At this time of year we turn our attention to picking the video game of the year. Which, of all the games we have played over the last 12 months, is the one game that stands out above all the others?
Although it can be reduced to checking scores to see which game came out on top, it’s actually an opportunity to escape the habit of rating games with numbers and consider which games would work for different family members regardless of what score that have on Metacritic.
With Christmas approaching the challenge is doubled. To pick games that our children will like, and that we will be happy for them to play. It may sound trivial, but playing an active role in choosing and then playing games in the family is a powerful way that parents and carers can guide gaming towards health and enjoyment.
So here’s my small contribution. My favourite games of the year for families, arranged by the ESRB rating, so that you can find great games that are also perfectly suitable for your kids no matter what age they are. The lower age ratings are a useful guide for buying presents for children, while the mature rating is helpful to find games for adults to play when the kids are in bed.
Content is generally suited for all ages. May contain minimal cartoon, fantasy or mild violence and/or infrequent use of mild language.
Feather (Switch and PC)
An unusual explorative game where you control a bird to soar around the landscape. With beautiful music and multiplayer that limits communication to bird-calls, this is excellent for young players.
Luigi’s Mansion 3 (Switch)
If you want some light ghost hunting action, then this is a great game to play together with younger children. The scares won’t upset even the very young, although older players may need to help solve some of the more complex problems. Best of all is how varied the rooms are and the sense of suspense created by Luigi. The 8-Player mode is great to get the whole family playing.
Horizon Chase Turbo (PS4, Xbox One, Switch)
To call this an Out Run inspired retro racing game is to do a disservice to the attention to detail, deft development and all round spot-on delivery of what has become my families go-to racer. With the recent Rookie DLC this game is perfectly suited to all ages in the family. Along with 4 player split screen, I particularly like being able to race each other’s (and online friend’s) Ghost laps when the family schedule doesn’t allow us to be in the same place.
Angry Birds Movie 2 VR: Under Pressure (PlayStation VR)
This is a great VR experience for families because it is shared with other players in the room. One player (of the appropriate age) dons the VR headset to pilot the ship, while the others use the TV screen to provide the right raw materials for him to launch missiles and collect the rewards. It’s simple and it works really well for children of all ages.
Pokemon Sword & Shield (Switch)
This is a game suitable for really young players, that will mature with them. It offers not only a menagerie of Pokemon to collect but a range of challenges and adventures to go on. The Wild Area is particularly interesting to younger players with its greater variety of Pokémon. You can connect with other players here online or via local wireless to play together with the family.
New Super Lucky’s Tale (Switch, Xbox One)
Coming from Xbox One to Switch has suited this game well. It’s simpler than Mario Odyssey (and as the ESRB denotes, less violent for kids) and because of that works with younger players. But don’t be fooled by the cartoon visuals, the variety, challenge and even world it creates are second to none.
Bubble Bobble 4 (Switch)
Whether you remember the original game or not, Bubble Bobble is a fun four-player platform game. The non-violent novelty is that to dispatch of enemies you put them in cosy bubbles and then pop them. Each level is as much a points-puzzle as it is battle for survival. The game also includes the original Bubble Bobble arcade game.
Baba is You (Switch, PC)
This is a puzzle game simple enough for any age to understand, but requiring lateral thinking that many adults need help with. It’s a lot of fun as the rules of each level are spelt out on the screen. By changing the formation of these simple sentences you can change the scenario to let you proceed. It’s great fun but also teaches deep thinking, problem solving and coding in a unique way.
Sizzle & Stew (iOS, Android)
Kids love to cook, and this is a great way to let their culinary imagination run wild. It’s an open cooking game where there are no wrong recipes. Along with a great two-player mode, we’ve had huge fun and giggles seeing what we could get up to in the kitchen.
Tools Up (PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, Microsoft Windows)
This is a home renovation game you play with up to three other players. Working your way through the different tasks of decorating, removal and installation seems like it would be a little sedate, but as the clock ticks down it becomes a frantic challenge to collaborate with the other players. In a family this is a great way to play together.
