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MensaDad’s Preschool Gametime: June 2010

WELCOME to MensaDad’s Preschool Gametime.

Parents, aunts, uncles, big brothers and sisters, and anyone else who finds themselves gaming around children – keep reading.  This is the first of what I hope to be many articles about gaming with children.  Little children.  Three to Six years old.  You know, the age when they want to do everything that mommy, daddy, big brother or sister does.  This inevitably ends up at some point being “I want to play the Xbox too!”  Having a gamer-heavy household, (my wife, 2 teenage sons and I all have our own Xbox Live Gold accounts) I have a lot of experience with involving my youngest son, three, in our family gaming activities.

I will cover all the angles from what we expected to work – but didn’t, as well as tips on how to include the tots in games far too “old” for them.  The end goal is to take the frustration away for both you and the youngster and have fun together.

Everyone sitting comfortably?  Good.  Let’s begin.

The Lego Games

Kids love Legos.  The colors, the smell of the plastic and the way they stay together without falling apart.  They are great toys to spark creativity in the minds of children.  Like their toy counterparts, the Lego video games are very well designed.  With a few tips, these games can be fun for children far below the recommended ages of 10 and up.

In my home we have nearly all the Lego games; Lego Chess (PC), Lego LOCO (PC), Lego Island 1 & 2 (PC, PS), Lego Indiana Jones (PS2 & 360), Lego Star Wars 1 & 2 (360), Lego Rock Band (360) and Lego Batman (360, Wii, DS).  Can you tell we are Lego fans?  (Don’t even ask about the number of bricks in the house.)  I’m going to limit the scope to just the platformer titles, the original Indiana Jones up through Batman.

Lego bricks stay together properly because one one thing: consistency.  They are manufactured from special plastics and molded to incredibly tight tolerances.  This consistency is what makes Lego bricks special.  It’s also what makes the Lego video games produced by Tt Games special.  The graphics have improved over time but the basic game mechanics stay the same.  If you can play one Lego video game, you will be able to pickup any other Lego game and just start playing.  It sounds like a simple formula for success but it evades many game makers.  Guess who loves consistency?  Kids.  Especially little kids.

Here is my family’s experience with Lego Batman.  I’ll use it for an example because we have it for three different platforms and because it’s the current favorite of both my three year old and my wife  (I have long since finished the game).  We started with the Wii version.  At first glance the Wii would seem easier for kids – right?  Not the case.  Not little kids anyway.  The coordination for a motion controller just isn’t there yet in a three year old.  There are Wii games that work OK for preschoolers, but Lego Batman isn’t one of them.  We let our toddler play the game, but even with our help, all it did was frustrate him.  So we moved on to the 360 version.

Lego Game Tip #1: Play through the levels yourself to open up the FREE PLAY option.  This let’s you go back and wander the level at will as any character you have unlocked and without trying to follow the story line.

My son very quickly got the idea of how to use the 360 controller to move his characters around, and find things to knock apart, and collect studs, and build the various mini kits asking to be assembled from the pile of jiggling bricks.  The key is to play with them as one of the other characters.  Games are not a babysitter – REMEMBER: This is something you do WITH them.  A three year old can’t solve the puzzles in the game, or at least most of them, so be there, in the game, to guide them.  Show them where to stand and what they need to do to move forward through the game.  And if it gets too difficult, ask them to drop out of the game for a moment, take care of the task at hand yourself, then have them rejoin the game.  My son could care less about the boss fights.  He just wants to build stuff and wander around exploring; and that’s what we do.  Be prepared though.  You may be surprised at the problem solving skills that emerge from your child.

When one of my teenage sons (we’ll call him Mario) moved on to a bigger better Nintendo DSi, he gave his older DS Lite to his little brother.  This eventually lead to us purchasing Lego Batman for DS.  The preschooler loves this even more than the 360 version.  Its controls are simpler and the environments are smaller and less complicated.  Not to insult the game at all, but due to the limitations of the hardware, the graphics on the DS are a bit more child-like.  Plus he can hold it right there in his hands and it’s his very own – just like big brother.

Lego Game Tip #2: Blessed are the Cheat Codes.  Look them up on the internet and unlock everything for your child.  They won’t yet understand “unlocking” items as rewards in the game.

A title to keep your eye on: On June 29th, Lego Harry Potter: Years 1 – 4 will be released for all the major gaming platforms.  Tt Games, the code-smiths of these wonderful games, has unwittingly improved the Lego gaming world for preschoolers.  When playing multi-player in the previous Lego titles, if one player went to the far right of the screen and the other player went to the far left of the screen both would be stuck and unable to go beyond a certain distance from the other player.  This is no longer the case.  Now when players stray apart the screen just splits and half follows each player.  My son and I played through the demo and the split screen completely eliminated the frustration of not being able to go where you want to go because the other (younger) player is smashing all the flowers, again.  The demo version of Lego Harry Potter: Years 1-4 is presently available on XBox Live and will be coming to PlayStation 3 PSN and PC in “late June”.  My son loves to play Fang the dog in the demo.  Fang is able to dig and the places in the environment where he can dig are marked with floating blue paw prints ala Blues Clues.  I will have a full review available shortly after it is released.

Lego Game Tip #3: Lego Indiana Jones 2: The Adventure Continues has just seen a major price drop.  The  MSRP has been lowered from $49.99 to $19.99 – a $30.00 savings!  There’s no better time than now to grab this game.

Another title to keep your eye on: Toy Story 3: The Video Game, a new game based in the world of  Pixar’s Toy Story series is to be released on June 15th.  The developer, Avalanche (a division of DIS: Disney Interactive Studios), seems to have their thumb on the pulse of family gaming.  When Avalanche proposed ideas for the game they brought two completely different games to the table.  One was a play-through of favorite scenes from the movie (standard movie tie-in fare) but the other was truly innovative – a Toy Box mode (sandbox) that provides an open world and objects to play with.  In the end it was decided to do both and incorporate them into a single title with two play modes.

Here is what Disney Interactive Studios has to say about the Toy Box mode in their February 16th, 2010 press release:

Designed to replicate the universal experience of playing with toys as a kid, Toy Box mode brings cowboys, space rangers, dinosaurs, and little green aliens together to create adventures only possible in a child’s imagination. Kids, families and fans will dive into Andy’s toy box with creativity driving their own stories and adventures.

You can be sure that my son and I will test drive Toy Story 3: The Game and report back on our findings.

Until next month, be well, and always take a little time from your busy day for Preschool Gametime.

Coming in July to MensaDad’s Preschool Gametime
Follow-up on Lego Harry Potter and Toy Story 3
Rocking out with Lego RockBand
Fun with Avatars (360 & Wii)
Monster Trucks and Dune Buggies

You can follow Chris Forbis on Twitter
@MensaDad and @Platform_Nation

Have suggestions for this series?
Send them to [email protected]


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