Zap! Pow! Video games sparkle in holiday market

The mission didn't require going outside this galaxy or vaporizing any hostile hamburgers. He just wanted to buy a video game for his computer-conscious 12-year-old.

''But it'd take a week just to learn what I'm shopping for,'' says Jerry Lyman, as he walks away from the gadget-laden counter at a local discount store. The problem is trying to pick and choose among a half-dozen systems, each touting superiority. The systems themselves, meanwhile, have become more sophisticated than ever before.

Mr. Lyman is not alone in his confusion. As anyone who's planning to plant Pac-Man and his friends under the tree for Christmas can attest, this is the year of video game variety. The choices are tough to make.

In recent weeks, two particularly hot-selling systems have emerged - the Atari 5200 and ColecoVision. Both are described as powerful ''third wave'' machines, the Cadillacs of game systems, and priced accordingly at close to $200 . Together with the older Atari 2600 (about $125) and Mattel's Intellivision (about $175), they are sure to snatch most of the Christmas market.

Other newcomers include Commodore and Vectrex, which together with Odyssey II , Astrocade, and Sears are all aiming to blast their niche in a crowded market. Another company, Ultravision, is planning to introduce a new system, which one industry observer says is also a ''third wave'' machine, soon.

In addition, hundreds of new game cartridges have flooded stores. One called Megamania that pits you against waves of nasty flying burgers. Prices range from

The three hottest selling games right now, according to Billboard magazine, are Pitfall, Donkey Kong, and E.T.: The Extraterrestrial.

At the moment, most systems use only their own cartridges. But that's beginning to change. For instance, Coleco makes an adapter that can be used to play Atari 2600 cartridges.

''This is a classic case of product introduction and innovation, like we saw with handheld calculators and CB radios,'' says Douglas Thomson, president of Toy Manufacturers of America.

But before shelling out any money to zap asteroids from your favorite armchair, you should decide what you want the machine for - just games or as a home computer that also plays games.

While video game systems make technical strides - packing more raw computer capability into the game-playing machinery - the prices of home computers have been coming down. The Commodore VIC-20, Texas Instruments TI-99/4A, and Atari 400 are personal computers with price tags ($150 to $250) on par with top-of-the-line video games. Each has some games, as well.

Several of the most popular systems, such as Intellivision, promise to offer add-on equipment that will turn them into home computers. ColecoVision, which expects to sell all 500,000 units it can build this year, will introduce a ''personal computer module'' next summer. An official says it will be ''utilitarian, low priced, and powerful.''

But video game firms are caught in searing competition. Atari and Coleco have sued each other, Atari charging Coleco with patent infringement and unfair competition. Coleco charges Atari with violations of antitrust laws. The upshot: companies only drop hints about the full capabilities of future accessories. So even careful shoppers end up making some decisions in the dark.

Lyman, a truck mechanic, understands the basic differences between the major systems. He's looking for an expandable machine, which can grow with his kids' needs while also offering good game graphics.

Some shoppers, however, seem to shrug and just follow a hunch.

''I'm still not sure what I bought - we're depending on our daughter to show us,'' says Richard Martin, laying out $350 for an Atari 400 computer, a box of entertainment accessories, and a Pac-Man cartridge. Educational programs, such as those that teach foreign languages, are what attracted him, he says.

For many, however, it's the selection and quality of games that clinch a decision to buy a system.

Intellivision, for instance, offers extremely good graphics, but not nearly the playing speed and selection in games available with an Atari 2600. And most of the Intellivision games are designed for two players. The Atari 2600 has about 100 different games - the most of any system.

One of the attractions this year is video games with a voice - such as Intellivoice from Intellivision. So far, the company sells only three voice cartridges. Odyssey offers a voice module, and Atari plans to market one some time in 1983.

Looking ahead toward the video games of next year, one thing seems clear: the line between home computers and video game systems is going to continue to blur.

''The third wave systems are themselves a bridge to the computer era,'' says Arnie Katz, editor of Electronic Games magazine. Eventually, he says, today's video game owners will ''trade up'' to home computers in pursuit of the most highly developed games.

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