LOS ANGELES — Games rule.
In a nutshell, that is the message of this year's elaborate dog-and-pony show of the video-game industry, otherwise known as E3, short for Electronic Entertainment Expo. And it's about time, say most gamers.
While that may seem obvious to outsiders, this year is the first time that talk of pixels and hard-drive capability wasn't the main message coming from each of the big three competitors (Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo) in the console marketplace.
The industry has finally come to accept what most casual gamers have known for a long time: The technical differences between the GameCube, Xbox, and Playstation 2 and even PC games don't matter anywhere nearly as much as the content of the games themselves.
This is not to say that the ferocious and occasionally lethal hardware battle is over (rest in peace, Sega Dreamcast).
Sony Computer Entertainment America president Kaz Hirai ruffled more than a few feathers when he announced that "the console wars were over," meaning Sony's Playstation 2 (PS2) console had achieved total dominance.
As any gamer or adult with a video-gamer around the house knows, that's soooo not true.
Video-game players will do whatever it takes to get the console they need to play the game they want, not vice-versa. And so price-cutting, not tech babble, was the talk of the show.
If there was any talk at all about game delivery systems versus the games themselves, it was in the online arena.
Widespread Internet gaming has been the tsunami just around the corner for years now, held back by one big obstacle the lack of fast computer connections for mainstream America.
This didn't stop Microsoft from pulling out in front of the pack with its commitment to games online. The company announced an ambitious subscription online game universe to cost $49 annually, which will launch later this summer. It's a gamble that may pay off handsomely.
So far, Xbox is the only console that comes wired for connectivity. Sony's PS2 can be outfitted with a modem for online play. Nintendo's GameCube is not Internet-ready, and officials say it won't be anytime soon.
To nobody's great surprise, the industry's bread and butter remains highly violent games, often populated by primitive, grunting male characters interacting unpleasantly with vampy, scantily clad women. Sept. 11 has had little, if any, dampening effect on this side of the video-game industry.
Given the 18-month, $10 million development tag for new games, this isn't surprising. "Grand Theft Auto" sparked the explosion of mature-rated titles for games, and developers have run with the opportunities, using the sophisticated new technology to deliver ever more realistic blood and gore.
The third sequel to that highly popular title is one of the top-selling games of all time. This is unfortunate because the high profile of such trashy games obscures the creative work being done with new technologies such as artificial intelligence (Microsoft's Project Ego) and voice recognition.
Indeed, video games are now bigger than the film industry, pulling $8.3 billion in 2000, a billion more than the movies. At the same time, movie-related titles were more prominent than ever. "Sum of All Fears," (PC, Ubisoft) launched on the day the film of the same title (starring Ben Affleck) opened in theaters.
"Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers," (Electronic Arts [EA]) comes out in December to coordinate with the film. "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets," (EA) is due out in November, as well as James Bond "Nightfire," (EA) and "Star Wars Galaxies," an online title from LucasArts.
While the bits and bytes of console technology may be off the front burner, gamers and the manufacturers are buzzing about the ability to play baseball or bowl on cellphones and Palm Pilots.
New ideas for games to be played while standing in a bank line or watching Little League were tucked into every corner of E3, coming from Sprint to small outfits such as JamDat Mobile.
Ultimately, says a Sprint representative, "we're looking to get everyone hooked up online." A complete community of wireless, online gaming. Why not? She asks.
After all, games do rule.
What are the hottest video games right now, based on sales and rentals? Here are five of them:
Spider-Man:The Movie (Activision, for all three consoles: PS2, Xbox, and GameCube). This game has good, fast action with fun, believable story lines that take the plot lines of the movie further. The level of play is challenging enough for a wide range of ages. The only way these Spidey games come up short is in the graphics department. Developers skimped on the details that make the characters and their environments really rich. But overall, this game makes it fun to take this Spidey home with you. Rated E for everyone.
Medal of Honor (Electronic Arts for PS2). The latest installment of a hit series, this war game is a decent addition to the genre. Storming the beaches at Normandy with this level of realistic detail may sober up a few teens who think war is just a game. Rated T for teens.
Sonic Adventure 2 (Sega for GameCube). A fun, fast-playing, richly detailed extension of this popular Sega character for a new platform. Good for all ages. Rated E for everyone.
Star Wars: Jedi Starfighter (LucasArts Entertainment for PS2). The story is drawn from Episode 1, but the richly detailed environments (great landscapes and space scapes) make it worth playing even as Episode II is in the movie theaters. A good way to bring the movie home with you. Rated T.
Super Mario Advance 2 (Nintendo for Game Boy Advance). Fun, detailed extensions of familiar characters in the hand-held game format. Rated E.