As a sixth grade teacher, my students ask me a lot of questions, and I have a lot of influence on them based on how I reply. My new book, 101 Video Games to Play Before You Grow Up, is my response to every student who has ever asked, “What games should I try?”
Outside of the average classroom procedures and instruction, I find my strength has always been connecting with kids on a personal level. My background in gaming and moonlighting as a games journalist has helped me develop a solid rapport with a wide variety of students. Conversations with these students usually start with a general back and forth about what we’ve both been playing before moving on to the games we’re itching to get our hands on.
“Have you played that new Overwatch map? Did you see that Mario Odyssey trailer?” they ask me.
These quick talks during passing periods, out at recess, or at the end of the school day have taught me that many kids (and parents, for that matter) have no idea what games or series are worth playing. Many have the silly notion that only the newest, most realistic, and popular offerings are worth pursuing. But I recommended so many games—old games, colorful games—that I started compiling a list. They were games that the average elementary school student might not be aware of, but that could be found on a system they owned.
“Have you tried Ōkami? Elite Beat Agents? Chrono Trigger?”
When I found myself with the opportunity to actually write a book of 101 gaming recommendations for kids this last spring, I felt a special responsibility to do it justice. Sure, it’s just a kids book about video games (and I can see why some might scoff at anyone being passionate about such a thing), but it could also be an important introduction for many children and parents to the overwhelming world of pretty pixels and console exclusives.
As I penned my master list, the first qualification was clear—no mature rated games. It didn’t matter how many kids told me they enjoyed series like Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto, and DOOM, I wasn’t about to promote those kind of games to thousands of wide-eyed readers. Don’t get me wrong, they’re excellent games. I enjoy chainsawing demons as much as the next guy, but it’s just not a good after-school activity for the average eight-year-old.
This limitation proved problematic at times due to my insistence that the book feature entire gaming series instead of just individual titles. This meant if any game in the main series was rated “M,” the whole franchise likely had to get the boot. I quietly deleted Castlevania from the master list after a sobering visit to the ESRB site, and I convinced myself that my Final Fantasy entry would only represent the main series (and not whatever Type-0 HD is considered).
Only two games on my initial list didn’t have an ESRB rating: Five Nights at Freddy’s and Undertale. Despite Five Nights’ younger cult following, I found many parent reviews that stated their children had been scared to tears by the games, not to mention the unsettling backstory hidden throughout the series. I decided it had to go.
In March I emailed Undertale creator Toby Fox about his thoughts on an official rating for the wacky RPG, and he was kind enough to respond with his best guess. Days before I turned in my final edits for the book, Undertale was announced for the PlayStation 4 and Vita, but an ESRB rating was still forthcoming. I had already assigned the game a range of “E10+ to Teen” when the official E10+ rating was revealed in August.
Accessibility was the next hurdle in the selection process. Many series, like The Legend of Zelda and Civilization, are still going strong after decades of well-received releases, while others, like Crash Bandicoot, live on as remastered collections and digital “classics.” There were a handful of franchises on my original list that sadly didn’t fall into either of those categories, most notably the Tony Hawk Pro Skater series.
The PlayStation games that had sparked an extreme sports revolution in the gaming world are surprisingly absent from digital storefronts. The two newest entries, Pro Skater HD and Pro Skater 5, both floundered upon release, and seeing as they were the only truly available titles it just didn’t seem like a series I should encourage my readers to seek out. After much consideration, the Tony Hawk games were replaced with the excellent arcade skating series OlliOlli.
Other outdated or inaccessible series fell by the wayside as I determined which games were easiest to find on current (or somewhat current) consoles, computers, and handhelds. A select few personal favorites snuck through, but they represented classic titles that are worth trying, even if it took some decent effort. After all, every kid should try Duck Hunt and SSX Tricky at some point in their life.
Most importantly, I wanted to be sure the games selected included a wide variety of genres and uniquely fun titles. A no-brainer, but an important distinction. There are few series as whacky as Katamari, as well written as Monkey Island, or as frustratingly enjoyable as Mario Kart. There are few feelings better than really connecting with a game, especially when it’s part of series that’s already ripe with critically-acclaimed content and fan favorite entries.
Obviously, my own history with video games had a large influence on the list in the end. I was sure to include games that I looked back on fondly, as well as others that I discovered later and couldn’t believe I had missed. There’s probably too much Mario and not enough strategy for some. Everyone has their own thoughts when it comes to what games are best, and I’m sure every gaming fan can find at least one title in the table of contents that they would swap out for a personal favorite. But after months of digging and research I truly hope it’s a list that will push kids towards series that they can truly appreciate and fall in love with after playing.
Even now, with the book launching today, there are entries to revise and facts to update. But that’s the best part. Series we loved in the past are constantly growing and changing in ways we never dreamed of, and the must-play titles that paved the way still stand as important and worthwhile investments of our time. Hopefully the readers of this book, children or otherwise, will find a new game to try, or maybe just some interesting history they weren’t aware of. And hopefully they’ll take the time to share those games and knowledge with their own friends and family in the future.
Because seriously... have you tried Ōkami?