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Ever More Ways to Play

By Mike Musgrove
Sunday, November 26, 2006

The biggest news for the video game world this season has been the release of new consoles from Nintendo and Sony. The worst news for video game shoppers is that the new units join an already crowded aisle of gaming gifts.

There are now about 10 game consoles and portable players on the market. And that doesn't include the games themselves.

Some of the games are available for just about every system while others are "exclusive" to one machine or another. There's a version of the latest Madden NFL, for example, for everything from GameBoys to Xboxes to the new PS3. But other titles, such as a new game based on "The Sopranos," may appear only on the PlayStation 2.

Yes, I realize that it can be confusing.

Some of the games compatible with more than one system are picking up good reviews across the board, such as Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell Double Agent, Lego Star Wars II and Marvel: Ultimate Alliance, based on the comic book company's roster of superheroes.

If someone on your list was lucky enough to pick up one of the hard-to-find PlayStation 3 consoles this month, you might be inclined to look for a game for it. After all, your friend or relative is either broke from buying it on eBay or unemployed from having taken a week off to camp out for it. There aren't tons of PS3 games out yet, but the good news is that most of the PlayStation 2 games will work on a PS3.

For PS2 owners, there's an interesting development on the scene in the form of some new family-appealing games, such as Guitar Hero II and SingStar. Guitar Hero II uses two guitar-shaped controllers and puts players on stage together, one as the guitarist and the other on bass. SingStar is a lot like karaoke but with a built-in judge that measures how close you are at hitting the right notes.

The new Nintendo Wii console has a few things going for it, as well: At $250, the device is cheaper than the competition, and the games tend to be more kid-friendly and social. For this game system, two of the hot titles are Zelda and Excite Truck.

For Xbox 360 owners, there's a lot of cool stuff coming out right now. Most of the hotly anticipated games are guy-oriented shoot-em-ups, such as the new Microsoft game Gears of War, an Xbox 360 exclusive. But the console is starting to reach for the younger set, with more kid-friendly titles like Viva Pinata.

If there's an Xbox 360 owner in your life, you can't go wrong by giving "Xbox Live" points. The points let users buy game downloads and other stuff on Microsoft's online service. You can buy cards of 1,600 points for $20. With those points, the game fan can download some old-school arcade games, such as Frogger, or download images to give the 360's interface a new look.

The cards -- which can be bought in the video game sections of most electronics stores that sell games -- will definitely be appreciated by the recipient.

And since Apple started offering games for its iPods, an iTunes gift card will allow some flexibility to buy games, movies, TV shows and, of course, music.

For handheld gadget lovers, consider the PlayStation Portable, Sony's mobile game-playing device that also plays video and music files. There hasn't been a deluge of great games for this device, but the $250 gizmo is such a Swiss army knife that practically any gadget fan can entertain themselves with it.

For me, the only games that have held any interest have been the mature-themed Grand Theft Auto games, but cute oddball titles like Lumines II (sort of like Tetris) and LocoRoco have won enthusiastic reviews. LocoRoco is a Japanese-flavored title, where you roll and bounce a water-balloon-like figure across cartoony landscapes. Well . . . it's hard to describe, but people seem to love it, and it doesn't involve gangsters.

For younger game fans who have grown tired of or simply outgrown the GameBoy Advance, the $130 Nintendo DS is a flashy upgrade. The two-screen system, paired with a copy of New Super Mario Bros., can make the trip to grandmother's house seem a lot shorter for everybody concerned.

Get two DS systems, and the kids can play each other head-to-head -- wirelessly. It is a wonderful thing. While I hate to sell a lot of good games short, it's often the case that the best games for these handhelds come from Nintendo itself. Look for the name Mario in the title and, really, you can't go too far wrong.

Here's another tip. As a general rule, be careful when instinctively reaching for games that are tied to specific TV shows or movies. If I were cynical, I would say that it's almost as if gamemakers think parents will just snap these things up without doing any homework.

So, before grabbing a title with SpongeBob's face on it, check some online reviews. Most of these tie-in games, especially the ones aimed at kids, aren't all that great.

At Metacritic.com, a game review roundup site, the game for the animated movie "The Ant Bully" got an average review of 51 out of 100.

That sounds like one to avoid, to me. Come to think of it, you might be best off avoiding that "Sopranos" game for the grownups, as well.

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