This holiday season may seem like it’s all about the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4, but other consoles offer far more bang for your buck. The latest and greatest from Microsoft and Sony are far and away the most powerful non-PC video game machines you can buy (for the most part), but a serious lack of games means you’re due for a lull after you beat the first few games you buy.
So where’s the best value? Handhelds! Not only are these consoles far cheaper than the Xbox and PlayStation, but they come loaded with awesome back catalogs of games and are great if you’re looking for a first console for your child. Here’s a simple breakdown as to which to buy.
Nintendo 3DS XL ($199 normally, $149 at Target through Saturday)
Nintendo’s always made the best handhelds on the market, and that’s still true today. The 3DS has a massive library of games, and can play any game made for the original DS plus those made specifically for the 3DS. From Pokemon to The Legend of Zelda to Super Mario, Nintendo’s newest handheld has games from just about every major Nintendo franchise.
The 3DS can display your games in 3D, with no need for glasses. This feature’s only intended for kids 7 and up, so if you’re buying a handheld for someone younger than that, make sure they know not to turn it on (also, check out the next handheld on this list to avoid this problem entirely). The 3D isn’t as cool as it sounds, though, and I play all of my 3DS games without 3D – playing with it on gives me a headache (something I don’t get while watching 3D movies at home or in the theater).
Once you buy the 3DS, there’s really no need for any accessories. You might want to get a carrying case or protective sleeve for it, but you don’t need memory cards (unless you download a ton of games directly through Nintendo’s online eShop) or anything else to get up and running. There are also a handful of bundles out there that come with a game included; these games are almost always great, too.
Best DS/3DS Games to Buy for Kids:
- Super Mario 3D Land (rated E for Everyone)
- The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds (rated E for Everyone)
- Pokemon X or Pokemon Y (rated E for Everyone)
Nintendo 2DS ($129)
The Nintendo 2DS is the newest handheld on the market, and the cheapest to boot. It does everything that the 3DS does (except display games in 3D). You can still PLAY games designed for the 3DS, but you won’t be able to view the 3D effects. The 2DS is shaped more like a thin piece of cake than a foldable handheld like the 3DS. Neither design is preferable – it comes down to whichever is easier for you or your kids to carry around. I’ve never held a 2DS, so I can’t say how comfortable it is in your hands. It’s a great value, though.
PlayStation Vita ($259-$299 normally, bundles as low as $189)
While the Nintendo 3DS is designed for kids of all ages, Sony’s PlayStation Vita is made for kids a little bit older. It’s a more powerful system and has a lot more ways to interact with it – a touchscreen on front, a touchpad on back, two thumbsticks and more buttons. If your child has grown up playing video games, it won’t be too much for them to handle, but it might be a lot for a first-time gamer.
There are two different Vita models: Wi-Fi only and Wi-Fi/3G. I bought the one with 3G, but I’ve only ever used it on Wi-Fi. The 3G is non-contract and runs through AT&T, and offers three monthly data plans: 250MB ($14.99), 3GB ($30), and 5GB ($50).
That holiday bundle includes the Wi-Fi only version and a few great games. These games aren’t aimed at younger gamers, though; The Walking Dead is rated M for Mature (people 17 and up), while Retro City Rampage and Uncharted: Golden Abyss are rated T for Teen (13 and up). The other bundled game, Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time, is rated E10 (10 and up).
The problems with the Vita are two-fold: it’s an expensive machine and there aren’t THAT many games for it. You’ll need a memory card to play your games (unlike Nintendo’s handhelds), which doesn’t come with the system (though the Amazon bundle comes with an 8 GB card). You also can’t use cheap third-party memory cards, either – everything is proprietary. Memory cards can run as much as $99 (for a 32 GB card), a significant add-on cost.
If you choose to buy a Vita, also grab a big memory card and also buy a year of PlayStation Plus ($50). PlayStation Plus offers big savings on games, but more importantly, gives you a free Vita download game or two every month. It’s another up-front cost, but it more than pays for itself in the long run.
Best Vita Games to Buy for Kids:
- Rayman Legends (rated E10 for ages 10 and up)
- LittleBigPlanet (rated E for Everyone)
- Tearaway (rated E for Everyone)
Apple iPad mini with Retina ($299 and up)
The option with the biggest up-front cost, but arguably the cheapest in the long run. You know all the benefits of the iPad – extremely intuitive, tons of ways to use it, access to a great App Store and more; all of these reasons are why an iPad mini can be the perfect first video game system for your kids.
If you’ve ever handed your child your smartphone or tablet, you’ve seen how quickly they can learn how to make it do what they want. The iPad mini is incredibly intuitive and they’ll be up and running in no time. It’s also got the most uses out of any of the handhelds on this list. Sure, you can watch Netflix on your 3DS, but do you really want to on such a small screen? The iPad is built around all kinds of media, not just games, so there are plenty of things to do.
Yes, the starting price is the highest of the bunch, but you can last for weeks on free (and freemium) games. Plus, individual games are far, far cheaper than those on the Vita or 3DS – we’re talking two or three bucks, not $20-$40.
Best iPad Games to Buy for Kids: