Letters to Santa are no longer filled with requests for Red Ryder BB Guns but for first-person shooters like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, which, of course, are no more age appropriate. But don’t fret, plenty of other video games are. So put down that mature-rated war game and peruse our top 11 child-friendly video games for 2011 -- starring everyone from Elmo, Mario and Sackboy to Spongebob, Swampy and Kirby, the pink puffball -- to help you find the perfect one to put under your Christmas tree.
Sesame Street: Once Upon a Monster
Double Fine / Warner Bros.
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Sesame Street is known for hooking up with hip artists like Feist, so it’s not surprising that Sesame Workshop joined forces with gaming’s hippest studio Double Fine -- but it is awesome. This Xbox Kinect game is purpose-built for parents and young kids to play together because your body is the controller.
There’s no winner or loser as it’s played cooperatively. Your kids will get a thrill by moving their arms and seeing Elmo and Cookie Monster do the same, and parents can rest assured that the Sesame educational legacy is maintained as the game’s goal is to teach empathy. For older kids 10 and up, we recommend Double Fine’s Stacking, a retro turn-of-the-century puzzle-adventure game in which everyone is a matryoshka, or Russian nesting doll.
Kirby’s Return to Dreamland
Italian plumbers are great and all, but for the younger set Mario and Luigi can’t hold a plunger to a pink puffball named Kirby. While not as wonderful as last year’s Kirby’s Epic Yarn, the latest entry in a quarter-century-old franchise is a fantastically fun return for the character. As ever, Kirby inhales his enemies and takes on their powers, adding welcome diversity. It’s got four-player co-op, making it a nice social game and allowing older kids to help younger ones along. And because it’s essentially a 1980s-style side-scroller like the original Nintendo games, even parents who haven’t gamed since they were kids should be able to keep up with their wee ones.
France’s most famous game designer Michel Ancel returns to Rayman, the gaming mascot who made him that way. By pulling inspiration and characters from the 1995 original, Ancel pulls off the best entry yet for the Franco hero. Again, it’s an old-school four-player co-op side scroller—you’ll see a lot of these here because they are vastly easier for little kids to control than full 3D worlds—but what it lacks in dimensionality is more than made up in creativity. As Rayman, runs, hops and spin-kicks his way through convoluted levels of unbridled imagination and surrealist animation, you and your kids both will be won over by its sheer whimsy.
2K Play/High Voltage Software
Xbox 360, Wii
Have a tiny little baseball fanatic in your household who also hearts Nickelodeon’s cast of cartoon characters from Spongebob Squarepants, Ren and Stimpy, Invader Zim and Avatar the Last Airbender?
Well, you are in luck, my friend. Basically a remake of popular baseball game The Bigs 2, Nicktoons MLB now combines hundred of real-life major league players from all 30 teams with a host of animated athletes and ballparks ranging from Wrigley Field and Fenway Park to the Poseidome and Frosty Freeze Field. The game’s motion-sensing controls, via Wii or Kinect, are probably too simplified for older gamers, but for the knee-high set it's pretty much a homerun.
Just Dance 3
Any parent who has complained about gaming making their kids lazy has clearly never seen tykes working up a sweat on the Just Dance franchise. Though initially a Wii game, it’s now soft-shoed its way over to Xbox and PS3 thanks to their Kinect and Move motion-sensing controls (though the Wii version is still the best reviewed). The basic idea is the same as the granddaddy of the genre, Dance, Dance Revolution, but rather than worry about hitting spots on a gamepad, you have to pull off the actual moves, albeit with lots of leeway. It's a great party game -- this new edition allows four players to dance together -- with a 40-track setlist ranging from Britney, Beyonce and Katy to Sugarhill Gang, 2 Unlimited and Daft Punk.
