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3 D Video Games: The Next Generation



"Cool, cool, cool," exulted one pumped-up youngster. "Good 3-D," reported another.

"Lifelike sounds when you squish the people," piped in a third. Pausing only for a bite of pizza or a sip of soda, a half-dozen boys, ages 5 to 11, helped BUSINESS WEEK taste-test the next generation of mind candy, namely the three-dimensional 32-bit video-game systems that aim to recreate the arcade experience in your living room. And judging from our expert panel--each kid a battle-scarred veteran of the 16-bit Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis video-game wars--the latest consoles blow away their underpowered-but-lower-priced ancestors.

Just what parents across America want to hear, right? In fact, some of the games for the new Sega Saturn and Sony PlayStation are so addictive that mom and dad might feel tempted to grab a controller or joystick and plunge in themselves.

What makes the latest games compelling for adults and kids is their realism. Thanks to technical leaps in the hardware, 3-D software games are faster and richer in color, detail, and action than those produced for less muscular chips. In a PlayStation title called Battle Arena Toshiden, which is based on an underworld martial arts tournament, the action can be viewed from different angles. In one impressive scene, the precise movements of the fighters are displayed in a mirror behind them.

But a game such as Toshiden, in which the object is to beat your opponent silly, may be inappropriate for young children. Indeed, both new systems have a number of violent titles, and the blood and gore are more authentic and less cartoonish than on older platforms. (Fortunately, video games--like movies--carry ratings on the box.)

Each of the latest hardware systems will also put a bigger dent in your wallet than older game consoles. Saturn has been available since late spring and costs $399 with the addictive Virtua Fighter Remix game or $349 without the software. Sony's PlayStation, which hit stores in September, sells for $299 by itself or $349 bundled with Namco's exciting Ridge Racer.

Two other advanced systems have been on the market longer. 3DO's Interactive Multiplayer is sold in the U.S. under the Panasonic and GoldStar brands for $299. Panasonic's version includes a software title called GEX. GoldStar's 3DO console is packaged with FIFA International Soccer and Shock Wave. The Atari Jaguar costs $149 and comes with no titles. One venerable video-game giant is missing in action. Nintendo's next generation Ultra 64 game machine, which will employ cartridges rather than CDs, is not expected to hit U.S. stores until next April.

QUANTUM LEAP. Sega, Sony, and 3DO run games on special compact disks that exploit 32-bit computer chips, a quantum leap over 16-bit Super NES and Genesis consoles. The CDs cost between $40 and $70 a pop and can only be used with a single system. Bing Gordon, executive vice-president at Electronic Arts' EA Studios, which produces software for Sega, Sony, and 3DO, says a flight-simulator game on the 16-bit Sega Genesis might run animation at 4 to 5 frames per second with low video resolution. By comparison, a 3DO game may run at 12 to 15 frames per second, PlayStation at 20 to 25 frames, and Saturn somewhere in between, all at medium resolution. Such speeds are closer to the 30 frames per second of full-motion television. "It changes the whole experience," explains Gordon. "You're going to see 3-D games in which cars look like cars and monsters look like monsters, all with the detail that helps you suspend disbelief."

The Sony graphics are particularly stunning, and Gordon believes PlayStation bests its rivals at 3-D and video playback, making it a strong machine for interactive movies and action simulations. But the merits of systems, which are fairly close technically, matter less than the breadth of their roster of titles. Sony, new to the business, has 15 games out now but expects 50 titles to be available by the holiday season, with Mortal Kombat 3 and PGA Tour Golf '96 from Electronic Arts among them.

SIDEWAYS EDGE. At present, Sega says there are 22 Saturn games on the market, with a total of 75 to 80 titles expected around Christmas, including Panzer Dragoon and a version of the PC hit Myst by Sunsoft. Sega also has a strong stable of coin-operated arcade games. Virtua Fighter--the kids' favorite in our test--began life in Japanese arcades. Sega also has its own menagerie of popular licensed characters, such as Sonic the Hedgehog, to draw on. Presently, Saturn may be a little better than the others at games in which the action scrolls sideways across the screen. And titles with even better graphics are likely on the way as software companies get used to working with Saturn's complicated innards.

Thanks to its head start, 3DO says it has 220 titles now with an additional 30 due out by yearend, including a futuristic tank battle for kids 12 and above called BattleSport and an action-packed flight-simulator game known as BladeForce, which may not be appropriate for those under 17. But some players have found 3DO's sports-game lineup underwhelming. On the hardware side, 3DO is planning to upgrade its system next year with a 64-bit PowerPC chip technology dubbed M2. 3DO might also sell special circuit boards to PC companies so that its games will run on home computers.

Meanwhile, the basic Jaguar system handles cartridges rather than compact disks. Atari says Jaguar is already a 64-bit machine. But besides the processor chip, game machines rely on additional graphics chips, memory, and other technical tricks. And 64-bit or not, our young evaluators rated Jaguar a poor fourth behind the other game systems. Atari recently unveiled a long-anticipated $149 add-on unit that snaps over the existing cartridge system and plays Jaguar CD games. But the device Atari supplied to BUSINESS WEEK failed to work properly. Moreover, sales of Jaguar have been stymied by Atari's spotty marketing history, and many major third-party software companies have been reluctant to develop games for the system. Among those that do: Time Warner Interactive, UBI Soft, and U.S. Gold. Still, Jaguar says it has 30 available now, with 30 more (half on CD) due out by Christmas.

To get the most out of any new system, it's worth spending $25 to $35 for an extra controller. All the machines are packaged with just a single controller, but most games are more fun when you get a chance to compete against family members or friends rather than just computer-controlled characters.

POWER PUNCHES. Players would also be wise to consult--even study--the manuals that come with the titles. The eight onscreen combatants in Virtua Fighter, for example, deliver special high-powered punch and kick moves when certain combinations of buttons are pressed on the controller.

By plunging into most games without heeding such advice, I failed miserably against human and electronic competition. Playing as Boston against Dallas in the fun Slam N Jam basketball game from Crystal Dynamics on 3DO, my squad was creamed 49 to 15, just in the first quarter. I didn't fare much better as a race-car driver in Daytona USA on Sega Saturn, placing 40th out of 40 cars, twice, even with help from a $69 steering-wheel accessory called Arcade Racer. And while racing through the virtual streets of San Francisco in ESPN Extreme Games on the Sony PlayStation, my inline skating dude-self kept colliding into mailboxes, poles, and cable cars. Oh, well--it's only a game, and I lived to tell the tale.Edward Baig

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