I keep getting asked this and the answer is, of course, ‘That depends.’
What games do they want to play?
Where do they want to play them?
What consoles do their friends have?
These are the questions that will really make the decision for you. If they want to play a game online with their friends and their friends all have PS3s, then you’ll need a PS3. If the game they’re hankering after is only on Wii U, then deep down you already know what you have to do. If they want to play on the bus, then this is not the post for you. I’m only going to deal with home consoles here. (Advice on handhelds coming soon!)
But I'm getting ahead of myself here. You're probably lost already. The main options are pictured above: Nintendo Wii U, Microsoft Xbox 360 (with Kinect camera), Sony PlayStation 3 and Nintendo Wii. What's the difference and which should you get? Well, that's quite a long answer. A few simple questions can narrow down the field but there’s still much to be considered, pondered and argued over. Games consoles are confusing if you don’t play games yourself. Here’s some information to help you figure out what’s going on:
(If it all becomes too much, skip to the helpful conclusion at the end...)
PlayStation 4 and Xbox One
Let's start by getting two extra options out of the way. The new PlayStation 4 and Xbox One come out in November and will undoubtedly be great but they’ll initially be expensive and won’t have a huge selection of games. Also, if you haven’t pre-ordered one already, the chances are you won’t be able to get hold of one before Christmas now anyway. Move along.
This is the console where you can play tennis by waving a controller around.
You can probably pick up one somewhere second-hand really cheap. There’s a large back catalogue of child-friendly games (mostly with ‘Mario’ somewhere in the title) and it’ll work fine on an old-fashioned telly. Bear in mind, it will only be a stop-gap measure, though. Nintendo ceased making games for it years ago and the console itself is going out of production soon. Getting hold of decent games for it may become tricky surprisingly quickly. Also, whatever you do, don’t buy a Wii Mini - they’re Wiis with online removed so you can’t download games or watch Netflix or iPlayer on them.
Nintendo Wii U
This is the console with a small screen in the controller.
The Wii U has a great selection of Nintendo games suitable for children and there are more on the way but it’s not been hugely popular, making it a slightly risky proposition. Nintendo are unlikely to abandon it, however, and there may be some good deals around in an effort to increase sales. Most games are played on the TV with extra info on the gamepad touchscreen. This allows multiplayer games where one person has different tasks than the others. Some games can be switched to play solely on the gamepad, freeing up the telly for someone else to use. The graphics on Wii U are much improved over those on the Wii and on a par with PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. The premium pack is much better value than the basic pack.
Importantly, the Wii U can play nearly all Wii games perfectly if you buy some Wii controllers (and you have a sensor bar. You did get the premium pack, didn't you?). Equally importantly, you need to have children that you can trust to not drop the gamepad - it feels much more fragile than other game controllers.
Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3
These are the consoles you'll struggle to tell apart even once it's been explained to you. Nonetheless, they're currently great value, have a vast choice of games and will still be supported by their manufacturers for a few years yet.
In terms of games, the basic Microsoft Xbox 360 and Sony PlayStation 3 have very similar selections. The most noticeable exceptions for kids being that only the PS3 has LittleBigPlanet but it doesn’t have Minecraft. (Although a PS3 version of Minecraft is allegedly on its way.) Also, obviously, neither of them let you play Nintendo games.
You can get the Kinect camera add-on for the 360 which opens up a whole world of dance, fitness and party games. You really need about ten feet square of open space in front of your telly for it to work properly, though. Even then, it can be temperamental. Worse, anyone else in the area, whether walking across the room or sitting quietly reading a book, is liable to disrupt the game. It’s a novelty and nothing more. The same mostly goes for the wand-like Move controller on PS3.
Both 360 and PS3 have subscription services which cost around £40 a year. Xbox LIVE Gold is necessary to play 360 games online with friends and offers discounts on downloadable games. Microsoft is also offering 2 free games a month to subscribers at the moment. Unfortunately the scheme may not last long and the games are very old anyway. PlayStation Plus, meanwhile, offers a whole stack of games to play. At least two are available to download each month on top of an annual selection. Most are under 18 months old. The catch is that the games are only playable for as long as you subscribe - cancel your membership and you won’t be able to start them up without rejoining. There’s a mix of games suitable for children and adults. Games for the handheld PlayStation Vita are also included if you have one of those.
It’s free to play games online on PS3 and to use services like iPlayer. Netflix and LOVEFiLM can be used if you are subscribed to them. On Xbox, Gold membership is required to use the services on top of the regular subscriptions.
Personally, thanks to PlayStation Plus, I think PS3 is a much better option than Xbox 360. PS3 also plays Blu-ray high definition movie discs. (Don’t forget you’ll need an HD telly and cable!) The main reason to get a 360 would be to play online with friends who have one already (or you really, really want to dance in front of Kinect).
PS3 and 360 are available with different sizes of hard-drive. Don’t bother with the 12GB or 4GB ones - they’ll fill up almost instantly. Anything else should be fine.
It’s worth checking what cables come with a new console. Wii, PS3 and 360 usually have composite/SCART connectors to hook up to an old-fashioned telly. This is really the only option for Wii but a crime for PS3 and 360. Using a PS3 or 360 on an old TV means much graphical detail will be lost and some text may be unreadable. Buy an HDMI cable and connect to an HD TV or monitor. Wii U only comes with HDMI. (If you really have to connect to an old telly, you’ll need to hunt around for another cable.)
You may also need extra controllers. These are often stupidly expensive but you’ll just have to find a good deal or suck it up. Fortunately, multiplayer on the Wii U doesn’t involve the monumental cost of extra gamepads but uses Wii controllers instead. If you have a Wii, you can use the controllers you've already got.
(Note: Buying normal remote-control-shaped Wii controllers is actually confusing in itself. You want ones with Motion Plus built in to ensure compatibility with all games and you'll also need the nunchuk add-on. Wii Play Motion Plus is a mini-game collection which comes with a Motion Plus controller and is (weirdly) usually cheaper than a controller on its own. Wii Party U is another possibility once it's out. An 'official' made-by-Nintendo nunchuk - the wired attachment with extra buttons and a little thumbstick - is usually about £15. Definitely get one official controller and nunchuk as your main set for regular single player use. After that, you might want to look around on eBay/Amazon for a seller with a good feedback rating who's selling unofficial sets. For the full five-player experience on a game like NintendoLand you need four controller/nunchuk sets (as one player uses the Wii U gamepad). Realistically, though, most of the time there's going to be one or two players and three of the controller/nunchuk sets are going to be sitting in a drawer. The unofficial sets will have a lower build quality and the ones I got were a little finicky about making the wireless connection during initial set up but they're a quarter of the price. If you really have to go for official controllers, however, the cheapest way might actually be to buy a job-lot of second-hand Wiis!)
That’s a lot of information. You may be bamboozled, so here’s a summary:
- If you or your kids want to play online with a friend, get what the friend has.
- If you have a rubbish telly or small children, pick up a Wii. It’ll be plenty good enough for now. You can get something shinier later.
- If your kids are a bit older, they’re the only ones who are going to use the console and you have the cash, go for the Wii U. You’ll be able to get up to date games but still be able to play the old Wii ones.
- If adults or teenagers are going to play, you fancy a way to get Netflix on your telly or you want the ability to play Blu-ray, then get a PS3. As a bonus you can subscribe to PlayStation Plus and get lots of games cheaply.
- If you have to leap around like a fool, cursing at the telly, get an Xbox 360 and Kinect.