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GameFam

April 20, 2006

GDC Recap: Kid-Friendly Game REVIEWS

Here's my latest Dad's Take column for GameDAILY Family:

As I’ve written previously, last month’s Game Developers Conference was my very first, and on many levels, I was like a kid in a candy store, or to update a tired cliché, I was like myself in a video arcade, circa 1981 (the year we pumped 20 billion quarters into those big beauties). A full work week of knowledge, networking, & Negra Modelo. Good times, indeed.

I was going to write a whole preamble about my GDC experience, but seeing as this article is already well over 2000 words, that will have to wait for a future column. So without further ado, here are the kid-friendly games from GDC 2006, as played by my fam – the GameFam.


Ballistic



This game, created by students from Michigan State, was fairly reminiscent of a casual game my kids and I enjoyed on RealArcade a few months ago – Slyder Adventures. Both games require the player to rotate the playing environment around the player, instead of the other way around. One big difference is that Slyder Adventures is more colorful and whimsical, what with all the fruit, cheese, milkshakes and ice cream that you have to collect along the way. Ballistic? No fruit. No cheese. Just controls that were too difficult for my kids. My daughter tried out Ballistic for about three minutes, and then moved on to other pursuits.


Balloon Express



This game was sent to me shortly after I returned from GDC, so I’m lumping it in here, since many in this list are also casual games. My kids were excited to play this game, and it starts out pretty strong, with nice graphics, pretty balloons, and satisfying cha-ching sounds when you complete a successful delivery. It reminded me, to a degree, of GameLab’s Diner Dash. As you progress, you unlock new countries to float over. However, it is lacking in replay value. After a while, both of my kids got bored with the game. To be fair, we played mostly in Puzzle Mode, which can be very repetitive. However, Story Mode was too difficult for my kids to play, as it is much more fast-paced.


Braid



Up until press time, I was trying unsuccessfully to get my hot little hands on a demo of Jon Blow’s much-talked-about time-warping, mind-bending 2D puzzle-platformer. And unless I’ve made a horrible error, it’s because a public demo doesn’t yet exist. So I can’t really say how my kids would like it (difficulty-wise, etc.), but I’d love to play it for my own enjoyment.


Brain Age



When Nintendo President Satoru Iwata announced that he would be giving out free copies of the soon-to-be-released-runaway-Japanese-hit Brain Age to those of us who attended his GDC keynote address, the place was up for grabs. You would have thought he said that anyone who owned a clunky old DS could exchange it right then and there for the soon-to-be-released-runaway-Japanese-hit DS Lite. But no such luck. Brain Age would have to suffice…for now. I’d recommend this game for older kids, but it’s way too tough for the Barbie and Bob the Builder set. Indeed, Brain Age was designed with senior citizens in mind (horrible pun unintended). My daughter did the exercise where you have to do a bunch of rapid-fire addition, subtraction and multiplication problems, and… it… took… a… little… while… for… her… to… finish… since… she… kept… putting… down… the… stylus… to… count… on… her… fingers. But while the game may have set her brain age somewhere up near Methuselah country, she had fun and got out of it what she wanted. Good for her. One problem we all had (daughter, wife, sister & me) was that the voice recognition was not, shall we say, working. We would clearly enunciate the word “blue” (for example), and although the color of the word we were looking was most definitely blue, we kept getting marked incorrect. More than a smidge frustrating.


Cloud



As soon as I saw this ethereal, dreamy game, which was created by students from USC, I knew immediately that my daughter would be very excited to try it out. What I didn’t know was whether that initial excitement could be sustained by the gameplay. As it turned out, both she and my son absolutely loved it at first, but were eventually put off by the fact that it isn’t too easy to control. Oh, they’ll probably still want to play it occasionally, but probably for only 5-10 minutes at most.


