Category Archives: Playstation 2

#85: Sega Superstars

Format: Playstation 2 Genre: Party Released: 2004 Developer: Sonic Team (Sega)

When I was teaching in Japan, I lived in the party house. Whereas most of my fellow assistant language teachers (ALTs) were living in one-room apartments, by sheer luck I was placed with a school that owned a two-bedroom house, so naturally I ended up playing host to lots of parties (thankfully, I had very understanding neighbours).

The Japanese cover art for Sega Superstars.

I loved my house. When I first arrived, my supervisor couldn’t stop apologising about it: she kept saying sorry for how old it was, and how the school was sorry that it couldn’t get me a new apartment, and there’s me thinking, “Blimey, I’ve got a house, woohoo!”. Of course, it wasn’t all brilliant – although I loved living in a traditional Japanese house with wooden walls and tatami flooring, this meant there wasn’t much in the way of insulation, and it got so cold in the winter that my olive oil actually froze solid in the kitchen.

But the fact that I had so much space more than made up for the lack of creature comforts, and as an added bonus I had cupboards full of random stuff that had been left by previous residents. As well as piles of books and suspicious looking bottles of spirits, I inherited a huge collection of Friends episodes taped off Canadian TV, as well as about a year’s worth of Hawaiian local television broadcasts (which were strangely compelling).

I don't fancy the bloke on the left's chances.

But the main plus to having a house was that fact that I could invite people over without any worries about fitting them all in, and I played host to a fair few parties: as well as my birthday, I held the Festivus (for the rest of us) after-party at my house, we shaved off Matt G’s massive ginger beard for charity (and everyone turned up at my door with fake beards), and of course there was the legendary Halo 2 gaming night. But whatever we were doing, we always seemed to end up playing Sega Superstars sooner or later.

I first saw Sega Superstars at the Tokyo Game Show in 2004: the game is basically a collection of twelve Sega-themed minigames, all of which are played using the EyeToy. To be honest, not all of the minigames were up to much: in particular, I remember the game based on Billy Hatcher and the Giant Egg was almost unplayable (what do you mean you don’t remember Billy Hatcher? Come on, surely everyone remembers Billy Hatcher? No? OK, moving on…). However, most of the games were pretty good fun, and a few were absolutely brilliant.

"Take that evil undead!" The zombies were as surprised as anyone when the 100-ft-tall Japanese woman loomed over the hill.

The House of the Dead game was the one that initially drew us in at the Tokyo Game Show booth, and it also proved to be one of the best on the disc. There wasn’t much to it really – just whack the zombies as they amble onto the screen – but it was compelling, and whenever we had a party, this was always one of the first games to be played. The other big hit with party guests was Virtua Fighter, where you had to punch and kick your computer opponent, occasionally raising your hands to block. This one was a constant source of hilarity for onlookers, and it led to several ‘near miss’ incidents involving wildly mistimed kicks and desperately fragile paper screen doors.

The control system wasn’t perfect though – often the EyeToy found it hard to tell whether you were punching or blocking, which led to some frustrating losses. The Space Channel 5 dancing game suffered particularly from this: the dance moves required pinpoint timing and accuracy, but sometimes the game just wouldn’t register your move, making it all but impossible on the higher levels. This was a real shame because along with HOTD and Virtua Fighter, Space Channel 5 was one of the games people often requested.

This was actually one of the weaker games in my opinion - you were simply required to move Sonic around a tunnel by waving your arms.

I know I moaned about Kinect earlier this week, but it would be great to see an updated version of Sega Superstars released for Microsoft’s system. I have such fond memories of this game that it would be fantastic to play it again, and playing it on Kinect would (hopefully) eliminate all of the annoying flaws of the original, whereby the EyeToy would struggle to disentangle your impressive kung-fu moves from the outline of the sofa behind you. Having said that though, Sega Superstars was undoubtedly the best EyeToy game out there, and although many of the games were fairly similar to previous EyeToy offerings (in particular, HOTD was almost exactly the same as that ‘whack a ninja’ game from EyeToy: Play), the slick presentation and the use of Sega characters really made it stand apart.

Still, regardless of whether it was any good or not, Sega Superstars made my life better because it reminds me of all the fantastic times we had in my little wooden house in Japan: the party house.

