Of the 100 or so video games in stores this shopping season, the biggest demand will be for those titles that take game players where previous video games and past technology couldn't deliver them.
Each year, video-game publishers target the release of their "must-have" titles for the three months preceeding the holidays. But when any one or two video games don't emerge as front-runners (as did Nintendo's colossus "Legend of Zelda" a year ago, selling 2 million copies in five weeks), where do shop-dizzy parents turn?
We've braved the sore-thumb syndrome to identify some of the best bets for parents who wouldn't know a dual-shock from a memory pack. All of these titles play on the Sony PlayStation (PSX) or Nintendo-64 (N64) systems, or both--the systems we reviewed them on. When the games also played on the new console-on-the-block, Sega's graphically impressive Dreamcast system, we note it (but we did not review games solely available for Dreamcast). Not included are games for the holiday phenom Game Boy Color, whose sales have been boosted by its wildly popular Pokeman titles.
Undoubtedly we missed some worthy titles. Emphasizing the positive, we excluded some that weren't. But here are thumbnail appraisals of some of the newest titles being promoted for the holiday crunch:
Tomorrow Never Dies. Electronic Arts and MGM Interactive (PSX). Released in mid-November, this third-person, "over-the-shoulder" action-combo is a shooter, driver and skiier game based on the 007 exploits in the hit film. Ten varied missions lifted from the movie require stealth, cunning and a trigger finger for its many high-tech weapons and gadgetry. James Bond skis, drives a souped "Beamer," pilots a jet. Decent graphics and fantastic soundtrack/sounds make an impressive "look." But "GoldenEye 007" fans will grouse over no multi-player levels. Rated Teen; $49.99.
NFL Blitz 2000. Midway (PSX, N64 and Dreamcast). First off, this is no pigskin sim. It is a ridiculous, fast-paced arcade action game that proves addictive to football video-game fans. Colorful graphics and crisp animation, more plays than the previous version, it's unreal no-penalty football where tackles can border on wrestling take-downs. Up to four players can play now--an inspired improvement that gets rowdy fast. Rated Everyone; $34.99-49.99.
Medal of Honor. Electronic Arts (PSX). Think "Saving Private Ryan" and you've got the concept and spirit of what may be the season's best first-person shooter. A dark and detailed re-creation of World War II combat missions, the game was released in November with remarkably little hype considering that Steven Spielberg brainstormed it. Weapons, uniforms and dramatic situations are drawn accurately from WWII history. Detailed 3-D landscape graphics and polygonal character models are nicely animated. Sound effects are multilayered and spectacular. Rated Teen; $39.99.
Mario Golf. Nintendo (N64). Made by the same folks who created the whimsical "Hot Shots Golf" last year, these virtual links tee off straight to videogame greatness. Mario is joined by 17 Nintendo characters (Luigi, Yoshi, Donkey Kong Wario, Bowser, etc.). Cartoony graphics are incredible, and the six golf courses come right out of Mario's fantasy world. Game's great play drops somewhere between arcade silly and realistic sim golf--easy enough for younger players, challenging enough for callous gamers. Multiplayer (up to four) options, side bets on holes, there's no golfing better on Nintendo. Rated Everyone; $49.99.
Crash Team Racing. Sony (PSX). Move over Mario and Diddy Kong, Sony's best-known mascot, Crash Bandicoot, joins the kart-racing circuit with a cross of traditional Crash concept and a formula kart racer game. This good-looking, fast-playing game is fully polygonal with goofy characters and outrageous graphics, shortcuts and fun. Look for tried-true Bandicoot features, like the apple-grabbing power ups, and 17 assorted levels. For zany play, plug in three buddies! Rated Everyone; $39.99.
Donkey Kong 64. Nintendo (N64). Get ready to go bananas. DK's back to grapple with the menacing King K. Rool, who has stolen his banana horde and imprisoned his kin. The island's the center of the various action levels that DK and pal Diddy Kong must progress through to defeat his tormentor and set things right. Collectibles such as golden bananas, boss keys and battle crowns power up this delightful adventure. Lots of games-within-games fill out this dazzling jungle environment. Expansion Pak required. Rated Everyone; $59.99.
Spyro 2: Ripto's Rage! Sony (PSX). In this engaging sequel to last year's charming hit, the fully 3-D Spyro and his dragonfly sidekick undertake a similar quest. They must gather talismans and magical orbs and fight for justice to help free a Dragon Shores kingdom from the evil tyrant Ripto. Flying Spyro now can spit things, swim, ice-skate and head-butt. The fantasy graphics and animations are smooth, the game-play addictive. Plenty of fun puzzles and challenging bonus quests that the original lacked. Great for younger gamers. Rated Everyone; $39.99.
Knockout Kings 2000. EA Sports (PSX and N64). For the price of a pay-per-view championship match on TV, you can rediscover classic boxing at its videogame best. Compared to last year's popular version, this game floats like a butterfly. Four modes include "Classic Fights," such as Ali-Frazier and Holmes-Norton, and the popular, arcade-style "Slugfest." Create your own boxer (tattoos and all) in the Career mode and see if he can become a contender. Rated Everyone; $34.99-44.99.
R/C Stunt Copter. Interplay (PSX). For something different: This radio-control helicopter sim is like controlling the real thing . . . a toy helicopter. Takes getting used to the hyper-sensitive controls, but built-in tutorial missions teach all that. Get the hang of it and you're soon performing tasks and stunts and flying through hoops to score points. Rated Everyone; $39.99.
