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Video Games - A Quick Guide to the Latest Systems

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Video games are always a hot commodity at Christmas, and this year it seems the manufacturers have whipped up an unprecedented frenzy. As I’ve spoken with parents, I detect they are more confused than ever about what systems are most suitable for their family, and which will hold the greatest chance of giving them the best virtual bang for their buck.

“Video games have matured to the point where most parents should know what they are getting into.”

In addition to the Xbox 360, which debuted in late 2005, two new systems are on the market -- or perhaps the best wording would be are nearly on the market. Sony has introduced a new version of their venerable PlayStation line -- the PlayStation 3. Meanwhile Nintendo has brought a completely revamped system onto the market called the Wii (that's pronounced "we").

What do these new systems offer, and -- assuming they can even get their hands on one of the elusive new consoles before Christmas -- will parents be any better off shelling out big dollars for one? Here's the lowdown on each system:

Sony PlayStation 3

Sony's PlayStation has long been a favorite system with gamers, and their latest incarnation follows the usual path for new systems: Faster graphics and higher resolutions. If your family wants a game system that will provide raw power in the form of photographic realism and the ability to play the newest high definition BluRay movies, the PS3 looks poised to be the king of the hill... at least until the next Microsoft box rolls into town.

It's also fetching a premium price. Depending on the size of hard drive you desire, expect to spend upwards of $500 if you can find one in a store. Due to many rumored problems surrounding the engineering of the console and issues with the BluRay disc drive, there are very few of the coveted consoles available. When they do come into stores, most are snapped up by speculators who resell the units on Ebay and Amazon for well over $1,000.

What may be the greatest advantage of purchasing (or waiting to purchase) a PlayStation 3 is its BluRay disc player. Just don't forget that new DVD players cost well over $1,000 when they first released. (I still have one of those precious gems in my basement.) Finally, if your kids already have a portable Sony PSP system, the PlayStation 3 offers some integration with those units as well.

The good news is if your family has already invested in a library of PlayStation games, Sony says if game developers have played by their official programming rules, titles from both the PlayStation and PlayStation 2 should run on the PlayStation 3.

Microsoft Xbox 360

Next on the price ladder is Microsoft's Xbox 360, which is poised to do a big killing in this Christmas's marketplace due to shortages of Sony's and Nintendo's new systems. Widely available since early 2006, the system has the advantage of a larger game library, time to work out problems (reports say Microsoft finally offered repairs in September 2006 for early units which were experiencing software issues) and -- what may be the most important -- you can buy one easily at many stores for under $500.

The Xbox 360 was cutting edge 12 months ago, but now falls slightly behind the PlayStation 3. Yet, considering the current costs of Sony's unit, this performance decrease is negligible.

One downside to Microsoft's Xbox may apply if your family already has a large collection of Xbox games. Internet posts and reports indicate that while the Xbox 360 was supposed to be compatible with original Xbox games, only about one-third of the Xbox library works on the new Xbox 360. So, if you buy a 360 and are expecting to play older games on it, check to make sure they work before the old Xbox hits the spring garage sale pile. (A list of games currently known to be compatible is here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Xbox_games_compatible_with_Xbox_360) It also appears to be a complicated process to keep your 360 up to date, with special software "profiles" needing to be downloaded to enable many older games to work.

Nintendo Wii

Last, but by no means least, is Nintendo's diminutive Wii. Rather than hide my bias, I'll admit right now that, in my opinion, for most families looking to have "fun" with a video game system, Nintendo can't be beat and the Wii only builds on this reputation.

The least expensive of the newest consoles (the retail price is around $250), the Wii turned heads in the game community because of its lack of power. Its "brain" runs at about one-fifth the speed of the new PlayStation 3 and it is physically tiny next to its competitors. Yet, there is great wisdom in its design.

Nintendo engineers were looking to create a box that parents would want to be part of their entertainment accessories, so keeping the size down was a priority. With the Wii also hoping to offer many more future media functions, such as news and content delivery, its creators also wanted it to be very power efficient (which also keeps temperatures cool and requires less fans). This allows the unit to be left "on" all the time, enabling it to be available at a moment's notice.

But where the Wii really shines is with its human interface -- commonly referred to as the game's controller. Using wireless technologies, the Wii is operated through physical body movements as opposed to just pushing buttons. So in a golf game you literally swing your arms in a similar way you would use a golf club. This same virtual motion capability can be applied to countless sports titles and other games.

While I'm not sure players will break a sweat while playing tennis on the Wii (one game which is part of the Wii Sports package bundled with every console), this is one system that will at least get kids off the couch. Nintendo has always focused on games that can involve multiple players, and with the Wii's unique interface, this little box can truly become a center attraction in a family room and has the potential to bring introverted video gamers out of the bedroom.

Finally, when it comes to playing older games, the Wii is the most capable of the group. Because it's reportedly using faster versions of the same chips found in their GameCube system, there should be very high compatibility with older GameCube games (new Wii games come on standard sized discs, and the Wii will also accept the GameCube's small discs). For even more classic gaming fun, the Wii's online capabilities allow players to purchase a huge library of Nintendo 64, Super Nintendo and even Sega Genesis games (prices appear to range from $4 to $10 for these older games). As well, the controllers from your old GameCube will plug into the Wii.

The one downside of the Wii is it currently will not play DVD movies, and does not include a BluRay or HD-DVD drive. There are reports that Nintendo plans to add standard DVD playback capability in the future.

More Control for Parents

Perhaps the greatest reason to consider one of these new systems is that all three now feature parental control technology. This means games will have the ESRB rating (and those from other countries) encoded directly on the disc, and parents will be able to set consoles to allow only games that fall below a pre-selected ratings limit. Unfortunately, these blocking options will only work on new games for these systems and not on "legacy" games made for previous incarnations.

Should You Give The Gift of Games?

Video games have matured to the point where most parents should know what they are getting into. Well no one wants to be a wet blanket on Christmas morning, it would be wsie to discuss game restrictions and times that are appropriate for playing as soon as possible. Also, focus on purchasing games that encourage interactivity with other human players in the same room, as opposed to on-line or virtual opponents.

And remember that all these systems are made to easily connect to the Internet. You'll want to read through the manuals and make sure you are comfortable with any information that may be passing between your child and the rest of the world.

Now, the hardest part... getting your hands on one of the hot new systems before Christmas. If you can get away with it, you may want to present a coupon to your family that's good for a purchase in January when stock is replenished and prices might even be a little less.

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About the Reviewer: Rod Gustafson

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