One weekend left before Christmas. [Note to readers: This is no longer true. Do not be alarmed.] One last mad dash, one last vicious Oxford Circus scrum, one last chance to be elbowed in the face by an angry, red-faced slapper in your local shopping centre as you reach for that last bottle of perfume the missus has been dropping unsubtle hints about since September.
Since long before the thieving Christians nicked the festival wholesale from our pagan ancestors, the middle of winter has been a time of celebration, of glorious excess, and even of generosity. To us gamers, of course, that boils down to one very important thing - the true meaning of Christmas, if you like. Lots of new consoles and games, that's what.
Pop into any game store, though, and you'll also spot shelf after shelf of console accessories - moulded plastic and LEDs crying out for your pennies and demanding to be tagged on to that epic credit card bill for a new console and a stack of games. It's not usually something we write about here on Eurogamer, to be honest, not least because there's a lot of dross out there - but there's no doubt that some accessories make life a hell of a lot easier for new console owners, while others make superb stocking fillers.
So with that in mind, and a mince pie in one hand (not kidding - crumbs in keyboard right now), we've taken it upon ourselves to pick out a handful of the best, most interesting and most useful accessories to chuck into your basket this Christmas.
Xbox 360 Arcade GameStick
- Mad Catz, GBP 24.99
For a little while after picking up this cunning piece of kit, we forgot just how annoying it is that Xbox Live Arcade is stuffed to the gills with creaky old retro games. Mad Catz' arcade stick is a blast from the past in its own right - although it replicates all the functions of an Xbox 360 pad (you could play Halo 3 on it if you wanted, and we're probably going to get drunk and bored this Christmas and try just that), it's designed like an old-school joystick.
For controlling retro games, it works stunningly well - and it's not half bad for a host of more recent Xbox Live Arcade games, either. It's even got a Turbo button on it, just to really make you feel like you're back in the era of the C64 and penny sweets that actually cost a penny and weren't rubbish, and a spinner style control because... Well, because they could, we suppose.
It's a surprisingly solid and well-made piece of kit, and to top off the deal, it comes with a trio of (very) retro games for Xbox Live Arcade in the box - Frogger, Time Pilot and Astro Pop. The downside? It's a wired controller, so no wireless goodness for you - although it does come with a pretty generously lengthy cable.
360 Intercooler EX
- Nyko, GBP 14.99
This is probably the most techy of all the things we're including in this roundup - and it's far from the only bolt-on cooling product for the Xbox 360. 4Gamers do one called the Cooler King (GBP 24.99), which covers the whole rear of the console and includes a USB hub and break-outs for VGA, Component, S-video and optical audio on the back, which looks great. Mad Catz, meanwhile, do a GBP 19.99 base for the 360 with fans in it, which holds the media remote and recharges a controller battery as well as cooling the console, but requires an external power source.
For those who simply want something to stop their Xbox 360 overheating, however, Nyko's 360 Intercooler EX is a very good start - it's cheap, simple, and will give you a good idea of whether additional cooling is actually going to help your ailing machine. The fans are a little noisy, but even a very unscientific measurement involving wetted fingers showed that airflow through the console had increased significantly.
The real test, though, was hooking it up to a 360 which overheats consistently - and lo and behold, with Nyko's fans attached, the system managed to play for a couple of hours, compared to an average of 20 minutes beforehand. This won't be true of every system, of course - but if you have regular crashes after playing for a while on your 360, there are worse ways you could spend 15 quid.
Xbox 360 Control Center 540C
- Joytech, GBP 49.99
Our initial brief for this article was to look at stocking fillers - and at fifty quid, the 540C Control Center is a bit large for most stockings. We had to include it, though, because it may be one of the best bits of kit you'll ever find on the shelves at your local game emporium - and for those whose households are adding a new console this Christmas, it'll be a godsend.
Basically, this is a slim box styled similarly to the Xbox 360 which is designed as a hub for all of your consoles. It has six inputs - one direct input from a 360, one composite or S-video input on the front for cameras, and four on the back with Component, Composite, S-Video, Phono and Optical Audio inputs. It has one output, squirting out any combination of the above into your television - and it has a handy and simple remote control that selects between them.
In itself, that's enough to make it worthwhile for anyone whose television doesn't boast more AV inputs than your tree has fairy lights. As an extra bonus, though, it's also got a six port network hub on the back - perfect for the increasingly large number of devices which sit under your telly and need to talk to a network. Ten minutes of fiddling about, and you need never mess with cables in order to play a game or watch a video again. Bliss.
Wii Wireless Sensor Bar
- Mad Catz, GBP 12.99
- Nyko, GBP 9.99
Ever since the Wii appeared, wireless versions of the sensor bar have seemed like a bloody good idea - so it's no surprise that most manufacturers have one to offer. There are tons of these in the shops, but we've picked two of the best to have a look at - and found pros and cons with each of them.
Firstly, Nyko's wireless bar comes in lovely cylindrical packaging - which may not seem like much, but if you'd ripped your hands to shreds opening the evil shrink-plastic wrapping on a few boxes of accessories, you'd appreciate it too. It's a fairly chunky slab of plastic, with sticky pads for the bottom to affix it to your television, and has a bright LED on the front to indicate that it's in operation. In a nice move, it also comes with batteries - which you'd definitely appreciate on Christmas morning.
