Once upon a time, the school holidays were heralded by the smell of freshly mown grass, the sound of the ice-cream man and a feeling of time unbound, carefree days that stretched on forever. Today, we know the school holidays are here because there's an influx of aggressively hyped animated movies at the cinema and their accompanying games fighting for attention on the shelf.
It's a shift in perspective rather than reality and ever since my son first voluntarily picked up a joypad at the age of two, I've been fascinated by the way he plays games, the things he responds to in games, and the surprisingly frequent parallels with my own first gaming experiences. I'm old enough to remember being intensely jealous that a friend had a ZX-81, with its chunky monochrome blocks, while my son will probably grow up harbouring similar nostalgic fondness for the innocent days of the Xbox 360, when games were only high-definition and had to be purchased on funny silver discs. The games that tickle our fancy, however, aren't all that different.
Strip away the advances in technology and you'll see that kids are perhaps the purest consumers of videogaming. Far from being some easily-distracted mass of attention-deficit brats, they often have a much more honest and untainted appreciation of what makes games fun. Having reviewed many children's games for Eurogamer over the past few years, I've often felt that the traditional standards applied to games criticism don't always work for this audience. In particular, derided concepts like repetition and linearity are almost always frowned upon these days, yet these are often the very things that make games accessible and fun for younger games.
Rather than falling back on the old roundup format, I'll be using two recently released kids' titles to explore these concepts in a little more detail. Bolt is the adaptation of the new Disney 3D animated movie about a TV star dog who actually believes he's the super-powered hero he plays on-screen. Ben 10 Alien Force is based on the new iteration of the phenomenally popular cartoon series about a young boy who can transform into ten different alien forms thanks to the power of a mysterious device known as the Omnitrix.
The aim, then, is to explore what makes a good children's game, to consider how this oft-maligned market can sometimes reveal bad game design habits that we've been conditioned to tolerate, and to offer a guide to the best games for kids available now by looking at the four design areas that I believe are key to making a successful game for children.
As with most things pertaining to children, they can be contradictory in their tastes. Nothing inspires them more than the freedom to do whatever they want, but they also crave guidelines and signposts to keep them moving forwards.
Both Bolt and Ben 10 are on familiar territory here, since they're following a fixed narrative. Rather than being based on the story of the movie, the Bolt game takes the form of an episode of the TV show from within the movie. It's a sensible decision, since it means that players get to use the full range of Bolt's special powers - including supersonic barks and laser-beam eyes - but it also means that there's a sense of discovery, rather than ticking off the expected scenes from the cinema. The same is true of Ben 10. The story isn't based on any particular episode of the show, but follows a formulaic tale of linear investigation that allows the player to unlock more of Ben's alien heroes as they go along.
The games are both utterly linear - often frustratingly so for an adult gamer. Invisible walls keep the action moving in one direction, and in Ben 10 it's even impossible to backtrack once you've passed unseen checkpoints. Watching my six-year-old son and his school friends play, however, it seems that these annoyances barely register. They share the game's forwards momentum and so don't mind being herded so blatantly towards the goal. Frustration is a greater buzzkill than boredom for this age group, and it's notable that the moments when their interest dips sharply are when they don't know where to go next. The Ben 10 game has a few moments like this, where progress relies on using a specific alien power on a particular piece of scenery, lingering just out of view, and it's then that the claustrophobic environments become a problem. Endlessly jumping and running around constricted arenas with no clear purpose is no fun, especially at that age.
Bolt and Ben 10 both have serviceable structure, then, but it all seems geared toward finishing the story and nothing more. The games that get the structure absolutely right are those bearing the LEGO brand. I've praised this series many times before for its brilliant balance of exploration and progression, and it's really only when you watch the intended audience playing LEGO Batman, for example, that you see just how incredibly well Traveller's Tales understands the way kids play. The levels are linear, but the overall structure is freeform. Progress in one area aids progress in another. Each new discovery deepens the child's understanding of the gameworld and what they can and can't do in order to succeed.
In other words, while the latest crop of film and TV tie-ins do an adequate job of ensuring kids can make their own progress, and are therefore fine for a weekend's distraction, the games that keep kids coming back months later are those that sweeten their corridors with a little flexibility.
Games, much like exams, are too easy these days. That's the common refrain, and it would seem to be supported by the number of kids' titles that no longer place any long-term penalty on the player for failure. Remember when you'd desperately scan the pages of the games magazines for an infinite-lives cheat? Today's whippersnappers have no such problem.
