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For Families, Nintendo Slams Xbox

Jim Louderback

My five-year-old son and I love to play video games together. We have a Microsoft Xbox and a Nintendo GameCube, and we are constantly searching for fun games that we can both enjoy. But the availability of games which are suitable for him and interesting enough to hold both of our attentions is pretty lame.

I had already concluded that Nintendo makes the best games, but I really wanted to find some good Xbox versions—because at home our Xbox is connected to the plasma TV, while the GameCube is hooked up to a standard TV. HD gaming on a widescreen TV can be a wonderful experience.

Very few Xbox games so far have managed to hold our attention, though. The only one of note: Shrek 2 from THQ. We could actually play together, which was a plus, and it really only got too difficult for us during the final battle.

That was an encouraging experience, and I went foraging for more. So we tried out a wide range of Xbox games, including the new SpongeBob game, Tak 2, movie tie-in games for The Incredibles and A Shark's Tale, and the latest Spyro game, which features the lovable purple dragon.

Alas, all of these games have a fatal flaw, which typically occurred during the first hour of play. After a fun romp, where you get to explore the world, find fun prizes, and interact with characters, each game would shift gears into a button-mashing, joystick twitching test of your reflexes.

In Tak2, we were forced to navigate a rapidly rushing stream while ducking under or jumping over logs and boulders. In SpongeBob we needed either to navigate a bathtub down a twisty railroad track in the desert, or finish a car race using the hamburger vehicle within a set amount of time. The Incredibles made us dash through suburban streets—again with a time limit—avoiding cars, buses, trucks, and the like. Spyro had a time-based airborne acrobatics game where you had to go through rings and bomb bad guys. Shark's Tale started out with a time-based test of reflexes: Press the buttons in the correct order, within a set time period.

The problem with each of these? They stop the flow of the game and demand that you complete the interlude before moving on. In each case, completing the challenge was beyond both me and my five-year-old.

I like to think I have pretty decent reflexes. Sure, I'm not a teenager, but I'm pretty quick on the uptake. My son is pretty darn coordinated for a five year old. Yet even after five or six tries, we were unable to complete these stupid tasks that had absolutely nothing to do with advancing the story of the game. And since we couldn't finish them, both of us walked away in disgust. These games were all a waste of money and time.

I had wanted to write a story recommending kids games to buy for the holidays, but I just couldn't. None of the titles lived up to our standards.

Continue reading to learn why it's not all bad news…

Now contrast that with my son's favorite gift from Christmas, Nintendo's almost-perfect game, Paper Mario. We've been playing it almost nonstop since December 25th. The battles are hard, but not too hard. As you gain strength during the game, your opponents do too—but the two sides are very well balanced. And when the game does stoop to dumb hand-eye coordination tests, they are usually pretty easy to overcome.

I was pleasantly surprised during one such interlude. You're forced to navigate Mario through a maze of rushing waves. Hit a breaker and you have to start over. We played through it five or six times to no avail. Frustrated, we turned the TV off to try again another day—but left the GameCube on, with Mario awaiting yet another try at the barrage of breakers.

Much to my surprise, the next morning the vicious onslaught of waves was gone. It had been replaced by just an occasional wave rolling in—even a baby could have navigated this challenge. The game actually compensated for our lame button-mashing skills and eased off on the challenge. And that's why Nintendo still makes the world's best games. It compensates for different skill levels and crafts a gaming experience that many different types of players can enjoy. The games do include tough puzzles of coordination—like the sword race in Ocarina of Time—but you don't have to solve the puzzle to finish the game.

Not all Nintendo games are as good—we found Mario Sunshine to be a lot of fun, but ultimately the "floating in space" button-mashers defeated us. Still, if you're looking for a good family game for your console, your best bet is almost invariably Nintendo.

I'm using my Xbox less and less these days, and playing the GameCube more and more. I love console gaming, and I'm really glad my son does too. Someday we'll be playing Madden NFL, Halo, and the rest. But not today.

Microsoft would love for the Xbox to become the center of home entertainment. But if the company can't get its family-games situation together, that won't happen. And based on what I've been playing, they have a long way to go. Without a family-game strategy, the Xbox will remain the province of older boys and men. My solution: Buy Nintendo.

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Copyright © 2005 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Originally appearing in PC Magazine.

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