A Guide Through the Digital Underground

To the uninitiated, the video game section of most stores can be a confusing wasteland of noise and violence--a digital domain not even Dante could conjure up. Consider this easy-to-clip column a sort of video Virgil, your guide to the video game netherworld. I'm not promising you'll discover paradise in any of these recommendations, but you might find a little fun.

Systems

Any system bought this year will be old hat next year. Get used to it. The goal is to enjoy the system for as long as possible and expect that the rig will age faster than you do. Happily, prices are lower than ever. But a mistake can still be costly.

Sony PlayStation: Generally this disc-based system is perfect for older players--teens and adults. Its library is by far the largest for any console, but it tends toward games with a lot more sex and violence. Lately, Sony and its developers have tried to capture younger players with less intense games. About $130.

Nintendo 64: For kids under 12, this is the system. Its library of kid-oriented games and relatively rugged construction make it perfect for grubby little hands. The N64's cartridge-based architecture allows for faster play and shorter load times than disc-based systems. However, cartridges tend to be more expensive than discs. About $130.

Game Boy Color: In the first total overhaul of the Game Boy in nine years, Nintendo finally endows its popular hand-held unit with a color screen. Capable of displaying 56 simultaneous colors from a palette of thousands, Game Boy Color is a solid system for players who like to take their games on the road. Older games work on the new system, but new titles won't play on regular Game Boys. About $80.

Sega Dreamcast: Although Dreamcast won't be out until next year, Sega is already hyping its super 128-bit machine as worth the wait. Next year probably belongs to Sega, but Sony and Nintendo own the console market this year.

Games

Most game boxes or jewel cases are hard to tell apart. But discerning shoppers should give the packaging a critical look if they're worried about content. Look at the back of the box, which generally displays screen shots. If the pictures show aliens tramping through blood, it's a pretty good bet the game will contain plenty of that sort of action.

Almost all games are rated by the Entertainment Software Ratings Board or similar advisory groups. If a game is rated "Mature," that's about the equivalent of a "Restricted" rating at the movies.

PlayStation Games For Older Players

Metal Gear Solid: Konami delivers tense spy action with a game that values cunning and stealth over brute strength. Missions require players to be smart about avoiding armed bad guys rather than simply blasting them apart. All but the best players might still be slinking through "Metal Gear Solid" next year. That's how tricky and addictive it can be. About $50.

Parasite Eve: Square, the same house responsible for the Final Fantasy series, updates the adventure genre with a modern thriller set in the spookier parts of New York City. Players follow a cop named Aya as she uncovers a genetic mystery that's millions of years old. Although play is fairly linear, the action is intense. About $50.

For Younger Players

Crash Bandicoot 3--Warped: By the third installment of any franchise, the action and characters tend to get a little tired. Not so with Sony Computer Entertainment's newest incarnation of the sneaker-wearing bandicoot named Crash. Various levels allow players to try out vehicles as they dodge enemies and hunt for crystals. It's just edgy enough to hold a kid's interest, but not so edgy that it's inappropriate. About $40.

Spyro the Dragon: Part of the effort to make PlayStation more friendly to younger players, "Spyro" offers straightforward play in some beautifully drawn environments. As a character, Spyro is among the cutest in the video game world, and his missions focus on finding treasures and sometimes spitting a little fire on bad guys' butts. About $40.

For All Players

Gran Turismo: Younger players might not appreciate all the detail in this nearly perfect racer, but even the most unsophisticated will understand the game's speed and silky performance. "Gran Turismo" pushes PlayStation to new limits and highlights how doing the details right can invigorate even a relatively tired genre like racing. About $50.

Nintendo 64 Games For Older Players

Goldeneye 007: Yes, this game is old. But it remains one of the best games for the over-12 set. Action is straightforward but demands at least a minimal degree of cunning. I know guys in their 40s who are addicted to this game. About $30.

Mission: Impossible: Although not as fun as "Goldeneye," "Mission: Impossible" gives frustrated spies the opportunity to give the dark art a try without physical risk. Like "Metal Gear Solid," a premium is placed on stealth, but the levels are not as hard and there's a lot more shooting. About $60.

For Younger Players

F-Zero X: Speed. That's the attraction of this classic racer renovated for the N64. Players zip through courses that wind and dive and roll. The faster the better. No one dies. Kids just aim their scooter ships forward and hit the gas. About $60.

For All Players

Legend of Zelda--Ocarina of Time: Quite simply, the best reason to buy a Nintendo 64. "Zelda" follows Link on a traditional rescue mission, but takes adventure gaming to amazing levels with play that's quick and diverse and environments that are big, beautiful and creeping with evil. About $70.

Banjo-Kazooie: Despite the cutesy idea of a bear and a bird hunting down a witch, "Banjo-Kazooie" offers up some solid play that holds the interest of even the most jaded players. Kids appreciate the funny scenery and the relatively simple controls. About $60.

Wipeout 64: This remake of the PlayStation classic does more than simply rehash an old game for a new platform. Play is tight and fast and pushes the N64. About $60.

PC Games For Older Players

Grim Fandango: LucasArts' tale of intrigue and love in the Land of the Dead follows travel agent Manny Calavera through an adventure that portrays the realm beyond the living as a cross between a David Mamet play and "Casablanca" with papier-mache skeletons. The visuals, dialogue and story make "Grim Fandango" the kind of game that gives gaming a good name. About $40.

Unreal: This category-killer from GT Interactive redefines the 3D corridor shooter genre. Don't understand what that means? Don't worry. "Unreal" rocks, and all but the most lifeless snobs will find its haunting imagery and frantic pace addictive. About $40.

Starcraft: Plan and execute battles against myriad alien invaders in Blizzard's incredibly challenging strategy game. Players manage troop strength and build infrastructure in missions that get progressively more difficult. The ability to play as any of three species permits quite a bit of long-term play. It's a lot of game for the money. About $40.

For Younger Players

Heart of Darkness: Unlike a lot of point-and-wait kids' games, "Heart of Darkness" burns across the screen with action that's more like a console title. Kids like the play, but adults can appreciate sophisticated touches such as the battling of shadows. About $40.

Detective Barbie: Mattel Media's adventure works on a number of levels. First, it's fun. Second, like Barbie herself, it's beautiful. Third, it's smart. Play focuses on a mystery and makes Barbie out to be more than just another pretty face. About $40.

For All Players

Lego Mindstorms: Although not a game per se, Mindstorms is one of the smartest pieces of family software I've ever seen. Players design and build their own robots out of Lego, then use a simple graphical programming language to order their creation around. Sensors and an "intelligent brick" permit the creation of autonomous scooters that do everything from navigate a maze to scurry toward darkness. About $200.

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Staff writer Aaron Curtiss reviews video games every Monday in The Cutting Edge. To comment on a column or suggest games for review, send e-mail to aaron.curtiss@latimes.com.

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