Sega plays for hearts, minds


Sega's long-awaited Dreamcast finally arrived in Ireland last Thursday. The 128-bit console is the first next-generation console into the market and represents the manufacturer's latest bid to return to its glory days as the dominant force in the videogame industry. Since those days its arcade games continued to flourish but home consoles like the Sega Saturn failed miserably. Sega was relegated to a distant third place behind Sony and Nintendo.

The Dreamcast spec is impressive and easily outweighs the processing power of the current Sony PlayStation or the Nintendo 64. Apart from the 128-bit CPU, it features 16MB of RAM (the PlayStation has 2MB) and a CDRom drive that can read discs holding up to a gigabyte of data. Because normal CDs can only hold 650MB, Sega also hopes that this will make pirating its disks more difficult. The customised version of the Windows CE operating system used by the console would also indicate that converting PC games to the console may be easier, potentially increasing the number of games available.

The Dreamcast's revolutionary touch, however, is that it is the first console to come a built-in modem. This means that users can play games online, or access the "Dreamarena" to send email, chat, use the Web, shop online and check out the latest game information. The add-on keyboard will be essential to use this facility to the full. Another essential extra will be the memory unit, to save and load games. It can also exchange information with other units and allows mini-games to be played.

Sega has a lot riding on the Dreamcast and sales in Japan and the US in particular appear to be going well. At £249, the Irish price isn't too high, but adding a game, keyboard and memory unit will put about another £100 on this. Even then, it compares well with spending £1,000 on a PC just to play games and connect to the Internet. Sony's PlayStation 2 is due out in March next year and Nintendo's "Dolphin" console shouldn't be far off either, so Sega needs the Dreamcast to quickly enchant a lot of people in a relatively short space of time.

Sled Storm, Sony PlayStation, £39.99

Games on the "extreme sports" theme have grown more popular and more numerous in recent years and most of them seem to be snow-based. The latest in that line, Sled Storm, is a cleverly designed snowmobile racing simulation in which the producers have tried to overcome the flaws in similar games. The low camera angle used prevents the player from seeing too far ahead, but this means that there is no annoying "pop-up" where the player can see the distance being drawn. Subtle extras like the choice of having catch-up logic (trailing racers can drive at higher speeds) on or off, the four-player split-screen feature and the aggressive nature of the other racers make Sled Storm an enjoyable challenge.

There two types of tracks. Open Mountain concentrates on racing speed, while Super Snocross relies more on the ability to do tricks like clapping hands or stamping feet when your snowmobile leaves the ground.

It is good fun and hard to fault, but Sled Storm doesn't ignite any real passion. It is one of those games that often get 80 to 85 per cent ratings in the magazines. There are better games around, but no better snowmobile sims.

The PokeMon (abbreviation of "Pocket Monsters") sensation finally hit Ireland at the beginning of the month. Already huge in Japan and the US, it seems inevitable that the Gameboy game will be a huge success in Europe too. Over 180 million PokeMon game cartridges have already been sold worldwide and, with the array of other merchandise, cartoons and even a movie available, it has become a $5 billion industry. Even the official handbook is listed in the top 10 of USA Today's bestsellers.

The game itself is in some way comparable to the Tamagotchi phenomenon, except that PokeMon is more complex and the basic idea of training virtual pets is where the similarity ends.

In PokeMon there are 150 different types of monsters, and to become a master you must catch them all. By pitting your PokeMon against wild PokeMon your monster (if it wins) gains experience points and becomes a better fighter. Collecting all the PokeMon is a huge task.

This will take a lot of time and dedication, and even then some help from friends will be needed. Nintendo released two versions of the cartridge, red and blue, and because 10 PokeMon are unique to each, only by linking up two Gameboys with different versions can a player capture all the PokeMons. Aimed specifically at seven to 12-year-olds, PokeMon proves that if a game is extremely playable and addictive then fancy graphics and CD-quality music matter little. PokeMon cartridges cost about £25 and the colour version of the Gameboy costs about £70, although some combination packs work out considerably cheaper.