As is the case every year, I spent my holiday break doing two things: eating too much takeout food and playing lots of video games. While I fulfilled my takeout quota with flying colors, there was something different about my annual holiday game binge — it was done almost entirely on my new Nintendo Wii U.
Even as my more powerful Xbox One sat in my living room, begging me to finally start my inevitable 80-hour Dragon Age adventure, it was Nintendo's humble brick that kept me hooked. Maybe it was the fact that I could slay demons in Bayonetta 2 while still watching football on TV. Or the fact that my controller has a built-in touch screen perfect for navigating Netflix and YouTube. Or, simply, it's the fact that the Wii U offers some of the most polished, smartly crafted games on any console.
From the sheer joy delivered by Nintendo's top-notch exclusives to the surprising versatility of the system's tabletlike GamePad, I'm convinced that the $300 Wii U is the best gaming console your money can buy. Here's why you should be, too.
The Best Game Library in the Business
As publishers continue to rush out broken, buggy games at the expense of gamers everywhere, Nintendo remains defiantly committed to quality. In a year when high-profile titles such as Assassin's Creed Unity, Halo: The Master Chief Collection and Driveclub came stumbling out of the gate with game-breaking issues, Nintendo churned out hits like Mario Kart 8, Super Smash Bros. and Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, all of which exuded the level of painstaking polish that the brand is known for.
Of course, good games need to do more than simply work, and the Wii U's diverse library delivers in spades when it comes to fun. There's simply no better system for playing games with friends, whether you're throwing banana peels in Mario Kart 8, engaging in eight-man brawls in Super Smash Bros. or barreling through frozen jungles together in Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze.
Solo adventurers can play a gorgeous HD remake of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (until the new Zelda arrives, at least), or rack their brains with the puzzle platforming of Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker.
The Wii U has more than just the nostalgic lure of Mario and company going for it, too. Hack-and-slash hit Bayonetta 2 proves there's a place for adult action games on Nintendo's console, and 2014 multiplatform game of the year contenders Child of Light and Shovel Knight shine on the system.
The Wii U can't rival the third-party support of its competitors, but games like Resident Evil: Revelations, Splinter Cell: Blacklist and Mass Effect 3 (and if you really must, Watch Dogs) ensure that there's something for everyone. Thanks to the Wii U GamePad's unique touch screen, these titles often pack second-screen features that their non-Nintendo versions lack.
While Xbox 360 and PS3 games are useless on the Xbox One and PS4, the Wii U is compatible with just about all of the 1,300-plus games released for the original Wii. That gives the Wii U the largest library of any new-gen console, and provides a perfect excuse for checking out classics like Super Mario Galaxy or the Metroid Prime trilogy for the first time. Most Wii peripherals carry over to Wii U as well, which will save you a pricey trip to GameStop in search of extra controllers for your weekly Mario Kart tournament.
When you factor in the Wii U's stunning new-generation offerings, a massive back catalog, downloadable NES, Super Nintendo and Game Boy Advance classics and a steady stream of indies, you've got a library of titles that no other platform can top.
The Wii U's Hidden Weapon
When Nintendo debuted the Wii U's touchscreen GamePad in 2012, I laughed, brushing it off as a gimmick guaranteed to fail. Flash forward to 2014, and it's my absolute favorite thing about the system. Like the motion-sensing Wii Remote before it, the Wii U GamePad reinforces the fact that it's not just the games that make Nintendo consoles special, it's the way you play them.
For starters, the controller's 6.2-inch, 854 x 480 display lets you play your games without the aid of your television, so long as you're within range of your console. I can't stress the value of this feature enough; whether your spouse needs to catch up on Game of Thrones or you need to heed nature's call in the middle of a tough boss battle, there's comfort in knowing you never have to stop gaming. PS4 offers similar functionality in the form of Remote Play, but you'll need to own a PS Vita or compatible Xperia Z device to take advantage of it.
