The next generation of computer game machines may be faster and slicker, writes Steve Homer, but will parents agree to pay up to pounds 400 for them?
If you are a parent, I have some bad news: video games are on their way back. Faster, smoother, in three dimensions - prepare for a new assault on your offspring's senses and on your pockets. In a few months' time, teenagers will start clamouring for new and more expensive machines.

Why is this news? Because despite what you might have thought, the video games market, dominated by Sega and Nintendo, has taken a hammering in the past year or two. This downturn has been blamed by the industry on its normal buyers putting off buying a system until new machines arrive later this year. But this hardly seems likely.

"I really don't see 14-year-old boys saying for the last year and a half: `Oh, well, I won't buy Sega MegaDrive because the company has said it will produce a better machine for Christmas 1995.' The kids that buy games machines are not like that. Deferred gratification is not a key attribute of teenage boys," says one senior industry analyst.

The decline last year was dramatic. In 1993, the British market shrank from 3 million units to 2.8 million. According to the research company BIS Strategic Decision, it then collapsed in 1994 to 1.7 million units.

Most analysts now believe the market declined because video games simply became boring. While the cinema was producing ever more dramatic special effects and Power Rangers were increasing the energy of live action drama, most of the video games consisted of two-dimensional characters on a two- dimensional stage.

Now the boredom is about to end, with the arrival of a raft of new games machines. The four contenders creating the most excitement are the Sega Saturn, the Sony Playstation, Nintendo's Ultra 64 and Nintendo's oddity, the Virtual Boy.

Saturn and Playstation were launched in Japan late last year and have already notched up a million sales there each. Both are due to appear in the UK later this year. They represent the next generation of games machine. Where today's machines move data about in 16-bit chunks, these machines will use 32 bits. In rough terms, this means double the speed, twice the number of colours and double the resolution of the image on screen.

This increase in processing power has produced what the industry is looking for - an increase in the level of "immersion". Like it or not, what sells these games is the ability of children (and some adults) to lose themselves in the game. So, in car-racing games, the cars look much more real and the track you are zooming down looks more three-dimensional. In the fighting games, the movements are much more lifelike.

But this is by no means the end of the revolution. Nintendo's Ultra 64, which will be launched next April, will use 64-bit technology. So will the M2, being introduced by 3DO, a US-Japanese consortium.

Nintendo will also be selling a device that, though not powerful, could be a big seller. Virtual Boy, due for launch in Japan in August, looks like a chunky pair of binoculars on a stand and uses dual-mirror optics to create three-dimensional illusions. The images are crude and monochrome, but the three-dimensional effect is pronounced. At only pounds 115, Virtual Boy is bound to stimulate interest.

Although the machines are selling well where they have been launched, there is still a chance the UK funding authorities (parents, in other words) will scupper their chances here. The Playstation will sell for $299 (pounds 190) when it goes on sale in the US in September. The Saturn, already in the shops, will cost $399. While launch plans in the UK are still sketchy, it looks as though they will be much more expensive, at pounds 299 and pounds 399 respectively. And at these prices, many believe it will take some time for the games market to pick up again.

"Your average teenager simply cannot afford pounds 300 or pounds 400 for a games machine," says Andreas Koehler, senior analyst at BIS Strategic Decisions. He points out that 16-bit machines cost about pounds 100, and says that pure games machines are now in competition with multimedia PCs, which can play sophisticated CD-Rom based games.

There is no doubt which machines kids would prefer. It can be a nightmare to get CD-Rom games running properly, and they are also usually slow to load. More important, it is also impossible to carry a PC up to a bedroom or round to a friend's house.

But it will rarely be the children who make the final decision - and parents may well look for a system that combines games with education. That will lead them either to a multimedia PC, if they have pounds 900-plus to spare, or perhaps to a CD-I player, which plugs into the television. These have a catalogue of both games and "educational" titles but do not have the performance to satisfy teenage games players.

Dave King, head of games and accessories at Virgin Our Price, hopes parents will see the light, and dig deep into their pockets. "These new machines will take the technology of the games forward," he says. "People are prepared to pay pounds 300 for a mass-market video recorder, so why not a games machine?" Parents may well have a short answer to that: the games industry awaits their judgement.