Saturday, November 29, 2008

The 2008 Christmas Video Game Buying Guide!

The First Annual Christmas Video Game Buying Guide
(Why we have to suck it up and buy “Mario”)

It’s no super secret video games are expensive. At an average of fifty dollars a game, there is little wonder most parents are reluctant to part with their Santa savings on something they may know little about. Even those of us (myself included) who grew up staring into the arcade abyss cannot claim to have thorough knowledge of the genre (I grew up and had kids – it happens). I still find time to waste a few hours a week on a handful of top titles. I’ll race anyone on MarioKart Wii and completed Burnout Revenge a few months ago. Other than playing games which appeal to my kids, I’ve little knowledge of the outside gaming world of stripper-shooting-pimp-gangstas, futuristic war chiefs or chainsaw-wielding anti-heroes. Although I’ve bought a few of these games, I rarely find time to play them (kids, writing, life, the universe, etc). Like most parents, I don’t think my 11-year-old; my 3-year-old or my 21-month old is quite ready for "Grand Theft Auto" or "Gears of War." Why is it if so many parents do not want these games in their homes, kids as young as 7 demand them from St. Nick? It can’t be rebellion (little young). A desire to conform and belong? Maybe, but kids are independent these days. The best answer, I’m afraid, is as plain as the plastic machine gun sticking out of Santa’s bag of toys: the games are good.

Kid-focused games (rated E for Everyone for those keeping score) have been getting a bad wrap for quite some time – and with good reason. With the notable exception of Nintendo’s “Mario” franchise, they stink. Go ahead, parents, ask your kids. They’ll even spell it out for you: S-T-I-N-K. They’re lame, they blow chunks, and they’re just not that fun. This shoddiness has been known for some time (like 20 years) but most parents, even those who are still gamers, try to ignore it. We’d like to think our kids would enjoy jumping around as Curious George as much as we enjoy decapitating zombies in "Resident Evil" but they don’t. In fact, the “Curious George” video game epitomizes the majority of flaws in children’s titles.

In designing a kid’s video game, the software company has two principal goals in mind: recognizability/marketing ability and affordability/profitability. Software companies want to license characters that are recognizable to kids, making the titles easy sells for stores like Wal-Mart and Target. Kids (and parents) are more likely to buy something they know than something they don’t. This is why there are eight million products featuring Elmo and about three with Eloise, Olivia or Babar. Currently, there are games starring characters from the movies “Cars, “Madagascar” and “Wall-E” on the shelves. The basic reasoning for these tie-ins is that if the movies are fun, then the games must be fun also. I bought “Cars” for my son and me because the film was his favorite for the last year. We played it for approximately two hours. I would have played it longer but driving aimlessly around the virtual Radiator Springs left me needing a mental tune-up. I purchased “Curious George” for similar reasons and quit playing it after I couldn’t guide poor George out of a construction site I had no idea why he was in to begin with.

I also bought “Cars” and “Curious George” because they were cheap. There’s quite a few $19.99 “budget” kids titles on the Target shelves. They all start at $49.99 (the Mario price) but within two months, they’ve been discounted. Software companies take this pricing into account when they develop their games, spending significantly less on game design and testing, choosing to focus their energies on long-range titles like Grand Theft Auto and Halo. If you’ve ever asked yourself why many of these games make little sense and are hard to play, this is your chance to level up. Usually the first two levels of the kids’ games are fun and then the misery begins. The first levels are known in the industry as “demo” levels, designed to appeal to electronics buyers at Wal-Mart and Target. Usually the buyer will only get those stages and will be asked to make a bulk purchasing decision based upon them.

The first level for “Cars” is a race and a fun one. Lightning McQueen is easy to control and driving in the race would appeal to kids and adults who like racing games like the NASCAR series. It is after this race, that the player wants to drive McQueen off the cliff and hopes Mater is too busy harassing combines to find him. Similarly, “Curious George” begins with an appealing level in the jungle designed to highlight George’s abilities. The player jumps, climbs and swings his way in pursuit of the Man with the Yellow Hat. After this, however, George is inexplicably placed in locations such as a marketplace rooftop and the previously mentioned construction site and cannot perform half of the abilities showcased in the first level. Can you spell “lame”, George?

Software companies bank on the idea that economically conscious parents might not care how fun a game is if it’s cheap. It is twice as affordable as “Mario” and five times cheaper than the popular rhythm game, “Guitar Hero.” After all, if kids tell Mom and Dad they want “Wall-E” for Christmas, why not get it for them if it’s cheap? Incidentally, “Wall-E” is supposed to be worse than “Cars” or “George.” Most of us can remember a time when us or our children wanted a toy so bad, got it for Christmas and put it down soon after, never to be played with again, exiled to the infamous Island of Misfit Toys. The big problem with video games is the companies know this is going to happen. Kids games (with the exception of “Mario”) are rarely tested by companies for playability and overall “fun factor” in the same fashion as titles like “Grand Theft Auto.”

Testing is conducted by all software companies to ensure games play as their designers intended (no “glitches”) and to guarantee players do not become too frustrated for the wrong reasons such as wondering around aimlessly for hours looking for something they can’t see (like a gray door on a gray wall). Testing is performed extensively on titles like “Grand Theft Auto” because the company expects the game to sell millions of copies. Every aspect of the game has to work perfectly or the game (and possibly the franchise) will tank, costing the company millions of dollars. Sales of the “Grand Theft Auto”, “Halo” and “Gears of War” franchises eclipse 20 million whereas sales of “Curious George” might not even clear 50 thousand. Sadly, most software companies just don’t care about releasing quality kids’ games and do not allocate the same time to test the games in the same fashion as the best sellers. Their desire is to merely move product into a specific demographic without attempting to appeal to a broader audience. This lack of vision for the “everyone” market has resulted in a negative perception regarding most of these titles (kinda like Big Auto).

Parents do have viable alternatives, but they are not bargains. Nintendo’s “Mario” franchise, mentioned earlier, can always be counted on for hours of family fun. For the past 25 years, Nintendo has kept close watch on the quality of its games. The racing game, “Mario Kart Wii”, may look “cartooney”, but its physics and playability make it the best racing title available on any system. Players can even go online and challenge someone anywhere in the world. “Super Smash Brothers” appeals to button-mashers everywhere. A fighting game with no violence or gore, even the youngest players (such as my son, Shane), can pick it up immediately and have hours of fun. This game is also perfect for parents who hate playing games but are egged on to play with their kids. Little learning, lots of enjoyment. Nintendo’s current “flagship” title, “Super Mario Galaxy”, succeeds where games like “Cars” and “Curious George” fail. The controls are easy to learn, the storyline plausible and is challenging but not headache inducing. It is by far the best game available this year. However, these games are not cheap, sitting at that fifty-dollar price level with little hope of downward movement. That’s ok. With these games, you will get what you pay for: happy children around the T.V. while parents relax in an easy chair, sipping Christmas Eggnog.

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