Could You Pass the Game Controller, Dear?

The hottest new consoles from Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony aim to bring video gaming to a whole new audience.

When I show my parents the newest Star Wars video game, they freeze into an updated version of the classic painting American Gothic. My normally vivacious mother stares blankly at the screen. "Well, it certainly looks nice," she says dubiously. A few minutes later, about when I hoped my father would be ready to take a try at the controls, he abruptly suggests that we go get a bite to eat.

Like most people over 30, my parents aren't big on computer gaming. My mom, a docent at the Honolulu Academy of Art, occasionally spends the odd hour playing Hearts or Solitaire on her PC, but that's about it. My dad, a fine woodworker, is even less interested: In fact, he once threatened to cut off my college tuition unless I returned the Atari game console I'd just bought.

But gaming is changing, and I wanted to show my parents its new appeal. And sure enough, after watching me make a strafing run along the surface of the Death Star, my dad acknowledges that the game looks amazingly lifelike. "I can see why this might make kids feel like they are in a Star Wars movie," he says. "It's got a great gee-whiz factor."
A new generation of video game consoles is here -- as this story goes to press, Microsoft's Xbox and Nintendo's GameCube are scheduled for release in November; Sony's PlayStation 2 came out last year. These DVD-playing supercomputers are so packed with raw processing power, they can make games look completely real -- or completely unreal, if that's the desired effect.

Whereas the consoles of the 1970s and '80s -- including Atari 2600, ColecoVision, Nintendo Entertainment System, and Sega Master System -- were built around 8-bit processors, today's machines feature 32-, 64-, and even 128-bit processors. This additional power, combined with other nifty components, has added a new dimension to gaming -- literally. Games that formerly took place in 2-D side-scrolling worlds now unfold, more often than not, in glorious 3-D. Furthermore, with so much power at their fingertips, the people who design video games have moved beyond traditional fighting and shooting themes. They are creating fantasy, puzzle-solving, and strategy games -- games that appeal to adults as well as kids, women as well as men. In 1996, the Interactive Digital Software Association reported that 42 percent of video console users were over 18 years old; in 2001, the number had jumped to 57 percent -- and that statistic was gathered before PlayStation 2 went on sale. Video gaming is starting to go mainstream.

Gone are the days of primitive graphics, when cars looked like boxes with wheels, planes looked like boxes with wings, and tanks looked like boxes with turrets. The game I showed my parents, Star Wars Star Fighter, from LucasArts, is packed with subtle visual detail. The walls of the Death Star glow red and green, reflecting blaster fire from turrets and ships. When rebel and Empire fighters explode, they burst into fiery balls that flare briefly, then disappear from the screen. And Star Wars is not unique. Today's football simulations look like television sports broadcasts. Gran Turismo 3: A-spec, an auto racing game made for Sony's PlayStation 2, looks like a Toyota commercial.

Graphics Revolution: From Xs to Whoas!

Although the recent evolution of gaming is not just skin deep, graphics provide the most striking view into how games have changed.

John Madden himself could have drawn the visuals in Atari's 1978 arcade game, Football. Nothing fancy there -- just a black-and-white field covered with Xs and Os. During the next few years, those Xs advanced into stick figures. Then, in the mid-1980s, a football game came out for the Nintendo Entertainment System, Tecmo Bowl, that featured robotically stiff-limbed players wearing helmets and jerseys. Their arms and legs moved as they ran, and they played in a primitive-looking stadium complete with cardboard cutout fans. When you scored a touchdown, the game rewarded you by showing still frames of cheerleaders.

During the 16-bit days of Super NES and Sega Genesis, players' jerseys became distinct, they had correct team colors and logos on their helmets, and you could even read the numbers. At this time, the early '90s, video games took on a cartoon quality.

