In the candy store

My journal entry from May 12 posed a question I never thought I'd ask myself: "Is it possible to overdose on video games?"

If it is, E3 is the place to do it.

More formally known as the Electronic Entertainment Expo, E3 is where 400 or so exhibitors showed off more than 5,000 computer and video games last week. A trade show like no other, E3 is where companies debut their products in large, noisy booths overloaded with eye candy.

There was a lot of ground to cover — about 500,000 square feet of exhibits. So we laced up our kicks, kissed the baby goodbye and joined the other 65,000 game industry types on a weeklong quest to discover what will be hot to play in the coming months.

Bring it on

A little "anything you can do, I can do better" attitude never hurt anyone. And such was the case at E3.

Sony, the big dog of the industry, rolled out its new PSP device, PSP being short for PlayStation portable. It plays games, music and movies, all in the palm of your hand. Simple as that, the stakes were set.

But wait just a minute; here comes Nintendo with its new portable device, the Nintendo DS, or Dual Screen. If the success of the Game Boy Advance systems taught us anything, Nintendo knows a little about portable gaming.

Neither company announced retail prices, but speculation around the industry is that the PSP will sell for about $300, too rich for most parents with clumsy kids. The DS, meanwhile, should cost close to half that, making it a lot more accessible.

So what's the bottom line? Unless Sony prices the PSP well below what it is worth, Nintendo's DS debut will be what's remembered most about this E3.

But it's also the innovative game play of the DS that makes it a winner. The dual screens give players the ability to control their characters up close on one screen, while having a real-time wide view or map on the other. The unit features a stylus like those found on PDAs in addition to buttons. For instance, in a first-person shooter like "Metroid Prime," players use the stylus to control when and where to shoot. Also, the DS' wireless capability enables multi-player games with nearby units.

Though Sony's PSP has a larger screen — a 4.3-inch widescreen aspect ratio compared with the 3-inch screens of the DS — something about the look of it and the new Universal Media Discs it uses made me uneasy about the cost. But time will tell.

Expect the DS to land in time for little Johnny to add it to his Christmas list; the PSP won't be on shelves in North America until spring 2005.

Game time

But what about the games? That's the main reason we're here, right?

At its Monday press briefing, Microsoft revealed that the much-anticipated "Halo 2" would hit the shelves Nov. 9. It looked great and played amazingly well — but that wasn't much of a surprise given its pedigree. Electronic Arts, which makes some of the best sports titles around, including the "Madden" football series and "NBA Live," announced that it would add its games to the popular Xbox Live service. And the original first-person shooter, "Doom," was back after a four-year hiatus, better than ever.

But there was a notable lack of jaw-droppers. Only a few made my "can't wait to play until my wrists turn to peanut brittle" list:

* "Splinter Cell 3" was easily the best looking game of the show. The graphics alone — the character's clothes get wet as he trudges through the raid — make this one of the best titles to date.

* "Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-Earth" brought precise details to the epic battles of the wildly successful movies.

* "Star Wars Battlefronts" gives gamers the chance to play good or evil minions during any of the conflicts of any of the six movies (yes, even the one coming out next year).

Oh, and how about bongos as a controller? In "Donkey Kong Jungle Beat," the most innovative game at the show, gamers beat on the right drum to make the big ape run to the right, the left drum to go left, and both to jump. Even knowing I had a finite amount of time to see all the rest of the previews, I couldn't stop beating the drums. "Jungle Beat" should prove to be great fun — remember that? — for gamers of all skill levels when it lands early next year.

Rapid fire

News flash: Games are really violent! The sheer number of decapitations and blood geysers at E3 got to even a hard-core gamer like me…. Gamers do in fact know how to party. Sheryl Crow was playing in Hollywood for Nintendo; "Mortal Kombat" was kicking it on top of the Standard in downtown L.A.; and the Playboy mansion was full of gamers in support of the new "live the life of Hugh Hefner simulator." ESPN Videogames, meanwhile, had a North African themed bash attended by the always lovely Carmen Electra, the always out of control Steve-O from "Jackass" and the always at every party David Arquette; Maroon 5 was extending its 15 minutes of fame at Avalon in Hollywood; and David Spade, Leonardo DiCaprio and a bevy of other A-list celebrities in trucker hats sampled the fun at the PlayStation 2 "Underworld" party. And this was just on one night.

My "most confused setting" award goes to the makers of the popular "Final Fantasy" series. The company is called Square Enix, but the preview show was in a theater in the round with a revolving circular floor…. Totally MIA: "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas." The game is due in October, but no preview was available…. Best E3 innovation: Atari's "Oasis," an invitation-only lounge with plush white carpet and '60s-style chairs straight out of a Stanley Kubrick movie…. Finally, believe me when I say Nintendo had the spongiest carpet at the show, and believe me when I tell you that was a very good thing.