To give the gift that keeps on giving--long after the kids are in bed--consider the CD-ROM. It's small (easy to ship), engaging (sometimes to the point of addiction) and makes you seem hip to the emerging digital realm. Here are some suggestions:
MASTERPIECE MANSION, Philips ($39.95). This game is educational, but don't let that throw you--it's also entertaining. In order to discover the secret passageways in an old mansion, you have to answer questions that test your knowledge of art history and artists. Tutorial included.
NEVERHOOD, DreamWorks ($55). One of the most spectacular-looking CD-ROMs ever created follows the claymation adventures of Klayman as he tries to save his universe. His world might look childlike (in the best sense of the word), but the puzzles that need to be solved to help him in his mission will keep many a teenager and adult busy for dozens of game hours.
OBSIDIAN, Segasoft (price not available). This five-disc animated and real-life adventure--which explores a dreamlike landscape created by a science experiment gone wrong--looks fascinating, at least in pre-release form. The CD-ROM's creators promise it will be finished and out in time for Christmas.
QUAKE, id ($50). From the creators of Doom comes another fast-paced, first-person game that delivers its violence without apologies. But the gore is so cartoonish, it didn't bother this squeamish guy. And the game is so wonderfully clever and technologically incredible that it's an enormous kick to play.
SIMTUNES, Maxis ($35). This wildly original, painting/music CD-ROM, based on a digital art piece by Toshio Iwai, is a lot more fun to play than describe. It involves cute little animated bugs--each tuned to a different musical instrument--traveling across the screen, making sounds when they hit the colored dots you used to create a pointillist design. This CD-ROM takes the popular "Kid Pix" painting software one step further and is just as addicting.
WARCRAFT II, Blizzard ($50). Even if you are not a fan of so-called role-playing games--in which the player is called upon to take on the persona of a character such as a medieval knight or sorcerer--chances are you'll find this CD-ROM addicting. You will not be alone. This title was a huge hit, and its creators are striving to have another, Diablo, out in time for the holidays.
YOU DON'T KNOW JACK, VOLUME 2, Berkeley ($40). Though not quite as fresh as Volume 1, this hilarious trivia game is one of the rare computer entertainments made to be enjoyed by more than one person at a time. It pits up to three players against one another in matches that parody TV quiz shows. Also available is an all-sports version.