If you’re a parent of a young child (or two), you may be wondering about the best way to navigate the world of video games. After all, it’s easy to demonise “screen time,” but games have an awful lot to offer. They can be visually, aurally and mentally stimulating, good for hand-eye coordination and also a fun way to spend time together. There’s no definitive way to approach video games as every child is different – and every child is constantly changing too – but I’ve been playing games with my (almost) six year old son for a few years now, and thought it might be useful to share some of the gaming experiences we’ve had that I think have been most compelling and enriching. Again, your mileage may vary – and it's important to decide what's appropriate for yourself, too – but hopefully this will be good food for thought.Also bear in mind that these are not necessarily games for kids, but games that kids can get something out of. For most of these I’ve done a lot of the playing, but my son has been an active participant in helping me make decisions, decide on tactics, decipher puzzles and discuss ideas. And in doing so he has learnt a lot about the vocabulary of video games; archetypal mechanics, structures, visual descriptors, and so on.This feature is in no way comprehensive – it’s just based on the games I’ve chosen to introduce in our household. I’m also just going to stick to the Switch catalogue for this one so that it’s manageable, but I have recommendations across a bunch of other platforms too, so keep an eye out for follow-up features, including one dedicated solely to a game too large to be contained alongside other recommendations – Minecraft.Oh, one other thing I would say out of the gate – get yourself one or more Pro Controllers. Pretty much every single game on this list – even games like Mario Odyssey, which is designed for the JoyCons – is greatly improved with a proper controller. There’s just no beating decent analogue sticks, a sturdy build and comfortable buttons. Yes, it’s an added expense, but a worthwhile one. And now to the games…
Super Mario Odysseysee dealSuper Mario Odyssey – Nintendo Switch$54.99on Amazon
An incredible Mario adventure, and also ideal for kids. Few games do such a great job of rewarding curiosity – the power moons are so plentiful and the secrets and hidden interactions so numerous, that it often feels like there’s something to discover around literally every corner.Super Mario Odyssey’s new hook of using Mario’s hat to possess objects and animals – which is layered atop very familiar fundamentals – isn’t just clever from a gameplay perspective, allowing Nintendo’s designers to give players a wide array of abilities to solve problems and platforming challenges, but it adds a wonderfully goofball sense of humour to proceedings too. The fact that every possessed object winds up with a thick Mario moustache is a comedic delight, whether it’s a Chain Chomp, a Goomba, a taxi cab, a tree or a T-Rex.Tooling around Odyssey’s overworlds is really accessible and fun for beginners, while Mario’s ability set allows for some pretty advanced moves that cater well to veterans. While a small kid isn’t going to be able to make it through many of the platforming gauntlets, passing the controller back and forth is a great way to play, and the difficulty as a whole (putting aside the difficult final final level) is pitched pretty low. Even if you hit minor roadblocks you’ll basically always be making progress. And I love that you’re whisked from world to world in the first short playthrough, before unlocking the true meat of the game. The pacing is superb.Being a modern Nintendo game, Odyssey also offers a few additional options to make the experience even more kid friendly. You can play in co-op, with you controlling Mario and your kid controlling Cappy, and not only is this fun but it lets you tee up some pretty epic jumps. There’s also Assist mode, in which Mario has a permanent pool of six regenerating health segments and is popped back on firm ground if he falls off the edge of the world. You’ll also get arrows on the ground guiding Mario towards his next major objective.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
One of the best games of all time, Breath of the Wild completely reinvents the series, giving players access to a massive open world that they can explore as they see fit. This rendition of Hyrule is densely populated with enemy camps, ancient ruins, self-contained challenge shrines, discoveries to make and secrets to uncover, and you can basically do any of it in any order you see fit.That kind of freedom might be intimidating at first, but it’s ultimately liberating, and part and parcel of the game’s overall philosophy of never holding the player’s hand. Instead, you learn through logic, observation, experimentation and through emergent moments.Link has some great abilities – he can move metal objects with his mind, create bombs and blocks of ice, launch himself into the sky and wield all manner of weapons, but it’s his ability to climb – to literally scale mountains – that is at the heart of the experience. And then, once you’ve climbed a peak, you can paraglide off in any direction you want. It’s hugely exciting, and gives you a sense that if you apply yourself you can go anywhere and do anything.
Freedom, sweet freedom.
