by Ken Gagne

This holiday season, don't waste time playing games, wading through choices and making guesses. With so many gifts available, it's important to choose the right one. 

When it comes to video games, your choices are plenty. Hundreds of new games are released annually, each competing for a spot under the Christmas tree. It may not be easy to tell the Street Fighters from the Syphon Filters, or to distinguish such shape-inspired names as Xbox, GameCube, and Squaresoft. 

But with the following highlights from the 2001 gaming lineup, chances are there's something to please you or the gamer close to your heart. 

A vast amount of electronic entertainment software is occupied by popular, non-violent sports games, of which there are many for all systems. But few publishers offer the variety and quality of the Sega Sports line. NBA 2K2, World Series Baseball 2K2, and football games NFL 2K2 and NCAA 2K2 are all not only affordably priced, but are the only sports games this Christmas to feature online Internet play. For great graphics and a global selection of opponents, the Sega Dreamcast system is the way to go. 

An online Dreamcast offers more than sports to play with. Phantasy Star Online is the first ever online console role-playing game (RPG). Gamers can create heroic personas with which to explore a futuristic world of science and fantasy. Other adventurers are also online gamers, with whom to talk, exchange tips and equipment, partner for a dangerous mission, or kill time with a round of soccer. Numerous offline missions give the single player plenty to do while developing her character. 

If you prefer your RPGs a bit more whimsical, try Paper Mario for the Nintendo 64. Princess Peach has been kidnapped, and it's up to the world's most famous plumber, Mario, to save the day. This game adds a new dimension to storytelling by making its figures completely flat, and placing them in a world of pop-up storybook quality. Such graphical gimmickry combines with a fresh take on a familiar character to make an RPG that's fun for all ages. 

The last recommended RPG is Dragon Warrior III, for Game Boy Color. Publisher Enix brings the "Legend of Loto" trilogy to a close with this final installment of games that first appeared on the original Nintendo system a decade ago. Gamers can create their own adventuring party, consisting of fighters, thieves, merchants, and jesters, before setting off to find the world-threatening Demon Lord who defeated the hero's father years ago. Gameplay is executed with simplicity and finesse, making Dragon Warrior III a winner. 

Another popular series continues on the Game Boy Advance with Castlevania: Circle of the Moon, from Konami. The portentously-named Nathan Graves is the latest to take up the whip in the battle against the vampire Dracula. Like all good Castlevania games, Circle of the Moon is a side-scrolling action game, with some role-playing elements. Nathan can explore Dracula's castle freely, but he'll need to find certain items to acquire the ability to reach new areas and defeat monstrous henchmen. Magical cards can be collected and combined for special effects. Again, classic gameplay and new features blend together in this great title. 

Castlevania may be gothic, but it's not horrific. If you enjoy unpleasant things, then try Silent Hill 2, also from Konami. James Sunderland receives a letter from his wife, inviting him to the resort town of Silent Hill… even though his wife died three years ago. Our confused protagonist is quickly mired in shifting realities and strange happenings, where only insanity is a given. Violence and mature themes make Silent Hill 2 not for kids. This survival horror game is available for PlayStation 2 and Xbox. 

The mysterious machinations are more political, but no less deadly, in Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, for PlayStation 2. Terrorist forces have acquired the plans for the nuclear tank known as Metal Gear, and only soldier-spy Solid Snake can stop them. Old enemies with new secrets return to taunt the lethal loner. Stealth and action complement an intriguing storyline, creating a cinematic gameplay experience for mature audiences. 

The PlayStation 2 propagates another franchise with Gran Turismo 3. This simulation racer allows players to compete with cars they could never otherwise afford, from makers such as Ford, Dodge, and Shelby. These high-powered machines come with an appropriate price tag, requiring gamers to work their way up through smaller races, earning the cash to purchase and customize better cars. GT3 features some of the best graphics of any racing title with gameplay that's largely unchanged since the first Gran Turismo. 

Too realistic for you? Add some vehicular weaponry and mission-based gameplay to get Midway's Spy Hunter, also for PlayStation 2. The G-6155 Interceptor vehicle, with its oil slicks and missile launchers, is the only tool equipped to stop the Nostra crime syndicate from plunging the world into darkness. This game only slightly resembles its 1983 predecessor of the same name, but is a lot of fun in its own right. 

It may seem like the PlayStation 2 has most of the good games — but that's about to be challenged by two new video game systems that launched just in time for Christmas. Though lacking the extensive software library of retail veterans PlayStation 2 and Sega Dreamcast, the Microsoft Xbox and Nintendo GameCube still have some excellent games from which to choose. 

Nintendo's software includes their gallery of popular characters. In Luigi's Mansion, Mario is the one in need of saving by his brother, who's equipped with a vacuum in the role of ghostbuster. It's a lighthearted romp through a spooky manor in the GameCube flagship title. 

If you'd rather engage something more solid than spirits, grab three friends and duke it out in Super Smash Bros. Melee. Starring practically the entire Nintendo lineup, including Mario, Pikachu, Donkey Kong, and Link, Super Smash Bros. features a simple control scheme that anyone can master without practicing for hours. 

The Microsoft Xbox also has its share of exclusive titles. Dead or Alive 3 by Tecmo is a gorgeous 3D fighting game. Incredibly detailed, interactive environments and a smooth fighting system make DOA3 one of the first reasons to own an Xbox. 

Halo is the long-awaited first-person shooter by Bungie. Set on a distant planet where humanity fights for survival against the Covenant alien race, Halo combines the best elements of action games such as Quake and Rainbow Six. 

There will be plenty of game manufacturers fighting for survival this Christmas as well, but gamers need not go hungry. Nintendo, Sony, Sega, and Microsoft have provided holiday shoppers with ample choices that will suit all tastes and gamers, young and old.

This article is copyright (c) 2001, 2007 by Ken Gagne. All rights reserved. Not to be distributed without permission.

Original publication: Sentinel & Enterprise, 03-Dec-01