstream home consoles and each version of GH III was released as a bundle that contained the game and a brand new wireless guitar controller specially made for each individual console, including Mac and PC.

The career mode in GH III has got the whole traditional "play 3 out of 4 songs, then play an encore, then move on to the next venue with 4 new songs" deal (that's if you're playing on medium difficulty). What's awesome this time is that even though every Guitar Hero title has had the same story where a newly formed band rises to the status of rock gods, GH III actually has some awesome 2D animated scenes in-between rock sessions showing your band signing record deals, obliviously shooting a music video, reluctantly doing promotional deals, and other hilarious bits.

New to GH III are the guitar battles where you play a song head-to-head against an opponent. I know you're probably saying "that's totally been done before," but not like this; as you play through a "battle" song, you collect and use weapons that affect your opponent's performance, like dramatically raising the difficulty of his song or breaking one of his strings so that he has to repair it during play. Winning a battle-mode song requires you to use weapons to cause your opponent to fail the song completely. The game will pit you against characters such as Slash from Guns N' Roses; Lou, the devil of rock; and, of course, the God of rock! As you play and beat these characters, you can then use them throughout the game.

To make things even sweeter, Vicarious Visions and RedOctane have made it so that Guitar Hero III can be played online for the first time ever. Hallelujah! Players can hook up online to play face-off matches to see who can rack up more points, and online battles to really get competitive. GH III adds even more songs this time around. There is a fair mix of new-school songs from guys like Slipknot and The Killers, and old-school hits from guys like Santana and Pearl Jam, in addition to a whole list of bonus songs that can be unlocked. Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock definitely lives up to the anticipation and is a fun experience even if you aren't really into rhythm games.

Two decades and two sequels later, there is an official fourth installment of the Contra series: Contra 4. This sequel has kept true to its roots as a 2D sidescrolling, platforming shooter. All Contra 4 images © Konami.

Contra 4 for the Nintendo DS; Publisher: Konami; Developer: Wayforward Technologies; Release Date: November 13, 2007; ESRB Rating: T for teen; Genre: action shooter; Players: 1-2; Support: multi-card wireless play; Online: N/A

Wow, you want to talk about old school. It's been two decades since the birth of the first-ever Contra on NES systems all over the world and, after two sequels on the NES and Super Nes (Super C and Contra III: The Alien Wars), we now have an official fourth installment of the Contra series on the Nintendo DS, Contra 4! I am happy to say that Konami decided to keep Contra true to its roots by allowing it to be a 2D sidescrolling, platforming shooter like its extremely successful older brothers. I'm even happier to say that Konami has brought on Wayforward Studios to put together this installment of Contra. You might remember Wayforward as the muscle behind the hit Game Boy Color title Shantae and the creators of Disney's American Dragon: Jake Long -- Rise of the Huntsclan for the GBA.

Contra 4 is the kind of game that will make you a man. What could be manlier than blasting flying aliens, while hanging onto a small handle on a rocket as it hurls you through the sky?

Contra 4 starts you off as any other Contra does; you're thrown into enemy fire right from the start. As you shoot your way through hoards (and I mean hoards) of enemies, you will pick up weapons such as machine guns, lasers, homing missiles and, of course, the tried and true flagship weapon of the Contra series, the spread shot. Contra 4 pushes superb 2D graphics even for the DS (with just a dash of 3D art), while still maintaining that old-school feel. Things can get seriously chaotic, but nothing is ever unrecognizable. Even in heavy pandemonium, bullets are not small enough that they would not be noticeable and not large enough that you can't get away from them. Another example is that, when fighting a huge alien boss, you see the tip of his tail before he thrusts it at you, giving you a fighting chance to dodge it. Those are the kind of things that show good gameplay design.

This game is a challenge even on easy difficulty, but is still approachable. You're given two slots to hold two different weapons which you can switch between at any time. Weapons can also be upgraded to be more destructive by picking up the same weapon twice. Contra 4 does an awesome job of displaying the action across both DS screens; you're even given a grappling hook to help you zip from the bottom screen to the top screen and blast the enemies on the high ground. To celebrate the 20th anniversary of Contra, Konami has also included a museum where you can view art, screenshots and facts about the past iterations of the Contra series. Not only that, but Konami also bombshells us with the addition of the full versions of the original Contra and Super C on the same cartridge.