But the true revolution took place with the introduction of polygons, tiny flat tiles that enable game designers to create 3-D characters. Polygons are laced together to form hollow mosaics. The more polygons an artist has to work with, the better the final object will look. Unfortunately, the football players in the 1997 version of Madden NFL were created from only a few hundred polygons apiece. Their square jaws, flat shoulders, and boxy-looking limbs made them look more like slabs than people.

Today, however, PlayStation 2 is able to deliver 50 times more polygons per second than those early
3-D games did. Goodbye, slab men! The most recent football game, John Madden NFL 2002, features multiple camera angles and players with subtle limbs and recognizable faces. Not only can you read the numbers on the backs of these players' jerseys, you can read their names.

These virtual athletes not only look better than their progenitors, they move better. Tecmo Bowl's stiff automatons piled on their tackled teammates like a swarm of fleas pouncing on a dog. Now, thanks to motion-capture data taken from real-life professional athletes, the virtual players in Madden NFL 2002 and other sports games run, hit, and collapse like the real McCoy.

A Whole New Playing Field

New game console technologies have resulted in more than pretty graphics; they have allowed for a wider variety of gaming genres -- simulations, puzzle solving, fantasy, and role-play. One major reason has been a vast increase in data storage capabilities.

Nintendo 64, which debuted in 1996, relied on cartridges that contained less than 48 megabytes of data. By contrast, today's PlayStation 2 and Xbox read DVD-ROMs that hold 4.3 gigabytes of data, and GameCube reads mini-DVDs that store 1.5 gigabytes.

This extra space enables designers to insert storage-hogging audio and digital video files into games. Role-playing games like Summoner from THQ, about a boy who collects rings that help him battle evil, employ audio and video files to create extensive cinematic sequences that advance the game's story line. Programmers can also convert storage into bigger worlds or additional levels. Games like Jak and Daxter, for instance, take place in vast and intricate environments such as swamps, mountains, and even undersea cities, all of which appear in more exquisite detail than ever before.

As a result, games are getting not only prettier but more ambitious. Take Final Fantasy X, an interactive adventure story made for PlayStation 2 that merges fantasy, romance, and science fiction. This is not just the typical fighting-shooting-driving fare. In this game, players steer a star-crossed couple, Tidus and Yuna, through futuristic, pageantry-filled vistas where they explore, solve puzzles, make allies, and defend themselves against monsters. Final Fantasy X is a modern fairy tale that looks like a movie and interacts like a video game.

Another game born from the recent burst of processor power and designer creativity is the odd and original Pikmin. In this game, players take on the role of an astronaut who has crashed on an alien planet. Though he is helpless on his own, he can cultivate the aid of "pikmin," adorable little plant people who can be put to work solving problems and hunting for parts from the broken spaceship. And in Ka, a game for PlayStation 2 that's currently available only in Japan, the player views the game world from the perspective of a mosquito flitting around a woman's apartment.

Battle of the Boxes

Nintendo's GameCube is the unproven darling of the industry. Its small size and modest price ($199; $100 less than Xbox and PlayStation 2) make it more attractive for children, as does Nintendo's line of family-friendly games -- which includes Mario, Donkey Kong, Zelda, and Pokemon.

But don't be fooled by size and price. With one and a half times the RAM of PlayStation 2 and a faster processor, GameCube has a slight edge when it comes to graphics. It's also easier to program than PlayStation 2, a benefit that should enable designers to throw in perks, such as the ability to choose the weather in games that unfold outdoors.
Although GameCube has strong hardware, it
hasn't got the best assortment of games. Unaffiliated game developers are not flocking to make products for Nintendo, a company that tends to use its consoles to promote its own games. Thus consumers looking for variety may be more drawn to PlayStation 2, for which 200 games are already available and many more are in the works.

The best way to find out how the new consoles stack up against one another is to consult the people who make games for all three. Whereas some video games are created for only one console -- for example, Halo was made specifically for Xbox -- other new games can be played on any of the three platforms. Activision-owned Neversoft, for example, is currently putting the finishing touches on Tony Hawk's Professional Skater 3, the latest version of a perennial bestseller that Activision will publish for PlayStation 2, GameCube, and Xbox.

