by Ken Gagne

Every five years or so, the video game market sheds its skin and asks consumers to evolve with it. In exchange, gamers can play the latest video games with better graphics, more involving plots, and longer replay value. 

With so many new systems available, it's important to choose the right one for you. 

For the first time ever, the war of the consoles will not be fought on some abstract battlefield of pixels and polygons. Our four competitors this Christmas — the Sony PlayStation 2, Nintendo GameCube, Microsoft Xbox, and Sega Dreamcast — are all powered by 128-bit processors, making them nearly each other's match. And with four equal fronts on which to program, video game publishers are releasing their most popular titles, such as Madden NFL and Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, for many or all of the above systems. 

The strengths of each system will be found in what exclusive software and extra hardware they can offer. 

For example, Sony's PlayStation 2, a $299 piece of hardware, is the only system that plays DVD movies out of the box. It is also compatible with the vast library of PlayStation One software that began in 1995, giving the PS2 a software library in the hundreds, if not thousands. 

With this backward compatibility, the PS2 is home to an astonishing number of quality games. Players can engage in high tales of sword and sorcery in Final Fantasy X or Dragon Warrior VII, the latest installments in the most popular role-playing game series ever. Take to the track in the real-life dream car of your choice in Gran Turismo 3, or realize your worst nightmares in the horrific Silent Hill 2

The original 32-bit PlayStation One is still available for $99, but support for this system will end in 2002 as developers fully transition to the more powerful PS2. 

Meanwhile, the Sega Dreamcast may be the best deal in the history of video games. Priced at a mere $49, it features some of the best software to come out of Sega in years, much of it priced at $20. 

The downside to the Dreamcast is that it has been abandoned by practically all publishers. Sega has exited the hardware business and will not be producing more Dreamcast units, nor any future systems. The company is now solely a software publisher, with signature titles such as Sonic the Hedgehog and Shenmue arriving soon on what were once competing platforms, including Nintendo and Microsoft. 

But in its short life, the Dreamcast accomplished much, and has many excellent titles from which to choose. 

The Dreamcast is also the only console to have a built-in 56K modem, by which users can connect to the Internet over standard phone lines. Though this brings email and the World Wide Web to the gamer's fingertips, the more exciting opportunities lie in online gaming. Through Sega's worldwide network, opponents can be found in the entire line of Sega Sports games, from NFL 2K2 to NBA 2K2 and World Series Baseball 2K2. Players are also invited to share the world of Phantasy Star Online, the first online console role-playing game. 

The Dreamcast is an affordable choice with no future. On the other end of the spectrum is the PlayStation 2, a known quantity with a bright future. Somewhere in the middle are two new competitors: the Nintendo GameCube and the Microsoft Xbox, both to be released in mid-November. 

Microsoft, the software giant best known for the Windows computer operating system (and related court battles), will enjoy its first Christmas as a console developer. Like the Dreamcast, the $299 Xbox has some additional hardware features: a built-in eight gigabyte hard drive, and a broadband adaptor. The adaptor can be used for Internet connectivity, but only by the minority of people equipped with high-speed cable or DSL modems, and only once Microsoft's online network is established sometime in 2002. With the purchase of a separate movie kit, the Xbox can also play DVD movies. 

Microsoft's system is accompanied by many exclusive titles. Players travel across an alien vista solving puzzles to free slaves in Oddworld: Munch's Oddysee, a game that doesn't move as fast as the slick Project Gotham Racing. 

Despite this new contender, don't forget about the once-champ of the gaming ring, Nintendo, who's moving to reclaim the title with the launch of the GameCube. This system eschews the fancy movie and hardware features of its competitors, allowing it the relatively low price tag of $199. Unlike the versatile PlayStation 2 and Xbox, the GameCube has only one function, and is advertised as being the best at what it does: games. 

Nintendo has traditionally carried an immature image, publishing games appropriate only for young audiences. True or not, Nintendo hopes to capitalize on that market while also appealing to the key young adult gamers. 

The GameCube will be Nintendo's first console to use discs — a proprietary DVD format — which will allow for more advanced games and better publisher support than Nintendo's earlier, cartridge-based consoles. Software publisher Capcom has already devoted their existing and future line of Resident Evil survival-horror games as GameCube exclusives, a move sure to please fans of the mature games. 

Nintendo's popular icons will also appear solely on GameCube. Their flagship title is Luigi's Mansion, putting Mario's brother in the role of ghostbuster. Players can also take to the beach in Wave Race Blue Storm, or explore a mysterious dinosaur planet in Starfox Adventures. Nintendo's entire cast of characters can be found engaging in hand-to-hand combat in the highly-anticipated Super Smash Bros. Melee, a fighting game with a simple control system that lets anyone play. 

When considering what console to put in your living room, don't forget that idle hands can be equally satisfied with handheld games. The newest and only contestant in this market is the Nintendo Game Boy Advance, a 32-bit system. Despite a screen that is dark and difficult to view, the $99 portable is a monumental upgrade from its Game Boy Color predecessor, while retaining compatibility with all previous Game Boy games. 

Advance games can cost anywhere from $25 to $45. Whereas earlier Game Boy games required each player to have his own copy of a game, up to four players can connect their Game Boy Advances and play with only one game cartridge. 

The Game Boy Advance is receiving reissues of older games, such as Street Fighter II and Super Mario World. New games in familiar series, including Castlevania and Pokemon, are also sure to please. 

The previous generation of video game consoles has fallen to the wayside. While old games can still be fun games, gamers wishing to enjoy the industry's latest and future offerings will need to choose one (or several) of the above systems.

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

Original publication: Quincy Patriot Ledger, 01-Dec-01