The biggest game for computers this Christmas isn't on store shelves. It's the one shoppers will play as they hunt the perfect computer game to give someone.

The possibilities are mind-boggling. There are thousands of games crowding the shelves of local computer and retail stores. Brightly colored boxes burst with promises of action-packed fun or educational enlightenment. Where to begin? What to look for? How to choose?We've put together here a review of games we've tested to help you through the maze. But first some tips:

To begin with, almost every game included requires a double-speed CD-ROM drive, 486 or Pentium microprocessor or Mac System 7.0, 4MB to 8MB of RAM, SVGA graphics and Sound Blaster or compatible sound card. In addition, some games are designed solely for Microsoft's new Windows 95 operating system, so you won't be able to run them if you have plain old Windows 3.1.

Players also should know where to pick up clues to speed their quest. Most computer game companies now offer demos of new games on the World Wide Web, online services or bulletin boards. Millenium Media Group, for example, has the first level of H.U.R.L., a nonviolent version of DOOM, online.

"A lot of publishers are trying it," said Rick Rasansky, president of Millenium Media Group.

Another clue: look for content ratings, which most products carry now. The ratings indicate the appropriate age group and any content that is noteworthy.

The ratings for computer games roughly parallel those for movies. "K" or "K-A" is equivalent to a G or PG, and is intended for kids age 6 through adults. A "T" is equivalent to PG or PG-13, and is intended primarily for teenagers. The "M" is equivalent to a PG-13 or R, intended for mature players.

You should also should know that, while the shelves are packed with products, there are fewer new releases compared to last Christmas. Instead, many companies are promoting games released earlier this year or updating older versions with new technology. So you'll see, for example, a new version of the old Shanghai: Great Moments updated for Windows 95.

Ron McDaniel, manager of Software Etc. in Crossroads Mall, said turnaround time for game manufacturers has slowed as companies pack their products with ever more stellar features: 3-D animation, enhanced graphics or video clips, which come with many new games. A few are based around movies made especially for the game.

For instance, Wing Commander 4 includes a movie that cost $12 million to produce, McDaniel said.

This is not to say there aren't new releases out there. If you're looking for "new," try Phantasmagoria, 11th Hour, Rebel Assault II, Warcraft II, Hexen or SimIsle. Sega has entered the PC game realm with several products, including Tomcat Alley and Comix Zone.

New technology is blurring reality in many games, said Ryan Huntington, a sales associate at Software & More.

"The sound and the video are so good that it really just takes you into another reality," Huntington said.

Children's games, on the other hand, blur distinctions between learning and entertainment. Superb graphics, animation and video or movie clips are built around adventure or puzzle solving to teach kids everything from science to English grammar. The Learning Company's Gizmos & Gadgets and Sierra's The Lost Mind of Dr. Brain are two good examples of such edu-tainment games.

OK. You've got the system down, you've gathered a few clues, you know what's hot. You're ready to shop. Here's our take on a few of the recent releases and older standbys (many of them revamped) that will likely be among the hot games this holiday season.

Based on level of sophistication as well as any offensive material, we begin with young children's games, continue with those aimed at teenagers, and on to adult games. Each review includes a rating, suggested retail price (store prices are often $10 to $15 lower) and company name (in case you can't find the game on store shelves).

- Hello Kitty, the world's sweetest little feline, provides a gentle introduction to computer and learning skills for the youngest members of the house in Hello Kitty: Big Fun Deluxe.

Hello Kitty has four activities - Big Fun Piano, Big Fun Art, Big Fun Shapes & Numbers and Big Fun StoryMaking. Children can create their own songs, stories and paintings while learning reading, math, art and music skills. Or they can play along as directed by a voice prompt.

There is enough silliness here to tickle your child's fancy, such as the Big Fun Piano's chorus of animals who sing musical notes. And there's enough variety to keep kids entertained for months.

The built-in coloring book offers preprinted pages or an empty canvas. There are more than 225 stamps in the art collection, all of which can be made smaller, bigger or different colors.

In the StoryMaking activity, children can pick words to insert in the stories, making up a different version every time.

Hello Kitty is as cute as ever. The colors are brilliant and the graphics are adorable. K (specifically ages 3-8), $54.95, from Big Top Productions, San Francisco.

- English is such a difficult language . . . it has all those silly adjectives and conjunctions with prepositions everywhere.

Schoolhouse Rock: Grammar Rock, based on the ABC Saturday morning cartoon series, teaches kids the fundamentals of English grammar without the pain. The action takes place in Conjunction Junction. Children can visit the stores along Main Street, such as Pronoun Pet Shop, to take part in different activities.

The program includes nine original, animated videos and 19 activities at three levels of play. As kids finish an activity successfully, they are rewarded with electronic "Rocky" tokens they can use to play games.

