Well, last Saturday brought us Nickelodeon’s 26th Annual Kids’ Choice Awards, and while I’m pretty it’s a general rule of thumb that 90% of all awards with the word “Choice” in the title should be rightfully treated as useless bullcrap, this year’s offerings presented a bit of a unique offering, namely in the Favorite Video Game category. The nominees? Just Dance 4, Skylanders Giants, Mario Kart 7, and…Wii Sports.
Not even the at least slightly more recent Wii Sports Resort; nope, just the friggin’ six-and-a-half year-old pack-in Wii game.
Now, it’s at this point that a sane person would’ve laughed at this sort of stupidity, maybe cursed a little, and then shrugged it off, promptly burying this in the garbage-bin corner of their brains. But I couldn’t help it; this all kept clinging to me and annoying the hell out of me, like a leech who gained the ability to hum Taylor Swift songs. I mean, is this really what it’s come to in the relationship between video games and kids? The gaming industry being so devoid of giving any attention or thought into creating and marketing kid-friendly games that we’re still relying on a six year-old game (which mercifully didn’t win) with a formula that’s been taken to atomized horse levels over the years?
Now before any of you start shouting out examples, I know there are still kid-friendly video games out there. I mean, in case you haven’t noticed, that’s kind of the damn point of this list, duh. But I guess what I’m trying to say is that kid-friendly video games just don’t feel as prominent as they used to, at least compared to all of the hyper-realistic “mature” games out there (many of which I still love, of course, but still). Maybe it’s just because I grew up in the Age of Platformers, a time where video game magazines could be the size of a small phone book, games for kids, teens, and adults all got equal promotion, and a can of soda only cost three bits and a nickel, dagnabbit. But it feels as though today’s industry just wants to cater towards older, more long-time gamers without putting much effort into getting a new generation of gamers going as well.
And so in an effort to try and give some much-needed attention to some more awesome yet age-appropriate games for our li’l nerds-in-training (and their parents looking for more wholesome fodder, naturally), I’ve compiled this list of some great kid-friendly downloadable games from recent times, a.k.a. 2010 forward. Why downloadable games? Well, 1. That’s where a lot of hidden gems tend to lurk, 2. They tend to be a bit more easier on the wallet, and 3. There is still a notable number of kid-friendly retail games that I still haven’t gotten around to yet and would thus lead to notable biases and omissions, which in turn lead to pitchforks and torches, so…yeah.
And now, having looked back on all this rambling so far (sorry if it sounds like I’m editorializing, but it turns out these anvils I ordered will apparently explode if I don’t throw them out), it occurs to me that I should probably put this in more saner terms, so just consider this a sort of companion piece to 14 Great But Lesser-Known Fantasy Novels for Lil’ Nerds. Incidentally, the Harry Potter series was nominated for Favorite Book at the Kid’s Choice Awards this year as well, despite finishing up over five years ago, so you may want to revisit that list later as well…
You wouldn’t think that the ancient tribal concept of a camera being able to swallow one’s soul with a picture would make for a vibrant and cute little platformer, but hey, here we are. Playing as a picture-taking robot exploring an alien planet, you have to literally capture your surroundings and use them in a variety of creative ways to navigate the environment. To say that the game has an abundance of charm would be an understatement, as evidenced by its 16-bit-inspired graphics, chipper soundtrack, and holy-crap-I-want-to-hug-him-so-hard main character. But underneath the cheery platform sheen lies a meaty little puzzler as well, one that will make sure to give your tykes a tasty little much-needed cerebral challenge as well.
As for those of you questioning if these types of games may sound too tough for the wee ones, I would like to remind you that one, kids are more intelligent than you give them credit for, and two, we also grew up on several similar old-school puzzlers, adventure games and ones where we even had to deduce that keeling with a red crystal would somehow summon a tornado, and we turned out just fine. Mostly.
9. Quantum Conundrum
Now, let’s say your children are interested in first-person games, Portal memes and/or My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, a combination that actually seems all-too plausible these days. Well, then they’re going to loved this cartoon-laced, first-person platformer from one of Portal’s lead developers, where your goal is to navigate a giant mansion to save your scientist uncle voiced by Discord himself, John de Lancie*, who lends his pipes to provide gleefully semi-snarky narration throughout your entire journey. Navigating said mansion requires a Power Glove that switches between dimensions which alter the properties of everything around them, allowing you to introduce your kids to Phun With Physics! Granted, said Phun With Physics can lead to Phrustration at times, but the game’s charming sense of humor, creative and fun puzzles, and ridiculously adorable mascot, amongst other things, more than make up for any shortcomings one might run across. And seriously, I dare you to resist IKE.
*Yes, Nerd Law requires to mention that he is, was, and always will be Q. But for the sake of the kids, for now, he’s Discord. Let’s worry about getting them on the right track first, then you can introduce them to Q.
