It’s in the game

There are two kinds of people in this world.

Those who might read this article to get gift ideas.

And those who would be shocked to learn people might still be needing gift ideas.

I don’t think I have to tell you which category the staff of The Leaven falls into, but here’s a hint.

We still owe Archbishop Naumann a gift from last September.

At the rate we’re going, it will be next September before we get it to him.

Now if only he played video games . . .

Everybody’s a gamer

You might think it unlikely that an archbishop would play a video game. A few short years ago, I would have agreed with you. But nowadays, people of every age group and every strata of society play video games — even if they don’t call them that.

Don’t you know at least a couple senior citizens who would suffer withdrawal pangs if their computer crashed? No, not because they couldn’t access their bank account, or check the latest news, but because they couldn’t get their daily Bridge or Solitaire or Super Mahjong fix!

Yes, in a few short years, video games have moved out of the basement and into the family room — and even into the war room, the boardroom and the recovery room.

Wii-markable

What brought about this veritable sea change in the video game market? Although there had been a growing awareness on the part of game developers for some time now that there was a huge untapped market out there, it was last year’s introduction of the Nintendo Wii that began to bring a whole new generation back to gaming. Call it the Wii meets the Boomers.

I say “bring them back” to gaming because at least the later Boomers grew up with video games — just not very sophisticated ones. Don’t you remember those many long hours you spent so productively playing “Pong” and “Space Invaders”?

Is it any wonder, then, that three of Nintendo’s big Wii titles this year have suspiciously familiar titles, like “Super Mario Galaxy” and “Donkey Kong: Barrel Blast.”

Granted, these games are way cooler — and far more intricate — than the games we played as college students. In fact, were it not for the Wii, few of us would ever have the time to learn the controllers well enough to give our kids/grandkids a run for their money.

But because of the Wii’s incredibly user-friendly controls, now even the coolest games are accessible to even the most casual gamer. What does this mean for those still with kids or grandkids yet to buy for? It means you’ll not only be able to buy them the game that’s at the top of their list, but you’ll even be able to sit down and play it with them! How cool is that?

Where to start?

If you’re buying video game gifts for the first time, there are several things you need to know before you hit the mall. The first and most important is what kind of game console you are buying for — there’s a big difference between a PlayStation 3 and a Nintendo DS.

Second, you need to know the types of games your gamer prefers — action/adventure, role-playing games, puzzle games, etc.

Third, you need to check the ratings and decide what’s appropriate for the gamer you’re buying for. (See sidebar on page 5.) Some parents are fine with T-rated games, but with the deluge of E- and E-10+ titles developed in response to the family-friendly Wii, you could easily buy only those and still keep everyone happy.

Now, with that info in hand, you’re ready to shop.

PlayStation 3

Too few people yet own one to devote a lot of space to the PlayStation 3 (PS3), but it boasts two titles that deserve mention.

First, “Ratchet & Clank Future: Tools of Destruction” (Sony, E-10+) continues to set the bar very high for game developers of all consoles. Ratchet is the first family-friendly title to take full advantage of the PS3’s next-generation horsepower, giving us a glimpse of what games of the future are going to look like — i.e., gorgeously animated films.

Second, there is “Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock” (Activision, T) which is without a doubt the hottest game of the year, whatever console you’re buying it for, and it’s available on all of them. Even with an $80 sticker price for the game and guitar bundle, it’s almost impossible to find in stock.

Now it’s hard to imagine how many hours the average player spends on this remarkably addictive exercise in playing, well, a toy guitar, but I’m sure it’s more than enough for them to learn to play a real guitar instead.

Still, there’s no doubt that this is one of those titles that has led to the broadening of the video game market. Although the second title in the “Guitar Hero” franchise actually received the better reviews, it’s “Guitar Hero III” that has made the franchise a cultural phenom, due in part to songs like Kiss’ “Rock and Roll All Nite,” Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out,” and Heart’s “Barracuda” — a Boomer’s rock ‘n’ roll heaven.

XBox 360

Owners of 360s pride themselves on being serious gamers, so Christmas came early for them with the October release of “Halo 3.” By now, however, they might be in the mood for something a little different, like alien hunting, with “Blacksite: Area 51” (Midway, T).

