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The funny thing about kids games is that they didn't really exist until quite recently, at least not as a distinct sub-section of videogaming. For many years there were simply games, and almost all of them were suitable for kids even when they weren't specifically designed for them.
It's only in the last few hardware generations, with the rise of increasingly realistic graphics and gameworlds, that gaming has begun to leave the younger player behind. Take the old scrolling shooters and fighting games like Gryzor and Renegade. Remake them in a modern context, and the violence becomes prohibitively explicit.
This has meant that pre-teens have largely become a secondary market for an industry that too often sees more money in pandering to the adolescent with boobs, swearing and gore. Kids games, by and large, now only exist because they're tied to some new cartoon or animated movie; interactive brand extensions that only occasionally seem interested in delivering a polished and well designed gameplay experience.
So therefore the idea of coming up with a list of the 10 best children's games proves rather tricky. Modern efforts rarely aspire to the sort of standard that would warrant such praise, while if you look too far back you discover that pretty much any game can be passed off under the broad banner "For Kids".
With that in mind, what we present here is less of a definitive chart rundown, and more of a celebration of 10 great games, drawn from the last three decades. Some of the entries may surprise you, some of the omissions may infuriate you, but they all illustrate some of the core ideas and elements that go towards making a kids game great.
- Namco, 1980
Most of the very early arcade classics are still capable of entrancing younger players, simply because their gameplay ideas are so simple and pure. Goals and objectives are impossible to misread, and there's virtually no chance of any player being confused as to what they need to do, or how they need to do it.
Yet despite this simplicity, Pac-Man punches above its weight even today. Tough but fun. Manic but measured. Pac-Man is probably the classic arcade title that has the most instant appeal for the pre-teen audience regardless of the year. It is, after all, essentially a digitised take on the timeless playground tradition of chasing each other around and screaming.
It's tag, in other words. Kids love the thrill of pursuit, their vestigial fight-or-flight instinct yet to be dulled by adult complacency, and so guiding Pac around the maze with ghosts on their trail is something they instinctively respond to. Little wonder that the game has endured in downloads and TV games, virtually unchanged, for 30 years.
- Microsphere, 1985
This ZX Spectrum classic provides a pioneering example of a vital ingredient in kids gaming: empowerment. Set loose in a high school, and forced to bunk off lessons and roam the corridors with catapult to hand, this taps into a Bash Street notion of benign rule-breaking that is still enormously empowering for an audience whose lives are still dictated almost entirely by adults.
Giving players the option to rename the teachers and pupils, and write on the blackboards, was therefore a stroke of uncommon genius, an experiment in early user-generated content that still elicits a warm sigh of nostalgia from retro-minded gamers. The sequel, Back to Skool, was even better; opening out the gameworld beyond the small school layout and giving you more to do than just ping catapult shots off flashing shields.
The stiff 8-bit controls may prove to be a barrier for today's gamers, though the excellent Klass of '99 freeware remake retains all the charm of the original, with cleaner visuals and smoother control. Extra house points all round.
Zombies Ate My Neighbors
- Konami, 1993
Developed by Lucasarts, and released simply as Zombies in Europe, this top-down shooter succeeds by tapping into the same vein of kid-friendly ghoulish humour that has kept Scooby Doo in active circulation since the 1960s. As with Pac-Man, the premise is simple - shoot monsters, save neighbours - and a large part of the game's appeal comes from the delicious panic of being chased.
Where Zombies evolves the template is in its subtle depths and generous variety. With an arsenal of different weapons to choose from, and an array of monstrous foes, there's just enough tactical value in choosing the right tool for the job to give kids an extra frisson of achievement, as does rationing the game's sparse keys.
Mostly, though, it's the endless inventiveness of the game's B-movie scenarios that makes this a kid classic. Contrary little beasts that they are, kids love the familiar yet crave new experiences. Zombies offers both, with the gameplay sticking to a tried-and-trusted run-and-shoot groove while the ever-changing levels keep things fresh.
Whether battling alien shrubs with a lawnmower, being pursued through a hedge maze by cartoonish chainsaw-wielding Jasons or battling a gigantic toddler in suburbia, Zombies never deviates from its core mechanisms, yet refuses to let the player get bored. Also: trampolines. It's out now on the Wii Virtual Console, and there's no excuse for not giving it a spin.
- SEGA, 1999
There are a great many SEGA games that would fit in this list, its bright blue-sky gameworlds offering a cast-iron workshop in how to create enticing, inviting gaming experiences. Yet, after much reflection, it's this breezy car caper that provides the best example of how to craft a winning kid game, rather than the more obvious blue hedgehog titles.
Driving games in general are an easy entry point for young gamers, but what Crazy Taxi does so brilliantly is understand not just why kids play games, but how they play them. Sure, racing round and round a track is fun, but sooner or later every kid will try and go the wrong way. Crazy Taxi takes that impulse, embraces it and then rewards the player for doing the things most games penalise you for.
It understands that you want to make your own shortcuts, fly over every hill, screech around every corner and make cartoon people jump out of the way as you go. Tie all of that to a deliciously instinctive time-trial arcade mechanism and you've got a game that could make even the scroogiest technophobe fall in love with gaming. If this doesn't turn up on Xbox Live soon, there'll be trouble.
