With both Sony and Nintendo shipping next-generation video game consoles this season, it makes sense to start with video games, an industry that generates more money every year than all the content that comes out of Hollywood combined. Both the Sony PlayStation 3 and Nintendo Wii (pronounced "wee") provide unique advantages over Microsoft's year-old Xbox 360, but the Xbox 360 has one major advantage over the competition: Unlike the Sony and Nintendo units, you should have no problem finding an Xbox 360 this holiday season. So let's start there.
Microsoft Xbox 360
The Microsoft Xbox 360 video game console ($299 for the Core System, $399 for the Premium System) combines HD graphics with the best video gaming online service on the planet, as well as numerous digital media hub features, including TV and movie downloads, device connectivity, and Media Center Extender capabilities. And forget all that talk about PlayStation 3 superiority: Xbox 360 games are both plentiful and of higher quality than anything available for Sony's just-released system.
Microsoft sells two versions of the console, but you should skip the lower-end version, which lacks a hard drive, required for many of the Xbox's best features. Each system ships with one wireless controller and no game, so you'll need to purchase additional stuff to round out the gift.
Xbox 360 Games
When the Xbox 360 launched a year ago, there were only 18 games available, and few were standout hits. Today, there are well over 150 games, and the Xbox 360 has been graced by a number of unqualified hits. The biggest of these is Gears of War ($59.99), a blockbuster third-person shooter from the team that brought us the Unreal and Unreal Tournament games for the PC. Gears of War is the most graphically rich game yet created for any video game system, and it's incredibly atmospheric and immersive. It's also quite violent, so keep it away from the kids.
Following up on its 2005 hit Call of Duty 2, a sequel—imaginatively titled Call of Duty 3 ($59.99)—is also now available. Call of Duty 3 is even better than its predecessor, with better graphics, a tighter storyline that focuses on the Normandy Breakout portion of World War II, and intertwined story arcs that let you partake in the liberation of Paris from a variety of different Allied armies.
If shooters aren't your thing, there are plenty of excellent games available. Young kids will enjoy Viva Piñata ($59.99), which combines simple controls with a colorful, immersive world. The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion ($59.99) isn't exactly brand-new, but it's the best role-playing game available for the Xbox 360. Are you into sports? NBA 2K7 ($59.99) and Tiger Woods PGA Tour 07 ($59.99) are both decent. And let's not forget Madden NFL 07 ($59.99): The classic of the genre is better than ever this year, with new mini-games and nice blocking moves that can give your offense more yardage on each play. The best racing game on the Xbox 360, hands down, is the excellent Burnout Revenge ($59.99). And finally, I'd be remiss if I didn’t mention LEGO Star Wars II: The Original Trilogy ($59.99), which is absolutely hilarious and great fun for both kids and adults.
Beyond Xbox 360 Gaming
With the Xbox 360, Microsoft created a console that is about much more than games. You can connect the system over your home network to a Media Center PC by utilizing the Xbox 360's Media Center Extender interface to access live and recorded TV content as well as your digital photo, video, and music collections. The Xbox 360 can play both audio CDs and DVD movies, as well.
Best of all, Xbox 360 users can access the excellent Xbox Live service, which is available in two versions: a free Xbox Live Silver account and a subscription-based Xbox Live Gold account. Xbox Live Silver gives you with the ability to download games, software updates, game demos, movie trailers, personalization features for the Xbox 360 user interface, and rentable TV shows, movies, and other video content. But if you want to play against other gamers online, you'll need an Xbox Live Gold subscription ($49.99 per year).
You can also give gamers Xbox Live gift cards (various amounts), which they can use to buy Xbox Live Arcade games, TV and movie rentals, and other content via Xbox Live. It's the gift that keeps on giving.
Xbox 360 Accessories
The Xbox 360 is fine by itself, but there are a host of accessories available for the system that only make it better. Carrying over from last year are the 20GB hard drive ($99.99; required for backward compatibility with original Xbox titles and for downloadable video content), a 64MB Memory Unit ($39.99), additional wireless controllers ($39.99 each), and the highly recommended Charge & Play Kit ($19.99), which provides a rechargeable controller battery and a cable from which to charge it.
New for 2006 is the HD-DVD Player for Xbox 360 ($199.99), which is an extremely inexpensive way to sample one of the next-generation DVD challengers— assuming you already have an Xbox 360. The HD-DVD player is an external add-on device (it connects via USB), and if you buy it this holiday season, it comes with a free HD-DVD version of the movie Peter Jackson's King Kong. Also new is the Xbox 360 Wireless Headset Communicator ($59.99), but you might want to avoid this badly designed device and go with the cheaper (but wired) Xbox 360 Headset Communicator ($19.99). Finally, racing fans will want to check out Microsoft's Xbox 360 Wireless Racing Wheel ($149.99), an enormous steering wheel controller with connected pedals.
