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Tech Toys 2005: A Holiday Shopping Guide, Part 1: Video Games

Once again, the holidays are upon us. And as we do every year at Connected Home Media, we're turning our attention to the top technology products of the year. This year's holiday shopping guide starts with the absolute, gotta-have-it gifts for 2005. And there's no better place to start than with video games.

Microsoft Xbox 360
Microsoft's next-generation Xbox 360 video game console ($399 for Xbox 360, $299 for Xbox 360 Core System) is a digital hub in disguise, offering exciting digital-media features, online fun, and casual gaming for the whole family. There's just one problem: Xbox 360 will be nearly impossible to find during the holidays, thanks to the massive demand. So if you haven't gotten an Xbox 360 system yet, you're going to have to do some planning. You have a few options. First, you can simply hold out for next year and focus on current-generation systems. (I discuss some alternative options below.) Or, you could troll your local Best Buy or other electronics retailer and hope you're there on a day when new Xbox 360s arrive; Microsoft says it will be making several more shipments to stores during the holiday season, but it won't detail the exact dates. Finally, if money is no concern, you could try to snag a system on eBay, for as much as three times the retail price or more. For obvious reasons, I don't recommend that approach.

So, what's all the hubbub about? Unlike previous video game consoles, Xbox 360 meets or exceeds the technical specifications of all but the most expensive PC gaming rigs, and it does so at a relatively inexpensive price point. And although PC specs will improve over the course of Xbox 360's lifetime, game developers haven't yet started taking advantage of the system's unique features, so next-generation Xbox 360 games will be even better than today's titles.

Speaking of which, you're going to need some games. Of the 18 available launch titles, few are standout hits. The exceptions are Call of Duty 2 ($59.99), which faithfully reproduces the stunning three-campaign World War II PC hit to Xbox 360, GUN ($59.99), an Old West shoot 'em up with varied missions and a Spaghetti Western plot, and Peter Jackson's King Kong ($59.99), a nice companion to the movie of the same name that lets you play the part of both human explorers and Kong himself. Other decent Xbox 360 titles include Quake 4 ($59.99), Kameo ($49.99), and NHL 2K6 ($59.99). Avoid Perfect Dark Zero ($49.99) and Project Gotham Racing 3 ($49.99), neither of which lives up to the hype.

More Than Games
But Xbox 360 isn't just about games. You can connect to digital media content stored on Windows XP-based PCs, and if you have a Media Center PC running XP Media Center Edition 2005, you can use Xbox 360's Media Center Extender interface to access live and recorded TV content, as well. The system plays both audio CDs and DVD movies. Additionally, every Xbox 360 user has access to Xbox Live via a free Xbox Live Silver account. That account provides you with the ability to download games, add-ons and demos, movie trailers, personalization features for the Xbox 360 UI, and other niceties. And if you want to play against other gamers online, you'll want an Xbox Live Gold subscription ($69.99 for a Starter Kit with headset and 12-month subscription, or $49.99 for the 12-month subscription only).

Finally, you'll probably want some accessories for your fabulous new system. The Xbox 360 "premium" package includes a 20GB hard disk (required for backwards compatibility with original Xbox titles), a headset, and a wireless controller. But if you got the Core System, you'll need a 20GB Hard Drive ($99.99) or, at the least, a 64MB Memory Unit ($39.99). I strongly recommend the hard drive because of its additional functionality (compatibility and saved downloads from Xbox Live Marketplace), but either is required to save games. All Xbox 360 users will want at least one additional controller: The Wireless Controller is $39.99, but the Wired Controller can be had for just $29.99 if you don't mind the tangled mess of wires.

Other valuable accessories include the Universal Media Remote ($29.99), which is particularly nice for Media Center users, the Charge & Play Kit ($19.99), which provides a rechargeable controller battery and a cable from which to charge it, and the VGA HD AV cable ($39.99), which lets you access Xbox 360's HDTV video modes using a standard PC display.

