by Marty Demarest & r & Gamers are the luckiest people around the holidays. Book lovers make do with paperback editions of the summer's bestsellers, or else settle for newly released coffee table monstrosities. Moviegoers inevitably wind up rationalizing why so many of the films slated for winter release sucked, or they trumpet and overestimate the slight merits of a few decent pictures. Even TV fans are subjected to shoddier-than-normal treatment, with rebroadcasts and dilapidated "specials" filling in for everyday programming. Only gamers are treated each winter to a marketplace that renews their hobby like a springtime garden, with the shiniest new games and systems arriving on shelves each fall.
The deluxe gift for any gamer this year is Microsoft's Xbox 360. I wouldn't recommend buying one for yourself unless you are bored, have several hundred dollars of extra cash ($300, or $500, depending on the model), own an HDTV, and are standing in front of an unsold 360. Nevertheless, the machines are the coveted treasures of the season, and no serious gamer would turn down one as a gift.
Part of the appeal of the Xbox 360 is the remarkable technology it brings to home entertainment. Video game systems have consistently taken advantage of advances in technology in order to provide lavish visuals for players, wrapping them in increasingly immersive environments. The Xbox 360 undoubtedly marks the greatest achievement yet in screen-filling, with seemingly millions of colors illuminated and stirred to the point of frenzy in each game. Awe-inspiring spaces move around the player's character with preternatural fluidity. Light and shadow fall across virtual landscapes, catching on each digital detail. There can be no denying that nothing available can match the look of a game on the 360.
Currently, however, only a handful of video games have been released for the 360. Many of them are also available on other systems, meaning that popular titles such as Madden '06 and Quake 4 can be given to gamers who own a PC, and they'll look almost as good. The best of the 360-exclusive batch that is in stores now is Perfect Dark Zero, a sexy action game with a decent amount of violence and style, but it's hardly a reason to own a 360. That will come along next year with Halo 3 -- the next entry in Microsoft's wonderful game series. Until then, giving the Xbox 360 is like giving the gift of schoolyard bragging rights for six months.
Part of the 360's problem is the machine's predecessor, the original Xbox. Only four years old, it's begun to show its age, and Microsoft is still selling them in stores for $180 -- a bit expensive for 2001 technology. Nevertheless, some of the games for the system have aged decently. Halo 2, an intense first-person shooter, is a must-have title for any serious gamer, and along with a new Xbox, it's a good gift for someone who is ready to upgrade from a Playstation or Nintendo. Plenty of other, older Xbox titles can be found for lower prices as well, making games such as Panzer Dragoon Orta, Jet Set Radio Future and Fable good (and relatively inexpensive) gift ideas for someone whose Xbox needs new fuel.
Microsoft's competitor Nintendo also has a four-year-old on the market, their GameCube, a system that -- helped greatly by its $100 price tag -- has aged somewhat better than the Xbox. Like that machine, old standby games are best, whether you're picking up a Cube for the first time or just looking for something new to play. "Classics" for the system, such as Super Smash Bros. Melee and Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker are widely available used or at bargain rates ($20 - $30). Resident Evil 4 (also on the PS2) is a masterpiece of horror and action that any mature gamer should enjoy. If, however, you're shopping for someone more sedate, then the recent Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance offers turn-based battles and a beautifully presented fantasy story.
More entertaining is the lineup on Nintendo's other system, the GameBoy DS. "GameBoy" is the line of portable video game systems from Nintendo that, during the last decade, has become the most popular line of video game machines ever produced. The "DS" of the newest edition stands for dual screen, one on the top and one on the bottom of this folding, pocket-sized system. Graphics on the $150 DS are a far cry from the wonders produced by the 360, but it's the games that are available for it -- and the fact that you can play them anywhere -- that make it this season's best gaming gift.
Mario Kart DS may be the most addicting new game for any system. It's the latest entry in a series of Nintendo titles that sees the Mario characters zooming around tracks in go-kart style racers. It sounds simple, and it is. Most important, it's painfully fun, whether played alone, against the machine, or wirelessly against living opponents. Starting a head-to-head race is as easy as being online (using Nintendo's free wi-fi network) or in the same room with another DS player. Only one player needs to have a Mario Kart game card for the race to work, making it a good gift for a multi-DS home, where games need to be shared.
Another game that takes advantage of Nintendo's wireless network is Animal Crossing: Wild World, the sequel to one of the strangest -- and sweetest -- games I've ever played. Players move to a town full of animals where there never seems to be a shortage of things to do. Whether it's collecting furniture, catching fish, or planting trees, Wild World is all about interacting in real-time with a large, continually changing environment full of friends. Thanks to the DS's touch-sensitive screen, writing letters and chatting online is now almost as easy as typing, making Wild World a sort of online chat room in which you can decorate your virtual home when your friends aren't around. It's simple and innocent, and as the British newsletter Pop Bitch described it, "as addicting as crack."
Several other sequels arrive on the DS in time for the holidays. Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow puts players in the role of a vampire hunter whose task stretches all the way back to the original Castlevania in 1987. Dawn of Sorrow is easily the most impressive game in the series, with the count's vast castle and his host of minions looking midnight-hued and better than ever. It's challenging and makes awkward use of the DS's touch-screen, but old-school gamers will likely relish taking on the count yet another time. And even though the novelty of skateboarding games wore off a long time ago, Tony Hawk's American Sk8land brings a fresh sense to the series with cell-shaded graphics and touch-screen tricks to master.
At five years, Sony's & uuml;ber-console, the Playstation 2, is the oldest on the market. But its $150 price, a redesigned look and the enormous back-catalogue of games make it a good gift to consider for any gamer who doesn't already have one. The only downside is that the PS2 is destined to be followed in a few months by the Playstation 3. (If you really love someone, you should give them an IOU for that system.) But every PS2 game will also be playable on the new system, meaning that a good game now will continue giving for years.
Dragon Quest VIII is the holiday game from Square Enix, the video game publisher responsible for the popular Final Fantasy series. Dragon Quest is a big role-playing game that can take dozens of hours to complete. It will make any old school Dungeons & amp; Dragons-raised gamer happy with the level of finicky detail it brings to the characters. (Besides, it ships with a playable demo of Final Fantasy XII.) Less intricate, but more active, is Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones. While it's not the best Prince of Persia game to start with, if you know someone who has enjoyed the other titles in the series, Two Thrones will be perfect. And as far as sequels are concerned, nothing beats Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas for sheer playability. Full of crime, violence, profanity and plenty of old-school West Coast hip-hop, San Andreas puts players in a gang-filled city that's big enough to hold both of the previous Grand Theft Auto III games.
If you're looking for something even more epic, however, look to the trusty home computer, where the machine's powerful processor takes care of the computations required when entire armies clash. Age of Empires III is a follow-up to two of the best real-time strategy games ever designed, and the wide variety of combat units available and the game's sweeping geography make it a worthy addition to the series. Even better (and more prestigious) is Civilization IV, a turn-based game that challenges the player to develop and lead an entire civilization from its inception to its dominance of the planet. Few computer games have caused as many sleepless nights as the Civilization series, with players constantly trying "one more turn." Civilization IV, with the added touches of voice work by Leonard Nimoy and a soundtrack that ranges from Baroque to abstract modern music, is the classiest entry in the series. (It's also a system-hog, so make sure the recipient's computer can handle it. Unlike consoles, not all computers play all computer games.)