`Infinitely Cool' In 64 Bits

A few weeks ago, I got hold of a Japa-nese model of the Nintendo 64 game machine, which hit U.S. stores on Sept. 29. Within a week, my 6-year-old son Alec was constantly humming the theme music from the Super Mario 64 game. One day I joined in, prompting the following exchange. Alec: "Don't sing that song. I hate it." Me: "I thought you loved it. You sing it all the time." Alec: "I don't love it. Nintendo just stuck it in my brain."

Somewhere, Mario's creators are smiling. Just one look, and kids get hooked. At the bustling Toys `R' Us in midtown Manhattan, children have been mobbing N64 demo machines since early September. At Cybersmith, a trendy online cafe in Cambridge, Mass., "the N64 has been the highest-usage system since we brought it over from Japan in August," says spokesman Eric McNulty.

ENTHRALLED. In other words, the N64 lives up to its prerelease hype in at least some regards. Built around a lightning-fast 64-bit processor from Silicon Graphics--the same kind of hardware that created dinosaurs for the movie Jurassic Park --the $199 machine displays brilliant 3D graphics, at times exceeding what older, 32-bit systems from Sony and Sega can do. On the other hand, games are in short supply, and the situation won't improve much by Christmas.

So far, kids seem enthralled, and when you see Mario, you'll know why. This is probably the most perfectly crafted video game ever. Designed by Nintendo's resident game whiz Shigeru Miyamoto, author of the original 8-bit Mario, it combines dazzling environments, witty flourishes, and great "gameplay" for kids ages six and older.

As in the earlier 8-bit and 16-bit Mario games, the hero roams through various rooms and landscapes. He collects hidden stars that increase his power, fights enemies, navigates treacherous slides, and rescues a princess. Familiar stuff, but this muscular new Mario moves fluidly in any direction, unlike his two-dimensional ancestors. Mario pants when you run him too hard, leaps with his fist in the air, and mutters "mama mia." Driven by a tiny joystick on the controller, he swims in the castle moat, cavorts with colorful fish, and retrieves magical knickknacks. (Don't hold him down long--he drowns.) There's no head-ripping ugliness in this world, and no need for it. Next Generation magazine figures fans will get about 85 hours of fun exploring Mario's castle and collecting all 120 stars needed to beat the game.

I didn't have the time or patience for that, so I lent my machine to ace player Andrew "A.K." Kau, a seventh grader at the Trinity School in New York. After one long session, A.K. pronounced the system "infinitely cool." In about 24 hours, aided by some magazine hints, he retrieved all but four of the stars.

Since A.K. can zoom to the upper levels of a video game faster than I can read a simple instruction pamphlet, I took him and his classmate Ian Ferguson to meet with Nintendo and play some prerelease software. After 2 1/2 hours, the kids reached a verdict: Mario rules, but some "reasonably cool" stuff is in the pipeline.

GREAT GRETZKY. Both boys liked a racing game on jet skis called Wave Race, in which skiers churn up blue water, ride over frothy waves, and smash into docks and buoys. The other big hit was Wayne Gretzky Hockey by Williams Entertainment, which four people can play at once. Human and computer players check one another on the ice, and can even brawl.

The trouble is, neither of the other two games currently shipping with N64--a flight simulation game and a Star Wars spin-off--quite measures up to Mario. Nintendo is promising another 10 games by Christmas. But Tokyo analyst Masami Fujino of Jardine Fleming Securities says Nintendo has had trouble getting other software companies to produce games for the N64.

Should parents worry about that? Not too much. Nintendo is a $3.3 billion company with a great stable of game designers in house. If you do spring for N64, there's little danger of it sitting, unused, in the closet.

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