Video game consoles -- A guide to the video game systems currently available

It used to be as simple to choose a video game system as it was to play Pong — just ask the sales clerk for a Nintendo. This season, however, there’s a perplexing array of eight different systems: In addition to the Nintendo eight-bit, there are three powerful 16-bit systems, and four hand-helds (portable gadgets that run on batteries). Moreover, none of these is compatible with any other (except for the two made by NEC, the home TurboGrafx-16 and the portable TurboExpress). Here’s a game-gear primer for the as yet uninitiated.

Nintendo Entertainment System
The mother of all game equipment, this 1986-vintage machine is looking a bit creaky alongside the young-turk, high-resolution ”16-bit” systems introduced over the past two years (see below). Yet, if you still don’t have a system at home, it’s a bargain beginner’s unit — and will probably continue to offer the widest selection of games for some time. B

Sega Genesis
Despite being named after the first book of the Old Testament, this system’s initial wave of games didn’t inspire biblical awe among game enthusiasts. Now the Genesis is finally living up to its technical potential, with games such as Sonic the Hedgehog allowing players to move in a 360-degree radius. The only complaint I have about it is the control pad, which is about as easy to use as a medieval broadsword. A-

Super Nintendo Entertainment System
Cynical parents may suspect that Super NES’ raison d’etre is to let manufacturers tack ”Super” onto new games (Super R-Type, Super Ghouls & Ghosts) and charge more. But this 16-bit system, with its superb audio and graphics capabilities, has the potential to be the best around. I say ”potential” because most of the games currently available — including the highly touted Super Mario World — have been less than spectacular, but things should improve as software makers learn to harness the system’s power. A-

NEC TurboGrafx-16
With a name that sounds concocted by committee, NEC’s 16-bit system got off to a bumpy start, and it’s still struggling. But the system has a few advantages: an attractive price, an optional CD attachment that can play CD games as well as audio CDs, and compact game cartridges that can also be used with the color TurboExpress portable (see below). Consumer note: NEC’s games tend to be a bit more cartoony than those for Sega and Nintendo, making this a good starter system for the very young. B+

Nintendo Game Boy
The most popular and compact of the four major portable systems, Game Boy has an enormous library of games. But as the software designed for it gets more complex, the inadequacies of its small black-and-white screen become glaringly apparent. B-

Atari Lynx
The name refers to the fact that multiple Lynx units can be hooked together for simultaneous play, but its TV commercial (showing elementary-school kids hidden in bathroom stalls, grooving to a surfing game) belies the fact that the Lynx is also bulky. Worse, the color screen, though fairly large, has noticeably softer resolution than the competing TurboExpress and Game Gear. C

NEC TurboExpress
The most expensive hand-held on the market, the TurboExpress is pretty terrific: The color screen is small but sharp, and the sound is vivid. My only complaint: Because it plays the same games as the TurboGrafx-16, thus reducing an image originally designed for a TV monitor to the cramped dimensions of the hand-held screen, some details are hard to see. A-

Sega Game Gear
This one combines the best qualities you can hope for in hand-held equipment: color; a generous screen with good resolution; a reasonable price; and comfortable handling over long stretches of play time. The drawback is the game library, which is still fairly small but promises to grow as Sega continues converting its Genesis software. A