Offbeat gifts for nice gamers

What are the holidays without play days? And even if you can't play, at least you can give someone close to you games to play with.

Major console video games aren't as popular as they once were -- but they are still plenty popular. There's also thousands of games for tablets and smartphones, which are cutting into console and PC game time -- and make for more budget friendly gifts. It all means there are more choices and options for last-minute shoppers looking to please their favorite gamer.

The Big Wii
Consoles aren't dead yet, as Nintendo proved by introducing a new model this year. The $300 Wii U plays older Wii games and adds not only high-definition graphics to compete against the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, but also a few new wrinkles of its own. There's a new touch-screen controller, for example, that acts like a second tablet-like screen and makes it easier to navigate many games. It also allows players to relinquish the TV screen to parents (without tantrums) and continue playing on the hand-held controller.

Another ambitious and long-sought-after feature of the Wii U will be its ability to combine streaming video services, like Hulu, with live broadcast and recorded program information. It means that viewers will be able to search in a single place for the shows they want. (A software upgrade this month will add this Tvii feature.) On the downside, the Nintendo console still won't play DVDs or Blu-ray discs, but that's less relevant now with streaming services like Netflix.

Looking for games to go with the new console? A family friendly and deservedly popular title is the reincarnation of SM. The New Super Mario Bros. U ($60) is bright, bubbly, and moderately challenging. Up to five people can play using both the tablet and standard Wii remotes to make it through the Mushroom Kingdom.

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Also welcome will be the latest version of Madden NFL 13 for the Wii U ($60). The principal benefit of this version of Madden is that the Wii U touch screen makes it considerably easier to select run patterns so your play calling won't look like it's part of a Jets game.

Big Game Hunting
Shooting and slashing games still garner much of the big-game hunting attention. But rather that point to the obvious 2012 hits like Halo 4, The Walking Dead and Dishonored, I want to recommend some lesser known -- and less controversial -- titles as gifts.

If the latest iPad kids titles from Wanderful have a retro feel to them, there's a good reason for that: They're based on the original Living Books CD-ROMs that were a big hit with parents and kids back in the early '90s. So far the company has turned out touch versions of five $4.99 interactive books, including "Arthur's Teacher Trouble" and "Little Monster at School." The stories still have scads of charm, Easter Eggs that will engage little tykes, and educational value (imagine that!).

For adults, one of the most intriguing "games" to come out this year was Dear Esther (for PCs). It's an admixture of lush graphics, hidden clues, and linear narrative that makes for an engrossing, interactive, well, book. Players/explorers begin alone on a deserted island where they gradually discover their own backstory. Mostly atmospheric and not for those looking for abstruse puzzle play, it's one of the more off-beat releases of the past 12 months.

For puzzle fans, possibly the most interesting departure from video game conventions this year was Fez (available in Xbox Live Arcade). The trope for the game is a two-dimensional character named Gomez who's charge is to repair a three-dimensional world that is coming apart at the seams. It makes for some the most interesting and intricate play on the big screen.

PlayStation 3 owners who think they've seen it all will be surprised by Unfinished Swan ($14.99 from the Playstation Network). A young boy chases a bird through a monochromatic, unfinished world that the player illuminates along the way figuring out moves that reveal more and more of the landscape. It challenges not only video game traditions but also one's puzzle solving skills.

Finally, for kids there's a new version of Scribblenauts ($60 for the Wii, $40 for the 3DS). A good choice for Nintendo 3DS fanatics, Scribblenauts Unlimited continues the puzzle series that relies on players to write out the words for objects (they think) will help them solve a puzzle or complete a task. Hint: ask for the strangest things you can dream up.

Last piece of advice for last-minute shopping: Remember, picking out the right video game is like buying someone a sweater. You need to know the person's preferences before you make a choice.

Follow John R. Quain on Twitter @jqontech or find more tech coverage at