THEY'RE BETTER, FASTER, STRONGER ...; VIDEO GAME MAKERS STRUT NEW STUFF AT ELECTRONIC ENTERTAINMENT EXPO.
Sony vice president Phil Harrison stood beaming by a large monitor while at his feet, a smallish box of blinking lights and electronics deftly handled the imposing mathematical task of drawing and moving dozens of oddly shaped and colored balls on screen.
``This may not look like much, but graphics engineers think this stuff is amazing,'' Harrison said to a group of journalists, analysts and developers at the recent Electronic Entertainment Expo.
And he's right. Just as humans might be challenged to juggle 50 or 100 balls at a time, so too would a computer or video-game console trying to draw and move that many balls on screen. But that was before the technologically imposing PlayStation 2 came along.
The box, a prototype shown in closed-door sessions to select people during the event called ``E3'' in geekspeak, was one of the massive electronic game trade show's highlights, albeit one that most attendees never saw.
But for all its techno wonders, the PlayStation 2 wasn't the only big news at E3, even among next-generation gaming consoles.
Sega said its entry in that race, the Dreamcast, will have 15 titles available Sept. 9, the day the machine hits U.S. store shelves, with 30 by the holidays and 100 by Christmas 2000.
That wealth of titles early on may be crucial to the Dreamcast's - and Sega's - chances of success against Sony and Nintendo over the next couple of years.
Nintendo also announced the first notable technological details about its next-generation machine, code-named Dolphin and also due in the United States by the holidays of 2000. It'll have a DVD drive and a computer brain by IBM that Nintendo officials promise will outperform even the PlayStation 2.
Both Nintendo and Sony left many key details undisclosed, such as a likely price, a strategic silence designed to give them more chances to beat up on Sega.
Elsewhere, Motorola showed off prototypes of the ``Blackbird'' set-top boxes that use VM Labs' powerful Nuon chip, which not only replaces the graphics chips that run DVDs but helps give the Blackbird the ability to also play interactive games, handle Internet chores, voice and video-phone calls, and cable television.
The box wars weren't E3's only notable events, which also included:
Apple as a gamer platform. The company's ice-cool demo room away from the crazy main show halls showcased how recent efforts to make Apple computers more game-friendly has paid off.
Perhaps two-dozen developers, including some of the biggest, are creating top-drawer titles for both Mac and PC, as are numerous accessory makers.
Among the games coming soon for the Mac: Falcon 4.0, Age of Empires, Total Annihilation, Unreal Tournament, Quake III Arena and girl game titles from a resuscitated Purple Moon.
New and/or cooler handheld game devices. Nintendo, who finally goosed up its venerable Game Boy last winter with a color screen and more memory, is offering new external colors. Expect a boatload of new titles to take advantage of the Color Game Boy's power.
Tiger Electronics is dressing up its inexpensive handheld alternative, the Pocket Game.com, with a variety of wacky case designs, while arcade veteran SNK is offering an even more powerful handheld.
SNK's Neo Geo Pocket is a 16-bit machine, roughly the equivalent of an SNES console, and able to show three times as many colors as the 8-bit Color Game Boy. It'll have about 15 titles, many of them ports from SNK's fighter-heavy arcade library.
Tons of games, ever more graphically amazing and hopefully engrossing, including:
Quake III Arena and its chief first-person shooter competition, Unreal Tournament. Both looked truly wonderful, if painfully politically incorrect. And both emphasize the unpredictability of online multiplayer matches.
Homeworld from Sierra looked absolutely smashing, mixing space combat, strategy and role-playing elements in a remarkably smooth 3-D world. Another good-looking space adventure - Tachyon the Fringe - is coming from Nova Logic. Choose a side and work your way through dozens of interrelated missions as pilot of a space fighter.
Two best-selling adventure game franchises - Mission Impossible and GoldenEye 007 - will get sequels, though GoldenEye will be minus one long-time license to kill. Instead of James Bond, Perfect Dark on the N64 will use an improved version of the GoldenEye game engine to follow a female agent named Joanna Dark.
