Consoles have always been a great gift around Christmas time, whether it be for families trying to appease their children, partners looking for a long-lasting source of entertainment for their significant others, or just hardcore gamers waiting patiently for an upgrade.
But ever since the launch of the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One, the upgrade path from the previous generation has been difficult to justify for many. The initial launch window was marred by an underwhelming lack of choice, not helped by the delay of major exclusives and multi-platform titles such as Driveclub and Watch Dogs.
A year on, the libraries for both consoles have improved markedly. The server infrastructure has grown as well, and Microsoft and Sony’s mandatory multiplayer services – Xbox Live and PlayStation Plus – are providing more value for money every month.
There’s just one problem: the first-party exclusives aren’t exactly what you’d call ‘killer apps’.
Sony has had the worst of it this year, with their best offering being the remastered edition of The Last of Us, a game that’s more than 12 months old. The rest of the first-party crop isn’t much to crow about either: Knack was panned across the board, it took two months before Driveclub started working properly, and LittleBigPlanet 3 isn’t exactly the all-ages console seller Sony hoped it would be.
Microsoft has fared much better, with Sunset Overdrive and Forza Horizon 2 both receiving plaudits from gamers and gaming press alike. But neither is the kind of title you’d actively shell out hundreds of dollars for. They lack the known quantity of a Call of Duty, the star power of an Uncharted sequel, or the raw depth of Bloodborne, which won’t arrive until early next year.
The Xbox does, of course, have Halo, although the release of Halo: The Master Chief Collection has been marred by some extraordinary matchmaking issues. As of this week, 343 Industries are still pushing out patches to improve the “reliability of matchmaking parties”, a month after release.
So if the first-party exclusives are few and flawed, where does the discerning consumer turn for a hassle-free purchase this Christmas? The answer, remarkably, is Nintendo.
As bizarre and underpowered the console is compared to its big-budget cousins, the Wii U has had the benefit of time when it comes to ironing out its online infrastructure. The Nintendo eShop now offers a serviceable offering of downloadable titles from past eras, and the performance issues often heard about with major releases – this year in particular – are pleasantly absent from the Wii U, provided you’re not playing a Sonic game.
More importantly, the games are titles everyone wants to play. Nobody with a soul has not enjoyed a multiplayer session of Mario Kart 8, no matter how many blue shells and bullets interfered with proceedings. It’s the one game that every man, woman and child can unabashedly enjoy, whether they’re alone or with a group, irrespective of the ages or the size of that grouping.
Super Smash Bros doesn’t the wide appeal of Mario Kart, but that doesn’t mean it’s not one of the most likeable, party-friendly fighters on the market. The inclusion of the Amiibos gives the latest Smash Bros an addictiveness that only heightens the cult-like fervour around the game. And that’s not accounting for the sheer depth within Smash Bros that has kept the competitive community alive for a decade and a half.
Two games are good enough, but for a true Christmas present you really want a triumvirate. Enter Bayonetta 2, the sequel to the manic third-person action brawler. It’s difficult to appreciate just how wonderful Bayonetta can be in its magic-induced madness, so here’s the trailer instead.
There aren’t many games that let you dance-fight demons on a moving jet fighter while building your Umbran Climax metre. And there also aren’t many games that have a plot as remarkably incoherent and nonsensical as Bayonetta. But it does mean you get a crazy cabal of monsters and wonderfully vibrant combos to dispatch them with, making for a visual spectacle that plays a little like God of War on an acid trip.
You can’t get that experience on the PlayStation 4 or Xbox One right now and it’s farfetched to expect Sony or Microsoft to adopt the unusual perspective and craziness that Nintendo injects into their games. Sure, the Wii U could use plenty more third-party developers, but that doesn’t detract from the quality of the games that it has.
They work. They’re fun. The console is noticeably cheaper, the games have far fewer performance issues, and while the Wii U lacks the hardware in its more expensive rivals, that hasn’t stopped games like Bayonetta 2 or the upcoming Splatoon from looking beautiful in their own right.
It’s not the state of affairs I thought I’d see by the end of the year, but there’s no doubting that the Wii U is the console to buy this Christmas. As more exclusives launch on the PS4 and XB1 – especially without the problems that have beset so many major releases this year – that conclusion might change.
But for now, there’s no better bang for buck than the Bayonetta–Mario Kart–Smash Bros triumvirate.