It's certainly true of Bolt and Ben 10. While in both games you can "die" (Bolt, being from Disney, just curls up and has a nap) you simply start back at the last checkpoint, and there's no limit to the number of times you can plug away at each section. Bolt may earn some hardcore kudos since you still have to find health pick-ups to stave off this temporary setback. Ben 10, on the other hand, refills his health every time he changes into an alien form, earns extra health from the many smashable objects littering the scenery and can only be defeated if he loses all his health as a human kid.
Both games, thankfully, have regular and sensible checkpoints, meaning that restarting is never an aggravating chore yet inconvenient enough that the young player wants to avoid the stigma of failure. Bolt, perhaps, suffers most since combat in that game is rather long-winded, with even the most basic enemies requiring several knockdown combos before they expire.
Is this a bad thing? It's a debate that was recently and famously revived by Fable II. The entire concept of "lives" is really a throwback to gaming's arcade roots, when they were a tangible reminder of the need for spare change to prolong the experience. Certainly, today's youngsters wouldn't understand being thrown back to the main menu after falling foul of the old "three strikes and you're out" mentality. Far from lowering the stakes, I've found that my son's generation is no more fond of dying in-game than we were. Even without the looming threat of Game Over, he and his friends will fight to the last to avoid defeat. This, ultimately, is perhaps the best argument for redefining our understanding of "game death". People, regardless of age, just don't like losing.
Once again, the LEGO games have pioneered in this department, placing no penalty on death other than the loss of studs, the game's currency. In the short term, it's no big deal. In the long term, it matters. A poor player will struggle to accumulate the studs required to unlock the many extra characters and features of the game, effectively replacing the meaningless demise of an on-screen avatar with a more tangible loss of a desirable reward.
But there's a flipside to this argument, and one that once again illustrates the contradictory nature of kids, while providing a very compelling throughline from gaming's brutal early years to today. You see, my son's current favourite game isn't based on a film, or a TV show, and it's far from easy. It's the Xbox Live Arcade version of N+, the famously tough platforming game which gives you an Achievement for dying a thousand times. It's perhaps significant that N+ has no Game Over screen either, allowing you to bang your head against each challenge as many times as you like, but I know my son wouldn't stand for the constant ruthlessness in a title like Ben 10.
One of the key differences is story. There's no narrative to N+ and so no sense that you're missing something should you fail to progress. It's also far from linear, and with the numerous DLC level packs there are always dozens of other levels you can attempt instead. It's also relevant that N+ is a single-screen game. You can see your goal, you can see how you need to reach it, and all the player needs to do is navigate the obstacles in between.
That the stickman ninja is agile and provides almost tangible sensory feedback with regards to his weight and momentum also helps enormously - even a child can instinctively feel the movements required. It's an often ephemeral part of what makes a game fun to play, but whether you're guiding a hero from platform to platform, or tugging at a wobbling tower in Boom Blox, it's the sort of tactile connection that kids love to make and it can make even the toughest challenge more manageable.
N+ has actually reduced my son to tears on occasion, yet he keeps on playing. I want to tell him that it doesn't matter, that he can just switch it off, but I recognise the look on his face. It's the same look that kept me hammering away at Manic Miner many years ago. The difference is that my son is getting better. He can now easily beat levels that left me stumped, and was the first to get the Achievement for completing 30 episodes - or 150 levels - of the game. Even with my own I'm still astonished by this, yet to him it's no different to when he unlocked all the characters in LEGO Batman, another gaming feat he was incredibly proud of. Even though the games couldn't be more different in their approach to punitive measures, he's getting the same feeling of satisfaction.
Clearly the question of difficulty is more one of context from game to game than simply making it impossible for pampered players to lose, and therefore the best games for kids may not always be those banished to the "kids' games" ghetto. It's when this balance is skewed that the grim results are apparent. The recent Pixar games - Ratatouille and WALL·E - both exhibited an astonishing ignorance of what kids actually enjoy doing, and punished them harshly for it. They may have shifted units thanks to the name on the box, but that doesn't mean that kids actually enjoyed the game inside. Fiddly tasks, with no tactile reward, will only be repeated for so long before the game in question ends up gathering dust.
I've never quite understood the obsession some gamers have with the hours of play a game can offer, since few would argue that the greatest movies or books would be improved by doubling their length, but where kids are concerned it does become a more valuable measure of a game's worth. Not only because parents don't want to shell out for a new game every week to keep the offspring amused, but because kids are much more willing to repeat an enjoyable experience over and over. Any parent who has sat through their children's favourite DVD every single day of the summer holiday can testify to this fact.
Longevity for kids, therefore, is less to do with how long it takes to play through the game the first time, but how often you can play the game afterwards and still extract the same enjoyment.
Ben 10 edges out Bolt as far as the most recent kids' games are concerned, simply because returning to previously played levels with new alien forms allows access to new areas and new collectables. Bolt, on the other hand, merely offers a bunch of rather tricky twin-stick shooter bonus levels which held absolutely no appeal for my young test subjects.