Neversoft producer Scott Pease and his team have found Xbox easier to program than PlayStation 2, in part because of its 64 megabytes of memory. By contrast, PlayStation 2 has only 24 megabytes of memory, leaving the team scrambling for every bit of power. Although GameCube has 40 megabytes of memory in two general banks, Neversoft programmers still had to withdraw memory from the audio bank to store animations.

Programmers at Tiburon, the company that develops John Madden NFL games for Electronic Arts, have had a similar experience. According to Tiburon executives, Xbox's processing power has enabled their programmers to add little improvements such as helmet scuffs, anti-aliasing (a technology that smoothes jagged lines), and additional lighting effects. Some members of the Tiburon team, however, felt that the GameCube version looks best, even though it has fewer graphic enhancements than the Xbox version.

Overall, though, the technical differences are fairly minor. Xbox has a built-in hard drive that provides for faster load-up times, and the difficulty of programming PlayStation 2 may make software developers pull out their hair; but these differences will seldom impact the gaming experience.

The Endgame

One of the reasons I thought my parents might want to take a fresh look at video gaming is that many of the newer games are far easier to play than the ones they remember me banging away at as a kid. Granted, the controls for hard-core fighting games remain as esoteric as ever, with players having to hit long chains of button commands that casual users would never attempt to memorize. But in wooing a mainstream audience, some companies have cultivated simplicity. Maximo, from Capcom, for example, is a one-button game, and players don't need to push any buttons at all to control Sega's Super Monkey Ball; they simply move a thumbpad.

So, though I'm disappointed at my parents' transformation into American Gothic the other day, I'm not giving up. With so many changes taking place in gaming, the perfect entertainment for them must be right around the corner. Anybody up for a game about woodworking?

Holiday Fun & Games: Top new releases for all platforms, including your PC.

PlayStation 2

SUREFIRE BEST-SELLERS

Devil May Cry (Capcom, $49.99) Fast-action thriller that's best summarized as The Exorcist meets The Three Musketeers.

Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty (Konami, $49.99) The good guys have Snake, a grizzled mercenary. The bad guys have a five-story-tall, nuclear-powered robot. Obviously, hand-to-hand combat is out.

Our PICK Maximo: Ghosts to Glory (Capcom, $49.99) A 3-D version of the old arcade game Ghosts 'N' Goblins: a lovelorn knight battles kooky monsters.

GameCube

SUREFIRE BEST-SELLERS

Star Wars Rogue Leader: Rogue Squadron II (LucasArts, $49.99) You're Luke Skywalker and his wingman Wedge, fighting air battles from the original trilogy.

Super Smash Bros. Melee (Nintendo, $49.99) Forget Mortal Kombat, this is Mischief Kombat. Donkey Kong, Mario, Wario, and Princess Peach punch, kick, grapple, and electrocute each other-all in good fun.

OUR PICK Pikmin (Nintendo, $49.99) A marooned astronaut enlists adorable accomplices, the Pikmin.

Xbox

SUREFIRE BEST-SELLERS

Dead or Alive 3 (Tecmo, $49.99) Steroidal studs and bodacious broads fight for truth, love, honor, and the fun of kicking people through walls.

Halo (Microsoft, $54.99) Players snipe, drive, and fly as they secure an enemy-inhabited alien planet.

OUR PICK Cel Damage (Microsoft, $49.99) Players wage bumper-to-bumper combat with axes, missiles, and ray guns. As in rock-paper-scissors, each weapon offers unique advantages.

Windows For PC

SUREFIRE BEST-SELLERS

Neverwinter Nights (Interplay, $49.99) Battles that could only be imagined when Dungeons and Dragons was played with paper and dice come to life.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (Electronic Arts, $29.99) A version of the first Potter book, with cinematics that even Slytherin would love.