Although Nintendo's first batch of Wii consoles and add-ons sold out immediately, the company plans to sell 4 to 5 million of the devices in North America through the end of the year, so chances are you'll be able to get one if you try hard enough. And let's be clear here: If you have young kids who are into video games at all, you're going to want to seriously consider the Wii, which offers an unprecedented combination of kid-friendly game titles and an innovative controller system that will win over kids of all ages immediately. Here's how it works. The Wii comes with a wireless remote controller that looks like a white remote control, but it can also be held horizontally and used like a classic NES controller with some games. The beauty of this controller is that it features amazingly accurate motion-sensing capabilities. So when you play the bundled Wii Sports games, you actually swing the remote in the air like a baseball bat to hit the ball, and swing it like a bowler in order to hurtle a bowling ball down the lane. You can see where this is going: Kids intuitively grasp how the controller works and fall in love with it immediately. It's a winner.
In addition to the remote controller, the Wii includes a secondary Nunchuk controller, which is wired to the remote controller and used as a secondary input system on certain games. It features a standard analog controller, useful for moving characters in certain games, as well as the same motion-sensing technology used in the remote controller. The Wii also includes the aforementioned Wii Sports game disk as well as access to Nintendo's fun new online service, WiiConnect24, from which you can purchase and download classic NES, SNES, Nintendo-64 (N64), Sega Genesis, and NEC TurboGrafix-16 games. There aren't many available yet, but Nintendo is adding more all the time, and they're value-priced at $5 to $15 each. The Wii is also compatible with all Nintendo GameCube controllers, memory cards, and games, so users of that system can upgrade painlessly.
The Nintendo Wii ($249.99) console is available in only one version. It’s highly recommended if you can find one.
The selection of first-generation Wii games is as quirky as it is limited. There is no Wii-based Mario game—yet—but any Nintendo fanatic will tell you that Zelda is the way to go, and Nintendo has shown up with the well-received The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess ($49.99), which uses the new Wii remote controller to great effect.
When it comes to Wii games, avoid titles that are available on other systems for the most part. (For example, although Call of Duty 3 is available for the Wii, it's hard to use with the remote controller and Nunchuk and doesn't offer multiplayer features.) One exception is Madden NFL 07 ($49.99), which actually takes the target market for the Wii into account and presents a much simpler version of the game than is available on other platforms. Suddenly, football is kid-friendly.
Quirky and fun Wii-specific titles include Trauma Center: Second Opinion ($49.99), which, seriously, is a surgical video game that takes place in an anime world. Excite Truck ($49.99) requires you to hold the remote controller like a steering wheel, which is great fun, and Spongebob Squarepants: Creature from the Krusty Krab ($49.99) features both driving and flying, as well as a surprising range of other moves, which will leave kids both exhausted and giggling.
As with other video game systems, Wii owners are going to need a bunch of accessories. The system comes with a limited amount of onboard flash RAM for storing game data, but it also uses a standard Secure Digital (SD) slot for expansion, so any SD card (various prices and capacities) will do. All Wii users will need at least one extra remote controller ($39.99) and Nunchuk controller ($19.99). If you plan to buy any classic games online via WiiConnect24, be sure to grab a Wii Classic Controller ($29.99), as well.
Sony PlayStation 3
Let's be serious: Unless some sort of divine intervention occurs, you're not getting a PlayStation 3 this holiday season. But that doesn't mean you can't get ready. Sony's new console comes in two versions, a limited low-end PlayStation 3 (20 GB) ($499.99) that you should avoid, and a high-end PlayStation 3 (60 GB) ($599.99) that comes with all the bells and whistles. Yes, they're both very expensive—about $200 more than comparable Xbox 360s, as it turns out—but diehard gamers won't care. If you can't get a PlayStation 3 this year, consider getting your beleaguered gamer a $600 gift card to his or her favorite electronics store and anxiously wait a few months for the consoles to come in.
PlayStation 3 Games
Sony's selection of PlayStation 3 games is extremely limited, and you'll see some familiar favorites such as the superb Call of Duty 3 ($59.99), Madden NFL 07 ($59.99), and NBA Live 07 ($59.99), which operates in 1080p glory if you have a compatible HDTV and are able to find a PlayStation 3 HDMI cable. But the PlayStation 3 has some console-specific titles that are worth considering. The best is Resistance: Fall of Man ($59.99), a spectacular-looking shooter that takes place in an alternate reality in which aliens attack Earth during World War II.
