Old Videogames Learn New Tricks

Some videogame characters age better than others. Take Link, the hero of the "Legend of Zelda" series, who has matured from a stumpy assortment of green and brown sprites to the fully realized young man of this year's "Twilight Princess."

On the other hand, there's Pac-Man, who started out as a yellow circle with a mouth. Over the years his creators have tried to (ironically) round out his personality by turning him into a sphere with facial features, arms and legs, but none of Pac-Man's later incarnations have ever surpassed the popularity of the original.

When game publishers bring back old characters, they're usually just trying to cash in on nostalgia. Occasionally, the update outclasses the original. For example, Nintendo's 2002 "Metroid Prime" re-imagined a beloved 2D platform game from 1986, turning it into a superb 3D first-person shooter.

More typical are the seemingly endless attempts to recycle "Frogger," none of which has captured the magic of the arcade classic.

That won't stop game companies from trying to exploit our fondness for the characters we grew up with. And when developers give these old dogs some new tricks, we're more than happy to play along.

"New Super Mario Bros." (Nintendo, for the DS, $34.99): More than any other icon, Nintendo mascot Mario has happily survived the leap into three dimensions, evolving into a fully rounded character while retaining his charm. "New Super Mario Bros." is actually somewhat of a step back, returning the lovable plumber to his 2D roots. The gameplay will be immediately familiar to veterans of the Mario games of the 1980s and early '90s: as the screen scrolls from left-to-right or bottom-to-top, keep Mario moving. Along the way, there are hundreds of monsters to stomp, objects to collect and secrets to reveal. Mario has some new powers, too: He can shrink to the size of a mouse or grow into a screen-filling behemoth. It's so much fun you may be a little disappointed to discover that it ends so quickly, but each level is so packed with surprises that you'll want to go back and explore areas you might have missed.

"Lemmings" (Sony, for the PlayStation Portable, $39.99): When "Lemmings" first appeared on computers in 1991, many of us spent untold hours trying to save their hides. Each level of the game is a sort of maze that quickly fills up with dozens of the rodents; you have to direct them to dig holes, build bridges or even blow themselves up to avoid danger and make it to the exit. Fifteen years later, figuring out how to keep most of the lemmings alive is still a stimulating challenge. This new version looks terrific, with newly drawn backgrounds and animation that make the most of the PSP's graphics, and the short time it takes to finish a typical level (once you figure out the trick) makes "Lemmings" perfect for on-the-go play. Old-school fans may be disappointed to find out that most of the 150-plus puzzles are recycled from the original game (there are a few dozen new ones), but newcomers are in for a treat.

"Rampage: Total Destruction" (Midway, for the PlayStation 2, GameCube, $19.99): In the 1986 arcade game "Rampage," three giant monsters — a gorilla, a lizard and a werewolf — teamed up to tear down every building in a city, eating anyone who got in their way. It was pure, mindless mayhem, the sort of thing that's fun for a few minutes but didn't have much staying power. Alas, that hasn't kept Midway from returning to the scene every few years. "Total Destruction" adds a bunch of new monsters and lets you earn new powers for your creatures, but the gameplay hasn't evolved at all. You simply bash on things until they (or you) fall down. The beasts themselves seem kind of sluggish, and the graphics haven't advanced much in 20 years.

By Lou Kesten