The first was the sight of a suit standing outside a backstreet computer- games shop, mobile phone pressed to his ear, eyes extended farther from his sockets than Jim Carrey's peepers in The Mask. The young man was using his hot-spot technology to relay to a third party what Japan's rarest, newest import, the Sega Dreamcast, looked like in the flesh. Had I not shared his field of vision, I would have thought he was describing Jennifer Lopez as he spied through the keyhole of her dressing-room door.
The second was in a near-empty arcade in mid-afternoon. At the back of the room, a vampiric thirty-something was fumbling his way through a World Cup tie. Despite his obvious incompetence, his team, England, were beating Colombia 2-0. Why? Because rather than taking on the computer in a one-player game, he had paid for the two-player option to ensure that he would win. When the occasion demanded, he would switch sides to the opposition, so as to be able to pass the ball back to himself.
Let this be a warning: electronic games are insidious. If you put them on your Christmas list, then you are asking for eternal damnation. Or at the very least a horrible, hollow feeling when you realise that you've just spent two hours trying to work out how to get a cartoon dragon to climb a set of stairs without being bashed by an ugly cavewoman with a big club.
THE BIG-KID PLAYTHING
Name: Nintendo Game Boy Color.
Price: pounds 69.99.
Stockists: 01703 653377.
Bluffer specs: 8-bit processor; 256x256 pixel colour display; 32,000 colour palette (up to 56 at one time); 78x135x27mm.
Description: It's nearly 10 years old, there are about 60 million of them in the world, and over half of them have a Tetris game plugged into them right now. So why the furore over the new Technicolor wunderkind? Primarily because this fat Boy is equipped to take the following attachments:
Accessories: Game Boy Camera (pounds 39.99) and Game Boy Printer (pounds 39.99). Japanese kids have gone ape for post-modern photo booths which spew out tiny Technicolour photo stickers. Nintendo have created a mobile equivalent, although currently they only print in black and white, and without the zany picture frames. Watch this space long enough, however, and I'm sure Nintendo will take the idea to its logical, full-colour conclusion.
Suitable for: Robin Williams fans. And their kids.
Style rating: HHHH
Games: Of course, there's a colour Tetris, but the one that has rocked the East is Pokemon (and its Pikachu offspring), a pocket monster game owing its success to the craze for virtual pets. Personally, I'm rather more interested in discovering whether or not the anal probe that aliens used on Cartman will be making another appearance in the forthcoming South Park game.
Any other hardware worth considering? Already being imported from Japan is SNK's Neo Geo Pocket (plus point: 16-bit CPU; control stick; compatibility with Sega's Dreamcast. Minus point: monochrome screen). On the horizon is Bandai's WonderSwan (plus points: 30-hour life from one AA battery; 16bit CPU; stereo sound; cheapness - it should eventually retail for around pounds 25. Minus point: monochrome screen). Sony are also getting in with the PocketStation - a miniature PDA (Personal Digital Assistant) which plugs into the PlayStation or can be used as a stand-alone micro games machine. It will be released officially in the UK in the middle of next year.
THE COUCH-POTATO FLYBOY
Name: Microprose Falcon 4.0.
Price: pounds 39.99.
Stockists: 01454 893893.
Description: You can't buy Falcon 4.0 in China. Hardly surprising really, considering this is a flight simulation PC game in the hot seat of an American F-16 fighter plane as a virtual war unfurls across Korea. The realism of the dogfights - the game was pilot-tested by real Air Force veterans - is matched by the quality of the graphics and the ingenuity of the rolling-time frame. Your actions directly effect the denouement of the overall campaign, making the possible permutations of the game virtually infinite. And if you want to see what would happen should you decide to go for some R&R in Seoul, just leave the game running on auto- pilot on your PC over the weekend. Be warned, though, you may return from the pub or restaurant to discover that you no longer have a country to defend.
Suitable for: Sweaty-palmed pilots.
Style rating: HHH (war's not that cool!)
Accessories: To play this game to the best of its capacity, Microprose recommend the following set-up: a Gateway P2450 PC (around pounds 1,500, stockists 0800 172000), and Voodoo2 3D accelerator card from STB Blackmagic (pounds 199, 01753 212600 for stockists), plus Thrustmaster's F16 FLCS flight control system, and F16 throttle quadrant system (pounds 130 each or pounds 240 for both. Stockists: 0118 978 7087).
