Well, it's been (ahem) about a year and a half since I promised a "part two" to my earlier post on Great PS2 Games for Young Kids, Part One. And it's time for the next installment. Three more games this time:
[This post used to contain a lengthy list of tips. To trim it to a more manageable size, I've moved it to a new entry: Video Game Tips for Parents.]
Okay. With that out of the way, let's get to the games! Three more good ones here. Although Olivia is now age 10, I'll talk about some games that she loved between the ages of about 7 and 9.
This is actually a series of games, ranging from Monster Rancher 1 to 4, plus the relatively new (and very different) Monster Rancher EVO. At the time we got it, the fourth game was out but I'd heard more favorable reviews of the third game. Following my own advice -- don't be afraid of old games! -- I went with number three. It might be hard to find the third game these days; I hear that the fourth one is also good, but I can't say for sure since we've only played this one.
You play as a monster trainer. The game starts by creating a monster, either from some pre-made guys or -- the better choice -- from a "saucer stone", which is a code name for "any old random CD or DVD you have lying around the house". (You'll have to swap discs manually, at which point you should pause and take a moment to teach your child about how to put CDs away properly when they're done with them.) Each disc will create a unique monster with different looks and abilities, and the same disc will create the same type of monster if used again. Your monster starts as a baby, and you feed it and train it to help it grow stronger. Over time it matures, grows old, and eventually dies, at which point you can start over again. There is a little bit of anime-style story, and there is a tournament where the monsters can optionally fight (without blood, and losers aren't really "killed", but there is cartoonish violence -- monsters chomp each other, whap each other with giant cartoon mallets, etc) to gain levels and prizes. And that's pretty much it.
What's fascinating about this game is the way that kids just love it. But it's the kind of game that can drive an adult crazy! Why? Because it's cute, and there's a lot of repetition. Kids that are 10 and under love repetition; just like they enjoy watching the same video over and over, or reading the same book over and over, they don't mind doing the same thing in a game over and over. There is a lot of repetition in the game as you train your monster. You'll see the same animations over and over (sigh, and over) again. And yet there's still some variety -- you can train in different ways, or use different monsters, or go to a completely new area to train in.
The controls are menu-based, but pretty simple to figure out. There is some text that your child should pay attention to. For example, the game will suggest that it's time to feed your monster, or to let it rest. Perhaps the trickiest part is saving the game and continuing after your monster dies (which is necessary to open up new areas). Olivia had a tendency to just start new games, since she got attached to her monster and didn't want to save over it after it had grown old and died. But doing that meant that she never got to train anywhere other than the first area.
The game can also help build the skills your child needs to keep a pet. Monster Rancher isn't quite a "virtual pet" simulator, like a Tamagotchi or Nintendogs, but it shares some of the same elements. If you treat your monster nicely, he'll be sweet and lovable and grow stronger. If you spoil him too much, he'll get fat and temperamental. If you punish him too much or don't feed him enough, he might get mean. And even though it can be very sad when a monster grows old and dies, that's part of life too. The game handles it well and you can quickly start over with a new baby monster -- which gets a boost from the "heart" left over by the previous one.
Kids also really love the "saucer stone" part. Since you don't know what any disc will give you, you'll have to try a bunch of them and see what you get. It's surprisingly entertaining, and kids love it because it's something they never thought might be possible. It's a really unique gameplay mechanism that I've never seen anywhere else. Just be careful: unattended, your kids might quickly make a mess of your CD collection! We gave Olivia permission try lots of CDs but always made sure that she was careful with them and put everything back as soon as she was done.
Some people might be concerned about the whole "raising animals to fight" part. That's your call. Personally, this wasn't a problem for us. First, we make sure our daughter is able to distinguish fantasy from reality (always a good thing) and that she knows how to behave in real life. Second, the monster fighting is very much treated as a sport in the game -- just like boxing, karate, or amateur wrestling might be. There are tournaments, prizes, and so on. So it's not as if you're teaching your kids to enjoy cockfights or the WWF. It's an extremely mild game.
This is another game that appeals to people across all ages. You've probably seen the arcade version in a mall. It's the one that has people stepping on four arrows while dance music plays, often drawing a crowd when the better players are "on stage". There's no real gender bias to the game, but my impression is that with younger kids it's more popular with girls, while among teenagers it's more popular among boys. I don't know this for sure; that's just the impression I get. Somebody could probably write a PhD thesis dissecting the relationship of this game to gender roles. :-)
First of all, you absolutely need to get the special "mat" controller that lets you dance. Some versions come with it bundled, or you can buy it separately. They sell some very expensive ones, but the regular old cheap one works well. Once you have that the game is very simple, but challenging. You're given a wide variety of songs to choose from, each with its own dance moves. All you need to do is just step on the arrows at the right time.
Sounds easy, right?
You wish. The guys at the mall may make it look simple, but DDR is very physical and can be challenging both for you and your child. You'll want to start out with the difficulty dialed all the way down to the lowest setting. It's okay to screw up -- and you will -- as long as you keep trying. Stick with it! After a while you'll start getting the hang of it. When you're first starting out, it's not unusual to have to stop after a few songs because you just get too tired and sweaty. I've found that taking turns of either one or three songs works well.
