With the recent introduction of a raft of super-powerful consoles, the gap is, if anything, widening. Machines of a decade ago were "eight bit" - each binary instruction was eight digits long: the graphics were basic and the speed was low. Then came the 16-bit generation (Sony Mega Drive and Super Nintendo), where the speed was good but the pictures were still two-dimensional.
The new generation is 32 bit and, in the case of the Atari Jaguar and the yet-to-be-launched Nintendo Ultra, 64 bit. The extra processing power means remarkable 3-D effects can be combined with stunning speed. For the first time home computers are offering performance matching that of the "coin-ops" in arcades.
Though many of the games are either "shoot 'em-ups" or "beat 'em-ups", console-users need not spend their time murdering or assaulting other characters. Some of the best games involve running and jumping (platform games), football, motor racing or puzzles.
Nor are consoles the preserve of teenage boys. Though 15- to 18-year- olds are still the core users, a generation of "hooked" adults is playing happily. With the latest machines costing pounds 300 or so, that is just as well - pocket money alone will not keep the industry afloat.
In the past there was no great difficulty choosing which machine to buy. First there was a choice between the Sinclair Spectrum and the Commodore 64. Then the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga took over before giving way to the Sega Mega Drive and Super Nintendo: wide-eyed gamers had a 50 per cent chance of getting it right. But in the past year they have been blinded by science, spoilt for choice, and no matter what they decide on, there is always the spectre of new super machines on the horizon, casting a shadow over their format of preference.
As the 32-bit machines were launched over the past 18 months, sales of the Mega Drive and Super Nintendo died. Smash hits such as Ridge Racer and Virtua Fighter set new benchmarks for electronic entertainment, only to be surpassed by their sequels a couple of months later.
The downside of this kind of leap in power is, of course, that somewhere along the line you have to pay for it. Atari's 64-bit console has been on the market for more than 18 months now, and even though it is considered to be at the bottom end of the "next generation" table, it still costs around pounds 150. Parents looking to treat their loved ones or themselves to a Sega Saturn or a Sony PlayStation will have to pay around pounds 299 for a machine that comes with no game and only one joypad. A 3DO will cost in the region of pounds 200. The move into the "super console" world is a little like going from the Endsleigh Division One to the Premier League - a big step that guarantees you a much higher class of entertainment, but much more costly.
No one can splash out pounds 300 on a machine they will have to replace inside a year, yet there can be no such certainties in the world of consumer technology. The marketplace reinvents itself at such a pace that you often feel as if you are running just to stand still. So why are consumers still buying games machines in their thousands? It is because for the first time in two years these four machines are as close to a "banker" as you are going to get.
Each of the formats described on these pages has a solid catalogue of games behind it. They all have the support of notable development teams producing software for them, and they each have attributes that make them attractive. The Sega Saturn and Sony PlayStation are the two big players and, deservedly, have the biggest chunk of the market. They are both excellent machines and, with Sega's own huge arcade division providing an endless stream of exclusive conversions for their users, and Sony's close relationship with the Japanese coin-operated machine giant Namco, they are both pretty evenly matched. The appearance of these new consumer threats seems to have prompted 3DO, a US-based consortium, to buck its ideas up a little and push its retail price down, providing good-quality software at reasonable cost. With compatible hardware produced by both Panasonic and Goldstar, consumers even have a choice of appearance for their console.
The writer presents Channel 4's 'GamesMaster' and is editor of 'XGen' magazine.
Sony's 32-bit CD console continues its rise to global domination. Having achieved the most successful videogames launch ever, last September, the machine has already racked up an estimated 130,000 sales in the UK alone. The only thing that could slow it down is the delayed arrival of Nintendo's even more powerful Ultra 64, scheduled for April. But the PlayStation has already established a big enough user base to survive the impact of future rivals until its own 64-bit hardware upgrade arrives in 1998.
Apart from excellent technical specifications, powerful graphics capabilities and a stylish slimline design, the attraction of the PlayStation is its range of top-quality games. Superb titles such as Wipeout, Ridge Racer, Tekken, Destruction Derby and Doom should be just the tip of the iceberg. With the likes of Tekken 2, Resident Evil and Rave Racer on the horizon, things look rosy for Sony right now, but there are several worries surrounding this otherwise perfect launch.
