ewiston resident Jeff Dubey and his three soon-to-be stepchildren enjoy going to Game Stop in Auburn, and picking out video games they can play together. “We love the four-player games,” said Dubey after selecting several new games at a recent buy-two, get-two-free sale. “We can all sit and have fun. It’s a way to spend time together as a family, and we really enjoy that.”

They especially like working as a team to complete “Gauntlet,” one of their favorite games, he added.

“We also love ‘Final Fantasy’ and ‘Shrek,'” 11-year-old Alyson Campbell said. “Sometimes they’re frustrating because you get to a part where you can’t move on before getting everything you need in a place, but it’s so much fun! We play on our own a lot, but mostly, we do it together.”

Albert Therrien, 13, nods in agreement. “We have to take shifts sometimes. Like, I’ll play when we first get home with these. Then, later, we’ll make the time for playing all at once.”

Even 5-year-old Stephanie keeps up with the rest of the family. A regular veteran of video gaming, she’s been playing for more than a year now.

Nationwide, interest in video games is on the rise. According to the Dec. 6 issue of Time, video game sales have reached more than $12 billion so far this year (an increase of 7 percent over last year) while other toy sales are actually down about 5 percent compared to last year.

Video games are certainly not the newest kid on the block, but they have grabbed the imagination and curiosity of the buying public in a way that hasn’t been seen in years.

Video games first knocked on the doors of homes in the mid- to late-1970s. The very first home video game title was “Pong” and consisted of nothing more than two vertical lines, one on each side of the screen, and a dot. It was an electronic version of Ping-Pong, the classic table game. With a couple of dials as controls, the vertical lines could be moved up and down the screen to “bounce the ball” back and forth until someone missed and scored a point. At the time, “Pong” was state-of-the-art technology and exciting for players at home.

When arcade games, like “Pac-Man” and “Space Invaders,” became cultural phenomenons, players wanted to bring them into the comfort of their own homes and not have to plunk loads of quarters into a big, bulky machine. The Atari company launched its first home video console system (now known affectionately by video game buffs as the 2600) in 1977, but sales exploded in the early ’80s once it released the well-known arcade game titles.

Right in the middle

But, as with most fads, as quickly as home video gaming rocketed into popularity, the demand faded. Although it took a little while, by the end of the 1980s the novelty of video gaming wore thin and the aggressive marketing by companies overloaded the market. Video games never totally disappeared, but they were no longer something that everyone had to have. People who already had a system either didn’t feel the need to keep upgrading because of the lack of major advancement in technology or simply grew up and didn’t play with video games anymore. Many systems were introduced into the U.S. market, but their visibility remained below the radar for years.

Over the last five years, though, video games have come a long way. What started out back in the ’70s and ’80s as a chance to move two-dimensional characters through mazes or many levels is now almost a virtual-reality experience for the player. The majority of video game titles are designed to bring the player into the world of the game as much as possible.

Screen environments are true-to-life, with depth, shadow, sounds and movement. Players experience being in the middle of the game. Characters can talk, run, jump, wield weapons, fly – the sky’s the limit. Creatures and characters that could only be imagined less than a decade ago are commonplace today. Game makers from Nintendo, Sony (PlayStation) and Microsoft Xbox are constantly pushing the envelope on what they’re offering for players. From fun to frightening, there are games for all ages and ability levels.

Choosing a great game

With so many titles available, it isn’t so easy to go out and pick a game that may be best for the family. There are top-sales lists and other types of video game popularity lists to make the decision a little simpler. Here are some other tips:

First, decide what kind of games would be most enjoyable to play. There are many genres to choose from:

• Role-playing games: Players create a character and take him or her on many adventures, such as killing beasts or rescuing damsels in distress. “Final Fantasy,” “Dungeons and Dragons” and the “Pokemon” series are classic examples of role-playing games.

• Strategy/simulation games: From basics like chess and checkers to battle simulators, these games encourage thinking and strategy. Examples include many of the Sim games (such as “City” and “Amusement Park”) and “Age of Empires.”

• Shooter games: These are among the most popular – and violent – games on the market. The games are what they say: A player shoots people, either for the purpose of good or evil, depending on the game. Right now, “Halo 2” is the hottest game on the market and the ultimate example of a shooting game

• Fighting games: These can be a little less violent than the shooter games, although that’s not always the case. Games use hand-to-hand combat to reach the end goal, which varies with the game. “Soul Caliber II” and “Mortal Kombat” are great examples of fighting games

Rating the games

There are thousands of games on the market, and all are rated for subject matter, language and violence. The Entertainment Software Rating Board has ratings ranging from E for everyone, to T for teens up to M for mature. These ratings can be a good place to get started in deciding which game is right for your family, yourself or for a gift for someone.

In addition, some places allow customers to try games before they buy, either in the store or by renting the title first. Most stores that sell video games have some systems set up to try a few games before purchase. Stores like Wal-Mart have one or two consoles ready to go, but have limited titles available to sample.

Game Zone in Auburn takes this one step further by having video game rentals and allowing any title to be played in the store before buying it. Thirteen-year-old Erik Jordan, a regular at Game Zone, loves renting games there.

“It’s a great way to play different games and try them out,” he says. In the past, Jordan has purchased a full-day play pass at the store, which runs $10 and gives him access to all games on the shelves for the entire day.

Magazines, Web sites and even entire television networks (G4/TechTV) are devoted to video game information and reviews. A little research before going out to the stores can prevent a sense of being overwhelmed when facing shelves full of video game titles. Not all video games are violent and inappropriate for family play. It just takes a little searching to find the right titles for you.

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