Dec. 6, 2012 at 8:17 AM ET
If you have a child in your house, then there's a very good chance that child has put a video game (or five) on his or her holiday wish list.
But it must be said, there are a lot of really bad games out there for kids. And when I say "bad," I mostly mean they're just poorly made and, ultimately, no fun to play. It seems some game developers and publishers think they can dash games together and market them to kids ... and that the kids just won't notice.
But they will notice. And so will we parents. So what is a discerning grownup with a game-filled wish-list to do?
Read on for some tips on how to buy great games for your children this holiday ... and maybe save some money to boot. In addition to the tips, we've sifted through the garbage and selected some of the best games to give to the young players in your life.
Tip No. 1: Check the ratings
Video game boxes come with ratings designed specifically to help parents know which titles are appropriate for which ages. Games that are most appropriate for the youngest players will be marked with an "EC" for early childhood and "E" for "everyone." Games marked "E10+" are for those 10 years and older and "T" designates games appropriate for teens.
Game boxes also include additional content descriptors, which explain exactly what kind of potentially inappropriate material a game might contain (blood, comic mischief, crude humor, etc). For a look at exactly what the ratings and descriptors mean, follow this link.
Little Big Planet Karting (PlayStation 3, Rated E) — All of the LittleBigPlanet games are an absolute joy to play not to mention very family friendly. "LittleBigPlanet," "LittleBigPlanet 2" and the new "LittleBig PlanetKarting" all take place in a lovely craft-made world, all encourage players to put their own imagination to use and all are rated E for Everyone. The newly launched "LBP Karting" game is sure to please the kid in your house who loves cars, loves zipping around and loves the idea of creating their own race courses.
Skylanders Giants (all platforms, Rated E10+) — There's no other way to put it: the E10+ rated Skylanders games — "Skylanders" and the new "Skylanders: Giants" — are kid gaming genius. These family-friendly titles combine action-adventure gaming with collectible toys in a way that is a whole lot of fun (if a bit hard on a parents' wallets). If this game is on your children's wish-list, know that they will get hours and hours of fun out of these games and the toys that go with them. (And you can read more about that right here.)
Tip No. 2. Be careful when buying games based on movies or TV shows
If your kid loves, loves, LOVES a particular movie or TV show, they may think they'll also love the game based on that movie or TV show. But you may want to think twice. I'm not going to name any names here (mostly because the list would be too long), but a great many of the video games based on film and television properties are often quite poor in quality.
Many of these games are slapped together quickly so they arrive at the same time the movie does, and the companies that make them rely on people's excitement about the film or TV show (rather than good gameplay) to send them flying off shelves. Before you buy one of these games, be especially sure to check multiple reviews and then consider gently urging your child to wish for something else.
All that said, there are some really good games based on favorite properties ...
Kinect Sesame Street TV (Xbox 360, Rated EC) — Talk about your beloved TV programming. "Kinect Sesame Street TV" is made for the very youngest people in your household. But really, it is less of a game than it is a season of interactive Sesame Street episodes.
Making use of the Kinect sensor, it encourages young viewers to interact with characters such as Big Bird and Grover by doing simple things such as waving their arms and jumping around. While I have found that getting the Kinect sensor to properly detect little kids can be quite challenging, "Kinect Sesame Street TV" uses motion controls only at their most basic and works very well. And the nice thing is, your kid won't just be sitting there staring at the TV — they'll be up on their feet and actively engaged.
LEGO Lord of the Rings (all game machines, Rated: E10+) — Like the "LEGO: Star Wars," "LEGO: Indiana Jones" and "LEGO: Harry Potter" games that came before, this LEGO-fied action-adventure game based on the "The Lord of the Rings" movies is a ton of family-friendly fun. Here the famed films and characters are given a blocky LEGO makeover and are brought to life with a zippy sense of humor. And thanks to the two-player co-operative mode, you can play right along side your youngster.
Tip No. 3. Consider some of the great older games your kid hasn't played
Your child doesn't necessarily need the latest and greatest (and most expensive) video games to be happy this holiday. If you've got a young gamer in the house, then they probably haven't had a chance to play many of the truly wonderful games from years past. Picking up a game that is a year or two old is not only a way to introduce them to some excellent gaming experiences, it's a good way to save a bit of money at the same time since many of these titles will be discounted.
It's also worth considering some of the great older games that have been reissued. For more on that...
Kirby's Dream Collection (Wii, Rated E) — As Nintendo president Satoru Iwata told me in an interview earlier this year, the excellent and long-running Kirby game series was specifically designed as a way to open up gaming to even the youngest and newest of players. In celebration of Kirby's 20th anniversary, Nintendo released this superb collection of six games that have starred that adorable pink blob over the last two decades. "Kirby's Dream Collection" also comes with bonus videos, music and historical material — so you can school your child in what gaming was like back in the "olden days."
Okami, Okami HD (Wii, PlayStation 3, Rated T) — This gorgeously animated action-adventure game starring a sun goddess in the shape of a white wolf was met with rave reviews when it first arrived back in 2006 for the PlayStation 2, and two years later for the Wii. Meanwhile, earlier this year a remastered HD version was released for the PlayStation 3. No matter which version you pick up, this game will delight any player with its stunning Japanese water-color-painting style graphics and its epic, magical adventure.
Tip No. 4. Consider buying a used game
Speaking of saving money ... buying used is a great way to go when purchasing any video game. But while you may feel a bit awkward buying a used gift for a grown-up this holiday season, I'm willing to bet that if you put some fresh wrapping paper on a gently used game, your kid won't care (or even notice).
New Super Mario Bros. Wii (Wii, Rated E) — If you haven't had the chance (or the money) to upgrade from a Wii game machine to Nintendo's new Wii U machine, not to worry. The good news is, you'll be able to find many used Wii games for some very good prices. A used version of the excellent "New Super Mario Bros. Wii" from 2009 can be found on Amazon for $30 (rather than the $50 you'll pay for a new copy.)
Rayman Origins (all game machines, Rated E10+) — My son and I have absolutely loved playing "Rayman Origins" together. In fact, it's one of my very favorite games from last year. And this colorful, wickedly wacky platformer filled with great original music can be found used for as low as $12 (rather than the new asking price of $20).
Tip No. 5. Sometimes the best kid's games are not necessarily made for kids
By this, I don't necessarily mean you should let your children play Mature-rated games, I'm just saying that you don't always need to shop specifically for "children's" video games when you're looking for a good game for your child. Some of the best games out there are enjoyable, appropriate and were made for players of ALL ages.
Journey (PlayStation 3, E10+) — This isn't a kid's game per se, but it's still a great game to introduce to young players. "Journey" takes players on — just as its name suggests — an epic journey full of wonder and mystery. Players guide a character across vast deserts and through mysterious snowy lands as they try to reach a mountain in the distance. There is little in the way of violence and much in the way of stunning visuals and artistry. And right now you can buy "Journey" packaged together in a collector's edition with two other excellent, kid-appropriate games — "Flower" and "Flow" — from the same developer.
Parents and gamers, please head over to the comments section to suggest other great kids games or offer other buying suggestions.
And for more gaming-related gift ideas check out this story: Love a gamer? Score big with these gifts and gadgets
Winda Benedetti writes about video games for NBC News. You can follow her tweets about games and other things on Twitter here @WindaBenedetti and you can follow her on Google+. Meanwhile, be sure to check out the IN-GAME FACEBOOK PAGE to discuss the day's gaming news and reviews.