by Ken Gagne

Once a pastime of the young and restless, video games have become a popular form of entertainment to larger audience than ever before. 1999 revitalized the industry with exciting new releases of both software and hardware. 

When considering the gamers close to their hearts, Christmas shoppers this season would do well to pick up some of the following of the year's greatest hits. 

The brand name on most kids' minds this holiday season is Nintendo's Pokemon. It started as a daily cartoon on Kids WB, followed by video games, a trading card game, and a movie. One of the most popular forms of Pokemon is the Game Boy games, of which there are three: Pokemon Red, Blue, and Yellow. In each, players must travel the world to capture "pocket monsters" (Pokemon) and train them to defeat and capture other Pokemon. Only by connecting two Game Boys and trading between the three versions can all 150 Pokemon be collected. There is also Pokemon Pinball, an enjoyable spinoff of the collecting frenzy. 

Pokemon Snap is a Nintendo 64 game that takes a different approach to collecting Pokemon. In Snap, the tool of the trade is not a net, but a camera. As young Todd, gamers will journey on safari across Pokemon Island, taking pictures for Professor Oak's Pokemon Report. Pictures are rated on size (Pokemon's closeness to the camera), pose, technique (centered-ness), and number of the same Pokemon in a single shot. 

Taking a good picture can be tougher than it sounds. The Pokemon are often hiding in the wilds and must be lured out with fruit or other devices. Sometimes, extra steps must be taken to get the Pokemon into a rare, more valuable pose. 

If the gamers in your family think they're too old for Pokemon, fear not: the survival horror genre is alive and well, thanks to a pair of excellent games released for the PlayStation this year. Capcom's Resident Evil 3, the latest chapter in the series that invented the genre, follows Jill Valentine as she tries to escape the zombie-infested Raccoon City. The game plays and looks better than any previous Resident Evil, and introduces a new threat: Nemesis. The nigh-indestructible, bazooka-wielding, patchwork monster is constantly on the prowl, hunting Jill and thwarting her rescue attempts. (Nintendo 64 gamers will also find Resident Evil 2 recently released for their console.) 

Silent Hill, from Konami, has gameplay similar to Resident Evil, but a different atmosphere. When Harry Mason wakes up from a car crash, he finds not only his daughter missing but the town deserted and overrun by strange monsters. In his quest to save his daughter, Harry will lose himself between this dimension and another, a dark mirror of our own world, as the line between the two realities begins to blur and fade. 

Instead of the quick frights offered by Resident Evil, Silent Hill maintains a constant, chilling environment. Poor lighting makes it hard to see, which is both a curse (what lurks in the shadows?) and a blessing (once you see what grisly sights lurk in the shadows, you'll wish you hadn't). 

All three of the above horror games contain scenes of explicit violence and gore, and are for mature audiences only. Meanwhile, younger gamers will delight in the titles published by Nintendo this year for the Nintendo 64. 

Mario Party is a board game that is fun for all ages. Up to four players compete by moving famous Nintendo characters around various game boards, collecting coins and stars. The real attraction is the dozens of action-packed mini games, which invite players to compete or cooperate for coins by shooting hoops, racing bobsleds, or joining in a tug-o-war. 

For more a game with more focus on action and direct competition, try Super Smash Bros., a four-player fighting game. Characters such as Mario, Yoshi, and Pikachu (of Pokemon fame) duke it out using moves anyone can learn. The familiar personalities and settings, coupled with simple controls, make Super Smash Bros. another fun party game. 

Though the above games can be played solo, they're intended for crowds. Fortunately, there are also game selections to satisfy people who prefer to play by themselves. 

The world's most famous ape is back in Nintendo's Donkey Kong 64. In a style similar to last year's 3D action game Banjo-Kazooie, the Kong clan sets out to explore different regions in search of bananas, coins, keys, and more. Donkey Kong 64 is a well-done version of a popular genre, with incredible graphics and a fun multiplayer mode, but offers little other innovation. 

Speaking of apes, Ape Escape, for the PlayStation, is a similarly- excellent 3D platform game from Sony. The chimp Spector has escaped from the zoo and, using stolen inventions, has boosted his intelligence and travelled through time, releasing his simian soldiers to rewrite history in their favor! It's up to Spike, the human hero, to follow them through time and capture each monkey in the different eras. 

Ape Escape requires the Dual Shock controller because of its unique controls. Spike can wield many different tools and weapons, including a remote-controlled car, a stun club, and Monkey Radar. The levels range in size but are more coherent than Donkey Kong's and have less to search out and find, making for clearer goals. 

The PlayStation infiltrated the spy genre this year with 989 Studio's incredibly successful Syphon Filter. From resolving a hostage situation in Washington Park, to defeating a flamethrower-toting goon at the Freedom Memorial, to shadowing a suspected mole through a museum, various goals will send players around the world in an attempt to stop the international terrorist Erich Rhoemer. The diverse challenges and excellent play mechanics make for an addicting title. 

 An equivalent for Nintendo 64 is WinBack, from Koei, which drops Jean-Luc Cougar into a terrorist-occupied military installation, with three hours to stop the firing of a satellite laser. Compared to Syphon Filter, WinBack has more detailed graphics, but worse camera angles; easier control, but less variety in its action. Despite these setbacks, WinBack is still a fun and unique offering for Nintendo 64. 

Judging from the number of releases this year, the role-playing game genre appears to finally have gained acceptance in the American market. Two of the best RPGs this year are Sony's Grandia and Atlus' Thousand Arms. Both are lighthearted games with colorful, detailed worlds. Especially fun are the dating sequences in Thousand Arms; in the different towns, the hero Meis can date one of several girls, building a relationship that will build spiritual energy, necessary to forge powerful weapons. 

 If the gamer in your family enjoys the latest in entertainment technology, maybe a Sega Dreamcast game console would fit nicely under the tree. The 128-bit system was launched in September for $199, and already has nearly three dozen games from which to choose. NFL 2K is an astounding football game that has sold many customers on the Dreamcast, while Sonic Adventure is a lush 3D action game that breaks all speed limits. Fighting fans can't go wrong with Soul Calibur, a deep, gorgeous weapons fighting game, or Power Stone, the first "go anywhere, grab anything" 3D fighter. 

Video gaming may be an expensive hobby, but it is an all-encompassing one. With games from every genre, for every gamer, and on every system, it's hard not to find something suitable for whoever you're shopping for this Christmas.

This article is copyright (c) 1999, 2007 by Ken Gagne. All rights reserved. Not to be distributed without permission.

Original publication: Sentinel & Enterprise, 06-Dec-99