Last year at this time, everyone was talking about the "next generation" of video gaming: Xbox 360, Wii and PlayStation 3. Well, now they represent the current generation of home consoles. But choosing among them isn't easy; it depends on what type of gamer you are. For casual players and families, the Wii is a no-brainer -- if you can find one in stock. For serious gamers, the Xbox 360 gets the edge for its larger catalog, but the PS3 has features that could sway avid fans. Gamers such as Kevin Leja, Emma Reiss and Brian Stohr have already made their choices. How about you? With all three systems being hyped in holiday sales, we provide these details about each to help you decide.

THE CHOICE: XBOX 360

Microsoft's Xbox 360 is aimed at serious gamers who are also big on multimedia. The high-definition system came out two years ago and has become the most widely sold current-generation video-game console, although that ranking is tenuous. It also has the most games. The Xbox 360 is going after families this season with the $280 no-frills Arcade System and games such as "Viva Piñata Party Animals," but it is a middling choice for that market compared with the Wii. It has the best online service, Xbox Live, which costs $50 a year. The Xbox 360 is consistently priced below the PlayStation 3 -- although it doesn't include some of the PS3's built-in features, such as a high-def DVD player (a $180 add-on for the Xbox 360's HD DVD drive).

Price: $280 and up. Hard-core gamers will want the Xbox 360 Elite, which comes with a 120-gigabyte hard drive and other extras, for $450. The Pro Value Bundle, with fewer frills, is a decent deal for $350.

Availability: In stock.

U.S. sales to date: More than 8 million.

Buzz factor: Still percolating.

Number of games: About 200 (plus about 100 to purchase for download via Xbox Live).

Essential games: "BioShock,"Halo 3,"Mass Effect" (all rated Mature for players 17 and older).

Typical game price: $60.

Top 10 games' Metascore: 93.2 (out of 100).

Games with favorable reviews: 128.

Essential add-ons: Extra wireless controller ($50), network adapter ($100), Xbox Live ($50 a year)

Backward compatibility: Also plays most Xbox games.

THE CHOICE: WII

Nintendo's Wii is aimed at casual players and families, but it's not unusual for serious gamers to have one as a second system. Released a year ago, it was seemingly forgotten in the prerelease hype for the PlayStation 3 but has emerged as the hottest video-game console. In fact, in half the time, it has quickly closed in on the Xbox 360 as the most popular U.S. console, which the plucky Wii should become sometime next year. If it weren't for production problems, which have resulted in retailers continually being out of stock, it would probably already be No. 1. The Wii doesn't have high-def output and other lofty specs -- it does have built-in wireless -- but it is pure fun, powered by motion-sensing controllers that require players to get off the couch.

Price: $250.

Availability: Out of stock; some retailers sell it only in pricey bundles that include games and accessories. Nintendo has conceded that demand will continue to exceed supply this holiday season. Line up early.

U.S. sales to date: About 6 million.

Buzz factor: Off the charts.

Number of games: 140 (plus nearly 200 to download).

Essential games: "Super Mario Galaxy,"The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess,"Metroid Prime 3: Corruption" (all family-friendly).

Typical game price: $50.

Top 10 games' Metascore: 87.8 (out of 100).

Games with favorable reviews: 22.

Essential add-ons: Extra controllers, which come in two parts, $40 and $20 each.

Backward compatibility: Also plays GameCube games.

THE CHOICE: PLAYSTATION 3

Sony's PlayStation 3 is the most powerful system among the three home consoles, definitely for serious gamers only. Unfortunately, the PS3 has gone from the high buzz of last year's debut to last place in system sales -- even regularly being outsold by its venerable seven-year-old predecessor, the PlayStation 2. The PS3 sports seamless wireless integration, including Bluetooth-enabled controllers, and a host of multimedia capabilities. The system can play high-def Blu-ray Discs, a nice feature for movie fans with an HDTV but one that has made the PS3 relatively more expensive. The recent introduction of a $400 40-gigabyte model has revived interest, even if it can't play PlayStation 2 games as other models can.

Price: $400 and up. If being able to play PS2 games doesn't matter, the 40GB is a deal at $400. Otherwise, you'll want the 80GB model for $500.

Availability: Not a problem.

U.S. sales to date: About 2 million.

Buzz factor: Being revived.

Number of games: About 100 (plus about 20 downloadable titles).

Essential games: "Ratchet & Clank Future: Tools of Destruction,"Motorstorm,"Resistance: Fall of Man" (the latter rated Mature).

Typical game price: $60.

Top 10 games' Metascore: 87.8 (out of 100).

Games with favorable reviews: 49.

Essential add-on: Extra controller ($50).

Backward compatibility: Also plays most PlayStation and PlayStation 2 games (except 40GB model).

Randy A. Salas • 612-673-4542.

Availability: Based on checks with Amazon, GameStop, Best Buy, Target and Wal-Mart. Essential games: Exclusive titles not available on other systems. Top 10 games' Metascore: Average of the top 10 games' Metascore, based on reviews compiled by Metacritic (www.metacritic.com). Games with favorable reviews: Based on reviews compiled by Metacritic.