Software developers, however, have yet to learn how to take full advantage of the Xbox's processing brawn, so don't expect the first generation of Xbox games (about 30 titles will be available by Christmas) to look or play much better than PS2 games. For example the Xbox version of Madden NFL 2002 ( Electronic Arts, $49.95) is essentially identical to the PS2 edition. Given that Madden is an exceptional game, that's not a bad thing. Indeed a number of standouts for the PlayStation 2—such as the superb NBA Live 2002 ( Electronic Arts, $49.95) and the equally impressive NHL 2002 ( Electronic Arts, $49.95)—perform similarly on the Xbox. For gamers torn between platforms, that's a win-win situation.
Some early tides do take advantage of the Xbox's power. NFL Fever 2002 ( Microsoft, $49.99) is the most beautiful football game ever made: The eye-popping graphics are so detailed that the muscle definition in the players' bodies—not to mention the seam-bursting bellies on the linemen—is readily apparent. Similarly, Project Gotham Racing ( Microsoft, $49.99) is so gorgeous to look at that one is tempted to put down the controller and watch the game run by itself. Both NFL Fever and Gotham boast precise controls and a wealth of gameplay options. If games like these keep coming, by this time next year Microsoft could well have lapped the field.
Nintendo has always been the Disney of the video-game world: a widely beloved, family-friendly brand that has stayed focused on the juvenile audience. Because of that, mature sports titles have been in short supply for Nintendo platforms. The few quality sports games that have been released have tended to be like last year's Mario Tennis, an entertaining if cloying game in which the Mario brothers and their toon pals took to the court.
At first glance the $199 GameCube, which was released on Nov. 18, seems to continue that trend. Even the look of the new Nintendo machine screams kid-approved. Whereas the PS2 and Xbox are blinking black boxes that would fit in comfortably with home stereo equipment, the GameCube is a petite, purple unit that looks like a child's lunch box. The GameCube also accepts only Nintendo's proprietary 3�-inch disc, which is roughly two thirds the size of a standard CD. That means that unlike the PlayStation 2, the GameCube can't double as a DVD or audio CD player. (The Xbox can also play audio CDs; to play DVDs, a $30 remote control accessory is required.)
The GameCube's toyish looks, however, belie some serious engineering might. Although its raw processing power isn't up to Xbox standards, the GameCube's graphic abilities are formidable. Pop in Wave Race: Blue Storm ( Nintendo, $49.95), a wet-and-wild Jet Ski simulation, and marvel at the transparent water effects. Underwater coral reefs can be seen shimmering under the surface as you motor from swell to swell.
Nintendo has said that while it will continue to serve the kiddie set with the GameCube, titles aimed at an older audience—including sports games—are also planned. Indeed, of the 20 GameCube games that will be on the market by Christmas, at least 10 will be sports tides. For now, though, the best sports games for the GameCube are also available on the other platforms. Madden NFL 2002 ( Electronic Arts, $49.95), Dave Mirra Freestyle BMX 2 (Acclaim, $49.99) and Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 3 (Activision, $49.99) have all been prepared for GameCube, and none of them lose anything in the translation. Other good bets: SSX Tricky ( Electronic Arts, $49.95), a fluid snowboarding simulation; NHL Hitz 20-02 (Midway, $49.95), a cartoonishly entertaining three-on-three hockey game featuring real Mil. players; and FIFA Soccer 2002 ( Electronic Arts, $49.95), a deeply detailed soccer simulation that lets you play as one of more than 500 international teams.
Because all these games are available for the other machines, is it worth it for a sports fan to buy the GameCube? If you have young kids who will also be clamoring for the latest Pok�mon game, then yes. On the other hand, if you're an older, hardcore gamer who needs the latest and greatest sports games, then no—go with the PlayStation 2 or Xbox.