Tori (iOS, Android)
This is an unusual game that combines Labo and Skylanders without the need to own a big console. You control the game with physical toys placed on a smart playing surface. They move in one-to-one fashion on the screen so your spaceship, brush or catapult can be accurately controlled. The games start simple but offer considerable challenge. You can also color in and cut out your own versions of the toys that then also work in the game in the same way.
Ori and the Blind Forest (PC, Xbox One, Switch)
Ori and the Blind Forest came to Switch this year and introduced a new audience to its unique combination of challenging platforming and beautiful storytelling. It’s a game that looks like a picture book but doesn’t hold back on how hard the platforming is. Although there are some difficult moments, with perseverance you can always find a way forward. This is suitable for young players, but they will need some help to progress from a parent.
Content is suitable for those 10 years old and up. May contain more cartoon, fantasy or mild violence, mild language, and/or minimal suggestive themes.
Heave Ho (PC, Switch)
This is a four player screen traversal game where your character has long arms that can grab onto different bits of scenery and other players. Combining this grabbing with the real world physics of the game enables you to get from the start to the finish. But what starts as a simple challenge turns into something that requires skill and team work.
Concrete Genie (PS4)
This is a beautiful adventure where you help a young artists retrieve the pages of his art book stollen by bullies. It combines running around and exploring with some varied and imaginative painting challenges. By using the PlayStation controller motion and touch pad you can create monsters and landscapes that will help you progress. What’s striking is the amount of depth on show here, and how the game mechanics match perfectly with the emotional story of the game.
LEGO Brawls (iOS)
This is a LEGO game that is available via Apple Arcade so currently doesn’t have an ESRB rating. On the store it’s rated as 9+. It’s plays in similar fashion to Super Smash Bros, in that a team of different characters take on each other in an arena. Although, here you have LEGO characters doing the fighting. There’s more of an emphasis on customisation and online play, but with no chat it’s a perfect way for kids to get started in these sorts of games.
Sayonara Wild Hearts (PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, iOS, Mac, Apple TV)
If you are looking for some rhythm action fun this is a great place to start. You control characters as they travel through futuristic Tron-like cities while riding motorcycles, dancing, skateboarding, and battling enemy characters. To keep them moving you need to move in time to the music. It’s simple enough for all players to get started but on higher difficulty this will challenge anyone. The combination of beutiful visuals and trippy indie music makes this both relaxing and taxing at the same time.
Mario & Sonic At The Olympic Games (Switch)
If you’re missing the lack of a Wii-Sports offering on the Switch then this has you covered. It’s a collection of sports-themed games played as classic game characters like Mario, Sonic, and their friends at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. The range of sports on offer, and the fun ways you can control them make this a lot of fun. Canoe, Equestrian, Table Tennis as well as more niche events like Karate, Fencing and Boxing. Competing with up to 8 players this is ideal for families.
Knights and Bikes (PC, PS4)
Knights and Bikes is a seaside adventure set in Cornwall. Two players team up as they explore the island as Nessa & Demelza. Riding their trusty BMX bikes, they go looking for a legendary lost treasure in a Goonies-inspired tale of excitement, danger, fun and friendship. For families, it’s a great game to share.
Content generally suitable for those 13 years and up. May contain violence, suggestive themes and crude humor, minimal blood, simulated gambling and/or infrequent use of strong language.
Dreams (PlayStation 4)
This is a game maker experience that enables players to be creative in a wide range of ways. With simple tools that use the PlayStation 4 controller you can make games, music videos or simply experience what other people have created. The possibilities are endless. Unlike other game maker offerings, it’s possible to create games that look professional and with their own unique aesthetic.
Bad North (iOS, Android, Xbox One, PlayStation, Switch, PC)
Bad North came to iOS and Android this year. Whether you play on smartphone or console, it offers a beautiful and pixel-perfect rendition of viking island battles. You must defend your island from increasingly challenging invaders. Each round lasts just a few minutes and is an ideal game to play on a commute or in the evening with the family. The development of your characters — and pain when they die — makes this game more engrossing.
