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As New Titles Go Mainstream, Veteran Players Miss the Fun

May 17, 1999|AARON CURTISS

Amid all the gloating at last week's Electronic Entertainment Expo that video games--long the domain of techies and teenagers--have finally found their place in mainstream America, no one bothered to question whether that's such a good thing.

After three six-Advil days perusing the best, brightest and loudest video games heading for store shelves, it becomes clear that the game industry's ascendancy is not without its consequences. There is, of course, all the hand-wringing over whether violent content is destroying America's youth, most of it done by people who can't tell Sonic from Mario.

But for the millions who play video and computer games, the problem with their pastime going mainstream is much simpler. A lot of the sparkling, million-dollar games on display in showcases manned by princess warriors, professional athletes and talking apes just don't seem like they will be that much fun to play.

Let's be frank: They stink.

For someone who loves video games, E3 was a sharp and sad reminder that while the technological curve continues to climb steeply, the imagination and creativity curves have begun to flatten out. As video game sales overtake box office receipts, the development of games mirrors the development of motion pictures--often with the same watered-down results.

Most of what filled the Los Angeles Convention Center fell into a few distinct categories: sequels to successful games, rip-offs of successful games and games that went through so many focus groups that it was darn near impossible to find a kernel of originality amid all the accelerated graphics and three-dimensional sound.

Every other game seemed to have a title that ended in "II," "III," "Returns" or "Deluxe." There were too many motocross games to count. Scores of first-person corridor shooters strove mightily to outdo each other on the splatter factor. Scads of sports games boasted incremental "improvements" such as the ability to talk smack to opponents or dance a more realistic end zone jig.

Although the mainstream may be great for developers and publishers who pay cash for their Lamborghinis, it may not be so great for the soul of an industry built on an ethic of imaginative risk.

Clearly, the technological pace of game development continues to stampede forward. In addition to the technical advances to graphics and sound hardware for PC gaming, the stars of the show were the new game consoles scheduled to start showing up in stores after Labor Day.

Sega's Dreamcast, Sony's PlayStation 2 and Nintendo's Dolphin systems all promise to catapult console gaming to new levels. The big question, though, is whether all three consoles can survive in a fickle market in which the PC is picking up a larger share of game players. If not, the bigger question is which of the three bites the dust.

In the last round, when consoles jumped from 16 bits to 32 and 64, Sony and Nintendo carved up the pie while Sega got knocked flat. Sega's response, the 128-bit Dreamcast, is a true technical marvel. For $200, players get a machine capable of pumping out super-sharp graphics at lightning speeds. A standard 56K modem allows players to connect with others for online gaming.

Learning from the ill-fated Saturn, Sega's initial lineup of games shows off the technical prowess of Dreamcast. High-energy games such as "Sonic Adventure," "Virtua Fighter 3tb," "House of the Dead 2" and "Airforce Delta" highlight the console's speed while titles such as "Power Stone" and "Armada" give players a more cerebral experience.

Even though Sega can count on the early market for next-generation systems, the real war comes late in 2000 when Sony and Nintendo unleash their machines. Sony showed no playable games, only a few demonstrations of what its PlayStation 2 is supposed to be able to do. But those alone were impressive. With a processor clock speed twice Dreamcast's and 25% more RAM, PlayStation 2 will be a clear threat to Sega's early hegemony--particularly if it can hold on to the stable of game developers that made PlayStation such a hit.

Even with just a year left before its flashy successor takes center stage, PlayStation continues to host some strong games. They're just harder than ever to find.

Namco's "Ace Combat 3," for instance, improves on the flight franchise with new missions and impressive control. Sony Computer Entertainment's "Gran Turismo 2" builds on the original's sophisticated tracks and progressive play. Capcom's "Resident Evil 3" offers spooky new play in a great series. SquareSoft's "Final Fantasy VIII" matches any role-playing game on the PC with huge environments and sophisticated play. And Psygnosis' "Wipeout 3" cleans up some of the mistakes from "Wipeout XL" for a true improvement over the original masterpiece.

Good games all, but notice how many are original. None. Even Sony Computer Entertainment's amusing "Um Jammer Lammy" is a takeoff on last year's surprising "Parappa the Rapper."

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