If you're thinking about buying a new video game console for your child this holiday season, here are some things to keep in mind.
Update on November 21, 2016: I originally wrote this post back in 2013 in the lead up to the release of the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. Considering how popular it remains in Google search results, though, I thought it worth revisiting.
I have also added more information about Nintendo's current and upcoming systems. They have a new console, the Nintendo Switch, in March 2017. That's worth considering if you want to buy a video game system for your family any time soon.
For more video game news, reviews and features, check out guidelive.com/geek.
What games are family friendly?
On all three consoles: The Xbox One, PS4 and Wii U boast a new entry in a series that has been very popular with kids for years: Skylanders: Imaginators, which is a "toys to life" game that involves physical toys that you can buy (sold separately) to add new characters and features to your games.
A newer entry into this genre of games is Lego Dimensions, which originally featured characters from hit franchises like Lord of the Rings and Scooby-Doo. This year, that same game is expandable with new play sets and characters, including Sonic the Hedgehog, the new Ghostbusters, and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Like many Lego toys, they're not going to be the cheapest thing on your child's wish list this holiday season, but playing through levels based on Mission: Impossible as Bart Simpson and the Doctor from Doctor Who is an experience that you simply won't find anywhere else.
A game that seemingly every kid today either plays or wants to play, Minecraft, is also available on on all three consoles. The Wii U version of the game comes with an exclusive bonus: the Super Mario Mash-Up pack, which allows you to create worlds that look like they could have come straight from a Super Mario Bros. game.
There is also a story-based adventure game, Minecraft: Story Mode, from Telltale games. This is an episodic series that's being released in chunks, so while you can buy the entirety of season one right now, an Internet connection is required to download new episodes as they become available.
For two-player fun, the non-Dimensions Lego series of video games is still going strong. Lego Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the latest and greatest of those.
I'm also quite fond of Rayman Legends, a 2D platformer with some fantastic art that can be fun for all ages.
Exclusive to the Xbox One: There's Disney's Fantasia: Music Evolved (also available on Xbox 360), which requires the Kinect camera but is a fun motion-controlled music game from Disney and the makers of Rock Band.
There's also the management game Zoo Tycoon (also available on Xbox 360) and the beautiful 2D side-scrolling game Ori and the Blind Forest.
Exclusive to PS4: If you're into simple platforming and level creation, LittleBigPlanet 3 isn't bad. If you're more into a cute adventure, Tearaway is much more clever.
A PS4 launch game, Knack, isn't the best kids game around, but as it's been out for a few years now you might be able to find it in a bargain bin somewhere.
Exclusive to Wii U: Nintendo is sort of the Disney of video games, and as such they have the biggest collection of high-quality games that can be enjoyed by all ages. Anything with Mario, Kirby, Yoshi or most of Nintendo's other characters should be a safe bet.
The Wii U also has the most family-friendly online multiplayer game available: Splatoon.
Can the new system play our old games?
The Wii U is fully compatible with all Wii games. However, Nintendo's next system, the Switch (which will get to later), is not expected to be compatible with any disc-based games at all.
In the case of the PlayStation 4, no. The system is not backwards compatible, and none of your PS3 games will work in your PS4. Sorry.
The Xbox One, however, recently added backwards compatibility as a feature. With a catch: Only a select number of old Xbox 360 games are compatible, though the list has been growing steadily over the last year. An Internet connection is also required, even if you own the disc for the game you want to play (a backwards compatible version of the game is downloaded to your system).
Microsoft has a list of well over 100 Xbox 360 games currently playable on the Xbox One, which includes both games on discs and digital games that were only available as a download. In terms of games enjoyable for all ages, that list includes Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts, Lego Star Wars: The Complete Saga, Lego Pirates of the Caribbean, Plants vs. Zombies, Viva Pinata and a few others here and there.
