The Best Games for Your Kids This Christmas
Buying your children video games can be a minefield. Pick the wrong title and it could mean £50 down the drain, but get it right and you’ll have a game that can keep them entertained throughout the holiday season – maybe even beyond – and something you could enjoy together.
As a dad and uncle, I’ve become a bit of an expert. I’ve been reviewing games professionally for nearly twenty years. I spend a lot of time playing them and, since the age of five or so, my daughter has been playing them with me.
After the trauma of Call of Duty: Black Ops and the sleepless nights post-Resident Evil 6 (only joking, honest!) we’ve spent many happy hours playing everything age-appropriate from Skylanders and Lego Games (both big favourites) to Disney Infinity, various Marios and every Zelda of the last five years (including remakes).
I’ve also watched nieces, nephews and kids of friends go through racing games, platformers, movie tie-ins and action games. I’ve witnessed the fiendish lure of Animal Crossing and Tomodachi Life and fallen victim to Toys-to-Life-related pester power. I’ve seen what works and what doesn’t, what captures their imagination and what loses their interest within minutes.
Coming up are my picks for the best games for kids, but first here are a few useful guidelines for parents to consider:
Known characters don’t guarantee quality
Age ratings are the same as the movies… so don’t ignore them
Lots of kids may want to play Call of Duty, but that doesn’t mean they should. You’d be surprised at how many parents see the 18 rating as a skill level rather than a marker for age-appropriateness. And while you might think that games should be educational, don’t make this your primary influence. Kids can learn a lot and have fun playing Civilization VI, for example.
Kids aren’t patient so pick games that are accessible
The key is to look for games that are entertaining and accessible – most kids don’t have a huge amount of patience – and which tie in to their own personalities and interests.
If your son isn’t a fan of football, he might not be bothered by FIFA. If he likes fantasy and building things with Lego, however, then Dragon Quest Builders could be perfect.
Some games have a really broad appeal. I’ve yet to find many kids who don’t like a Mario or Lego game, while Pokémon nearly always hits the mark until they reach the teenage years (and some will carry on playing even then).
Good co-op features make all the difference
This is true for many reasons. On the one hand, this means your kids can play with their siblings or visiting friends, keeping more than one child out of mischief at a time. On the other, this allows you as parents to play, too. Not only can you help younger or less dextrous kids with tricky sections, but you can have a lot of fun working together to achieve common goals.
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The Lego and Skylanders franchises are brilliant examples of such games, but they’re not alone. Games with competitive multi-player can also be great, so long as they’re offline (even family-friendly online games can suffer from issues with bad language) – and you’re prepared for a number of “it’s not fair, she always wins….” disputes.
9 of the best games for kids
So that’s the parenting advice out the way! Next I’ve picked our 10 brilliant family-friendly games that deserve a place on your Christmas present shortlist. Whether your child is obsessed with Minecraft, Lego, Marvel, Pokémon (or, God help you, all of the above), there’s a game here for them.
1) Skylanders Imaginators
Available on: Xbox One, PS4, Xbox 360, PS3, Wii U
The original “Toys to Life” game has long been a solid choice for kids, but this year’s effort is arguably the best one yet. For a start, Skylanders Imaginators has a strong single-player and co-op campaign, which should keep your kids – and possibly even you – busy for the festive season.
Better still, this year’s big feature is the ability to create your own Imaginator Skylander, collecting heads, bodies, costumes, armour, power-ups and weapons with which to kit them out as you play.
Getting into Skylanders is an expensive business, but you can use figures released with previous games in this one – and even pick some up through eBay or second-hand. As a bonus, you get the vehicle-racing content from last year’s Skylanders SuperChargers. Grab some extra vehicles and you’ll get some quality racing thrown in too.
2) Lego Dimensions
The good news is that it’s brilliant, with a lengthy single-player adventure that takes Batman, Gandalf and The Lego Movie’s Wyldstyle through the worlds of The Simpsons, DC Super Heroes, Scooby Doo, Ghostbusters and even Portal 2.
The Lego kits actually play their part in the game, too, with a magic Lego portal that you build in real life as part of the game, where placing certain characters will trigger abilities or help you solve puzzles.
Like most Lego games it’s fantastic for family co-op sessions, and you can expand it with add-on packs based on your offspring’s favourite franchises, with a Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them pack covering the new Harry Potter spin-off film.
3) Pokémon Sun and Moon
Available on: Nintendo 3DS
The biggest-selling Pokémon game ever gained a lot from the success of Pokémon Go, yet it’s also one of the best Pokémon games ever, keeping everything special from the creature training and collecting series but giving the visuals and mechanics a much-needed refresh.