- Nintendo, 1996
As with SEGA, there's no shortage of titles in the Nintendo cupboard that would fit the criteria for this list. Mario is the obvious choice, of course, with numerous games to his credit that thoroughly deserve to be included in any superlative roundup. The same goes for Zelda. Sit a child in front of Mario 64 or Ocarina of Time and chances are they'll be hooked.
But it's actually Pokemon that best illustrates something that a lot of developers tend to miss where kids are concerned - namely, that they're not stupid. Kids are information sponges, particularly boys, and they relish the chance to collect vast amounts of data that can be fitted into a comforting framework.
That's where Pokemon comes in, a seriously hefty RPG that boasts a complex and nuanced combat system. Consider the sheer amount of knowledge and strategic thought that goes into completing one these adventures, and then weigh that up against the amount of thought that goes into yet another left-to-right button-mashing brawler based on the average kid flick. There's no competition.
The catchphrase may be "Gotta catch 'em all" but, crucially, to succeed in the game you've also gotta understand them all. Pokemon remains phenomenally popular because it doesn't underestimate its core audience, instead giving them control over a universe of arcane knowledge that their parents don't understand.
Tales of Monkey Island
- Telltale Games, 2009
The reason for this choice is simple: kids love stories. They especially love stories that have jokes and adventure and cool characters. Something else that kids love: puzzles. Put them together and you've got the template for the point-and-click genre, something that many erroneously wrote off as appealing only to terminally retro-minded old people.
Over the past few years, Telltale Games has done a commendable job in bringing this once moribund genre back to rude health and putting it in front of new audiences, either via WiiWare, Xbox Live Arcade or good old PC downloads. The purist in me wants to credit the original Monkey Island games, but the realist in me (yes, it's crowded in here) realises that the sometimes oblique puzzles are as likely to frustrate as inspire.
Telltale's modern take on the formula is less interested in stumping you for days on end and more keen to whisk you through its episodic yarn, which makes it ideal for younger gamers who want more than fast-paced action. Telltale's Wallace & Gromit episodic series is also well worth a look.
Kung Fu Panda
- Activision, 2007
Not a game that you might expect to find on a traditional "best of" list, but one that warrants inclusion here not so much for what it does as what it represents. True, there's not much to the game other than melee combat and the occasional Quick-Time Event, but when most kid movie spin-offs are content to make as little effort as possible, Kung Fu Panda (developed by Vigilante 8 creator Luxoflux) goes out of its way to be an actual game rather than just a vaguely amusing advertisement for its source material.
Visually it's surprisingly lovely, one of the few movie adaptations to look like it was developed for the Xbox 360 instead of the PS2. The gameplay is shallow, but carefully balanced and robustly presented. Control is crisp and responsive, combat has a satisfying flow and weight, and it recreates the movie story while finding space to expand the narrative canvas in organic ways.
In an ideal world, these would be the basics of any game based on a kids movie. As it is, Kung Fu Panda stands out simply for acknowledging that kids are as deserving of polish and thoughtful design as anybody.
Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts
- Microsoft, 2008
Rare is another developer that has a commendable history of treating younger players with respect, and nothing demonstrates this more than Banjo and Kazooie's third outing. Ditching the 3D platformer template in favour of something more unique, Nuts & Bolts is a fine advert for the benefits of crafting a compelling gameworld and then giving the player the freedom to experience that world in whatever manner they see fit.
Most of all, Nuts & Bolts works because it understands that sometimes scribbling in the margins can be as much fun as colouring in-between the lines. Indeed, it's likely that most kids won't remember most of the challenges the game throws at them, but will instead fondly recall the time they built a giant flying tank that was also a submarine and flew it so high that they bumped off the metal sky of Nutty Acres before jumping out and freefalling all the way back down to the ocean.
Offering boundless customisation options, the Nuts & Bolts garage is one of the most sophisticated user-content tools of this generation, and the fact that primary school children can quickly master its intricacies and create working machines is rather special.
That they'll be learning the broad strokes of key engineering concepts as they go is just the icing on the cake.
- Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, 2008
No list of influential kids games would be complete without the omnipresent LEGO series, which continues to showcase just how inspiring and exciting a well-designed game can be for an audience still learning how to play videogames.
For the sake of argument I've plumped for LEGO Batman as the representative of Traveller's Tales' ever-expanding franchise, purely on the basis that it offers the most gameplay, the most refined design and the most inventive use of the source material.
As with LEGO Star Wars and LEGO Indiana Jones (and, soon, LEGO Harry Potter) the aim of the game can be summed up in one sentence: earn LEGO studs to unlock more LEGO stuff. Where these games distinguish themselves is the devilishly clever way this is done.
Any child can grasp the idea of guiding Lego characters around the environment, smashing stuff. By doing this they earn studs and learn a little more about the interactivity of the gameworld. Next time around, they might pull a few levers, discover a couple of secrets.
Before you know it, they're tackling puzzles, working out which characters to unlock next to obtain key abilities, and totting up the stud totals they'll need to achieve their self-imposed goals. It's a crash course in how to play videogames, basically, and one that draws on broad humour and tightly focused design to benefit the player, regardless of their skill level.
Cynics may sneer that the games are all the same, but you try telling that to the legions of under-10s who anticipate each new LEGO release as fervently as the hardcore crave the next bloody shooter.