A scene from the 'Wear An Engrish T-Shirt' party (I think Laura's T-shirt says 'Let's Playing In The Dramas'). I've just been given the underwear as a present.

Two years after I left Japan, my successor, Eben, got in touch to bring me the sad news that the party house was scheduled for demolition. In the end the school had decided it was costing too much to maintain, and Eben was left with the sad task of sifting through all the many years of ALT detritus left in various cupboards and crannies around the house, selling what he could and binning what he couldn’t (history doesn’t record what happened to the Hawaiian local programming). I was pleased to find out that Eben had continued the tradition of partying in the house, and he was just as devastated as I was to find out it was going to be knocked down after he left – he even offered to send me a piece of the roof as a memento.

It’s sad to know the party house is no longer with us… but the good times were fun while they lasted.

Lewis

(Screenshots from puolenkuunpelit.com)

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Filed under 2004, Party, Playstation 2, Sega, Sonic Team

#82: Burnout 3: Takedown

Format: Playstation 2 Genre:Racing Released: 2004 Developer: Criterion Games

Now we’re getting near to the end of our list of 101 games, a few people have been asking me whether I’m running out of games to talk about. Far from it – in fact the tricky part is trying to work out which games to leave out. Between us we’ve got a list of about 45 ‘possibles’ for inclusion, so over half of them won’t make it past the audition.

From the very beginning though, Burnout 3 was a definite for the list. In fact, I even mentioned it on the first ever post as one of the ‘two or three [racing games] that I’ve really enjoyed” and that “rank up there as some of my favourite game experiences”. Nothing has changed in the two and a half years since I wrote that post: Burnout 3 is still one of my favourite racing games of all time. (Blimey, two and a half years, have we really been writing this blog for that long? It was only meant to take a year!)

As the subtitle suggests, the key gameplay element of Burnout 3 is ‘takedowns’ – ramming other cars off the road to earn ‘boost’. Whereas the first two games in the series put more emphasis on other ways of earning boost, like powersliding and driving on the wrong side of the road, Burnout 3 focused firmly on the takedown mechanic, and was a helluva lot more fun as a result.

In Burnout 1, filling your boost meter was an arduous task, but Burnout 3 was happy to throw boost at you like the US government throwing money at an ailing investment bank. This meant that every race whipped by at blinding speed as a sucession of nail-biting bumper-to-windscreen encounters with rival cars – and in the brilliant ‘Road Rage’ game mode, the game abandoned all pretence of racing entirely, instead encouraging you to take out as many opponents as possible within the time limit.

However, it’s the inspired inclusion of ‘aftertouch’ that really makes this game. Whenever your car gets ‘taken out’, the pounding soundtrack is replaced by an insistent heartbeat and the game switches to slow motion as your car pirouettes through the air. But, brilliantly, you still have the power to move your car – ever so slightly – while it’s spinning across the road, giving you the ability to gently nudge the wrecked chassis directly into path of your oncoming rivals, or even in front of the git who took you out in the first place.

Aftertouch came into its own in the utterly fantastic Crash Mode, where the aim was to cause as big a pile-up as possible. Playing Crash Mode with a bunch of mates was good for hours of entertainment – and interestingly, it’s one of the few multiplayer games I can think of (certainly in the pre-Wii era) where my female friends enjoyed playing just as much as the guys did.

Who’d have thought the gender divide could be bridged by multi-lane car crashes?

Lewis

(Screenshots from www.gamefaqs.com)

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Filed under 2004, Criterion Games, Playstation 2, Racing

#71: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

Format: Playstation 2 Genre: Platform/Adventure Released: 2003 Developer: Ubisoft

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time has been on my list of  ‘games to do’ since we started this blog, but seeing as the Prince of Persia film is coming out this week, now seems like a good time to cover it. By the way, doesn’t that film look absolutely terrible from the trailers? I don’t want to judge it before I see it, but I’d raise a quizzical eyebrow if it turned out to be a cinematic classic. Call me a cynic, but I’ve a feeling it will follow in the manured footsteps of  the many, many other video-game-to-film disasters – and seeing the dread name ‘Jerry Bruckheimer’ on the credits seals the deal.

