Searching for the next big thing at the '98 Electronic Entertainment Expo

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“Is the game any good?”

That overheard question from one weary conventioneer to another summed up the bottom line at this year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo. Held for the second year running at Atlanta’s massive Georgia World Conference Center, E3 gave 41,300 video- and computer-game industryites a glimpse of this coming Christmas’ hot games, wannabe crazes like Japan’s animated Pokemon series (coming to U.S. TV in the fall), and past-their-prime celebs like Ed Koch (shilling for SimCity 3000) and Kevin Nealon (recycling his bedraggled “Mr. Subliminal” shtick at a Sega press conference). For all the deafening noise, it was a curiously muted affair: The U.S. vidgame industry may have made $5.6 billion in 1997, but originality was in short supply among individual titles—and online gaming, last year’s Next Big Thing, stubbornly refuses to go mainstream. Are the games any good? is what it came down to. Here are the ones that were—plus a few other highlights and lowballs.

BEST GAMES

While Nintendo’s elfin adventure The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time and Konami’s gritty spy thriller Metal Gear Solid were the show’s crowd-gathering heavyweights, less heralded games also seemed destined for holiday must-play lists. Jackie Chan’s Stuntmaster lets you kick butt Chan-style, the goofily inspired (and instantly nostalgic) Spice World is a Parappa the Rapper clone in which you sing and gyrate with all five original Spice Girls, the quirky Bust a Groove lets you catch dance fever, and Star Trek: Starship Creator gives you the chance to build your dream spaceship.

BIGGEST TEASE

Sega unveiled its next-generation platform, Dreamcast, with pomp, hype, and technical mumbo jumbo (“128-bit processor!” “Visual Memory System!”). Too bad the games didn’t bother to show up: Except for a short video clip of an unnamed space shooter, Sega—still recovering from the humbling failure of its Saturn console—didn’t demonstrate any working software. Worse, its “ultimate videogame machine” won’t go on sale in the U.S. until the fall of 1999.

HANDIEST NEW HERO

GLOVER Looking like a cross between the Hamburger Helper mascot and the Pillsbury Doughboy, Hasbro Interactive’s charmingly plucky Nintendo 64 protagonist (on a mission to save the world, natch) has a ball—literally: His only weapon is a rubber sphere, with which he can bounce over obstacles or bean his enemies.

BIGGEST SOCIOLOGICAL SCHISM

GIRLS VS. BABES Tomb Raider and Lara Croft notwithstanding, the vidgame industry is still having female trouble. While titles such as Purple Moon’s ”Rockett” series aim to give preteen girls a dose of empathy—and while Mattel has made a killing putting Barbie on CD-ROM—action games featuring women warriors are multiplying in Croft’s wake on the stated theory that strong heroines attract women and girls. Or is it just that video-game fans like large-breasted women with guns? Said Sierra game designer Jane Jensen at a conference titled “The Babe Factor,” “I don’t think ‘Nippolena’ [Deathtrap Dungeon‘s Red Lotus] is a great step forward for women’s rights.”

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