Madden NFL 2000. EA Sports (PSX). Faster action, smoother play, bigger players makes this version more than a polish job. More taunts, more slam-bam tackles and helmet-popping hits is its nod to the popularity of fast-paced, arcade-manic football like in NFL Blitz. New stadium imagery, new uniforms, all the new teams, improved weather effects and revved fans add a lot. But this gridiron sim's depth is the real thing. Rated Everyone; $39.99.
NFL Gameday 2000. 989 Sports (PSX). A study in how a great football video game keeps getting greater, this version keeps its engaging playability and keen control while adding a play editor and a general manager mode. Off-field, it introduces free-agent signings, trading players, etc. On the turf, there are twice as many plays, smash-mouth animation with more than 200 different motions, and much more. Eight players can join in the ruckus. Even with too much end-zone jive, this game's money. Rated Everyone; $39.99.
Jet Force Gemini. Rareware (N64). A huge space-age shooter, it features 11 graphically eye-opening worlds that warriors Juno, Vela and Lupus must fight through to save the galaxy. You get the picture: lots of weapons, explosions, and rescues. But more significant than the play are its distinctive graphics that push N64's 64-bit system to some impressive visual heights. Rated Teen; $39.99.
Beetle Adventure Racing. Electronic Arts (N64). This driver/racer game is just for fun--no realism, no speed need, just whacky Volkswagen bugs that you run through nice-graphic courses littered with power-up boxes and cheats. Mix in creatures, other vehicles, bad weather, shortcuts, and you've got an easy-to-control race game where even younger kids can take the wheel. Rated Everyone; $49.95.
FIFA 2000: Major League Soccer. EA Sports (PSX). Arguably the most popular pro soccer sim has just gotten bigger and better than ever, with graphics and animated play that is hard to beat on any platform. Crisp and colorful graphics, smooth motion and realistic animation, and skill moves make this lightning-paced sim a must for soccer fans. More clubs, great featured players. And up to eight can play. You don't even have to like soccer to like this. Rated Everyone; $44.99.
NASCAR 2000. EA Sports (PSX and N64). A must for diehard NASCAR fans, it's authentic in re-creating the NASCAR racing experience. Choose an identity from 33 real-life NASCAR drivers, work over your car right down to its gear ratios, then race at the 18 accurately rendered NASCAR venues (or slum it on the five road courses). Booming sound effects, high-res graphics, responsive controls, the pit crew even gives advice. Rated Everyone; $39.99.
NBA Courtside With Kobe Bryant. Nintendo (N64). Basketball sim on Nintendo? And a good one? Play single-game, full-season schedule, or skip to the playoffs. Trade and put together a dream roster from the full NBA lineup, even create your own player choosing his height, weight, years in the league, facial features, on-court abilities, etc. While its graphics won't wow veteran gamers, playability provides plenty of fun. Up to four can play. Rated Everyone; $59.99.
Sled Storm. Electronic Arts (PSX). You've done ski and snowboard videogames, now try snowmobiles. This arcade-style racer packs the thrills and spills of actual snowmobiling with none of the bruises and concussions. Eight mountain tracks are high-energy with slippery slopes, steep climbs, short cuts and exhilarating jumps. Rated Everyone; $39.99.
Supercross 2000. Electronic Arts (PSX). The race genre of video games moves to the X-treme world of supercross dirt-bike courses, where fantastic jumps and mid-air collisions rule--and losers eat dirt. Controls are touchy, with lots of bumps, grinds and stop-and-go cornering in 16 arenas. Viewpoint is from behind the handlbars, which is both terrific and terrifying despite only decent graphics. Nice change for race fans. Rated Everyone; $39.99
Super Cross Circuit. 989 Sports (PSX). More speed, less finesse in this dirt racing game. In the season mode, pick your equipment, clothes and rider and compete through the game's 25 tracks. The behind-the-bike camera angle plays easier than the insane handlebar view. Replays of spectacular stunts and accidents is one cool feature. Great graphic scenery. Players upgrade their bikes and create their own track using the track editor. Rated Everyone; $39.99.
NBA Showtime: NBA on NBC. Midway (PSX, N64, Dreamcast). The latest in arcade basketball videogaming, this dynamic 3-D fantasy game features excellent facial features on NBA players (145 in all) and the freewheeling "NBA Jam" style play. Lots of shoves, spin-moves, blocks, dunks and alley-oops. But to control the arcade mayhem, fouls are called. Look for secret power-ups, hidden codes and on-fire modes. And create your own NBA star. Up to four players can play. Rated Everyone; $39.99.
Cool Boarders 4. 989 Studios (PSX). The fourth incarnation of this classic PlayStation snowboarder game touts five snowy mountain slopes that are graphically spruced up. Each of the pro snowboarders are strikingly individual. New features include creating your snowboarder, and tweaking your board for performance. Add in 16 real pro boarders and five events per mountain. Rated Everyone; $39.99.
Twisted Metal 4. 989 Studios (PSX). Driving-and-shooting games like this series create a heavily armed, destroy-or-be-destroyed world where cars race around in impossible settings under attack. Gears who get their ya-ya's firing on evil automobiles will find this explosive December release a big leap over the murky TM3. Rated Teens; $39.99.
Jet Moto 3. 989 Studios (PSX). Another sequel to a classic, this futuristic, arcade-style racer features 11 high-speed hover bikes that go too fast for your own good through 19 treacherous courses and maze-like terrains. Images are superb here, but reflexes are everything--the game is unforgiving. Rated Everyone; $39.99.