The personal computer is a business machine, but it is increasingly a game machine as well.
Hook up some speakers, plug in a CD-ROM disk, and the PC can deliver just about as rich an interactive story as any player could want. So why should anyone - especially parents - shell out extra money for a Sony or Nintendo game console? Isn't the PC enough?
A few years ago, the question wouldn't even have been asked because PC games had a hard time keeping up with the consoles. Since then, technology has narrowed the gap. And with the coming of further improvements, such as Intel's MMX chips and the digital video disk, which will be able to hold the digital equivalent of a two-hour movie, the gap will get even narrower.
But there are some things that game consoles simply do better, aficionados say. And after trying out several games on both the Sony PlayStation and the newest and fast-selling Nintendo 64, I'm a believer too. With action like this, the game consoles are in no immediate danger of being swallowed up by the PC juggernaut.
One example is an ASC Games offering for the PlayStation called Hardcore 4x4. Six monster trucks race around various tracks in varying weather conditions. The action is non-stop. You can see the dust kicking up and hear the sounds of a competitor bumping into a cliff with a three-dimensional immediacy that is still lacking on the PC.
The action is just as impressive on the Nintendo 64, although the game I played - NBA Hang Time - didn't show off the machine at its speediest. The game allows players to control the defensive and offensive moves of various basketball stars. The pictures are still cartoon-like, but they move more realistically than ever before.
The Nintendo, which is the newest console on the market, is reportedly faster than the PlayStation. (I couldn't make any head-to-head comparisons.) Unfortunately, it lacks a broad range of games. While some 200 titles exist for the PlayStation, the Nintendo 64 has only about 10, and video-game stores are often sold out of most of those.
So the battle that is shaping up will likely pit Sony's extensive software against Nintendo hardware. The Nintendo console has the makings of a big breakthrough for the Japanese company, which needed a turnaround in the face of Sony's success. But it will have to continue to release a batch of high-quality games.
One gamemaker that does not show signs of turning around is Sega. Industry experts and vendors are not upbeat about the prospects of the once high-flying company, which has failed to turn out big-selling games of late. Some analysts have written the company off.
The new game consoles don't come cheap. A Sony PlayStation and a Nintendo 64 both sell for $200. And at $80 a pop, the Nintendo game cartridges aren't a bargain. Still, game enthusiasts say, these systems are a steal compared with buying a $2,000 PC.
Of course, hard-core gamers don't like to limit themselves to one platform anyway. "Just about all of them own PCs," says Trent Ward, reviews editor for GameSpot, a PC game-review service on the Internet (http://www.gamespot.com). But most of them also have game consoles. "There's a huge crossover."
No one knows which platforms will ultimately win. Sometimes the PC seems to take the lead. Then, a new-generation console will come out with PC-beating graphics. "I have so much faith in the console manufacturers' ability," Mr. Ward says. They have a long, long life ahead, he adds.
One early indication is Christmas 1996. While the computer industry had a boring season, sales of consoles - particularly the Nintendo 64 - took off like, well, a thrill-a-minute video game. And there's no sign the action is about to slow down.
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