At this year’s E3 show, it was difficult to ignore publishers’ acknowledgment of the growing children’s market, including indie-influenced titles (such as Scribblenauts and Drawn to Life), a broadening scope of LEGO titles (LEGO Rock Band, LEGO Indiana Jones 2, and LEGO Harry Potter), and publishers’ return to the Mario Kart-influenced racing genre (Need for Speed Nitro, Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing). Here are my picks for the best children’s titles of the show.
1. Scribblenauts (developer: 5th Cell, publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, platform: DS). Having debuted in early form in 2008 at E3, Scribblenauts was one of the most talked about original games at this year’s show. Warner Brothers announced it will publish the title this fall and demoed it on the show floor. A simple-looking side-scrolling game designed for the Nintendo DS, Scribblenauts enables players to input words on the screen with their stylus. The words are then transformed into objects that help players collect “Starites.” The game’s hand-drawn graphics are simple yet charming. But it is the game’s impressively large database of recognizable words that sparks the imagination and gives this game such broad appeal.
2. Drawn to Life: The Next Chapter (developer: 5th Cell, Planet Moon, publisher: THQ , platform: Wii, DS) Before THQ’s significant layoffs in early 2009, the Southern California publisher saw critical and financial success with its Nintendo DS game, Drawn to Life, a highly inventive title enabling users to draw weapons and items on screen in real time. Demoing the new Wii version on the showfloor, THQ showed an upgraded version engineered to work fluidly and easily with the Wii remote. Essentially, this new Wii version is bigger and more robust than its DS companion. Players can create more than 100 items ranging from swords, vehicles, and even wings, and use a variety of colors, each of which holds distinct properties. Users also can create teams to compete in a multiplayer mode against friends or family. Given the Wii’s overly stocked mini-game library of games, Drawn to Life: The Next Chapter should be well received by Wii owners.
3. New Super Mario Bros. Wii (developer: Nintendo, publisher: Nintendo, platform: Wii). Nintendo’s evergreen flagship series, Mario Bros., has always been a single-player affair, but as Nintendo attempts to expand and grow, designer Shigero Miyamoto has looked to re-invent his oldest of franchises. The biggest change in New Super Mario Bros. Wii is the addition of a full cooperative multiplayer function, giving as many as four players the chance to side scroll through a 3D-looking, 2D-playing environment. Having played it on the showfloor, I’m assured the balance between single-player and multi-player is already well-tuned, and the ability to help or thwart your friends is pure unadulterated fun. This should be a huge hit for Nintendo, given the series’ popularity and the ability to play with four players simultaneously.
4. Wii Sports Resort (developer: Nintendo, publisher: Nintendo, platform: Wii). Wii Sports Resort is based on the same premise as its predecessor, Wii Sports: It’s an arcade-style collection of mini-games, only this time there’s a greater variety of sports and the controls are enhanced by the Wii Motion Plus (which comes bundled with the game). Nintendo debuted the game at its news conference by introducing sky diving, archery, and table tennis, but it also includes jet skiing (which looks strikingly similar to Wave Race 64), sword dueling, golf, power cruising, air sports, cycling, canoeing, wakeboarding, and basketball. Archery requires adjustments made for distance, wind factor, and strength and uses the Wii Motion Plus and nun chuck in coordination–and the difference in control precision is notable. I tried canoeing, power cruising, and archery, all of which required enough skill to make them more than just novel fun.
5. Rabbids Go Home (developer: Ubisoft, publisher: Ubisoft, platform: Wii). Ubisoft’s Michael Ancel (Rayman, Beyond Good and Evil) has created another hit series with Rayman’s Rabbids, which now gets its own name, Rabbids Go Home. After two successful Rabbids games on Wii, the growing French publisher wants to strengthen its grip on the Wii market and this goofy but entertaining adventure title, which shirks the mini-game format–should satisfy the broad masses. Players control the Rabbids as they try to collect items by smacking enemies with a shopping cart in order to build a ladder of junk to the moon. The cartoon-style aesthetics and humor coupled with forgiving gameplay make this a perfect Wii game, aimed at both parents and their kids.