Seeing as how Dokuro has all the makings of an awesome fairy tale or fantasy adventure, it almost seems like a challenge to describe this game in a way that doesn’t make me sound like the grandfather from The Princess Bride. As a tiny skeletal minion that ends up falling in love with your dark lord’s captured princess, your job is to help guide her through a hazard-filled castle to safety in a slightly Lemmings-esque fashion. The catch is that the princess can only see or directly interact with you whenever you use a potion to turn into a dashing prince, a gameplay element that I’m pretty sure is supposed to represent some sort of moral or life lesson, but I was too busy taking down a 20-foot demon with a rapier to notice. Between a wide variety of clever puzzles utilizing everything from platforming skills and quick timing to touch-screen action, and some eye-catching graphics done entirely in a sweet chalk-based style, it’s safe to say that this tale has something for everyone of all ages.
Bonus points, by the way, for actually being a game inspired by children; The game’s director was Noriaki Kazama, whom had previously worked on the ultra-gory current-gen Ninja Gaiden games. After he had a baby, he went looking through children’s books, got inspired and thus Dokuro was born. And I think we can say, Mr. Kazama, that we and parents everywhere now owe a debt of gratitude to your child.
So I’m going to take a wild stab here and guess that by now, you kind of need a break from the puzzlers and adorable mascots. After all, what if your kids are craving more straight-up action? Well, then maybe being able to tackle loads of ancient creatures with a giant sword is more up their alley. Serving up a slice of epic fantasy in a ridiculously gorgeous and vast, otherworldly land with a dosage of Metroid-style exploration and gameplay on the side, Outland has you attempting to stop the wrath of two deity-like sisters by using their own weapons of light and dark against them. In particular, being able to switch on the fly between a light and dark side that determines who you can fight and what attacks you can brush off, adding a dose of strategy to one’s intense journey.
And I didn’t even get around to the epic boss battles, which have to be seen to be believed. I know it would be stupid to say something like “If your kid enjoys fantasy cartoons such as Avatar, they’ll love this game”, but…actually, that is kind of what I want to say. Huh.
6. Tales from Space: Mutant Blobs Attack
I honestly cannot believe that an awards show with a main focus on sliming people omitted entirely a game about a rampaging green cartoon blob out for revenge. You seriously can’t tell me this wouldn’t have been a perfect tie-in. And you would’ve thought that a game which essentially plays like 2D platformer mixed with Katamari Damacy would’ve also been perfect for adding that much-needed weirdness factor, but nope, omitted. Your loss, guys.
Which means you’ll never know the joy of a funny and charming platform game with a wide variety of gameplay that provides a perfect test of skill and reflexes while letting every kid live out their fantasies of being a giant monster toppling everything in its path. Well, granted, you start out as a small lab escapee who eventually grows bigger in order to exact revenge and save his comrades, but isn’t that the perfect metaphor for childhood anyway? Actually, no, it isn’t. But it’s still a load of fun guaranteed to easily bring a smile to anyone’s face, certainly as much as seeing pro wrestlers get doused with green goo.
5. Mega Man 10
Of course, the children of today need to have an understanding of the classics as well. Luckily, before they started to have a case of amnesia concerning their most popular character, Capcom celebrated Mega Man with some excellent old-school tributes to him in the form of brand new NES-styled sequels. Of course, these children won’t just be getting a lesson in classic video game characters, but also classic gameplay concepts as well. And in this, the concept they’ll learn about is one called “Nintendo Hard”. The Blue Bomber’s latest does indeed come with an Easy Mode, but the challenge offered is still an old-school rewarding one, the one that really makes you earn your victory, just like you did over twenty years ago with a bag of Cheetos and some Nintendo Power guides by your side. Also, how can any kid not love Mega Man? I honestly consider it to be impossible. So if your kid thinks they’re hot stuff because they beat Halo 4 on Legendary, introduce them to this game and tell them they can go to Disneyland if they earn the “Mr. Perfect” achievement. No, seriously. If they can get that, they have earned Disneyland, by gum.
4. Costume Quest
Well, having covered the action, platformer, and puzzle areas, now we just need to find a way to get the young’uns interested in RPGs. And what better way to do so than with a game where a ninja, a french-fry spider, and the Statue of Liberty team up to fight an army of candy-stealing monsters? Who wouldn’t want to be in that scenario? Certainly not the godlike people of Double Fine, especially animator Tasha Harris, who cooked up Costume Quest as a way to relive those nostalgic moments playing dress-up for Halloween. Granted, I don’t think most of our nostalgic moments involved the time where we had to embark on an adventure to rescue our twin sibling who got kidnapped by monsters because they were mistaken for a piece of candy, but you know, these things happen.
Easy to play, and chock full of secrets, an adorable sense of humor and a cartoony style that perfectly echoes that magical autumn night when your plastic Ninja Turtle costume scored you six full cans of soda, Costume Quest is a terrific RPG guaranteed to leave both the young and old with a smile only matched while on a massive sugar rush.