One is that the PlayStation may have shot its bolt too early, and that many of the games that followed the initial releases are sub-standard. Second, Sony has a terrible record at in-house software production; that means that most titles are developed by third parties and can thus appear on other consoles, too. There is very little long-term exclusivity on the PlayStation. Finally, the company seems to be having problems with duplicating enough discs to get its games on to the shelves as quickly as the companies developing them would like, creating a backlog of titles that may become dated by the time they see daylight.
That said, no other console has as many games being developed for it (by every major software publisher), and 1996 looks bright for what is the top next-generation console on the market.
Price: don't pay more than pounds 299 for machine plus demo disc.
Price of games: pounds 40-pounds 50
Here are my recommended titles for the Sony PlayStation accompanied by the scores (out of 100) they were awarded in XGen magazine.
Discworld (SIE): 88
A lively and hilarious adventure game, featuring the voices of Jon Pertwee and Eric Idle and set in the mad world of author Terry Pratchett.
Mortal Kombat 3 (Sony): 96
Conversion of the king of gory arcade games. Mortal Kombat 3 is the latest of a series of detailed and increasingly tough fighting games that introduced digitised graphics and gruesome "fatalities" to the genre.
Tekken (Namco): 95
Gorgeous 3-D beat 'em-up that has caught the imagination of console combat fans and shaped the future expectations of joypad pugilists. Packed with stunning moves and top gameplay, this is my personal favourite.
Wipeout (SIE): 93
A futuristic racer with stunning speed, breathtaking graphics and a thumping soundtrack by the likes of Chemical Brothers, Leftfield and Or-bital, Wipeout is one of the toughest games of all time and will leave beginners tearing their hair out in frustration.
Ridge Racer Revolution (Namco): 92
Super-playable souped-up sequel to the pioneering Ridge Racer, this takes one of the hottest driving games and gives it new and bigger tracks, tighter bends and an eagerly awaited link-up option so two players can play on the same track at once.
Rayman (Ubi Soft): 90
Superb gameplay with a massive challenge, Rayman is a gorgeous game that has received criticism for being a tad too difficult. Maybe a bit too cute and pretty for your average male gamer, this is a book that should not be judged by its cover.
Doom (GT Interactive): 90
No competition, one of the greatest games. Doom on the PlayStation is a neat conversion of both the original PC version of Doom and its sequel. With 50-odd levels to explore and a number of evil demons to destroy with the weapons you find along the way, this is an all-action thriller not for the faint of heart.
Striker '96 (Warner): 90
Soccer with style, skill and speed, Striker was an old 16-bit favourite that has stood the test of time and come of age on the PlayStation. I am sure that in time it will be overtaken by far more sophisticated soccer titles, but for sheer playability this is the best about at the moment.
Worms (Team 17): 93
The most addictive madcap, multi-player game around. Have you got what it takes to pit your battalion of four worms against the computer or your mate's? With an arsenal of weapons that range from straightforward bazookas to exploding sheep, you simply take turns at trying to blast your rivals off the screen. Brilliant.
On the horizon
Tekken 2 (Namco)
Rock'n'Roll Racing 2 (Interplay)
Resident Evil (Virgin)
Wing Commander IV (EA)
Machine Specs: CPU: R3000A 32-bit RISC processor running at 33MHz. Capable of 30 MIPS (millions of instructions per second).
Graphics: A palette of 16.7 million colours; more than 250,000 sprites [characters] on screen at once; 1.5 million flat-shaded polygons can be drawn every second or 500,000 texture-mapped and light-sourced polygons.
Sound: 24-channel stereo with a sample rate of 44.1kHz.
Memory: 2Mb of main RAM; Video RAM (VRAM) 1Mb; 512K allocated to Sound RAM; System Operating 512K.
CD: double-speed drive that supports audio CDs and Sony's own Custom Polymer CDs (the black ones with the games on).
It may be trailing in the wake of its rival, Sony PlayStation, but the Saturn has still, reportedly, notched up UK sales of close to 100,000. And Sega's trinity of superlative Christmas coin-op conversions - Virtua Fighter 2, Virtua Cop and Sega Rally - can only bolster the 32-bit machine's position. After all, you won't be able to play them on any other console - while, conversely, nearly all the top PlayStation hits (including Wipeout, Toshinden, Destruction Derby and as yet unnamed Namco arcade conversions) are being developed for the Saturn.