The GamePad's ability to free you from your TV is commendable enough, but the controller becomes even more exciting when it's working in conjunction with your big screen. Take Nintendo Land, for example, a bundled-in party title that's become one of my favorite games on the system. When playing solo, you can use the touch screen to slide ninja stars at targets that appear on your TV. When you're with a group, you can engage in hide-and-seek games in which the players using the TV and the player using the GamePad screen have completely different views of the action.
This functionality extends to more traditional games like Super Mario 3D World, in which you can tap the touch screen to stun enemies and collect coins — and even blow on the controller to activate wind-powered platforms. Combined with the same motion-control capabilities that made the original Wii famous, the Wii U GamePad's second screen offers engaging, novel experiences that you simply cannot have on any other console.
Entertainment and Extras
Aside from becoming my favorite place to play games, the Wii U has become my go-to entertainment hub. The console features a Web browser and a requisite roster of HD streaming apps (Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant Video, YouTube and Crunchyroll), all of which are doubled in value by the system's GamePad.
The controller's touch screen suddenly becomes a keyboard for perusing your Netflix queue or pulling up websites on your TV, and you can hand the GamePad off to your little one when your child wants to watch Hulu while the TV is occupied. The device's 6.2-inch, 854 x 480 display certainly won't make you toss your iPad out the window, but its value as a family entertainment tablet (especially for kids) cannot be overstated.
Other handy features include Nintendo TVii, which lets you use the GamePad as a TV remote, and Wii U Chat, which utilizes the GamePad's front-facing webcam to let you video chat with Wii U owners around the world for free.
The Amiibo Factor
If you or your kids are into interactive toy-based games (in which plastic figures become in-game characters), there's no better home for them than Wii U. In addition to supporting third-party hits like Skylanders and Disney Infinity, the Wii U boasts Nintendo's own NFC-based amiibo figures.
When tapped into the GamePad, these $13 figures can do things such as become trainable fighters in Super Smash Bros., or unlock special costumes in Mario Kart 8. Most amiibo work across a wider range of titles than any other interactive toys, and their potential for spicing up the way we play games on Wii U is exciting.
The Best Console for Your Money
Available for $100 less than an Xbox One or PS4, the $300 Wii U offers the most entertainment for the lowest price tag. Each 32GB Wii U Deluxe Set packs two free games, whether you opt for a combination of Super Mario 3D World and Nintendo Land, Mario Kart 8 and Nintendo Land, or New Super Mario Bros. U and New Super Luigi U.
As of this writing, the only comparable bundle from either Sony or Microsoft is a $400 Xbox One set that includes Assassin's Creed Unity and Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag. Other than that, you're paying $400 for a shiny new system with no games.
Playing games online with friends requires a paid subscription on Xbox One and PS4, but you can beat the snot out of your Smash Bros. rivals around the globe free of charge on Wii U. This is complemented by Nintendo's excellent Miiverse social app, which allows players to share screenshots (something you still can't do on Xbox One) and discuss games on title-specific community pages.
While I firmly believe that the Wii U is the best console for your money, there are plenty of people who would give it an emphatic thumbs down. It's the least powerful new-gen console, graphics-wise (though I'll be damned if any modern game looks better than Super Mario 3D World), and lacks third-party blockbusters like Shadow of Mordor, Dragon Age: Inquisition, and the latest Call of Duty and Assassin's Creed games. Its online services aren't quite as seamless as Xbox Live and PlayStation Network, and, strangely, your online Nintendo ID can only be used on a single console.
The Wii U also won't win over anyone who can't stand the sight of Mario, hates playing games with friends in the same room or is generally allergic to happiness.
However, if none of that deters you, you'll have a system whose first-party titles are polished and charming in an era of broken and dull games, with a GamePad that offers novel ways to play for families and serious gamers alike. Whether as a complement to your high-end console or tricked-out gaming PC or as your first foray into new-gen gaming, Nintendo's Wii U is the best console you can currently buy.
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Mike Andronico is Senior Writer at CNNUnderscored. He was formerly Managing Editor at Tom's Guide, where he wrote extensively on gaming, as well as running the show on the news front. When not at work, you can usually catch him playing Street Fighter, devouring Twitch streams and trying to convince people that Hawkeye is the best Avenger.