6. LEGO Harry Potter Years 1-4 (developer: Traveller’s Tales, publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive, platform: “next generation console and handhelds”). After Traveller’s Tales and LucasArts forged an unholy alliance of massive brands and mega-IPs with LEGO Star Wars in 2005, the LEGO-style game has emerged as the go-to format for publishers everywhere. Factor in that Warner Brothers Interactive is now a fully active publisher, and it’s clear why the marriage of Harry Potter and LEGO makes perfect sense. Traveller’s Tales has a knack for creating a mixture of accessible humor, compelling gameplay, and LEGO destruction that’s very likely to please the millions of Harry Potter fans worldwide. Playable characters include Harry Potter, Ron Weasley, and Hermione Grange, and users will explore Hogwarts castle, Diagon Alley, the Forbidden Forest, the village of Hogsmeade, and other well-known locations from the movies and books. Warner Bros. has yet to announce its designated systems, but based on its broad appeal, Harry Potter Years 1-4 is likely to appear on DS, PC, PSP, PS3, PS2, Xbox 360, and Wii.
7. LEGO Rock Band (developer: Traveller’s Tales, publisher: Warner Bros, platform: DS, PS3, Xbox 360, Wii). The LEGO Rock Band idea doesn’t fall easily into the familiar LEGO adventure format, so how exactly does it work? In development by both Traveller’s Tales and Harmonix, LEGO Rock Band follows the Rock Band/Guitar Hero scrolling track format, now with LEGO nodes, customizable avatars, road crew, and managers. Using a guitar, drum kit, bass or microphone, players hit the correct note at the right time to add points to their total score, building up the score multiplier. There are five modes of difficulty, and like other LEGO games, instead of dying, players lose studs if they perform poorly instead of failing out. Also, according to Harmonix, LEGO Rock Band will be rated either E or E-10. A sampling of the bands and songs include The Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back,” Europe’s “The Final Countdown,” Pink’s “So What,” Blur’s “Song 2,” Good Charlotte’s “Boys and Girls,” and Carl Douglas’ “Kung Fu Fighting.” With the ultimate party game getting a kid-friendly version, this will assuredly sell well over the holiday season.
8. Need for Speed Nitro (developer: EA Montreal, publisher: Electronic Arts, platform: Wii, DS). Seeing diminishing returns on its Need for Speed franchise in recent years, the world’s second largest independent publisher last fall split its racing franchise into three distinct styles, arcade, sim, and online. Need for Speed Nitro is the arcade entry, built specifically for the Wii, and is designed with hopes of garnering players who love Mario Kart and EA’s other successful franchise, Burnout. Nitro moves very fast, is fully controllable using the Wii remote, and offers cop chases, sprints, circuits, and knockout modes. More than anything, Nitro’s gameplay is forgiving and fast, making it easy for first-time players to enjoy the series.
9. Star Wars The Clone Wars: Republic Heroes (developer: Krome Studios, Publisher: LucasArts, platform: DS, PC, PS2 (in the U.S.), PS3, PSP, Xbox 360 and Wii). Similar to Spider-Man: Friend or Foe, Star Wars The Clone Wars: Republic Heroes is a straight-up action game enabling two players to cooperatively fight as either Jedi Knights or Clone warriors against the evil Empire. Full of one-button commands and developed around an original story placed in between season one and season two of the animated TV series, Republic Heroes looks like its TV companion and gives gamers the chance to play as Obi-Wan Kenobi, Anakin Skywalker, Ahsoka Tano, Mace Windu, and Kit Fisto, among other characters. Cooperative play is often necessary to cross bridges, pass obstacles, and fight more lethal enemies. It’s not that Republic Heroes is one of LucasArts’s most stellar games ever, it’s not; but young new fans of the animated series will love it because it’s a good, solid two-player title built around co-op gameplay.
10. The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks (developer: Nintendo, publisher: Nintendo, platform: DS). One of the most popular games available in Nintendo’s booth, the newest Legend of Zelda continues the Japanese company’s longest adventure-RPG series with a Western-tinged flavor including banjo-playing, trains, and the use of the DS’s microphone. Spirit Tracks enables gamers to maneuver a train across vast stretches of land, using the dual screen’s map to select the desired area and giving them a cannon to blast encroaching enemies. On foot, gamers also will control a second character, a Phantom Knight, by activating an icon using the stylus; this character is helpful to get to areas Link cannot, to help him cross lava lakes, and pass fiery blasts using the Knight as a moving barrier. The microphone comes in handy when fighting a beetle boss: blowing into the mic pushes away the mist on the beetle’s backside and progresses the fight to the next level. Spirit Tracks’ action-RPG design is a tried and true format that appeals to young and old, women and men, and should have no problem selling well over the holiday season.
Douglass C. Perry is currently an independent journalist and consultant who has written about the video game industry for 15 years. Perry was the editorial director at DailyRadar.com and GameTap.com, editor-in-chief of five channels and a founder at IGN.com, managing editor at NEXT Generation magazine, and author of 11 strategy guides. This is his first story for VentureBeat.