Not long ago, I found myself in front of a gaggle of kids who appeared, to my untrained eye, to be around eight or nine years old. I was asked about my favourite game and there were groans when I started with, "Well, it's one you won't be able to play for another 10 years or so."
They didn't like that at all -- it gets old quick, that waiting to be older.
The under-10 set is a technologically savvy generation, but many of the video games on the shelves these days are more likely to be aimed at their parents. And the games that are rated Everyone, the equivalent of a General film, are wildly uneven. They can be wonderful, like interactive picture books, and they can be the worst things ever stuffed in a box by human beings.
For the kids looking for something to play and for the parents putting up the cash, sorting this out can be a challenge. Websites that collate reviews such as Metacritic.com and GameRankings.com are quite accurate when it comes to Mature and Teen titles, probably because the people writing the reviews fall somewhere between those designations. But games aimed at kids lose points for being too easy or gain too much credit for having visuals that compare favourably to popular TV shows or animated films. The scores are all over the place.
Aside from backpack-wearing friends with good taste, the best resource out there remains a site called GamerDad.com. It provides a weekly round-up of new releases with helpful information such as reading levels and the current buzz in the grade schools.
I certainly found it useful this week as I waded through a stack of Everyone-rated games. Most of them are for Nintendo's dual-screen portable, the DS. Its wild sales this year have been largely on the back of all-ages games and it has admirably picked up the torch from the company's GameBoy handhelds.
That said, the first game on my roster was a disaster, probably because it came from a pile of licensed titles, or spin-offs from other mediums. These games represent the lion's share of non-sports games aimed at kids and some are perfectly passable -- Monster House and Cars (multiple platforms) do their respective movies justice -- but when they go wrong, they go really wrong. Like that first game, Alex Rider: Stormbreaker (GameBoy Advance, DS), which is based on a series of novels and a recent film about a teen who doubles as a spy. As the British film critic Mark Kermode likes to say, everyone associated with it should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves -- this thing would have been outdated in 1994.
Animated TV shows also throw up a truckload of inconsistent games each year, especially the U.S. network Nickelodeon. Its game partner, the publisher THQ, has found success with a likeable batch of SpongeBob SquarePants games, including a new one called Creature from the Krusty Krab (multiple platforms) that is quite charming. It is a platform game, which means plenty of undersea exploring and solving environmental puzzles that will test kids' brains without them even noticing. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Danny Phantom: Urban Jungle (DS, GBA), a side-scrolling shooting game with a boy blasting ghosts, and Unfabulous (GBA), which has big-headed schoolgirls questing for popularity. Both shows were new to me and these inconsequential games did little to recommend them.
I had higher hopes for a game built around a cartoon I used to be very familiar with, Scooby-Doo. Who's Watching Who (PlayStation Portable, DS) has the ghostbusters competing against another crew of mystery solvers in a haunted hotel. Youngsters don't have much choice among titles for Sony's PSP, which is skewed to a teen audience, but this confusing and dull 3-D adventure game is not worth more than a single Scooby snack. It works better as a side-scroller on the DS, but only marginally.
I was hoping to leave the best for last and that means two of the bestselling names in interactive fun for preteens, Pokemon and Mario. The monster-catching Pokemon empire makes for cringe-inducing television and movies (at least for the chaperones), but the many games have been surprisingly good. At least they were up until this fall's Mystery Dungeon: Blue Team and Red Team, both for the DS. They relied on dungeon crawling instead of collecting cute fauna, the cornerstone of the series. Thankfully, this week's Pokemon: Ranger (DS) is a return to form. You use the bottom touch-screen and the stylus to encircle the little varmints, which is harder than it sounds, and the plot has page after page of character development. Parents might be surprised by how much reading a game like this involves and the amount of strategic thinking it requires.
Strategy and screen drawing are also the name of the game in Mario vs. Donkey Kong 2: March of the Minis (DS). The goal here is to guide wind-up Marios across obstacle-infested landscapes by setting them in motion and then providing bridges. It is, like so many of Nintendo's adventures set in the Mushroom Kingdom, deceptively complex and very cute.
And best of all, those gaggles of kids don't have to wait 10 years to get their hands on it.