by Ken Gagne

Some kids never grow up — even if their toys do. 

The electronic entertainment industry has grown phenomenally and quickly this past year. Last Christmas, Microsoft entered the fray when they launched their Xbox console, which was followed days later by Nintendo's latest game machine, the GameCube. Both joined Sony's PlayStation 2 on store shelves for an aggressive holiday season. 

A year later, all three systems have dropped in price — Nintendo's to $150, the others to $200, with various rebates and bundles being offered both nationally and locally. Each hardware has its strengths and weaknesses, but each is only as good as its software. The following titles are some of the "killer apps" that not only will drive console sales this season, but also serve as the perfect gift for you or the gamer in your family. 

Though there are exclusive titles intended to sway consumers to one platform or another, there are also games published for all three systems. For example, gamers can cut loose the power of today's next-generation consoles in Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit 2, a racing title published by Electronic Arts for the Xbox, GameCube, and PlayStation 2. In this high-speed action game, players hit the road in a variety of sleek dream vehicles, from Porsches to Lamborghinis. Their mission: to go as fast as possible through deserts, forests, and coasts, outracing both the competition and the cops. Gamers can also play on the side of the law, using road blocks and aerial backup to nail speedsters — or two people can play together in cops-and-robbers fashion. Cars cannot be customized or fine-tuned, but this simplicity adds to the ease of play and outright fun. 

If you prefer to soak up the sun at a slower pace, join the world's most famous plumber, who's back in Super Mario Sunshine, for the Nintendo GameCube. Mario's getaway to the tropical Isle Delfino is spoiled by a mysterious marauder intent on polluting the paradise. Armed with a water-shooting backpack, Mario begins his quest to clean up the island and his reputation. His new apparatus gives Mario several new tricks as he hops from platform to precipice, avoiding turtles and collecting coins in 3D. Though his repertoire may've changed, the classic action of the Mario series has not — good news for those who've missed Nintendo's mascot, but not so good for those wanting something new. 

With games like Super Mario Sunshine, Nintendo hasn't forgotten its historically core family audience. But with the survival horror game Eternal Darkness, Nintendo has also stated its intention to capture the mature market as well. College student Alexandra Roivas becomes embroiled in a family secret when her grandfather is suddenly murdered. Through his tome of Eternal Darkness, players will control more than a dozen characters in various times and places including a World War II photographer, a Persian prince, and an Inquisition-era monk. The monstrosities each accidental hero will encounter is likely to push them over the edge, decreasing their "sanity meter". An insane protagonist may hallucinate bleeding walls or sudden dismemberment, leaving the player to also question reality. Eternal Darkness is rated 'M' for mature audiences. 

For an evil assailant that's less a flesh-eating zombie and more a megalomaniac villain in an outlandish costume, take to the skies in Spider-Man, for all three consoles. Based on the film that made a splash at the box office earlier this year, Spider-Man puts players in control of the friendly neighborhood wall-crawler as he battles such venerable foes as Green Goblin, Shocker, and Scorpion. As Peter Parker's alter ego, players spend much time aloft, slinging webs and fighting airborne enemies. Spidey's abilities are captured and finely presented in this superhero action game which may prove too short an experience for veteran gamers. 

While many video games are based on movies, other games are cinematic experiences in their own right. The Microsoft Xbox has a valuable exclusive in Metal Gear Solid 2 Substance, from Konami. This title includes in its entirety the original Metal Gear Solid 2, one of last year's best-selling games for the PlayStation 2. Super secret spy Solid Snake has stumbled across plans for a weapon of global destruction; his history with such plots gives only him the experience necessary to arrest the conspiracy. The Xbox edition includes five additional "what-if" stories for Snake to experience, as well as hundreds of secondary and virtual reality training missions. This cinematic experience has expanded to include humor, drama, stealth, action, and skateboarding, though the main game is a complicated tale for mature audiences only. 

Today's successful Metal Gear Solid is based on an old Nintendo game from the Eighties. Similarly, Maximo: Ghosts to Glory is an update on the popular Ghosts 'n Goblins series from Capcom. This 3D action game for PlayStation 2 sends the good knight Sir Maximo on a quest across five different worlds to save his kingdom and princess from the villain Achille. His sword and shield can be upgraded to be inflamed, encase enemies in ice, or be thrown great distances. Maximo spends as much time fighting the hordes of the undead as he does leaping gulfs, though; one wrong step or misjudged distance can plummet the protagonist to his peril. 

Another legendary icon is resurrected, this time on the Nintendo GameCube. Metroid Prime is the first game in the Metroid series in nearly a decade. In this futuristic conflict against space pirates, bounty hunter Samus Aran returns to eradicate the titular energy-draining organism. Her adventure will have gamers exploring deep into an exotic planet and mastering many tools, weapons, and techniques. Pundits of the series criticize the new first-person perspective, but the game retains the essence of what has made Metroid a popular (yet strangely scarce) series. 

Just as familiar games are being revamped for today's new home consoles, handheld gamers will also find that what's old is new again. Samus Aran also surfaces on the Game Boy Advance in the game Metroid Fusion. Taking a cue from Sigourney Weaver, Samus has been injected with alien DNA. She must now explore a strange planet to find the cure for her condition while fighting off a mysterious imposter. This 2D, side-scrolling game is a more traditional Metroid adventure, and offers a suitable alternative to Metroid Prime. Gamers who purchase both titles can connect their Game Boy Advance and GameCube systems to unlock additional features. 

With gameplay similar to Metroid Fusion, Castlevania, a series spanning nearly two decades, continues in Harmony of Dissonance, a Game Boy Advance game. Juste Belmont, a descendant of the legendary Belmont clan of vampire hunters, finds himself lost in Dracula's castle. Players must explore the intimidating mansion, infested with bats, werewolves, living suits of armor, and more, to find Juste's missing childhood friend. 

Harmony of Dissonance boasts bright graphics, making it easy to see on the Game Boy's small screen. Gamers can save their progress any time, making Castlevania perfect for both long sittings of exploration or quick pick-up-and-play sessions. 

Metroid could be considered a science fiction take on Castlevania. For handheld games that are similar to neither, try two classic Super Nintendo games that Nintendo has re-released for Game Boy Advance. Super Mario World 3: Yoshi's Island stars Mario's dinosaur companion. Though gamers do not play as Mario in this 2D adventure, they do get to morph Yoshi into various vehicles on their way to save Mario's brother, Luigi, from the evil Bowser. 

The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past is Nintendo's other reissued classic. The Princess Zelda has been kidnapped, leaving a young lad named Link to journey throughout the land of Hyrule, into palaces and dungeons, and into another world to find the power to restore peace. New to this handheld adaptation is a four-player mode that lets friends cooperate and compete for victory. 

Every cycle of game consoles brings with it something new, including an opportunity for a new generation of gamers to experience the latest in age-old franchises. With myriad options of both hardware and software, such fierce competition for consumers' dollars will ultimately benefit the gamers — no matter their age.

This article is copyright (c) 2002, 2007 by Ken Gagne. All rights reserved. Not to be distributed without permission.

Original publication: Sentinel & Enterprise, 02-Dec-02