Another holiday season, another merry quest to identify the best and hottest new video games.

With competition intensifying between Sony's PlayStation 2 console and the year-old next-generation Microsoft Xbox and Nintendo GameCube systems, many recent titles are must-haves, and a few go where no games have gone. Then there are the loads-of-fun games that any casual gamer would be delighted to get.

While this list tries to provide some gift-shopping guidance on what to buy for whom, it isn't foolproof or complete. We've missed some winners, no doubt. Other pretty good games didn't make the cut. Some were released too many months ago, others haven't hit stores yet.

But if you're a confused shopper scurrying to choose video games, you probably won't go wrong with any of these picks. (See box below for key to abbreviations.)

HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS -- EA Games (PS2, PSX, XB, GC, GBC, GBA; Rated E): Harry graduates to next-gen gaming; second term at Hogwarts much more magical than Sorcerer's Stone. As Harry, attend wizardry classes, play Quidditch, and go on quests by night on the graphically spectacular school grounds. Ron and Hermione help cast spells. Gameplay is adventure platform jumping; rich environments; cool effects. PS2 edges on broomin' flights. $30-50.

ANIMAL CROSSING -- Nintendo (GC; Rated E): Innovation? Look no further than this too-cute virtual village of free-ranging characters who go about their daily lives in real-time 24/7. Like "The Sims" except the characters resemble Fisher-Price Little People and activities target younger set. In an open-ended community, interact with neighbors, furnish your house, tackle chores, go fishing, cook dinner; mundane becomes mesmerizing. $50.

DISNEY'S TREASURE PLANET -- SCEA (PS2, PSX, GBA; Rated E): Borrowing great graphics from the new flick, this terrific arcade-adventure sends young Jim Hawkins and sidekicks Dr. Doppler and the alien Morph on a quest through rich and challenging 3D environments in search of treasure. Great for kids. $30-40.

SUPER MARIO SUNSHINE -- Nintendo (GC; Rated E): Mario's back! In this grand adventure, the plumber hero vacations in a tropical island where trouble lurks. In a case of mistaken identity, with hydro-pump in hand, he hoses down bad guys and cleans up his reputation. Yoshi, Toad and Princess Peach join the fun. $50.

BLINX: THE TIME SWEEPER -- Microsoft (XB; Rated E): Rate this action-adventured P for peculiar. Blinx, a cool cat who can control time, moves through a 30-level town killing off monsters by sucking up junk in his vacuum cleaner, then firing it at them. What's bizarre: By vacuuming up time pieces, Blinx can strategically fast-forward or reverse, even freeze-frame while he moves freely! Great concept -- a stitch in time saves nine (lives). $50.

YU-GI-OH! THE ETERNAL DUELIST SOUL! -- Konami (GBA; rated E): Fun conversion of the year's biggest fad trading-card game of dueling monsters, magic attacks and traps. Anime cartooning, 800 cards, same rules, and lively battles make it true to the actual game. Good luck finding it in stores! $25.

MADDEN NFL 2003 -- EA Sports (PS2, PSX, XB, GC, GBA; Rated E): In 13th year, it set standards for sports sims and keeps getting better. Graphics get it on "Monday Night Football," but this definitive sim continues to tweak realism. Most intuitive playbook! Scary play-by-play commentary! New features: mini-camp mode, great create-a-playbook, and defensive coach's cam. Must-have for football fanatics and purists alike. $50.

SEGA SPORTS NFL 2K3 -- Sega Sports (PS2, XB, GC; Rated E): Debate rages among serious gridiron video gamers over whether longtime champ "Madden" has met its match with this brilliant NFL sim. Sega's lifelike player animations are remarkable, its gameplay AI has jacked IQ, and franchise mode is deepest. From the GM's office to bruising line play, this is amazing virtual football. So which one? Sega or Madden? Both. $50.

SEGA SPORTS NBA 2K3 -- Sega Sports (PS2, XB, GC; Rated E): For pro hoops realism and authentic gameplay, Sega boxes out the competition with this full-court sim featuring highlight dunks, mid-air adjustments and dynamic ball handling that makes this a physical sport. Improved player renderings and fantastic detail down to dripping sweat! Sweet! $50.

NBA LIVE 2003 -- EA Sports (PS2, PSX, XB, GC; Rated E): A close second and must-have for fanatics, the style is more arcade than Sega's, featuring superstar anti-gravity moves and impossible slams. Fast-paced, great graphics, an original rap soundtrack. Court-of-dreams instead of realism. $50.

SEGA SPORTS NCAA COLLEGE BASKETBALL 2K3 -- Sega Sports (PS2, XB, GC; Rated E): Just released on PS2, out this week on XB and GC, Sega shows off its programming prowess taking the ball to the hoops college-style. More than 300 Division I teams, authentic national rankings system, ESPN-style presentation, complete 2002 schedules, this is an intense teamwork game with dunks, jump shoots, and diving saves true to college play -- even obnoxious fans! $50.

NCAA MARCH MADNESS 2003 -- SCEA (PS2; Rated E): Not a tough sim, not Sega realism, but this quick-action college basketball game entertains. It's packed with all the emotion and intensity of March Madness -- plus a little madness of its own. Gameplay is straightforward and fun. $50.

SEGA SPORTS NHL 2K3 -- Sega Sports (PS2, XB, GC; Rated E): If you must own only one pro hockey game, this steals the puck. Skating, checking, shooting, goaltending -- it ices the true-to-life details title. Never has the goalie been so real; individual NHL players show realism in physical attributes, skills and behavior. Game controls are arcade-spirited, ESPN broadcast style a big plus. Makes others look more hokey than hockey! $50.

