If you’re a gamer — or, more pointedly, a gamer that friends and family members will be buying gifts for in the next three weeks — you might be forgiven for feeling like one of the hapless burglars in Home Alone whose face just met the business end of MacCaulay Culkin’s swinging paint-can trap. Whether you’re talking the sheer cost of next-gen systems ($600 for an impossible-to-find PlayStation 3) to the sheer scope of available games (several hundred at the very least), we’re all seeing cartoon stars swirling around our heads these days.

Wii or 3?

While systems shortages aren’t proving to be quite as bad as last year’s Xbox 360 debacle, the battle between Sony’s $600 monster and Nintendo’s $250 Wii has already given us plenty to talk about – shootings, people crashing headlong into metal poles in Wal-Marts and, predictably, a Bill O’Reilly meltdown. Who says Christmas doesn’t come early?

The PS3’s clearly losing the media-buzz battle – The New York Times savaged Sony’s system as convoluted and incomplete, while Time Magazine high-fived the exclusive first look Nintendo dished their way by dubbing Wii Sports, the system’s pack-in game, “the best videogame ever.” (Uh, say what? Clearly, you guys need to get out more.) Happily, the pocketbooks of the would-be PS3 scalpers who tried converting a launch-day purchase into a $2,500 eBay windfall are losing, too: flooded supply dropped bids closer to $1,500. Small victories, people.

We won’t know which company’s standing tallest until January, but here’s my $600 worth: A year from now, the PS3’s library will have grown, like a late-blooming Christmas turkey fattened on system exclusive games, to the point where the console will feel more like a must-have than an underpriced Blu-ray player. (Unless of course, one of the PS3’s internal components melts down, launching a national recall.)

The Wii has that must-have mojo right now – even fans of Link, Nintendo’s poster-elf, are happily overlooking the fact that the graphics in The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess aren’t all that. They’re grooving on casting spells, swashbuckling, and even fishing by waving the Wii’s motion-sensing remote around.

Shoot, shoot, or shoot?

The biggest guns under the mistletoe belong to Resistance: Fall of Man (PS3) and Gears of War (Xbox 360). Both have impressive arsenals and impressive graphics, both feature an us-against-the-aliens storyline, and both would love to drape the “killer app” sash across their bleeding, armored deltoids. I’m giving the nod to Gears, which feels like the next evolution of Unreal Tournament and plays like a riveting, life-or-death game of paintball. Resistance is a Frankenstein hybrid of Half-Life, Medal of Honor, and Doom. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I’m just saying.

On a Role

Role-playing games are this year’s Ghost of Christmas Past, come back with a vengeance to kick the Scrooge out of all those pedestrian sequels that crop up at this time of year. While PS3 owners finally get to taste what Xbox 360 owners have been cooking for more than a year with their very own version of Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, the PC crowd gets another perpetual mod-making machine in Neverwinter Nights 2.

God rest ye, merry PS2?

Speaking of ghosts, those who think the release of the PS3 has jammed a Yule log into the back of its last-gen predecessor may want to hold off on funeral plans. (Xbox owners, on the other hand, can feel free to break out the shrouds anytime.) Until Sony sorts out all the backwards compatibility issues with the PS2’s vast library – or migrates all the sequels to the PS3 – the PlayStation 2 is the only place to play some of this year’s best games.

Start with Bully, Rockstar’s slingshot saunter through the halls of reform school, the jump to the operatic adventure that is Final Fantasy XII. And don’t forget Guitar Hero 2, a sequel that answers the question: Why should Jack Black and Bruce Willis be the only ones who get to look stupid holding a guitar and shredding “Carry on My Wayward Son?”

Care for another slice?

The race for Game On’s 2006 Christmas Fruitcake, the weirdest-yet-oddly-entertaining game of the season, is a three-way throwdown. Let’s start with Viva Piñata, a truly bizarro Xbox 360 game that finds you tending and developing a garden in order to attract an array of brightly colored piñatas. Amazingly, this is fun as hell, despite the fact that no delicious candy or piñata-bashing is involved.

I would have pegged Left Behind: Eternal Forces, a PC game based on the infamous series of Christian-themed books about the post-Rapture throwdown between good and evil as an obvious Macy’s-sized turkey, but not so. Not only is this real-time strategy game play unexpectedly solid, but the sight of units of Christian singers competing for souls against legions of heavy-metal rockers notches at least an 11 on the unintentional comedy scale – and the game doesn’t even include Kirk Cameron.

Finally, there’s Elite Beat Agents for the Nintendo DS, an experience that’s freakier than inviting William Shatner to the open bar at your holiday office party. Tapping, swiping, and circling the stylus to the beat of “Sk8r Boi” as a set of funk-tastic, suit-sporting agents bust moves that might even make Emmitt Smith jealous sounds slightly beyond stupid. Not only is it totally addictive, but it’s one of the hardest games going.

O, Little Town of Handheld-hem

Talk about your Tale of Two Cities: Nintendo’s little Handheld That Could is suddenly an old-school gamer’s paradise. Not only does one of the Game Boy Advance’s best-ever platformers get a wonderfully worthy sequel in Yoshi’s Island 2, but role-players finally get to sink their teeth into Final Fantasy III, the only FF game that’s never been released stateside.

The buzz on the game line-up for Sony’s PSP has been, by contrast, one big ‘ol “Silent Night.” A couple of ports not named Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories are worth checking out: Dungeon Siege: Throne of Agony takes Chris Taylor’s hack-and-slash dungeon crawling-series and shrinks it down to single-player size. Gun: Showdown, meanwhile, captures the same wild-west action that made last year’s Gun on PS2 such a six-shooter blast. As an added bonus, you can now shoot cannons and quail. Ralphie Parker would be green with envy.

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