I’m flying up the ice on a breakaway in the Xbox 360 version of NHL2K7, flanked by Rob Brind’Amour. My mind ought to be focused on how I’m going to go five-hole on Jose Theodore, or the crushing check that Joe Sakic’s about to lay upside my head.

But it isn’t.

Instead, I’m wondering where the extra $40 went.

Is it the reflective glare shining off the ice and the players’ helmets? The robotic audience animations? Is Peter Laviolette hiding it in his suit pocket?

I honestly don’t know. Here’s what I do know: The PlayStation 2 and Xbox versions of NHL2K7 cost $20. The Xbox 360 version costs $60. That, my friends, is what you’d call a significant gap — definitely larger than the one in Michael Strahan’s choppers, at least.

Gamers have complained about the price of their favorite hobby since Mario hurled his first barrel, but a year into the 360 era and a month from the dawning of the PlayStation 3, I think we’ve managed to put critical mass in our rear-view mirror — with a hockey game, of all things.

Outside of a loud, obtrusive soundtrack and a dubious “Pressure Control” feature, NHL2K7 offers almost nothing in the way of innovation over last year’s model other than mildly prettier pictures. If I’m paying $20, I can take solace in my updated rosters and the air-hockey minigame. At $60, I’m feeling cheated.

It’s obviously a question of degrees, because the price-point question doesn’t seem as big a deal when you’re talking about the $10 difference between the next- and now-gen versions of EA’s Madden or NBA Live — even though in both cases, the next-gen contestants offer fewer features and game play modes than their soon-to–be-dinosaur cousins. There, the choice to upgrade feels closer to opting for the special-edition version of X-Men: The Last Stand or adding fries to your value meal.

In a stroke of irony that cuts especially deep, the game’s designer, 2K Sports, is the company that helped tilt the balance of sports-game price points in favor of Joe Sixpack in the first place. When $20 copies of 2K‘s annual football game began flying out Best Buy doors in the front part of this decade, EA was happy to leap at the NFL’s offer of license exclusivity. Now, like everybody else, 2K finds itself being sliced to ribbons by the cutting edge economic demands of next-gen technology.

Cliff Blezsinski, game design’s resident celebrity narcissist, may have said it best when he observed earlier this year that the terms “sixty dollars” and “impulse buy” are pretty much mutually exclusive. An impulse buy is scoring a pack of Bubblicious in the grocery checkout lane, or tossing a perfectly good ten-spot away on a K-Fed disc. (Okay, the latter is actually just dumb, but you get the point.)

A few weeks ago, I cleared out a molding wing of my gaming collection at a garage sale, much to the delight of a neighborhood mom, who claimed she literally wept at the prospect of breaking her wallet to buy new next-gen games for her son.

With a new $700 console staring us in the face, she might want to set aside a few boxes of Kleenex.

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