When consoles collide

It’s the Clash of the Titans — probably the most violent skirmish in the history of the video game industry. Nintendo, the sovereign saint of gaming, harnessing the power of Mario and Zelda, has a new enemy. It’s covered with black camouflage and has one fierce, glowing green eye in its center. It’s a heavyweight too, surmounting any other previous console with pure poundage. And even though its name may not yet be a household staple, the Xbox has a Zeus-like parent holding its hand every step of the way.

Welcome to the season of Microsoft, as the computer software ogre, recently put on trial for monopolizing the PC market with Windows, attacks another famed entertainment arena. Bill Gates and gang plan on dominating the video game circuit, complete with a high-profile, highly anticipated box that defies the climate of gaming today — a steam engine in a kingdom currently powered by mice on treadmills. The Xbox, as the endless chain of commercials during the World Series professed, allows “sweat to drip like real sweat.” If the player bleeds — the player really bleeds. In fact, blood can be shed at an uncontrollably, nauseatingly realistic rate.

But seven months ago, amid a crowd of 50,000 gamers at the Electronic Gaming Expo (E3) in Los Angeles — a convention where the best and brightest stars of the gaming realm shine — a unanimous, opposite opinion held sway. Microsoft and its infant Xbox were shunned. Every demo shown, every game played, absolutely everything was a dilapidated, embarrassing, adolescent mess. Constant glitches plagued the Microsoft booth. The official press conference was cursed with sloppy, choppy graphics. Gates, nowhere to be found, was probably in a state of shock, curled in the fetal position.

At the other end of the convention hall, the Nintendo logo was glowing. A massive crowd gathered around what was hailed as the best next-generation console — a tiny, baby-sized box dubbed GameCube. The system, minuscule and lightweight, looks more like a purse than a game station (it even has a handle for easy portability). Plus, it’s charged with familiar characters and popular franchises, such as “Mario Sunshine,” “Luigi’s Mansion,” “Star Wars: Rogue Leader” and “Metroid” leading the ranks, and many more hitting store shelves very soon.

Somewhere along the line, though, whether it was intentional from the get-go or a happy accident, Microsoft had a marvelous reversal of fortune. Every game that once seemed lackluster is now a blockbuster. The system itself — the monstrous black box that once appeared too heavy for even Conan to lift — has lost some inches from its waistline and proven that, indeed, size does matter. In the case of Xbox vs. GameCube — or, in the larger scale of things, an electronic-age Battle of the Planets — bigger is better.

Plus, with $500 million in advertising, the Xbox bankroll is bursting at the seams. The World Series has already passed, but an initial, indelible impression was made on baseball fans worldwide. Now the WWF is an appropriate target. During one match, a female steroid-monger was clad in nothing more than a silk-screened Xbox T-shirt and skin-tight short-shorts. Then there’s the nationwide van tour, “Xbox Odyssey,” currently driving around the country with 50 game hubs housed within a 106-by-35-foot truck. And “Xbox Unleashed,” a weekend event that pitted gamers in a 48-hour competition of skill and agility, recently invaded New York and Los Angeles, shutting down entire shopping districts just for video game junkies. Without a doubt, there’s much more to come.

In the meantime, this holiday’s war — one that promises to be a cutthroat roller-coaster ride — is about the brute force of each console’s games. GameCube tends to skew toward a younger demographic, hoping that parents will dip into their pocketbooks and buy kiddies a hardware treat for Christmas. Each game is a solid adventure for children and adults alike, but with an innocent, cartoon tang. (“Super Monkey Ball” is a cute, fast-paced puzzler; “Pikmin” is a cuter strategy-based simulator; and “Luigi’s Mansion” is an eerily cute, haunted-mansion tale.)

Xbox, on the other hand, has locked onto the college-aged gamer — a primed, mature player who is willing to spend cash on anything that challenges the mind (“Munch’s Oddysee”), packs bare-knuckle punch (“Dead or Alive 3”), runs at 120 mph (“Project Gotham”) or oozes semiautomatic savagery (“Halo”). Realistic textures (most presented in high-definition), profound Dolby Digital audio and human-like beings fill each game. Tapping buttons on the Xbox controller is like playing an interactive movie — it’s astounding.

Then again, Xbox is 100 bucks more. But for full-octane, adrenaline-greased, heart-pounding intensity, Microsoft has registered the copyright for success. The Clash of the Titans may be a close race, but Vegas odds are on the big, fat X.

Jon M. Gibson, who probably plays video games a little too often, hasn’t been seen during daylight since 1987. E-mail [email protected]
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