This is the kind of game that will make you a man. What could be manlier than blasting flying aliens while hanging onto a small handle on a rocket as it hurls you through the sky? Or what about falling down a waterfall as you blast the head of a gigantic clawed monster? That'll put some hair on your teeth! Well-deserved credit should go to director Matt Bozon, animation director Marc Gomez and all the other Wayforward guys and gals for putting together one hell of a ride.

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Welcome back, Virtua Fighter! Virtua Fighter 5: Online finally adds online play to the mix. All VF5: Online images © SEGA.

Virtua Fighter 5: Online for the Xbox 360; Publisher: SEGA; Developer: AM R&D Dept.2; Release Date: October 30, 2007; ESRB Rating: T for teen; Genre: fighting; Players: 1-2; Support: N/A; Online: 2-player ranked and player matches with custom rules

The very second that Virtue Fighter 5: Online loaded onto my Xbox 360 I instantly heard the theme song from Welcome Back Kotter! Boy it's great to have Virtua Fighter back. Virtua Fighter 5: Online for the 360 is basically the exact same game as Virtua Fighter 5 for the PS3 except that VF5: Online finally adds online play to the mix.

First off, VF5: Online is one of the best-looking games you'll ever see on current-gen consoles. The character models are exemplary and the lighting and texture-mapping are (dare I say...) flawless! Considering how artistically sophisticated this game is and knowing how much hardware muscle is needed to run such gorgeous visuals, it is amazing how this game manages to run at a constant 60 frames per second. Frame rate is very important in a fighting game; there is no other game genre in existence that requires you to have such intuitive reaction and, if the frame rate is bad and/or the control is unresponsive, then it botches up the whole game.

VF5: Online has a roster of 17 fighters to choose from and all of the classic characters have returned, including the newly added El Blaze from the PS3 version. As in Virtua Fighter 4, VF5: Online still has many different modes, including an arcade mode, a versus mode, a training mode and, of course, a quest mode, which is now a tradition in VF games. Quest mode places you in a digital neighborhood that's filled with arcades. Players choose a fighter and travel from arcade to arcade, defeating a series of players in each one while earning money and items. Players can then use the money they've earned to unlock items and clothing to customize their fighter, which is similar to what you will find in Tekken: Dark Resurrection. Mind you, this is not an online mode.

Let's get one thing straight: Virtua Fighter 5: Online is not about crazy speed and huge combos. VF5: Online caters to the strategic fighter, the kind of guy who likes to outmaneuver his opponent with traps, set-ups and reversals. This is a solid fighter and one that raises the bar for other game developers. It's great to finally be able to play VF5: Online in player and ranked matches, but, even without the online mode, this is still one of the best fighters to ever come out of the game industry. Kudos to the programmers and animators at AM R&D Dept. 2.

Thankfully, Zack & Wiki: Quest for Barbaros' Treasure turned out to be one of the best games for the Nintendo Wii! All Zack & Wiki images © Capcom.

Zack & Wiki: Quest for Barbaros' Treasure for the Nintendo Wii; Publisher: Capcom; Developer: Capcom; Release Date: October 23, 2007; ESRB Rating: E for everyone; Genre: puzzle / adventure; Players: 1; Support: no nunchuck needed; Online: N/A

You ever check out a game because there is so much hype around it, only to find out that the game is a pile of crap? Well, Zack & Wiki: Quest for Barbaros' Treasure is the exact opposite. There was barely any hype around this title and it has turned out to be one of the best games for the Nintendo Wii!

Zack & Wiki is a puzzle/adventure game exclusively for the Nintendo Wii with lighthearted, cel-shaded graphics that feel a lot like The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. With the help of your golden monkey Wiki, you play as Zack, who is a young pirate who aspires to be the greatest pirate that has ever lived. Ain't it always the same with Japanese games and anime? There's always some young something-or-other trying to be the greatest something-or-other of all time. Woah! Don't run off just yet -- cartoony characters and pirate bunnies aside, this game is not for kids. Zack & Wiki will challenge you with some of the most exigent and clever puzzles that you might ever face... in your whole life... until you die!

Zack & Wiki is one of the most challenging titles to come around in a while. The puzzles are hard, but not impossible. To win, a player has to think outside the box and try out everything.

The whole game is controlled using just the Wii remote (no nunchuck). Players have to hold the Wii remote in various positions to solve puzzles; for example, if you need to cut down a tree, you have to hold the remote like a saw and, quite literally, saw down the tree. More Wii remote behaviors include swinging the remote like a hammer or holding it like a flute and pressing the buttons to play music. In some puzzles, the game will actually trick you into making certain mistakes that can make the puzzle unsolvable! You'll find yourself stuck at a certain point and not even know what you did wrong, so you're forced to start over from the beginning. Sure, you can ask for hints in the game, but that's weak.