I should mention at this point that I absolutely hated the original 1989 Prince of Persia game, despite its fancy rotoscoped animation – it was without doubt one of the most unerringly difficult and unendingly frustrating games I’ve ever played. I couldn’t see the point in creating such amazingly fluid animation when most of the gameplay involved creeping along at a snail’s pace while scanning the screen for barely visible traps. Then dying in said traps and starting all over again. And again. And again.

Thankfully Ubisoft picked up on this when they developed Sands of Time – not only was the game much more fluid, the addition of an ability to rewind time meant that frustrating level restarts (almost) became a thing of the past.

The rewind ability was a fantastic touch – it’s a shame it hasn’t been used more often. Who wants to click through various ‘Game Over’ screens when they die in a game? Surely it makes much more sense just to rewind back to the point at which you know you made a mistake and carry on playing. And another bonus of the rewind system is that it encourages you to experiment a little more – there’s nothing more frustrating than attempting a jump that you reckon you’ll just about make, then plummeting to your death because you were a few pixels short of a ledge (Tomb Raider, I’m looking at you). But in Sands of Time you’re free to experiment with impunity, and the game’s all the more fun because of it.

However, Sands of Time‘s biggest draw was its fluidity – Lara Croft suddenly looked like a creaky octogenarian when the acrobatic Prince arrived on the scene. The ‘wall run’ move – running along a vertical wall to clear a chasm – is one of the most satisfying inventions in videogame history, and not only does it look impressive, it’s incredibly easy to perform. The same is true of most of the game’s moves – from running up the body of an opponent and deftly flipping over his head to scampering up ledges like a monkey on uppers – and the excellent controls give you a sense of empowerment and connection with the main character that’s sadly lacking in most games.

It’s a shame the ‘Mystical Arabia’ look was all but abandoned for the subsequent two installments, which adopted a dark aesthetic that tarnished the feel somewhat, but I liked the cel-shaded 2008 reboot, even if it didn’t quite match up to Sands of Time. But regardless of the quality of the sequels, it’s interesting to see how the controls and animation of Sands of Time went on to be so influential (the wall run has since turned up in games from Assassin’s Creed to Mirror’s Edge – click here for a complete list). I wonder whether the film will prove to be so successful…

Lewis

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Filed under 2003, Adventure, Platform, Playstation 2, Ubisoft

#63: XIII

Format: Playstation 2 Genre: First Person Shooter Released: 2003 Developer: Ubisoft

OK, let’s get this out of the way first: I’m not saying that XIII is one of the greatest games of all time – in fact, it’s not even one of the greatest first person shooters of all time – but I enjoyed playing it immensely. The reason? The utterly sublime soundtrack.

Music and sound effects aren’t often what people single out when they praise a game, but a really good soundtrack can elevate any game beyond the ordinary – one of the reasons I didn’t enjoy Perfect Dark as much as  GoldenEye was that it lacked the aural finery of its spiritual predecessor (although as GoldenEye had a licensed soundtrack, perhaps that’s not the best example of musical creativity). The basic gameplay of XIII is fairly uninspired FPS fare, but the original score really draws you into the action.

Weapon noises are helpfully spelled out for the hard of hearing.

The music is obviously inspired by classic seventies action films such as Bullitt and The French Connection (listen to ‘The Big Chase’ here to see what I mean), and it reacts dynamically to what you’re doing on screen – open a door to a roomful of baddies and suddenly the bass kicks in and the hammond organ steps up a notch as the bullets go flying. One reviewer described the soundtrack as ‘jazzaphonic electronic tripped out funkuphoria‘ (try finding that section in HMV), and he’s certainly on the right track, if perhaps the victim of the NME disease of making up random meaningless but slightly cool-sounding words.

Headshots were accompanied by the appearance of three comic frames in the top-right corner of the screen, giving a snapshot of the immediate aftermath of your actions. A nice, but gruesome, touch.

The other major plus point was the plot – not something you often hear said about first person shooters. The game is based on a French graphic novel of the same name, and it’s a little like 24 in the sense that it revolves around a conspiracy to kill the president – the major difference being that the president’s already been assassinated before the game starts, so it’s more of a race to unravel the nefarious plans of those involved. Initially it borrows heavily from The Bourne Conspiracy (the novel of which was released a couple of years before the XIII graphic novel), with your character waking up on a beach with no memory of his past but with the key to a bank vault in his pocket. You’re rescued by a blonde female lifeguard in the classic Baywatch get-up, but almost as soon as she introduces herself she’s gunned down in cold blood by your unknown pursuers. I actually found this bit surprisingly affecting – there’s no shortage of shootings in most video games, but usually the characters on the receiving end are evil assassins/criminals/robots/ninjas…  it’s not often you witness the heartless killing of an innocent whose only crime was to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Like in the Bourne films, any weapon is deadly in your hands. Although in this case, a gun would definitely be preferred.