Other advantages of buying a Saturn include exclusive original Sega titles such as Panzer Dragoon and Bug!, the machine's built-in battery back-up for saving games, and the recently released Video CD card, which lets you watch industry-standard MPEG movies and music videos. And that's not to mention the arrival of more blockbuster Sega arcade conversions in 1996, including Virtua Cop 2, Manx TT and Fighting Vipers.
Not as sleek or as immediately attractive as the PlayStation, the Saturn has also suffered from being over-priced when it was first released - originally pounds 399 - which did nothing to inspire faith in a brand name that has already lost credibility with the releases of the terrible Mega-CD and 32X. At a more competitive pounds 299, however, it is now closing the gap slowly and has a high-quality catalogue of releases that make it a more than viable competitor to the PlayStation.
Price: pounds 299
Price of games: pounds 40-pounds 50
Here are my recommended titles for the Sega Saturn accompanied by the scores (out of 100) they were awarded in XGen magazine.
Shining Wisdom (Sega): 82
Epic role-playing game by the Sonic Team, neither of the two next generation leaders has a really top-notch fantasy game in the classic sense, but this comes close for now.
Virtua Fighter 2 (Sega): 94
Possibly the most technically impressive beat'em-up we've seen to date, Virtua Fighter 2 is the Sega's most important release this year. The Virtua Fighter series has virtually sold the Saturn by itself in Japan but, awesome as it is, this just lacks the edge and excitement of a game like Tekken.
Sega Rally: 90
Another fantastic and exclusive arcade conversion with a great two-player mode that, unlike PlayStation, does not require that you own two machines, two TVs and two copies of the game. Sega Rally is packed with options, and uses some of the most realistic scenery effects seen outside the arcade.
Bug! (Sega): 90
This new Sega character is, I am told, selling out faster than stores can get hold of him. A twist on the traditional platform theme, Bug! is set in a 3-D environment that sees the little green chap walking in and out of the foreground and backgrounds rather than just sideways along the screen. Great fun, original, and exclusive to Sega.
Panzer Dragoon (Sega): 91
A game that originally had players jaws gaping, Panzer Dragoon is a graphically stunning 3D blast 'em-up that sees you riding on the back of a flying dragon and gunning down all manner of weird and fantastical beasts and machinery. With full 360-degree views and rotation and a number of different viewpoints, this game has set new standards for the genre that have yet to be matched.
Virtua Cop (Sega): 90
Fun with a gun, this is another arcade-perfect conversion from the Sega range and can be played with the plastic gun provided or with the joypad using the cross-hairs to aim. This is a multi-faceted, though largely linear, shoot 'em-up that is great fun for a while. But when you've played it once that's probably enough.
Victory Boxing (JVC): 88
Victory Boxing is a feast of playable polygon pugilism. Seeming slow at first because of the realism of its control method, you have to think and fight like a real boxer, not a gamesplayer. Defend, jab and move away if you are hit. This is one for real fans of the sport; thrill-seekers may be better off with something like Toshinden S or Virtua Fighter 2.
Theme Park (Bullfrog): 87
Now a classic simulation. You must build and run your own American-style Theme Park. From designing rollercoasters to deciding how much salt to put on the chips, this is an absorbing and rewarding simulation that might just prove to be a little too addictive for your relationship with your partner to stand.
On the horizon:
Guardian Heroes (Sega)
Mortal Kombat 3 (Williams)
Blazing Dragons (BMG)
Destruction Derby (SIE)
Machine Specs: CPU. Two Hitachi SH2 32-bit RISC running at 28.6MHz, processing 50 MIPS. Has a palette of 16.7 million available colours.
Sound: 32 channels via a Motorola 68EC000 sound processor and a Yamaha FH1 24-bit Digital Signal Processor. The Saturn has a 44.1kHz sampling rate, the same as the Sony PlayStation.
Memory: 2Mb RAM; 1.5Mb VRAM (Video RAM); 512K Audio RAM
CD: double-speed drive, audio CD compatible
Optional: video CD, Photo CD, EBook, Digital Karaoke
This US-based consortium, whose backers include the Japanese giant Matsushita, produced the first serious 32-bit console in 1994. It raised a lot of hopes, but a disappointing initial catalogue of software, an ugly-looking outer case, and a clumsy joypad, meant that public reaction cooled very quickly, especially as it was priced at around pounds 399.
The brainchild of innovator Trip Hawkins, 3DO was supposed to be the first step towards an industry standard, a single format.
