Ultimate battle for computer games

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THE computer games world is girding itself for a battle that could make the last struggle between Nintendo and Sega seem like a skirmish.

On Friday, Sega presented the trade in Europe with Saturn, a CD-based games console with more muscle than most office computers. Today, Sony is showing off its equivalent, the PlayStation, at the ECTS game show at Olympia in London. Later in the year, Atari will launch its virtual- reality version of the Jaguar, produced in conjunction with the British company Virtuality, while 3DO, a US group backed by Matsushita, will make its own muscular offering. Then next spring, after several delays, Nintendo is due to launch its even more powerful Ultra 64.

The makers hope the machines will revive a market that they themselves helped to kill. When stories about the new machines appeared a year ago, sales of the established products slumped as children turned their noses up at formats that would soon be less than cool.

"This year the market has been in turbulence because consumers have been concerned about the new announcements," said Jon Waldern, chief executive of Virtuality. "People are waiting until they can compare the new products."

The new machines will make the old games - such as Sega's Sonic the Hedgehog and Nintendo's Super Mario - seem as sophisticated as dominoes. According to David Tabizel, multimedia analyst at Durlacher in London, the Saturn allows smoother and much more rapid movement in two dimensions, while the Sony machine generates impressive 3-D effects.

The Jaguar, which will come with a special headset, will give the same immersive virtual-reality effect that Virtuality now provides in its expensive arcade machines. Priced between £175 and £400, these machines will be expensive Christmas presents, but they will also provide remarkable power for the money.

The Sega and Sony will go on sale in September, and will be accompanied by massive advertising campaigns. The stakes are huge. Nintendo won the last fight with Sega and still generates $1.5m (£955,000) profit per employee. It is a huge developer of games as well as a hardware manufacturer. But it will come late to the battle and will have to fight off more rivals than ever.

Sony has not been a big player in games before (it used to collaborate with Nintendo, but no longer does). However, it has recently been buying up software houses by the dozen.