There are plenty of incentives to really explore every corner of this rendition of Hyrule, from discovering and beating the 120 shrines (which help you gain more life and stamina), to finding the 900 Korok seeds (which tie in to expanding your inventories). And beyond those, it’s a heap of fun learning how to fight all the different types of enemies, harvesting different important resources or discovering treasure chests with vital weapons or gear in them.That said, Breath of the Wild is a game to which you must acclimatise before you really start enjoying it – particularly if you’re coming from the other games in the series, or haven’t played many open-world games before. Your weapons will break and you aren’t handed anything on a platter, so important things like crafting (the world is full of things to collect – insects, mushrooms, plants, meat, ore, etc) you’ll need to work out for yourself. (Or consult IGN’s wiki.)Once you’ve adjusted, however, you likely wouldn’t want it any other way. Breath of the Wild just gets better the more you play it. My son and I have four separate saves on the go – each of which we’ve tackled completely differently, and while the game is too complicated for him to play in full, he loves paragliding around, shooting bomb arrows and experimenting. (Here's a vital tip – do a manual save before passing the controller over… that way you can unwind any broken weapons or poorly used resources.)Breath of the Wild is a constant exercise in lateral thinking, so while I may be in physical control a lot of the time, we’re deciding what to do together, and he comes up with puzzle solutions and clever suggestions all the time. And in fact, the learning process in Breath of the Wild basically never ends – the game has so many layers of systems and abilities that even a hundred hours in novel moments will still surprise you. The DLC packs are well worth grabbing too.
Luigi’s Mansion 3
My son and I loved both the previous Luigi’s Mansion games, so expectations were high for Luigi’s Mansion 3. Thankfully, it didn’t disappoint, delivering more ghost busting action in a suitably spooky new location.As always in the series, Luigi is a hugely engaging character; a physical comedy goldmine that Nintendo absolutely makes the most of, whether he’s quivering in fear or being thrust elastically up into the air by his new burst move. Speaking of which, the core mechanics have evolved neatly, opening up a stack of new puzzle potential. Among the new additions, Gooigi is by far the most charming – a green goo version of Luigi, he’s able to walk through bars, squeeze into pipes and cross spiked sections of floor. Gooigi can even be controlled separately by a second player, making this an ideal first co-op game for a kid.And best of all, the new setting – a towering hotel with a different theme on every floor – is wonderfully realised, whisking you between bespoke settings – one minute a medieval arena, the next a pirate cave or pyramid in the desert. My favourite level takes place in a movie studio backlot, with puzzles that are solved across a series of sets and culminate in a Godzilla-style ghost busting showdown. The difficulty is pitched pretty low for those focused on getting through the story, but that just means you’re always moving forward. Thankfully, there are also plenty of secrets to uncover and Boos to capture.
Mario Kart 8 Deluxe
Fast, polished, colourful and crammed with personality and awesome track designs – this game is incredible. Mario Kart 8 is the ideal first racing game for a kid too, because you can turn on auto-acceleration and steering assist (so they can’t go off-road or off edges), letting them just concentrate on racing and using power-ups.
The Splatoon games were designed primarily for multiplayer, but both have fun single player campaigns peppered with bizarre and memorable bosses. The central concept of having guns that shoot ink that you can then swim through and hide in is really playful and clever, and results in a shooter that’s appropriate for all ages. My son and I have played through both single player campaigns – the Wii U original and the Switch sequel – together many times. These games are vibrant and colourful… and make me wish more shooters were like them.
Katamari Damacy Reroll
An HD re-release of a PS2 classic, Katamari Damacy is one of the most wonderfully Japanese games ever made. In it, you play as a diminutive Prince whose overbearing father – the King of all Cosmos – has smashed all the stars in the night sky. He charges you with replacing them, which you accomplish one level at a time by creating a big ball of stuff and launching it into the sky.The central gameplay concept is brilliant. You roll a sticky ball around, running over objects that then stick to it and make it bigger, which then allows you to roll up bigger things. The change in scale over the course of the game is insane – you start out rolling up paperclips and matches in a living room, but before too long you’re rolling up people, cars and beyond. Katamari Damacy has a very quirky sense of humour and style, which works well with the deliberately blocky graphics. It also has one of the best soundtracks of any game ever.Oh, and the controls are deliberately a bit unwieldy, so there’s a learning curve here, but few games are as inexplicable and just plain cool as Katamari Damacy.ALSO AVAILABLE ON: PC
