Games: Console Wars

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For many kids, the holiday season just wouldn't be the same without wizards, warriors, and wide receivers dominating the big screen. You'll need to do plenty of strategizing of your own well before then to make sure everyone ends up with the game system they want.

Two versions of Sony's (SNE ) PlayStation 3, an entry-level $499 system and higher-end $599 one, will hit North American shelves on Nov. 17, and Nintendo (NTDOY ) will follow two days later with its $250 Wii. They will compete with Microsoft's (MSFT ) $399 Xbox 360, which has been on the market about a year (see, 10/20/06, "Podcast: New Game Systems for the Holiday Season").

First you need to decide whether you want cutting-edge games, more online action, or a completely different way of playing. Each console offers a clear point of differentiation. Reigning champion Sony aims to expand beyond its millions-strong base of hard-core gamers by pitching the powerful PS3 as a living room entertainment system. It comes loaded with a high-definition Blu-ray DVD player. The system even offers the ability to view photos and, with a high-speed Internet connection, browse and shop on the Web.

After more than a year on the market, Microsoft will have some of the best-looking games and more titles than Sony and Nintendo combined. Developers also are planning titles that users can download and play from the Xbox Live online marketplace.

Although many of its games still look good, Nintendo's Wii will follow in the mold of the company's hit DS Lite, a handheld system, relying less on cutting-edge graphics and more on user-friendly features and family-fun games to attract people who do not traditionally play video games. Rather than getting into a direct slugfest with Sony and Microsoft, Nintendo's engineers came up with the idea of using a remote controller to make the games masterfully interactive. A wireless receiver attaches to the set and picks up commands from the remote, which uses a gyrometer and other built-in sensors to make the games more realistic than ever--even in those with cartoon-like graphics.

With Wii Sports, a game bundle that will be included with the purchase, you can work up a sweat swinging the controller like a bat while playing baseball. In the popular Zelda game, the controller becomes a fishing rod you could cast and reel. There are authentic sounds to boot.

As with all game player introductions, the new consoles will be in short supply. Sony recently announced that a shortage of the whizzy Blu-ray high-definition DVDdrives it will use in the PS3 will reduce the number of available units to just 600,000, limited to the U.S. and Japan. Retailers are expected to have fewer than a dozen units per location, so you'd better start camping out now if you're determined to get one.

By Cliff Edwards

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