Other parts of the game are less successful – some of the level design is uninspired and the bosses in particular are badly thought out. For example, why does some random military general take several minutes longer than an average grunt to keel over under gunfire? Do they get some sort of armored undersuit on promotion? Also, I seem to remember the cel-shaded graphics didn’t go down too well on the game’s release – I think a lot of people were put off by the cartoony look at a time when most ‘serious’ first person shooters were moving towards realism. I admit that the cel-shading does seem an odd decision at first – and it really dates the game to that time in the early 2000s when cel-shading was all the rage – but I think it suits the overall feel quite well once you get used to it.

"Quick, get his wallet."

Still, despite XIII‘s shortcomings, the plot was good enough to keep me hooked to the end – and even made me buy another copy of the game. Frustratingly, a scratch developed on my first copy which meant it crashed about two-thirds of the way through, and I ended up scouring eBay for a working version just so I could find out what happened in the end. In fact, I enjoyed the story so much I’ve even got the original graphic novel on order…

But in the end, whenever I think about XIII, it’s not the intricate plot that pops into my head – it’s that ‘jazzaphonic’ seventies action film soundtrack. Have a listen for yourself:

Lewis

(Screenshots from http://www.armchairempire.com/)

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Filed under 2003, First Person Shooter, Playstation 2, Ubisoft

#42: Grand Theft Auto: Vice City

Format: Playstation 2 Genre: Sandbox Game Released: 2002 Developer: Rockstar

Whenever I think of Grand Theft Auto, I’m always reminded of the time when I worked in a computer game shop just after university (and before any smart alec asks, no you don’t need a degree to work in a computer game shop).

A frazzled-looking mother was dragged into the shop by her young son, and he made a beeline straight for the shelf with GTA: Vice City, eagerly thrusting the game box into his put-upon mother’s hands. Mum wearily approached the counter, purse in hand, ready to purchase the child’s treat. I took a look at the son – he couldn’t have been older than 11 – and said to the mother “Errr… you do know this game is an 18, don’t you?”

I’ve never seen such fury in a mother’s eyes. She swivelled the full force of her Gorgon gaze onto her cowering son, who could only tremble underneath the onslaught of her words:

“YOU NEVER SAID IT WAS AN 18!!!”

“But mum…”

“NO BUTS! OUT!!!”

I felt almost guilty as the defeated son was frogmarched out of the shop by his furious parent. Almost, but not quite.

It’s illustrative of a problem that didn’t really exist when I was growing up – parents have no idea what their kids are playing. When I was a kid, my parents didn’t really have to worry – games didn’t really get more violent than Mario jumping on the head of innocent (or perhaps not so innocent) Goombas – but a quick look at my Xbox 360 games collection reveals that about half of the titles have great big red age ratings all over them.

Does the above example show that modern parents haven’t quite cottoned onto the fact that games have become more violent? Or is it the opposite – are modern parents more aware of computer games, having grown up playing them themselves? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.

In terms of game violence, Vice City looks a bit tame now by modern standards – the cartoony graphics are a long way from the more realistic depictions in recent titles such as Modern Warfare 2. Indeed, perhaps the furore over the airport scene in the latter game indicates that video games have reached new heights of moral complexity (although in my opinion they have a very long way to go). Having said that, I still wouldn’t let my (hypothetical) kids play Vice City – as an adult, I can appreciate the humour and irony of a lot of the storyline, but I don’t think that young kids should be exposed to the various pimps, prostitutes and gangsters that populate the game.

Perhaps I’m getting too serious here – one thing that can be said about Vice City is that it’s very, very funny, perhaps the funniest in the series. I absolutely loved the inane chat shows on the talk radio stations – if I made a list of Nice Touches in Video Games, they’d be right up there, hovering around the number 1 spot (along with discovering that you can do handstands and swan dives in the original Tomb Raider).

