Holiday Gift Guide : Calendar’s little helpers offer suggestions in pop, jazz, holiday, family and classical music, plus videos, computer games and books. (Good news: They’re easy to wrap.) : Video Games : In the Beginning, Genesis. And Then . . .

<i> Aaron Curtiss is a Times staff writer</i>

Shopping for video games has never been easy--or cheap. And this year promises to be even tougher--and even more expensive--as a new generation of games and machines hits the market.

Retailers may try to con you into believing that the old machine atop the TV just won’t cut it anymore, but rest assured there is still plenty of life left in 16-bit systems such as Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo. With compression technology, game designers are able to squish a lot more data onto cartridges that run between $50 and $70. The result: great games for a lot less than a new machine.

Here are best bets on games, followed by a rundown of the new machines:

Super Nintendo


DONKEY KONG COUNTRY II, Nintendo. With fully rendered graphics, DKCII picks up where the amazing Donkey Kong Country left off. This time, players guide Diddy and Dixie Kong through worlds that look like they came straight out of a supercomputer.

KILLER INSTINCT, Nintendo. The folks responsible for the look of the Donkey Kong series produced the graphics for this top-end fighting game. A must-have for players who dig fighting games.

YOSHI’S ISLAND, Nintendo. In the latest and greatest installment in the Mario Bros. series, the graphics are cartoonish, but the game play is the most enjoyable of any Mario game so far. For parents worried about video violence, Yoshi’s Island is as tame as they come.

Sega Genesis

COMIX ZONE, Sega. This trip through the pages of a comic book is a new variation on old-style adventure games. Not only are the pages of the comic extremely realistic, but players are able to choose different paths to the end so that it’s a different game every time.

VECTORMAN, Sega. This graceful journey through the clouds delivers some high-end adventure-shooting action with graphics that are downright beautiful. Although Sega has put much of its muscle behind its next-generation Saturn machine, Vectorman demonstrates the life left in Genesis.

Super Nintendo and Genesis

MORTAL KOMBAT III, Williams. The fighting game that set off the controversy over violence in video games is as bloody as ever with a whole range of ignoble finishing moves. Kids love this stuff, but parents should be advised that it includes some pretty disgusting scenes.

DOOM, Williams. Just as bloody as MKIII is this favorite that revolutionized how video games are played. With its first-person perspective and seemingly endless mazes, the parent-friendly Doom requires some finesse.

EARTHWORM JIM II, Playmates Interactive. It’s tough to imagine a game ever matching the surprising appeal of the first Earthworm Jim, but the sequel keeps the tradition of lousy jokes and gross levels alive.

TOY STORY, Disney Interactive. Tied to the Disney movie, this is perhaps the most elegant 16-bit game ever. At its heart, it’s a garden variety side-scroller, but the attention to detail and subtle variations make it a winner.

New Systems

JAGUAR, Atari. It’s the cheapest of the bunch, at $150, but you get what you pay for. Although it offers nice graphics and game play, its library is extremely limited. And when you add the new CD attachment, you’re in the $300 range of the other new machines, which boast impressive game catalogues.

NOMAD, Sega. At $170, this is the first 16-bit portable gaming rig; it plays regular Genesis cartridges. It can also play like a Genesis on a TV screen with additional equipment.

PLAYSTATION, Sony. PlayStation is the sleekest of the new machines on the block. If you’re buying a system to look cool in the entertainment center, this is it. But at $300 for a base model with no games, PlayStation obviously does much more than just look good. The big question is whether Sony will stick with PlayStation over the long run and whether enough third-party game developers will produce for it. If you do buy a PlayStation this year, the first two games to pick up are Battle Arena Toshinden, a graceful fighter, and Wipeout, a futuristic racer.

SATURN, Sega. Saturn got off to a disappointing start with a bunch of games that looked as if they were slapped together at the last minute--not what you would expect from a $300 system. But as developers are getting the hang of the system’s complicated architecture, great games are slowly trickling out. Titles to pick up right off the bat are Panzer Dragoon, Virtua Cop and Daytona USA.

3DO, Panasonic and Goldstar. At $300, the 3DO Multiplayer has more than 200 titles. The system, which is the oldest 32-bit unit on the market, holds its own against Sega and Sony. Hot titles for the holidays: Blade Force and Killing Time.

VIRTUAL BOY, Nintendo. It seems cool at first, but Nintendo’s new machine’s three-dimensional game play tends to wear thin after a few days. At $170, probably a good idea on paper, but a headache to play, requiring players to sit secluded with their faces in a headset.


The Cutting Edge guide to holiday computer shopping. In Business.