Not to threaten the livelihood of millions of department-store Santas, but everybody already knows what most children want for the holidays this year. Some 104 million video games are projected to be purchased during the season, making these tiny cartridges the little red wagons of the cathode age — not just toys, but a shared experience that’s now an inevitable part of growing up. For parents who still remember the monotonous blip, blip of Pong, the flash and complexity of current games can be dizzying. Considering the amount of time children spend in their electronic wonderlands, though, it’s important to distinguish between the wheat and the chaff. So before buying those gifts, consult the following list — organized by game system and ranked by quality. (Unless noted otherwise, all are suitable for ages 5 and up.)
Super Nintendo Entertainment System
1. THE SIMPSONS: BART’S NIGHTMARE
Falling asleep while doing his homework, Bart has to battle with the demons of his subconscious — imagining himself as, among others, a rampaging green Bartzilla and a caped Bartman. A surreal blast.
2. OUT OF THIS WORLD
More like being in a movie than playing a video game, this leisurely paced, noir-tinted adventure demands that you use your wits to find your way out of an eerie parallel universe.
3.SUPER STAR WARS
If you’ve ever fantasized about piloting an X-wing fighter into the heart of the Death Star, now you can do it — in simulated 3-D as well as reenact the movie’s key plot developments.
4. NCAA BASKETBALL
While most video basketball games play like most other video basketball games, this Nintendo effort sets itself apart with a unique,rotating 3-D perspective.
5. ROAD RUNNER’S DEATH VALLEY RALLY
You, as the Road Runner, must escape the clutches of Wile E. Coyote, whose ACME-brand costumes and contraptions have been lovingly reproduced in detail from actual 1950s cartoons.
6. TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES IV:TURTLES IN TIME
The Turtles may have peaked on the big screen, but in video-game land they’re just reaching their potential. In this latest multilevel battleground, players fight the evil Shredder’s minions.
7. SKÜLJAGGER: REVOLT OF THE WESTICANS
Parents who fret that their Nintendo-addicted kids never pick up a book should rush out to buy Sküljagger, which requires players to browse through a lengthy well-written adventure tale (indluded with the cartridge) in order to complete the game.
8. THE LEGEND OF ZELDA: A LINK TO THE PAST
While this third installment of the fantasy series has all the elements that made the first two popular — ingenious mazes,gnarly monsters, a stirring soundtrack — it’s the vastly improved 16-bit graphics that’ll wow you.
9. STREET FIGHTER II
Sure, it’s violent (people can be set on fire), but Street Fighter II offers a depth of play (each character has more than 20 different moves) unmatched by any other video-game slugfest.
10. SUPER MARIO KART
What might appear to be a cynical attempt by Nintendo to cash in on its Super Mario franchise — plunking the familiar characters down in souped-up go-carts actually makes for a delightful racing game.