Crazyball



Not bad, not great. My kids didn’t spend a lot of time playing this one, so on the one hand, they may not have had enough time to form an opinion. On the other hand, they didn’t feel the need to play for very long. I tried it myself a few times, and while it’s mildly enjoyable, the controls can be frustrating (e.g. trying to make your ball move from one platform to the next). Frustration can be productive if the payoff is worth the struggle. In this case, it wasn’t.


Dodge That Anvil!



This is one of my kids’ favorites from GDC. It’s a fun, colorful game with a sense of humor; an interactive version of a Saturday morning cartoon staple – anvil meets noggin. You start out your training by learning to farm the carrot patch while dodging that beach ball, and as you might have guessed, once the actual game starts, the objects descending rapidly from above are slightly heavier. Truth be told, my son would have preferred to dodge raining beach balls all day, but he still enjoys the game.


Fish Tycoon



I received a copy of this game at the Game Marketing Conference in early March. Since the game operates in real time, it’s meant for older kids. Let me repeat that. Fish Tycoon is a real-time sim game. In Nintendogs, if you leave your pups alone for a few days, they’ll be famished, parched and filthy upon your return. If you leave your cute little fishies alone for the same length of time, they won’t be hungry when you get back. They’ll be 296 years old… and dead. Very, very dead. That’s just too much pressure for younger kids. However, as long as your kids don’t feel the need to take the overall goal of the game to heart, there is still fun to be had here. My daughter enjoyed raising and selling fish and watching them swim about, kind of like an interactive screensaver.


Glow Worm



My kids really enjoy playing this game, even though it’s pretty similar to many casual puzzle games we’ve played in the past. What sets Glow Worm apart is the terrific visual and sound presentation. It’s a feast for both the eyes and ears.


HamsterBash



I’m not sure if a demo doesn’t exist or if I just missed this one*, but I couldn’t find a playable demo for my kids to try. When I played this game at GDC, I thought it was a little too competitive for young kids, which shouldn’t be a surprise, as it’s a mod* of Unreal Tournament 2004. I can definitely see my son getting frustrated by getting knocked around by another player. In addition, I had a few frustrating moments with the controls.

* Actually, I think I answered my question. I may not be the most mod-savvy, but since I couldn’t play Garry’s Mod without a copy of Half-Life 2, it makes sense that I’d have to have a copy of UT 2004 to play HamsterBash.


Josh's World



The concept behind this game is truly noble, as it strives to provide a “positive African American role model for young children”. And with bright young Josh as your virtual tour guide through the interactive 3D playland, it does just that. However, when you compare it to the other games in this review (which may or may not be fair), it has a very basic, “homemade” feel to it. On the upside, the music is good, which probably explains why the only part my kids enjoyed was the music room. Other than that, it’s like a game you’d see on one of the many excellent kids’ websites out there. I think that many younger kids can enjoy themselves in Josh’s World, but given the other games that compete for my kids’ time, this one didn’t really have a chance.


Loco Roco (PSP)

Loco Roco

When I saw this game being demoed up on the big HDTV screen at the Sony keynote, my immediate reaction was that it played an awful lot like Gish, one of the big winners at the 2005 Independent Games Festival, and GameTunnel’s 2004 Independent Game of the Year. Little did I know that I was jumping into the breach of an already-raging battle. We don’t have a PSP, and the game hasn’t yet been released, but I played the game at GDC. While it is more bright and cheerful than the edgier, Goth-y Gish, I found the controls to be pretty frustrating. I assume that there’s a learning curve, which would eventually take care of the control issue, but for young kids, intuitive controls are mandatory.

Gish


Mystery Case Files: Huntsville



This game is very reminiscent of the various I Spy games my kids and I have played. But that’s actually a good thing, since my kids love I Spy. After finding the hidden objects, you have to rearrange squares in a new photo of the crime scene (don’t worry, they’re misdemeanors) to reveal the culprit in this whodunit adventure.


New Super Mario Bros. (DS)



Does the newest version of Shigeru Miyamoto’s legendary 2D side-scrolling platformer revolutionize gaming? No. Does it fully utilize the DS’ dual screens and stylus? No. Will your kids have an amazing time playing the game alone or against their friends? Ya darn tootin’. As for me, I enjoyed playing it in the Nintendo booth at GDC, and while I did get crushed, I did get a t-shirt for my troubles.


