Sony PlayStation ups the ante in video-game 'wars'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The platform wars have begun . . . again. Hold on to your wallets.

The first-ever Electronic Entertainment Expo -- or E3, the loud and lively convention that helped kill the summer Consumer Electronics Show -- this month conveniently provided the battleground for the initial skirmishes in what would be another expensive test of wills among video-game companies.

New-kid-on-the-block Sony made the most noise by challenging top dogs Sega and Nintendo while virtually ignoring 3DO and the Atari Jaguar. With its impressive new CD-based PlayStation, Sony hopes to divide the loyalties of gamers and grab a large slice of the industry's $10 billion pie.

Striking first, however, Sega took the offensive by hitting the street a month early with its new 32-bit Saturn system. Priced between $399 and $449, Sega got a 3 1/2 -month headstart on Sony and nearly a year's jump on Nintendo in introducing a new generation of arcade-quality hardware.

Initially available only at Toys R' Us, Electronics Boutique, Software Etcetera and Babbages chains, the CD-based system comes with Virtua Fighter and a video sampler of 20 other new games.

Sony's much-anticipated PlayStation won't become available in America until Sept. 9, but retailers here applauded the announcement that it would undercut Saturn by at least $100. It will launch with Ridge Racer, Mortal Kombat III and Tekken. It is Sony's first foray into the lucrative, if sluggish, video-game market. The company promises a $40 million marketing campaign, with cross-promotions in Sony theaters and Blockbuster stores.

Saturn and PlayStation are available in Japan, where more than 1 million units have been sold in less than six months.

Nintendo will introduce its 64-bit Ultra system in the United States next April, after a December launch in Japan. Company executives appeared optimistic about the prospects for new 16-bit games Killer Instinct and Donkey Kong Country II: Diddy's Kong Quest -- both originally planned for Ultra 64 -- and its 3-D Virtual Boy handheld system, which features 32-bit technology.

Nintendo is betting that the 17 million people who already own Super NES will be willing to wait a few months for the $250 Ultra system, while enjoying the enhanced technology in its new titles. As an arcade favorite, Killer Instinct has recorded about 500 million plays since its introduction; Donkey Kong Country, which premiered last year, helped lift the 16-bit market from its doldrums, selling 7.5 million units.

Even though their 32-bit games target adolescent boys, with such staple themes as martial arts, auto racing, target-shooting and sports, Sony and Sega appear to be counting on a maturing of the market for future success. It isn't likely that many pre-teens can afford $300 to $400 for a new system.

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