Other Video Game Options
Although Xbox 360 is driving people into stores once again, it isn't the only game in town. Indeed, the current generation systems—Microsoft Xbox ($149), Nintendo GameCube ($99), and Sony PlayStation 2 ($149)—are still coming on strong with new games that look and play great. Best of all, these systems have humongous libraries of games available, many of which are of much higher quality than the initial limited selection of Xbox 360 titles.

That said, if you don't already own one of these consoles, my advice is to hold off or go the portable route (see below). The next-generation systems from each of these companies—the Xbox 360, Revolution, and PlayStation 3, respectively—do or will offer backward compatibility with previous-generation games. Xbox 360 is here already, as noted above, and the Revolution and PlayStation 3 will ship in 2006. So it probably doesn't make sense to invest in an older console now, especially considering that you'll likely need accessories such as additional hand controllers and memory units. There are, however, plenty of new games to consider. Let's take a look.

This year was a banner year for the Xbox, despite the arrival of its big brother, Xbox 360. New and notable this season are Star Wars Battlefront II (49.99), Blitz: The League ($39.99), Burnout Revenge ($39.99), Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith ($29.99), and James Bond 007: From Russia with Love ($39.99).

And if you somehow managed to skip out on the whole Halo thing, now's the time to jump in. You can get Halo ($19.99), Halo 2 ($32.99), and the Halo 2 MultiPlayer Map Pack ($19.99) separately, or you can purchase a new bundle, called Halo Triple Pack ($59.99), that makes them available all in a single package.

It may be an also-ran of sorts in the video game market, but GameCube has one serious advantage over competing consoles: exclusive games. GameCube games also tend to be much less expensive than comparable Xbox and PlayStation 2 titles. Some of the better newish titles for the GameCube include Shadow the Hedgehog ($29.99) Lego Star Wars ($29.99), and Mario Kart: Double Dash!! ($49.99).

PlayStation 2
With rare exceptions—Xbox's Halo series and Metroid on the GameCube, for example—PlayStation 2 owners have it all: the largest selection of games for any game system and backward compatibility with the previous champion, the original PlayStation. It's hard to even know where to start. Madden NFL 2006 ($49.99) is the only officially licensed NFL game in town now, and it's OK, but Blitz: The League ($39.99) is arguably a better game. Other neat new and notable PlayStation 2 titles include James Bond 007: From Russia with Love ($39.99), Ratchet and Clank 3: Up Your Arsenal ($19.99), and Tekken 5 ($49.99).

Retro Gaming Fun
Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony aren't the only gaming fun that can be had in your living room this holiday season. If you're old enough to remember the arcade classics of the 1980s, or first-generation video game systems such as Atari 2600 and Mattel Intellivision, you'll find a lot to like.

Last year, Atari offered a lame Atari Flashback console that combined a bunch of old Atari 2600 games with two hobbled hand controllers that were loosely based on the Atari 7800. This year, Atari got it right: The new Atari Flashback 2 ($29.99) looks a lot like the original 2600, utilizes two classic Atari joysticks (can I hear an "Amen"?) and provides more than 30 classic Atari 2600 games, including Asteroids, Breakout, Centipede, Combat, and Missile Command. Highly recommended.

Atari 2600 fans can also consider the Jakks 13 Paddle Games from the Atari 2600 ($19.99), which provides two classic Atari 2600 paddle controllers with a nice selection of paddle-based games. Jakks also makes a nice line of joysticks that hook directly up to your TV and provide a number of game titles with each. I have a number of these at home, and they're a big hit with kids and adults alike: Check out Activision 10 in 1 TV ($19.99, including Pitfall, River Raid, and more), Namco TV Games ($19.99, with Dig Dug, Galaxian, Pac Man, and other arcade classics), and Namco TV Games 2 ($19.99, includes Galaga, Ms. Pac Man, Xevious, and other arcade classics).

