- The Washington Times - Friday, June 18, 2004

Superhero and cartoon characters have become integral parts of the electronic entertainment industry. Around the world, youngsters and guys who can’t get dates spend countless hours in front of their computers and video-game systems.

With this in mind, I salute the melding of pop-culture character and Silicon Valley with a look at some …

Comics plugged in

Celebrating the 20th anniversary of Hasbro’s “robots in disguise” action figures, Atari gives PlayStation 2 owners the chance to take part in a war between Autobots and Decepticons through the third-person shooting video-game extravaganza, Transformers ($49.99).

Within eight massive environments, a single player controls characters culled from the 2002 Armada line while wielding immense firepower as he searches for miniature mechanized brethren to help save a planet.

What’s the story? For the first time in the long history of the Cybertron war, Optimus Primus isn’t confident of victory. His archnemesis, Megatron, has driven an immense and unmatched robot army deep into the heart of Autobot territory. As the two mighty foes clash, perhaps for the last time, a distress signal rips across the skies. It’s a call from the Mini-con robots, the long lost Transformers race.

Knowing that the Mini-cons will tip the balance of power, the battling foes trace the signal to its origin and speed off to a tiny planet at the edge of the galaxy — a planet called Earth.

Characters’ character: These famed robots, which change from mechanical behemoths into powerful vehicular-based entities or monsters, have been entertaining children via toys, cartoons and comic books since 1984. Now they sprout to virtual life in an explosive title loaded with action and mission-based objectives.

The player chooses from the heroic Autobots lineup: Optimus Prime, leader of the team, who turns into a heavy-duty semitruck; Red Alert, who turns into an emergency sport utility vehicle; and Hot Shot. The latter turns into a slick sports car and must carefully search landscapes to acquire Mini-cons.

Each Mini-con possesses a unique attribute that can be combined with the Autobot to help it eradicate foes or complete assignments.

While roaming through a variety of landscapes, including a tropical jungle, the frozen tundra of the Antarctic and a starship, the hero encounters such legendary enemies as Starscream, Unicron and Megatron. There also are the hordes of Decepticlones whom he can blast with the likes of lasers, homing missiles, proximity mines and electrical arcs, depending on his acquisition of Mini-cons.

Among the game’s excellent nuances: using the voices of actors from the Armada animated series, storing Mini-cons at headquarters to be configured with Autobots at any time; uncovering warp gates to save progress, using Mini-cons and replenishing Energon levels; three-dimensional environments that are both beautiful and challenging; and such unlockable content as toy production stills, comic-book pages and theme songs (acquired by retrieving Data-cons).

How would Lt. Frank Drebin fare? The lieutenant found his thumb-fumbling maximized as he tried taking aim at robots blasting away at him during stress-filled moments. No automatic targeting systems to rely on here, folks. You just try to be precise in wiggling a miniature analog joystick’s crosshairs into position to unleash a maelstrom.

Fortunately, the amount of firepower available made the lieutenant giggle while running over opponents as a vehicle, then (with the simple push of a button) quickly changing back into a running Autobot to attack.

Parental blood-pressure meter: 120/90, slightly elevated. Protagonists never die in Transformers but simply power down and cease functioning after taking exhausting Energon-level beatings. However, deceptive Decepticlones explode into flaming pieces when hit, making for quite a fireworks display. In either case, parents familiar with the Transformers legacy will enjoy the title as much as their teenagers.

What if I feel like reading a book? I suggest the three trade paperbacks that compile the current,18-issue Transformers Armada series published by Dreamwave Productions. It features the gorgeous art of Pat Lee, James Raiz and Guido Guidi. Readers will enjoy “First Contact” ($13.95), which compiles the first five issues; “Fortress” (priced at $15.95) for issues 6 through 11 and “World Collide” ($20.95) for issues 12 through 18.

What’s it worth? The game perfectly merges a popular-culture icon with the video-game revolution to enable toy-collecting adults to participate nostalgically and also adds enough challenging action for their younger counterparts to enjoy equally.

Pop bytes

Here’s a brief review of game titles that didn’t have time to get fully plugged in:

Spider-Man vs. Doc Ock, by Buena Vista Home Entertainment (for DVD-enabled computers and home entertainment centers, $19.99). The owner of both the 1967 and 1994 Spider-Man cartoon series jumps aboard the “Spider-Man 2” bandwagon with an excellent digital video release touting the animated exploits of the multitentacled archenemy of the upcoming, live-action film sequel.

Viewers get the episodes “Doctor Octopus: Armed and Dangerous,” “The Cat,” “Black Cat” and “Partners” from the 1990s series and “The Power of Dr. Octopus” and “Sub Zero For Spidey” from the classic 1960s show, all with amusing introductions from Stan Lee, the man largely responsible for the superhero.

For more details, readers should try the new series devoted to Peter Parker, Marvel Age Spider-Man ($2.25 each)

Zadzooks! wants to know you exist. Call 202/636-3016, fax 202/269-1853, e-mail jsza kowski@washingtontimes.com or write to Joseph Szadkowski at The Washington Times, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20002.

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