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COVER STORY : Video Legions : Boys, avid fans of the games, crave the fast action, snappy graphics--and blood.

November 18, 1994|DAVID WHARTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Video game junkies call it "graphic candy." Computerized artwork and photographic realism. Three-dimensional figures who punch and shoot their way across the screen with pinpoint brutality.

That's what Kelly Mower craves. A slight young boy from Encino, he owns a Sega Genesis and two different Nintendo systems.

"The best game?" he asked. "Mortal Kombat II. There's fighting. There's blood."

There is technology. Technology sweetens the graphic candy. The new breed of video games pack high-speed microprocessors, graphic engines and digital sound, all of which put the gleam in a gamer's eye.

"Graphics are going to suck you in," explained David Winding, an editor at Diehard GameFan magazine. "Then, how is the experience once you're brought in?"

Donkey Kong Country, arriving in stores on Monday, blankets you in a dazzling snowstorm. Sonic & Knuckles gives you the agility to climb walls. And Mortal Kombat II blesses you with the strength to rip your opponent asunder and watch the blood spurt.

"Finishing moves," little Mower chirped. "You cut off their heads."

That is what the gamers, the hard-core players, want.

Imagine them, millions of glassy-eyed boys crouched in the glow of their television sets and computer screens, madly fingering plastic game paddles. The image is not far from true--most players are boys ages 8 to 18. They spend hours each day honing their skills, scratching toward the top level. And they are legion.

Americans spend an estimated $6 billion a year on video games, which is more than they spend to go to the movies. Sega and Nintendo, the undisputed champs of the industry, occupy an estimated four of 10 United States households. Meanwhile, upstart multimedia machines such as Atari's Jaguar and Panasonic's REAL 3DO have arrived on a wave of hype. And personal computers, a category unto themselves, spin games into millions more living rooms and dens.

As a result, shoppers will have thousands of game titles and dozens of game-playing systems to choose from this holiday season.

For most adults, navigating this scene will be as bewildering as piloting heavy cruisers on a deep recon mission toward the Zeeman-Vela star cluster. Gamers say that Super Nintendo gives good graphics while Sega Genesis plays more smoothly. Panasonic's REAL packs custom graphics and sound processors for even better look and play, but doesn't offer as many games. With computers, technical matters of random-access memory and monitor quality must be considered.

As for all those games, it's a jungle out there.

"Too many games," said Harry Myerson, owner of Who's On First, a Canoga Park shop. Myerson warned: If you make the wrong decision, you get stuck with a dud. He pointed to the recently released NHL '95. "It's actually a step backward from NHL '94."

Blood is the only sure bet.

A 1993 survey published in the Clinical Pediatrics journal asked a group of Midwestern children and teens to list their favorite games. Martial arts and shoot-'em-ups predominated, accounting for more than half of the preferred titles. Educational games accounted for less than 2%.

More recently, Diehard GameFan polled its readers and found similar preferences. Fighting games such as Mortal Kombat II and Final Fantasy III lead the pack, followed by sports and role-playing titles. A recent issue of Computer Gaming World magazine listed Doom, with its "Knee-Deep in the Dead" difficulty level, as the most popular choice for personal computers.

"Everybody plays it," said Terry Coleman, an assistant editor. "We named it our game of the year."

Even a new tongue-in-cheek video game release, Earthworm Jim, features a battling genus Lumbricus. But gore is not the whole story. Gamers also crave action. While the rest of us struggle with the first level of Columns, the true players have tapped into a shared logic that allows them to decipher a game's intricacies and secret maneuvers.

On a recent afternoon, Greg Kindred tested the new Beavis and Butt-head at the Game Dude shop in North Hollywood. Within minutes, the Sun Valley teen had mastered various skateboard tricks and offensive yet high-scoring bodily functions. Nearby, Wayne Sanford browsed through racks of new titles.

"It has got to be a long game and it has got to be challenging," said Sanford, 12, of North Hollywood. Ecco the Dolphin is his current favorite. "It is not something you can get through the first day."

Ferreting out worthwhile games becomes a contest in itself. With new titles costing up to $70, it entails no small gamble. Jordan Brandt, 7, of Woodland Hills listens for word of mouth or waits for someone else to make the first move. "You can play them at a friend's house to see if you like them," he said. Kevin Syre, 12, of Sherman Oaks reads Electronic Gaming Monthly and other trade magazines for reviews and announcements. And, like others, he visits arcades to sacrifice a few quarters in the name of research.

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