by Marty Demarest

Consoles -- Back in the 1970s, writer Gore Vidal bemoaned the influence of movies on the world of fiction. Novels, he claimed, were becoming more like movies. Now, of course, film critics wail that their medium has been tainted by the touch of video games. But if anything, video games are now becoming more like novels: extremely long, intricate stories filled with more imaginative details than could ever be found in reality. And far from going away, this trend shows every sign of progressing. Not only has the technology reached a level impressive enough to realize almost any imaginative setting or character, but gamers, once considered to be exclusively children, have grown up. Many of the kids who cut their teeth on the early consoles are now reaching their 30s, and they have enough disposable income to fuel a multi-billion dollar industry that's driven by $50 games. This older age group has taken games from innocent stories to morally ambiguous extravaganzas. And they couldn't be more entertaining.

PLAYSTATION 2 -- Selling for a hefty $200, the two-year-old PlayStation2 nevertheless continues to be the most popular console system available, with an enormous library of games to choose from. First among these is Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, the sequel to last-year's No. 1-selling game. Like its predecessor, Vice City is a game clearly intended for adults, as it features large amounts of sex and violence. But like the earlier game, it's also incredibly fun to play. Players take on the role of Tommy Vercetti, an '80s-era thug with acid-washed jeans, who is given a series of criminal missions in this Miami-like town. Whether players carry out these assignments is up to them, however -- they can choose to engage in their own forms of crime, or simply soak up the sun while driving around. The graphics are remarkable, the music is even better, and if you actually get around to playing the missions, the story is better than any modern crime novel.

Also looking great on the PlayStation2 is the kid-friendly Ratchet and Clank. Putting players in charge of a cat-like creature named Ratchet, the game takes them around a very Douglas Adams-y galaxy filled with Germanic sports-robots and fatuous super-heroes. The action is fast, funny and very complicated; and even though the game is rated Teen, most of the cartoonish violence is directed at robots. Looking even better is Sly Cooper and the Thievious Racoonus, in which the main character -- a lanky raccoon thief -- sets out to recover a stolen gift.

Longtime video game publisher Square has established itself as the leader of role-playing games with its Final Fantasy series. This year, however, the company puts a spin on its familiar style, by fusing its magical science-fiction universe with Disney's roster of cinematic cartoons. Kingdom Hearts will thrill fans of both Disney and of action games, as players fight their way through the classic settings of Alice in Wonderland, The Nightmare Before Christmas and The Little Mermaid, confronting some of the most memorable villains ever created with the assistance of Donald Duck and Goofy. Just as unique, but far more traditional in terms of gameplay, is Wild Arms 3, which brings magic and fantasy to a Wild West setting. The game is long, filled with intricate puzzles and will likely keep RPG fans happy for months of gaming.

And what good would a console be without some sports games for fans? Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4 is the latest -- and easily the greatest -- game in the popular skateboard series. Taking just moments to pick up and understand, the game will keep players engaged endlessly trying to master the different tricks as they skate in perfectly recreated parks from around the world. Much more daunting to learn is the intricate Madden 2003, which is easily the most realistic football simulation game players will encounter this year. It features all-new commentary and an unprecedented level of control.

GAMECUBE -- As impressive as the PlayStation 2's titles are, the year's best game can be found only on Nintendo's $150 GameCube (now available with a very cool platinum finish). Metroid Prime is the type of game that players have been dreaming of for years: enormous, beautiful-looking and nerve-rattlingly intense. Set on a claustrophobic alien planet, Metroid Prime puts players in the cybernetic armor of galactic bounty-hunter Samus Aran, a human female. Whether they're battling towering alien enemies or simply running through the game's seamless, sprawling world, players will find themselves gaping at the new standard Nintendo has set.

Almost as remarkable and addicting are Nintendo's other adventure games, each one starring one of the company's iconic mascots. Mario Sunshine is Mario's candy-colored entry onto the GameCube. Sent on a mission to help clean up a tropical island, Mario's jumping and collecting are as addicting as ever. Older kids will love Starfox Adventures, which puts players in the paws of Fox McCloud, who leaves his famous spaceship in order to explore and do battle on a planet populated with talking dinosaurs. Even though it's rated Teen, the game's combat is cartoonish, and the character's dialogue is perfectly appropriate for younger players, although they may find some of the controls hard to master.

