Piglet and pocket monsters top family-friendly games

New Media covers trends and reviews new hardware and software for the interactive gaming industry. This month, we focus on family-friendly play.

First, the hardware: the stalwart Game Boy Advance has been upgraded and updated.

The new Game Boy Advance SP comes in a snappy format that looks like a toy laptop. Measuring a mere 3 by 3 in. square, the unit has a flip-top screen that protects all the navigation keys when closed. More important, the screen is finally backlit, helping out all those tired eyes that have strained to play the dim game in low-light situations.

There are plenty of new family-friendly games for this snappy new piece of game hardware:

• Pokémon, the franchise that won't die, is back with the first games exclusively for the GBA: "Ruby" and "Sapphire." Thy feature plenty of new pocket monsters with good graphics, and great gameplay in a setting that now supports playing two Pokémon at once.

• Kids (and their parents) will enjoy Disney Interactive's new GBA game with Piglet, perhaps the most endearing of the A.A. Milne characters. Based on the just-released film, "Piglet's Big Movie," "Piglet's Big Game" is full of whimsy as the residents of the Hundred Acre Wood face off against their bad dreams. For once, Piglet saves the day. The game has five different dream missions with age-appropriate and diverting game play for a good range of ages.

• THQ continues with its car franchise, "GT3 Advance." This racing game works particularly well on the new SP. The screen is bright enough and the action fast enough to give a good stomach-churning feel for the real thing.

Sports are the best place for family-friendly games this spring. And where else would you go in the springtime, but out to the ballpark? The major designers all have new baseball games for the three biggest platforms - PS2, Xbox, and Gamecube: Sega's "World Series Baseball 2K3," Acclaim Sports' "All-Star Baseball 2004," and 989 Sports' "MLB 2004." All three get good marks for players of a wide range of ages, with Sega perhaps getting the highest for all-around play, including new ways to improve your pitching and batting. All three are rated "E for everyone."

If you want to venture off-planet using your PC, Microsoft's "Freelancer" offers an exciting trip into the future. The back story: Earth has been a battleground for 100 years. Finally, the losers leave in a group of ships to set up a new civilization in outer space. It's now eight centuries later and a vast network of alliances and settlements offers a honeycomb of adventures, missions, and combat situations. The graphics are great and even if you choose to do nothing but fly through space, that alone is worth the purchase price. Rated "T for teens."

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