FIFA SOCCER 2003 -- EA Sports (PS2, XB, GC; Rated E): Graphically the best-looking soccer game, the real kick is that gameplay is tight and realistic. With 16 leagues, 350 licensed teams and more than 8,000 players sporting signature skill moves and team chants, the options are endless. $50.

DISNEY SPORTS: SOCCER -- Konami (GC, GBA; Rated E): Now this is weird -- yet fun! Not an arcade game, more of a serious sim, except here's Goofy, Donald Duck, Mickey and a gang of pink bunnies dribbling the ball! Graphics are crisp, gameplay deeper than a kids' game, more realistic than a cartoon match. $30-40.

TIGER WOODS PGA TOUR 2003 -- EA Sports (PS2, XB, GC; Rated E): Golfing, not flogging, this Tiger gets it right with big variety of PGA Tour and fantasy golfers, new and gorgeous courses, and realistic graphics. Gameplay mixes fun and realism; controls require swing lessons. New feature: Random 18 plays various holes from all the courses in one round. $50.

NASCAR: DIRT TO DAYTONA -- Infogrames (PS2, GC; Rated E): Vroom! Highly detailed sim-style NASCAR racing from garage to raceway, this is one of the season's top racers. The game delivers great graphics and precision handling in four racing series. $50.

BURNOUT 2: POINT OF IMPACT -- Acclaim (PS2; Rated E): Reckless urban street racing at its best puts pedal to metal in this rubber-burning sequel. Start behind the wheel of a '57 Chevy or a cop car and rage through one-on-one, circuit races or other modes. Faster speeds, tighter controls, more realistic crashes. New "pursuit races" are explosive! $50.

ATV OFFROAD FURY 2 -- SCEA (PS2; Rated E): No hazard warnings for this intense offroad racer sequel. More courses, more tricks and modes plus 20 licensed, specs-authentic ATVs that handle realistically, speeding across vast landscapes busting stunts. Graphics good, physics great, four-player split-screen high-octane! $50.

LORD OF THE RINGS: THE TWO TOWERS -- EA Games (PS2, GBA; Rated T): Clanking swords! Thundering trolls! The epic movie translates into an epic action/adventure jawdropper! A must-have for Tolkien fans. Film scenes morph into stunning animation of interactive fight-and-flight sequences. Play as Aragorn, Gimli or Legolas, each with different skills and strategies for overcoming evil in Middle Earth. Challenge is hard, graphics huge, it all rings true! Among season's best. $50.

JAMES BOND 007 NIGHTFIRE -- EA Games (PS2; Rated T): Opens with Brosnan-like 007 riding shotgun in a helicopter chasing a blonde-driven Cobra in Paris. First-person shooter is fast-paced Bonding but not from "Die Another Day." It's its own interactive movie with great plot, spectacular graphics, fast cars and women, and a bang-up arsenal of weapons. Plus addictively fun multiplayer modes. $50.

METROID PRIME -- Nintendo (GC; rated T): Patient Super Metroid fans finally get more than they could imagine in bigger and badder long-awaited adventure sequel. Exceptional sound, graphics span immersive 3D environments, this futuristic shooter brings back Samus to track aliens and blow away mutant DNA strands. $50.

TONY HAWK'S PROSKATER 4 -- Activision (PS2, XB, GC; Rated T): Pioneering champ of virtual extreme sports sets new, higher standards fourth time out with brand-new structure, nine larger and more complex levels (college campuses, San Fran, Alcatraz, etc.), and never-before tricks. Best fantasy grinding. $50.

KELLY SLATER'S PRO SURFER -- Activision (PS2, XB, GC; Rated T): Board, dude? This year's best out-of-the-blue blast comes barrel-riding the big rollers! Newest wave of Activision's buff extreme-sports line is laid-back sim that surfs fluidly in exotic real-world locations. Splashy graphics, massive live footage, addictive gameplay. It's all good! $50.

TOEJAM & EARL III: MISSION TO EARTH -- Sega (XB; Rated T): Wacky adventure that is pure funkadelic. Cartoony ToeJam, rapper Big Earl and homegirl Latisha must retrieve 12 Sacred Albums of Funk that Earthlings stole. Master the arts of funk-fu in battling to face off with the wretched Anti-Funk. $50.

GODZILLA: DESTROY ALL MONSTERS MELEE -- Infogrames (GC, GBA, GBC; Rated T): A stompin' good take-off from classic Japanese movie, this campy arcade brawler lets you play one of 11 monsters out to defeat the other monsters before they control the world. Multiplayer mode is monster! $50.

DEAD TO RIGHTS -- Namco (PS2, XB, GC; Rated M): Action noir tale of rogue cop Jack Slate tracking down his father's murderers. Compelling plot, great graphics, this linear shooting-action game is challenging. Like playing a movie. $50.

GRAND THEFT AUTO: VICE CITY -- Rockstar Games (PS2; Rated M): Parental-cringe title that's atop teenage sons' lists, this is everything M-rated, plus overt criminal activity! Lots of tongue-in-cheek though and an undeniably a great game. But violent, suggestive, rude, yes. $50.

Disney's Treasure Planet, above, and Blinx: The Time Sweeper, left. Top row: Kelly Slater's Pro Surfer, ATV Offroad Fury 2 and NCAA March Madness 2003.