Any other PC flying games worth considering? Loads: Nova Logic's F-16 Multirole Fighter (pounds 49.99, stockists 0171-405 1777), Electronic Arts' Israeli Air Force (pounds 39.99, 01753 549442), and Virgin Interactive's F-16 Aggressor (pounds 39.99, 0171-368 2255).
THE HIGH-STREET WARRIORS
Name: Nintendo 64 v Sony PlayStation.
Price: Both cost just under pounds 100 each.
Stockists: Almost everywhere.
Description: Nintendo 64 has been under the cosh in the UK from Sony PlayStation for too long. The latter model is sexier to look at, uses the ubiquitous CD disc, rather than a chunky retro-looking cartridge, and had the exclusive double whammy of Lara Croft, a virtual vixen to turn the head of even the most stalwart of Nintendo diehards. Yet James Bond's Golden Eye seems to have marked a change of fortune for the company, and in the run-up to Christmas, Nintendo's games have been consistently excellent - the company's software designers seem to be realising the full capabilities of the machine at a time when PlayStation seems to have hit a plateau. The difference seems most acute on the latest snowboarding releases: the PlayStation's CoolBoarders 3 (pounds 34.99) gets whitewashed by Nintendo's 1080 (pounds 39.99).
Suitable for: Anyone who doesn't risk flunking their exams or losing their jobs by becoming addicted.
Style rating: HHHHH
Games: Nintendo's Golden Eye remains an impressive incentive to buy, and F1 World Grand Prix (pounds 39.99) comes as close to sitting in Michael Schumacher's hot seat as you'd wish, but the game that looks most likely to capture the wallets this Christmas is Legend Of Zelda: Ocarina Of Time, a cinematic fantasy staring the elfin adventurer Link.
Any others worth considering? There are still some new games worth investing in for the PlayStation. The cuddly Spyro The Dragon (pounds 34.99) is infuriatingly irresistible, and old school Asteroids' fans may be delighted by its rebirth in colour. The hype will inevitably swing back Sony's way next year, when Metal Gear Solid is released. Currently available in Japan and the US (for around pounds 80), the double-disc game is the darkest, most ingenious third-person adventure game ever. Or do you know any other shoot-'em-ups where you can fake your own death with ketchup to get past guards rather than mindlessly blast them?
THE NEW-TECH OBSESSIVE
Name: Sega Dreamcast.
Price: pounds 375 up on import (It's worth checking around. In one place I checked, prices dropped from pounds 699 to pounds 399 in just 48 hours! )
Stockists: Various games shops (inc. Computer Exchange, London: call 0171- 636 2666)
Description: Sega's follow up to the marketing flop that was the Saturn is not due here until late next year but "grey" Japanese imports are already in the shops. What makes the Dreamcast so special that you must have it now? Well, apart from the impressive specs below, Sega have cleverly attempted to capitalise on the success of virtual pets and Game Boys by producing a special memory-card system (VMS) with its own screen and mini controls. This will allow you to play your games (or at least small parts of them) on the move. The Japanese and US models also come with a modem socket for connection to a special Sega sight on the Internet, although this may not be a feature of the British models when they are officially released here.
Bluffer specs: 128-bit (i.e. twice that of Nintendo 64); 1.5 million shaded polygons per second (more than 30 times those of PlayStation and N64 - this even beats many arcade games); 1Gb CD software (nearly twice that of conventional CDs).
Suitable for: Rich geeks. And their dads, of course.
Style rating: HHHH
Accessories: Special edition VMSs will be available (a Godzilla one came out in Japan before the rest of the system, pounds 25); there is a chunky, arcade stick console with lime-green knobs on (pounds 79.99); other accessories will include special steering wheels and a keyboard for Internet access.
Games: Japanese games that have already filtered through include Godzilla Generations, Pen Pen Tricelon and Virtua Fighter 3TB (prices range up to as much as pounds 99.99).
Any others worth considering? Well, some perverse people still swear by the Sega Saturn (which did rather better in the East than it did the UK), but investing in the archaic machines seems a bit pointless, to say the least. Especially when Sony are already working on a new generation PlayStation, due out at the turn of the millennium.
Deputy Editor, `ZM' MagazineReuse content