Pick A Platform, Any Platform

On Oct. 31, the worlds of computer simulation and real life will collide. More than 100 ace players of flight-simulation games will converge in Orlando. They'll plug in their PCs, load a game called Air Warrior II, choose vintage fighter planes from World Wars I, II, and the Korean War, and do battle in what players are calling the "unfriendly skies" of cyberspace. And when the "sim" fights are over, they'll get to fly in real B-25s and biplanes.

That'll be an experience even the best games can't duplicate--although they're getting close. Computer games are becoming faster, more diverse, and more interesting. Special boards for 3-D sound and graphics make for realistic special effects. Next year, digital videodisks built into PCs will boost graphics storage, and a Pentium chip enhancement from Intel called MMX will make games run even faster. The result: "Kids are going to have a lot more fun," predicts Edmond Heinbockel, president of gamemaker Tsunami Media.

MIND GAMES. Does all this spell d-o-o-m for stand-alone video game makers such as Nintendo, Sony, and Sega? Not this year, and probably not next. Although surveys show the number of U.S. video game users declining, retailers say sales this fall are booming--in part because the three vendors continue to provide fast, satisfying games for a fraction of the cost of buying a computer. The new generation of turbocharged video game systems all sell for about $200--a bargain, given the jazzy electronics inside.

Which kind of system should you choose for your child? That's a no-brainer for education-minded parents. The huge variety of educational software for PCs and Macintoshes--and the skills they impart--make these hands-down winners, even if a PC costs 10 times the price of a video game console. "PC games can give your kid's mind a workout," says H. Buff Herr, a New York computer consultant.

That's true even for some games that aren't strictly educational. Herr likes SimCity (Maxis) and the genre of simulation games it has spawned. The original SimCity--now in a few million American homes--lets players map out a city, plan its roads and power grids, and manage its finances. With the newest version, SimCity 2000 Network Edition, you can team up with friends and play over the Internet.

The hard part is finding the right games in a huge, rapidly rising sea of titles. All told, there will be about 2,000 programs on store shelves this Christmas, mostly priced at $30 to $60, predicts researcher PC Data of Reston, Va. If you're looking for software aimed at small children, ages 4 and up, there's no need to specify games. Nearly all titles for that group are in game format. And any store clerk can direct you to best-sellers such as Reader Rabbit (SoftKey), Math Blaster (Davidson), and Oregon Trail (MECC).

Adult games are a lot trickier. Quality varies drastically. So does the amount of time it takes to learn a game's geography and objectives. Expert advice is golden--and fortunately, there's plenty of it. For example, PC Games Magazine, launched this summer by Infotainment World, features well-written previews, concise game tips, and ratings on setup, graphics, and play. And you can browse the editors' top game choices at www.pcgames mag.com. While you're at it, check out CNET's Gamecenter site (www. cnet.com/Gamecenter), which contains up-to-date reviews, previews, and a running tally of the most popular games people are downloading from the site. These data are conveniently sorted by platform--that is, games for Win95, various configurations of DOS, and the Macintosh.

If you find the Web daunting, online services also offer game guidance. The menu called "Channels" on America Online will direct you to game areas, or you can type the keyword "games." Reviews and downloads are arranged by category, such as fighting, sports, and simulation. And from any screen, it's easy to get to chat areas to talk with other gamers.

BLOOD AND GUTS. At any of these sites, you'll find plenty of intelligent simulation and strategy games. Critics are gushing about Afterlife (LucasArts) and Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness (Blizzard). You'll also find an abundance of blood, guts, and general mayhem. The leader in this category is Quake, from the creators of Doom at id Software. Like its predecessor, Quake lets you roam through grim chambers to massacre monsters with a variety of weapons. The game pushes the envelope in 3-D effects. And like Doom, it can be played against others on the Net. In the newest iteration, called Quakeworld, id has reserved real estate on computer servers around the world so players in different countries can battle one another with minimal delays or glitches.

Thanks to the soaring popularity of games such as Quake and Duke Nukem 3D (FormGen), the Internet has emerged as a hot new game medium in its own right. Publisher id played an important role, encouraging players to create their own gory chambers and post them on the Net for others to download.

The sense that there are no boundaries on the Net, either technical or imaginative, has added fuel to the networked game explosion, and virtually all gamemakers are trying to tailor products to it. Parker Brothers, for one, has released a network version of Monopoly that lets players in different countries compete, even though users in France are looking at a different board and playing in francs.

Hardware companies are also catering to gamers more than ever. NEC, Compaq, IBM, and others have put out souped-up Win95 PCs that will run games faster and louder than the average Pentium machine. Gateway 2000's giant-screened Destination models also suit gamers. Recently, I played Berkeley Systems' You Don't Know Jack on a 31-inch Destination. Relaxing on a sofa and gazing at a huge monitor, it was easy to get swept into this fast-paced, funny quiz-show simulation. Such bells and whistles come at a steep premium: Prices for Destination machines can top $4,000. So for now, if you really want to play on a big screen in the family room, a video game machine still makes sense.

TOUGH CHOICES. If you decide to go this route, the hardest part will be choosing among the three incompatible platforms. The new Nintendo 64 is built around the fastest chip available today and is the only machine that will run the new Super Mario 64--arguably the most interesting game ever written for a stand-alone console. Nintendo's cartridge system also loads games much faster than the disk systems from Sega and Sony. Two disadvantages: Software is scarce, and it's expensive. There will probably be just 12 titles on the market by Christmas, and each will cost as much as $69.

Sony's PlayStation is a good choice if you want to go with the market leader. Sony claims to have shipped over 7 million units worldwide. In the U.S., it outships Sega nearly 3 to 1. It also boasts an abundance of software. The latest big title, Crash Bandicoot, is challenging and fun, and two or three other likely winners are in the pipeline.

Sega could end up trailing both Sony and Nintendo this fall, but it's not for lack of technical sophistication or good games. Sega was the first to jump to a powerful 32-bit processor and will also be the first to tap into the Internet. Later this month, for $200, Sega Saturn owners will be able to buy a 28.8-baud modem called Net Link that lets you browse the Web on your TV. Initially, the modem will let two friends duke it out over a phone line. Down the road, Sega hopes to let Saturn owners roam the Internet and do combat in the same way that Quake players can do battle from their PCs.

Video game execs know they are under fire from the PC world. That's one reason Sony is making an aggressive move into home PCs and Sega is rewriting its best games to run on PCs as well as on the Saturn. But shoppers for video games should not feel spooked. "The video game market is not going to go away," says PC Data President Ann Stephens.

Especially not this season. Toy retailers are predicting shortages for both Sony and Nintendo by Christmas, which, by default, could be good news for Sega. Between the explosion of networked computer games and the resurgence in the video game camp, expect to see lots of electronic glitter under the tree this year.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.