PC gaming is a huge business, but hardcore gamers know that video game consoles are the place to be. Although this year's selection of hardware consoles—the Sony PlayStation 2 ($180), Microsoft Xbox ($180 with two free games: Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Tetris Worlds Online), and Nintendo GameCube ($100)—hasn't changed over the past year, the size and quality of their respective software libraries has improved. Best of all, many video games now come with online-play capabilities—the best is Microsoft's Xbox Live ($70 for starter kit, $50 to renew)—and prices are lower than ever before. Xbox owners should also look into Microsoft's excellent Microsoft Wireless-G Xbox Adapter ($100), which lets you play games online without wires!
Xbox gamers have several standout games this holiday season. Microsoft's Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge ($45) is a stunningly realistic-looking and swashbuckling air-combat adventure set in an alternate 1930s world. You have to see this game to believe it. Electronic Arts's (EA's) awesome SSX 3 ($45, also available on PS2 and GameBoy Advance) eclipses previous SSX snowboarding games by adding near-photo-realistic graphics and a huge collection of secrets, shortcuts, and blistering music. Finally, two more sequels, Acclaim's Burnout 2: Point of Impact ($20) and Microsoft's Project Gotham Racing 2 ($50) are terrific racing games, with more cars, bigger crashes, and much more realistic courses.
The obvious place to start with the Sony PlayStation 2 is EA's incredible Madden NFL 2004 ($50), which features online play, the most realistic football environment imaginable, and, naturally, the omnipresent John Madden. In another vein is EA's epic Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King ($50), in which gamers can take the role of eight characters from the books and movie series and battle evil to the Gates of Mordor. Finally, in EA's World War II-themed first-person shooter Medal of Honor: Rising Sun ($50), you assume the role of a Pearl Harbor survivor fighting your way across the Pacific Rim as the Big One unrolls around you. It's heady stuff, and graphically outstanding.
Nintendo might have entered 2003 a lame duck, but a well-timed price cut late in the year put the console back on top, and the company will finish the year in fine form with an impressive collection of software titles. One excellent choice is Nintendo's fast-paced 1080 Avalanche ($50), a high-flying snowboarding title that lets you compete against the machine or as many as three human opponents. In Nintendo's Mario Kart: Double Dash!! ($50), kids can race their favorite characters around colorful and wild courses. And in Nintendo's exclusive Star Wars Rogue Squadron III: Rebel Strike ($45), gamers can take control of Rebel and Empire vehicles and blasters, and duel with lightsabers.
In some ways, Nintendo's GameBoy is the most exciting video game platform around, and the introduction of the clamshell-design GameBoy Advance SP ($100) in early 2003 sealed the deal. Now available in several colors and featuring a crucial backlight and excellent battery life, the GameBoy Advance SP is a must-have addition to any gamer's arsenal. Some cool titles for the holidays include Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow ($30), the latest version of the vampire scroller phenomenon; Super Mario Advance 4: Super Marios Bros. 3 ($35), a neat portable version of the NES console classic; and SSX 3 ($30), a stripped-down version of the snowboarding title with simpler graphics but the same frenetic game play as the Xbox version