With a generation of young adults that grew up with video games now at an age when they can afford to make big purchases, entertainment companies have realized that there's an enormous market waiting to be tapped with big-ticket video game systems. And with the increase in the systems' prices, comes increasingly flashy technology and astonishingly fun games. This year, with both Nintendo and Microsoft debuting new gaming machines, and Sony's Playstation 2 reaching its first birthday, anyone wanting to be entertained on a whole new level, and willing to part with the cash, will have plenty to choose from.
Perhaps the best way to answer shoppers' questions about the three systems' respective strengths and weaknesses is to take a look at some of the games that are being released for them this holiday season. After all, without games, the consoles are just expensive electronic boxes. And, if a gamer is on your holiday list, a good choice can mean months of fun. (Note: most games cost in the neighborhood of $50, and are available at almost any software store.)
Nintendo's GameCube, ($200) is the product of the company that's been in the interactive entertainment business longer than almost any other. For a while, especially in the '80s, the name Nintendo was synonymous with home video games. That across-the-board recognition is what the company is currently building on. Right now, the game that may be the biggest reason to own a GameCube features tons of familiar characters from Nintendo's roster -Super Smash Bros. Melee. Drawing on the likes of Mario, Princess Peach, Link from Zelda, Donkey Kong, Samus from Metroid, and even Pikachu, the game is all about spastic, cartoon-style, over-the-top battles. Whether it's Pikachu versus a roomful of miniature dinosaurs, or Mario and Zelda duking it out with enormous hammers on top of a flying spacecraft, Super Smash Bros. Melee may be one of the most entertaining and engaging fighting games ever made.
Any household with a GameCube this holiday will also want to consider Star Wars Rogue Leader: Rogue Squadron II. It puts players in command of starships and speeder bikes that look exactly like their counterparts in the movies. Rogue Squadron is as close as you can come to being in George Lucas's universe. Even though the game is only for one player and there are only about a dozen missions, the challenges they present will keep players at it well into the new year.
Perhaps the sleeper hit for the GameCube this year, and certainly one of the year's most innovative and enchanting titles anywhere, is Pikmin. The story concerns a scientist named Olimar, who crash-lands on a planet and enlists the help of strange plant and animal hybrids that he calls Pikmin to help him find the lost parts of his ship. Olimar only has 30 days in which to accomplish his task, and since time in the game keeps moving forward, players will have to go through the whole experience a few times before they have the hang of the multitasking and frantic problem-solving required for victory. More than any other game, Pikmin shows off the incredible graphics the GameCube can produce, and the ceaseless invention they manage to inspire in game creators.
Sega - having given up on their Dreamcast, is now making games for other platforms, and their offering for the GameCube is Super Monkey Ball - a fast-paced, silly party game that features almost never-ending challenges, and a distinct, wacky look, with lots of monkeys rolling around in balls.
Microsoft's Xbox, ($300) with its built-in hard drive, DVD player, Ethernet adapter, and dazzlingly fast processor, may not be a pure gaming machine, but it does make for games that are mind-bogglingly good. Leading the list of these is Microsoft's own Halo, an intense action game that puts players in the role of a "Master Chief" fighting an alien invasion in space. Intense, fast, and beautiful to watch, as Halo shows with its capabilities, the Xbox should be a strong contender in the console wars in the years to come.
Also published by Microsoft is the quirky and utterly compelling Oddworld: Abe's Oddysee, which features creatures and puzzles so unique and bizarre that a description in the space available isn't really possible. But it's hard to imagine the game being as much fun had it not been realized on a machine that allowed the designers to bring their thoroughly original idea to detailed life.
Other titles that will make Xbox owners happy include the best rendition of the classic football series, Madden 2002. Players can take any of the 32 NFL teams through season after season of play, even starting their own leagues. The players are modeled and animated so realistically, and the play-by-play commentary and camerawork so authentic, that viewers have walked past this game and stopped to watch, not knowing it wasn't a real broadcast. If realism isn't your gamer's thing, consider Cell Damage, which is as close as a video game has come yet to looking and feeling like a real cartoon, as players race through multiple levels, demolishing the competition with whacked-out weapons and interactive environments.
Transworld Surf could end up doing for surfing what Tony Hawk's Pro Skater did for skateboarding. Aside from a few graphical glitches, the game flawlessly puts players on some of the world's best surfing beaches, cresting some breathtaking waves and grabbing air while sharks swim by.
At one year old, Sony's Playstation 2 ($300) has had a chance to earn a dedicated following and gain some more impressive titles for play than it had last year. Among them is the eagerlyawaited Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. Players once again have the chance to take on the role of special agent Solid Snake as he infiltrates the operations of a futuristic terrorist agency. Almost cinematic in its approach, the game will have fans of the series immersed in a world of tension and action like no other title on the market.
An even more adult experience, with almost as much exhilaration, can be found in Grand Theft Auto 3, where players take on the role of a criminal carrying out missions for a local family. Not for the faint of heart or squeamish, Grand Theft Auto 3 is nevertheless a well-designed, action-filled video game for older players.
And a different type of experience is available on the PS2 with the MTV Music Generator 2, a "game" that gives players all the tools they need to create truly professional sounding music tracks with nothing more than a video game console. From hip-hop to pop and R & amp;B, MTV Music Generator 2 makes creating polished sound (with as many as 48 separate channels and a whole range of customizable special effects) as easy as playing a game.
So which console system will win the "console wars" that are going on this year? While it can be tricky to make predictions this early, at the risk of merely being wrong, the technology packed by the Xbox makes it an undeniably strong competitor, and the GameCube is different enough in focus to set it apart from the competition. Sony's Playstation 2 is the weakest machine of the three, and may have some ground to cover over the next few years.