Video Games Guide -- ''Sonic the Hedgehog,'' ''The Legend of Zelda,'' and ''Tetris'' are some of the games available in stores now

Can’t tell Mario from Luigi — or a truly thrilling video game from an electronic dud? Few grown-ups may realize it, but not all video games are programmed equally, nor are they all addictive, brain-numbing shoot-’em-ups. In fact, some of the best are imaginatively crafted, challenging, and at times even a little thought-provoking. Entertainment Weekly video game critic Bob Strauss picks the 20 greatest games in the stores this season, ranked here in descending order.

A hedgehog may strike you as an unlikely hero for a video game, but Sonic — who looks and behaves like a cross between Bart Simpson and the Road Runner — has true star quality, bouncing, spinning, and smirking his way past weird-looking enemies and ominous, pulsing machinery in his quest to save the world from the evil Dr. Robotnik. Moreover, with its animation-quality graphics and superresponsive play control, this game is the most advanced yet for the Genesis — or any of the recent wave of graphics — and sound-enhanced 16-bit systems.

The space-shooting R-Type game has been evolving over the last several years; this latest incarnation is the most graphically overpowering yet. Players pilot a ship through the deep cosmos, picking up various supercharged weapons along the way and squaring off against some extraordinarily detailed aliens, which look like illustrations from classic pulp sci-fi magazines of the 1930s.

NEC stakes out some odd historical territory with this game, which features a runty caveman who uses his head, literally, to bonk his enemies into oblivion. Cute, cartoony, and highly imaginative, this is one of the rare games that’s as much fun to watch as it is to play.

One of the best adventure games in video game history, Zelda is comprised of two levels: an overworld, where it’s easy to get lost if you’re not paying attention, and an underworld filled with twisty dungeons and hypnotic background music, where hero Link must defeat the evil Gannon and his swarming minions. Completely addicting, especially for unsuspecting adults.

The Game Boy meets virtual reality (i.e., artificial, computer-enhanced, first-person perspective). In Faceball 2000, you assume the identity of a Holographically Assisted Physical Pattern Yielded for Active Computerized Embarkation — or HAPPYFACE — and hunt down your opponents. You can play alone or link up with as many as three additional players. More fun than real-life tag, and much more stimulating.

The second and still the best of the Super Mario series, in which the spunky plumber Mario and his friends do battle with the evil Wart and his troops of shyguys and tweeters. Mario bops his enemies with giant turnips, Luigi bounces clear over their heads, and Princess Toadstool floats serenely above the fray. And check out the evil Mouser, a bomb-throwing rodent with totally rad shades.

This all-frills racing game (side-and rearview mirrors, manual and automatic transmissions, a digitized voice that booms “Gentlemen, start your engines”) makes the grade for its ability to accommodate up to six players at a time, provided that each brings along his or her own hand-held Lynx equipment.

Thanks to Nintendo’s endless promotion, Tetris has become one of the most popular video games. Though also available for the NES, this tumbling-blocks game plays best on the Game Boy — especially during long car trips.

Googly-looking aliens Toe Jam and Earl (two can play simultaneously at one Genesis machine) crash- land on earth, then bop around as you help them look for pieces of their Righteous Rapmaster Rocketship. Simply hilarious, from the Warner Bros. cartoon-inspired sound effects to the rap songs players can improvise while using the control pad.

Most video games are as mentally taxing as a sixth-grade spelling quiz; Lolo 3 is challenging enough to be the entrance exam to Cal Tech. Over a course of 100 rooms, players have to figure out what obstacles to move and what enemies to eliminate in order to maneuver Lolo (or Lala — should you choose to play as a female character) safely out the back door.

With its oversaturated colors, ultrarealistic sound effects (when the umpire shouts “Play ball!” it sounds as if he’s in the room), and detailed managerial options, HardBall! is the closest you may ever get to playing in a real major-league ballpark.

This lively battle game may not score points for political correctness, involving as it does a multinational air assault against a small Middle Eastern country. But the graphics, sound, and game play are good enough to wear down anyone’s pacifist tendencies.

The first-ever video game to come packaged with its own softcover encyclopedia. Playing a “time sleuth,” you travel to various countries in various historical epochs, trying to accumulate enough clues to track down (for instance) the man who stole Paul Revere’s horse.

There have been sequels to this game, but nothing matches the original Gauntlet, an innovative, fast-playing mix of mazes, monsters, and magic spells. It’s easiest when tackled by two players simultaneously — either cooperatively or (as is so often the case where kids are involved) at each other’s throats.

This one’s even more fun to play than it is to describe: Bubby (or Bobby when two play simultaneously) uses his umbrella to flick bizarre meanies across the screen and turn them into pieces of cake, apples, mushrooms, etc., which he then gobbles up in order to earn points.

Talk about big-time role-playing. Most video games posit you as a mere sword-wielding, perilously mortal human; in Populous you’re a deity. Slow-paced, intricate, and difficult to learn: You literally have to create entire worlds while all the time battling those pesky forces of evil.

“Tetris cubed” might have been the formula used to create this colorful and addicting puzzle game, in which players have to race against time and the laws of gravity to fit three-dimensional blocks neatly together inside a deep pit.

The visuals are simplistic, but few games make you think as much as the five-year-old Metroid. Try not to consult Nintendo’s hint book, which provides detailed maps of the terrain your hero has to navigate in order to complete his mission.

Perfect for younger players, but challenging enough to satisfy adults, too. A superbly animated Mickey bops through three different worlds — the Enchanted Forest, Toyland, and the Dessert Factory — in a quest to save Minnie from the evil witch Mizrabel.

The graphics are merely okay and the music is Nintendo at its tinniest, but Maniac Mansion’s plot is enough to overcome these faults. In this command-driven game — adapted from the computer hit — three buddies venture into a sinister haunted mansion and wind up juggling a bunch of wacky story lines.