Kids' Games are All Right

Avatar: The Last Airbender for the Wii is a mediocre game according to much of the gaming press. I'm not too surprised. I'd figured it wasn't the sort of thing that they rave about and those numbers don't bother me. If a game is rated E, you rarely get a decent idea of what it is like to play it from a lot of gaming websites and magazines.

I don't get it. I know that all video games aren't for kids, but that doesn't mean we don't make any videogames for kids. You'd think that if a game was designed for kids, it would behoove them to assess it from that point of view. But that's not what I'm seeing in the gaming press.

I have a theory about how this sort of thing comes about. A lot of game reviewers come from the hardcore end of the gaming spectrum, so they are not the sort to appreciate this kind of game right out of the box. And they're not taking that into account when they assess these games.

Let's take a stereotypical reviewer. You've got this 20 or 30-something guy. He's been playing Doom and Quake since junior high. Yesterday he and one of the other guys worked on the multi-player parts of some new ninja game. After a day of dealing silent justice and a quick dinner, he signed into XboxLive and was grinding nooblets into hamburger with a gun-mounted chainsaw until 2am. Or maybe he was up until 2am grinding his baking skill and kicking sparkle bunnies on Azeroth. He crawls up the stairs to work in the grim light of morning. He hits the coffee stand and then his editor's office. There he gets handed a cel-shaded box and a short deadline.

He goes back to his cube, takes a swig of coffee and loads it up. He's thrown into a brightly colored Purgatory. The characters are bratty kids with voices that can bend metal. Their posturing and posing is even more annoying than the voices. The music is the cliched combat theme from a cartoon.

Once he gets past the interminable opening sequence it gets worse. The combat and general gameplay are old hat to him. It's simplistic and repetitive, plus the paper-thin story doesn't motivate him to want to put up with it. He gives it a pretty good workout out of a sense of duty and doesn't find anything to truly complain about. There's nothing obviously broken. He sighs, types out his findings, does some math and rates it a 6.7. Then he tosses the case on the done pile and heads back to the coffee stand with a few muttered maledictions about licensed crap.

I'm not suggesting our stereotypical reviewer is making this up. Avatar does have the issues they list. There is a lot of repetitive combat. There were quite a few spots full of wolves where I got sick of bothering the local wildlife and just snuck past them to get to the next story point. The melee fighting can seem over-simplified. In contrast, the way they implemented Aang's bigger attacks with the Wiimote has a rather steep learning curve. It involves coordinated use of the buttons on the Wiimote and the thumbstick on the Nunchuk, as well as different movements of the two pieces of the controller. Using the Elemental powers requires precision tracing of Japanese letters on the screen with the Wiimote.

If you don't spend the time to work on it you won't be able to pull off the coolest maneuvers for Aang and his friends or be able to unlock the coolest loot. And that's where the real fun of the game comes in. That reviewer doesn't have the time or the inclination to monkey with it. He's got a job to do. (Those short deadlines and the viscitudes of the reviewers job is another rant.)

The problem is he's looking at it from his own perspective. The game isn't designed for a 6-hour run through by a twitch-gaming master. It's designed for a 10-year-old who is at least familiar with the series who will spend as many happy hours as he can wangle out of his Mom waving the Wiimote around getting his Master's rating on each symbol.

Many of the things our sterotypical reviewer doesn't like about these games are prized features for their target audience. Let's look at the crop of games for the Naruto TV series showing on Cartoon Network. Naruto: Clash of Ninja for the GameCube scraped by with a "C", averaging 70% on Gamerankings. If you read the text of the reviews, they're comparing and contrasting it against the mechanics of hardcore fighting games. They disdain the lack of new, flashy gameplay. It's too simple and too ordinary. Oh, and there's no online play.

Well, maybe it's too ordinary for them. Let's take a look at Naruto while sitting on my couch:

  • The game can be played as a fun button-masher, which makes it accessible to a younger audience.
  • If you're older and have the hand-eye coordination there is another layer to the game with some creative ways of implementing the high-powered attacks. So older kids can play with younger kids without feeling like it's Fisher Price.
  • The dialog is voiced, and the commands are symbol- and color-based so reading skills aren't a determining factor in the play.
  • Head-to-head local multi-player means you can pull a Primary Lotus move on your annoying little brother without your Mom having a cow. How can you not rock that?
  • Even your sister who loves the show and reads the manga can't find much to complain about in this translation.
  • Who cares if it can go online or not? At that age, your game console either doesn't have online ability at all, you don't have the extra hardware or a connection in your room, or you're not allowed to be online anyways.

