— It’s almost too humiliating to admit, but I’m going to suck it up and confess my secret shame. Consider it a gift for the holidays.
A few days ago, my 64-year-old mother and I were playing the coin-battle mode in the “New Super Mario Bros. Wii” game. And she beat me. Not just once, but several times.
“Hmmm,” she mused after the coins we’d each collected were tallied and my score had come up woefully short — again. “Maybe I should take up playing video games for a living.”
I confess this deep and abiding embarrassment to you for the sole purpose of illustrating a point: You should never, ever play video games with the members of your family. Especially your mother. It can only lead to humiliation, the need for a lot of therapy and possibly the need for an entirely new career.
Wait. Sorry. That’s just the crushing defeat talking. What I meant to say is that playing video games with your family is great! It’s a wonderful, revelatory experience and something every video-game enthusiast should do with those nearest and dearest to their DNA.
And there’s no better time than the present to undertake this most bonding of exercises. In fact, I suspect there will come a time in the next few days or weeks when you and your entire extended clan will long for a diversion of just this sort.
That is, there will come a time when enormous amounts of food sit heavy in your gut, when teetering piles of presents sit unwrapped and no longer interesting, when you and your kinfolk will have sat cooped up together in one house for far too long. In short, the holidays are nearly here and it’s during these desperate times when you will begin to search, desperately, for something to keep the people around you amused — or at the very least amicably distracted — as the many, many hours of quality family time continue unabated.
In these moments, a video game can be the perfect rescue. Much like the board and card games of yore, video games can be a great way to kill time. They can offer a chance to connect, a chance to compete and, most important, a chance to totally humiliate one another.
But if you want everyone from Junior to Gramps to feel comfortable joining in the reindeer games, you'll have to smartly select the games you play. To help you in this endeavor, I have put my ego on the line and tried out some of the latest “games for the whole family” on my own family and friends. Here’s what my research has taught me.
1. Start with the familiar.
When you have a mixed crowd of video-game players and non-video-game players, it’s best to start with something familiar to ease everyone into things.
And quiz-show-style video games are a great way to get the whole family gaming. After all, who doesn’t enjoy spending a lazy afternoon proving they possess more useless knowledge than the family members sitting next to them?
If you own a PlayStation 2 or 3, I highly recommend the wacky, immensely fun "Buzz!" franchise of games, which you can buy bundled with handy-dandy, quiz-style game controllers that make playing a snap (especially for those who aren’t comfortable with standard game controllers). Players are presented with a vast variety of trivia questions and playing modes, and all they have to do is press one of the large, colored buttons on the controller to select an answer.
"Buzz! Quiz World" has just launched for the PlayStation 3. Eight can compete at the same time, and thanks to a really excellent online mode, you can even compete against those who couldn't make it home for the holidays.
Personally, my people are big movie buffs. So a sure bet to get the whole Benedetti clan clamoring to play is the "Scene It?” series of games, the latest of which is “Bright Lights! Big Screen!” (available for Wii, PS3 and Xbox 360).
With this game, you’ll have a chance to watch clips from movies such as “Tropic Thunder,” “Hairspray” and “Night of the Living Dead” as you answer questions about the actors, the scenery and the dialog and dive into other Hollywood-y tidbits.
2. Embarrass yourself ... and each other. It’s good for you.
Of course, there's nothing like music to bring the whole famn damily together ... or to make them laugh and point at each other. And in my humble opinion, laughing, pointing and mocking is the key to a successful holiday with the family.
The number of band-style rhythm games that launched this year can be overwhelming. But if you want something that will delight young and old, you can’t go wrong with “LEGO: Rock Band.”
Construct a band made of digital LEGOs and then take them on tour. It’s so ridiculous it’s awesome. A new Super Easy setting makes it simple for the very young (or very novice) players to jump in and join the fun. Meanwhile, the game works with many of the “Rock Band” and “Guitar Hero” fake instruments already filling your closet.
If playing fake musical instruments isn’t your bag, why not try a singing game like “Lips: Number One Hits” (for the Xbox 360) or one of the many “SingStar” titles (for the PS2 and PS3).
These games re-create a karaoke-style experience — but in the comfort of your own living room! Yes, they’ll have you and your family howling along to favorite songs, trying to get the right timing and hit the right pitch. (Go on. I dare you to try and match Freddie Mercury’s high notes in the new “SingStar: Queen” game.)
All in all, both the "SingStar" and "Lips" games offer a great variety of tunes, and additional songs, including some holiday favorites, can be downloaded for a minimal price. Add some extra special eggnog into the mix and you've got yourself one very merry, music-filled holiday indeed.
Speaking of which …
3. Just add eggnog … or tequila.
Depending on how you and your clan get yourselves into the holiday spirit, there might be some holiday, ahem, spirits going around. Spiked eggnog. A touch of hot toddy perhaps. Maybe even a shot of tequila depending on how well everyone is getting along.
When the drinking begins, there’s really only one game to play with the family (or at least with those old enough to imbibe): “Wii Sports Resort.”
Oh sure, this collection of motion-controlled minigames is perfect for just about any crowd at just about any time regardless of alcohol intake. But a recent evening spent gaming with a (somewhat tipsy) group of my family of friends, proved to me that this is the only game people will want to play once they’ve had a cup o’ ‘nog or three.
The sequel to the original “Wii Sports” game, “Wii Sports Resort” offers an entirely new set of sports-themed games that are, thanks to the Wii's motion-sensitive remotes, a breeze to jump into. And since “Resort” makes use of the new “Wii Motion Plus” gadget (which it comes bundled with), the movement-sensing capabilities of the game are even more accurate than before.
You can go canoeing, play table tennis or try your skills at archery ... and all you have to do is move the Wii Remote and Nunchuk similar to the way you would when playing these sports in the real world.
I assure you though, once the ‘nog is flowing, everyone will want to play one “Wii Sports Resort” minigame and one minigame only: the sword-fighting minigame. After all, nothing says “Happy Holidays” like clubbing each other with virtual swords.
4. Don’t be afraid to try something new. No really.
Here’s the thing, people: You think you know your family. You think you know what they like and don’t like. You think you know what they will and won’t do. But you don’t know jack about the people you’re related to. Trust me.
As I introduced my parents to “New Super Mario Bros. Wii” during a visit last week, I wasn’t sure they’d be up for it. I mean, this re-envisioning of the old 2-D Mario experience is a downright fantastic multiplayer game. It allows four people to jump into the time-tried platforming world of the Mario Brothers all at once, and you can play competitively as well as cooperatively (though, really, who would want to do that?)
But for the uninitiated it can be a hectic, frenetic experience. In short, I didn’t think it was something my parents would like and I told them so.
“You mean, you don’t remember me playing the Mario games with you and your sisters when you were kids?” my mom replied.
Uhm … what?! I had to admit, I didn’t remember that at all. What I remember is my parents buying game machines for us kiddies – first an Intellivision and then a Nintendo Entertainment System. In my self-centered child’s world, the video games were there to entertain us and us alone. After all, my parents were too busy and too old to play video games (never mind the fact they were as old as I am now).
And here my mom had to correct me again.
“I didn’t buy that Intellivision for you. I bought it for your dad. For his birthday,” she said as my jaw hit my shoes. “We used to play that tank game after you went to bed. We got a kick out of shooting each other.”
And that's when she proceeded to destroy me at “New Super Mario Bros. Wii.”
So, dear reader, take it from me. The best thing you can do this holiday is gather your clan around a game console, toss your preconceived notions to the wind and give family gaming a hearty go. Just don’t forget to check your ego at the door.