Harry Potter, James Bond, a kleptomaniac raccoon, a time-traveling cat, a murderous thug and a topless bicycle stuntwoman are all characters appearing in the season's hottest video games.

This holiday, 36 percent of Americans expect to give or receive a video game as a gift, according to the Interactive Digital Software Association.

"Video games are doing better and better," said Justin Stanley of Marz Distribution, a toy and game distributor. "They're a very good Christmas gift."

For the late-teen to late-20s set, the most popular games are the most realistic-looking, and violent ones.

This season's top seller for Sony PlayStation 2 is Rockstar Games' "Grand Theft Auto: Vice City," which has criminals murdering, carjacking and stealing their way to victory in a scenic but corrupt beach setting.

"We've found that a lot of people purchase PlayStation 2 just to play this product," said Molly Smith, a spokeswoman from Sony Computer Entertainment America.

Another hit among mature gamers is "Hitman 2: Silent Assassin" -- available for PlayStation 2, Microsoft Xbox and PC -- where players take on the role of a sniper. The sci-fi "Halo," in which players kill aliens, is also sought after this year.

Other action games that older players might be happy to find in their stockings: "Resident Evil Zero" (about a killer from the living dead), "Metroid Prime" (where a space soldier battles an alien), "BloodRayne" (in which a sexy vampiress fights through a supernatural world), and "Splinter Cell" (where players eliminate terrorist operatives).

"Older gamers have been playing 'cutesy' for a long time and there's been a large shift to make up for what's been missing in the market," Ned Jordan, editor of GamersTemple.com, said of the influx of violent adventure games.

The Mature-rated "Vice City" has such realistic, violent graphics, some parents are putting their foot down about buying it and other explicit M- and Teen-rated games.

"You have to look at them," said mother M.C. Keegan-Ayer of Maryland, whose children are 13, 11 and 9. "If it's completely gross or making fun of police, I don't want them playing it. I don't want them figuring out how to be a sniper. That's crossing the line."

Keegan-Ayer said all her children are video-game fans, but she closely monitors what they have access to.

"They make a list for Christmas; I'll check them out," she said. "If need be, I'll ask the guys in the store to play them so I can look at the graphics."

Luckily, there are plenty of other options for gamers. There are cartoonish ones for younger kids -- like the Xbox game "Blinx: The Time Sweeper" about a time-traveling kitty and PlayStation 2's "Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus" about a raccoon burglar.

There are also imaginative offerings like "The Sims Online," "Zoo Tycoon" and "Rollercoaster Tycoon 2," which have players creating and managing zoos and amusement parks.

And holiday shoppers this year are snapping up games inspired by movies -- like Activision's "Spider-Man" and "Minority Report," as well as Electronic Arts' "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" and "Bond 007: Nightfire."

"Anything Harry Potter will sell," Stanley said. "And Spider-Man is a very good, playable game for both younger and older kids."

The Harry Potter and 007 games have the added advantage of their blockbuster-film counterparts hitting theaters just in time for the holidays.

"If there's a movie out and a video game at the same time, it will do well," said Stanley.

The investment bank Gerard Klauer Mattison surveyed retailers last month about what games would sell well this holiday season, according to analyst Edward Williams.

On the list for PlayStation 2: "Vice City," "Tony Hawk ProSkater 4," "Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers," "Madden," "Harry Potter: Chamber of Secrets," "SOCOM: U.S. Navy SEALs," "WWE Smackdown! Shut Your Mouth," "NBA Live 2003" and "NBA 2K3."

For Xbox: "Tony Hawk," "Medal of Honor," "Madden," "Splinter Cell," "NBA 2K3," "DOA Beach Volleyball," "NBA Live," "Mech Assault," "Harry Potter" and "Shenmue 2."

For Nintendo Game Cube: "Resident Evil Zero," "Metroid Prime," "Harry Potter," "Tony Hawk," "Super Mario Sunshine," "Medal of Honor," "Madden" and "NBA Live."

For Nintendo's Game Boy Advance: "Harry Potter," "Super Mario Advance 3," "Yu-Gi-Oh," "Tony Hawk" and "WWE Road to WrestleMania."

Despite video games' popularity, not everyone will be giving games, which can run as high as $70 apiece, as gifts.

"I won't have any video games under the tree this year," said Indianapolis father Jim Smith. "The ones they want are too expensive."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.