PlayStation 3 Accessories
Every PlayStation 3 owner will need at least one PlayStation 3 Wireless Controller ($49.99), and HDTV owners will want the Monster PlayStation 3 HDMI Cable ($99.99) for the best picture quality. Sony also sells a PlayStation 3 Memory Card Adapter ($39.99) that lets you utilize PlayStation 2 memory cards with the PlayStation 3, letting you bring over saved games to the new system.
Other Video Game Options
Although the PlayStation 3 and Wii are garnering all the headlines this holiday season, previous-generation systems such as the Nintendo GameCube ($99) and Sony PlayStation 2 ($129) are a tremendous bargain and have some life left in them. Indeed, both systems benefitted from a final round of new game titles this season, and both systems are ideal for budget-minded families with small children. Meanwhile, Microsoft's original Xbox has seemingly dropped off the face of the Earth: There have been a few new game titles released for this system in recent weeks, but the consoles are hard to find and aren’t recommended. Stick with the Xbox 360.
Looking for an experience that comes at least passingly close to Nintendo's cool Wii controllers? Check out Guitar Hero II ($79.99), which includes a fairly realistic game guitar along with a PlayStation 2-compatible disk that, yes, will teach you to be a guitar hero like Eddie Van Halen. This game is fun for all ages. Other newish games worth checking out include Tom Clancey's Splinter Cell Double Agent ($39.99), Final Fantasy XII ($39.99), and NFL Street 07 ($39.99).
New GameCube games might be a bit harder to find, but there are some gems out there. LEGO Star Wars II: The Original Trilogy ($39.99) is absolutely great fun for kids of all ages, and Need for Speed Carbon ($39.99) is an above-average racing title. Sports fans should look into FIFA Soccer 07 ($39.99).
Portable Video Games
The big surprise last year was that Nintendo continued to dominate the handheld video game world with its DS system, which Nintendo upgraded with a sleeker new DS Lite model, available in various colors. But the DS isn't without competition: Sony's PlayStation Portable (PSP) offers a better screen, a nicer form factor, and some killer PlayStation-based games that are decidedly more adult than the kiddie titles that tend to show up on the DS.
Nintendo's new DS offering is the DS Lite ($129.99, various color versions), which is smaller and better-looking than its predecessor. Like the original DS, the DS Lite includes a unique clamshell design with two color LCD displays, one of which offers touch-screen capabilities. As with the Wii, you're best off sticking with tried-and-true Nintendo classics, such as the Mario series, or the quirky, unique game titles that seem to show up only on Nintendo's systems.
Sadly, few of the newer DS games are very good. Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam ($34.99) brings the ubiquitous skateboarding franchise to the DS to good effect, and Nintendogs: Dalmatian & Friends (or the similar Chihuahua & Friends, Dachshund & Friends, and Labrador Retriever & Friends (all $32.99) take one of the DS's most successful series to the next level, although owners of the original Nintendogs might want to pass on this generation. Fans of platform scrollers—read: Mario fans—will want to check out Yoshi's Island ($29.99), as well. As always, DS owners will be interested in accessories, too: Consider carrying cases, screen protectors, and replacement styli.
Although I'm surprised that the PSP hasn't fared better against the DS, Sony's handheld game system is still an industry unto itself, with an excellent market for game titles and add-ons. Graphically, the PSP is similar to the PlayStation 2, and it features an integrated controller that's very reminiscent of the PlayStation 2 dual-shock controller. And although you can still purchase some DVD-like movies in the PSP's unique UMD format, this phenomenon seems to be dying a natural death, so stick with DVDs unless you plan to travel with the PSP regularly.
The PSP is available in a few versions. There is a standalone PlayStation Portable (PSP) Core ($199) and the PlayStation Portable (PSP) Entertainment Pack ($249), the latter of which includes one game (ATV Offroad Fury), one UMD movie (Lords of Dogtown), and a 1GB MemoryStick Pro Duo.
Some of the best new PSP games include Lumines II ($29.99), a sequel to the wildly popular and addictive puzzler Lumines ($19.99), which is still available; the graphically violent Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories ($49.99); and the World War II shooter Medal of Honor Heroes ($39.99), which combines Call of Duty-style game play with multiplayer support.
As with the DS, consider carrying cases, screen protectors, and other accessories for any PSP fans. Sony sells a PSP Battery Pack ($19.99) and PSP Media Manager software ($15.99), which helps you transfer music, movies, and photos from your PC to the device.