'Tis video-game season

Choices abound with new consoles and games for every age group

The holiday season is already under way deep in the basement of the headquarters of video-game developer THQ, just west of Los Angeles. For firms such as THQ, the most important few weeks of the year lie just ahead, as big numbers of games fly off retailers' shelves.

Standing next to stereos, DVD players and VCRs in THQ's basement are large-screen TVs perched atop towers bulging with multiple game consoles.

This is the year that video gaming goes mainstream, says THQ president Brian Farrell. "People are finally saying, 'I'm going to get a game console and put it right next to the TV.' "

While retailers hope it's the season to be jolly, it's also the season of exploding choices. Next week, video-game stalwart Nintendo launches its newest console, GameCube ($199), and Microsoft enters the ring as a serious contender with X-Box ($299). Reigning heavyweight Playstation2 (Sony) ramps up for more accessories and games.

"Which way you go will depend on your personal preference," says Gwen Marker, communications manager for Sega, a former hardware and software company that this year shifted solely into developing software for all video-game platforms.

While GameCube will be a good choice for kids, with a lower price and youth-skewed games (doesn't come wired for online play), the new, pricier, and more powerful X-Box, with more mature titles, will appeal to teens and adults (and is wired for online play). Playstation2 has the most games, having been on the market for nearly a year.

Regardless of the platform, Ms. Marker anticipates a banner year for video games. "All indications are that, given the economy and other factors, people are opting more and more for home-based entertainment," she says.

Spiffy new hardware aside, gamers agree that it's the game that counts. To help navigate the storm of new titles, here is a quick guide:

• GameCube: Top new titles include "Luigi's Mansion," an action-adventure single-player game, and "Wave Race Blue Storm," a multiplayer watercraft ski game with hyper-realistic water effects and physics. In "Pikmin," a unique single-player fantasy created by video-game master Shigeru Miyamoto after he spent an afternoon contemplating his garden, small creatures navigate an oversized garden environment in search of a spaceship that crash landed on their planet. Sega's "Super Monkey Ball" is a quick comic romp.

• X-Box: It's launching with fewer titles. Top among them are "Halo," a space-age fight with aliens, and "Oddworld: Munch's Oddysee," a quirky adventure game, and "Shrek," based on the animated film (TDK Mediactive).

• Playstation2: Sega offers eye-popping graphics with "NBA 2K2": There's chilly racing in "Arctic Thunder" (Midway); spectacular graphics in the role-playing game "OKAGE: Shadow King"; a next-generation spycaper in "SpyHunter" (Midway); space-age racing with "Kinetica" (Sony).

Intriguing and fun games are also new for the personal computer. You can create and run your own menagerie with "Zoo Tycoon" (Microsoft) or create and run your own roller coasters with "Ultimate Ride" (Disney Imagineering). Top arcade games include "Rocket Power Extreme Arcade Games" (THQ) and the breathtaking 3D environment of "Hot Wheels Jetz" (THQ).

Younger video gamers will enjoy "Scooby-Doo Jinx at the Sphinx" (The Learning Company) and several games based on the new film "Monsters, Inc" - "Scare Island," "Wreck Room Arcade," and "Scream Team Training" (Disney Interactive). Game Boy Advance's "Rugrats Castle Capers" (THQ) will also please the younger kids, while "Rocket Power: Dream Scheme" (THQ) provides 16 levels of game play. THQ also brings back one of the oldest, most played video games of all time in "Tetris Worlds." Electronic Arts brings Harry Potter to video games on four platforms: Game Boy Advance, Color, Playstation, and the PC.

Online gaming continues to grow, with Sega expanding "Phantasy Star," one of the most successful role-playing games, and Sony's "EverQuest: Trilogy." Hand-held games also explore new territory with nGame, a British company, expanding downloadable game options for cellphone users and Cybiko releasing a new generation of teen-friendly hand-held games.

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