Joysticks to the World

Can't even steal a copy of Halo 2? Video game alternatives abound

Video games went prime time Nov. 9 with the release of Halo 2 for the X-Box. The game, a sequel to the best-selling X-Box title of all time, arrived with the marketing blitz of a major Hollywood film and a staggering 1.5 million pre-orders. With demand high, 7,000 electronics stores around the nation, including many in the Bay area, opened for a "Midnight Madness" sale. An excited crowd of close to 1,000 people lined up outside the Westfield Town Center in Citrus Park, chanting "We want Halo!" in an atmosphere that was more rock concert than electronics sale. At midnight, people who had waited since 9 p.m. were finally allowed in, re-emerging with newly claimed booty hoisted high for ogling by those still waiting to get in. For the video game industry, the holiday season had gotten off to a rousing start.Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas for Playstation 2 (PS2) piled up an estimated first-week sales of 4.5 million copies. Halo 2 is expected to gross $75 million in its first few days. Along with the new handheld system from Nintendo, these represent state-of-the-art gaming. But the frenzy surrounding their release may mean they'll prove increasingly hard to come by as the holiday shopping season shifts into full gear. Limited supplies could mean waiting until 2005 for this year's must-have games.

But don't kick that joystick. For players who can't get their hands on Halo 2 or GTA: San Andreas, there will still be plenty of enemies to beat down, frag or just sneak up behind and snuff. Here are some other high-profile games coming out in the next two months.

Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (Nov. 17, $49.99). The Metal Gear series, dating back to the original Playstation version, is one of the finest ever made and helped to establish the stealth/action genre with its rare focus on sneaking around enemies rather than just blasting everything in your path. This new installment for the PS2 promises to keep up the series' tradition of quality.

The Clancy Clan. If sneaking around is your thing, but you only have an X-Box, Tom Clancy Ghost Recon 2 ($49.99) features some visual changes, X-Box Live support and a looser, less strategy-intensive experience. The Clancy series is very popular among X-Box players for its realistic armed forces tactics and game play. For newbies who need to catch up on the back-story, there is no better package than Ubisoft's Tom Clancy's Classic Trilogy. This bundle, out "in time for the holidays," features full versions of three Tom Clancy titles — Splinter Cell (the first in the series), the original Ghost Recon and Rainbow Six 3. At $39.99, this could be the deal of the season for X-Box gamers. Thankfully, exterminating terrorist thugs can be a cross-platform affair, as the PS2 and Gamecube will also offer a version of Ghost Recon, different from the X-Box version and out Nov. 30.

Metroid Prime 2: Echoes ($49.99). For Gamecube players with happy trigger fingers, this is the must-have of the season. The Metroid series has been beloved since Super Metroid on the original Nintendo Entertainment System. Yes, that's the Nintendo system from the 1980s, folks. In this sequel, a follow-up to perhaps the finest Gamecube game to date, players guide heroine Samus on her explorations. The new edition will feature even better visuals, tweaked pacing (the original could drag occasionally) and a multi-player mode for those times when shooting at your friends is a must. Speaking of which …

Goldeneye: Rogue Agent ($49.99). The original Goldeneye for Nintendo 64 remains one of the best games of the last decade. This souped-up sequel promises to re-create some of the more renowned locales from the James Bond film series. Multi-player options abound, and the designers have added new depth to the multi-player mode by including the ability to double up different weapons and to set all kinds of traps for the other players. Look out for the shark tank!

Of course, not everyone wants to shoot and kill everything that pops up on the screen. For these gentle souls, there is a wealth of other options.

Mario Party 6 (Dec. 6, $49.99). The latest installment in the series of video/board game hybrids, which date back to the Nintendo 64. Great for parties and for playing with your significant other, the game will come bundled this time around with the imaginatively titled "Nintendo Gamecube Mic," allowing for some vocal mini-games in addition to the usual joystick challenges.

Gran Turismo 4 (Dec. 12, $49.99). A sequel to the PS2's hit 2001 driving game, the latest promises more tracks, more realistic driving and a wealth of vehicles directly modeled on their real-world counterparts (think BMW, Mazda, etc.). A little more urban, Need for Speed Undergound 2, out since Nov. 8, continues the street racing excitement on all three game systems.

Finally, the big news in game hardware this year is the release of the Nintendo DS portable, a technological leap ahead of the Game Boy Advance. The new unit will feature two screens (one of them a touch screen) and built-in wireless capability. Of course, unless you've already pre-ordered the system, the DS will be impossible to come by even on the launch date (Nov. 21). As of this writing, one major distributor has stopped taking pre-orders and another has said it will be stopping shortly.

The good news for gamers on the go is that Nintendo's Game Boy Advance (GBA) is still going strong with some cool peripherals and a full lineup of games. Majesco Games has developed a wireless messenger for the GBA, which features a one- to three-mile range, real-time chat and rechargeable batteries. Best of all, there's no monthly fee for the messaging (it works on radio frequencies).

What kind of trouble will this cause in the nation's classrooms? Only time will tell. As for GBA games, the Classic NES series is fantastic, bringing many of the old favorites (The Legend of Zelda, Castlevania, Dr. Mario, etc.) to the GBA, and reminding players that while fancy graphics and sounds are great, game play is still king.

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