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.