Pushing Buttons: Finally, I’ve found a game I can actually enjoy playing with my child
In this week’s newsletter: Too often games are a source of stress for parents and kids. But working through Mario Wonder’s madcap worlds with my son has shown me they can be shared adventures
I am delighted to report that with the release of Super Mario Wonder, almost seven years into my parenting career, I have finally played a video game all the way through with one of my children. And he enjoyed it.
It was a journey that began with me hopefully playing Let’s Go Pikachu! in 2018 (which my then-toddler hated so much that he would memorably shout “No, no, Pikachu!” at the screen), and now it has finally yielded genuine moments of joy as we worked our way through Wonder’s madcap worlds.
I was Mario, he played as Yoshi, a character designed for younger/less-experienced players, invulnerable to enemies and blessed with a helpfully generous flutter-jump. Initially this caused problems, because Yoshi cannot transform charmingly into an elephant or shoot bubbles from his hands with the appropriate power-up like Mario can – but once my kid realised that he could give me a ride across chasms on his back, giggling at Yoshi’s expression of extreme consternation at having to bear the weight of an elephant, he was happy with the trade-off. We worked together through the levels, and for all the times I took the lead on tricky jumps or platforming challenges, he rescued me just as often when I fell foul of a Piranha Plant.
I watched him finally get the hang of using a controller with a stick on it, and gradually get better at judging his jumps, and learn to deal with the frustration of inevitable failure. He was initially wary of the flashy, magical environmental transformations that you trigger by finding each level’s wonder seed – “we don’t know what might happen!” – but by the end he was hooting as we were transmogrified into elephant-shaped balloons or hat-wearing Goombas, or all the lights went off and we became blinking eyes on a cartoon silhouette. He learned that Boos only come towards you when you’re facing away from them, and that you can’t jump on Spinys, and all the other rules that I’ve known for so long I’ve forgotten they’re not obvious.
When we finished the game – which took us less than a week, as Wonder’s longevity comes from perfecting levels and collecting their hidden treasures after the credits have rolled – he became tearful. He wasn’t ready for it to end. More than his attachment to Mario and friends, I realised that for him this had been precious time together, something we’d enjoyed just him and me, and he didn’t want that to be over either.
Too often video games become a source of stress between parents and kids: arguments over screen time, telling your 12-year-old she can’t play Grand Theft Auto Online when all her friends are playing it, denying endless requests for more Robux. Even the most games-literate parent becomes incensed when their teenager starts just one more Fortnite match three minutes before they know that dinner will be on the table, thus tying them up for at least 20 minutes. Games sometimes create conflict in a family, especially if a parent doesn’t understand why an 11-year-old might want to spend so much of their time wrapped up in Minecraft or Zelda.
Those of us who understand the bewitching appeal of games still, of course, have a parental responsibility to help kids moderate themselves and to develop a broad range of interests. Nobody wants their child to play games at the exclusion of everything else in their life. And new conflicts arise when the games our kids are drawn to are not the kind we’d want to play ourselves.
I have banned free-to-play mobile games in our house, for instance, because they’re designed to capture as much time and attention as possible, and this has led to many complaints from my son, who is now pointed towards the kind of games that I think are worthwhile rather than whatever his friends are playing on their iPads or parents’ phones. My teen stepson, meanwhile, has always been mostly interested in playing multiplayer shooters, a genre that’s never held much appeal for me, creating a huge disconnect in our tastes.
But games also offer beautiful moments of family connection, whether that’s through Wii Sports Bowling or a mother-daughter playthrough of Portal. They can be shared adventures, not sources of conflict. For those of us who grew up with games and love them as adults, this is what we’re desperately hoping for, imagining blissful Sunday afternoons spent in mutual appreciation of the exact games we enjoyed as children. It’s a funny inversion, when I think about it: the bafflement that my parents felt at my childhood enthralment with video games has been replaced, for my own children, by the hopeful anticipation of a parent dangling video games in front of them and hoping that one catches their imagination.
It isn’t often acknowledged that playing games with young kids can be intensely annoying and frustrating for a gamer parent. Even in Mario Wonder, a game designed very nicely around the needs of families with its different characters and ability badges, several of my friends have reported intense sibling arguments over who gets to play Peach or who got higher on the end-of-level flagpole. And children need different accommodations at different ages – a point illustrated when we tried to add my enthusiastic four-year-old into Mario Wonder multiplayer, which was a total disaster because he’s too young to meaningfully control it.
When it works out, though, and the (super) stars align, it is just brilliant.
What to play
I have been off work since mid-September due to a bereavement, and during that entire time, in my vulnerable state, I have not been able to play games that require much from me and my exhausted brain. Niantic’s augmented-reality take on Monster Hunter, Monster Hunter Now, has been perfect. It’s a series I’ve been playing since I was a teenager, now repackaged for smartphones and soothingly easy to play. Much like the developer’s mega-hit Pokémon Go, it superimposes fictional creatures and items on a map of your real-world surroundings, except the monsters are much bigger and uglier, and instead of throwing balls at them, you equip longswords, hammers and bows to attack them with. A few taps and swipes, and you can experience the thrill of taking down a dragon in your local park.
For the first couple of weeks I was playing this, I thought it was mostly skill-optional, but though it’s significantly less nuanced and difficult than its console cousins, it’s not totally devoid of challenge. You need good timing and persistence to make it all the way through the first tranche of the story – which, after a month of play and many detours on my walk home to battle poison-spitting lizard-creatures, I have now done.
Available on: Android, iPhone
Approximate playtime: About 20 minutes a day, for as long as you can be bothered
What to read
I’ve been watching my teenaged stepson make his way through his most-anticipated game of the past few years, Marvel’s Spider-Man 2, while also playing it with substantially less intensity myself. (Incidentally: this game has some of the best opening hours of any game I’ve played in years. It’s God of War-quality spectacle.) One of its voice actors, Krishna Kumar, pointed me towards a queer story in one of the side quests, in which Spidey helps a high-school student ask his boyfriend to homecoming. It is a very sweet tale in a game where everything feels intentional, free of the open-world busywork that’s padded games out for so long.
Call of Duty turned 20 this week, prompting many reflections on its mega-hit status and total capture of a certain section of the gaming market: memorably, during the Microsoft/Activision acquisition court cases, Sony claimed that there were about a million PlayStation owners who only played Call of Duty and nothing else. Pushing Buttons contributor Keith Stuart looked back at the first game in the series, where the seeds of its world domination were sown.
Mortal Kombat 1 has angered its fanbase by charging $12 for a new Halloween-themed Fatality finishing move. The game cost $60 and came out less than a month ago.
In good news for Xbox, Starfield has driven Microsoft to a record quarter, both for Game Pass signups and revenue.