For something a lot different, get them “Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords” (D3 Publisher, E 10+). This game is the unlikely marriage of a traditional puzzle game (think “Bejeweled,” and before that, “Tetris”) and a role playing game. It shouldn’t work, but somehow it does — on every gaming platform. This is a particularly good title for intergenerational play — teens that typically turn their nose up at family-friendly games will soon find themselves addicted.

Finally, the 360’s horsepower and superior graphics means that some of the platform’s best family-friendly titles are either driving games or sports games; both categories are pretty much owned by EA Sports. From “Need for Speed: Prostreet” (E 10+) to “Madden NFL 08” (E), those with armchair speed demons, quarterbacks, or even golfers on their lists will find their needs covered.

Fortunately, most EA Sports titles are available across all the console platforms.

Nintendo Wii

If the gamer you’re buying for has a little more swing in his golf stroke than traditional golf games allow, get up him up off the couch and golfing with the Wii remote. The Wii console, still a hot item a full year after it was introduced, comes bundled with “Wii Sports,” which includes a tennis, baseball, bowling and golf game that shows off the Wii’s intuitive controls.

Better yet, pick up one of the best all-round titles of the year, Capcom’s E-rated “Zack & Wiki: Quest for Barbaros’ Treasure.” Featuring gorgeous 3-D art that proves that even third-party developers are taking the Wii very seriously, this engaging, engrossing game is another one of those titles that your teens will relegate to the kiddies — right up to the moment they snatch the Wii controllers out of those chubby little hands.

For all those former board gamers out there, “Smarty Pants” (Electronic Arts, E) has finally leveled the playing field. This Trivial Pursuit-type title tailors each question to the age of the gamers playing — whether they be eight or eighty. It even automatically adjusts the difficulty level while the game is in progress, making it possible for the youngest player to actually compete with the oldest — and vice versa!

If bashing up cityscapes is more your gamer’s style, take a look at the 3-D “Godzilla Unleashed” (Atari, E-10+). The Wii controller could have been made for this game, and a nonlinear story line new to the Godzilla franchise means that players’ choices influence the way the story turns out. Finally, if you’re shopping for a sports fan just a little too young for the EA Sports’ titles, take a look at the Backyard Sports series. Although most of this franchise was developed for PCs, then the DS platform, the new “Backyard Football” (Humongous Entertainment, E) lets even preteens in on the football fun. Great for the Pee Wee footballer on your list.

Nintendo DS

Although Nintendo’s highly rated and immensely popular “Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass” (E) will probably be the best seller of the season, there are other DS titles that might lead a parent or grandparent to add a title or two to his or her own wish list.

In addition to “Puzzle Quest” mentioned above, there is Nintendo’s “Brain Age 2: More Training in Minutes a Day,” the second installment in a compilation of mini-games geared toward improving mental dexterity as well as hand/eye coordination. Likewise, Midway’s addictive “Touchmaster” (E) makes the transition from coin-operated machines in pubs to handheld devices quite, well, handily.

PSP

Last but not least are the Play Station Portable games, and one of most highly anticipated titles for this handheld was worth the wait. Square Enix’s T-rated “Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions” is a strategy game for the advanced gamer, the first in a new series of tactical role-playing games.

For those not able to afford the still-pricey PlayStation 3 but loathe to go Ratchet-less this Christmas, “Ratchet & Clank: Size Matters” (Sony, E- 10+) might be a good fit. This marks the PSP debut of a beloved pair that has long been a family-friendly mainstay on the PlayStation 2.

The most surprising success story of the holiday season, though, might well be Sony’s “Jeanne d’Arc” (T) for the PSP. Who would have thought that the same French maid who inspired the Gallic troops in the Hundred Years’ War would inspire a video game 600 years hence?

“Jeanne” gets high marks for beautiful graphics and imaginative game play, but is a little shaky in the history department. I mean, I just can’t believe there were that many ogres, dragons and “power-ups” in those medieval French villages!

Watch for more historical fantasy and role-playing games in the future, however. “Jeanne” has proven those fields way too fertile to remain fallow for long.

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