Pushing Buttons: The one game my kid will play with me

Tis the season, folks – the season of lists. All around the media world, 2022’s games, albums, films et cetera are being coralled into contentious rankings for everyone in the office (and the comments section) to argue over. Our own Guardian games list is prepped and ready, but I want to hear what games you’ve been enjoying over the past 12 months. Hit reply on this newsletter and write me a few sentences on your favourites, and I’ll compile them for an end-of-year special issue.

If you’ve been reading for a while, you’ll know that I have not been the luckiest when it comes to introducing video games to my children. My stepson, now 17, always loved games, but his taste diverged so massively from mine that we rarely intersected, bar a few treasurable months when Minecraft first came out, and a year of shared Destiny adventures before he got good enough to comprehensively outplay me. These days I’m constantly hassling him to try something like Bloodborne, when all he wants to play is first-person shooters.

My smaller children, meanwhile, have always seen games as “what mama does when she’s not paying attention to me”. I thought my eldest son, when he was two, might enjoy watching me play Pokémon: Let’s Go, Pikachu!, but alas, he hated it so much that it will forever be known in our house as “NO, NO PIKACHU!” So it is with tentative delight that I’ve finally, finally managed to get him, at almost six, to play games with me. And like pretty much my entire experience of parenting, it happened in a way I didn’t expect.

My kid loves football – not so much watching the actual sport as monitoring the league tables, especially the obscure ones (Finnish Veikkausliiga, anyone?). He likes to write out imaginary teams and scores and arrange them into his own tables. And earlier this year, when Nintendo Switch Sports came out, he gravitated towards its football mini-game. The fact that he could barely play it did not seem to matter to him as much as the imaginary careers of all the different characters he’d created on the Switch. I would get breathless match reports.

But trying to gently transfer this interest on to other games did not work. Not for months. It was Nintendo Switch Sports football, and only Nintendo Switch Sports football. Eventually, though, I managed to get him to try Mario Strikers, the Mario football game. This was a mistake. He loved it, but it was so frustrating that he was close to tears after every match. (To be fair to him, the game is very annoying.) I was worried this would put him off games entirely for another year.

Happily, though, thanks to Mario Strikers, he now recognised some of Nintendo’s characters, so I thought I’d play my ace: Mario Kart. It’s not too difficult, it’s such fun to control and, most importantly, we could play it together. Readers, we spent a good hour and a half on a Saturday afternoon tackling the first few Grand Prix tournaments, and it was brilliant. I even got overconfident and persuaded him to play a couple of levels of Super Mario 3D World with me afterwards, but that was too chaotic for him. Perhaps in time.

I get a lot of questions about the best age for kids to start playing games, and the best games to play with them. I’m always happy to advise – stay away from free-to-play phone and tablet garbage, try some Sago Mini for toddlers, give Nintendo or Rocket League a go with five- or six-year-olds – but the truth is that kids will gravitate towards the strangest things, and their route into games is unlikely to be the one that you planned for them.

What I’ve discovered with my son is that the real key is patience. Some five-year-olds just don’t have the patience for video games. Others simply aren’t interested. Give them time, though, and their own interests and personalities might guide them towards a game that captures their imagination. And if you’re lucky, it might be a game that you love, too.

What to play

A screenshot from Soccer Story.
Quick and chaotic … Soccer Story. Photograph: No More Robots

If, for any reason at all, the idea of a wholesome and resolutely un-corporate game about football seems appealing right now, take a look at Soccer Story. It’s a throwback pixel-art RPG about a world in which football is controlled by a sinister megacorp (imagine!), and nobody else is allowed to play. In defiance of the rules, you assemble a team and head out to kick a ball around.

Controls-wise it’s got an old-school Sensible Soccer vibe; matches are quick and chaotic, and when exploring you can summon your magic ball at any time. It’s not the best comedic sports-themed role-playing game I’ve played (it’s a surprisingly crowded genre), and the actual football could definitely use some improvement, but I’ve enjoyed the hours I’ve spent with it so far.

Available on: Nintendo Switch, PC, Xbox (on Game Pass), PlayStation
Approximate playtime: 10 hours

What to read

  • The games-of-the-year lists have begun! Longtime Guardian games contributor Simon Parkin has picked his for the New Yorker. It’s a thoughtful and varied selection that includes several of my own favourites, and a few games I’m keen to play before the year is out. (Hello, Strange Horticulture!)

  • The Game Awards – which its organiser Geoff Keighley pitches as the video game Oscars, glossy and ostentatious and redolent of money – are happening on Thursday in LA. Expect a couple of announcements and new trailers peppered in among the handing out of gongs, including one from Epic Games and 505 (I’m betting on an open-world crime game, based on the teaser site).

  • Former golden-age-of-Rare composers Kevin Bayliss, Grant Kirkhope and David Wise have released an unbelievably cheesy Christmas tune. If you want to hear the people behind the brain-infesting tunes of Banjo-Kazooie in the like sing “I want a video game for Christmas!” while low-key lamenting the tragedy of ageing, here you go.

What to click

From Tron to Jumanji: the greatest ever movies about video games

Strange Horticulture review – the enjoyably shady business of botanicals

The Callisto Protocol review – a shotgun-blast from the past

Marvel’s Midnight Suns review – superheroes, strategy and Gen Z banter

Question Block

Today’s question comes from reader Adam:

“I regularly catch up with an old friend over an evening of co-op gaming, the aim of which is more to have a nice chat than make any kind of concrete progress. Ghost Recon: Wildlands was perfect for this as you could amble around, take your time over missions, go for a lovely drive and generally bumble around. Since the servers have indefinitely broken, we’ve tried other games, but they all tend to be too hectic for us to talk about anything other than the game (It Takes Two, Call of Duty, etc) or too complicated/bad to actually play (Ghost Recon Breakpoint, Payday 2). Any advice would be welcome!”

During the pandemic, one of my oldest friends and I spent a lot of time playing No Man’s Sky, a whole universe in code created by British developer Hello Games. I found it ideal for this purpose, because a lot of the time you’re wandering around exploring beautiful procedurally generated planets together, looking for copper or some other resource to power your spaceship or build up your base. Most of this game is a long hike in space. It can be boring on your own, but with a friend it’s companionable fun – especially when something unexpected happens, like a sandstorm or a robot attack, and suddenly you go from pottering about to scrambling for shelter or rifling around in your inventory for a gun while your friend flees.

I have friends who enjoy Elite Dangerous for a similar vibe, but I find it forbiddingly complicated. I loved Red Dead Online, meanwhile, but I was constantly harassed by other players.

Readers: what’s your preferred game to potter around in with a pal?


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