However, like Sega, 3DO has realised its mistakes and reduced the retail price. The introduction of a far more attractive unit, manufactured by Goldstar, has made the format more appealing and competitive.
Recent 3DO software has been impressive. It includes ground-breaking titles such as Starfighter, BattleSport and PO'ed, adding weight to a catalogue that already boasted the best versions of hits such as Fifa International Soccer and Space Hulk. Further price slashes for both Panasonic and Goldstar 3DO machines (technically identical) should give the format even more muscle.
Despite losing ground to its newer 32-bit rivals, 3DO still holds a possible trump card up its sleeve in the form of Matsushita, to which it recently sold its impressive M2 technology. With the biggest electronic company in the world behind its 64-bit upgrade, due in the second half of 1996, 3DO could yet be a formidable player.
Price: pounds 199
Average price of games: pounds 40
Alone in the Dark (Infogrammes): 83
The arrival of Infogrammes' innovative 3-D adventure gives 3DO owners a serious chunk of clue-finding and puzzle-solving to get their teeth into. Still a great game, if a little old now.
Super Street Fighter II Turbo (Capcom): 89
Surprisingly the only truly arcade-perfect conversion of the daddy of all combat games, the 3DO version runs at a stunning speed, using full- size sprites and all the moves and secrets from the coin-op, including the "Turbo" gauge. This title is hampered only by the machine's poorly designed joypads, which makes what should be an awesome experience a bit of a chore.
The Need for Speed (EA): 92
Another 3DO shocker. While the world stood around waiting for Daytona USA and Ridge Racer on Sega and Sony, Electronic Arts continued its amazing run of releases on the 3DO format with what turned out to be one of the best driving games ever. Ultra-realistic handling and great graphics, The Need for Speed is an essential part of any 3DO owner's collection.
Gex (Crystal Dynamics): 88
Every format needs an icon. Sega had Sonic, Nintendo had Mario, for their sins 3DO has Gex. A wisecracking Gecko with a very American sense of humour, this reptilian hero jumps, leaps and climbs his way through a challenging and very visual array of levels after being sucked into his own TV. Witty, clever and recommended.
Trip'd (Panasonic): 78
With a fun Mean Bean-style two-player mode, Trip'd is one of the better puzzle games available on a format that seems flooded with incomprehensible American "concept" puzzlers that don't quite work. Not bad, but nothing to get excited about.
Space Hulk (EA): 94
Brilliant and dripping with atmosphere, Space Hulk is my favourite 3DO game, and would probably rank in my personal all-time Top 10. It captures that Aliens atmosphere perfectly and combines tense atmosphere with hard- hitting action like no game I have seen before. Absolutely brilliant.
Star Fighter (Studio 3DO): 93
Star Fighter is a stunning missile-packing, sound barrier-breaking flying game that dishes out huge explosions, flashy graphics, superb gameplay and a huge challenge to any aspiring Top Gun, in the comfort of his or her front room. Probably the only flight game that really works well on the console.
PO'ed (Studio 3DO): 93
This gory game has you cutting down enemies that are often shaped like bottoms (I kid you not) with anything from power drills to meat cleavers. A nasty piece of electronic ultra-violence.
BattleSport (Studio 3DO): 93
A kind of futuristic football, played by using giant metallic vehicles and firing weapons at each other to tackle. The idea is to get the ball off your opponent and shoot it into a hole that forms the goal. It sounds simple but it's great fun, with an excellent two-player split-screen option.
John Madden's Football (EA): 90
Touchdown! The John Madden series of American Football titles is now legendary and has never been surpassed. This 3DO version, like the format's Fifa International Soccer conversions, takes the gameplay that made the game successful but sprinkles it with an ample helping of graphic realism.
Theme Park (EA): 90
You can't hold a good game down, and on the 3DO this smash-hit simulation comes complete with rendered ride scenes that give you a graphic interpretation of what it would be like to have a go on your amusements. Come on, you mean you've never fancied owning your own Theme Park? The only thing this game lacks is the smell of boiled hot dogs, and pick-pockets.
On the horizon:
Phoenix 3 (EA)
SnowJob (Studio 3DO)
Machine Specs: CPU: 32-bit RISC processor ARM60 running at 12.5MHz. There is a total palette of 16.7 million colours, 32,000 of which can be displayed simultaneously.
Sound: 16-bit Stereo with a sampling rate of 44.1KHz.
Memory: 3Mb separated into 2Mb of DRAM and 1Mb of VRAM. There's also another 1Mb allocated to ROM.