Add in the nearly bugless engine to stop the "But I hit you!" whining and you've got a real winner for the rated age group -- particularly for families with multiple kids.

Even high scores don't prevent this sort of misinterpretation. Kingdom Hearts II averaged 87%, with many scores above 90%. But if you read the review text there is a lot of complaining about the simple combat and the twisted Dunwich screeching of the rhythm mini-game in the Atlantica area. But from my couch again, it was another case of a battle system designed for the widest possible skill set and it carries it off beautifully. Not to mention the sheer innate coolness of you and King Mickey going tag-team to take on Xaldin in the courtyard outside the Beast's Castle.

I have to say that I also had a hard time getting through Ursula and her operatic poopsies. I guess it fit the setting. She's over the top in The Little Mermaid, too, but it's not this bad. Whoever wrote those lyrics should be keelhauled. I'm sure Howard Ashman is spinning in his grave like an express-wagon axle. But I wasn't put off by it. I knew the job was dangerous when I took it. There were going to be parts of this game that weren't for me. That section is aimed right at the littler kids who play those Disney Sing-Along games over and over. Once the nausea subsided I went and borrowed a neighborhood five-year-old for an hour or so. She was blissfully happy and even sang along while mashing her way through it. She still makes us load it up when she comes over so she can try to better her scores.

I've seen it over and over and over. If you give these games to an actual kid (or a teen or grown-up whose twitch and gore reflexes aren't twisted up to 11) they get a reception very different from what that review would suggest. Naruto's various incarnations are solid fighting games, and they get consistent playtime at my house even with older kids. Avatar is a nice adventure. That one neighbor kid who keeps horrifying his mother by drawing a blue arrow on his forehead with his markers doesn't care about all the wolves. He's just happy to play with Aang and his friends. Having to have a lot of Finny Fun doesn't deter the flock of teenage girls who still regularly re-play Kingdom Hearts II at my house. They practice singing the credits songs and speculate endlessly over the meanings buried in the teaser for the sequel they unlocked from the end.

After you've been through this a few times you learn to read between the lines. I've had the best luck treating the gaming press and publishers the same way I do a certain portly, overwrought movie critic from Chicago. If he hates it, it's an indicator that we might really like the film. Same principle applies here.

Ignore their little green-yellow-red color coding or whatever that's supposed to tell you what range the score was in. Categorize them like this. If they love the game and give it a high score, odds are you are looking at a winner that you'll probably want to play too. Mediocre scores don't mean skip it, though. If they give an E-rated game a 70% (7/10 or 3/5) then it's worth at least a rental if your kid likes the license or genre. You'll probably be able to stand it, and they'll probably love it.

Low scores are where it gets complicated. If they give it a 50%, read the text closely and see what it is they hated about it. Look for certain key words like "repetitive gameplay", "simple/weak combat system", or "thin/stupid story." If you see those as the reason for the score and your kid is a fan of the license or genre, I'd still give it a rental. If it's stuff like "buggy" or "clipping problems" then I'd steer clear unless the kid is really bored or such a raving fan of the license they'd wade through snow uphill both ways just to get their hands on it.

It frustrates me no end. Game journalism is doing a growing section of their audience a tremendous disservice. Readers can loose a lot trying to translate this way. Even I miss good games sometimes, and I'm a gamer of wide experience. Lord help a non-gamer parent who is trying to negotiate this. And those missed games are equivalent to lost sales. It's up to reviewers and their editors to make this change. Realize when you're writing that review who the game is actually intended for and aim your remarks accordingly.


My nephew who is six loves the Ratchet & Clank, Spyro, and Jak series of games. He also enjoys playing Hulk: Ultimate Destruction when he comes over to our house.

All these games are good, to some extent (the latest Spyro games have been lackluster, but the earlier ones still hold up well). So why aren't other kid-friendly games up to the quality of Ratchet or Jak? Because developers know that kids will play their crappy licensed games regardless of what reviewers say, so they don't bother putting much effort into them.