Great graphics and plenty of activities to keep children busy. The program also tracks children's learning progress.

K, specifically ages 6-10, $39.95, from Creative Wonders, San Mateo, Calif.

- It's your child pitted against Morty the Master of Mischief in a race to be head scientist in Super Solvers Gizmos & Gadgets.

But first a player must solve a series of science puzzles, collect parts and then build a race vehicle. Meanwhile, a player gets lessons in simple machines, physics and other everyday scientific principles.

One sequence explains how a gondola works and then requires a player to build one to race against Morty. After solving puzzles involving levers, cranks and scales a player can work through a multilevel maze to collect gondola parts.

Put the parts together, and - voila! - it's time to race Morty, gondola to gondola.

K, specifically ages 7-12, $45, from The Learning Company, Fremont, Calif.

- Felix the Cat is the star of Big Top's Cartoon Toolbox, which lets players build their own animated cartoons.

And they look almost as good as the cartoons on Saturday morning TV! Everything is here to make a cartoon - voice clips from the original TV series, musical scores, special effects, animated props, cartoon characters, sound effects, backdrop objects and more.

It takes just minutes to point and select the elements of your own cartoon creation and set them in place in the animation sequence. Then let it roll.

The best part is each cartoon creation can be saved on a disk and given to family and friends to watch even if they don't have Cartoon toolbox software.

K-A, specifically ages 7 to adult, $54.95, from Big Top Productions, San Francisco.

- The graphics and animated features of the multicultural fable Kiyeko and the Lost Night are spectacular. The story is based on a traditional Amazonian Indian tale about a boy's travels through the rainforest in search of the lost night.

Children follow Kiyeko on his adventure, clicking to life 220 hidden interactive animations along the way.

The story features original music and sound effects. It also can be told and read in five languages: English, French, Spanish, Italian and German. Children can switch languages at any point during the program.

Kiyeko and the Lost Night has a magical look that dazzles even older children - and adults!

K, specifically ages 4 to 10, $39.95, from Ubi Soft Entertainment, Larkspur, Calif.

- Dr. Brain has lost his mind - transferred it actually to his faithful assistant Rathbone, the lab rat - in The Lost Mind of Dr. Brain. The player's job is to restore Dr. Brain and Rathbone to their normal states.

How? Headwork. A player must solve puzzles, navigate mazes, decipher musical scores and figure out contraptions to do the job.

The problem-solving tasks involve brain teasers located, of course, in the 10 regions of Dr. Brain's brain. There is the music region, file sorting, motor programming, neural maze, train of thought, word surge, Pentode, Cad construction, synaptic cleft and dreamland.

Each problem is meant to test a combination of intelligence abilities, such as logical thinking, music recognition and spatial understanding.

The high-resolution graphics and animation are terrific. The game is loaded with thousands of puzzles that can be played at three difficulty levels.

K, ages 12 and up, $29.59, from Sierra, Bellevue, Wash.

- Merriam Webster's Word War 5 is a collection of five word games for the person who likes something to puzzle over. Be warned: with America's leading dictionary publisher involved you can expect to be tested. Add the puzzle power of Pierre Berloquin, who has designed puzzles for more than 30 years and has written several books on the subject, and you're in for a challenge.

The five games are: Word Targets, Crossword, Odd One Out, Spinning Letters and Snake.

Five is a magic number here. Each of the FIVE games is based on FIVE-letter words. Each game has FIVE levels of difficulty and can be played in FIVE foreign languages - French, Spanish, German, Dutch, Italian and English.

K, ages 12 and up, $29.95, from Millenium Media Group Inc., Philadelphia.

- Pitfall has graduated from Atari to Windows 95 in Pitfall: The Mayan Adventure, where Harry Jr. carries on the vine-swinging, pit-jumping, log-hopping, bungee-jumping and spider web bouncing tradition.

Only he's doing it with terrific animated graphics, sound effects and to the beat of a film-quality soundtrack that includes sounds recorded live in rain forests of Costa Rica and Central America.

Harry Jr. has to work his way through 13 non-linear levels to rescue his father from the evil Mayan warrior - if he doesn't get eaten by ferocious crocodiles, deadly jaguars, dangerous forest animals or wicked warriors first.

The Windows 95 version includes three new levels not available in previous Sega Genesis or Super Nintendo incarnations of the game - including the original Atari 2600 version of Pitfall! hidden within one level. Find it, if you can.

K, ages 12 and up, $49.95, from Activision Inc., Los Angeles.

- Shanghai: Great Moments is dominoes with an artistic edge. This version of the game is revamped for Windows 95 with three new games - Action Shanghai, Beijing and The Great Wall.

