Rain need not stop play;End of term

11th June 1999 at 01:00
When the skies are grey, your computer can become a games machine, finds George Cole.

There's one thing you guarantee about the British summer - there will be days when it rains and you have to spend time indoors. One way to pass the time could be playing computer games. There are two basic computer games formats: desktop computers such as the PC and Apple Mac, and consoles, the small boxes that plug into a television set.

Today's computers are well-equipped for playing games. They have fast processor chips, lots of memory and plenty of hard-disk space. They also have sound capabilities and many also include special graphics cards that make games look even better.

There are hundreds of PC games, including popular titles originally designed for consoles. The good thing about PC games is that there is such a wide range of genres, from beat-'em-ups to educational games. Most PC games are on CD-Rom, so it is easy for students to bring them into school. But before offering pupils this facility, make sure that the classroom computer is powerful enough to run the latest games.

There are fewer games available for the Apple Macintosh, but some larger computer stores carry a pretty good range of Mac games. Macs will run games written for the PC with the help of emulation software like VirtualPC or SoftWindows. These effectively turn the Mac into a Pentium PC and the latest Mac models, such as the iMac and G3, have fast processor chips and lots of memory, and these can be used to run programs at a good pace. However, users of slower machines are likely to experience a significant "performance hit" when they are running PC games via emulation.

When it comes to consoles, Sony's PlayStation is the king. The PlayStation is now more than four years old, and Sony has announced a new and more powerful console, likely to reach the UK around autumn 2000. The result is that PlayStation console prices have fallen, and you can pick up a machine with a dual-shock controller (this vibrates when, say, you crash a car while playing a racing game) for pound;99.

There are hundreds of PlayStation titles (all on CD-Rom), with most priced around pound;34.99 to pound;44.99. However, there is also a Platinum range of older (but mainly good) games that cost pound;20 each.

Although the object of many PlayStation games is to knock the stuffing out of your on-screen opponent, there are also many good racing games (such as Ridge Racer and Gran Turismo), sports titles (covering football, golf, tennis, rugby, snowboarding, pool, baseball and basketball) and challenging ones such as Sim City 2000, which requires players to build their own city.

The Nintendo 64 (N64) uses games cartridges rather than discs, and so games tend to be more expensive - they initially cost more than pound;60, but prices are now around pound;35 to pound;45. The N64 is an impressive system, but it does suffer from a shortage of good games. Nintendo has also announced plans for a new console, and one retailer is now selling the N64 for less than pound;70.

Sega was the biggest casualty of the consoles war, and its Saturn console dropped out of the frame. This is a shame, because the Saturn was a good system, and had some very impressive games (many of them converted from arcade games). The fickle world of the consoles market means you can now pick up a second-hand Saturn and a bundle of games for about the same price of a new PlayStation.

By this time next year, Sega will have launched a new console in the UK. Called Dreamcast, the pound;199 model was developed with Microsoft, which means that there should be many games developed for it. What's more, Dreamcast will have a built-in modem. Sega, BT and ICL plan to offer free Internet access for the Dreamcast (it will also have built-in web browser software). So in addition to playing games on their consoles next summer, students could also indulge in some online shopping.

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