It’s not the content, nor the art, nor the storytelling. It’s the free-to-play nature and microtransaction minefields of what she enjoys. My kid mostly plays mobile games, preferring the kinds of experiences that avoid confrontation and killing and encourage her to squeal, “Awww!” from her room every few minutes. I’m glad she found her niche, but I am always trying to remind her of the world out there where the gameplay stands on its own and progress is encouraged, not stymied by frustrating timers or is otherwise blocked by a paywall.
With that in mind, here are a handful of video game experiences you can feel good buying for your kids that avoid such pitfalls and are just good for the sake of being good. And as a bonus, my kid enjoyed them, too.
Apple Arcade (Specifically, Sneaky Sasquatch, Word Laces, etc.)
My kid often runs to me with her device asking for permission to download something that makes me scowl with concern. With an Apple Arcade subscription I discovered I can just point to the Arcade shortcut on the App Store’s front page and say, “Only get games from here.” I still need to offer my parental oversight to tell her things like, “You probably wouldn’t like Neo Cab,” but I rest assured knowing that whatever she finds in there will at least be free of predatory transactions or other questionable mobile game practices — a requirement of every Apple Arcade game.
The two big hits so far have been RAC7 Games’ Sneaky Sasquatch and Minimega’s Word Laces. Sneaky Sasquatch is a friendly story about a Sasquatch trying to collect food and blend into society. It’s silly, colorful and is good about making sure you’re not always doing the same thing. Word Laces is a word puzzle game that I like for new readers because it helps with spelling and offers all the hints you want without any penalty. You also can’t go wrong with Rayman. He has always been surprisingly comfortable on the phone.
Platform: Nintendo Switch
The Wii became one of the top 10 best-selling video game consoles of all time thanks in part to how it encouraged kids to move, which was attractive to parents. They could either buy an Xbox 360 with all those shooty-shooty gun games, or they could buy the one that made their kid stand up and pantomime the act of bowling. That latter option was also cheaper. As a parent who plays video games, I like the idea of my kid playing something that makes them move, but I also recognize the fun-value of a game where you just sit down, motionless, and get lost in an interactive world. Ring Fit Adventure is on this list not because it encourages my kid to move around and work up a sweat (which is a nice bonus), but rather because the video game side of it is engaging and interesting.
Rumor has it the game was built using Zelda: Breath of the Wild’s engine. That fact is difficult to verify because Nintendo doesn’t love to share those kinds of insider secrets, but I am a believer. The world’s grass sways in similar ways, the colors are bright and inviting, and it just makes the world of Ring Fit Adventure an exciting place to visit. My kid and I are competing to see who can make more progress, and she is winning thanks to the energetic vibrancy of her youth. (That and she’s playing at a lower difficulty.)
Platform: Nintendo Switch, PC
House House’s bizarre waterfowl simulator has moved beyond obscure indie game thanks to its online ubiquity and consistent spot in the top-selling games list on Switch. It also bears the new mark of success that every video game aspires to: tweets from Chrissy Teigen.
All of that success and praise is helped by Untitled Goose Game’s meme potential, but it’s also a fun game, and an especially good one for playing with kids. You can’t play co-op, but it’s great for passing the controller and solving puzzles together, and you don’t have to solve every puzzle to complete the game. You also never enter a fail-state, which means even if you mess up, you never have to leave the game. Nothing frustrates a young player (or a cool adult) more than having to start something over just because you can’t figure it out right away.
Platform: Nintendo Switch
My wife and daughter basically marathoned Luigi’s Mansion 3 over the course of a weekend and I am jealous they got to experience the game together while I just hung out pretending I was part of their cool ghost-hunting crew. Luigi’s Mansion 3 is a puzzle game with occasional ghost-catching combat. You have to play for a little while to unlock Gooigi (Luigi’s clone made of goo that can travel through vents and pipes), but once you do, you can control Luigi, while your young partner handles goo duty.
Gooigi is genuinely helpful, and also basically invincible so there is no downside to having him around and there are plenty of opportunities to solve puzzles and fight ghosts together. The boss battles represent an occasional difficulty spike, which can be frustrating, but there is probably a lesson for kids about overcoming obstacles or something hidden in there.
Sky: Children of the Light
As a cynical adult video game person, I have issues personal to me about Thatgamecompany’s follow-up to Journey. I don’t like that it is currently only available on a platform where my fingers get in the way of the impressive visuals and I don’t like the microtransactions. But with those caveats in place, Sky is a great free-to-download cooperative experience. The story shows and doesn’t tell, which is great for young players, and when the going occasionally gets tough, you can literally grab your kid by the hand and shepherd them to the next destination. The finale is dark and moving, but it’s the kind of entertainment experience where you come out from the darkness happy and optimistic about the future of humanity. Those pesky microtransactions are also, thankfully, very easy to ignore.
Kyle Hilliard is a freelance games writer and co-host at MinnMax. His bylines include Game Informer, IGN and more. Follow him on Twitter @KyleMHilliard.