For the first time since 2006, the holiday shopping season features a new gaming console in Nintendo’s Wii U, as well as a new handheld device, Sony’s PlayStation Vita. Even though these exciting, shiny new gadgets will generate excitement when unwrapped, the experiences aren’t where they need to be to justify the cost of entry, particularly in the case of the three-week-old Wii U.
Launched less than three weeks ago, the Wii U is Nintendo’s successor to the popular Wii. While Nintendo’s 2006 console quickly established itself as a pop culture phenomenon, thanks in large part to “Wii Sports,” the Wii U lacks a similar breakout hit. While it offers an upgrade in horsepower over its predecessor, its games thus far are not a noticeable leap forward from what can be found on Microsoft and Sony’s consoles.
Many Wii U launch titles, such as “Mass Effect 3,” “Assassin’s Creed III” and “Batman: Arkham City” have been available for months on other machines, and “Nintendo Land,” included with the $350 Wii U box, is no “Wii Sports.” Similarly, exclusives such as “New Super Mario Bros. U” and “ZombiU,” while decent, will still be available six months from now, perhaps at a discount.
In fact, the Wii U’s optimal audience right now is typical gaming early adopters. Folks, like me, who have to have every new gadget because they’re fascinated with where the technology is headed will still get into the Wii U and its GamePad, a fusion of touch-screen tablet and traditional controller.
Families who fight over the living room TV will appreciate that the Wii U lets gamers play some titles on the GamePad’s 6.2-inch screen while someone else in the room watches TV. Yes, the GamePad has a headphone jack. The only sounds the TV watcher will hear will be those of the gamer’s cursing every time Mario falls to his death.
Sony’s PlayStation Vita, available since February, doesn’t suffer from the same problem of lackluster software. Some of the handheld’s post-launch games, such as “LittleBigPlanet,” “Sound Shapes,” “Persona 4 Golden” and “Gravity Rush” are excellent. What’s hurting the Vita is the $250 or more price tag and the fact that, on top of that, players will also have to shell out money for overpriced memory cards. The 16 gigabyte card, the smallest size you should go for if you plan on downloading games, movies or add-ons, costs as much as $60.
Due to their ability to play games from older systems, the Wii U and Vita’s ideal audience at this point may be gamers who didn’t own a Wii or PlayStation Portable. Those gamers could buy the console and some cheap legacy software to play while they wait for price drops and better games. (Note: The Vita plays only downloadable PSP games, so don’t buy the gamer on your shopping list a Vita and a bunch of PSP game discs. They’ll be useless.)
On the market since 2011, Nintendo’s 3DS handheld looks much more enticing this Christmas than it did a year ago. Though the 3DS’s glasses-free 3D turned out largely to be a gimmick, the platform has seen a raft of solid games, particularly in the downloadable space, and the handheld’s ability to play all DS-era games makes it an alluring buy at $170, or $80 less than the launch price. What’s more, it uses standard SD and SDHC memory cards for storage, which ends up being cheaper than the Vita’s proprietary cards.
While there’s less reason to buy a Wii at this point, other than the cheap price and large game library, Sony’s PlayStation 3 and Microsoft’s Xbox 360 remain great systems despite their ages. I’ve even been recommending the PS3 and Xbox 360 to nongamers looking to drop cable TV, thanks to their ability to perform the same functions as set-top boxes like the Apple TV and Roku. As an added bonus, both of these long-in-the-tooth consoles feature massive lineups of cheap, great games as well as the latest hits.