If your child is old enough to be playing games online, you should know that both Microsoft and Sony will demand a monthly fee for this functionality on their new systems. The Xbox One has Xbox Live, which is generally about $60 a year (though you can find subscription cards for cheaper. I tend to buy them for $40). The PS4 has PlayStation Plus, which sells for $50 a year. Lately, both services have offered free downloadable games for their subscription members, but Sony has so far been much more successful at this, offering several free games every month for their fans.
Both systems also have voice chat functionality (the Xbox One has full HD video chat via Skype), web browsers, support for services like Hulu and Netflix and more. Most of Sony’s online services are free to all, while Microsoft has traditionally been more likely to lock theirs behind the Xbox Live paywall (though an entire family can benefit from one Xbox Live Gold account this time around).
The Wii U doesn't demand a subscription for online games, but it also has by far the weakest library of games that can be played online.
All current systems have robust parental control options that can lock out select content for child accounts. You can, for example, restrict games that have a certain ESRB rating (such as M for Mature), which alone is a worthwhile feature. The same restrictions can be applied to DVDs and Blurays.
You can also limit what online interactions your child can take part in, disabling features like the web browser and chat functionalities, as well as the ability to play multiplayer games online.
Both systems also have options to restrict access to their digital stores. On the Xbox you can turn off access altogether or limit downloads to only products that are free. On the PS4 you can turn off access or set a monthly spending limit for PlayStation Store purchases.
You can find more information about setting these controls up from Microsoft and Sony, though both systems do a pretty good job of walking you through the process when you set up the console and/or account for the first time.
The cost of controllers:
Both the Xbox One and PS4 only come with one controller by default, and neither system is compatible with the previous system’s controllers. And extras won’t come cheap. Both retail for $59.99 each.
On the plus side, both controllers are fantastic. Still, if you want to buy three extra controllers so a family of four can play a game, it’s going to get pricey.
Of note is the battery life of the PS4 controller, which is not great. If you plan on playing game for hours at a time, keep a long charging cable handy. The Xbox One uses standard AA batteries out of the box.
Keep in mind, too, that not all games even support four players at a time. Skylanders, Disney Infinity and the Lego games, for example, are limited to two people at a time.
The Wii U's primary controller, the GamePad, comes with the system, and the system only ever supports one. Additional players can use the same controllers that were used with the Wii, so additional purchases might not be necessary.
Is one of these systems really the best family friendly option?
If you're buying the system purely for a child (i.e. it won't be played by any adults in the house), and if that child is under the age of 13, then you probably don't need an Xbox One or PlayStation 4 right now.
If you're looking into a new console for a teenager that wants to play games like Destiny, Halo or Star Wars: Battlefront with friends then it might be time to invest. Both systems have been out for long enough now that they've built up solid libraries of games that aren't available on older hardware, making them with an upgrade (or worthy of being a first-time console).
Same goes for if you're a gaming adult that wants to check out games like Titanfall 2, Rise of the Tomb Raider or Doom for yourself but want some kid friendly options as well. While the systems don't exactly have a wealth of games for kids, there are at least some choices.
So what about Nintendo?
I'm just going to be blunt: You probably don't want to buy a Wii U right now.
I don't say that because it's not a good system. I like the Wii U and think it has a ton of great games, and if you can find a great deal on one and don't mind being cutting edge, then it might be worth your time.
A better investment would be a 3DS, Nintendo's portable system released in 2011. The system is still going strong, and just saw the release of Pokemon Sun and Moon, which are great whether you're a longtime Pokemon fan or a kid who's new to the series.
But Nintendo's next system is mere months away. The Nintendo Switch will function as both a portable system (with a tablet-like form factor) and as a console (with a dock that allows you to connect the tablet to your TV for living room gaming).
We know the release month (March), but we don't know the price or the launch lineup. Still, you can expect the Switch to be where you'll find the next great Super Mario, Mario Kart, Super Smash Bros. and probably the next Pokemon games. So if you want to be ready for next Christmas, you might save your money for the Switch.
If you really want to buy a system for your child this Christmas, though, and they don't have one already, the Nintendo 3DS might be the way to go. It's one of the best video game systems in recent history, and it has plenty of gaming options that could keep a player busy for years.