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STAYING IN | VIDEO GAME REVIEWS

Put the kibosh on back-seat whining

June 17, 2004|Pete Metzger | Times Staff Writer

Like sunburns and barbecues, the road trip is an annual rite of summer. Luckily for today's parents, a little invention called Game Boy Advance Video can help combat the "are we there yets."

Though they may look exactly like a standard Game Boy cartridge, GBA Videos are actually closer to DVDs. Each cartridge holds about 45 minutes of full-motion video cartoons. For less than 20 bucks, kids get four 11-minute episodes of popular titles like "SpongeBob SquarePants," "The Fairly OddParents" and "Dora the Explorer."

Sure, the images won't be confused with the same quality as DVDs, and the sound was a little tinny for our ears, but the idea of popping a cartridge into a Game Boy Advance to watch a cartoon is really cool.

Each collection features a fully animated menu screen that plays previews of the episodes. As when you play any game on the GBA, your selections -- play, chapter select, fast forward, pause and so on -- are all controlled by the keypad and buttons. The system also has a button lock to keep some dorky little sister from sabotaging the ending to the "Jellyfishing" episode of SpongeBob.

The videos are best viewed by holding the screen about 18 inches from your eyes; anything closer and the video loses a lot of smoothness. If headphones are connected (brands are sold separately, from $8 to $10 apiece), the sound of Dad, say, pointing out the world's largest ball of twine is nicely drowned out.

Will kids be OK with only four episodes per sitting? The guess here is yes. It'll beat anything out the window. Who'd want to see that stuff?

Mario to the rescue

Simple and sunny, like a summer trip to the beach, "Mario vs. Donkey Kong" is a great way to battle boredom. Mario's onetime nemesis, Donkey Kong, has been brainwashed by watching too many television commercials and steals all the cool little Mini Mario toys. It's up to the hirsute little plumber to save the day and collect the stolen booty.

Cutting-edge while remaining true to the old school, this game is one of the best-looking on the GBA and the sound (in the optionally purchased headphones) is amazing. When the beautifully animated Mario runs across the screen, his sound travels with him from one earphone to the other. Each level borrows nicely from Mario Bros. games of the past -- like the metal girders from the original "Donkey Kong," the vines and falling fruit of "Donkey Kong Jr.," and the fireball-spitting plants of the "Super Mario" series. The puzzles are simplistic yet fun and, surprisingly, not at all repetitive.

At the start of each level, a tutorial demonstrates new skills to successfully take Mario one step closer to rescuing his miniature doppelgangers. Get stuck during play? Simply jump into a help box, and the fancy trick will be diagramed. It's like having a helpline without calling a 900 number.

As with any good title for those with tiny attention spans, when you turn the game off and back on, play picks up where you left off. Perfect for the drive home.

Not for the young

Got a college-age kid who is too cool to hit the road in the family station wagon? Leave him with a copy of "Hitman: Contracts" to ensure he won't have any contact with the sun this summer.

In this "definitely for adults" game, players accept the role of Agent 47, a bald, plastic-looking hit man. Think Mr. Clean without the smile or pleasant demeanor. And he's the "good" guy; during a trip to the Romanian Meat King's fetish party, Agent 47 stumbles across the freshly butchered arm of the woman he was trying to rescue. Proving he has scruples, relatively speaking, he then kills the blood-soaked butcher. Good, clean fun for twisted grown folks.

Depending on how each mission is approached, the game can be "ho hum" or "heck yeah!" Each level has the option to attack with stealth or to go in Rambo-like. It was much easier to shoot 'em all than to be sneaky, but the game is open-ended, so you can more or less change back and forth between the two modes. As the tagline before you play the game says, "When you kill for money, there are no rules." The only rule to this splatter-fest, it seems, is don't let young kids near it.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Games

Game Boy Advance Video

Good: Like having Nickelodeon with you anywhere

Bad: Not the best picture or sound (but so what?)

Details: Each four-show volume costs $19.99.

Mario vs. Donkey Kong

Good: Colorful puzzle-solving fun at its best

Bad: Um ... uh.... We're struggling to think of something

Details: Game Boy Advance; $29.99.

Rating: E (mild cartoon violence).

Hitman: Contracts

Good: Engrossing, adults-only entertainment

Bad: Pedestrian graphics, but gameplay makes up for it

Details: PlayStation 2, Xbox platforms; $49.99.

Rating: M (intense violence, blood and gore, strong language, strong sexual content, use of drugs)

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