The Mad Catz bar, meanwhile, is a couple of quid more expensive - but it's a much more slimline offering, only a little larger than the original Nintendo sensor bar and slightly curved at the edges. Like the Nyko bar, it has an LED on the front to indicate operation, and a set of timers so that you can set it to switch off automatically after a while. Unlike the Nyko bar, however, it comes with a cable on the back which allows you to connect it up to the Wii for wired operation. The downside? No batteries in the box, so you'll need to stock up on AAAs for it.
Wii Charge Station
- Nyko, GBP 24.99
Another accessory that simply makes sense, in our view, is a charging station for your Wiimotes - which should save you a fortune in batteries over the course of a few months. There's quite a range of these on the market, but many of them suffer from the same basic problem - they don't actually come with the rechargeable batteries required for them to work, so you'll need to buy those separately, and this often isn't very clearly marked on the packaging.
Not so the Nyko variety, a very simple charging station which comes bundled with a pair of specially designed battery packs. On top of that, it also throws in a nice added extra - the replacement battery covers which it gives you (they're required because they have the electrical contacts for the charger station on them) have grooved, rubberised backs on them, which make the remotes significantly easier to grip - and less likely to get sweaty and nasty during prolonged Wii Sports sessions.
The other version to try out is definitely the Joytech Charger Station, which also sells for GBP 24.99. Unlike the Nyko version, it actually attaches directly to the console (great as long as you aren't pushed for space around the TV), and it uses the Wii's own power supply too. It also comes with custom battery packs, so no worries with buying batteries here either.
PS3 Wireless Gamepad
- Mad Catz, GBP 19.99
PlayStation 3 accessories are a little thin on the ground this Christmas - well, decent ones are, anyway. However, we were quite taken with this wireless gamepad from Mad Catz, which is a fair bit cheaper than Sony's Sixaxis offering but has full Sixaxis-style motion sensing and really nice build quality.
The pad is generally nice to use, albeit a little heavier than the Sixaxis due to the inclusion of a battery compartment for a pair of AAs rather than a built-in rechargeable battery. There's good travel on the face buttons, the sticks aren't too loose, and the D-pad is nice to use in fighting games. However, what we were really sold on is the triggers - which have a lovely, springy action, and are shaped properly so that your fingers don't slip off, unlike the Sony ones.
The biggest problem with the pad is that it doesn't actually hook up to the PS3 over standard Bluetooth - instead, it comes with a dongle that you need to plug into one of the console's USB ports. It is, admittedly, a small and inobtrusive dongle - but it's still another USB port used up. That said, as a budget controller to keep handy for when friends come around for a game, it's definitely best of breed.
DS Lite Charger Grip
- Nyko, GBP 19.99
There are plenty of accessories for the DS on the market, but very few of them are even worth a second look - lots of tacky replacement stylii or vaguely pointless screen covers, for the most part. Nyko's Charger Grip, however, is one piece of kit we won't be taking off our DS in a hurry - especially if 2008 beings with it any long-haul trips abroad.
Fitting snugly onto the back of your console, and held in place with an ingenious little dowel that slots into the stylus socket, the charger grip includes a fairly hefty battery and some nicely shaped hand-holds in a single, remarkably light package. The grips make the DS Lite much more comfortable to hold for games which focus on the face buttons, rather than the stylus - although they do make it a little unwieldy when trying to hold it like a book, as for Brain Training.
The real killer here is the battery, though, which extended the playtime of our trusty DS by over nine hours - enough to make up for that horrible discovery that your DS' charger isn't compatible with overseas power supplies, when it's already too late to pick up a new one. Also good for sticking on the back of your console and hiding away from your family over Christmas, we might add. That's our plan, anyway.
PS2 Frontman Controller
- Nyko, GBP 34.99
Finally, we didn't really see ourselves putting any PS2 products in this list - after all, this is pretty much the last Christmas where the PS2 will be of any interest at all to us hardcore gamer types - but the Fender Frontman Controller for Guitar Hero was just too good to pass up, and has rapidly become our favourite way to rock out (in the small plastic button mashing sense).
It's a wireless controller for the PS2, so it comes with a little dongle to stick into the console's controller port - which, in a nice touch, looks a little like a pedal. Pairing the two pieces is remarkably easy, and from there on, it just works exactly like any other guitar controller. The big plus is that it comes with a lengthy USB cable, so you can play it as a wired guitar with no batteries inserted - or recharge as you play with some rechargeable AAs inserted.
What really makes this into our favourite console axe is that it's got lovely modern styling, and feels weighty and balanced - leaving the official Guitar Hero controllers feeling rather insubstantial by comparison. The buttons, too, have a nice action; our only complaint is with the distortion bar thing (if I knew the name for it, I'd be playing a proper guitar, dammit), which isn't very responsive and doesn't let you play with notes as much as we'd like. Other than that, though, brilliant. You'll be hitting 100,000 points and getting that knock on your door in no time.