NEW YORK (CNN/Money) – Ten years ago, it was all pretty simple. If you wanted to spruce up your family's living room with a video game console, you'd head to the store, buy a Nintendo machine and wrap it up. Maybe, just maybe, you'd grab a Sega Genesis if you were feeling rebellious.
Picking the right console for your friends and family today, though, takes a fair bit longer. There are three machines to choose from, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. And while it's hard to go wrong with any of the three, choosing the perfect gift will all depend on who you're buying for and what they enjoy playing.
Sony PlayStation 2
Let's not mince words: The PS2 is the dominant console on the market and, barring an incredible turn of events, will remain in that position of power for the next two-and-a-half to three years.
It has the exclusive rights to the next Grand Theft Auto game, which is scheduled to ship about a year from now. And if you want to play Electronic Arts (ERTS: Research, Estimates)' Madden football games online (or any EA sports game, for that matter), this is your only choice.
There are also more games available for Sony's (SNE: Research, Estimates) console than any game machine on the market. And that's not counting the catalog of titles for the original PlayStation, which can also be played on the machine. Add that in and there are more nearly 2,000 games that are playable on the PS2.
That said, the PS2 is the most expensive console on the market at $199. (Granted, a $179 version is available, but it comes without an online adaptor and no bundled games -- and is a worse deal.) It's also the oldest of the current consoles -- and that's obvious immediately after you turn it on. The graphics are certainly not bad, but lack the polish you'll find on the Xbox or GameCube.
For the Xbox's first 18 months, Microsoft (MSFT: Research, Estimates) let its marketing dollars do the majority of the talking. Now it's letting the games get their say in.
While the Xbox coasted on the strength of "Halo" for much too long, 2003 has been a banner year for exclusive games, with titles like "Knights of the Old Republic," "Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge" and several of the games in its XSN Sports line. And let's not forget that "Halo 2," "Doom 3" and "Half-Life 2" are right around the corner, which should only add to its momentum.
Pricewise, the Xbox is a little more reasonable than the PS2. For $179 you'll get the console, a two-month free trial to Xbox Live and two free games -- "Star Wars: The Clone Wars" and "Tetris Worlds." Neither of those games is a AAA title, but they give new owners something to play out of the box. The Xbox also does away with the need for those pesky (and somewhat expensive) memory cards, thanks to its internal hard drive.
While you won't have to pay extra for an online adaptor, Xbox Live isn't free. A one year subscription costs $50 -- and how many of the 500,000 current subscribers will renew their existing subscriptions is still a mystery.
If price is the main determining factor for you, the GameCube is an easy choice. The recent price drop to $99 makes the machine the best deal in the gaming world -- and the recent addition of four classic Zelda games only makes thing sweeter.
The GameCube has crisp graphics that are a very close second to the Xbox and a catalog that's much more tailored to a mass audience. While the PS2 and Xbox have worked hard to court older gamers, Nintendo has stayed true to its roots and continued to attract families and younger players. Before it cut prices, it wasn't having a lot of luck, but it is now set to see a significant sales climb.
Developer support for the GameCube has been flagging over the course of the year, though, meaning you're not likely to see many exclusive titles from third party publishers like Capcom, Electronic Arts and Konami. And it's a safe bet you'll never see a game by "Grand Theft Auto" developer Rockstar on the GameCube. Your kids won't care about that, but if you're buying for a teen or adult, it could be an issue.
Still, at almost half the price of its competitors, the GameCube might be worth the gamble.