Kinect: Disneyland Adventures
Frontier Developments / Microsoft Studios
Your kids begging you to daily take them to Disneyland but you don't want to spend the money or, even worse, stand in those interminable lines? Then I’m surprised you haven’t bought this already. Yes, it's a shameless marketing play by the Mouse House, but it’s also an impressively realized open-world that just happens to be a virtual California theme park. Everything from Mickey's Toontown and Mainstreet U.S.A to Tomorrowland and Frontierland are explorable. The grounds are packed with their favourite Disney characters (40 in all) and mini-games based on rides like Space Mountain, the Matterhorn, It's a Small World and, of course, Pirates of the Caribbean. Hopefully, this will finally shut your kids up.
Super Mario 3D Land
Nintendo’s glasses-free 3D handheld has not been the breakout success its predecessors were, not because of the hardware -- which feels science-fiction-y, though it can be hard to keep the screen in your 3D sweet spot and can induce headaches if played too long -- but because there weren't enough great games to justify the purchase. So along comes a plumber to once again save the day. The plot is as it ever was -- Princess Peach is captured by Bowser -- but this time when Mario goes off on a rescue mission in a 3D open-world, it’s actually in 3D. Lots of games have used the technique to spice up their graphics, but 3D Land actually uses it to impact level design and create a better game. Consider it the 3DS’s avatar. (Note: Nintendo recommends against letting kids six and under use the 3D effects, which can be turned off.)
Little Big Planet 2
Media Molecule, Sony
This sequel to the textile-inspired original came out early in the year, so you should be able to score it for pretty cheap. It’s a crowd-sourced do-it-yourself side-scrolling platformer that comes with a number of highly imaginable levels but also allows you to create your own and then upload them to be played and rated by everyone. The user-generated community levels now number in the millions. Your burlap hero Sack Thing still goes from left to right navigating levels, but the improved toolset allows older kids to go beyond platforming to build racing, shooter, sports and other genre games. It’s also now compatible with Sony’s motion-sensing Playstation Move controller. If your kid grows up to be a game designer, you can probably trace his career back here.
Where’s My Water?/ Machinarium
Disney’s first entry into the mobile gaming sphere was an instant critical and popular hit, even forcing that cultural phenomenon Angry Birds to migrate off its number one roost. The physics-based puzzle game from the maker of Jellycar is simple enough—adorable alligator Swampy might live in the sewers but he just wants to be clean. It’s up to you to trace a path through the dirt with your finger to help get him water for his bath. It’s addictive and clever and only 99 cents, so we also recommend the award-winning Machinarium, one of the best entries in the reinvigorated point-and-click genre. Though released on PC a couple years back, this hand-drawn steampunk-inspired game about Josef the robot has been recharged for iPad 2. The puzzles can be a bit challenging, though, so be prepared to pitch in.
Mario Kart 7
Mario may be best known as a princess-rescuing plumber, but he’s also enjoyed quite a successful side career as a go-kart racer. This seventh entry in the series, which features 17 Nintendo characters, is more of a new paintjob than a retrofit. The basics remain, with a few tweaks here and there like a Tanooki Tail and an underwater racetrack, so it’s really a good gift for a 3DS owner suffering from a dearth of decent games. The 3D effects, which add depth into the screen rather than making images pop out, arguably works best in racing games and the Mario Kart franchise remains as solidly built and fun to rev up as ever.
The Adventures of Tintin: The Game
This adaptation of the upcoming TinTin film Secret of the Unicorn is made for fans of the beloved Belgian reporter, his white dog Snowy and his globe-trotting adventures. This simple and largely side-scrolling adventure game has some limited 3D segments (when you control Snowy or pilot vehicles) and the rest is best described as 2.5D, but mostly kids will be carefully directed where they need to go. The single-player campaign follows the film’s plot about a mysterious wooden ship named The Unicorn while the offline co-op mode adds more surreal levels based on Captain Haddock’s dreams. Yes, really. Oh, and be warned, turns out TinTin is quite the pugilist if you’re trying to avoid fighting games.