THE GIZMO:

'Tis the season to please a video gamer - and maybe yourself, too - with one of these new, "cream of the crop" game titles.

I HEAR MUSIC: Music-making simulators are bigger than big this year, with the newest "Guitar Hero" (III) title, "Legends of Rock" (Neversoft/Activision), battling with "Rock Band" (Harmonix/EA Games).

"GH III" has a huge set of fresh tunes, sharpened graphics and a new battle mode to stymie a rival player. And while you can buy "GH III" with a new guitar controller (different models for Xbox 360, PS3, PS2 and Wii), you can get just the disc to use with earlier-edition guit-trollers.

"Rock Band" for Xbox 360, PS3 and PS2 was designed by the same developer that invented the "Guitar Hero" franchise and uses the same scrolling fret-board system. But it expands on the vision by inviting up to four players to plug in as a team on mock guitar, bass, drums and vocals - either live or online at Xbox Live and Sony's PSN.

A game bundle with guitar, drums and vocal mike is expensive (a "GH" guitar also can be plugged in), but early adopters are really lovin' this group effort and the strong set of original star recordings they bring to life.

QUIZ SHOW TIME: The notion that "a family that plays together, stays together" is a big factor behind the success of the Wii. Now other systems also are pushing party-hearty games to rally us 'round the console and television.

"Scene It? Lights, Camera, Action" for Xbox 360 (Microsoft Studios; rated Teen) is a movie trivia game with four wireless controllers, so each player has a buzzer. A big assortment of high-def movie clips, stills and audio clips tests players' knowledge.

"Buzz the Mega Quiz" (Relentless Software/Sony; rated Everyone 10 and older) is a PlayStation 2 exclusive general trivia game that likewise comes with four game-show-style button controllers (wired).

The secret sauce here is the equalizing software that fine-tunes the questions to players' ages and skill levels while still giving an advantage to those with the most knowledge.

MORE FUN FOR ALL: While big guns Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo finance and thus tie up exclusive rights to hot titles, third-party software developers prefer to offer their biggest and worthiest wares on multiple platforms.

This year, the top of the platform-agnostic crop includes "The Orange Box" (Electronic Arts/Valve Software; rated Teen to Mature) for both Xbox 360 and PS3. It's a compilation of shorter but finely finessed shooter and action games (three from the "Half-Life 2" series, plus the puzzling "Portal" and "Team Fortress 2") that originally dropped jaws as individual PC games.

"Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare" (Infinity Ward/Activision; rated Mature) for Xbox 360, PS3, PS2, DS and PC boasts hyper-realistic graphics and thrilling game play - over too quickly in single-player mode but worthy of a long winter's mission in the online, multiplayer version.

"The Simpsons Game" (EA; rated Teen), for Xbox 360, PS3, PS2, PSP, Wii and DS, is an amusing adaptation of the TV show, featuring dialogue written and performed by show regulars. Instead of mocking a pop-culture icon or property, it parodies the hits of the video game industry - from "Grand Theft Scratchy" to "Medal of Homer" - and serves up a decent combo of combat and puzzle-solving play.

PS3 EXCLUSIVES: Good news for PlayStation 3 owners: the quality of titles for the format is finally catching up to the potential of this high-speed, high-capacity and high-resolution Blu-ray disc-based system (and to the superb-quality, high-def Blu-ray movies you also can watch on it).

One case in point: the PS3 exclusive, "Uncharted: Drake's Fortune" (Naughty Dog/Sony; rated Teen), an exciting action-adventure search for the fabled treasure of El Dorado. You might even learn a little history in the process.

Another must-have is "Ratchet & Clank Future: Tools of Destruction" (Insomniac/Sony; rated Everyone 10+). The makers of last year's best PS3 game ("Resistance: Fall of Man") up the ante with a marvelous journey that's visually the equal to the best animated movies. There's also an amazing plotline, super-refined gameplay and great sound and music.

Need more? Check out "Heavenly Sword" (Ninja Theory/Sony, rated Teen) and the aerial combat game "Warhawk" (Incognito, Sony; rated Teen).

XBOX 360'S GOT THE LOCKS: Next to "Halo 3," the best Xbox 360 reviews of the season have gone to "Bioshock" (Irrational/2K Games; rated Mature) a deep, dark plunge into a once idealistic, now ravaged city beneath the sea called Rapture. You'll be ambushed by mutants and genetically modified to meet the challenges. This is a first-person shooter even for people who have no time for the genre.

Almost as good, "Mass Effect" (BioWare/Microsoft; rated Mature). In this sci-fi action role-playing game, you are the first human exploring the edges of the galaxy, discovering alien life forms, ruined civilizations and advanced technologies. Eventually, you'll summon up a strategy (we hope) to ward off universal Armageddon.

ON THE WII-FRONTIER: Good luck trying to find a Wii this season. While Nintendo is bringing 350,000 units to the States every week, the boxes disappear instantly. So here are some games to satisfy a lucky current owner or give a waiting Wii-ster a reason to hold on.

"Super Mario Galaxy" (Nintendo; Everyone) leads our hero on an epic, out-of-this-world romp. Mario can perform lots of novel moves in gravity-free conditions - all enabled, of course, by the tilting, pointing and shaking Wii Remote and Nunchuck controller.

Got room for more Wii-sdom in the stocking? Go with "Zak & Wiki: Quest for Barbaro's Treasure" (Capcom; rated Everyone), as our cute 'n' clever heroes seek pirate treasure on a cursed island. Or try the dramatic "Metroid Prime 3: Corruption" (Retro/Nintendo; rated Teen).

PORTA-PARTY: The Nintendo DS is actually the biggest-selling game system of the year, in part because it's the least expensive, it's portable, and its games are accessible to all ages.

Start 'em young with "Smart Boy's Gameroom" and "Smart Girl's Playhouse" (UFO Interactive), suitable for ages 3 and up. Other casual, E (for Everyone) rated treats include the music-oriented "Jam Sessions" (Ubisoft) and "Hannah Montana Music Jam" (Disney); the electronic game adaptations of "Jenga: World Tour" (Atari); and a bunch of brain sharpeners from the house of Nintendo - the Sudoku battle action "Zendoku," the visual training "Flash Focus," 70-minigame-rich "Mario Party" and magic-tricks-sharing "Master of Illusion."

Want to put a little more brain power in a DS mission? Solve "Nancy Drew: The Deadly Secret of Olde World Park" (Nintendo), or lock horns in court as "Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney: Trials and Tribulations" (Capcom), the third and final episode in this goofy, sleuthy series.

Over on the PlayStation Portable (PSP) platform, E for Everyone can get behind "Capcom Puzzle World" (Capcom) and the brain-teasing "PQ: Practical Intelligence Quotient" (D3), the latter developed by a Japanese professor and encouraging users to go online (love that PSP Wi-Fi connectivity) to measure their score against a whole world of players.

For PSP-playing Teen and above gamers, check out the wickedly funny role-playing game "Disgaea: Afternoon of Darkness" (NIS America); the vampire-chasing "Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles" (Konami); and the new, portable update of "Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions" (Square Enix).

PC GAMERS HAVE FUN, TOO: One of the cutest of Xbox 360 titles for young'uns is newly out on PC, "Viva Pinata" (Microsoft Studio). It's an island simulation where toy-filled paper animals roam free.

Fans of the TV show get a chance to strut their own stuff on "Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?" (THQ), packed with more than 3,000 questions on 28 grade-school subjects.

For grown-up computer users, "Crysis" (Electronic Arts) is a serious, scary first-person shooter. *

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