It features digitized motion picture and TV clips, computer-generated images, a catchy soundtrack and a warm live-action welcome from actress Rosalind Chao of "The Joy Luck Club."

Choose from nine tile categories that include space exploration, art, inventions, science fiction, music, famous people, romance, momentous events and Mah-Jongg. Each category includes tailored videos that are displayed when tiles are matched.

For example, in the Famous People set, matching Martin Luther King tiles prompts a clip of King's "I have a dream" speech.

Once a puzzle is solved, the background pictures comes to life.

K, specifically ages 10 and up, $49.95, from Activision, Los Angeles.

- Take Your Best Shot's promotional description says it all: "Twisted Arcade Games for Twisted Minds." The CD-ROM contains three simple games, a fantasy scenario in which you punish your boss in various impossible ways, screen savers, wallpaper and weird audio clips. It's all innocent, if rather bizarre, fun.

The games feature Cabbage Patch-type heads that are hit with a ball and respond in several ways, such as groaning or blowing up. One game, Hot Shot, is a demented version of the video game pioneer Pong, with paddles at each end of an area, a ball bouncing between them, and heads in the middle absorbing abuses.

Take Your Best Shot comes from the same folks who brought you Monty Python's Complete Waste of Time, and it shows in the low-brow humor. You'll be telling yourself how stupid it is and heartily laughing at the same time.

T, $19.95, from 7th Level, Richardson, Texas.

- Sega is now putting out PC-based games based on its video game system played on televisions, and the computer games are about what you would expect them to be. Two recent entries are Comix Zone and Tomcat Alley.

In Comix Zone, you are a comic book artist caught in your own creation. You have to fight creatures such as Gravis the Bully, Spawn Mutant and Styx the Monk using martial-arts techniques and weapons you pick up along the way to get back to the real world. The chunky animation and simple movements will be familiar to Mario Bros. mavens. K-A, cartoonish violence.

In Tomcat Alley, you are a fighter pilot out to save the world from a Russian renegade. The game comprises video clips of real pilots and planes, pretty good really, which interact according to commands you carry out on an electronic overlay of the screen. Basically a Top Gun fantasy game suitable for preteens and older. T rating, realistic violence.

$39.95, from Sega-PC, Redwood City, Calif.

- Battle Beast is just about the way it sounds. You control one of six beasts - each of which "morphs" from an innocent-looking animal to a fearsome creature - and fight various opponents in hand-to-hand combat using martial arts-type moves and weapons. You can taunt your opponents with stock phrases, find secret passages to different fight scenes, and finally get to "the evil toadman," where the battle ends.

The game's animation is excellent, better than, say, Mortal Kombat or Street Fighter. It resembles a good-quality Saturday-morning cartoon. The sound effects are also good, with a fairly complicated score.

You can fight the computer or a friend.

No rating, best for action-oriented teenagers, $49.95, from 7th Level, Richardson, Texas.

- MechWarrior 2: 31st Century Combat is your stereotypical shoot-'em-up. The future comprises a universe full of warring clans of "Star Wars"-like robots who launch from world to world with basically one intent: shoot each other into tiny bits. The graphics are OK but nothing special, likewise the audio. A simplistic DOS-based game, and a big seller among video game addicts.

Not rated, probable T, $59.95, from Activision, Los Angeles.

- Shivers is from the same folks who brought you Phantasmagoria - only it's kinder and gentler.

The story: Your teenage friends have left you inside a spooky museum, and you must survive the night by capturing 10 Ixupi (evil entities) roaming around. You do this by gathering various pieces of "inventory" during your wanderings and using them in the appropriate situations.

The background detail and video are good. You can revisit puzzles you couldn't figure out the first time around, and the puzzles vary on repeated visits, making the game different each time you play.

Many, if not most, games targeted to teens are of the shoot-'em-up variety. It's nice to see one of the more sophisticated exploring-type games aimed at that age group.

T, $39.95, from Sierra On-Line Inc., Bellevue, Wash.

- Caesar II is a game much in the mold of Sim City or its predecessor Civilization, which have been popular among youth and adults who tend toward intricate, complex games without the requisite monsters, flash and razzle-dazzle. Those who like putting together airplane models will probably like Caesar II.

A new game this year, Caesar II has it over the older Sim City in that players get a sense of historical events and environments while putting together a city comprising houses, public baths, entertainment centers, roads and walls. You also command armies that battle various invaders (Carthaginians, for instance) who may swoop down and attack at any time, or against whom you may take the offensive. You will, however, spend most of your time building.

K-A, $59.95, from Sierra On-Line Inc., Bellevue, Wash.

- Board war-gaming meets high-tech. The result of this marriage is Steel Panthers - an intoxicating strategy simulation that sets a new standard for the war-gaming genre.

