InterAct Accessories is spearheading the effort to take console gaming into the online world with SharkWire Online for the Nintendo 64.


If the popularity of online computer games is any indication, then SharkWire and upcoming products could reshape the console game landscape.


SharkWire Online, geared toward 7- to 14-year olds, consists of two components: the hardware and a subscription service. The retail box includes a 14.4 Kbps modem, a keyboard, cables for connecting the hardware to an N64 and a phone cord.


The modem uses the subscription service to deliver players to SharkWire Online's Web site only; they're not allowed to roam the Web. Once there, as many as five e-mail accounts await subscribers, as well as video game cheats - codes hidden within a game that open up special features - and tips. The site also has additional codes for InterAct's GameShark, which allows players to alter the number of lives or types of weapons in games.

Using an N64 memory card, players can also upload and download saved games. This would let them, for instance, swap sports teams or high scores from video games with a friend.


The setup is meant to be simple. The modem is inserted into the game slot on an N64, and a game cartridge goes into the modem. After the phone line and keyboard are plugged in, the player is ready. Well, not quite.


The first model I tested had a defective keyboard, and InterAct says it has received "small reports of some of the keyboard keys not working." A replacement unit performed as expected.


Once online, I could search for cheats and codes for a variety of games. The site's database, though, was limited. Game articles, reviews, cheats and tips are sparse. On links to popular games such as GoldenEye 007, Soul Calibur and Grand Turismo 2, the search engine came up empty each time. Other users have expressed similar disappointment.


Besides games, there are several other youth-oriented areas such as sports, movies, music and fashion. The articles are well-written and often witty, but the lack of depth and variety within each area stands out again. The other top feature at the site, e-mail, is easy to use and worked well.


InterAct is fine-tuning SharkWire, and several upgrades are in the works.


Multiplayer games online are one possibility if SharkWire takes off, says Dean Stoyer, InterAct public relations director. The market could be huge.


One afternoon this week at MSN's Game Zone site (www.zone.com), for example, about 50,000 people were playing PC games.


InterAct is also considering including a faster modem, providing more extensive game content, linking the SharkWire site to InterAct's GameShark Web site (www.gameshark.com) and giving users access to the entire Internet through the service.


Opening the door to the rest of the Internet would represent a change of course to some degree, but Mr. Stoyer says that InterAct's first priority would remain "to take care of our existing audience" by alerting parents to any changes before they occur.


For those without a computer, SharkWire is a valuable tool just for e-mail alone. Young players likely would be more than happy with SharkWire's hardware and Web site. On the other hand, hard-core gamers may want to wait for the Web site upgrades and a faster modem before investing.


The SharkWire Online hardware costs $39.95. The online service costs $9.95 a month and up. A 4-megabyte RAM expansion pack, about $25 and sold separately, is also required. For more information, call 1-800-793-5924 or see www.sharkwire.com.


Victor Godinez is a free-lance writer in Irving.