Ocular Ink



My son liked this game, created by students from Grinnell College, more than my daughter did, which isn’t a big surprise. He calls it “the eyeball game”. You control a rolling eyeball trying to defend itself from the advancing kidney hordes, which, depending on how you choose to look at the game, can be more or less icky. On the more icky side, the game features bodily organs and blood. But on the less icky side, the style of the game art is such that the kidneys look like random blobs, and the blood looks more like red ink. We avoid bloody games like the plague, and you may want to avoid this one, too, but you may decide that it’s OK. Your call. Gameplay-wise, it’s not meant for young kids, anyway. My son enjoys rolling around a bit, but it ain’t easy to actually accomplish any of the missions.


Palette



Pretty to look at. Frustrating to play. My daughter loves experimenting with colors, and she had to stop after about five minutes, never to play again.


Professor Fizzwizzle



If you’ve enjoyed playing Granny in Paradise, play this game, the runaway winner of the My-Kids’-Favorite-Game-of-GDC-2006 Award, instead. If you haven’t played Granny in Paradise, then forget I said anything, and play this game anyway. Professor Fizzwizzle is funny and whimsical, but it will also give your kids some non-Nintendo brain training. How? 2 words – Problem. Solving. I could almost hear the gears turning in my kids’ heads (not so easy amidst all the laughter) as they tried to figure out what to do next. The game has several paths, including two that are suitable for kids, though they’ll probably need some help as they advance in the game and the puzzles become more and more challenging. The game has a redo button, which plops you back to the starting point if you find yourself at a dead end. This allows for incremental learning. Figure out the first 25%, get stuck, start over. 50%, get stuck, start over. 75%... you get the idea. In addition, and probably coolest of all, you can create your very own puzzles with the handy-dandy level-editor. Now this is the way to learn physics.

Level Editor Screenshots



Putt Nutz



My kids enjoy a good virtual miniature golf game now and again, so I thought they might like this one. And they did… until we tried the other games I brought home/downloaded. Putt Nutz was pretty good, and we may yet play it again, but since it was one of the first that we played after I got back from San Jose, it kinda got lost in the deluge of other games that followed. The fact that they weren’t clamoring for it like they were for several other games which were also part of the same flood, supports my good-but-not-great assessment.


Rumble Box



If you have an issue with box-on-box violence, then avert your eyes, because that’s what this game, created by students from DigiPen, is all about. The look of the game is somewhat reminiscent of the Insomniac Museum from Ratchet & Clank: Going Commando, but that’s only because they both show you what all those polygons look like before the artists do their fancy schmancy normal mapping tricks. And to be fair, Rumble Box does have a lot of pretty colors. Basically, you are made up of a bunch of boxes that stay together by sheer force of will. You have to fight your way out of a pit, which you do by turning your adversaries into the boxes from whence they came, then using your vanquished opponents (i.e. pile of boxes) to stroll to safety. My kids liked it, and they didn’t feel the need to hit stuff after they were done.

Insomniac Museum: R&C GC


Tube Twist



This is an interesting game that has a lot of promise. You need to use the various tubes at your disposal to create your own Rube-Goldberg-esque machine, so that your ball can reach its destination safely. Many of the tubes have unique properties, and the challenges is in skillfully employing the right piece in the right place. While my kids enjoyed this game a lot, it actually gave my son a nightmare, something about how the system becomes unstable and explodes in the opening sequence. So although we won’t be playing any time soon, I still recommend it for your kids.

EDIT: To be fair, there is as much problem solving in Tube Twist as there is in Professor Fizzwizzle. I just went into more detail on the other game because we played that one a lot more than Tube Twist, what with the nightmare and all. :)

To recap, at GDC, a good time was had by me, and once I returned home with a bunch of new games for my kids to try out, a good time was had by all.

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