What's great about this game is that it's a very physical thing, and it's something your child will want to practice. It's not very mentally challenging, but it can be tricky trying to figure out how to do all the moves you need to get through a song. It's sort of like puzzle-solving with your feet. It's not a game that you'll "beat" any time soon; you will be able to continue playing and improving for a long time. It's also an easy game to pick up and play; there's no story, and nothing gets in your way. You just start it up and go. And it's great at parties as long as you make sure the kids share.
There are a lot of versions of this game. Some come with the "mat" controller bundled, some don't. As mentioned before, you'll really need the controller. We chose to get the Dance Dance Revolution Extreme Bundle, which included it. (NOTE: The preceding link lists a price of $199.95, which is insane. It should be about $40, which is the price you'll find for the almost equivalent DDR Extreme 2 Bundle. I e-mailed the seller and he said, paraphrased, that the price is deliberately high because it's new and unopened and someone stupid might buy it at that price.)
The primary difference between the versions is really the song lists. They tend to be techno dance music, and more or less appropriate for everyone. You might hear any of these songs on the radio. Your standards may vary, of course, but we really didn't find anything that we were concerned about in the game.
Kingdom Hearts has a special kind of magic. It turns Disney movies into three-dimensional worlds that you can run through and play around in, and that's just fantastic. Since it contains a lot of characters and stories that your child will already know, it really is a lot of fun, and unlocking the game's worlds can be really rewarding. And if you look at the top of the box you'll see that it's now become a "Greatest Hits" title, which is why it's gotten so cheap.
This is a tricky one to put on the list, but it's just so good that I had to do it. Despite its Disney theme, this is definitely not an easy game for a young child. It's very long, complicated, can be very difficult, and has a few scary points. I would say that it's probably targeted a little more at the tween to teen market. Olivia and I started playing it when she was only 7, but we didn't finish for months and months! It definitely shouldn't be a child's first exposure to video games, and you should be prepared to help your child play it almost the whole way through. In fact, I would strongly suggest getting a hint book like the Kingdom Hearts Official Strategy Guide ... these can be a lot of fun, and can encourage your child's reading skills.
You play Sora, a young boy who lives on an island with his friends. After some lengthy training and a series of opening sequences which seem to take forever, eventually your island is ripped apart. You land in a central hub called Traverse Town, and eventually meet up with Donald and Goofy -- who have been sent by King Mickey to find you and then deal with the problem of "Heartless", shadowy monsters which are invading all the Disney worlds. Eventually you'll visit the worlds of (and fight the major villains from) a lot of different Disney movies: Little Mermaid, Hercules, Nightmare Before Christmas, Alice in Wonderland, Aladdin, Peter Pan, and more.
There is violence in this game: fighting monsters is most of what you do. Fighting involves swordfights with a "Keyblade" that looks like a giant key. You're rarely fighting people; most of the fighting is against Heartless, who look like shadowy insects. Otherwise the content should be fine for all ages. Not all of the characters are Disney characters; some are Square-Enix characters (from other games made by the same game studio) and some were created just for this game.
The controls are moderately complicated. The basic moves are just running around, jumping, and hitting the attack button -- easily mastered by most kids if they've played a few games before. But there are a lot of menus, and even items that you can optionally buy and use (healing potions, magic, and so on). Saving goes through a menu as well, and must be done at a save point. There's no autosave, so your child must remember to save or else lose her progress.
The worlds you run around in can be big and complicated, and it's not always clear what to do next. But I've found that because it's a Disney theme, kids are very highly motivated to explore and look around. They will probably get stuck a lot, and the game makes it worse by creating certain situations where you just can't make forward progress and you have to give up and go to another world. For example, the Colosseum in Hercules isn't open for a long time, and there's no obvious reason why. That's why I'd suggest a hint book, with maps and strategies. When your child gets stuck, help him figure out how and where to look up the answer. You'll be helping him with his game, and very sneakily teaching him valuable skills like "how to use a reference book"!
There is also a sequel, Kingdom Hearts II, which is very similar to the first game. It's also long and complicated, but almost as good as the first game. I found that Olivia's enthusiasm ran out after a while on the sequel, but that might be because it didn't come out until two years after we finished the first one.
I still believe that the most important thing you can do as a parent is to read reviews of games before you buy them. Games can be expensive, and you don't want to buy bad ones.
There are a few places I go to find reviews. Amazon frequently has reviews written by kids and parents. I like GameSpot's reviews, although as a parent you sometimes need to translate a little: the criticisms of "too short" and "too easy" often mean the game will be just right for kids. IGN also has reviews, but the reviews aren't as well-written; sometimes it feels like they are written for gaming insiders who follow every little bit of news.
I hope to write more in this series, but I encourage you to write your own experiences in the comments. Let me know what you've tried, and what worked and didn't!