This ability to discover new elements through repeated play is a recurring theme in all the games that have found favour with my son and his friends, and it's no surprise that this is another prominent design element of the perennially popular LEGO games. Kids are natural collectors, so any game that taps into this instinct generally captivates its audience far more effectively than a game that just takes you from A to B with minimal distractions. The more characters, costumes and bonuses you can accrue along the way, the more chance of success. Heck, the enduring Pokmon phenomenon even made a catchphrase out of it: gotta catch 'em all. The key lies in making the bonus goodies something useful and fun, which means that any game designer still thinking that anyone gives a toss about concept art should probably reconsider their career.
This probably helps to explain the continuing popularity of Castle Crashers with my son's peer group. Despite being rated for 16 and over, presumably for its cartoon violence and scenes of explicit owl poo, it features several elements that make it ideal for younger players. As well as offering instantly accessible gameplay that walks a fine line between button-mashing mayhem and genuine skill, Castle Crashers is clearly a game designed to be played many, many times over. Finding all the animal orbs, picking up all the weapons, unlocking more and more characters with different magical attacks - this was the stuff of fevered obsession for my boy and his best friends for at least three months last year. It was the sort of all-encompassing passion that resulted in felt-tip pen fan art, home-made comic strips and a sudden interest in knights and castles. If the game hadn't offered so many environments, all accessible for replay at any time, with multiple trinkets to gather along the way, it never would have stayed in rotation for so long.
Castle Crashers also provides another essential ingredient for today's best kids' games: co-op. It makes sense that the audience most attuned to what we'd now call the retro mindset would love the old-fashioned joys of the two-player (or more) game, but it's surprising just how important it seems to be. As an adult, it's easy to forget just what an empowering and immersive experience gaming can be to a young child, and the ability to take your friends into a virtual world and share adventures with them is still a powerful thing.
It's an area where the Bolt game sadly misses the target completely, with no multiplayer elements at all. Few games make for good spectator sports and, given that much of the movie features three animal characters working together, it's also an area where kids looking to recreate the feel of the movie are going to feel short-changed. Ben 10 fares better, with a drop-in co-op system borrowed from - yes - the LEGO games. It's hardly the best two-player experience in town, though. Both players play as Ben, which leads to some confusion, and the camera struggles to keep both characters in view should they wander in opposite directions. The LEGO games suffered in this regard as well, but with a core offering that is nowhere near as polished and with no opportunities for players to actually co-operate beyond pummelling the same enemies, it can prove difficult to smooth over increasingly fractious arguments as the game continues.
In other words, the ability to share the gaming experience is incredibly important for kids, but only if the experience is worth sharing.
This is an area where most children's games have yet to make their mark, so it's no surprise that standard fare like Bolt and Ben 10 doesn't have much to offer in the way of user-generated content. That's not to say it won't become increasingly important as consoles become more powerful - the desire to tinker and make is another natural part of childhood.
LittleBigPlanet is the obvious pioneer as far as this new frontier goes, but the finer points of its level designer are clearly beyond the grasp of children. It's a fun sandbox, and once they learn how to blow things up and strap rockets to spongers there are plenty of giggles, but it's all a bit directionless and short-lived. My son even had a brief - and carefully chaperoned - few days of amusement mucking around with balloons, jets, headcrabs and bathtubs in Garry's Mod, the Source Engine editor that lets you do much the same thing in Valve's first-person universe. But then he decided he'd rather go nuts with a machinegun and grenades in a Counter-Strike cabin, and I decided that might be a little too empowering for someone still at primary school.
More interesting is Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts which integrates the creative aspect far more successfully into the gameplay itself. It's rather ironic that the LEGO games, so tiresomely praised previously, fail at something so fundamental to the LEGO brand. For all its other flaws, Nuts & Bolts offers something LEGO should have implemented long ago - the chance to collect pieces, then create and build your own solution for each challenge.
So where does this leave today's kids games? In good health, rather surprisingly. No adult would ever deliberately choose titles like Bolt and Ben 10 over their glossier rivals, but what they lack in sophistication and polish they often make up for in old-fashioned accessibility. Not the games that kids will cherish for the rest of their lives, but as stepping stones to appreciating games as a hobby, there are far worse examples. It's important to remember that these worst examples generally suffer because they fail to consider the unique nature of their audience and fall back on clumsy design out of habit. The games that succeed are the ones that nurture and encourage young players to explore new experiences through their joypad, and allow them to project themselves - even just for a few hours - into a world of escapist fantasy. The good news is that there are more games like that than you might think.