Video games, the next generation


On movie screens this fall, Tom Cruise will compete with Robert De Niro. On television, Tim Allen and Kelsey Grammer are duking it out. In record stores, R.E.M. will square off against Michael Jackson.

In the world of video games, this season's clash of the titans is between Sonic the Hedgehog and Donkey Kong.

The season's expected hit titles -- Sega of America's "Sonic and Knuckles" (due in stores today) and Nintendo of America's "Donkey Kong Country" (due Nov. 21) -- both purport to radically advance video-game technology. "Sonic and Knuckles" does this through the integration of previous Sonic games, while "Donkey Kong Country" relies on state-of-the-art 3-D images and animation.

Each game will be backed by unprecedented marketing campaigns: "Sonic and Knuckles" will be propelled by a worldwide $45 million drive, while "Donkey Kong Country" will be boosted by $16 million in advertising in America alone. By contrast, a high-profile video game usually receives a $5 million send-off.

These Hollywood-size campaigns reflect a business that has become as lucrative as movie-making. While the cost of developing a video game is roughly the same as a modest, independent motion picture -- from $100,000 to $2 million -- it can make blockbuster-style money, with hits earning more than $100 million in sales. If both games, each retailing for $69.95, meet their sales goals, they'll make at least $140 million in the United States.

"Sonic and Knuckles" is the fifth Sega Genesis game starring Sonic the Hedgehog, whose $1 billion in sales of games and related merchandise make him easily the hardest-working hedgehog in history. This game teams him up with Knuckles -- a dreadlocked red Australian echidna, the Aussie relative of the hedgehog -- in an effort to defeat Dr. Robotnik and his fearsome Death Egg.

The game's gimmick is its unique "Lock-On" technology, in which previous Sonic games can be inserted into the top of "Sonic and Knuckles," while it in turn is inserted in the Sega Genesis game. This will allow users to play older Sonic games with Knuckles and his distinctive moves, and to discover new playing fields hidden in the old games.

"This is something that has been two years in development, and we weren't sure we'd be able to do it until maybe the last six or eight months," says Roger Hector, director of the Sega Technical Institute. "We were pretty far along in developing this game before we proved to ourselves that we could modify the other games."

"Lock-On," or the physical connection between the game cartridges, "allows for potential sharing of game memory, and what was a 16-megabit game, 'Sonic3,' when combined with an 18-megabit game in 'Sonic and Knuckles,' in effect becomes a 34-megabit game," Mr. Hector explains. "We had to develop a pretty highfalutin program to allow for that kind of swapping of memory."

Once the two games are merged, Knuckles becomes the featured character in "Sonic the Hedgehog 2" and "3." "Knuckles has different abilities -- he can climb, fly, glide and punch his way through things that Sonic couldn't do," says Mr. Hector. "So not only does he get transported into the game, but the game itself becomes modified, with new places he can go to. Knuckles can actually climb to places that Sonic never could.

"That's the one thing that kids and parents appreciate," Mr. Hector says. "Once they've breathed new life in an older game that isn't being played as much anymore, that's definitely more bang for the buck."

Sega's sales goal is 2 million units in America, and another 2

million worldwide. But Nintendo's goal for "Donkey Kong Country" is even more ambitious -- sell 2 million games in the month between the game's November release and Christmas.

"Donkey Kong Country" revives the ape from Nintendo arcade and video games a decade back (said games spawned the string of "Mario Bros." titles), unites him with a sidekick named Diddy Kong, and sets them loose on a playground of 60 regular playing levels and another 40 secret, hidden levels. Their exploits are rendered in spectacular 3-D images and animation created on Silicon Graphics work stations.

Nintendo's $2 million sales figure is "unprecedented," admits Peter Main, vice president of marketing for Nintendo of America. "But it's based on the off-the-chart reactions we've received from game players and retailers."

In order to significantly enhance the texture of the graphics, very little in terms of game play or response time was lost, according to Dan Owsen, product manager for Nintendo of America. "We did have to sacrifice some color, but it's still a 256-color screen, so it's close to a personal-computer level of colors."

All well and good, but what are the characters in these games like, up close and personal?

Mr. Main at Nintendo describes the ape Donkey Kong as "meaningful," "lovable" and "empathetic."

Diane Fornasier, group marketing director for Genesis and Game Gear Sega subsidiaries, allows that, "Knuckles is definitely a bit edgier than Sonic. He definitely has a mission in life, and it's a very strong commitment. His edgy attitude is reflected by the knuckles on his fists and his dreadlocks.

"It actually gets to be funny," Ms. Fornasier says, "how we start talking about these characters like they're real. They do have their own personalities. We'll say, 'Knuckles would love that' or 'Knuckles would love to do that.' "

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