The Stone, an unclassifiable online puzzle game, is sold through outlets such as the Museum Store. Buy the stone, with a code on it that gets you onto the Web site, then work through riddles that unspool over two years to solve a larger mystery. Very different.
Final Fantasy VIII brings the usual absorbing adventure, action and great graphics of that durable role-playing franchise along with something new: romance.
A ``digitally remastered'' Myst. Despite the egregious marketing speak, the all-time best seller's new version promises richer graphics and sound for a gaming classic.
Donkey Kong 64 is going 3-D for the first time, on the N64, while a cartoony but quite fun sci-fi shooter, Jet Force Gemini, is also nearing release.
Working Designs is about to release an absolutely gorgeous collector's version of Lunar Silver Star Story with a 100-page manual, a soundtrack disk, a ``making of'' documentary and more.
Fly! - a great-looking flight simulator that features detailed maps of Los Angeles, four other cities and 20,000 airports - should challenge Microsoft Flight Simulator 2000 for civil air domination.
A first-person title based on ``Star Trek's'' ``Deep Space Nine,'' The Fallen lets you play each of three DS9 characters fending off aliens. To get the whole tale, you have to play through all three story lines.
Microsoft has a handsome sequel to the world-building Age of Empires called Age of Kings, with remarkably complex structures from a wide range of cultures. There's even a regicide option. Long live the king.
Microsoft also debuted Asheron's Call, an online-only game that allows newbies to ally their vulnerable characters with protective senior players in allegiance and fellowship relationships.
The Gamestorm online gaming site has a great World War II flying simulation, Air Warriors, that had me quite enchanted, albeit quickly shot down over the skies of France.
Broderbund is patching up navigational problems in its all-encompassing CD-ROM and DVD-ROM collections of National Geographic editions and is updating its fabulous eight-disc collection of National Geographic maps. And blessed be, it's also issuing a digital collection of more than 500 Mad magazine issues. What? Me worry?
For children, DK Interactive Learning featured My First Amazing Diary, which helps children begin writing about themselves and their lives. One minus: no password protection yet, even for an upcoming school version. So much for keeping those innermost thoughts private.
Cool peripherals. Karna LLC has an ultra-high-resolution Razer mouse coming to the market this fall. The hi-res mode means a twitch of the wrist sends a cursor flying across the screen, while allowing very precise positioning, both of which can be boons for gamers.
Benwin is offering BW2000 flat-panel speaker systems that take up virtually no room, sound great and provide eerily 360-degree sound. Even the subwoofer is tiny, while the minijack connects the speakers to everything from a game console to a Walkman to a TV.
Nintendo's Pokemon Stadium game probably will come with an accessory that will let you swap information between a Game Boy cartridge and an N64. This accessory could open up an array of new N64-Game Boy interactions - if developers take advantage of it.
Interact Accessories' Sharkline gives a PlayStation or N64 limited online access (mostly e-mail and Interact's Web site). I'm dubious about the connection costs ($10 a month for a few hours), but it shows how fast the idea of a computer is changing.
Interact's Dexdrive also blurs the differences between computer and console, allowing you to use your PC to save and manage all the console game data you've saved. Never buy another memory card.
The Game Buddy from Battery Technologies (www.bti.com) gives you 22 hours of Game Boy Pocket play with a battery pack that doubles as a night light when it's recharging.
Nyko's Shock 'n' Rock pack provides even more for your Game Boy: rumble feedback, amplified stereo, a 10-hour rechargeable battery and an AC adapter connection. No night light, though.
Nyko's RF Max 900 sends low-power radio signals between your controller and PlayStation, N64 or Dreamcast. Eleven Engineering also has a radio-based wireless controller for the PlayStation (and eventually the Motorola Blackbird machines) called the Airplay. In each case, no wires, no infrared beam and no little brother blocking the infrared signal.
Photo: (1) Among the games unveiled at the recent Electronic Entertainment Expo are Asheron's Call, an online-only offering from Microsoft.
(2) Final Fantasy VIII adds romance to the mix in the longtime favorite role-playing game.
(3) World-building fans can rule the world - or at least a small piece of it - with Age of Kings, a sequel to Microsoft's Age of Empires.