by Ken Gagne

Forget "Tickle Me Elmo": most shoppers this Christmas want a gold cartridge Zelda. 

Video games, an industry that has swelled to over $5 billion annually, does most of its business in these winter months. If you're doing some last-minute shopping, chances are some people on your list are gamers themselves. Consider these ten titles, some of the best of 1998, when doing your shopping. 

3D platformers have become a staple of the industry since Nintendo launched Super Mario 64 with their Nintendo 64 console. One of the best implementations of this game engine is in Banjo-Kazooie, which teams up a goofy bear (Banjo) and the irate bird (Kazooie) living in his backpack as they try to save the bear's kid sister from an evil witch. 

Smooth, colorful graphics create a fun world for gamers of all ages. The theme and goals, such as collecting Jingo birds and musical notes, may turn off older players, but the gameplay is unaffected by these tones. 

More mature gamers would enjoy Metal Gear Solid, a PlayStation game from Konami. This title revives a decade-old series as Solid Snake attempts to infiltrate an Alaskan military base threatening a nuclear strike on the world. 

Death, betrayal, and sex, plus a phenomenally-realistic game engine and hours of spoken dialogue, make Metal Gear not only a great game, but a great movie, as well. It must be experienced to be believed. 

Competing with Metal Gear for Game of the Year is Nintendo's The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, for Nintendo 64. The latest entry in one of the longest-running, most successful series in gaming history, Zelda has gameplay enough for many dozen hours of play, with many quests and side quests. 

Players control Link as both an adult and child as he fights to free the land of Hyrule from the evil Ganon. The over-the-shoulder perspective and difficult puzzles outperform Tomb Raider, though the solutions to some challenges may be obscure enough to frustrate younger gamers. Consider investing in a strategy guide as well. 

Another mature title for the PlayStation is Tenchu: Stealth Assassins, from Activision. Also 3D like Mario and Tomb Raider, this game takes place in an accurate representation of feudal Japan. Players control a pair of ninja as they fight through many missions, accomplishing honorable goals for Lord Godha. 

As the game rewards stealth over aggressiveness, gamers are encouraged to sneak up on opponents and slit their throats, disembowel them, or visit upon them similarly-violent fates. An excellent action title not for the young or weak of heart. 

If its sports you're shopping for, consider Acclaim's WWF Warzone, for both Nintendo 64 and Sony PlayStation. The game features many of WWF's best wrestlers, including Undertaker, Mankind, and "Stone Cold" Steve Austin. Four-player action (N64 version only), a multitude of battle modes, digitized wrestling graphics, and an authentic wrestling atmosphere (thanks to the outspoken crowd) create an exciting game with many hours of replay value. 

Or try Major League Baseball Featuring Ken Griffey Jr., Nintendo's own sports game for the Nintendo 64. This game includes exhibition, season, World Series, and Home Run Derby modes featuring all of 1998's teams and players. A simplistic control setup, unusual among sports games, makes Griffey easy to pick up, while realistic graphics and a soundtrack that makes you feel like you're at a real ballgame makes it hard to put down. 

Several good racing titles were released this year. On the PlayStation, the best has to be Sony's Gran Turismo, game that has its strength in numbers: there are over 140 new, used, and hidden cars with which to race, available from manufacturers such as Mazda, Toyota, and Chevrolet. Actual statistics for these cars and the most realistic models and graphics ever create a pinnacle racing experience. 

Although in an entirely different category of racing, Nintendo's closest answer to Gran Turismo is F-Zero X. This title takes racing into the future, pitting 30 cars in aggressive races on courses that curve, twist, loop, and tunnel. F-Zero is fast, but lacks any real detail in graphics. Four-player modes and a random track generator, plus a good sense of speed and many difficulty levels, round off this great title. 

Few quality fighting titles were released this year. The best was Tekken 3, Namco's arcade game now for the PlayStation. This game achieved a new high in graphic quality on a home system, but matches it with deep gameplay. Gamers must master many hidden characters and level upon level of combo attacks to win. These attacks are realistic and do not feature the fireballs and other moves popular among the Street Fighter crowd; Tekken 3 may not be for the casual gamer. 

Finally, 1998 was a fruitful year for both role-playing games (RPGs) and the Sega Saturn, which had its last releases before losing support from Sega this year. The best game of either category is Panzer Dragoon Saga, for the Saturn. The game is short — only about 20 hours — but features many excellent full-motion video sequences, an innovative battle system, and a moving storyline. Gamers looking to support their dead Saturn, or role-players who want the best of the best, can't go wrong with this title. 

With video games growing in popularity among older gamers while remaining a favorite with kids, it's hard to go wrong with any of the above titles if there's a gamer close to your heart this holiday season.

This article is copyright (c) 1998, 2007 by Ken Gagne. All rights reserved. Not to be distributed without permission.

Original publication: Sentinel & Enterprise, 23-Dec-98