OUR PICK Medal of Honor: Allied Assault (Electronic Arts, $44.99) The Saving Private Ryan of gaming. World War II tanks, planes, and tactics are all startlingly realistic.

SPECS

NINTENDO GAMECUBE

MPU("Microprocessor Unit") Custom IBM Power PC "Gekko"

Manufacturing Process 0.18 micron IBM Copper Wire Technology

Clock Frequency 485 MHz

CPU Capacity 1125 Dmips (Dhrystone 2.1)

Internal Data Precision 32-bit Integer & 64-bit Floating-point

External Bus 1.3GB/second peak bandwidth (32-bit address space, 64-bit data bus 162 MHz clock)

Internal Cache L1: Instruction 32KB, Data 32KB (8 way) L2: 256KB (2 way)

System LSI Custom ATI/Nintendo "Flipper"

Manufacturing Process 0.18 micron NEC Embedded DRAM Process

Clock Frequency 162 MHz

Embedded Frame Buffer Approx. 2MB Sustainable Latency : 6.2ns (1T-SRAM)

Embedded Texture Cache Approx. 1MB Sustainable Latency : 6.2ns (1T-SRAM)

Texture Read Bandwidth 10.4GB/second (Peak)

Main Memory Bandwidth 2.6GB/second (Peak)

Pixel Depth 24-bit Color, 24-bit Z Buffer

Image Processing Functions Fog, Subpixel Anti-aliasing, 8 Hardware Lights, Alpha Blending, Virtual Texture Design, Multi-texturing, Bump Mapping, Environment Mapping, MIP Mapping, Bilinear Filtering, Trilinear Filtering, Anisotropic Filtering, Real-time Hardware Texture Decompression (S3TC), Real-time Decompression of Display List, HW 3-line Deflickering filter

The following sound related functions are all incorporated into the System LSI

Sound Processor custom Macronix 16-bit DSP

Instruction Memory 8KB RAM + 8KB ROM

Data Memory 8KB RAM + 4KB ROM

Clock Frequency 81 MHz

Performance 64 simultaneous channels, ADPCM encoding

Sampling Frequency 48KHz

System Floating-point Arithmetic Capability 10.5 GFLOPS (Peak) (MPU, Geometry Engine, HW Lighting Total)

Real-world polygon 6 million to 12 million polygons/second (Peak) (Assuming actual game conditions with complex models, fully textured, fully lit, etc.)

System Memory 40MB

Main Memory 24 MB MoSys 1T-SRAM, Approximately 10ns Sustainable Latency

A-Memory 16MB (81MHz DRAM)

**Disc Drive ** CAV (Constant Angular Velocity) System

Average Access Time 128ms

Data Transfer Speed 16Mbps to 25Mbps

Media 3 inch NINTENDO GAMECUBE Disc based on Matsushita's
Optical Disc Technology, Approx. 1.5GB Capacity

Input/Output Controller Port x4

Memory Card Slot x2

Analog AV Output x1

Digital AV Output x1

High-Speed Serial Port x2

High-speed Parallel Port x1

Power Supply AC Adapter DC12V x 3.5A

Main Unit Dimensions 4.3"(H) x 5.9"(W) x 6.3"(D)

PLAYSTATION2

CPU
128-bit Playstation 2 CPU

System Clock Frequency
294.912 MHz

Cache Memory
Instruction: 16KB, Data: 8KB + 16KB (ScrP)

Main Memory
Direct Rambus (Direct RDRAM)

Memory Size
32MB

Memory Bus Bandwidth
3.2GB per Second

Co-processor
FPU (Floating Point Unit)

Floating Point Multiply Accumulator x 1,
Floating Point Divider x 1

Vector Units
VU0 and VU1

** Floating Point Multiply Accumulator** x 9,
Floating Point Divider x 3

Floating Point Performance
6.2 GFLOPS

3D CG Geometric Transformation
66 Million Polygons per second

Compressed Image Decoder
MPEG2

Graphics
Graphics Synthesizer

Clock Frequency
147.456MHz

Embedded DRAM
4MB

DRAM Bus bandwidth
48GB per Second

DRAM Bus width
2560 Bits

Pixel Configuration
RGB:Alpha:Z Buffer (24:8:32)

