The battle is on for the next-generation video game console that will capture the minds of gaming enthusiasts into the year 2000. Rivals Nintendo, Sony and Sega will soon unleash computing power never before seen in a video game console at unbelievably low prices. It is a rivalry that began in June 1996 when Nintendo surprised the competition with the launch in Japan of the Nintendo 64 (N64), the first ever 64-bit video game system. Nintendo sold more than 500,000 units on the first day alone. Its United States launch in September that year saw the initial shipment of more than 350,000 N64 consoles sell out in three days. What made the N64 particularly attractive was the fact that it was a leapfrog over their previous system the Super NES. While the Super NES was capable of only 256 colours and limited three-dimensional capabilities, the N64 is a 3-D powerhouse with three processors, the main one designed in conjunction with Silicon Graphics and running at 93.75 MHz. At the time of the release, Nintendo had started losing ground to Sony, a latecomer to the video game console market. Sony released the 32-bit PlayStation in the US in September 1995. It was a slow hit but eventually became the world's most popular game console. Unlike Nintendo's Super NES, which used cartridges with limited storage for games, the PlayStation console read games from CD-Rom and had perfectly good, if not revolutionary, graphics capabilities. What's more, Sony had ensured that dozens of games were available for the machine at the time of its launch. When Nintendo countered with the N64, its aim was to win back the video game console crown from Sony. The N64 graphically superior to the Sony PlayStation but Nintendo made a crucial mistake by failing to ensure a sufficient number of games were available at launch. This, and Nintendo's insistence on sticking with game cartridges rather than higher-capacity CD-Roms, were two factors that handicapped the N64. Game cartridges are very expensive to make and that meant Nintendo games were almost double the cost of PlayStation or Sega Saturn games. For console game aficionados, however, price was no object and the N64's graphics capabilities made it much sought-after. When it launched, the N64 offered unparalled 3-D graphics thanks to real-time 3-D rendering and anti-aliasing. It was impressive enough for Time magazine to name it 'Machine of the Year'. These graphics capabilities were used to great effect in N64 runaway hits such as 'GoldenEye 007', 'The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time', 'Star Fox 64' and 'Super Mario 64'. Last year, Nintendo sold 10 million units of the N64. Sega, conversely, was languishing in third place in terms of sales of its Saturn video game console, even though it had features the others did not, such as the ability to go on-line. The Saturn's graphics capabilities simply could not match those of the N64 or PlayStation. For a while it seemed as though the video gaming world had passed by the company that once led it. But Sega had some good things going for it. The company was the first to realise the potential of connecting video consoles to the Internet. Gamers would be able to play multi-player games with friends next door or across the world and even write e-mails using the games console. Sega also knew that to regain past glories it had to leapfrog the competition by creating a game console with better graphics and more features. Its answer has been to launch Dreamcast, which not only meets all these requirement but exceeds them. Already launched in Japan and available in Hong Kong, the 128-bit Sega Dreamcast is claimed to be four times faster than a Pentium II PC, 15 times more powerful than a Sony PlayStation and 10 times faster than an N64. Sega officials say Dreamcast is headed for the largest US launch in the history of video games on September 9. To ensure that happens, Sega is reportedly spending US$100 million on the Dreamcast marketing campaign. The specifications of Dreamcast read more like those of a high-powered Risc workstation than a $199 video game machine. Dreamcast is equipped with a 200 MHz Hitachi processor capable of executing 360 million instructions per second and 1.4 billion mathematical operations a second. It can perform high-end 3-D workstation tasks such as Gouraud shading, full scene anti-aliasing for smoother graphics, coloured lighting, bump mapping and hardware-based fog rendering. In addition, it displays 16 million colours. Other features that make the Dreamcast stand out in a crowd include 26 MB of system memory, removable memory units that double as hand-held games and an upgradeable 56 Kbps modem for Internet access and on-line gaming. The console uses Microsoft's Windows CE operating system. While Dreamcast has the video game world buzzing and will surely be found in many a stocking this Christmas, Sony is set to deliver its rivals a knockout punch in the form of PlayStation 2. Rumour has it the PlayStation 2 may debut in Japan as early as December. If the blurb is to be believed, the Sony PlayStation 2 will make manufacturers of high-powered graphics workstations weep by delivering Jurassic Park-quality graphics on a sub-$400 video game console. Sony says the performance of the 128-bit chip used in the PlayStation 2 matches that of a super computer. Whether the PlayStation 2 can live up to the hype remains to be seen. Meanwhile, Nintendo remains reticent on the subject of plans for its next console - 256-bits, anyone?