Zack & Wiki is one of the most challenging titles to come around in a while. The puzzles are hard, but not impossible; the game even tells you to look around, then look around again. You seriously have to avoid thinking conventionally and try out everything. It's like a Japanese, pirate version of MacGyver. You'll even come across musical mini-games in various levels that let you play music from retro Capcom games. Those are awesome. Zack & Wiki is a definite must-have for the Nintendo Wii and is packed with a bunch of extras; it takes full advantage of all the Wii's specific features and uses them perfectly without making them feel forced or tacked-on. Way to go Capcom!

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Uncharted: Drake's Fortune is a perfect example of a great game that deserves way more hype than it has. All Uncharted images © SCEA. 

Uncharted: Drake's Fortune for the PlayStation 3; Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment America (SCEA); Developer: Naughty Dog, Inc.; Release Date: November 19, 2007; ESRB Rating: T for teen; Genre: action/adventure; Players: 1; Support: N/A; Online: N/A

One of the most risky endeavors in the game industry is creating a game based on an entirely independent property. Take The Legend of Zelda series, for example; there are boatloads of fans of the Zelda series, so any new Zelda game that is released will sell extremely well. However, a new game with a name that no one has ever heard of does not easily convince buyers to open up their wallets, especially considering how pricey games can be right now! It's a crying shame that great games can go right under the radar, but all of you should know by now that nothing gets by The Rizk... except that show Lost. (Does anyone understand that damn show?)

Naughty Dog Software has put together Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, an exclusive to the PlayStation 3 that is a perfect example of a great game that deserves way more hype than it has. You might remember Naughty Dog as the developers of the Jak & Daxter games on the PS2. In most games the main character is always something cool, like in Metroid Prime 3 the main character is Samus Aran, who is an intergalactic bounty hunter who was raised by an alien race, or in Gears of War you got Marcus Fenix, who's just a total badass that tears up aliens with guns, grenades and chainsaws. Uncharted is way different; you control Nathan Drake, who's just a regular old guy. He's a treasure hunter who just so happens to find an ancient journal that can lead him to the lost treasure of El Dorado.

The storyline keeps you interested throughout the game; it comes off like a movie. The voice acting is truly outstanding, with some incredible dialog and subtle yet recognizable acting. Even the facial expressions are very readable, and they change smoothly for each circumstance. I'm not talking about just during the cut-scenes -- during gameplay too. It seems that Sony developers have been stepping up the production value in their games; first Heavenly Sword, now Uncharted. The gameplay is mostly shooting your way through bad guys and solving puzzles. Nathan can leap from ledge to ledge, climb up stone walls, swing from vines, and much more. Venturing around and solving the puzzles in Uncharted feels a lot like the puzzle-solving and venturing you do in God of War II. Coincidently, the shooting feels a lot like Gears of War; you can take cover behind obstacles, then pop out to shot your enemies. You can even "blind fire," like in Gears.

Graphically, Uncharted looks great. It's set in a tropical environment, with very good lighting, shadowing and water effects. Even Nathan's clothes get wet and stick to his body after he swims through water. The whole game has an Indiana Jones feel to it. Throughout the game you can collect small hidden treasures that unlock special features in the game. There is also a chapter-select feature that allows you to go back to see if you missed any hidden treasures. You can also earn achievement points in Uncharted, but, because the PSN does not support gamer scores like Xbox LIVE, they stay in the game and not on your profile. Some of the texture maps in the environment look like they could still use some work, but are in no way inadequate. In fact, in games like BioShock, you will notice that sometimes textures will not load immediately and will suddenly appear when you get close. This is called "pop-in." It also takes time for textures to load in Uncharted, but rather than pop in once they have loaded, the game smoothly fades the textures in, so the load is less noticeable. That's a nice touch. Uncharted: Drake's Fortune is a satisfying, challenging and fun game experience and makes you glad you own a PS3. It's absolutely a must-have title. I really hope to see more of this franchise in the future.

Peter Rizkalla is a lifelong aficionado of videogames and the videogame industry. He has worked in videogame companies such as THQ and Namco and has won several awards for his animated short films, such as his videogame-themed Flash film Toadstool Funk. Peter can be reached at PRizkalla@gmail.com.

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