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Video Games: The Next Generation


Personal Business: Electronics

VIDEO GAMES: THE NEXT GENERATION

Among the throngs of people cruising the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this month, no less qualified a critic than Steven Spielberg checked out a Jurassic Park video game and other titles on Panasonic's new REAL 3DO game machine. The director of the celluloid version of Jurassic Park has more than a passing interest in the technology. "I'm a good consumer, so I'm interested in good game play," he says.

Spielberg might eagerly anticipate the next battle in the video-game wars, but legions of moms and dads dread the coming wave of multimedia machines that hook up to the television. After all, the next game system their kids come begging for could take a dinosaur-size chunk out of their wallets.

While the market is becoming congested with new players, current video-game units from Sega and Nintendo that exploit 16-bit computer chips should continue to dominate well into next year. With both Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo now discounted in stores to around $90, the purchase of an inexpensive 16-bit machine still makes sense for parents who have yet to satisfy their children's video-game demands.

For one thing, a multitude of compelling new 16-bit titles are being produced for these systems, including Sega's Sonic The Hedgehog 3, Nin-

tendo's Ken Griffey Jr. Presents: Major League Baseball, and Acclaim Entertainment's NBA Jam for both platforms. Software publishers are also releasing new titles for handheld units, including Nintendo's Game Boy and Sega's Game Gear.

MOVIE MAGIC. Moreover, Sega's Genesis is expandable. You can add a compact-disk unit for $229 to take advantage of some terrific new interactive Sega CD games, at $60 each, such as Tomcat Alley, an aerial-combat adventure, and Prize Fighter, which contains live-action boxing scenes directed by Ron Stein, who choreographed the fight sequences in Rocky III and Raging Bull. (This amateur video pugilist hit the canvas in a hurry.) No such CD add-on exists for Super Nintendo.

Sega has also just introduced CDX, a portable player that handles Genesis cartridges and Sega CD games as well as audio CDs. Price: $400. And starting this fall, a kid playing Genesis will be able to compete against a buddy across the street with the Edge 16, an under-$150 modem from American Telephone & Telegraph that connects two Genesis machines over the phone.

But serious game players are already looking past 16-bit technology. The move to 32-bit chips, which are not only faster but more memory-efficient, will result in arcade-like games rich in color, detail, and action. Characters on 16-bit games often look fuzzy and cartoon-like. Thirty-two-bit games are much more fluid and three-dimensional. And when these powerful chips are coupled with a CD-ROM drive, you can add more realistic games with live-action video sequences offering voice and digitized-music soundtracks.

Indeed, most of the newer systems on the market will employ CDs instead of cartridges, providing massive storage capability (500 megabytes vs. about 3 megabytes for cartridges) that can be used to enhance game play. For example, the 3DO version of John Madden Football by Electronic Arts includes commentary from Madden and footage from NFL Films. But CDs aren't perfect: Searching a disk for information can take an agonizingly long time, causing annoying lags during play. Still, the future strongly suggests a CD-based game world. "We're in production on our last cartridge-based game," says Activision CEO Robert Kotick.

KILLER HURDLES. But none of the latest machines may satisfy the instant-gratification crowd. All of the new game systems suffer from a chicken-and-egg problem: Software developers are reluctant to commit to a format because there aren't enough people using it yet. And consumers are loath to plunk down their dollars in the absence of "killer apps," or blockbuster applications, that play on the system.

That problem has plagued the much-hyped 3DO, which licenses its 32-bit Interactive Multiplayer technology to a number of vendors. Panasonic's $699 REAL machine was the first 3DO player to hit the market. Sanyo Electric and AT&T versions should follow later in the year. The REAL machine has a built-in double-speed CD-ROM drive and contains digital video technology that provides full-screen, full-motion images at up to 30 frames per second.

But the REAL player sold poorly at Christmas. Just 18 titles were available at its launch, and developers say it takes 12 to 24 months to come up with strong titles on any new system. (Only now are decent Sega CD games coming out.)

Better 3DO games are on the way. Spectrum HoloByte is releasing Star Trek: The Next Generation. Other potentially strong games include Super Wing Commander, a space-combat game from ORIGIN Systems, and The Horde from Crystal Dynamics. In the latter, actor Kirk Cameron, as Chauncey, tries to protect his village against nine species of "Hordlings"--vile and bumbling creatures who gobble up people, cows, and houses.

Consumers who balk at current 3DO prices will find the cost of Pioneer Electronics' TV-based multimedia system even more objectionable. Pioneer's LaserActive entry is built around a stand-alone $970 laser-disk player, which is good for watching movies or listening to audio CDs. With optional plug-in control packs, you can also play karaoke disks and existing Turbo Graphx DuoSoft and Sega game cartridges or CDs. But the karaoke pack costs $350, and each game pack costs $600--nearly double what you would pay for a Genesis and Sega CD system. In April, Sega software will also play on a new JVC entry called X'EYE, a $500 machine that can handle special CD-ROMs and karaoke graphics disks.

Other machines pose risky choices for consumers. Atari recently unleashed Jaguar, a 64-bit cartridge-based system priced at $249; a $200 Jaguar CD add-on is scheduled for release in April. The machine is a technical winner, with fast, smooth graphics and vivid colors. But Jaguar may be caged by Atari's tattered marketing history. Only four games are currently available, and some software developers confided that they are hesitant to produce games for the system.

In the past, reviewers have praised Commodore's Amiga computer as a strong game-playing machine. And Commodore's latest device, the $399 Amiga CD32, is based on 32-bit technology. Yet, like Atari, Commodore hasn't been a strong marketer, and the company may have trouble drumming up software support. An earlier multimedia concoction that attaches to the television, called CDTV, failed to attract much interest in the U.S. Commodore claims that about 100 software titles (including some older CDTV selections) will be available for CD32 once the machine starts appearing in U.S. stores around March.

Meanwhile, Philips Media has begun to reemphasize the game-playing capabilities of its two-year-old CD-I machines (for Compact Disc-interactive). Previously, Philips had heavily pushed educational programs for the $399-to-$499 CD-I. Now, new titles are on the way, including some that have appeared on other formats. One notable entry: Mad Dog McCree, an Old West gunslinging adventure. Both CD-I and the Amiga CD32 may get a boost from $250 digital video add-ons, though it may be too late for either to make much of a mark.

SECRET PLANS. As if to further muddle consumers' buying choices, Sony, Sega, and Nintendo are working on their own advanced game machines. Nintendo won't say whether Project Reality, which the company is developing with Silicon Graphics, the company behind the special effects in Jurassic Park, will be a cartridge- or CD-based system. Sega's Saturn and a new game machine from Sony are expected to handle CDs. All three systems should hit the U.S. by 1995.

Of course, some consumers already own a great game machine without realizing it. As more-powerful IBM-type and Apple Macintosh PCs make it into homes, folks will discover that they can do a lot more than run spreadsheets. Indeed, it may be time to try using your PC to slay a dragon or practice your video jump shot.Edward Baig EDITED BY AMY DUNKIN


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