HOLIDAYS : Where the Action Is : Fast-paced computer games tend to be violent, but new offerings may attract a wider audience.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

To the uninitiated, shopping for video and computer games can be overwhelming. The shelves of most stores are lined with a dizzying array of slickly packaged games for half a dozen systems--they all look the same, and they all look fun. What are you to do when your teen-ager says, "Just get me a game"?

First, don't panic.

According to Jay Whitmarsh of Electronics Boutique in the Burbank Media City Center Mall, shoppers should expect to pay about $60 to $70 for the typical Sega Genesis or Super Nintendo cartridge and $50 to $60 for the average home computer game. However, prices vary widely between stores, with many smaller shops selling games for $5 to $10 less than such chains as Toys R Us and Blockbuster Video.

But before visiting a store, retailers urge gift buyers to make sure they know what they're looking for.

"Don't be afraid to ask them what they want," says Whitmarsh, explaining that teen-agers often favor specific games within such genres as role playing, fighting, fantasy and sports.

"It all depends on what kinds of games the person likes to play," he says. "I'll ask them if they know the titles of other games their kids have. That alone can be very helpful."

Shoppers also should be wary of requests for what Andrew Gaughen of Acta Game Guys in Van Nuys calls the "name-brand stuff"--games based on popular movies, television shows and pop-culture figures.

"The road of movie and TV tie-ins is littered with crummy games," he says.

According to David Kang of the Game Factory in North Hollywood, "the good games usually come from arcades." And indeed, many of the most successful home video games are faithful translations of the sophisticated graphics, sound and game-play found in arcade hits like Double Dragon.

Merchants admit that teen-age boys continue to dominate the ranks of video-game players, but manufacturers have begun diversifying their products to attract a wider audience--including girls.

David Bushing, manager of Play Co. Toys in Woodland Hills, says that shoppers buying for female gamers should consider Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo cartridges based on Disney animated features such as "Aladdin," "The Jungle Book" and "The Lion King."

The games have built-in appeal given the success of the movies and are largely free of the violent action found in many other cartridges.

But several retailers said that many video-game players--boys and girls alike--favor ultra-violent games such as Mortal Kombat II, which pits characters against each other in vicious, fight-to-the-death contests.

"The big thing now is violence, violence, violence," says Rick Saeta of Software Etc. at the Sherman Oaks Galleria, citing the numbers of video and computer games devoted to fighting and combat. "It's no worse than movies."

In response to growing consumer concern about games with increasingly sophisticated themes, the video and computer game industries each adopted their own rating systems this past summer to warn consumers of violence, offensive language and sexually explicit content in their products.

But many retailers say that parents often pay little attention to the warnings, concentrating on their children's wish lists instead.

"If the kid wants it, they buy it," Bushing says.

While some shoppers just want to buy the most popular items, regardless of their contents, most retailers are happy to recommend cartridges that will match a teen's interests and provide challenging and enjoyable game-play.

For home computer users, one of the most lauded games available is Myst, a richly detailed CD-ROM adventure for IBM and Macintosh that places the player on a surreal island filled with challenging puzzles.

"It's a hard, thinking game," Saeta says. "Kids like it for the graphics and sound."

For IBM users, he also recommends Doom II, the sequel to a violent shoot-'em-up, and Tie Fighter and X-Wing, combat simulators based on the spacecraft seen in George Lucas' blockbuster "Star Wars" film trilogy.

Other IBM and Mac games to look for include 7th Guest, a spooky CD-ROM adventure set inside a haunted house, and Rebel Assault, a CD-ROM combat simulator also inspired by "Star Wars."

But as with any popular holiday gift item, shortages do occur, so retailers are reminding customers to shop early.

"Get it fast. If you wait until the last weekend, they won't have it," warns Gaughen. "In this business, it's the quick and the dead."

Pick of the Crop

Video-game recommendations for teen-agers, based on suggestions from area retailers:

Nintendo

* Final Fantasy III

* Lord of the Rings

* Super Return of the Jedi

* Donkey Kong Country

Sega Genesis

* Phantasy Star III

* NHL '95

* Urban Strike

* Sonic & Knuckles

Nintendo and Sega Genesis

* Earthworm Jim

* Mortal Kombat II

* Maximum Carnage

* Beavis and Butt-head

* Super Street Fighter II

* Mickey Mania

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