So you completely missed out on the last generation of game consoles. Maybe you haven’t owned a video game system since the original Nintendo Entertainment System, but now you’ve got some spare time and are looking to jump back in.
You could dig up $400 to spend on a PlayStation 4, or $500 for an Xbox One–assuming you can find either of them on sale anywhere–and prepare yourself for the next generation of gaming. But that entry price won’t even get you an actual video game to play, and even for another $60, your options for next-gen games are limited.
Instead, why not consider the current generation of game consoles? It’s the best time to buy hardware and games on the cheap, and odds are you’ll have as much fun with the last eight years of gaming as you would with the next five or six. You might even still be impressed by current-gen graphics now and then.
Here’s a guide to taking that same $400 to $500 and spending it on an Xbox 360, PlayStation 4 or Wii, plus a big old pile of games.
If you want to get into online multiplayer, get an Xbox 360, which offers a better overall online experience even though it costs $60 per year for the privilege. Microsoft‘s online store has a Holiday Value Bundle that includes the console with 250 GB of storage, a controller and two solid games in Halo 4 and Tomb Raider. The Xbox 360’s exclusive games include the Halo series, Gears of War and Forza Motorsport. You can get the first Gears of War and Forza 4 for $23 total.
For those who are mostly going single-player, the PlayStation 3 is a better value. You don’t need an extra subscription to use apps like Netflix and Hulu Plus, and the built-in Blu-ray player is a nice bonus. Take your pick of bundles from Sony’s website–The Last of Us bundle for $250 is an excellent choice–but avoid the insulting 12 GB console, which includes no games at all. For exclusives, check out Uncharted, God of War III, Killzone 3 and Metal Gear Solid 4. All four games will set you back about $47 total.
The Wii is a fine option if you’re looking for family-friendly games above all else. Many of the big publishers skipped over Nintendo’s console for their hit games, but it’s the only system with Mario, Zelda and other classic Nintendo series. Get the Wii Sports and Wii Sports Resort bundle from Toys ‘R’ Us for $130, or the Wii Mini if you’d rather have Mario Kart. Be sure to grab Super Mario Galaxy ($18 used) and New Super Mario Bros. Wii ($25) for relatively cheap, and go ahead and splurge on The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword for $45.
To be clear, this is not a definitive list of the best games of the previous generation. These are just some excellent games that no longer cost very much because they came ou10t a while ago. If you’re looking to build up a collection, these games are a great place to start:
The Orange Box: Half-Life 2 and Portal alone make this collection worthwhile, but it also includes the multiplayer gem Team Fortress 2 and Half-Life 2: Episodes One and Two. You can’t pass this up at $15 on PS3 and $18 on Xbox 360 from Best Buy.
Grand Theft Auto IV: It’s not the latest game in the series, but its plot outshines GTAV, and it’s just $10 used on Xbox 360 and PS3 from Best Buy.
Red Dead Redemption: Also known as “Grand Theft Auto with horses,” it’s widely regarded as one of the best games for current-gen consoles. Get it on used from Gamestop for $10 Xbox 360 or PS3.
Burnout Paradise: The racing game that doesn’t take itself too seriously is all about pulling off stunts, finding shortcuts, and destroying opposing vehicles in an open world. Gamestop has it used for $13 on PS3 and $18 on Xbox 360.
Assassin’s Creed II: Skip the first game and go straight to the sequel. You won’t miss much, plot-wise, and the stealthy, open-world action is more refined. Get it used from Gamestop for $10 on Xbox 360 or PS3.
Vanquish: It’s an over-the-top shooter with rocket skates, bullet time and an intentionally stupid plot. Sorely under-appreciated. Get it for $10 used on Xbox 360, or download it on PS3 for $20.
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare: Activision churns out a new Call of Duty game every year, but the first non-historical entry is still the best, especially for $5 used on Xbox 360. It’s harder to find for cheap on PS3, but Walmart has it new for $20.
Mass Effect Trilogy: There’s no better way to experience this sci-fi epic than to start from the beginning and let the weight of your many decisions carry through the entire series. Xbox 360 owners should buy each game separately for $28 total. PS3 owners can get the box set for $40.
Dark Souls: This deep role-playing game is equal parts beautiful, rewarding and maddening, and you won’t find anything else quite like it, but stay away if you don’t like an extreme challenge. It’s $20 from pretty much any store on Xbox 360 or PS3.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim: Nothing fancy here, just a massive fantasy RPG with dragons, spells, swords and what seems like an endless supply of quests. You can get it used on PS3 and Xbox 360 for $20.
Batman: Arkham City: My colleague Matt Peckham says it’s one of the best games of all-time. Best Buy has used copies for $13 on Xbox 360 and PS3.
The Walking Dead: This isn’t your typical zombie game. Like the comic book on which it’s based, zombies merely provide the backdrop for human drama, and every decision you make affects the outcome of the story. Get it for $18 used on PS3 and Xbox 360 at Best Buy.
All told, if you purchase a PlayStation 3 and every single game on this list, plus the exclusives I mentioned above–that’s 19 games in total–you’ll have spent $516. That’s roughly equal to what you’d spend for a PlayStation 4 and two new games. If you go with an Xbox 360 and all 17 games listed above, plus a year’s subscription to Xbox Live, your total comes to $460. That’s less than the cost of an Xbox One with zero games and no Xbox Live.
Of course, you won’t be future-proof. The big third-party publishers will probably keep releasing major new games on old consoles for a year or two, then they’ll taper off. Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo have already moved on. But even with a dozen or so last-generation games, you’ll be playing video games for hundreds of hours before you run out of material. That’s plenty of time to save up for the next generation.