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A REAL-LIFE VIDEO GAME BATTLE.

Byline: Eric Gwinn Chicago Tribune

The scariest part about the summer blockbuster ``Independence Day'' was that you never really saw those butt-kicking alien invaders until it was too late.

Remember how uneasy you felt watching that shadow darkening the landscape? That's got to be what video game makers Sega and Sony are feeling now as Nintendo invades their turf this weekend with a monster of a video game system that has been touted as the best.

Nintendo 64 debuted Sunday with twice the firepower of Sega's Saturn system and Sony's PlayStation, which charged out of the blocks a year ago with graphics and playability that were twice as good as anything seen before on home systems.

The game quickly sold out at local stores, and Nintendo says they are rushing to ship more units by the end of the week.

So, in just 12 months, video games have taken a quantum leap. But who's going to buy the new gear? Which system will perish? What will it mean for you? And after it's all over, will the White House remain in one piece?

The ``Independence Day'' aliens had the advantage of surprise against the wide-eyed Earthlings. But Sega and Sony will be ready for Nintendo 64, which earlier this year was on the verge of attack but was pulled. That gave Sega and Sony time to plan countermeasures and fill the market with games unlike anything you've ever seen before.

Gamers snapped them up, especially the early PlayStation titles, which were more polished and more innovative than the first Saturn games. By last spring, about six months after both systems were released, there were nearly twice as many PlayStations as Saturns in gamers' homes. As the rumored April invasion of Nintendo 64 got closer, Sony and Sega cut prices from $250 to $199. But the invasion never came, and Nintendo knew it had a battle on its hands.

What Sony and Sega didn't know was that Nintendo was pouring big bucks and its best minds (led by gaming master Shigeru Miyamoto, inventor of classics such as the original Mario games and the Zelda series). For months, they tweaked and toyed with just one game, like scientists stretching the laws of physics to come up with a secret weapon to annihilate the enemy. And the secret weapon would have a familiar name: Mario, the nimble little plumber who put Nintendo on the map and video game systems in millions of homes.

Nintendo hoped Super Mario 64 would lure loyal gamers to their side, even if it meant they had to give up their year-old Saturns and PlayStations - and give up a rumored $250 for the Nintendo 64, plus $50 to $80 a pop for games.

By early summer, reports from Japan were in. Nintendo 64 was a hit, as 500,000 units were whisked off the shelves in late June.

Publicly, Sega and Sony said they were unconcerned, and they wondered aloud whether gamers would shove aside their year-old, next-generation systems in favor of a $250 machine that powered $60 games made mostly by Nintendo, not the third-party game makers who produce blockbuster games for Saturn and PlayStation.

And despite the rave reviews, even the magazines were skeptical, pointing out that one killer game does not a system make.

Despite the naysayers, Nintendo 64's shadow continued to lengthen.

Reviewers raved about the flawless graphics, the intense otherworldliness you feel when you make Mario swim through a moat or jump through a painting or gaze around a room. They gushed about how right the strangely shaped controller feels in the hand.

But they correctly pointed out that gamers had heard all the hype before, when PlayStation and Saturn hit the stores in fall 1995. Even though Nintendo 64 was shaping up as the next-next-generation system, would moms and pops skip it in favor of the next-next-next-generation, gotta-have-it gaming system?

In late summer, Nintendo made that question even harder to answer when it said its secret weapon will hit stores at $199, about the same price as a Saturn or PlayStation.

Makes you wonder if Nintendo was a little nervous about selling units at $250. Or could it be a stroke of genius, a marketing strategy that goes like this: Build great demand for N64 despite the out-of-reach price of $250, then slash prices just before release to send players into a buying frenzy.

No matter what, it looks like the price drop means Saturn will take the first direct hit. Sega's game system got off to a stumbling start last year because its first batch of games lacked the flash and finish of PlayStation games. Sega games quickly recovered, but by that time PlayStation was outselling the Saturn 2 to 1. The last thing Saturn needs is more competition. What it does need is a breakaway game, followed up with a string of hits that will make the Saturn a must-have.

Sega hopes it has a secret weapon: a plug-in module that will hook Saturn owners into the Internet to try out new games first and to find willing opponents all over the world any time of day or night.

Sega has experience and talent on its side. It took Nintendo by surprise a few years ago with its popular 16-bit Genesis system, which went toe to toe with the 16-bit Super Nintendo.

Sony, on the other hand, came out of nowhere last year with its PlayStation. Sony knew nothing about making video games or systems.

Would these gamers - and their parents - rather spend $199 for four new games for the PlayStation they already own, or would they spend $199 for the Next Big Thing and start their video game collection from scratch?

Nintendo, of course, is banking on the latter because of N64's smooth graphics and inventive game play. Because Nintendo 64 is faster and smarter than the PlayStation or Saturn, N64 games have little of the tiny blockiness that appear on some PlayStation and Saturn games. Backgrounds don't pop up out of nowhere the way they do on some of the 32-bit games. Characters and scenes really look three-dimensional.

And because N64 games are on cartridges instead of CDs, the computer doesn't have to Mgo looking for the next part of a game for you to play. No waiting for the CD to spin to the right place, as it does on the PlayStation and Saturn. That means uninterrupted game play, which is way more fun. But it's more costly, because cartridges are more expensive to produce than CDs, and cartridges can't hold nearly as much gaming information.

The punches and counterattacks will come fast and heavy, because video gaming is a $15 billion industry worldwide. Even a small slice of that is not chump change, so whichever gaming system winds up third still will get rich, just more slowly than the other guys. Besides, Sony and Sega have been working on their next-next-generation gaming systems, too.

CAPTION(S):

Photo

Photo: Youths in Raritan, N.J., check out the new Nintendo64 game system on Sunday, its first day of sales in the United States.

Associated Press
COPYRIGHT 1996 Daily News
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:L.A. LIFE
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Statistical Data Included
Date:Oct 2, 1996
Words:1186
Previous Article:MUSICAL KICKS FOR SEAGAL WITH HIS TALENTED CO-STARS.
Next Article:ASSESSING NINTENDO'S NEW GAMES.
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