Astral Chain (Switch)
An action-adventure game where you play the police in cyberpunk future. Interact with other characters and engage in melee combat that uncovers leads in your investigation. But it’s more than an average action game, with its 2078 world that’s rich and invites exploration. Do this and you discover all manner of satisfying distractions that make the main combat and investigation thrust of the game all the better.
If you remember the original PlayStation game, this is a great chance to step back into that suit of armour. You again play Sir Daniel Fortesque, a slightly-inept (and deceased) knight who was accidentally brought back to life by his arch nemesis, Zarok. The action stays with the classic style of dungeon exploration and combat. It’s a lot of fun and always with its tongue firmly in its cheek.
Heaven’s Vault (PS4, PC)
This is an unlikely combination of archaeology and science-fiction that forms a surprisingly coherent adventure. Exploring the world you slowly uncover a forgotten past, and decipher a lost language. However, unlike the usual video game habit of approximating real-world study, the language constructing work you do here is both real and satisfying. Combine this with an engaging plot and believable characters and this is a game that engages more than quick reflexes. It’s an experience you will want your children to encounter.
Mutazione (PS4, PC)
This is an unusual game that tells the story of 15-year-old Kai as she travels to the strange and secretive community of Mutazione to care for her ailing grandfather, Nonno. Exploring the strange-yet-beautiful locations and meeting the inhabitants there is a plethora of things to do. Whether planting and tending gardens, running errands or just talking the locals through their various traumas, it’s a game where your role is to get everyone to work together to uncover the strange darkness hanging over the island.
Sea of Solitude (Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC)
You take to the waters with Kay, a young woman who has turned into a monster, as she navigates unfamiliar seas in search of a way to change back. Interspersed with snippets from her real life, we not only go on an adventure to defeat the monsters, but discover the challenges these things might represent. It’s an unusual way to engage with the topic of loneliness as Kay faces her inner monsters in a strange world.
Content generally suitable for those 17 and up. May contain intense violence, blood and gore, sexual content and/or strong language. These are games for parents and carers to play once the kids are in bed.
Return of the Obra Dinn (Mac, PC, Switch, PS4, Xbox One)
In a black and white world set in 1802, you enter the merchant ship Obra Dinn to discover how the crew died. As insurance investigator for the East India Company’s London Office, you can use a special compass to rewind time and put together clues to identify not only who killed who, but the identify of each member on board. It’s a real mystery, and one that can only be solved by critical thinking and leaps of intuition.
Photographs – Puzzle Stories (iOS, Android)
This is a puzzle game with a difference. Squarely aimed at adults, you take charge of a series of stories that are advanced by searching old photographs and solving related puzzles. Beautiful pixel art and well voiced characters add to the connection and immersion here. It’s unusual because of the tragic and unjust nature of each narrative, along with a fascinating twist in the tale that I won’t spoil here.
Telling Lies (iOS, Android, PC)
Following up Her Story with another real video investigation game. It’s like a desktop thriller where you sift through video clips and other information on a virtual computer desktop to unravel what has happened. The clips each tell the story from one person’s perspective, so it’s up to the player to decide which are true. With three different endings, this is a mystery game you will want to play a few times through.
Control (PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One)
This is an action-adventure where you play a woman with psychic abilities. Players are soon drawn into a tense battle with supernatural forces over running the government. It’s played from third-person and combines special abilities and shooting to dispatch enemies. But it’s the mind stretching story that emerges that will keep you coming back for more. Like Alan Wake before it, this is a game that offers a deep and intense experience you will want to repeat after finishing.
Further Ratings Advice
Along with searching the ESRB website there’s also a great ESRB app that you can use while out and about. This provides not only the rating but also the content descriptors as well. You can also search for specific games on a particular system with an age rating that suits your child.
If you are in the UK there’s a similar app provided by the VSC Rating Board. This also lets you navigate to the parental control pages for each platform. If you are setting up a new console this is an important step to take. Ensure you have applied any updates and installed your games before Christmas day because it can take a long time to download if you leave it until it’s opened on the big day.