Pokemon Sun and Moon each have a slightly different Pokémon line-up. It’s incredibly easy to pick up yet packs a surprising amount of depth, as you’ll know if you’ve ever heard kids discussing Poké-tactics for hours on end.
It’s also funny, good-looking, well written and weirdly laid-back. If your kids are already pestering you for more Pokémon, it isn’t a bad idea to just give in
4) Lego Marvel’s The Avengers
Available on: Xbox One, PS4, Xbox 360, PS3, PC, Wii U
TT Games has rarely put a foot wrong with the Lego series, but we’d say that its two Lego Marvel games are probably its best.
Lego Marvel’s The Avengers just about beats the earlier Lego Marvel Super Heroes, tying in beautifully to the two Avengers movies and associated Marvel films but also using a huge roster of classic Marvel heroes in all kinds of funny and imaginative ways.
The classic mix of platforming, combat and puzzle-solving hits the highest levels, and there are some great new team mechanics that make co-op play even more fun. It’s the perfect game for superhero-crazy kids, but one that will go down well even with those who don’t know their Black Cat from their Black Widow.
5) Dragon Quest Builders
Available on: PS4
On paper it sounds like nothing special – basically the world’s second-favourite Japanese RPG series meets Minecraft. In practice, it’s very special indeed.
As the only builder left in a fantasy kingdom, players are tasked with building up their own town and defending it from monsters. But in order to build your houses and draw in residents, you’ll need to go out questing for materials and new crafting techniques, which enable you to create better tools and weapons.
It’s a huge game, crammed with missions and side-quests, but also offers lots of scope for creativity. The simple action and stylised fighting make it ideal for younger gamers, but it’s smart and addictive enough to pull a few grown-ups on board as well.
Buy Now: Dragon Quest Builders at Amazon.co.uk from £42.99 | Amazon.com from $39.99
6) Super Mario Maker
Available on: Nintendo 3DS, Wii U
Released last year for the Wii U and recently ported to the 3DS, Super Mario Maker excels as both a DIY gaming package and as a celebration of all things Mario.
On the one hand, it gives you the tools to create your own levels in the 2D style of the original Super Mario Bros, Super Mario 3, Super Mario World or Super Mario Bros U. In the Wii U version you can upload your efforts and share them online – it’s a shame this isn’t supported on the 3DS.
On the other hand you get a brilliant, imaginative grab-bag of Mario levels – some easy, some fiendishly tricky, but all inventive and full of fun.
Any of the Mario 2D or 3D platformers is perfect for family gaming, and we’d also steer you towards Super Mario 3D World on the Wii U or Super Mario 3D Land on the 3DS. This one, however, holds a very special place in Mario fans’ hearts.
7) Paper Mario Color Splash
Available on: Wii U
Not that Mario is limited to platforming, however. The Paper Mario series feature strange 2D paper versions of Nintendo’s stars in equally oddball, hybrid titles that combine elements of the old 2D platformers with chunks of the graphic adventure or RPG.
In Paper Mario Color Splash, you’re bringing colour back to a black-and-white land, duelling Bowser’s goons with attacks from magic playing cards and soaking up their stolen pigment to splash around. It’s an odd game but fun – and surprisingly accessible.
The silly action and surprisingly sharp dialogue make it almost as much fun to watch as it is to play. It’s the kind of game where the whole family can crowd around the TV, shout out ideas and all take part.
8) FIFA 17
Available on: Xbox One, PS4, PC
Lots of parents make the mistake of going straight to the cutesy, family friendly titles when they’re buying for children. However, a lot of mainstream games are perfectly suitable for kids.
Sports games, racing games and even some action games have a 3 , 7 or 12 PEGI rating, and if your kids love football, driving or adventure, then they’ll be happy to get stuck in.
FIFA 17 is a good example. It has all the features and modes young footie fans might want – although you might want to steer them away from online play – and an optional two-button control scheme that makes the action more accessible for less-experienced players (not to mention mums and dads).
9) Plants vs Zombies: Garden Warfare 2
Available on: Xbox One, PS4, PC
So, your kids want to play a decent shooter, but you don’t want them playing anything too violent or too gruesome. The answer? Plants vs Zombies: Garden Warfare 2.
It’s a slick third-person shooter, based on the much-loved mobile game, where you can join battle either as a plant or as a zombie, online and offline.
There’s a lot of great single-player content for younger gamers to get their teeth into, with some entertaining mini-campaigns and a great choice of different plants and zombies, each with their own special abilities and weapons. They can also play with or against each other in a two-player split-screen mode or meet up with friends online to duke it out.
It’s a great-looking shooter with a fantastic sense of humour and well-honed action, but one the whole family can enjoy.