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Video Games—A Few Fast Picks

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When people complain that they have a difficult time finding movies or television programs suitable for their kids, I usually respond, "Wait ‘till you look for a video game!"

“Instead of spending money on a new system, you may want to give your present game box new life.”

Considering the game industry is fast becoming the entertainment pastime of choice for many kids and adults, there are still far too few titles that truly use the incredible technologies inside those boxes. First person shooters, role playing and arcade titles litter the shelves with bigger and better graphics and sound, yet from a parent's point of view I can't help but feel they all are starting to look the same -- dark scenes of a male protagonist with a big gun trying to avoid getting pulverized.

However, for those last minute shoppers desperate to try and find something... anything... to feed the voracious appetite of your game yearning children, here are a few that -- in my opinion -- manage to earn a better than average grade and were released in the last few months.

Age of Empires 3 (PC Computer Only)

If you've got kids that are determined to battle it out in virtual reality, Microsoft's Age of Empires series is the very best of the worst. Other than a couple of Star Wars titles, it's the only "war game" that qualifies for play in our home.

The AOE franchise has shared the same basic game play since the game's first generation appeared back in 1997 in that armies representing various historical periods battle against each other using weapons and techniques that were available in their time period.

The reason I am tolerant of this game is because it involves a few elements that can actually qualify as educational. There is an economy in the game, requiring some rudimentary math skills, and there is a history component. My one son has actually learned things from this game that he has applied to school classes. However, don't think for a moment that spending a few days in front of AOE will turn anyone into a history major -- yet compared to the vast majority of war games, at least there is some benefit.

Finally, and probably the most important, is the lack of explicit violence -- although the newest version of the game is becoming a little more graphic, thanks to... well... better graphics. While dozens, if not hundreds, of people will be killed in battle, the game's view is from above, as if you were suspended in air, making it appear more like an animated board game.

Viva Piñata (Xbox 360)

Games for the Xbox 360 that you can put a seven year old in front of are very few... especially if you also consider the quality of the game. However, there is one I've seen lately that was not only fun for kids, but even teens and jaded adult gamers are finding it highly compelling.

Viva Piñata puts you in charge of, for lack of a better term, a piñata farm. Within the scope of the game, the piñatas come in dozens of various shapes and sizes and are little creatures that you attract by having nice green grass for them to eat and other environmental attributes to keep them happy.

While you tend and care for your creatures, they multiply (don't worry, the mating process is highly glossed over, with a stork-like piñata delivering the offspring). There's also a food chain, with more evolved piñatas consuming the less complex creatures -- like the little worms that show up early in the game. For some reason, although this sounds barbaric, it actually isn't.

The game is also impressive in that it doesn't reward deviant behavior. If you start hitting things, like the human-like characters, with your shovel you are reprimanded. Keep it up, and your tools are taken away for a short while.

Parents of younger children will want to note there is some on-screen reading involved, although most of it is read out loud by the game. A cool helping feature also allows a parent to use the Xbox 360's second controller to assist their child in the game.

Finally, parents should be aware there is a marketing element attached to this game. A television show features these characters, and I'm certain the game will explode (like a smashed piñata) into hundreds of trading cards and other toys.

Chibi-Robo (Nintendo Game Cube)

Here's a game every mother should love. Chibi-Robo is a robot that lives for one reason -- to keep everyone happy -- and one of the ways he does that is by keeping the home of his virtual family clean. Vacuuming, cooking, caring for the pet, and helping people with their chores are all ways players can earn coins for the little robot to purchase upgrades. It's an obviously direct lesson on how helping out and earning an allowance can be beneficial. There's even a recycling and environmental component.

Unlike Viva Piñata, there is a necessity to be able to read in order to play this game, as there is no spoken dialogue in the game (other than a gibberish made-up language). Otherwise, this is an unusual little title that should charm young gamers and maybe even encourage them to tackle the vacuum.

Flight Simulator X (Fast PC Computer Only)

Simulation games exist almost exclusively on computers as opposed to console systems. However, they are my personal favorite game genre, and the king of all has to be Microsoft Flight Simulator.

Now in its tenth generation, "game" hardly describes this experience. Available in a Standard or Deluxe edition, the game offers up to two dozen different airplanes and even more airports and cities in a new high detail presentation that is just short of photographic quality. Imagine Google Earth with wings. Also, you can choose to fly to virtually any airstrip you can think of in the world. Empress, Alberta? You've never heard of it, but it's near my little Canadian prairie hometown, and its landing strip is in the game.

Flight Simulator has many potential benefits for young gamers. While it falls just short of FAA requirements for flight training, it still offers many scientific lessons involving the principals of flight and meteorology. It contains a wealth of geographical information and players (more accurately described as students) can map out their destinations and flight plans in intricate detail.

Obviously, players can choose to crash planes into buildings and the like, but the game provides very little satisfaction in doing so. The craft breaks into a few pieces and the game resets back to the beginning.

Possibly the only downfall with Flight Simulator is the lofty system requirements to enjoy all the functions. While it officially requires a processor built in the past 2 to 3 years, my observations of the game lead me to believe there isn't a computer at Best Buy that can fully utilize every option in this game. That doesn't mean it isn't playable on a more modest PC, but don't expect to turn all of the imaging detail options up to full unless you have a deep pocket for some serious computer hardware.

Disney's The Little Mermaid: Ariel's Undersea Adventure (Nintendo DS)

If you read my article on Nintendo's new Wii system, you know I like innovative controls on video games. This little title plays on Nintendo's portable DS system and uses some very innovative ideas to keep fingers off the joystick buttons.

Instead of following the usual story of the movie (as far too many movie-themed games do) this is a true adventure game that provides fourteen different levels of play. That's not unusual, but it's the way you use the DS's capabilities that is. Helping Ariel search for treasure is one of the main pastimes. Once she finds it, you need to help her clean it off. Using the touch screen, you push away hermit crabs. Then (here's where it gets really cool) to get rid of the sand, you blow on the screen. Actually, you are blowing into the DS microphone, but the effect is very believable.

Even more creative, to open locks on the treasures, you need to sing. And don't think any sound will do... you actually have to be in tune in order for the lock to pop. Back to the touch screen again where you rub objects to polish them up.

The game isn't too difficult, and it will definitely have appeal for young girls. The storyline isn't particularly imaginative, as you spend most of your time searching for things, but the cool controls should keep your youngest players amused for a while.

Multi-Player Games

Finally, I encourage parents to look for games that provide human-to-human interaction, much in the same way a board game does. Many titles say they are "multi-player," but that term often refers to Internet play. It's hardly a party when the opponent is 3,000 miles away.

Instead, look for games that allow extra people to play with additional controllers hooked up to your console game system. Sports and racing titles are usually the best for this type of fun, and Nintendo's Mario Party series is excellent. In fact, instead of spending money on a new system, you may want to simply give your present game box new life with a few new controllers that will allow extra players to join in. By doing so, the game system becomes a socialization tool rather than a pastime for one.

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About the Reviewer: Rod Gustafson

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