With the launch of the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One November, the next generation of console gaming has officially begun.
What gets left out of many articles, blog posts, and slideshows talking up the new consoles is that there's already been a next-gen console on the market for a year: the Wii U, Nintendo's follow-up to smash-hit Wii, was released November 2012.
While the new consoles from Sony and Microsoft promise beautiful graphics and a plethora of integrated online services, they're expensive — $399 and $499, respectively — and most of the games that have people excited for them don't come out until Spring 2014 at the earliest.
For the avid gamer who likes a bargain, the Wii U is the best system you can buy this holiday season for a combination of great games, cool hardware, and fantastic pricing.
The Wii U has great games available now
When the Wii U first came out, its library of games was as anemic as those on the PlayStation 4 or Xbox One — maybe even more so.
A year later, the situation has pulled a complete 180: some of the best games Nintendo has ever made are on the Wii U. In a smart move, the company even throws one of them in with the console.
Since September, Nintendo has offered a $299 bundle that includes a digital copy (you have to download it) of 2003's "The Legend Of Zelda: Wind Waker" remade with the high-resolution textures and beautiful lighting from today's games, new controls that take advantage of the Wii U's GamePad, and a few changes to the gameplay that eliminate the biggest complaints people had against the original release.
I've played through about a third of the game since picking up the Wii U, but I'll be honest: if I didn't have to look at the other titles in this piece, I could have easily spent the last few days putting all of my time into exploring the beautiful world in "Wind Waker."
Of course, one game thrown in with a console doesn't make it worth it for everybody. That's where the Wii U's year lead comes in.
Since the Wii U's launch, a number of fantastic titles have joined the system's growing catalog, from the real-time strategy "Pikmin 3" to the side-scrolling platformer "New Super Mario Bros. U."
Just this month, Nintendo launched the latest in its series of 3D Mario platformers, "Super Mario 3D World." Combining elements of previous console titles like "Super Mario Galaxy" and the 3DS's "Super Mario 3D Land," "3D World" is probably the best platformer Nintendo has ever made.
I know that sounds hyperbolic, but I'm not the only one saying it: if you look at our round up of reviews for the game, other critics claim that it approaches "perfection" and marvel at Nintendo's technical prowess.
What's truly amazing about the game is the wide audience that it appeals to: kids will love it because of the marvelous graphics and cute humor, parents will like it because it doesn't have the violence and language prevalent in many popular games today, and hardcore gamers will love it because fully beating the game requires a ton of skill and dedication.
For those who want a bit more action in their gaming diet, there's "The Wonderful 101," a ridiculously stylish title that puts the player in control of a team of superheroes that can transform into giant weapons based on the shapes the player draws on the GamePad's touchscreen:
If a year's lead on exclusives wasn't enough, the Wii U sports backwards compatibility with the Wii (unlike the PS4 or Xbox One, which can't play games released on last-gen consoles), meaning you can swap out the Wii for the Wii U in your living room and still have access to all of your old games.
It also means that there's an entire generation's worth of games that you can pick up and play for super-low prices.
Fans of old-school gaming will also be happy to know that Nintendo's Virtual Console has many of the best games from the NES and Super Nintendo, with games from the N64 and Game Boy Advance coming soon.
For prices comparable to those on Apple's App Store, you can pick up classic titles like "Mega Man X," "Super Metroid," and "Earthbound" and play them on your television or directly on the GamePad's built-in screen.
As we reported back in August, that's because some developers simply don't want to put the extra effort into making a game for hardware that's not quite as slow as last-gen systems and not quite as fast as its current-gen competitors without the assurance that they'll have sales that make up for the effort.
For now, that's sure to be a deal-breaker for many hardcore gamers. But if the sales boost the console is getting from the flurry of titles released over the last few months (and from "Super Smash Bros." and "Mario Kart" next year) can lead to as big of a turn-around as Nintendo managed to pull off with the Nintendo 3DS, we could hear a change of tune from the developers who are still holding out on the console.
