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A Game Plan for Picking the Right Box

Xbox, GameCube and PlayStation 2 are each designed to appeal to a specific type of player.


About a dozen times a week, someone asks which video game console to buy this winter: Microsoft's Xbox, Nintendo's GameCube or Sony's PlayStation 2.

The questions are more urgent these days. PlayStation 2 has been on the market for more than a year. Microsoft launches Xbox today. And GameCube lands on store shelves Sunday. As holiday shoppers tussle their way toward digital nirvana, they should make sure they're clawing and scratching for the right box.

Mistakes can be costly--$200 or more for the box alone and about $50 per game.

Each of the three consoles has its own personality and has been crafted to appeal to a specific type of game player.

In general, here's a rough guide for deciding which console to buy. For kids younger than 12, go with GameCube and its tot-friendly fare. For teens and young adults into action games, get an Xbox. For an overall family machine with a wide range of games, it's PS2. At the risk of sounding overly philosophical, the first step toward video game happiness is knowing what will make you happy.

In purely technical terms, Xbox offers the most versatility right away. Its built-in hard drive and high-speed Internet connection make the $300 Xbox the most PC-like of all the consoles and provide the opportunity for multi-player games with deeper levels. For at least the first year, Microsoft is targeting the green-and-black Xbox at hard-core gamers who set the rules for cool.

The $200 GameCube focuses on the basics. It's a game machine, pure and simple. Aiming squarely at a younger audience, Nintendo is counting on its family-friendly tradition to sell its petite purple cube. As the only platform to host traditionally superb Nintendo franchises such as Mario, GameCube enjoys a base of warm, fuzzy support among gamers raised on Donkey Kong with kids of their own.

With a year to build up a strong library of titles, Sony's $300 PlayStation 2 enjoys the widest variety of games--more than 200. The sleek, black PS2 also is the most like a traditional piece of consumer electronics equipment. It plays DVD movies and audio CDs right out of the box and aims at the great, wide middle of the game-playing universe. Like Microsoft, Sony plans to introduce a hard drive and modem, but at additional cost.

What the consoles have in common is that many popular games will be released on all three platforms. So if you've just got to have the latest installment of "Madden" football, you'll get it no matter which box you buy. Independent game publishers need to put out games for every box to make money in these days of rising production costs and fragmented tastes.

The main difference between the machines lies in the handful of exclusive headliner titles, such as "Ico" on PlayStation 2, "Halo" on Xbox and "Luigi's Mansion" on GameCube. So if there's a certain game you absolutely must play, that naturally limits the choice of boxes.

Here's how the boxes stack up.

Microsoft Xbox: There's been a lot of kvetching by game purists over Microsoft's entry into the console business. After the Xbox's coming-out party at the Electronic Entertainment Expo last May in Los Angeles, some wags griped that the games were sub-par and that the box was poorly engineered.

Now that it's here, though, the Xbox delivers the goods. After playing Xbox for a couple of weeks, it's clear that Microsoft has produced a console to be reckoned with. Many of the games in the initial lineup are exquisitely addictive. Although made of many PC components, Xbox suffers none of its big brother's flakiness or instability, and its 733-megahertz processor chugs along smoothly.

By far the biggest of the three consoles, Xbox packs considerable power in its tubby guts.

An 8-gigabyte hard drive, the first for a set-top console, allows players to save game data, copy CD music tracks and buffer massive levels. In games such as "Halo," players can spend an hour in a single level without seeing the annoying "Loading ... " message so common on other disc-based machines. All that happens is the occasional hiccup as players pass a threshold and new data get loaded into RAM.

The hard drive also allows players to customize music mixes that can be played in lieu of a game's standard soundtrack. Rip your favorite sonatas beforehand and then let them play. Other console games have allowed similar flexibility, but users had to pop out the game disc and swap it with a music CD. The hard drive allows all that to be done on the fly.

Microsoft clearly sees a future in online gaming. Xbox comes with a built-in Ethernet adapter to connect gamers around the world. Problem is, most people don't have high-speed Internet connections--yet. But that's clearly the direction in which consumer electronics and entertainment companies want the consuming public to go. For early adopters, Xbox promises a slick, fast online experience. The rest of the world will have to catch up. Meanwhile, players can connect two Xboxes together and play against each other on separate TV screens.

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