[Click of dictaphone whirring into life] “Idea for new blog: 101 Nice Touches in Video Games. Whoa, no, hold on, make that 50 Nice Touches in Video Games. No, actually, 10 Nice… hell, who am I kidding, I’ve got enough on my plate as it is. OK, scrap that idea.” [Click]

The best thing about Vice City – like all of the GTA games – was just exploring the game world, looking for things to do. I’d occasionally attempt an actual mission, but the vast majority of my time was spent in various other pursuits, such as racing dirt bikes, stealing a police car and using it to hunt down criminals, finding hidden jumps, or attempting to nick a helicopter from the military base (that last one was difficult, but gosh darn it was worth it). Even just cruising around listening to the cheesylicious eighties music was a diverting pastime in itself (have a listen to the Flock of Seagulls song that accompanies the trailer below to get an idea of the awesomeness of the game’s soundtrack).

If you’ve yet to experience this slice of Miami Vice-inspired brilliance, I urge you to play it immediately. As long as you’re over 18 of course.

Lewis

(Screenshots from http://uk.gamespot.com.)

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Filed under 2002, Playstation 2, Rockstar, Sandbox Game

#39: Ring of Red

Format: Playstation 2 Genre: Turn-Based Tactics/Mech Game Released: 2000 Developer: Konami

It was surprisingly difficult to buy computer games in Japan – in fact, in the two years I lived there I only bought a handful of PS2 games. That’s not so say that games weren’t easily available – my local electronics store was crammed to the rafters with them – but actually finding games that only required a basic understanding of Japanese was a demanding task.

I found that the vast majority of video games in Japan were either RPGs or sports titles: unfortunately, the masses of Japanese dialogue ruled out the RPGs, and sports games have never really interested me (and especially not baseball games, which are hugely popular in Japan). The remainder was made up of popular Japanese series such as Devil May Cry and Metal Gear Solid, along with various manga crossovers (such as Naruto) and creepy dating games. Western staples, such as FPSs and driving games, only constituted a tiny minority, and my gaming diet in Japan mostly consisted of the odd Western import (Medal of Honor, Burnout 3) and a smattering of oddball Japanese titles (Katamari Damacy, Mr. Mosquito 2).

Infantry are key to success - your mech is almost helpless without their support.

After dejectedly ploughing my way through Medal of Honor: Rising Sun (not recommended), I was in the mood for something a bit different, which was when I came across Ring of Red. I bought it on a whim, and was surprised when it turned out to be one of the most interesting and compelling games I’ve played. It’s set in an alternative version of the 1960s where Japan didn’t surrender and WW2 dragged on into a protracted land war – which inevitably involved the development of mechs (this is Japan after all). After WW2 Japan was separated into Communist North Japan and Democratic South Japan, and the game starts as tension between the two sides is beginning to build (you can read more about the plot here).

Some of the mechs are capable of melee combat.

The mechs in this game are wonderfully primitive machines, all whirring cogs and smoking exhausts, and their movements are delightfully clunky and noisy, which makes a change from the sleek, futuristic machines found in most other mech games. Battles are turn-based, but each turn is governed by a strict time limit, so the action never really lets up. As with almost all turn-based strategy games, the core experience is basically two sets of stats gradually being reduced until one side has zero, but the game does an admirable job of papering over this with various strategic choices and special moves. One of the best features is aiming the cannon on your mech: the screen switches to the view of a target hovering wildly over the enemy, accompanied by the sound of your heartbeat; the longer you wait, the less erratically the target moves, but wait too long and you risk the enemy firing back. It’s a neat system and it really helps to build tension.

One of the long-range artillery mechs - basically a massive gun on legs.

The major downside is the repetition – inevitably the skirmishes get a little samey, although unlocking special moves keeps things interesting as you play on. The most frustrating thing about the game was not being able to understand the dialogue, but I managed to get the gist of what was going on… most of the time at least. Although I’m still not quite sure what happened at the end. In fact, the ending was a little abrupt in my opinion, which was annoying considering the amount of time I’d spent getting there. But then again I’ve seen much worse – the Playstation version of GTA2 springs to mind. It didn’t even have a cut scene at the end, just a black screen with the words ‘Game Over – Thank you for Playing!’

Tsk.

The lightweight mechs rely heavily on infantry support.

