The Game Room

Much has been written about the unholy abomination, the ugly stain upon the national soil that is the Ill-Chosen Holiday Gift. Every time that a child opens a present and discovers a pair of sensible slacks, that a husband unwraps a metric socket-wrench set, or that a wife receives any sort of electric depilatory product, the act resonates. The Arctic ice cap weakens and cracks.

The birds mope in the trees, not knowing why their songs come out with such difficulty. The dolphins take note and wonder if the time isn't ripe to finally seize their destiny as the planet's dominant intelligence.

All because some friend or relative just didn't think. Gifts are a big responsibility, even in the gaming arena. So look at these suggestions. They all fulfill the elements of the Three I's of Cool Gifts: Improbability, Ingenuity, and "I gotta try this right now!"

Surely there can be no more-certain sign of success than when your nephew opens your gift and dashes straight upstairs to his computer, completely forgetting about that bicycle-shaped package next to the tree.

There's no shortage of USB input devices in my office. I get to try 'em all. Each has its strengths and weaknesses, but Miacomet's Real Feel Pool Shark ($30; is utterly hopeless as a mouse substitute. I mean, completely. Which is OK, because you're meant to grasp it on your tabletop and stroke a pool cue through it, lending an air of verisimilitude to billiards sims.

You gotta admire this thing. It's not like a flight-sim joystick, which is studded with controls and buttons for weapons but can still be used as a generic game controller. The Pool Shark is good as an accessory for only one Mac game--MacSoft's Real Pool. But it elevates the game to an entirely new level. As a devoted patron of my neighborhood's Free Cheese Pizza With An Hour's Table Rental pool room, I'm familiar with the sensations of the game, and this thing is frighteningly good.

Of course, stroking a pool cue is probably far too tangible an act to faithfully replicate, but the feedback is good, and the correlation between the stroke you deliver through the Pool Shark and the resulting impact in the simmed table is spot-on. Most importantly, when you return to a "real" table after a few weeks simming around, shooting will seem wonderfully familiar, and you'll be scamming free drinks off your friends all night.

I'd be thrilled if someone gave me Digital Leisure's DVD edition of Dragon's Lair ($50; The generations that preceded mine get all nostalgic about big cars and doped-out musicians who died foolishly. But we grew up on Star Wars and video games. Even fifteen years later, Don Bluth's line of cel-animated laser-disc coin-ops still gets my heart pumping and my hands twitching--Left, left, sword! Right, up!--to guide Dirk the Daring through the castle to save the sexy-as-Cinemax-after-10 p.m. Princess Daphne from the dragon.

Though the cinema-quality animation is ultimately far more evocative than Quake's, we're talking early-eighties tech here: you don't so much control Dirk as cue him. In each scene, there are moments when you must cue him to move in any of four directions or to use his sword. Of the three Bluth discs available from Digital Leisure, Dragon's Lair II: Time Warp is the champ, with the mostest and bestest animation and a lot more humor than the original.

So I'd love it as a gift. Although if I'd actually paid $50 of my own dough for it expecting more than a nostalgia trip, I'd feel a little ripped off. Game play bites. On DVD there's a lag between your cues and Dirk's actions, with often fatal results. And though the DVD works in almost any stand-alone player, compatibility is spotty in computers; it played in a Power Mac G3 with an MPEG card but not on my PowerBook G3's DVD drive. But here's the good news if you'll be shopping for Class of 2001 graduation gifts: Digital Leisure has announced a Mac DVD-ROM edition, to be released early in 2001.

How exciting is a new pair of headphones? Not very. Koss's Sportapro ($30; ) headphones don't even come in iMac colors, but their physical design makes them world-beaters--they're a magic bullet for folks who find themselves gaming in places other than the "sweet spot" of their home-theater setup. They're the only headphones I've seen that both deliver the maximum sound of a good game track and are practical for travel.

Dirk Slays   In Dragon's Lair, you play through a classic early-eighties animated video-game adventure via your DVD player.

You can wear them as you do regular headphones. You can swing the headband back and wear them as a set of around-the-neck phones (and unlike Sony's set, these are adjustable, so no longer must hat-fanciers with enormous heads struggle under the tyranny of ill-fitting headphones). You can fold the Sportapro headphones one way and roll them up into a ball for storage, or you can fold them another way, and they'll slip into your satchel perfectly flat. And there's a mute button built into the cord.

My first order of business when I check into a hotel is to replace the set of headphones that got busted during the flight over. But I hope these Sportapro headphones, thanks to their durability and storage flexibility, will be the last I own . . . until I leave them in a cab somewhere. The best endorsement I can give them is that almost all the fellow geek travelers I've recommended them to have bought 'em for themselves and then for their friends.

Yes, people, all of this buying-gifts-for-others business can be dreadfully tedious, particularly if you're a heartless bastard for whom the potent lessons of Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol meant nothing.

So it might be a good idea to add a game bundle such as Bungie's Mac ActionSack ($20; to your shopping cart. It's an awful choice for an experienced gamer (I'd liken it to giving Roger Ebert a DVD of this great old movie that you're sure he'll like . . . Casablanca), but it's a winner for new iMac owners who have never played any of the games in the Marathon series. In addition to the complete trilogy, there are three examples of Early Bungie.

But back to the heartless-bastard angle. See, the recipient doesn't have to know that this is a six-game set. So if you never got around to playing Marathon Infinity, just help yourself to the disc.

See? There's a lot of great hardware and software out there for the gifting. If you're an aunt, however, I understand that the motivation to give a kid clothes might be too stubbornly intertwined into the RNA to suppress. OK, so at least give a great T-shirt. How about this one, my current fave-of-the-week: a simple study in navy and white that reads, "Macintosh for productivity. Linux for development. Palm for mobility. Windows for Solitaire." How can you resist? It's only $13 from MacSurfshop ( ).

So when you shop this holiday season, choose wisely. Even if none of my game-related suggestions strike a chord, don't just lash out and buy any old thing that's end-capped at Best Buy for $20.

The fate of the planet hangs in the balance, for the dolphins bide their time and make their plans even as we speak. And thanks to the silly machinations of those bleeding-heart so-called "animal rights" activists, we're forbidden from launching a preemptive strike against our future enslavers before they've mastered the use of tools.

Veteran Mac columnist ANDY IHNATKO ( ) wishes to advise our future dolphin masters that he always buys the dolphin-safe brands of tuna.

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