If you were an Intellivision guy like me, you should check out the awesome Intellivision Lives, which was created by the Blue Sky Rangers, the original Intellivision game makers, and is available for a variety of platforms, including Xbox ($17.99), GameCube ($14.99), and PlayStation 2 ($14.99). Essentially an Intellivision emulator, Intellivision Lives includes virtually every game ever made for Mattel's long-dead console.

Fans of the Commodore 64 will want to check out the Mammoth Commodore 64 30 Games in One Joystick ($24.99), which—like the Jakks offerings above—is essentially a joystick that connects directly to your TV, this time with more than 30 classic game titles from the halcyon days of the Commodore 64, such as Impossible Mission, Jumpman Jr., Pitstop 2, and Summer Games. Pure bliss.

Take It on the Road
You don't need to be tied to your TV to enjoy modern video games. Indeed, if you're looking for a console and couldn't get an Xbox 360, you might want to check out the latest mobile platforms from Nintendo and Sony.

Nintendo GameBoy and DS
Nintendo is currently offering two GameBoy systems, and both are worth a look. The tiny GBA Micro ($89.99) is just 4" wide but includes a gorgeous color screen and can play all GameBoy Advance titles (but not classic GameBoy games or Nintendo DS titles). Because it's so small, it can fit perfectly in a pocket or a child's hand, and customizers will be happy to see that each model includes a few faceplates for a more personalized look.

Nintendo's high-end portable game solution is the Nintendo DS ($129.99), which features a unique clamshell design with two color LCD displays, one of which offers touch-screen capabilities. The DS has been a huge success for Nintendo, spawning a number of unique and often quirky game titles. Chief among these is the Nintendogs ($29.99) series, which includes versions for Dachshunds, Chihuahuas, Labrador Retrievers, and other dogs. So what is Nintendogs, you ask? It's basically a virtual pet dog, like a video-game Tamaguchi, but taken to the next level: Using the DS's integrated wireless capabilities, for example, you can configure your Nintendog to "bark" when other Nintendogs get close. Yes, seriously.

Great DS games abound. Some classic titles include Madden 06 ($24.99), GoldenEye Rogue Agent ($29.99), Sonic Rush ($34.99) and Mario Kart ($34.99). DS owners will be interested in accessories, too: Consider carrying cases, screen protectors, and replacement styli.

Sony Portable PlayStation (PSP)
Sony's entry into the portable video maker arena was swift and decisive, and today its PlayStation Portable (PSP) ($249.99) is considered the system to beat. The PSP has graphics that rival those of the PlayStation 2, an intuitive look and feel that's reminiscent of the PlayStation 2 dual-shock controller, and a widescreen LCD display that's the envy of the industry. But PSP doesn't just play great games. You can also purchase DVD-like movies in the PSP's unique UMD format, or copy your own digital media content onto a PSP-compatible MemoryStick Duo memory card and enjoy videos, photos, and digital music to go. The PSP is to portable gaming as the Xbox 360 is to the living room: an all-in-one device that seems to get it all right.

So what about games? If you aren't offended by overt violence, the Grand Theft Auto ($49.99) series won't disappoint. Otherwise, consider such titles as Burnout Legends ($49.99, racing), Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2006 ($49.99, golf), and the ever-popular (and addictive) Lumines ($39.99). As with the Nintendo DS, accessories abound, including carrying cases, speakers, screen protectors, cables, and even Memory Stick Duo memory cards.

PSP owners will also likely be interested in a few movies to fritter away the hours on long car rides or plane flights. While movie recommendations are a bit hit-or-miss, some of the better PSP translations include Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl ($22.99), The Incredibles ($22.99), Terminator 2 ($9.47), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon ($19.99) and my personal favorite, Once Upon a Time in Mexico ($19.99). With a quick search, you'll be sure to find movies that interest you in the PSP's UMD format.

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