Older gamers will enjoy the zombie-fest of Resident Evil 0. Even though it's the same basic game as previous Resident Evil titles, complete with frustrating controls, the monsters have never looked better. Which is intentionally not the case with Godzilla: Destroy All Monsters, which faithfully replicates the man-in-rubber-suit authenticity of 12 classic Toho monsters like Rodan, Mothra, Gidorah, and, of course, several incarnations of Godzilla. Fans of fighters will either love or hate the game's hilarious epic battles, in which the awkward beasts pick up sections of Tokyo or Seattle and heave them at their opponents while cars swerve away underfoot. But really, if they're not cool enough to appreciate the hovering flying saucers and authentically bad dubbing, they probably shouldn't be playing video games anyway.

Finally, two games that any household with a GameCube should consider owning are Animal Crossing and Mario Party 4. Animal Crossing may be the most bizarre video game ever made. With no goals or missions to accomplish, players simply move into a small cartoon town populated with animals. What happens after that is up to each player, but it can involve shopping, decorating, composing music and writing lots of letters to the animals. It may sound childish, and it certainly is as innocent as a game can be. But it has been called "as addicting as crack" by the e-zine Pop Bitch and prompted the band Weezer to give fans instructions for putting their music into the game. A bit more competitive, however, Mario Party 4 is the first GameCube title in the compelling party series. Set up like a board game, in which players regularly compete in small, fast mini-games, it's the perfect game for parents to play (really play, not just pretend-play) against their children. It's a blast whether you're under the effects of a sugar rush or something stronger.

XBOX -- Despite the enormous loss Microsoft is taking from its Xbox venture, it keeps publishing some strong titles for the $200 machine, making it a good option especially for older players. And now that the Xbox Live online gaming service ($50 for one year) has launched, gamers with a broadband Internet connection may want to check out the system's ability to hook up players around the globe while allowing them to chat through the machine's headset. These features are put to great use in Mech Assault, which may be the most purely fun shooter ever created. Controlling giant robots in large, sprawling worlds, players can either undertake the game's punishing single-player levels, or go online and lay some serious hurt on players from all over the world.

Also in the intense category, albeit with a bit more realism, is Medal of Honor: Frontline, which puts players in the combat boots of Lt. Jimmy Patterson as he uses the real-world offensive Operation Market Garden to infiltrate the German frontline. All of the game's weapons are based in reality, and at times the game's stealth and tension are overwhelming. Of course, if reality is too much, players can unwind with a standard split-screen multi-player mode. And Tom Clancy takes realistic combat into the modern era with Splinter Cell, where players take on the role of a stealth operative neutralizing terrorist threats. Emphasizing covert action over blazing-guns, Splinter Cell is an intense, beautiful game.

Players looking for children's games on the Xbox, however, might want to consider Blinx. The first game to seriously use the Xbox's built-in hard drive, the game lets players manipulate time -- speeding the game up, rewinding it, pausing the computer's actions and recording copies of their actions for "playback" later -- as they control a cat whose mission is to set time straight. Composed of quick, replayable missions, Blinx is a good-spirited, beautiful title.

GAMEBOY ADVANCE -- The only system to keep up with the PlayStation2 in terms of sales is Nintendo's little handheld GameBoy Advance. At $70, the machine packs the power of the old PlayStation, and boasts a huge library of games. This year's crop is led by the old-school side-scrolling adventure Metroid Fusion. While short, the game is challenging, and once completed, can be used to unlock some secrets in the GameCube's Metroid Prime.

Zelda: A Link to the Past is the successful conversion of a popular Super Nintendo game (remember those?), where players swing swords and cast spells through the magical land of Hyrule as the elfin hero Link.

Given the GameBoy Advance's size, it's astonishing to see some of the graphics on the system -- particularly in Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance, which is a horror-themed adventure game dripping with vibrant colors and nifty effects. On the opposite end, though no less delightful-looking, is Yoshi's Island, which is a game in the popular Mario series. Featuring a hand-drawn style of cartoon graphics, the game is deceptively challenging and surprisingly long. Also nearly limitless in terms of play is the handheld version of Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4, where players can spend months perfecting their tricks and unlocking all of the game's secrets.

Dreamworks Animation: The Exhibition @ Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

Tuesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Continues through Sept. 11
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