At first glance, the slick graphics make this look like an arcade-style shoot 'em up. It's not. This is serious war-gaming in the old Avalon Hill traditions of Panzer Leader and Squad Leader. Movement, in fact, remains based on the familiar hex grid. Players control infantry, armor and artillery units in campaigns or battle scenarios. But where Steel Panthers really shines is in the multimedia additions, such as music and sound-effects, which add immeasurably to the playing enjoyment.

A word of caution to potential buyers: Like any war game simulation, playing Steel Panthers involves dealing with a somewhat steep learning curve. It's probably not something to buy for your 8-year-old, and it might not be something you want to tackle unless you have a little discretionary time available.

Otherwise, don't start the war without me.

K-M, $59.95, from Strategic Simulations Inc., Sunnyvale, Calif.

- Myst is now 3 years old and, surprising in a world where computer games usually have a shelf life of around six months, still going strong. It's among the top 10 best-sellers at some local computer stores. Myst is showing its age a bit - the video is scattered and small and the slide-show-type presentation looks slightly dated - but the detail and backgrounds are still great. The storyline and puzzles, too, are complex and sophisticated and just difficult enough to make it tough but not impossible to get through. The game projects a moody, surrealistic atmosphere, which is enhanced by the fact that no human being is seen in any of the game's various worlds until the very end.

Myst's creators say they are coming out with a sequel soon. Until that time, Myst itself is a worthy addition to your collection. It has no rating - the game contains nothing offensive, although there are a few scary parts.

No rating, probable K-A, $49.95, from Broderbund, Novato, Calif.

- And Doom beget Doom II, and Doom II beget Heretic, and Heretic beget Hexen. . . . Like spinoffs from a highly rated TV sitcom, new software titles based on the once revolutionary Doom 3-D graphics engine keep on coming.

Hexen, the Christmas season sibling of last year's Heretic, represents yet another entry from the purveyors of blood and gore at ID Software. And while it's a diversion, the once groundbreaking graphics are sadly old hat now.

One new wrinkle is that Hexen allows players to choose which characters they want to be: warrior, mage or cleric. That does add some fun, but when all is said and done, Hexen, like the rest of the Doom extended family, is starting to show a little wear and tear.

No rating, probable T or M, $39.95, from ID Software/Raven Software, New York.

- Mortal Kombat 3 is the perfect opportunity for you to buy those fantastic blast-you-out-of-your-seat speakers that usually just bleep or whistle when Windows is booting up. MK3 offers a killer (no pun intended) soundtrack and equally amazing aural affects, from the stunning intro to the deeply resonating "Outstanding!" commentary reserved for a wonderful uppercut deftly administered to your opponent.

Mortal Kombat, is, however, not for kids. Death, dismemberment, being thrown onto spikes, spines ripped from bodies, fatalities . . . you get the general idea. But one feature of the CD-ROM version is a "no blood, no fatality" mode, which can be programmed with ease during set-up.

There are 12 new battlegrounds, never before seen (except in the arcade version), which are all 3D rendered and source digitized for nice depth and feel. There's also 50 percent more image memory packed into the disc to improve graphic resolution.

M, $49.95, from GT Interactive.

- Cyber-Mag Cinematic Comic Book Episode 2: The Angel Returns follows up the interesting conceit of the first entry in the series: It plays out the scenes of a comic book on computer via still pictures and some video. It is live action - not animated - and well done. The game has some interactivity, but not a lot; the intent is mostly to have the viewer sit back and enjoy. And it is enjoyable, in a campy way. Virtual cop John Copeland is off the net and dealing with villain Viktor, a wetware extractor. Don't understand? Don't worry about it - just go with the flow and you'll have a good time.

Not rated, probable T or M for realistic action, $24.95, from Digital Entertainment, New Hope, Minn.

- Phantasmagoria is an eye-popping blend of intricate backgrounds and video footage in the context of a mystery/horror game. It contains more video than any other computer game ever made. It fills a whopping seven CD-ROMs, one for each chapter in the saga - very often you feel as if you were watching a movie.

An exploratory game along the same lines as 7th Guest or Myst, Phantasmagoria takes this genre of games to another level with its feature film-quality effects.

Phantasmagoria is rated "Mature," and for good reason. There is some very graphic violence and sex, most of it in the last half of the game. The makers have provided the option of censoring out the graphic parts, making the game suitable for younger players, but even with the censored version many wouldn't let preteens near it.

A nice feature is "The Hintkeeper," a skull bathed in red light in the corner of the screen that helps guide you (in a suitably deep and spooky voice) when you're stuck.

M, $69.95, from Sierra On-Line Inc., Bellevue, Wash.