Games get faster, smoother, trickier

While the floor at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) was full of sequels ("Quake III," "Gran Turismo 2") and updates, there were enough new products to pump up even the most jaded player. Some trends:

*Online games are growing rapidly. Newcomer "Everquest" has some steep requirements, such as an accelerator card on your computer and a monthly subscription fee. But it already has thousands of people playing against each other. "The Stone," which starts with a hieroglyphic inscription that players search online to match, also tries to capitalize on the Internet's ability to create communities of players.

*E3's star was Sega's new Dreamcast console. Its new 128-bit technology makes for superfluid games like "Sonic Adventure" and "Bass Fishing." Dreamcast's games seem ever more like those on a PC, with its modem, 3-D graphics accelerator, and Windows CE operating system. But it has distinct advantages too: Its high-powered graphics chip allows Dreamcast to run four times faster than a Pentium II.

*Not surprisingly, "Star Wars: Episode I" has swept the gaming universe. Nintendo 64's "Star Wars: Episode I - Racer" is a breathtaking plunge through exotic landscapes. (According to one veteran gamer, 12-year-old Adam Cochran, "It's the fastest racing game I've ever played.")

*Sports games have jumped to new levels of skill and thrills. Fishing and golf games abound, including one for the tiny hand-held Palm Pilot, as well as for the more extreme sports. Standouts: 989's "3Xtreme" (PlayStation), EA Sports's "Supercross 2000" (Nintendo 64/PlayStation), Activision's "Tony Hawk's Pro Skater" (PlayStation), and Access's "Links Extreme" (PC).

*The ubiquitous hand-held Game Boy has been given a new skin: It's now available in at least five colors. Nintendo expects some 75 new games for it this year, among them Disney's "Tarzan," Mattel with three new titles (including "Barbie's Ocean Discovery"), and Capcom with five newcomers, including "Resident Evil."

*Recent figures show women make up 40 percent of the PC market and girls 27 percent of the console video-game market, so manufacturers are taking notice. The most pervasive gender-specific titles revolve around dolls and makeup (Barbie and Cosmopolitan, for starters). But more enlightened manufacturers are going for strategy- and puzzle-minded girls and women. The highly successful SimCity series, which launched the genre of simulation games, adds "SimCity 3000" from Maxis.

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