Polygon Drawing Rate
75 Million Polygons per Second

Screen Resolution
Variable from 256 x 224 to 1280 x 1024

Sound
"SPU2+CPU"

Number of Voices
ADPCM: 48ch on SPU2 plus definable, software programmable voices

Sound Memory
2MB

Output Frequency
Variable up to 48 KHz (DAT quality)

IOP
I/O Processor

CPU Core
PlayStation (current) CPU

Clock Frequency
33.8688MHz or 36.864MHz (Selectable)

IOP Memory
2MB

Sub Bus
32-bit

Interface Types
IEEE1394 i.Link , Universal Serial Bus (USB) x 2

, Controller Port x 2, Memory Card x 2

Disc Device
CD-ROM and DVD-ROM

Device Speed
CD-ROM 24 times speed
,
DVD-ROM 4 times speed

(North American model)
Drive bay (for 3.5" hard disc drive)

Expansion unit (for network interface)

DVD-Video playback built into the hardware, no Memory Card required

XBOX

** The Console**

CPU: 733 MHz chip crafted by Intel

Graphics Processor: 250MHz custom chip named XGPU, developed by Microsoft and nVIDIA

Total Memory: The RAM in the Xbox will be supplied by Micron, it will be 64 MB running at
200MHz DDR (Double-Data-Rate)

Memory Bandwidth: 6.4 GB/sec

Polygon Performance: 125 M/sec

Sustained Polygon Performance: 100+ M/sec (transformed and lit polygons per second)

Micropolygons/particles per second: 125 M/sec

Particle Performance: 125 M/sec

Simultaneous Textures: 4

Pixel Fill Rate - No Texture: 4.0 G/Sec (anti-aliased)

Pixel Fill Rate - 1 Texture: 4.0 G/Sec (anti-aliased)

Compressed Textures: Yes (6:1)

Full Scene Anti-Alias: Yes

Micro Polygon Support: Yes

Storage Medium: 2-5x DVD, 10GB hard disk, 8MB memory card

I/0: 2-5x DVD, 10GB hard disk, 8MB memory card

Audio Channels:64 (up to 256 stereo voices)

3D Audio Support: Yes

MIDI DLS2 Support: Yes

AC3 Encoded Game Audio: Yes

Broadband Enabled: Yes

Modem Enabled: No

DVD Movie Playback: Remote control package required

Maximum Resolution: 1920x1080

Maximum Resolution (2x32bpp frame buffers +Z): 1920x1080

HDTV Support: Yes

Controller Ports: 4 USB Ports

The Controller

Two analog pressure point triggers

6 analog buttons (red, blue, green, yellow, black, and white) with 256 degrees of accuracy and control

1 eight way directional pad

2 menu navigational buttons (back, start)

2 peripheral expansion slots,

9 feet of cable

2 vibration feedback motors for that extra buzz of reality.

Connection Devices & Add-Ons

High Definition AV Pack: This pack connects users that have high-definition ready TVs that support 480p 720p and 1080f component video signals, analog inputs and / or digital receivers.

Memory Unit: Serving as a solution for needed extra storage space.

Advanced AV Pack: Works with S-Video and AV input TVs

RF Adapter: Connects the Xbox to TVs without audio and video connections

Standard AV Cable: Connects the Xbox to TVs equipped with audio and video input terminals. Included with the Xbox.

System Link Cable: A cable for connecting two consoles for 8 player gameplay

DVD Kit: A Kit is required for DVD Movie playback, the kit includes an infa red receiver and a remote.

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Touchdown! From Atari Football, which came out in 1978, to Tecmo Bowl, an '80s game, through today's John Madden NFL 2002, game graphics have come the distance.