I can’t put my hand on my heart and say that Ring of Red is one of the best games ever made, but then that’s not the point of this list. In an ocean of lacklustre manga spin-offs, endless baseball sims and dodgy games featuring scantily-clad Japanese schoolgirls on their covers, Ring of Red was a beacon of hope – and for that it deserves celebrating.

Lewis

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Filed under 2000, Konami, Mech Game, Playstation 2, Turn-Based Tactics

#26: Katamari Damacy

Format: Playstation 2 Genre: Miscellaneous Released: 2004 Developer: Namco

Katamari Damacy is like some sort of gaming Prozac – every person I showed it to walked away with a smile on their face and a spring in their step, no chemical aids needed. It’s like concentrated happiness pressed onto a disc, ready to explode out through televisions worldwide in a giddy dissemination of the gospel of cheerfulness. And it’s utterly bonkers.

Katamari Damacy Japanese box

Let’s start with the plot. The King of All Cosmos (the enormous bloke with a crown further down this page) has gone on a bit of an alcohol binge and accidentally knocked the stars and moon out of the sky. As you do. For some reason he decides the best plan of action is to get his son, the diminutive Prince, to roll up loads of junk from planet Earth with a sticky ball called a Katamari in order to replace the missing stars. Unfortunately, I couldn’t make out much more of the plot than that (I played the Japanese version of the game – it was never released in the UK), which is a shame because if the dialogue between the Prince and the King was as joyously insane as the rest of the game, it would have been a real treat to read.

katamari damacy building

My favourite part about Katamari Damacy is its fantastic sense of scale. You start of the game with a tiny, 5-cm Katamari, and you find yourself picking up things like paper clips and LEGO bricks while dodging rampaging mice. Gradually, as your Katamari gets bigger, you find you can pick up larger and larger objects, and there’s a joyous moment in each level where the things that have been chasing you – be they mice, bears or circus elephants – suddenly turn tail and run as you bear down on them with your enormous sticky ball of doom. Eventually, by the time you reach the final level, your Katamari gets so big that you can actually pick up entire skyscrapers – possibly one of the most satisfying gaming pay-offs of all time. I found myself  compulsively replaying the final level again and again in order to make my Katamari as big as possible – to the point where I could pick up the islands themselves.

katamari damacy pencil

There’s a wonderful attention to detail throughout the game. As I was living in Japan at the time, it helped that I could recognise some of the more esoteric objects, such as the giant kotatsu early in the game and the maneki neko that seem to crop up everywhere. The items seem to get weirder and weirder as the game progresses, and some of my favourite ones crop up in the later levels, including a delightful Ultraman lookalike and even the Japanese god of thunder, Raijin, who’s hiding out in a cloud on the last level.

The actual physics of the ball are ingenious – if you pick up an awkwardly shaped object, such as a pencil, the ball reacts accordingly, making it difficult to roll in a straight line. The game could never be described as difficult, but moving the Katamari efficiently through a level requires just enough skill to make the game rewarding – and utterly addictive.

katamari damacy king

However, the highlight of the game has to be its fantastic soundtrack, which features everything from J-rock to jazz. Turn up the sound on your PC and click on the intro video further down the page – you’re in for an aural treat. Not to mention a visual feast of dancing pandas, singing ducks and rainbow eruptions…

And I guarantee that you’ll be humming the theme tune for days afterwards.

“Naaaaaaaaaaaa NaNaNaNa Na Na Na Na Katamari Damashiiiiiiiii”. Damn, that’s in my head now.

katamari damacy large ball

Katamari Damacy made my life slightly better simply because it never fails to cheer me up – even just writing about it has made me positively smirk-happy.

Everyone should play this game at least once – its combination of bizarre humour, fantastic music and addictive gameplay make it one of the best games ever released for the PS2. It’s just a shame that Namco never released it in Europe… Come on Namco, don’t we deserve a bit of happiness too?

The bizarre game opening, featuring the signature tune, “Katamari On The Rocks”.

A sample of gameplay from the US version of the game (I finally get to read a bit of the dialogue between the King and the Prince – and it’s just as bizarre as I supposed).

Lewis

(Screenshots from www.whattheyplay.com and www.ign.com)

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Filed under 2004, Miscellaneous, Namco, Playstation 2