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Beyond the noise at E3

The truth about the electronics show is that it's like an absurdly overgrown Electronics Boutique, a nonstop array of video game kiosks where verbally impoverished young men play with cool new games.

LOS ANGELES--Hardcore game players talk about the Electronic Entertainment Expo, which concludes here Saturday, as if it were a digital Valhalla, an unparalleled opportunity to play tomorrow's games today and rub elbows with the best and brightest in the business.

The truth is it's more like an absurdly overgrown Babbage's or Electronics Boutique, a nonstop array of video game kiosks where baggy-pantsed, verbally impoverished young men line up to try out cool new games.

It's also a great place to lose some of your hearing. Besides scantily clad women, the main weapon for exhibitors to attract attention seems to be volume. E3 veterans say the organizers have actually imposed strict decibel limits this year, which can only mean previous events were the auditory equivalent of the Dresden bombing.

But E3 does offer a chance to check out games and game gadgets that range from inspired to insane. Here are a few highlights we found:

• As hard as it is to predict consumer tastes, we'll go out on a limb and say the Xbox version of "Shrek," based on the new animated movie, will be a winner. Any game where the main character has to rely on flatulence as his primary weapon is bound to grab the attention of young males.

• More evidence that game companies have discovered the latent buying power of the over-30 crowd: Empire Interactive is coming out with PC and PlayStation 2 games based on 1970s cop show "Starsky and Hutch." Get down with Huggy Bear and the boys next spring.

• As much as Attorney General John Ashcroft and other moral guardians fret about game violence (and not without some justification, judging from some of the splatterfests we saw), modern games offer plenty of other grounds for offense. Witness "Last Call," in which you play a virtual bartender charged with dishing out hooch to patrons who, judging from the cover, should have been cut off a few gallons ago.

• Among the many console peripherals on display, the clear attention-grabber was RCA's Gameware line of sports accessories, including baseball bats and golf clubs (putter and fairway models) that plug into consoles to control appropriate sports games. The golf club would make a great Father's Day gift, but, alas, it won?t be in stores until next spring.

• One of the strangest game concepts yet arrives in America next month after proving there's almost no game idea the Japanese consumer won't at least try. "The Typing of the Dead," for the PC, requires players to quickly type in specified segments of text to fight off flesh-eating zombies. "Improve your typing speed or die" is Empire's motto for the game. Bet Mavis Beacon wishes she'd thought of that as a motivational tool?

• Because the game industry cares about you: GameSkinz are padded, Spandex gloves designed to protect gamers from blisters, friction burns and other maladies associated with vigorous button-mashing. Seriously--this is a real health hazard.