This clever indie game has a Katamari-like hook, but is wrapped in a very different but equally quirky package. Donut County’s core gameplay sees you move a hole in the ground around, swallowing smaller things to make it grow, until eventually you swallow everything in the scene – cars, houses, etc. Some levels also let you shoot things out of the hole, and each has light puzzle elements that can usually be solved by experimenting and seeing what you can interact with.It’s a cool premise and backed by oddball characters, a bizarre story and a great presentation. Donut County is a short game – a couple of hours, max – but my son has played through it a bunch of times and – aside from the final boss – this was basically the first game he could complete on his own.ALSO AVAILABLE ON: iOS, Mac, PC, PS4, Xbox One
This platformer was born on the last generation of consoles, but its vibrant 2D cartoon aesthetic still looks the business today. Bursting with personality, Rayman Legends keeps reinventing itself, throwing new gameplay ideas and settings at you consistently, ensuring you’re never sure what to expect. One minute you’re fighting a gigantic boss, the next you’re running through a gauntlet synced to music. Co-op is good fun too, although the platforming may be a bit tough for young kids.ALSO AVAILABLE ON: PC, PS3, PS4, Vita, Wii U, Xbox 360, Xbox One
Octodad: Dadliest Catch
A goofy game about an octopus living amongst humans, pretending to be a regular husband and father, no less. With intentionally wonky controls, in which you control several of Octodad's elastic tentacles separately, Octodad is driven by physical comedy, so as you can imagine, kids think it’s hilarious. As do I. It’s only a couple of hours long so makes for a fun afternoon, and while it hasn’t aged as well as some of the games on this list, it’s still worth checking out.ALSO AVAILABLE ON: Android, iOS, Linux, Mac, PC, PS4, Vita, Wii U, Xbox One
The bulk of this 2D action/platformer roguelike takes place in a sprawling castle complex, but each time you enter the castle the layout of rooms and enemies is randomly generated. The overall goal is to defeat each of the bosses in the different areas, but the minute to minute action is comprised of going into the castle, getting as far as you can before you die, then spending any gold you earnt to build up your fortifications outside the castle, which levels up your character/unlocks stuff, allowing you to get further on subsequent runs.What really sets Rogue Legacy apart is the twist that you choose from three randomly generated characters before each run, and each of these has a different class, spell and traits. The latter can be game-changing or just comedic, and includes stuff like OCD, dyslexia, ADHD, IBS and vertigo – which makes the world upside down. Rogue Legacy is a bit repetitive for kids compared to many of the other games on the list, but the moment to moment gameplay is excellent, and for me it was all about introducing my son to the full breadth of gaming experiences.ALSO AVAILABLE ON: iOS, Linux, Mac, PC, PS3, PS4, Vita, Xbox One
Guacamelee! Super Turbo Championship Edition / Guacamelee! 2
These games are steeped in Mexican folk traditions so have a completely different vibe to anything else in this feature. You play as a luchador and the gameplay mechanics utilise ideas like switching between the world of the living and the world of the dead, and jumping between timelines. These ideas are cleverly used and supported by great melee combat mechanics and some fun movement abilities.Each game is set across a large sprawling world which opens up as you progress, Metroid/Castlevania-style. While a lot of the gameplay is centred around combat, the visuals are highly stylised and the violence cartoony. You can definitely start with Guacamelee! 2, but it may be better to go back to the original to see the whole story through. You can also expect a challenge.ALSO AVAILABLE ON: PC, PS4, Wii U, Xbox 360 / PC, PS4, Xbox One
SteamWorld Dig 2
Steamworld Dig 2 is a steampunk Western that sees you digging deep into the earth mining resources and coming across platforming challenges, puzzles to solve and more. Movement feels great and the gear upgrades mean the gameplay is constantly changing, while the rich subterranean world holds a huge amount to discover. Great design, enchanting world.ALSO AVAILABLE ON: 3DS, Mac, Linux, PC, PS4, Vita, Xbox One
Yoshi’s Crafted World
Almost everything in this 2D platformer is presented as though it’s been hand-made out of paper, cardboard and other craft supplies. As such, Yoshi’s Crafted World is pretty adorable and will inspire kids to try and make some of the stuff they see in the game in real life. The gameplay itself is fine – every level has plenty of secrets to discover, and also has a reverse version viewed from the other side of the diorama, allowing you to see the sticky tape etc. used to construct the “normal” level. This is a 7 out of 10 game for adults but there’s a bunch of reasons to play it with your kid – you can set it to “mellow mode” which is much more forgiving, AND you can play two player co-op.
And there you have it. You’ll notice there’s no Pokémon, Super Mario Maker 2 or Smash Bros. on my list, among a few other key Nintendo titles – they just didn’t strike a chord in our house, but they may well do so in yours. Any other games on Switch I haven’t mentioned that you think are great for kids? Let me know…
Cam Shea is Editor in Chief for IGN's Australian content team and loves writing about arcade gaming in Japan and travelling in Japan. He's on Twitter.If you buy something through this post, IGN may get a share of the sale. For more, learn more.