On the Go? Here's Good Plane Fun

aaron.curtiss@latimes.com

Game Boy has always been a traveler's best friend. Now, with the supercharged Game Boy Advance, that relationship has the potential to reach new emotional levels as seat-bound passengers experience sharper graphics and clearer sound.

Plus, since Game Boy Advance cartridges are about half the size of their predecessors, twice as many games can fit in the same carry-on space. Thank goodness for that, because in the first batch of games released earlier this month there's not one compelling enough to play all the way to Kathmandu--or even Kalamazoo, for that matter.

Don't misunderstand: Each of the 17 titles available for Game Boy Advance offers beautiful visuals and game play that's more than competent. But there's no single game that boasts the addictive qualities of, say, "Tetris DX" or "Super Scrabble."

That said, though, a few games stand out as deserving a place in even the most packed luggage this summer. "F-Zero: Maximum Velocity," "Super Mario Advance," "Castlevania: Circle of the Moon," "Iridion 3D" and "Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2" all deliver entertainment bound to beat whatever heavily edited B-grade movie your cattle car of choice deigns to show.

'F-Zero: Maximum Velocity'

Somewhere over Topeka, when the peanuts run out and the kid behind you wakes up from his nap, you'll no doubt be struck by how painfully slow even a super-fast jumbo jet really is. That's the time to pop in "F-Zero: Maximum Velocity," a futuristic racer that lets players soar high above the fray.

Players pilot Hovercrafts over some tightly wound tracks. Problem is, the sides of the courses are electrified and do some heavy duty damage when pilots run into them. That simple tweak has long made the "F-Zero" series a challenge among racers. Although screaming fast, "F-Zero" is not a game to be played carelessly. Players need to concentrate on the tracks and know when to slow down if they want to survive--let alone win--a race.

'Super Mario Advance'

This cartridge actually contains two classic Nintendo games, "Super Mario 2" and "Mario Bros." Both take older players on a trip down memory lane, but both also have been updated with more graceful graphic touches and a few snippets of speech.

"Super Mario 2" recounts a tale of loss and redemption as Mario and his cohorts struggle to retake control of the world of dreams. Different characters enjoy different strengths and weaknesses. Much of the game depends on knowing what character to play when.

"Mario Bros." is a much simpler arcade-style romp in which Mario and Luigi knock Koopas on their backs and kick them off the screen. After a few easy levels, players will be struggling to keep up. It's mindless fun.

'Castlevania: Circle of the Moon'

Despite looking like a simple side-scroller with a whip, "Castlevania: Circle of the Moon" actually packs a few role-playing elements into its mission of sending Dracula back to the dead for good.

The creepy corridors of "Castlevania" teem with all manner of undead enemies. But they also are stocked with all sorts of goodies--from armor to magic jewelry. And when players whip certain baddies, they are rewarded with attribute and action cards that can be combined to cast dozens of spells.

The seamless combination of action and role-playing gives "Castlevania" a sense of depth missing from most hand-held games. It's nowhere near as involved as full-scale RPGs on the PC, but it does just fine in a pinch.

'Iridion 3D'

Despite its name, "Iridion 3D" is a two-dimensional space shooter in which players blast attacking ships that zoom out from the center of the screen. Sure, it looks vaguely three-dimensional, but players can move only along the X-Y axis--up, down, left, right.

Nonetheless, "Iridion" provides some fast-paced target practice and a perfect way to drown out the snoring from the guy next to you. The missions are similar enough that players learn the basics in the first 30 seconds.

Even so, the fast-paced terrain changes keep "Iridion" interesting.

'Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2'

Most skateboard games on hand-held machines have been, to put it politely, not that much fun. For the first time, "Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2" makes portable skateboarding enjoyable with some great 3-D movement and soundtracks that positively rock.

Players master tricks to unlock new places to skate and some of the animation in the game comes directly from the PlayStation version. That shows just how powerful Game Boy Advance is and sets the bar for other games in the future.

Even if you're not a skateboard fan, "Pro Skater" offers some challenging play amid gorgeous environments. If for no other reason, play it because it's beautiful.

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Aaron Curtiss is editor of Tech Times.

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The Skinny

"F-Zero: Maximum Velocity"

Genre: Space racer

Price: $30

Platform: Game Boy Advance

Publisher: Nintendo

ESRB* rating: Everyone

The good: Nice and fast

The bad: Repetitive

Bottom line: Very sweet

"Super Mario Advance"

Genre: Platform jumper

Price: $30

Platform: Game Boy Advance

Publisher: Nintendo

ESRB rating: Everyone

The good: Updated graphics and sound

The bad: Recycled games

Bottom line: A trip down memory lane

"Castlevania: Circle of the Moon"

Genre: Side-scrolling adventure

Price: $40

Platform: Game Boy Advance

Publisher: Konami

ESRB rating: Teen

The good: Lots of action

The bad: All two-dimensional

Bottom line: Strong

"Iridion 3D"

Genre: Shooter

Price: $40

Platform: Game Boy Advance

Publisher: Majesco

ESRB rating: Everyone

The good: Simple play

The bad: Not truly 3-D

Bottom line: A great time-waster

"Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2"

Genre: Skateboarding

Price: $40

Platform: Game Boy Advance

Publisher: Activision

ESRB rating: Everyone

The good: Fantastic visuals

The bad: Tough to see some stunts

Bottom line: A winner

*Entertainment Software Ratings Board

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