Curse you, Nintendo! You constantly milk the same ten or so franchises over and over, and then when we finally get some brand new ideas for game franchises from you, you bury them in your eShop and apparently pray no one notices! I’d be very disappointed at you, if it weren’t for the fact that you still knew how to make damn good games such as this one! Actually, thinking about it, I still am a bit disappointed at you, but that’s something for another time. Because now is the time to discuss Pushmo, a simple yet extremely creative and fun puzzler that’s truly earned a place amongst such titles as Tetris Attack and Dr. Mario as one of Nintendo’s most vibrant and best brain-teasers.
Playing as a sumo cat by the name of Mallo, your job is to rescue kids from an amusement park whom have become trapped on the park’s signature attractions by pulling out the blocks in order to form a way to jump and climb to the top. It may sound like the basis for an incredibly weird amusement park, mind you, but it’s also the basis for some extremely clever and challenging gameplay, sure to keep those of all ages entertained for hours.
Appropriately enough, in the time it took Fez to get from initial development to release, you probably could have actually raised a small child. But all that time and effort was worth it, as Fez is truly a platforming masterpiece. One could and argue that the lack of enemies might be a bit of issue for the kids (unless you consider patches of inky, glitchy, black voids of nothingness to be enemies), but to those that do so, I say to thee a hard nay. Fez isn’t a game about sheer action (though there are several incredible platforming sections that will test your reflexes, of course), it’s a game about the thrill of exploration and discovery, a game where you walk through one door out of curiosity and eventually end up a whole continent away from where you started, and where lush, pixillated landscapes are around every corner. I will concede that while the game’s puzzles are immensely creative and make great use of the game’s 3D rotation mechanic, a few of them can be a tad difficult (to put it simply, you will want to be on hand to take an axe to the “Security Question”), but none of them will get in the way of enjoyment for our young nerds. Besides, since discovering the digital ruins of a lost civilization will definitely provide chills for an adult, imagine how the young ones would feel!
Have I mentioned that Tim Schafer’s Double Fine is a godlike gaming company? And about Tasha Harris back in Costume Quest? Because, funny thing; Tasha was actually an animator for Pixar prior to joining and after leaving Double Fine, and I’ve always considered Double Fine/Tim Schafer to be the Pixar of the gaming world, largely because of their ability to take little concepts and inspirations (Dia de Los Muertos, heavy metal, Summer camp, etc.) and stretch them out into vast, original, eye-popping worlds populated with countless unique and fun characters and filled with endless possibilities for adventure. And with Stacking, Double Fine crafted an entire world out of matryoshka dolls, set in the industrial age where Charlie Blackmore, the smallest of all the nesting dolls, has to use his unique ability of jumping inside larger dolls and controlling them to solve various obstacles in his path in order to save his siblings. Because sometimes, possession can truly be heartwarming.
When I started creating this list, I quickly realized that Stacking would most likely end up being number one. This is a game that rewards creativity, experimentation, and exploration, one with multiple paths and several layers of difficulty, a jaw-dropping world seemingly formed out of an epic kid’s playset, an endless parade of lovable characters to interact with, a lovely and cute sense of humor, a story perfect for all ages, a perfect little hint of a dark edge that’s found in some of the best children’s classics, a message about the importance of family, perfect, easy-to-understand gameplay, and of course, farts.
The only way this game could possibly be more kid-friendly is if every copy somehow came with a free puppy that dispensed chocolate milk. It is truly one of the finest adventure games to have come out in recent years, and one that ranks up there with some of the all-time best. So if you know of any kids looking for good video games, please do them a favor and introduce them to the joy of Stacking. That, and Double Fine’s ultimate classic, Psychonauts.
Actually, get them Psychonauts as well anyway. Kid-friendly and a mind-blowing stone-cold best-game-ever classic.
Come to think of it, just purchase Psychonauts, period. Do it. Now.
Well, that’s all I have to offer for now, though I can indeed think of several more kid-friendly games – both downloadable and otherwise – that deserve all the attention they can get, and I’m guessing you can too, so feel free to shout out some notable ones in the comments. And some final words to any parents who may have been reading this: Treat the relationship between your kids and video games with respect and dignity. Get involved a little, show an interest. And if they want to play games a little outside of their age group, don’t be afraid to talk to them and see if they’re mature enough to handle it, if they understand the consequences and can clearly tell reality from make-believe. Believe it or not, as long as you actually handle things properly, your child will not grow up to be a sociopath. As mentioned before, your kids deserved to be treated with more intelligence than you may believe. But that being said, I still obviously stress that you should introduce them to games such as the ones on this list first. Because kids still need to be…well, kids. And a colorful dose of imaginative gameplay wrapped up in a kid-friendly package is just what they need.
Besides, it’s either that or a slime-covered faux gamer that apparently can’t tell time. And you don’t want to know where that stuff’s been.
Dedicated to my stepfather Travis, one of the best parents ever who always treated me with the highest amounts of respect and kindness possible and helped me achieve the best I could possibly get out of life…including when it came to video games. I love you, Trav.