THE LEGEND OF ZELDA: FOUR SWORDS, Nintendo
This new Zelda title offers a single-player option, but to get the full experience, you're going to need three friends to plug their Game Boy Advance handhelds into your GameCube (one adapter cable comes free with the game). Each of you controls one instance of the hero, Link: His possession of the famed Four Sword allows him to be in four places at one time, an advantage needed to defeat the evil wizard Vaati and rescue the kidnapped Princess Zelda with her six shrine maidens.
In most cooperative games, everybody has to move as a group, but Four Swords' hybrid GameCube/Game Boy Advance setup lets each person do his or her own thing: While the actions of the rest of your group play out on the TV, you can take your own detour and get into your own fights on your GBA's screen. The same thing happens each time your character splits off from the rest of the group to enter a building, cave or some other place out of your comrades' sight. The constant shift infocus can be confusing at first, but with a little practice it becomes a natural extension of the game.
Old fans of the Zelda series, one of Nintendo's longest-running hits, will also appreciate the game's more traditional aspects such as the graphics, which pay homage to the two-dimensional look of older versions, and the cheesy, synthesized soundtracks. -- Tom Ham
THE GAME, Activision
This game tie-in picks up about halfway through the plot of the summer movie, when the lovable ogre Shrek must make his way to the ball that his in-laws, the king and queen of Far Far Away, have planned to celebrate his marriage to Princess Fiona (herself a zaftig ogre, in case you haven't seen the flick). Kids get to help Shrek and his pals Donkey, Puss in Boots and the Giant Gingerbread Man stave off attacks by peasants, bandits, elves, knights, trees and a mean Fairy Godmother as they head from Shrek's swamp shack to the throne room. (Note: If your PC is new to action games, it may need a free update to Microsoft's DirectX software.)
As in other so-called platform games, players control one character while the computer controls the other three, using the cursor keys to sidestep projectile attacks, jump across chasms and climb up ledges, vines and pipes. A health meter keeps track of characters' success; running through the Hero Energy Bars scattered throughout the game and collecting four-leaf clovers gives each character a boost. Scattered gold coins buy potions that offer additional sorts of help; Ka-Pow Extra Strength, for instance, gives the heroes a jumbo shot of muscle (a drug reference that might be in questionable taste, given sports-page headlines these days).
One could argue that this game teaches kids how to solve problems, but let's be realistic: It's simple, mostly harmless summertime fun. -- Hope Katz Gibbs
Win 98 or newer, PlayStation 2, Xbox, GameCube, $50
Paradox is known for strategy titles, such as Europa Universalis and Hearts of Iron, that force gamers to dust off their freshman-year Western Civ notes. But Crusader Kings tops even those in its complexity.
In this game, which reenacts European history from 1066 to 1453, the world is just creeping out of the Dark Ages, today's countries are split into tiny areas ruled by quarreling families, and you're supposed to survive, prosper and conquer. As in other Paradox strategy games, you control every aspect of government: You decide how much to invest in your infrastructure and military technology; which families your sisters should marry into; how hard to work at currying favor with the pope; and how many people to train for your armies.
Combat may not be central to the game, but you can't hope to cross the street in 1066 without starting at least a minor turf war. As a strategy game, Crusader Kings doesn't let you command your men in battle. You'll only win if you've trained them well, given them good weapons and put enough of them on the field before the mailed fists come off.
As a bonus, if you actually survive history, you can import your newly formed country into Paradox's Europa Universalis II and continue playing in medieval times. -- John Breeden II
Win 98 or newer, $39
INTERNET CLEANUP 2.0, Aladdin Systems
Internet Cleanup 2.0 promises to rid your Mac of spyware and other privacy invasions, but after trying it out, the only intruder I wanted off my Mac was this very program. When it's not battling all-but-nonexistent opponents, it tackles real problems in the clumsiest manner imaginable.
Internet Cleanup's SpyAlert, for example, which scours your Mac for privacy threats, is useful only to people worried about hidden keystroke recorders (so far, no other Mac spyware exists for it to find). A feature meant to stop programs from uploading data to the Internet without permission kept blocking legitimate applications, even after I'd told it to let them be.
NetBlockade, which removes ads from Web pages, didn't work much better. It blocked pop-up ads (which Apple's Safari browser already stops) and stripped out many banner and text ads, but it also misread a few noncommercial images and swept them out of Web pages, too.
Internet Cleanup can also discard such online leftovers as browser cookies, caches and history files, as well as chat logs. This can be handy for people afraid of snoops poking around their Mac, but for the rest of us, these files can be tremendously useful and shouldn't be expunged wholesale. (Aladdin's program also misinterpreted two system files as chat logs.) A similar tool cleans attached files from your e-mail archives -- at a glacial pace.
Odder yet: A program with "cleanup" in its name can't be uninstalled easily. -- Kevin Savetz
Mac OS X 10.2 or newer, $29.99 at aladdinsys.com