Last week, I got an email from a reader with a simple yet challenging question: Which video game console should they buy?
It’s a question we often discuss but have never quite answered definitively here on Kotaku. As we enter 2016, there are six main gaming machines — four stationary, two portable — that compete for our time and credit cards. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses. One console might have the best exclusives but lack third-party games; another might be a delightful piece of hardware whose creators have abandoned it. There is no undisputed “best.”
All six modern options — the PlayStation 4, the Xbox One, the Vita, the Wii U, the 3DS, and the PC — are excellent machines in a variety of ways. There’s no perfect recommendation, no catch-all advice that can indiscriminately tell anyone which console to buy. But we can break down all the pros and cons so you, fine Kotaku reader and/or Google stumbler, can decide which is the best fit for you. Enjoy!
When it comes to playing video games, one machine has always had the most to offer: the good old personal computer. Buying a modern gaming computer is a little trickier than getting a console — you’ll have to read up on graphics cards, SSDs, and RAM — but you’ll have access to the biggest, broadest library of games out there. Sure, you’ll miss out on console exclusives like Destiny and the upcoming Final Fantasy XV, but if you have the money, space, and patience, a gaming PC is a great investment.
What you’re getting: Depends what you buy. Investing big money into a beefy machine will let you play games like The Witcher 3 at stunning levels of graphical fidelity, especially if you take the time to futz around with mods. But that will cost you more than a PS4 or Xbox One. Still, even a cheap laptop with integrated graphics will give you access to a ton of must-play classic games that you just can’t get on a console.
What you’re not getting: A simple, streamlined game machine. Computer gaming is a bit more expensive and a bit more complicated than just buying one of Sony, Microsoft, or Nintendo’s consoles, so if you want to join the ranks of PC gamers, prepare for a learning curve. Occasionally we’ll see multiplatform games run like garbage on the PC, which is also a bummer. (For shame, Arkham Knight.)
Key 2015 exclusives: StarCraft II: Legacy of the Void, Pillars of Eternity, Undertale
Sony’s latest PlayStation is its best piece of hardware to date, sporting impressive guts and a comfortable controller that trumps its competitors in many ways. PSN has some glaring issues, and we sure wish Sony would let us change our usernames, but the PS4 is a generally excellent, convenient piece of hardware that runs both big and small games without a problem. You won’t get the big Microsoft exclusives like Halo and Gears of War, but hey, Uncharted ain’t nothing.
What you’re getting: A modern gaming machine that can play almost everything released in a given year, often at higher resolutions and more stable framerates than its main competitor, the Xbox One. The PS4 also makes it pretty damn easy to take screenshots, capture videos, and stream yourself playing games.
What you’re not getting: Decent backwards compatibility. While Microsoft has bolstered their Xbox One lineup with a new patch that lets users play old 360 games, Sony’s own stab — a streaming service called PlayStation Now — is underwhelming and overpriced. Sony recently started selling PS2 games piecemeal on the PlayStation Store, but there’s still no ideal solution for playing older games on the PS4.
Key 2015 exclusives: Bloodborne, Until Dawn
Although the Xbox One stumbled out of the gate thanks to a string of poor marketing moves and a Kinect sensor that never quite caught on, Microsoft has worked hard to catch up, and today the newest Xbox is a solid choice both for first- and third-party games. On top of some interesting multitasking experiments like Xbox Snap, the One has a lot of small-yet-helpful usability benefits, like button remapping.
What you’re getting: A sleek machine that will let you play all of the standard third-party games, plus a handful of Microsoft-published exclusives like Sunset Overdrive and Rare Replay. You can also pop in and play a number of 360 games like Castle Crashers and South Park: The Stick of Truth.
What you’re not getting: The best possible multi-platform games. Xbox One versions of third-party games like The Witcher 3 generally run at lower native resolutions than their PS4 counterparts. The Xbox One is also significantly less popular in Japan, and many Japanese games are either exclusive to the PS4 or launching first on Sony’s machine.
Key 2015 exclusives: Rise of the Tomb Raider, Halo 5, Ori and the Blind Forest
[A quick note: If you’re trying to decide between the Xbox One and PS4, your best bet might be seeing what your friends are using most. Grouping up with buddies in games like Destiny and Call of Duty requires everyone to be on the same platform.]
Although Nintendo’s newest console might not have made the cultural splash that its predecessor did, the Wii U is full of gems that you won’t find anywhere else. Super Mario Maker, for example, gives you an incredible tool-set for crafting your own Mario levels and playing other people’s devious creations. The new Smash is the best one yet, and games like Mario Kart 8 and Bayonetta 2 rank among this generation’s elite.
What you’re getting: Access to some of Nintendo’s best video games ever, from the transcendent Super Mario 3D World to the surprisingly spunky Splatoon. Thanks to the GamePad controller, which is embedded with a screen, you can play just about any Wii U game without looking at your television. Helpful if you want to, say, watch Netflix on your TV while playing the HD remake of Wind Waker, one of the best Zelda games of all time.
What you’re not getting: Third-party games. The bulk of non-Nintendo games released over the past few years have been primarily for PC, PS4, and Xbox One, so if you want to play the likes of Fallout 4 or Assassin’s Creed, you’ll have to look elsewhere. It’s useful to look at the Wii U not as your solo machine but as something that complements the PS4, Xbox One, or PC.
Key 2015 exclusives: Super Mario Maker, Splatoon, Xenoblade Chronicles X
If you’re looking for a way to play games on the go, you could do way worse than the 3DS, a convenient dual-screened portable system that’s full of interesting games. Trying to sort out all the different models can get a little confusing, but the best right now is the New 3DS XL.
What you’re getting: Glasses-free 3D and, more importantly, a big library of great Japanese games both by Nintendo and third-parties like Atlus. In addition to big hits like Zelda: A Link Between Worlds and Fire Emblem Awakening, the 3DS also features some under-the-radar gems that are not to be missed, like Pushmo and BoxBoy, both of which epitomize Nintendo’s meticulous design skills and attention to detail.
What you’re not getting: A machine with tons of life ahead of it. Nintendo is preparing to unveil their next system, code-named NX, in 2016, and it’s hard to shake the feeling that both the 3DS and Wii U might be on their last legs.
Key 2015 exclusives: The Legend of Zelda: Tri Force Heroes, Code Name STEAM
Poor Vita. Thanks to a series of Sony fumbles, their underappreciated handheld never really had a chance to make it big. Still, if you can stomach paying extra for the overpriced proprietary memory card, the Vita is a pretty good machine for certain types of gamers.
What you’re getting: Tons and tons of unique Japanese games, classic RPGs, and ports of indie hits. With the Vita, you can buy and download tons of old PS1 and PSP games, which has helped bolster an otherwise barren lineup. If you’re into good stories, you’ve gotta check out Danganronpa and Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward, two Vita visual novels that double as mystery thrillers. Plus, the Vita’s got great ports of very good indies like Nuclear Throne and Spelunky.
What you’re not getting: First-party support. Sony has all but given up on their much-maligned Vita, so don’t expect much more from them. Other developers are certainly still putting out new Vita games, and we expect to see plenty of cool stuff coming the Vita’s way over the next year — too bad Sony isn’t making any of it.
Key 2015 exclusives: Persona 4: Dancing All Night, Lost Dimension