Video Games: Do the right thing: Today's state-of-the-art console is tomorrow's dinosaur. Rupert Goodwins tiptoes through the consumer minefield

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Time was when buying a game was a simple affair. You'd go out, choose between Scrabble and Monopoly, get home and start playing. Technology, as usual, has ruined all this. Video games are more like video cassettes; unless you buy some expensive piece of electronics to play them on, they're in the chocolate teapot category of consumer items.

There are three sorts of hardware - platforms, in the jargon - that play video games; consoles, hand-helds and personal computers. Consoles are small boxes that sit on the carpet in front of the TV, connect up in much the same way as video recorders and are dedicated to playing video games. Hand-helds are the same but with self-contained screens and batteries, and personal computers are too expensive to consider just for games.

Choosing which console to buy is like picking a religion - the only guarantee is that someone somewhere will tell you how wrong you were. It's particularly difficult at the moment since the two main consoles, Sega's Megadrive and Nintendo's Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES), are elderly products which won't be on many shopping lists next Christmas. The best games will be written for something else, but nobody knows what. In this business, empires can rise and fall between successive Santas.

There's a confusion of standards every bit as challenging as the underground mazes in Jurassic Park. America has Commodore's CD-32, Atari's Jaguar and a dark horse called 3DO; Europe has Philip's CD-I; Japan has Nintendo, Sega and strong rumblings from Sony. None of these will so much as sniff at games designed for another: it's Betamax and VHS all over again but with seven competitors instead of just the two.

To add to the fun, some use cartridges - boxes full of chips - while others play games on CDs. Cartridges are expensive to produce but more difficult to duplicate illegally; CDs are cheap, can store far more information and the machines can play ordinary music CDs between sessions of alien slaughter. The received wisdom six months ago was that CDs would be the medium of the future and cartridges were going the way of K-Tel Top of the Pops vinyl compilations, but the Jaguar is both brand-new, top-notch and currently cartridge-only. Like Hollywood, the world of video games is a place where nobody knows anything.

It's hopeless trying to pick hardware on specification alone. Each manufacturer proudly proclaims the number of bits in their toys, a figure roughly analogous to the cylinder count in a car engine. Machines with more bits can display prettier graphics and higher quality sound; the first consoles and personal computers were eight bits and could typically only cope with a few tens of colours at once. The SNES and Megadrive are 16-bit consoles and can handle thousands of colours; the Commodore CD-32 is 32 bits and the Jaguar is 64. Both can display moving video to near-TV quality, as can Philip's CD-I - at this level, the details of the hardware hardly matter.

Personal computers are now good enough to play video games every bit as sumptuous as those on the 16-bit consoles. The hardware's many times more expensive, but the games software is as cheap or cheaper than the console alternatives and, of course, you can write letters to the bank manager.

In the end, the finest and most expensive lump of hardware is useless without good games, while a good game will be enjoyable no matter what it's running on. Even now, thousands of people play away the evenings on the ancient Sinclair ZX Spectrum, the video-game equivalent of a Super-8 home projector, purely because it's got some great games. The software looks and sounds like a box of Lego being shaken, but with good design you can do wonderful things with simple graphics.

The only advice worth taking, then, is to find out which platform has games right now you can afford and like. Go out and play. The good news is that with millions of Megadrive and SNES consoles already sold, there's going to be new software produced for them for years to come. It might not be the greatest interactive virtual-reality live action spectaculars that people promise for the new generation of games, but it'll be cheap, fun and widely available. Almost like Scrabble, really.

(Photograph omitted)