THE LAST TIME I sat down in front of a game machine it had Atari written across the front. Don't get me wrong, I am not one to pooh pooh games - there is a joystick attached to my machine as I write. Still, I was keen to see how far things had come since Asteroids, so I sat down to have a look at the latest in game consoles.
I started with Sony PlayStation 2. The machine is in a sleek black box a little smaller than a DVD player. The controls look like the those on all game machines: two handles, a couple of thumb joysticks and buttons that no one old enough to have seen Star Wars when it premiered could possibly manage to master. One interesting surprise was the force-feedback feature in the controller, which vibrates to let you know when you've run into something. Sony sent me the Gran Turismo Concept 2002 Tokyo-Geneva. I was happy to see that slamming into a fence at 180 kilometres per hour didn't disable the car. I wouldn't have made it around the track if it had.
The games come on DVDs and the machine can double as a DVD or CD player. It also has an optical out port, guaranteeing good sound quality if you have an AV amplifier. Many of the games can actually use your home theatre system's surround-sound capabilities, which makes it easier to tell where the bad guys are coming from when you play those shoot-em-up games.
Gran Turismo was an okay game, but trying to drive a racing car with a hand controller was a real challenge. The brake and accelerator work in a similar way to those on a Hong Kong taxi: either on or off. The joystick has a centimetre and a half of throw, which made steering frustrating. The graphics were not cutting edge, but they were fine for playing games.
Once I grew tired of bashing into walls, I plugged in the Nintendo GameCube. The Nintendo machine definitely gets the nod in the size department. It is small enough to fit in the palm of your hand and has a built-in handle so you can carry it more easily. While the GameCube is small, it's not exactly discreet. The box is a decidedly low-tech purple colour with brightly coloured force-feedback controller buttons that look like they were made by Fisher-Price. The GameCube's petite size is owing in part to the smaller discs it uses. Of course, this means you can't play movies or music, but the GameCube is a newer machine than the PlayStation 2 and has a faster processor and more advanced graphics controller.
The childlike personality of the GameCube continued when I turned the machine on and was presented with a start-up tune that definitely sounded like something targeted at pre-schoolers. I started off with Star Wars Rogue Squadron 2. The game's flash graphics were smoother than the PlayStation's. Unfortunately, the disc was in Japanese and I was soon tired of my wingmen, Biggs San and Wedge San, shouting advice I couldn't understand. Crazy Taxi is another driving game, though this one involves terrorising motorists and pedestrians as you try to deliver your passengers to their destinations. The taxi was easier to drive than the cars in Gran Turismo, but driving well was not really the point.
The prices of these two machines are similar - the GameCube sells for about $1,500 and PlayStation 2 for $1,680 - as are their controls and features. The games are also similarly priced, and range from $185 to $500. When you compare the graphics quality of the PlayStation 2 and the GameCube, neither is going to make you believe you are actually driving through the Swiss Alps, or even skimming over the surface of the Death Star. But that's not the point. What kind of games you like is really the bottom line. I found Crazy Taxi fun, but Gran Turismo boring, and it had nothing to do with the machine's features. I would be more inclined to look at the available titles and let that dictate my decision. But you might want to wait until next week before you make that decision. Microsoft's Xbox isn't officially available in Hong Kong just yet, but there's one connected to my television right now, and I'll tell you all about it in the next Tech Know.