These days, the Christmas carol on every gamer's lips has a simple refrain: Wii or PlayStation 3? Frankly, the more appropriate tune might be: Xbox 360 or raincheck? The special holiday edition of System Shortages 2006 isn't quite as brutal as last year's Xbox 360 debacle, but most of the gamers down in Whoville are going to feel awfully Grinched when there's no new next-gen system lurking underneath their holiday tree.
At least they can say they've been entertained. The throwdown between Sony's $600 monster and Nintendo's $250 Wii has already given us plenty to talk about — shootings, people crashing headlong into metal poles in Wal-Marts and, predictably, a Bill O'Reilly meltdown on the decline of American culture. Who says Christmas doesn't come early?
The PS3 may eventually win the war. At the moment, it's clearly losing the media-buzz battle — the New York Times savaged Sony's powerful system as convoluted and incomplete, while Time magazine log-rolled their exclusive first look at the Wii by dubbing Wii Sports, the system's entertaining pack-in game, "the best video game ever." (Uh, say what?) Happily, the pocketbooks of all those would-be PS3 Scrooges, uh, scalpers who camped out to convert a coveted launch-day purchase into a $2,500 eBay windfall have lost, too; the flooded supply dropped bids closer to $1,000. (Small victories, people.)
We won't know which company's standing tallest until January — or maybe much, much later — but here's my $600 take: A year from now, the PS3's game library will have grown like a late-blooming Christmas turkey, fattened on system-exclusive games to the point where the console will feel more like a must-have than a bargain-priced Blu-ray player. Right now, neither system has a launch lineup that's even close to jaw-dropping; with a handful of notable exceptions, it's sequels, sports and racing games, just like it always seems to be.
It's the Wii, unexpectedly, that's captured that elusive must-have mojo, thanks to some brilliant marketing and that wacky motion-sensor controller. Want proof? Fans of Link, Nintendo's poster-elf, aren't even grousing that the graphics in the Wii's launch-beast, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, aren't all that. Instead, they're busily waving the remote around to cast spells, swashbuckle and land a trout.
Oh, and by the way, Nintendo's "Wii would like to play" ad campaign also trumps Sony's PS3's oilslick bleed. Word.
Deck the halls with blasts of plasma
The biggest guns under the mistletoe belong to Resistance: Fall of Man (PS3) and Gears of War (Xbox 360). Both have impressive arsenals and impressive graphics, both feature an us-against-the-aliens storyline and both would love to drape the "killer app" sash across their bleeding, armored deltoids. I'm giving the nod to Gears, which feels like the next evolution of Unreal Tournament, plays like a riveting, life-or-death game of paintball and features a gun with a chain saw at the end of it. (Brilliant!) Resistance is an entertaining ride in its own right, but it can't quite escape the sense that it's just a Frankenstein hybrid of Half-Life, Medal of Honor and Doom. If you're going to pull, pull from the classics.
Role-playing games are this year's ghost of Christmas past come back with a vengeance to kick the Scrooge out of all those pedestrian sequels that crop up at this time of year. While PS3 owners finally get to taste what Xbox 360 owners have been cooking for more than a year with their very own version of Elder Scrolls IV, Oblivion, the PC crowd gets another perpetual mod-making machine in Neverwinter Nights 2. With not one, but two great Final Fantasy games to sink your thumbs into — Final Fantasy III for the Nintendo DS and the long-awaited Final Fantasy XII for PlayStation 2 — those who'd like to spend the holidays playing someone's else's life are well-served, indeed.
God rest ye, merry PS2?
Speaking of ghosts, those who think the release of the PS3 has dropped a hefty yule log on the head of its last-gen predecessor may want to wait before tossing that slim black console into the closet. Until Sony sorts out all the backward compatibility issues with the PS2's vast library — or migrates all the sequels to the PS3 — the PlayStation 2 isn't just the only place where you can play a PS2 game with rumble effects; it's the only place to play some of this year's best games.
Start with Bully, Rockstar's slingshot saunter through the halls of reform school, then jump to the operatic adventure that is Final Fantasy XII. And don't forget Guitar Hero 2, a sequel that finally answers the question: Why should Jack Black and Bruce Willis be the only ones who get to look stupid holding a guitar and shredding to "Carry On Wayward Son"?
I saw three sequels come sailing in …
Actually, sequels are clogging the harbor like shoppers clog the aisles at Kmart on Black Friday. Here are the four that are worth your time: Call of Duty 3 (Xbox 360), Lumines 2 (PSP), Tony Hawk's Project 8 (Xbox 360) and Destroy All Humans 2 (PS2).
Here are four you should avoid like Aunt Marge's Christmas dinner: Mortal Kombat Armageddon (PS2), Need for Speed Carbon (Xbox 360), NBA Live 07 (Xbox 360) and Stronghold Legends (PC). God bless us, every one.
Christmas always brings out the weird, and this season is no exception. Let's start with Viva Pinata, a truly bizarro Xbox 360 game that finds you tending and developing a garden in order to attract an array of brightly colored, often cranky piñatas. Amazingly, this is fun as hell, despite the fact that no delicious candy or piñata-bashing is involved.
I would have pegged Left Behind: Eternal Forces, a PC game based on the infamous series of Christian-themed books about the post-Rapture throwdown between good and evil, as an obvious Macy's-sized turkey. Not so: Not only is this real-time strategy game play unexpectedly solid, but the sight of units of Christian singers competing for souls against legions of heavy-metal rockers notches at least an 11 on the unintentional comedy scale; and the game doesn't even include Kirk Cameron, for God's sake.
Finally, there's Elite Beat Agents for the Nintendo DS, an experience that's freakier than having William Shatner run the open bar at your holiday office party. (Shat-tastic!) Tapping, swiping and circling the stylus to the beat of "Sk8r Boi" as a set of suit-sporting agents bust moves that might even make Emmitt Smith jealous sounds slightly beyond stupid. Surprise! It's totally addictive, one of the hardest games going and features more laugh-out-loud cut scenes than the PC versions of Desperate Housewives: The Game.
O, little town of handheld-hem
Talk about your Tale of Two Cities: Nintendo's little Handheld That Could is suddenly an old-school gamer's paradise. Not only does one of the Game Boy Advance's best-ever platformers get a wonderfully worthy sequel in Yoshi's Island 2, but role-players finally get to sink their teeth into Final Fantasy III, the only FF game that's never been released stateside. Turns out that old-school job system is a killer ghost of Christmas past — especially with a now-gen graphical update.
The buzz on the game lineup for Sony's PSP has been, by contrast, one big ol' "Silent Night." Still, a couple of ports not named Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories are worth checking out: NFL Street 3 fixes all those imbalanced gamebreaker issues that dogged Versions One and Two and lets you send Joey Harrington 20 feet into the air (just make sure you turn off the death-metal soundtrack). Gun: Showdown, meanwhile, captures the same Wild West action that made last year's Gun on PS2 such a six-shooter blast. As an added bonus, you can now shoot cannons and quails. He's too busy chasing a new cell phone to ask him, but I'm fairly certain Ralphie Parker's green with firstname.lastname@example.org