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Sega: Lightning Strikes Again

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Every year, one toy is so cool that, for kids across America, Christmas without it will be too painful to contemplate. Invariably, that guarantees a shortage so severe that parents can't find the thing for love or bribery. This year, Sega CD from Sega of America Inc., which began hitting store shelves on Nov. 8, is it.

Even with its steep $300 price tag, retailers can't get enough of this toy. Across the U.S., hopeful buyers are getting their names gn waiting lists. "They're selling almost before they hit the store," says Tim H. Newkirk, toy buyer at Sears, Roebuck & Co.

Why the fuss? In addition to playing standard Sega Genesis games, the Sega CD brings compact-disk quality to video games. Its CD-based games can contain high-quality animation and even crude full-moving pictures. "Night Trap" and "Sewer Shark" from Digital Pictures Inc., for instance, let players alter the action on real B-grade movies. Digital Pictures will soon introduce games that let players create their own videos for songs by such pop stars as Marky Mark and Prince.

`BLOTCHY.' For Sega, the shortage marks a fine finish to a very good year. In 1992, it wrested about 40% of the 10 million-unit market for 16-bit video games from Nintendo of America Inc. But will Sega CD have staying power? "I don't think you'll see this kind of momentum for the product after Christmas," says Standard & Poor's Corp. analyst Paul H. Valentine, who thinks the system is too costly and the quality too inconsistent. He may have a point. William R. Bruchert, a 22-year-old Chicagoan, says he has been disappointed by the "blotchy" video quality of the games out so far and is hoping for games with better animation instead. "Basing an entire game on video can become a bit tiresome," he adds.

Nintendo, which says it isn't worried about Sega's lead, will introduce its own CD-based video system next year. Sony and a spin-off of video-game maker Electronic Arts, called 3DO, have versions in the works, too. 3DO's product, aimed at adults and retailing for nearly $700, will be announced Jan. 7. But none of them will reach the stores until next Christmas. That means Sega has this holiday all wrapped up.Richard Brandt in San Francisco

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