The GamePad is like a mix between a controller and a tablet
If there's one thing that immediately stands out about the Wii U, it's the controller that Nintendo bundles with every system.
Part game controller and part tablet, the GamePad does for the Wii U what the touchscreen does for the Nintendo DS and 3DS: it provides a convenient way to display information like the items you're carrying or where you're at in a game without having to pause the action by opening a menu.
It also serves as a miniature display for gaming when the main television is in use or otherwise unavailable — like when friends/family/roommates want to watch Netflix or sports.
While it's certainly no Retina display, the GamePad's resolution is high enough that you can still appreciate how pretty games look and read important in-game text. While the PlayStation 4 offers a similar Remote Play feature, one also needs to own a $199 PlayStation Vita in addition to the PS4 in order to use it.
In terms of actual size, the screen is somewhere between a large "phablet" like Samsung's Galaxy Note 3 and a 7-inch tablet. While that real estate was necessary to make it usable for playing games on, it does come with a bit of a drawback: the GamePad is massive. Everyone I showed it to thought that it was the console based on how big it is.
With that said, it's far less dense than you'd expect from looking at it. I had no problem holding it at length while playing games on the GamePad's display, and when you have the Wii U hooked up to a TV its weight becomes a non-issue because you can simply rest it on your lap as you play.
Navigating menus on a Nintendo console has never been smoother than on the Wii U. As on the original Wii and on the 3DS, apps and games are arranged in rows of icons above a clean, white background.
Thanks to the responsive touchscreen on the Wii U, moving between pages of apps is incredibly smooth, and the new operating system lets you quickly check your download progress or look something up online in seconds with a tap of the home button in the center of the GamePad.
If there's any real flaw with the GamePad, it's battery life. After two or three hours of gaming on its display, the low-battery LED began flashing wildly, demanding that I plug the GamePad into its charger, which unfortunately requires its own wall socket — there's no USB port on the GamePad for plugging it into the Wii U itself like you can with controllers on the PS3 or PS4.
For sneaky parents with younger children, this could be seen as a feature: just tell your kids that it has to be turned off and resting in the included charging dock for an easy way to impose a time limit on their gaming.
The console offers a lot of fun in an affordable package
When it comes down to it, most people have to look at price when making the decision to buy a gadget like a gaming console.
If you're looking for a good deal, the Wii U simply blows the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One out of the water.
For roughly $20 more than a PlayStation 4 and no games (with sales tax included), I was able to pick up a Wii U with three brand-new games containing dozens of hours of content to play through.
Then there's the Xbox One. Not only does it cost $200 more out of the gate, it also requires a $60/year subscription fee to play online, use Internet Explorer to browse the web, or to use entertainment apps like Netflix.
That's not the case on the Wii U: as long as you've got a working Netflix or Amazon Instant Video account, you can use those apps as soon as you've got the console set up and updated.
Of course, I'm sure this post is going to get a bunch of comments about how I was silly to pick up a Wii U because of how much more powerful the PS4 and Xbox One are, price be damned.
My only response to that is: "So what?"
This early in the console cycle, most developers simply haven't gotten comfortable enough with the new hardware to really take advantage of them. Games just aren't that much prettier on the latest consoles than they are the Wii U or even last-gen systems like the PS3 or Xbox 360 — yet.
In a few years, the PS4 and Xbox One will have games that make today's lineup look downright ugly. Instead of dropping the full price on a system for a few mediocre games that look incrementally better in anticipation of buying amazing titles in a couple of years, why not buy a console that actually has games worth buying now?
By the time games that actually push those consoles hit the market, both the PS4 and the Xbox One will likely have at least one price drop each.
Since Wii U games are generally $10 less than their equivalents on other systems, you can enjoy just as many games in the interim period and still save up for buying whichever of the two other consoles happens to have your preferred exclusives — or more of your friends as owners — two or three years down the line.
While fanboys argue the merits of their favorite system and the undecided weigh the pros and cons of each option, I'll be here stomping on Koopas with Mario and the gang.
Questions about the Wii U or its games? Leave them in the comment section below and I'll address them to the best of my ability.