Ken Gagne

Mario, Sonic the Hedgehog, and Crash Bandicoot. The names of these video games may be familiar, but they won't be found together on one system. 

Nintendo, Sega, and Sony are all vying to place their products under Christmas trees this holiday season. Each one offers unique hardware and software features that makes for a difficult buying decision. Holiday shoppers would do well to choose the console that suits both a gamer's tastes and the buyer's budget. 

Several factors should be considered when making a purchasing decision. Some systems have more games available, but they may not appeal to all types or ages of gamers. The number of players a system can support is important if the gamer enjoys playing with others. Additional features, such as Internet connectivity or DVD movie playback, can add value to the package, in both enjoyment and price. 

Some systems are more powerful than others, but it's not an abstract concept of polygon-pushing power that sells systems. Beyond the initial investment, it's what games you put into it that count. A strong combination of capable hardware and diverse, entertaining software is what makes gamers happiest. 

The power of a video game console is rated in bits. The more bits a system has, the more data it can compute. This translates into better graphics and sound, and bigger and more complex games. 

The Nintendo Game Boy, the core of which is more than a decade old, is only 8-bit. The Sony PlayStation is 32-bit, and the Nintendo 64 is, naturally, 64-bit. The Sega Dreamcast is a 128-bit video game system, as is the hottest console on today's market, the Sony PlayStation 2. 

The PS2 offers a range of capabilities, but is a scarce item this holiday season. Released in October with a retail price of $299, the PS2 can play new PS2 games, thousands of original PlayStation games, and DVD movies. All this capability rolled into a single box is very convenient. 

Finding a PS2 is not so easy. Sony's initial shipment was only 500,000 units, which hardly fulfilled the massive quantities of preorders most stores had by then. Many video game retail outlets aren't guaranteeing PS2's to walk-in customers until March 2001. The average price of a PS2 on eBay, an online auction house, is $1,000. 

However, most stores are well-stocked of other systems, including the Sega Dreamcast. The Dreamcast rings in at $149, which includes a built-in modem. By connecting Sega's system to the Internet, gamers can surf the web, send email, and play games online. The current library of games that support online play is small, but is rapidly growing. With online games like NFL2K1 and Quake III Arena, and offline titles such as Sonic the Hedgehog and Soul Calibur, there are plenty of great games to choose from. 

The Dreamcast also has a penchant for offbeat games. Players can raise Seaman, a virtual pet they talk with using a microphone. Drive around town delivering passengers to their destinations in Crazy Taxi. Or grab a pair of maracas and dance up a storm in Samba de Amigo. 

Compared with the Sony PlayStation 2, the Sega Dreamcast has the advantage of maturity. The Dreamcast has used its year on the market to come down in price, build an online network, and establish a library of 200 games. By this time next year, the Sony PlayStation 2 will likely have enjoyed similar growths. This season, for less than the same price as a PS2, a Christmas shopper can purchase a different game system and DVD player separately. 

The PS2 and Dreamcast are part of what is considered the current generation of 128-bit systems. Previous systems are still available, and offer an excellent range of software for a lower price. New games will become infrequent as these older systems are phased out in favor of the next generation of systems. 

The original Sony PlayStation, nicknamed the PSX, is affordably priced at $99. Its games run the gamut of genres. Dozens of sports titles, including hockey, soccer, football, and basketball, are released almost annually from EA Sports and Sony's 989 Studios. Final Fantasy, one of the finest role-playing games ever, and Resident Evil, which defined the survival horror genre, are some of best-known PSX games. Many of these games are rated for teenage or mature audiences. 

The Nintendo 64 also costs $99. Nintendo's trademark characters, such as Mario, Zelda, and Pokemon, can be found exclusively on the N64. Many of Nintendo's games are aimed at younger audiences and are non-violent, though most appeal to all ages. Plus, while PSX games are stored on CDs, which are easily scratched, Nintendo games are durable cartridges. For this reason, a N64 game can cost $10-$20 more than a similar CD game. 

The N64 also has the built-in capability for four-player games, including the fighting game Super Smash Brothers, board game Mario Party 2, or shooters like Perfect Dark and Goldeneye 007. Games such as these have made the N64 the ultimate party machine. 

Nintendo's Game Boy Color also has a wide range of games, but since the system is old, none of the games are very sophisticated. Multiplayer games are rare, and require each player to have a Game Boy and a copy of the game. 

But when that game is Pokemon, it's hard to find someone who doesn't have it. Nintendo's phenomenon has spanned television shows, movies, card games, and multiple video games, most of them on Game Boy. The game encourages players to "link up" and share monsters they've caught, trained, and bred. 

The Sega Dreamcast and Nintendo 64, with their four controller ports, turn spectators into players. The Sony PlayStation offers something for every taste, while the more powerful PlayStation 2 is aimed at gamers and movie fans alike — if you can find one. The Game Boy Color has tons of popular games, despite their age, and is practically the only handheld system on the market. 

The hardcore gamer's solution is simply to own all the systems. Everyone else should consider their gaming needs, and purchase a system that offers the most and best-suited hardware and software for their dollar. 

This article is copyright (c) 2000, 2007 by Ken Gagne. All rights reserved. Not to be distributed without permission.

Original publication: Sentinel & Enterprise, 06-Nov-00