Peripherals: MPEG module to play standard Video CDs.
CD: Double-speed drive that can also play audio CDs.
This has proved to be a bit of a whipping boy since its general release in May last year. Despite its 64-bit power, the Jaguar has done little more than deliver a plethora of overpriced, mediocre titles to its users. The same lack of quality software that dogged its predecessor, Lynx, seems to be haunting this console. Only the low price has kept it afloat to date.
But recently Atari seems to have bucked its ideas up, branching out in the software field, developing titles for the PC, and announcing plans to release the advanced Jaguar 2 console in 1996. Meanwhile, it is supporting the existing Jaguar with a much improved games line-up: recent titles have included the creditable puzzler Attack of the Mutant Penguins and the football simulation Fever Pitch.
One of the Jaguar's main drawbacks so far has been that despite the the machine's relatively low price, its cartridge games could cost up to pounds 60. The arrival of the pounds 149 CD add-on may solve this problem and lead to more affordable software, although it effectively doubles the price of the Jaguar format, putting it in the same bracket as the far more impressive Sony PlayStation and Sega Saturn. As the Jaguar's selling point is its cheapness, you can't help feeling that Atari is going to have to pull a big rabbit out of the hat if it is to stay in the next generation console race.
Price: pounds 149 Jaguar; pounds 149 CD add-on
Price of games: pounds 30-pounds 60
Here are my recommended titles for the Jaguar accompanied by the scores (out of 100) they were awarded in XGen magazine.
Chequered Flag: 87
Fast and fun polygon racing that is slightly superior, though graphically similar, to Sega's old 16-bit Virtua Racing. A decent enough challenge for Formula One fans, enjoyment is only spoiled by Atari's ridiculously designed joypad.
Originally designed for the Jaguar, this game took an absolute age to appear and provides the Jaguar with its only really creditable platform game. Colourful levels, cute, cartoony characters and a huge challenge.
Attack of the Mutant Penguins: 89
My personal favourite on the Jaguar at the moment. Level upon level of completely mad penguin-bashing action. The plot is far too silly to try to explain here, but once you get used to the absurdity of the gameplay, the depth of the graphics and the sheer frustration factor of the action keeps you hooked. P-p-p-pummel a penguin!
Bloody hell. That just about sums up Doom. You are tooled up to the nines with shotguns, missile launchers and chain saws and you have to lay into all manner of increasingly vicious demons as you attempt to escape the huge treacherous levels. It's violent, it's full screen on the Jaguar, and there is a two player link-up for the famous Doom death matches. Nasty!
Syndicate teeters on the brink between action and strategy. As a futuristic corporate dictator you want control of the planet's commercial centres at all costs. So to do your dirty work for you, you send in your psychopathic teams of cyborgs to complete all manner of dangerous and underhand missions.
Tempest 2000 (Atari): 81
Classic arcade action with vector graphics and a thumping soundtrack, this game heralded the return of Llama fanatic Jeff Minter to the games scene and gave the Jaguar its first universally acclaimed smash hit. Over- rated in my opinion, although thousands would disagree.
Pinball Fantasies (21st Century): 84
Pinball never really works on console, but Pinball Fantasies is about as close to top flippin' fun as you can get. With a choice of four tables to play on, this will keep flipper fans happy without really rocking the boat.
Fever Pitch (US Gold): 83
Playable fantasy football fun, Fever Pitch is a Roy of the Rovers-style football game that allows you to sign all kinds of oddball players, each with their own moves, and blend together a winning team of misfits and all-stars. Not a simulation by any stretch of the imagination, but immensely enjoyable and packed with humour - it even has me as centre forward for England.
Theme Park (Bullfrog): 7
Disappointing conversion of the smash hit funfair simulation. Theme Park doesn't really do itself justice on the Jaguar, but it is still the best example of this genre available to Atari owners.
On the horizon:
Defender 2000 Atari
Fight For Life Atari
Flashback US Gold
Baldies (CD) Gametek
Creature Shock (CD) Virgin
Machine Specs: CPU: Five processors sitting on a PCB running down a 64-bit Data Bus. Two of these are 32-bit RISC chips, two are 64-bit graphics chips, the other is a 68000 for tidying up.
Graphics: palette of 16.7 million colours.
Sound: 16-bit CD-quality stereo.
Memory: 2Mb RAM.Reuse content