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Dazed and Confused
The elusive search for the next big thing at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Atlanta
By TY BURR, from ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY

"Is the game any good?" that question, posed by one weary conventioneer to another, summed up the bottom line at this year's Electronic Entertainment Expo. Held for the second straight year at Atlanta's massive Georgia World Conference Center, E3 gave 41,300 video- and computer-game industryites a glimpse of this coming holiday season's hot games, wannabe crazes like Japan's animated Pokemon series (coming out in the fall), and past-their-prime celebrities like former New York Mayor Ed Koch (shilling for SimCity 3000) and TV comic 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, refuses to catch on. "Are the games any good?" is what it came down to. Here are a few that were--plus some other highlights and lowballs.

Best Games
Must Plays: 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; in the goofily inspired (and instantly nostalgic) Spice World, 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.

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 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."

Most Hubris: The Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences
Sure, it's nice to see stressed-out programmers get a little attention (if not direct sunlight), but the first Interactive Achievement Awards, held at the close of E3's opening day, were typified by such hopeful hot air as AIAS president Jim Charne's reference to the group's "sister academies of movies and music." For the record, Nintendo's GoldenEye 007 won Interactive Title of the Year, and Super Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto tearily accepted the first Hall of Fame Award.

Most Antisocial Game: Thrill Kill
Call it a guts feeling, but game-violence watchdogs will pounce all over Virgin Interactive's brutal weaponfest. Players dismember opponents, then subsequently bludgeon them with their limbs. Now there's something you won't see on every shopping list.

Best Celebrity Good Sport: Gillian Anderson
While promoting her role in Fox Interactive's X-Files CD-ROM game, Anderson managed to keep a smile on her face despite the ear-busting decibels of the show floor and a long line of autograph seekers. "It's not jarring in any way," insisted the unfazed actress. "The fans are all about love and peace here."

Weirdest Widget: The FEELit Mouse
When dragged across, say, a picture of a tennis racquet, the tactile sensation of a grid of strings comes through this mouse to your fingertips. The manufacturer, Immersion, is giving away the necessary codes to site developers, hoping to make "force feedback" as widespread on the Web as audio or video. And you thought sex on the Net was already out of control.

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